27 January 2009

John Updike Dead: 1932 - until as long as people read

John Updike was one of our greats. Ridiculously prolific, he wrote novels, poems, essays, reviews and short stories as if he were a factory of the profound insight. I loved and envied his mastery of writing.

I think that no other writer quite captured the essence of what it means to be a soul trapped in the body of an animal as did Updike. He wrote with such personal intimacy about our better and lesser selves, the animal spirits and animal instincts that drove our petty interests. He grappled with what it meant to be American – to be alive – in a time when the individual mostly has to go it alone, the old pathways covered in asphalt and no obvious footpath for the soul in sight.

At his best, the novelist performs the most amazing feats. He exposes the broadest cultural trends by tapping into the most intensely personal truths. He alters our consciousness, entering it and tweaking it and our emotions at will with the oldest and still most effective of technologies – peculiar symbols scratched on paper.

Updike was a genius who wrote about reason, emotion, sexuality, and spirituality with incredible insight. I’m sad that he’s gone.

Updike wrote The Witches of Eastwick. In this scene, Jack Nicholson delivers a speech essentially penned by Updike. After the video, just a few quotes to give you a sense of the man's gift.

Quotes from Updike:

Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or doing it better.

“That the neo-Babbit in the third volume contains the witness to the apocalyptic events of the second would strain plausibility did not so many peaceable citizens contain lethal soldiers, so many criminals contain choirboys, so many monogamous women contain promiscuous young things. An adult human being consists of sedimentary layers. We shed more skins than we can count, and are born each day to a merciful forgetfulness. We forget most of our past but embody all of it.”

From John Updike’s The Terrorist

“Relief at escaping their students unscathed for another day makes the teachers’ chatter of farewell in the halls and on the parking lot too loud, like the rising excitement of drunks. The teachers revel when they are away from the school. Some have the pink lids and bad breaths and puffy bodies of those who habitually drink too much. Some get divorces; some live with other unmarried. Their lives away from the school are disorderly and wanton and self-indulgent. They are paid to instill virtue and democratic values by the state government down in Trenton, and that Satanic government farther down, in Washington, but the values they believe in are Godless: biology and chemistry and physics. On the facts and formulas of these their false voices firmly rest, ringing out into the classroom. They say that all comes out of merciless blind atoms, which cause the cold weight of iron, the transparency of glass, the stillness of clay, the agitation of flesh. Electrons pour through copper threads and computer gates and the air itself when stirred to lightning by the interaction of water droplets. Only what we can measure and deduce from measurement is true. The rest is the passing dream that we call our selves.”

“The very bad girls, the ones already thoroughly fallen, have tattoos where only their boyfriends get to see them, and where the tattoo artist had to poke his needle most gingerly. There is no end of devilish contortions once human beings feel free to compete with God and to create themselves.”

“’My whole life seems just out of my reach,’ one character on All My Children once said.”

Bush complains about Putin turning into Stalin, but we’re worse than the poor old clunky Kremlin ever was. The Commies just wanted to brainwash you. The new powers that be, the international corporations, want to wash your brains away, period. They want to turn you into machines for consuming – the chicken-coop society. All this entertainment – Madam, it’s crap, the same crap that kept the masses zombified in the Depression, only then you stood in line and paid a quarter for the movie, where today they hand it to you free, with the advertisers paying a million a minute for the chance to mess with your heads.

[the programming – sports and comedies and talk shows] It’s slop. And Leno and Letterman, more slop. But the commercials, they are fantastic. They’re like Faberge eggs. When somebody in this country wants to sell you something, they really buckle down. They get intense. You watch the same commercial twenty times, you see how every second has been weighed out in gold. They’re full of what physicists call information.

[George Washington] showed the world what can be done against the odds, against a superpower. He showed – and this is where Vietnam and Iraq come in – that in a war between an imperialist occupier and the people who actually live there, the people will eventually prevail. They know the terrain. They have more at stake. They have nowhere else to go.

History isn’t something over and done, you know. It’s now, too. Revolution never stops. You cut off its head, it grows two.

All I’m saying is that kids like Ahmad need to have something they don’t get from society any more. Society doesn’t let them be innocent any more. The crazy Arabs are right – hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer. Listen to the lyrics of these rock and rap stars – just kids themselves, with smart agents. Kids have to make more decisions than they used to, because adults can't tell them what to do. We don’t know what to do, we don’t have the answers we used to; we just futz along, trying not to think. Nobody accepts responsibility, so the kids, some of the kids, take it on.

23 January 2009

News from Week One of the Obama Era

President Obama warned Republicans on Capitol Hill today that they need to quit listening to radio king Rush Limbaugh.

On a related note, Pastor Rick Warren warned gays to quit lusting after each other.

Caroline Kennedy dropped her bid for Clinton's Senate seat. Apparently, being a part of America's most famous political dynasty was not enough to compensate for the speaking style of a nervous high school student, a refusal to give up her privacy, and a disinterest in politics.

President Obama has decided that the best way to rectify the madness of the Bush administration is to pass a trillion dollar stimulus package while cutting taxes for 90% of Americans. Spending money like a drunken sailor while slashing taxes. Hmph. Now why didn't Bush think of that? This should change everything.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich continues to give Blagojeviches everywhere a bad name. He claims to be the victim of a plot to raise taxes. I would try to make fun of this but that would be like painting over a Van Gogh to make it look better.

The Apple Macintosh turns 25 on Saturday. Still the only computer to be first marketed as a smart toaster, even Wozniak expressed surprise at the product's enduring success.

One of Nigeria's biggest daily newspapers reported that police implicated a goat in an attempted automobile theft. In a front-page article on Friday, the Vanguard newspaper said that two men tried to steal a Mazda car two days earlier in Kwara State, with one suspect transforming himself into a goat as vigilantes cornered him.

Timothy Geithner was confirmed as Treasury Secretary this week. Geithner's disinterest in paying taxes was apparently no obstacle to congressional approval for him to head the IRS. In his defense, Geithner said that it was not as if Defense Secretary nominee William Lynn carries a gun. When asked by a confused Max Baucus what relevance this had, Geithner squinted his eyes shut and, witnesses claim, began to baa.

Republican Party leaders have confessed in private to utter confusion about how to define themselves. With the collapse of communism as a sure enemy and the Democrats now offering big tax cuts and the poor marketing response to their plan to rename minorities as "magic Negroes," Republicans are now floundering through an identity crisis.

Sources close to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts explained why he stumbled in his delivery of a mere 35 words for Obama's oath of office. "He was more than a little befuddled when he found himself face to face with Obama," they explained. "No one had told him that Obama is black."

And this blogger is 3X happy. Not only is Dubya gone and Obama in, but the folks in politics are still providing "can you believe it?" material for our amusement. At least we're getting something for our tax dollars. And this might just be proof that as we approach the perfect society, we'll still have politics. How do I know this? Because a perfect society has to include humor and really, doesn't the existence of humor argue for the persistence of politics?

21 January 2009


Damon (who recently started a new blog, a smarter world (not, as one might think, an elaborate defense of Hillary's new Smart Power at the State Department) sent some of us an email. The subject line: "irony"

I was quite excited at first glance - thinking that he had found a creative way to greet me - "Hi Ronnie!"

Irony. Hi Ronnie. Sounds so much alike.

And that just might explain so much about me.

Oh. And you might enjoy Damon's posts. He's stopped restraining his urge to comment on all things political.

He's Gone!

This is an absurd video - Hall & Oates playing pop stars with ironic detachment. And the lyrics are wrong. They are about longing for what was. And yet, I have found myself humming the chorus, substiting "he's gone!" for "she's gone!" and thinking about a certain helicopter that took off from DC yesterday.

I have to confess to a measure of disbelief that George actually left. I've been advised to move on, to let go. I'll try. Meanwhile, sing this chorus with me ...

"He's gone - oh my, and he took that devil Dick Cheney ..."

19 January 2009

Willing Fools

I'm sitting here in the hotel watching an HBO special pre-inaugural event with a stream of speakers and performers like Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder. The mall is crowded with an at-capacity crowd. It is so obvious that nearly everyone is foisting so much hope onto this one man - looking to Obama as a symbol of progress, change, and proof that the world again makes sense and will soon be better. My neighbor was telling me about the nurses in the Tijuana hospital who were excited about Obama, convinced that he's going to address even the spate of drug killings in their city.

We're fools to put so much hope in one man. It makes me wonder if politics is some shared delusion, a conspiracy between a people and their leaders not to admit that life is full of random events and that the systems we depend upon - whether financial systems or ecosystems - are unpredictable and can just as easily hurt us as help us. We're fools to think that one man who has had no real leadership position before can be be up for such a task as this. It's hard to believe that all of us excited about this change won't be disappointed. Foolish, really.

Fools get a bad rap, but I'm not so sure. They say that only fools fall in love. If that's the case, who wouldn't choose to be a fool?

In Which Your Blogging Host Boldly Suggests Inaugural Speech Inserts

Here are some things that I'd like to hear in tomorrow's inaugural speech. In the interest of restraint, I've listed only a couple of things that I'd like to hear Obama say. Imagine this in his voice.


It is of little use to have a great house in a dangerous and ugly neighborhood. I think that the Bush administration intuited correctly that we cannot live in isolation from the rest of the world, indifferent to the suffering of AIDS patients in Africa or the outrage of religious fundamentalists in the Middle East.

But what seemed to be missing in that great effort to address the rest of the world’s problems is the creation of a dialogue with the rest of the world about how best to do that. We can’t just assume that the path to progress is in our wake. I think that we can be a model of what is possible without being the blueprint of what must be. We cannot – and should not – assume that the rest of the world wants to be like us. Progress has always been about increased autonomy – the ability to more fully aspire to the life of one's own choosing. Progress is not really about imitation or following dictates. If we do want to encourage progress, this means that we’ll include other countries – indeed, other groups – in the conversation about what it means to create a better world.

The choice is not between withdrawal from the rest of the world or dictating. We are citizens of the world – not its dictator. In my administration we’ll choose to participate, not dictate.

And I want to talk about a different kind of economic progress.

For too long we’ve confused quantity of goods with quality of life. Whether we look at the current financial crisis that has stemmed from a excess of debt or the threat of climate change, it seems increasingly obvious that the path towards happiness that goes through more and more and more is simply not sustainable. Making the shift from quantity of goods to quality of life as a measure of economic progress might be the most difficult, yet important, task before us.

It was only about 100 years ago that we began to systematically measure things like GDP and incomes and savings and consumption at the national level, measures that helped to shape policy and track its efficacy. We formalilzed our focus on quantity of goods. Through this we have learned a great deal and made real progress.

Now we have to do something similar with quality of life. We need to craft a new set of measures that go more directly towards the happiness of the citizenry. Adding new measures to what we track may sound trivial but it is the first step towards real change.

As part of this move from quantity to quality, we need to move beyond the narrow definition of economic goods as simply referring to goods to have. Our lives become meaningful not from what we take but from what we give: work matters. Whether this be in the form of public service and volunteer work or jobs that give pride in work, a really developed economy is able to create good jobs and not just good products. It gives us more goods to have AND more goods to do.

Towards this end, we’re going to measure more than consumption to know how we’re doing. Among other things, our policies are going to target job creation. And not just jobs for people engaged in computer programming or biological research. Jobs for factory workers and construction specialists, blue collar and white collar workers as well as a new and growing group of green collar workers who'll help to define new industries that address climate change and dependence on oil.

17 January 2009

I'll Take the de-scrambled eggs - Separating Self and Society

It is a wonderful thing that we’re unable to predict. If we could, it would suggest a lack of control over events, a lack of autonomy for the human race. Prediction suggests determinism; unpredictability suggests freedom.

I’ve previously made the distinction between social and technological innovation. The more I try to make this distinction operational, the more it seems to me that dissecting the two is like trying to put a wedge between heads and tails.

A car is clearly a technological innovation. It has moving parts and relies on inventions as diverse as rubber tires and steel ball bearings.

Of course, a car is also clearly a social innovation. It changes the range a person can travel in a day and greatly multiplies the number of people who can be grouped daily to work on tasks like building cars. It creates a huge separation between work and home.

Any successful social innovation introduces some new technology – even if it is as silly as the dance moves in the Macarena. Any successful technological innovation moves with or drives social innovation. If 150 million people had not agreed to turn over their network of friends to Facebook, the software (the technological innovation) would have been a curiosity. If people never dared to climb into a car (social innovation), the horseless carriage would have been an historical footnote of less importance than any given outbreak of influenza.

Progress depends on the play between these two. An innovation has to enable people to do something – has to have a technological component. To matter, it has to change behavior – has to have a social component.

One of the things that I don’t know about this is how the dance works. Is technology gradually changing to allow us to express our true selves? Or is humanity - human nature itself - changing, led in new and unpredictable directions by technology? And even if it is true that the technology and humanity are now co-evolving, which is the lead in this strange dance? Does this question even make sense in a world where we’re now engaged in genetic engineering?

Has the question of human nature always been bound up in questions of culture and technology? Or are those merely manifestations of human nature? Are technology and society as intrinsic to being human as fingernails and sleep cycles?

Is it not just that it is not possible to drive a distinction between social and technological progress. Perhaps it is not even possible to drive a wedge between self and society.

Just wondering.

14 January 2009

What Did We Learn?

“What did we learn, Palmer?” Asks the senior CIA official of his subordinate.
“I don’t know sir.”
“I don’t f-ing know either.”
“I guess we learned not to do it again.”
“Yes sir.”
“F- if I know what we did.”
“Yes sir. It’s hard to say.”
Closing lines of Burn After Reading

George Bush and Dick Cheney are granting interviews. From what I can tell, they did nothing wrong - there is nothing that they would have changed.

Which essentially means that they didn't learn anything. They knew what to do going in and the experience (whether it be Iraq or Afghanistan or financial crisis or economic slump or ...) did not change their minds at all.

Given that things did not turn out so well, we can only conclude one thing: if it wasn't their minds that needed changing, it was the world. Oh wait. They already made that clear. You either change the feedback or the feedback changes you.

Look for Dick Cheney to be driving around in retirement in a motor home with a bumper sticker that reads, "I'd rather change the world than change my mind."


13 January 2009

Clinton Seeks "Smart Power" Middle East Strategy

AP – 8 mins ago
WASHINGTON – Hillary Rodham Clinton
said Tuesday that she intends to revitalize the mission of diplomacy in American
foreign policy, calling for a "smart power" strategy in the Middle East and
implicitly criticizing the Bush administration for having downgraded the role of
arms control.

Clinton seeks smart power? This, apparently, in contrast to Condoleezza Rice's dumb power in the Middle East? Or is that dumb luck?

In any case, I can only guess that Cheney is cursing in some undisclosed location. "Smart power! Why didn't we think of that?" Turns and looks accusingly at George, "But no. You had to continually resort to the dumb power."

Smart power. Wow. Sounds pretty much infallible. Kind of like compassionate conservative. I guess the days of Middle East conflicts are over. I can hardly wait.

In Which Your Blog Author Engages in the Most Juvenile of Musings

Serious studies about humor have shown that ducks have a magical place in the pantheon of joke subjects.

Two ducks on a pond.
One says, "Quack!"
The other says, "Hey! I was going to say that!"

Substitute cows and moo and you have a lesser chuckle. Or so scientists say. And I believe them.

Meanwhile, from the time of childhood, we laugh at farts. The bodies' not-so silent rebellion against civilized behavior, the sudden reminder of our animal nature, the catalyst for a giggle among first graders and staid monks alike.

So, why has no one ever thought to make a comic strip about farting ducks? At this point, I'm considering the name Ferdinand the Farting Duck for my hero. I'm not sure just what kind of adventures he'll get into, but you can bet it'll be funny. He's a duck. He farts. I can't see how this could fail.

Stay tuned.

12 January 2009

From Self Absorbed to Self Aware - the Return of the Novel?

The novel’s great era didn’t just coincide with the rise of the university and the specialist because of rising levels of literacy – it helped to ameliorate the feelings of anomie and isolation of the specialist. Suddenly, a growing number of workers found themselves busy in tasks that required focus that excluded others and unique skills that made it difficult to relate to friends and families. The novel made us feel less alone.

But the novel did more than provide access to the inner life of others, giving us access to the psychic space of the woman in the apartment across the hall or the guy in the next office. It reassured us that our own insecurities, lusts, petty grievances, and imaginings did not make us freaks but, instead, made us part of the human race. Everyone, as it turns out, has some kind of struggle.

And yet today, the world of reality TV and Internet confessionals – media like blogs and YouTube – now provides us with ample reassurance that our petty neuroses and animal instincts are not unique. And maybe celebrity stories and powerful video has eroded reading.

But I think that this comes with a cost. Novels force reflection that video and quick articles or posts do not. In a novel, we’re forced to project ourselves into the lives of the character. A good novel will actually kick start our own process of reflection. A novel makes our own thoughts more articulate, providing us with not just vocabulary but vocabulary of the inner life. Through a great novel, we discover some portion of ourselves.

Gaining access to the inner life by video and celebrity scrutiny, by contrast, seems to confuse self absorption and self awareness. We lose ourselves in the characters we see but we are never really forced to consider our own lives, never made to reflect.

All this to report some potentially good news. By one measure, reading is still lower than it was in the early 1980s or 90s but rose over the last 12 months for the first time since 1982. If our mindless living –invasions, spending, and eating of the last few decades - has done anything, it has certainly provided us with material enough to think about. It might provoke us to become more contemplative, more reflective. Crazy optimist that I am, I love the notion of this possibility.

10 January 2009

The Limits of Education

Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, is great. He's done it again, putting together a string of great stories that make fairly profound points. I heard him say in an interview that this book is a reaction to the last 8 years of emphasis on individual success. He focuses instead on the ecology of success. I recommend the book.

But one chapter of his really irked me. Gladwell basically accepts that education needs to be more demanding. The example he uses is of Marita, who wakes up each morning at 5:45 and goes to bed at 11 PM. This is not a graduate student. Marita is only twelve.

Gladwell writes that this kind of rigor and time spent will give Marita opportunities that she would never have otherwise. He assures us that this is reasonable. I remain unconvinced.

I’m sure that the data supports Gladwell’s contention that Marita will have more academic success at this rate. I am not so sure that the data supports the notion that Marita will have more life success with this approach.

To digress for one moment, I once heard a claim that even engineers apply less than 20% of what they learn. We spend a great deal of energy getting students prepared but very little time getting feedback on what did or did not work. What, of all that they learned, they really needed. We seem to spend even less time trying to prepare students to become creative, entrepreneurial people who know how to translate raw knowledge into value.

If education is the speed of the engine and life is the speed of the car, we have educational engines revving loudly and, given slips in transmission, drive shaft, and universal joints, wheels on the cars crawling along. Or perhaps a simpler analogy is that we keep pushing harder on the accelerator but don’t ever shift out of first gear. Learning a great deal that we don't know how to - or don't bother to - translate into changes in quality of life seems beside the point.

To focus more on education to the point of putting the kids through a rigorous program that essentially leads to sleep deprivation before puberty is, I guess, one approach. But this seems to me an approach akin to putting more horse power into the engine when the car is still in first gear rather than simply shifting. What if we got better at learning how to apply what we know rather than just learning more?

Regular readers know that I do believe education ought to be transformed – along with the corporation. If we made organizations more entrepreneurial – finding ways to provoke and translate the ingenuity of employees into new products and markets – we’d probably find communities demanding a different kind of education and preparation for life. It is not obvious, though, that the communities would simply demand greater quantities of the education they are already getting.

It might be time to stop finding new ways to push the engine to higher RPMs and instead find someway to shift gears. If today's gains can come only from working kids from 5:45 to 11, where will tomorrow's gains come from? It must just be time to realize that we're reaching the limits of an educational system that was largely defined in the late 19th century.

08 January 2009

Bush Impregnates Millions of Teens (Now Can We Impeach Him?)

Teen birth rates are up in 26 states - the highest since 1971, reversing a 34% drop from 1991 to 2005.

A 16 year old girl suspected of drowning her new born in the toilet was charged yesterday.

Since they've taken office, the Bush administration has pushed for abstinence only sex education - in spite of data that strongly suggested that such education raised pregnancy rates among teens.

I'm sure that none of this is related. Policy doesn't change trends and general trends don't raise the probability of individual tragedies. Obviously.

(And maybe in 2010, I'll make a new year's resolution to engage in less sarcasm.)

06 January 2009

The Era of Freudian Economics

"I don't know why the economists haven't already figured out the cause of this economic downturn," Bernard said assuredly.

"What is it you know that they don't?" I asked.

"Well it's obvious," Bernard said. "We've given a whole generation no reason for libidinal repression. It is as if we gutted their desire for achievement."


"We had a golden age of about a century when we still made people feel repressed about their sexuality but they no longer felt self conscious about consumption. We allowed indulgence, but only of a particular kind. It was a sweet spot for economic activity."

"Freudian economics?"

"Yeah. I guess," Bernard scratched his head. "See, everyone knows that people who are sexually repressed sublimate their sexuality into socially acceptable activities. Repression forces them to turn libidinous activity into productivity - or at least a skill like sports or music."

"So, repression is good for developing marketable skills?"

"Exactly! Without repression, they go right to sex - no intervening, forced development of skills that might make them more alluring as mates. Mating suddenly has nothing to do with economics and just has to do with mating. It's why guys increasingly fail to pursue good careers."

"So wages gradually erode as sex becomes less shameful?"

"Yes! But the shopping is still part of the culture of instant gratification. The consumption doesn't go away with the repression. If anything, it increases, all part of the general culture of indulgence."

"So, when people were repressed enough to develop skills but not so repressed as to stifle their shopping urges, the economy was a roaring success?" I paused. "Have I got that right?"

"Yes!" Bernard had a triumphant little smile. "Nothing could be more obvious."

"And now we're not making enough because our wages have fallen? And our wages have fallen because we're not repressed enough?"

"That's pretty much it, I figure."

"From repression to recession."

Bernard paused. "No. This is not just a recession. We've had those before. This is a drop in incomes, a delayed adjustment to a new lifestyle."

"A new lifestyle?"

"Sure. Incomes have not grown but spending has. Adjusting to that fact will require an adjustment in lifestyle."

"But at least the lifestyle will include sex," I noted.

"For whatever that's worth," Bernard said, speaking like a true octogenarian.

05 January 2009

Investors collect profits after last week's rally

I love market coverage. No one could predict Friday's uptick of 3% or today's drop of nearly 1%. They couldn't predict it but the folks who write the articles know exactly why it happened. I find that impressive. Reassuring even. But absurd, mostly.
(And come to think of it, in an attempt at self reflection, I guess that there is no reason why my response to market coverage should be much different than my response to life: left impressed, reassured and with a suspicion that it's at least somewhat absurd.)

03 January 2009

Just Try to Change the World and See if it Doesn't Change You

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
[excerpt from a David Foster Wallace speech]

I used to think that social progress and individual development were somehow unrelated. I now think that social progress is the surest form of individual development and would go so far as to suspect that individual development is - at best - unsustainable without social progress.

If you live in amongst a horde of Mongolian warriors, you're not likely to have many career options outside of organized homicide or be much rewarded for advocating peace. Until there is some kind of social progress, your "development" simply won't have a place to unfold.

And yet our social reality is to us almost what the water is to Foster Wallace's young fish. The differences between two 15 year old girls in medieval Europe are almost negligible compared with the differences between a 15 year girl in medieval Europe and a 15 year old girl in modern Australia, yet we tend to focus on differences of individuals within cultures and social constructs rather than focus on changing those cultures and social constructs.

And maybe the real punch line to this is that nothing changes an individual quite like undertaking the task of changing the world. Attempting to change the individual without changing society is a dicey proposition. Attempting to change society without changing the individual is impossible.

02 January 2009

2008 - R World in Review (2 of 3)

And because the Bush administration seems to never make a policy decision without first thinking about whether it'll make life easier for late night comedians, they've put Nelson Mandela on the terrorist watch list.

It might be fascinating to define a learning institution with a completely different name, like "Preparatory Institute for Great Happiness and Empowerment," or "Organization for Mind Altering Perceptions," or "A Place of Self Actualization and Occasional Humiliation."

“You should not talk about the president that way,” Maddie rebuked her older brother.
“’Former frat boy?’ What? Did I get that wrong? He’s actually still in a fraternity? Because that would explain so much,” Bernard said, spinning one half of his bagel while patiently chewing. “You think that his entire presidency has just been a series of drunken dares? A hazing ritual gotten out of control?”

It might be that all policy failure is simply a failure of empathy.

Fragment of a discussion between gods who’ve lost their believers.
“Money is not a problem for me,” said Soma, the Indian god of alcoholic beverage and supreme truth.
“How do you get money?” asked Ek-Chuah, the former Mayan god of business and chocolate.
“I borrow heavily from novelists,” said Soma. “I mean, it’s only fair. They borrow heavily from us.”
Zeus hollered, “Damn Joseph Campbell. He would not loan me a dime.”

Bernard stared at the wall. “So this is why women hate men?
“Because we love you?” Maddie said. “Yes.”

Recently, the Wrigley's Chewing Gum company sold for about $23 billion. There is no truth to the rumor that founder Bill Wrigley said, when seeing his first customers approach, "They have the change we have been waiting for."

In the old media, people chose between various options, magazines like the Nation or the New Republic, for example. In the new media, people create their own options, writing blogs or creating websites.

In the old democracy, people chose between various options, candidates like George H. Bush and Michael Dukakis, for example. In the new democracy, people will collaborate to create their own policies and institutions.

By 1900, an abundance of capital had laid the foundation for a new economy: an information economy led by advances in knowledge and knowledge workers.

By 2000, an abundance of knowledge and knowledge workers had laid the foundation for an entrepreneurial economy.

Marxists are still gaining adherents in universities and neocons are still finding supporters for invasions in the Middle East (Iran instead of Iraq this time). Not because the empirical evidence has suggested that these are wise moves but, instead, because of a kind of imaginary nostalgia, reminiscing about what might have been.

Product idea:
Sell "hybrid" metal decals for people to stick onto their cars. Even though this wouldn't change their actual mpg or carbon footprint, it nonetheless would do a great deal to impress the neighbors.

This is the catch-22 of parenting. If parents do their job right, they'll give their child autonomy. And, true autonomy will mean that the child will make choices the parent would not.

“Well, it is the least that Hollywood can do for people,” Maddie said, looking up at Bernard reprovingly. “Someone needs to offer resolution.”

“What do you mean?”

“People can go their whole life, Bernard, and never once get things resolved. Look at you and your love life, Bernard. You’re in your 70s and you still haven’t gotten that figured out.” She sipped her coffee and then continued as Bernard looked on in disbelief. “Life just sits there in a swirl of uncertainty, as if there is a perpetual ‘to be determined’ sign hanging over everything. The least that those folks in Hollywood can do is to distort life into some kind of plot line for us.”

Maybe parents and schools could tell children: “Warning: contents of this society have been known to create feelings of anomie and alienation, provoke wars, homicides, and suicides, and pollute the habitat you need for survival. Most of what we tell you should be questioned and improved on. This is, really, just the best we’ve been able to do up until now and it could be that improvement will actually overturn much of what we now accept and advocate.”

At least in the blogosphere, we really are moving towards a world in which "adult" content is as likely to refer to conversations and topics that would bore a child as it is to the words and images that the FCC could once shield us from. It is a world in which each person gets to be his own censor. It is a world in which George Carlin's early humor now makes little sense.

And maybe that’s a measure of a social reformer’s impact: if they’ve made their outrage meaningless to the next generation, their work is done. Thank you George and farewell.

Listen to NPR and you’re more likely to hear news about Palestine than what is going on in the corporate headquarters of your area’s largest employer. If the news offers a context for daily life, this suggests that the news is moving towards irrelevance.

Now that the parties have chosen their candidates, we’ve entered the dreaded deification stage of the election. The right has to continually defend an old conservative who likes to pretend he is a maverick; the left has to defend a young liberal who likes to pretend he's led something before. These are real people and yet their supporters see fit to elevate their candidates, gather in circles around them, and then chant like primitive natives before the god of volcanoes.

On a trip to Kobe
If you live in Japan there is about a 99% chance that your race is Japanese. Even with odds that high, it still turns out that I’m not.

The reason that the Japanese are asked not to use their cell phones on the train is because in such close quarters the signals interfere with pace makers – occasionally causing an incident, triggering arrhythmia or even an attack. Changes in technology and culture do not take us beyond this simple truth: communication affects the heart.

R World will be closed in observance of the 4th of July. We on the editorial board have no clue what that means but nonetheless feel obliged to inform you.

This might be my favorite headline of the week: "Obama, McCain try to pin economic woes on each other"

No wonder people eventually lose interest in elections. This is like two rivals to become tribal chieftain blaming each other for the latest hurricane or drought. To paraphrase Jeremy Bentham, "this is nonsense on stilts."

Deconstruction proved unsatisfying to most because it pointed out two things: context is key and context is arbitrary.

If a candidate is going to win this thing, they'll likely aim for at least 50.1% of the vote. This means that among their supporters will be some certifiable nut jobs. The candidate needs to embrace even those who say ridiculous things.

Or, they could take it one step further and, like George W., they could actually be the spokesperson and representative for the gaffe-prone among us.

Maddie let out a sigh of exasperation. “I can’t believe this. Why does everything have to be sexual?”
“What?” Bernard looked up from his menu, obviously confused.
“Look at this Bernie. They have orgasmic fruit.”
Bernard paused. “Maddie, Maddie,” he shook his head. “That’s organic fruit.”
“Oh,” Maddie said, her outrage quickly fading. “Well in that case, I’ll just have the poached eggs.”

It is time to eliminate the penny. This would help to lower the prices of commodities (well, at least copper) and would free up cashiers across the nation to engage in more valuable efforts. It is hard to think of a single act that would do more to improve today's economy (but of course that could just be because it is a Saturday and I'm not really trying.)

Politics - the art of getting elected - depends on making pronouncements so vague that more than half of the population can agree with you.

Policy - the art of making things happen - depends on making pronouncements so clear that more than half of the population knows what to do.

If you begin to talk policy too soon, it is unlikely that you'll get elected.

If you keep talking politics for too long, it is unlikely that you'll get anything done.

I think that I may have to side with Bush on this one. It does not make sense to rescue the mortgage industry with legislation that will cost American taxpayers twice. To the extent that the new housing bill actually props up house prices, it'll cost Americans by driving up housing costs along with the price of fuel and food and education. And given that this bill will cost billions, taxpayers will be charged to prop up these prices. Bush was right to threaten to veto the House Housing Bill.

If legislators actually cared about housing, they’d address homelessness. Instead, this seems like another instance of crony capitalism masquerading as pro-business policy. No industry has benefited more from the "privatize profits and share losses with taxpayers" philosophy of crony-capitalism than the financial industry.

Tom Petty with the bankers – getting their approval to finance a song in a parallel world

Banker 1: That's it? That's the song idea?
Tom: Yeah.
Banker 2: That makes no sense! Could you explain it again?
Tom: We play some music and periodically say, "Hey!"
Banker 3: That is not a song. People like stories in their songs, like that George Strait guy sings.
Tom: Well, we don't just say, "Hey!" Sometimes we'll say, "Don't come around here no more."
Banker 1: Well that's not even grammatically correct.
Banker 2: Exactly!
Banker 1: Why can't you write lyrics more like a Robert Frost poem?
Banker 3: Or George Strait?
Tom: I just write what I write.
Banker 1: Well, I'm sorry but I just don't see how we can give you money for a song like that.

In California, trans fats are now illegal and (medical) marijuana is not. I'm sure this is not the only way in which our state is different from Alabama but right now it seems like one of the more obvious.

At the point at which children become adults, they have to make a transition. Instead of focusing on filling in what is missing, they now have to build on what is present. Rather than turn a grade of C into a B, they have to turn an A into a unique contribution, something that defies easy categorization.

If collaboration and cooperation no longer requires an institutional overlay, or construct, entrepreneurship becomes an act of catalyzing behaviors and activities rather than focusing on creating the context or container for such activities. It is not about institutions – it is about action.

It does suggest that the very notion of, or need for, institution is set to transform along with the definition of entrepreneur.

I find the term Hegelian ecology oddly alluring and think that it describes this dynamic of evolution - whether social or natural. It seems to almost guarantee dynamic tension, a dance of progress. It is a reminder that the thing in itself is perhaps never quite so within itself.

About spam filters that even applied to R World for a time:
In past centuries, censorship was enacted by church or state officials with a particular agenda, mindfully protecting us from offensive information. Today, censorship has become automatic, enacted by simple algorithms that mindlessly protect us from offensive information. It used to be bureaucrats who followed rules; now it is just rules following rules, algorithms that decide what gets through and what stays out of consciousness.

In this sense, religions are really more advanced, more evolved, than are more modern institutions like corporations and schools. Religion is a place where one can freely choose how and when to use the institution, a stark contrast to the corporation that prescribes exactly how and when the institution will use the individual. It is hard, if not impossible, for the modern student or employee to define and customize how he'll learn or work. Oddly, it is within these traditionally oppressive institutions that the modern person is most free to define how he'll worship.

I wonder how long it will be before the modern institutions become as advanced and evolved as this ancient one of religion.

Bernard on kissing:
The woman is everything. Technique is vastly over-rated. A new pair of lips is not the point. A kiss at its best is an expression so thick with meaning, appreciation so keen that it can never be expressed in a mere handshake or simple hug. A kiss is inevitable once you feel a particular way towards her. The mouth,” Bernard’s eyes clouded over as he stared at his drink, “the mouth is the place from which we breathe, taste the world, and express ourselves. If you’ve fallen in love with a woman, how could you not want to melt into her at that very spot, this small opening into her being? How could you not want to kiss her?

There are a variety of considerations when choosing a VP running mate. Like the Bush men, you could choose a VP who so frightens people that you effectively have a guarantee against impeachment.

Mass is aptly named because we’re talking about an intensely personal spiritual experience that we’re trying to extend from a few mystics to the masses. This is both futile and necessary. It is how civilization proceeds: the work or creation of a genius becomes the tool of a common person. Newton and Leibniz invent calculus in one century and a few centuries later, it is a required subject for children in the early throes of relational passions, young adults distracted by newly libidinous impulse.

Derivatives of You Tube include:
Me-Tube - videos of people trying desperately to keep up with trends and celebrities.

The Mayans were incredibly advanced - roughly on par with ancient Greeks and Romans in many areas. Their knowledge of astronomy allowed them to make a calendar that only needed to be adjusted every 52 years (instead of every 4, like our own). They were advanced in math and science, performed brain surgery and eye surgery and yet their civilization collapsed. I'm pretty sure it was because they never mastered air conditioning. It was hot in the jungle.

A good soldier is like a good gun. He doesn't ask questions about where he is pointed, he just moves in that direction. A leader, by contrast, is all about asking questions - ensuring that the gun is pointed in the right direction and extremely hesitant to ever pull the trigger. McCain has done more to prove he’s still a good soldier than a good leader.

It’s time to update the cabinet for the 21st century.

1. Secretary of Happiness
It’s time to take happiness seriously. After all, what good is progress in any other domain if it doesn’t make us happier?

4. Secretary of Simplification
In charge of producing sound bites for policy, reducing clutter in closets and garages, and eliminating unnecessary meetings within communities and organizations.

6. Dude for the Radicalization of All Things Boring
Could also be a sub-dude or, rather, under-Secretary to the Secretary of Happiness. Measure of success would be the extent to which even teenagers have to admit that it is pretty cool to live here. This might be an appropriate position for a former X-Games star.

10. Minister of Complexity
Position designed to set up creative tension with the secretary of simplification, also responsible for urban development, financial markets, forests and other ecosystems, romance, and extended families (essentially, everything hopelessly complex) replacing secretaries of interior, housing and urban development, and treasury and the lords of chaos.

12. Secretary of Blogging
Or, alternatively, we could call this SOB president of cyber-world, duties to include developing and making available more sophisticated filters for spam, ensuring high scores for on-line games like World of Warcraft, and finding some way to soften the blow for reporting down days for one’s portfolio. Oh, and of course, the SOB would work with us to raise the probability of bloggers creating provocative and influential content.

We now live in a world where the fastest man is named Bolt. It’s as if the folks at Marvel or DC Comics have taken over from Newton and Einstein, tired of simply defining blockbuster movies they are now defining our reality.

Choosing Biden as a running mate couldn’t have been easy for Obama who, in order to balance the ticket, had to find an older white guy active in politics.

A commitment to become a happy adult probably doesn't involve solving all the problems of childhood. Sometimes progress means letting go.

I just like the fact that McCain is offering such a stark contrast to the same-sex ticket of Obama - Biden, giving us voters the choice of a heterosexual couple.

I agree! The presidency should be between a man and a woman. And I’m all for a constitutional amendment that keeps same-sex presidencies out of the White House!

So, in one of a series of aperiodic postings of business ideas, how about a Rent-a-Paparazzi service? You go out for the evening and feign disgust with the horde of (okay, depending on what option you choose, two to six) photographers who hound you, following you as you try to enjoy a pleasant evening dining out, dancing, or even just grocery shopping with your new infant.

It would certainly impress a first date.

Love is Out of Control

The other day, a friend said, "Whoever loves the least has control."

Watching family and friends over the holidays, I'm always provoked to think about relationships. One popular couples' trap seems to be the retaliatory trap: you owe your partner a cold shoulder, a scold, or a rebuke because they are - by your accounting - one up on you. It is as much a struggle for control as justice.

And if control comes from loving least, the contest for control over a relationship is a contest to see who can love the least. That doesn't seem like a contest worth winning.

01 January 2009

2008 Year in Review - A Look Back (1 of 3)

What follows are excerpts of posts from 2008. It was a busy year.

George Bush and Karl Rove were masters of politics and the two stooges of policy, a frightening reminder that voters can be easier to seduce than reality.

Why not build the Escher Expressway – build all roads to slope downhill as a means to improve gas mileage?

The wild success of the iPod: is it just a coincidence that the first generation to be discovered by sonogram would so eager to embrace a product that envelopes them in sound?

"Violence is down in the city of Fallujah. So is freedom. Entry into the city is like entry into an airport – residents wait in line to pass by guards and scanners. This is how we bring democracy into the Middle East?

Our need for narrative is stronger than our need for facts. We can’t take reality in its naked form – it is shapeless and void. ‘In the beginning was a great void, and then God spoke,’ Bernard said, loosely quoting Genesis. “Narrative made reality – before that it was a buzz of noise and confusion and temporality. We don’t want facts – we want a story. So people prefer to believe that their lives are controlled by conspiratorial cabals rather than dare to think that we live near the abyss of "things just happen," of random events that even the experts can’t predict or properly explain.

New Year's Resolutions can too easily be attempts to be like someone we admire rather than self actualize. It takes a great deal of effort just to be good at what we're good at.

A stimulus package seems like such an expensive and vague way to address real and specific problems.

And besides, it's not as though no one in Washington has already thought to cut taxes and increase spending in the last 7 years. If that is really what we needed, it's hard to explain how we got here.

In early January, The New York Stock Exchange bought the American Stock Exchange in exchange for stock. Is it any wonder that stock prices have fallen since?

To put his stimulus plan in perspective, Bush is spending $100 billion a year in Iraq - a country whose economy is about $90 billion. He wants to pump about $150 billion into the US, where annual GDP is about $13 trillion. His annual "stimulus" in Iraq is more than 100%. To avert a recession, he wants a stimulus of about 1% for the US. If this sounds inadequate to you, don't feel alone. It failed to impress thousands of investors.

Instead of having the candidates answer questions in debates, put them into simulations. They sit at a laptop or with a joy stick in hand, and are fed scenarios: dollar in free fall, terrorist attack in Miami, find the balance between environmental sustainability and economic prosperity, president of France marries your sister ...

Decoding Bush’s state of the union:

“The budget that I'll submit will keep America on track for a surplus in 2012.”
This is the presidential equivalent of assuring your heirs that once you’ve been dead for 4 years, your finances should be in order.

Bad governments come in at least two forms: they put up bureaucratic obstacles to those who are pushing beyond the current norms and / or they ignore the plight of those who are failing.

10 percent of Americans say they are willing to have an Internet-access device implanted in their brains.

We've turned our media into the modern coliseum, a place where celebrities can be made and then destroyed.

I've heard more than a few folks express shock at the fact that Barack Obama's middle name is Hussein. "Just like Saddam's last name!" they exclaim.

And that matters. Almost as much as it matters that once we had gained our independence from King George we turned around and elected George Washington.

We can call 411 for information. We can call 911 for emergencies. Why not a 711 number that people can call when they spot aberrant behavior - something they find odd or outrageous? Wives could report their husbands, children their parents, and anyone could call to report on those in public.

Motherhood is a confusing performance, like painting for the legally blind, the preoccupied audience of husband and children caught up in their own drama or anomie and chronically unaware of the great effort expended on their behalf.
While philosophers love the idea of humanity, it is mothers who navigate the real mess of it, the humanity of little people who leave in their wake lost shoes and scuffed walls. A woman whose charm, beauty, and intelligence has given her a variety of romantic options suddenly finds herself confined to home with a big-headed creature who, if he could talk, would go on at length about the flavor of the couch.

5 Feb
I think I may have just watched Barack Obama win the presidency.

Bernard: “How else are you going to define yourself? By sitcoms and bowling leagues? Gucci shoes? Pursuing your gift is how you rescue you from anonymity.”

“But if it doesn’t make you famous, you’re still anonymous.”

“Not from yourself, you twit. This is about learning who you are. Follow your gift and when you get to where it leads you, you’ll find you. Right there. At the end of the trail.”

Stendhal's Cures for Love was at turns amusing and provocative. (And really, there is, of course, no cure for love. It simply has to run its course.)

You can't tell voters that religion matters and then tell them that your religion doesn't matter. Romney’s failed bid might have been just that simple.

In simpler land based economies, dogmatic assertions structure life. In more complex information and entrepreneurial economies, dogma merely obstructs the deal making, problem solving, and creativity necessary to creating wealth.

Ann Coulter has done well for herself. She doesn't have the looks to be a model, the wit to be a shock jock, or the intelligence to be a political pundit, but she's somehow turned these 3 short comings into a successful career.

Bernard: You fall in love in hours and then spend years negotiating what it was you fell into.

Relationships – love in particular – are projections. We project something on to someone else. If they feel like indulging us, they play that role. If not, they rebuff us. Love is an act of playing a role that matches their inevitably misguided notion of us.

Love puts life at a level we can comprehend.

Maddie: Do you know why men are so fascinated by sports? A guy can plop down into a chair in front of the TV and in 15 seconds know the score, know who is winning and who is doing well. He can sit in a relationship for 15 years and never once have a clue about any of that. He’s not even sure he’s shooting into the right basket.

Love is the certainty that fills you with doubt.

Unreasonable is what we want, Bernie. When a woman tells a man to be reasonable, it is just her way of saying that she wants him to love her differently or better. We don’t want reasonable. We want someone who goes straight to the heart.

We make food producers disclose contents and list nutritional information. Why not do it with pundits?

Let's say that Bill Kristol is earnestly arguing that Iran is a threat and that we should take military action against them. Whether in print or on screen, there should be a little scorecard below his name or face that indicates his track record. (e.g., Predictions Made: 308. Predictions Right: 11. "Facts" asserted: 1,052. "Facts" that could be verified: 104.)

Bernard: Accept some coaching. You either change feedback or it changes you.

You look up the meaning of a word and what do you find? Other words. Meaning comes out of the interaction of one word with other words. Meaning comes out of relationships. This is just like life.

You don't love because deserve to be loved. You love because it gives your life meaning. No philosophy can save you from a failure to love.”

I think it would be interesting to have a ventriloquist at my funeral. It is true that I deserve accolades - everyone does, particularly once one is dead. It's also true that I am not all that. So, my vague and fuzzy plan is to have someone deliver a wonderful and glowing eulogy while hosting a dummy (with a face like mine) on his knee - a dummy less reverent than the average funeral speaker and less inclined to spin my life in a positive direction.

And yet today’s economy is global. We live in a post-national economy. Many Americans are about to receive checks as part of a stimulus package that gained broad support among all parties in DC. This package will be financed by loans from China and will be used to buy goods from China. Keynesian economics might not work as planned.

The Bush Administration initially estimated that the Iraq invasion and occupation would cost $50 to $60 billion. White House economist Larry Lindsay said it would cost $100 to $200 billion and was fired for his effrontery. The total cost of the invasion and occupation is now estimated to exceed $3,000,000,000,000 - $3 trillion.

To put it in perspective, this would be equivalent to a car mechanic estimating a repair at $739 and then charging you $44,340 when you came to pick up the car. (“$3 trillion! For that much I could have bought a NEW country!”) To miss an estimate this badly is ludicrous; to miss it on such an astronomically huge amount is insane.

Rather than dumb down their message, Buckley and Galbriath expected their audience to smarten up.
Historians will likely use the deaths of Buckley and Galbraith to signal the death of a particular kind of punditry. The voice of the right now sounds more like Rush Limbaugh than William F. Buckley; the voice of the left now sounds more like James Carville than John Kenneth Galbraith. This new media seems more designed to appeal to entrenched feelings than to challenge conventional thinking. Such a pity.

It’s hard to imagine that women will have a better shot at the presidency than Hillary’s candidacy any time soon, and after 200+ years, they apparently still have not come up with a candidate worthy of the job. One wonders how long it’ll be before we join the 40+ countries that have already had female heads of state. (Among them Muslim countries like Indonesia and Pakistan

Like an angry diner on a bad date cursing the waiter ("I did not order this heart break!"), the political machinery in Washington continues to try sending back the recession it did not order. But reality has its sense of humor, insisting that a prolonged recession is the perfect "cherry on top" for Bush's 8 years as leader of the free (for all) world.

Crude oil prices continued their rise past $100 a barrel; sophisticated oil prices, by contrast, had already slipped past $150 a barrel months ago.

Of course, the whole idea of voting is based on some fallacious notion about probability. You have better odds of buying a winning lottery ticket than you do of casting the deciding vote and I can pretty much guarantee that you are not going to win the lottery. Given that it is simply not rational to think that your vote will make a difference, only irrational people actually vote.

Wait. That seems to explain so much, doesn't it?

I suspect that returns to capital will drop considerably over the next few decades. As returns drop, it'll be easier for entrepreneurs to get money. Companies that expect to compete on the basis of returns to capital can expect to lag an already poor performing market. By contrast, companies able to foster a culture more like that of an incubator will prosper. For them, the cheap capital will be a boon, enabling them to seed even more ventures. These companies - and the investors who hold stocks in them - will be the big winners in this coming period of cheaper capital.

Facebook's 23 year-old founder Mark Zuckerberg is perhaps the world's youngest self-made billionaire.
With all that money, it is probably no wonder that Zuckerberg would need to create a social network site like Facebook. Many friends can be had for considerably less than a billion and someone with this much money would need some way to keep track of them all.

Mike Huckabee bowed out of the Republican primary contest. This has nonetheless been a boon to his career. He'll be starring in a new Broadway Musical: Gomer Pyle, New Mayor of Mayberry. The drama revolves around the mayor's move to outlaw evolution in the town; that Gomer Pyle is mayor seems evidence that he has succeeded.

Spitzer's political career may be over. It seems that the reformer met up with a high-priced prostitute when in DC. (No word yet about how aspiring politicians are supposed to tell the difference between high-priced prostitutes and cheap politicians.)
In the last couple of decades, there has been a surge in the percentage of households that own stock (whether directly or through mutual and pension funds). To leave this money sloshing around without some regulatory oversight is to invite a series of ENRON-like fiascoes in which senior executives and financial representatives easily manipulate the average investor. Imagine how ugly any sport would get after decades without a referee and you get an idea of what Wall Street could become – has at times become.

Spitzer was one of the few politicians who seemed able and wiling to go after the Wall Street’s coarser elements, protecting the average investor.

Bernard: “The defining thing about life is that it ends. You have to keep that in mind. Most everything bad you do – from sloth to cruelty – seems to stem from forgetting this simple fact.

You take away the social constructs and what you are left with is ingenuity and love.

Regarding CIA director George Tenet's advice to George Bush about invading Iraq: When an aging, short, overweight, bureaucrat in a suit tells you that something is "a slam dunk," what he really means is that it cannot be done.

We should try a new kind of stimulus program. Random ATM withdrawals enhancement program (RAWEP) sounds like it would be a hit with a polity that has made gambling a multi-billion dollar industry. You go to the ATM to withdraw $100 and you just might get $1,000. Tell me that wouldn’t stimulate consumption.

My six word meme for my life: As if I had a clue.

All education is prediction about the future. If you teach a child about spelling, you are predicting that he'll be writing and not live in a world of massively available voice recognition systems.

Trying to impress working class voters in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama bowled a 37. On a related note, trying to appeal to college-aged voters, McCain ran the 200 meter hurdles in just under an hour.

Reality is a swirl of possibilities at any time – we’re always at a place of near infinite possibility that is open, to varying levels, to our influence. It is not that we create reality, at some level – we just tune in to particular channels. The channels are always there: our choices might determine whether we get horror or drama or dread or chortles. We don't so much create our own reality as choose the dimension of it we live in.

But of course, I could be way off on this. My notion that our lives are works of fiction might, itself, be a work of fiction. (And if so, have I just proved my point?)

McCain has basically embraced Bush's record. If that is not an indictment of the man, I don't know of one. 81% of the country thinks that we're on the wrong track. 81% makes up everyone but the illiterate, those recovering from traumatic head wounds, and people who still think that all-you-can-eat buffets represent the pinnacle of progress.

The only effective way to change a piece of a system is to change the whole system it is part of.

If Barack Obama can offer a compelling vision of the world and America's role in it, he can deliver the change he promises. If he shrinks from that - if he limits himself to defining the presidency and government only - he'll fail to change the very piece on which he focuses.

Whole system change always sweeps up the pieces with it. Piece-meal change always gets overwhelmed by un-moving, un-responsive, and larger systems. To effect change, you have to speak over the head of the what you want to change. We need a conversation about the society we want to create.

The value of financial derivatives is estimated to be about $500 trillion. To put this in perspective, the total, global GDP is about $70 trillion. So, a swing in derivatives of just 15% will equal GDP for the entire planet.

One can easily tell who the head of the Catholic Church is. The Pope has the tallest hat. I like the idea of using such a simple signal to indicate who is in charge and think that all organizations – from pre-schools to corporations and nation-states - should use the “taller the hat, the more authority” system.

Last week, airlines stranded about 3.7 million travelers. (Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but does the actual number really matter?) And yet they persist in scheduling flights for 8:07 PM arrivals, even as they miss scheduled times by a matter of days. There ought to be a rule: an airline has to be exactly on time on at least two consecutive days before they can pretend to be so accurate. Meanwhile, why not just say, “We’ll arrive sometime after 8 PM. We hope.”

Random fictional excerpts:

* Love seemed like too strong a word to use, but it was not her idea. This was tennis. When you have nothing, they call it love. She shrugged, stretched to her full height and began her serve.

* It was not as though Oswald woke up that morning intending to start a fire in his French Literature class. But in retrospect, it seemed like the turning point in his life.

* His research into longevity was inspired by his love for Bjork. The thought of her dying – of her growing old, even – was more than he could bear. The Noble Prize seemed almost incidental.

First of all, lowering taxes while increasing spending is a ruse. It is like paying less on your credit card while spending just as much each month. The ultimate cost is higher than "pay as you go" options.

It is worth remembering that Sweden's total tax rate is 50.5% and Mexico's is only 18%. Low taxes do not automatically translate into high incomes any more than high taxes automatically translate into low quality of life.

Although it surprised her, Sylvia was oddly pleased by the stimulus package the Bush Administration sent out. She had not been expecting baby oil, erotica, and candles.

There is a big brouhaha about the newest release of Grand Theft Auto. Like the earlier versions, it is violent, triggering concern among critics that this somehow degrades behavior. And nothing could be more obvious, really, than this: the history of mankind shows millennia of peace and prosperity and then, with the introduction of video games, a sudden spike in violence.

I'm sitting somewhere the other day, noting how many people have iPods or variants on them. Why can't they double as credit cards / wallets? Why not use them for purchases? When will Apple essentially become a bank?