29 September 2007

Empire as Mercenary Territory

The composition of our armed forces seems to support the contention that we've become an empire.

Last week, on my flight to Indianapolis, I found myself next to a New Mexican rancher who was headed out to his brother's funeral. "He was never right after we came back from Vietnam," he said. "Last week he'd had enough, I guess."

Early that morning, driving to the airport, I'd listened to a report by Libby Lewis on NPR (Iraq War Stirs Memories for Vietnam Vets) about how the reporting of the Iraq War was triggering stress among Vietnam Vets who feel like they are watching a rerun. The rancher's story about his brother's suicide made this abstract news report seem more real.

On the other side of me was a young woman my daughter's age - a 20 year old who was returning from time with her Marine boyfriend in Hawaii. She was returning to the small town in Indiana where she grew up and said that there were few job prospects for kids there. But when she was sitting around in one group of military in Hawaii, there were five people from her little town. Jobs that these kids can't find in their home towns they can find in the military.

The U.S. now employs about 180,000 private contractors in Iraq - many of whom would fall into the category of mercenaries who are able to carry guns and kill with even less impunity than American soldiers. What is less commented on is that even our soldiers are, in a sense, mercenaries who suit up as often for economic as patriotic reasons.

Napoleon made conscription a key element of his republic. Before that, the military force of empires was often made up by mercenaries. Empires have money and force - they don't have willing citizens who see military service as an act of patriotism.

All this to say that the trouble with Blackwater - the private contractors whose license to operate was revoked by the Iraqi government once they indiscriminately killed Iraqi citizens - is inevitable. Emperor Charles had hired mercenaries from Germany - the land where the revolutionary Martin Luther had turned sentiment against the pope - and they ended up pillaging Rome. The resultant Sack of Rome in 1527 was an embarrassment to the good Catholic Charles (even though it did prove beneficial to him in future dealings with Pope Clement (the Medici pope who denied Henry VIII his petition for divorce and thus helped to created the Church of England) who was rumored to have fled from Charles's marauding mercenary troops disguised as a nun). Mercenaries are hard to control.

Today, we are more dependent on mercenaries than at any time in our history. Such a dependence buttresses Chalmers Johnson's claim that we've morphed from a republic to empire, tracing the fall of the Romans some 1500 years ago.

It's hard to believe that Americans wouldn't step forward in the millions to actually defend this country. As our military objectives come to look more like the objectives of an empire, more clearly fueled by economic calculus, the support from individuals for those objectives seems to itself rely more on such economic considerations. It's worth remembering that the British we defeated in our own revolution were often Hessian (a German kingdom) mercenaries. Mercenaries proved no match for our founding fathers, in spite of their superior resources and training.

This is a great country but a miserable empire. One can only hope that Ron Paul's message about the dangers of empire seep into the campaigns of every candidate. Because the one thing that is certain is that our empire will fall. They always do. The only question is whether the empire will fall atop of our country because we've been foolish enough to support it or whether it will fall because we've finally stopped giving it our support. It seems to me that the simplest place to start would be to stop funding mercenaries.

28 September 2007

Marcel Marceau's Funeral

The amazing mime Marcel Marceau died on the 24th of this month. Sadly, no one takes a mime's art or genius seriously. Rather than have a coffin, ill-mannered funeral home attendants merely laid him at the front of the room on his back, his hands positioned in the classic "mime in a box" pose.

Cheney in Vegas

Last night, Dick Cheney screwed up my flight. Apparently, he was flying into or out of Las Vegas* and air traffic control backed up flights, clearing the air space for him. (It's Vegas - I say let him take his chances along with everyone else.) Instead of getting home at 10 (1 AM Indy time), I got home at midnight.

This week, Defense Secretary Gates requested another $42 billion. He won't find it here. Savings rates have steadily eroded, staying below 1% for the last couple of years. To finance this fiscally reckless administration, the U.S. has had to borrow from overseas. Yet this has become increasingly expensive during the Bush years: the dollar has dropped more than 40% against the Euro since George has taken office.

All that to ask, what's Cheney doing in Vegas? I offer the following possibilities:

1. He's at the roulette wheel and has just doubled down on black with the billions as yet unspent on Iraq's reconstruction.

2. He's using your social security dollars to fund marathon all-night poker games.

3. He's gambling away your children's future on specific NBA games he thinks are a slam dunk.

4. He's decided to risk our nation's reputation and good will on a game of craps.

5. Or, perhaps it's too late. He's already done all that and was flying out of Vegas.

* "Las Vegas is sort of how God would do it if he had money."
- Steve Wynn

27 September 2007

Bored with Alarm

The politics of crisis has worn thin. On the left, the sound of alarm focuses on planetary peril. Those on the right prattle on about Islamo-fascism. The media eats it all up, addicted as they are to the ratings surge that comes from exciting the amgdyla gland and suppressing all activity in the frontal lobes. The sounds - no matter how well intentioned, rational or fact-based - have become like car alarms that have gone off so frequently as to be anything but alarming.

For this I tip my hat to Barack Obama. He seems to have picked up on how wearisome it is to have politicians treat us like children in a haunted house who, if sufficiently frightened, will cling even to them. The Politics of Hope certainly sounds like a clean alterative to the normal noise from those who wrestle to seize the reigns from fate.

26 September 2007

Bernard's Simple Advice on Marriage

Bernard is the only guy I know who still buys a No. 2 pencil. He never uses it to write. Instead, he uses it to twirl the bottom half of his bagel. "I don't need the carbs of a whole bagel," he explained one day. "Plus, I never liked the bottom half. I chew on them and I'm afraid I'm gonna lose a tooth."

This morning, I was pretending to read my paper while watching him twirl the bagel, idly wondering how one could ever describe the path it made in its mad wobble.

"People make marriage too complicated," Bernard volunteered.

"It is too complicated," I replied.

"No," Bernard said as he stared at the wall behind me, his bagel at rest. "Marriage is very straightforward: you find an adorable woman and then you adore her."

"That simple, eh?"

"That simple and that hard."

"So how do you find an adorable woman?" I ask, curious as to whether he had more.

"They're all adorable, you twit."


"Of course. You just have to pay attention to the details of a woman to see that. Crowds and mobs are shaped by gross generalities. Women are shaped by fine details. Just pay attention."

"Well, if they're all adorable, how do you make marriage work? How do you adore just one woman?"

"Ah. Two mistakes men make. One is to try not to adore other women. This will only confuse your heart."

"Well, Bernard, it sounds to me like it would confuse a marriage pretty badly if you actually tried to adore other women."

"What? You're going to turn yourself off from half of humanity? That's good for your heart? That kind of stragegy will just make you repressed and boring. But you didn't ask about the second mistake."

"What's the second mistake?"

"Not taking out all this adoration on your wife. You hold her responsible for all that's adorable in women."

"That's it?" I asked. "That's all you're going to explain about it?"

"What?" Bernard bristled. "You want stock tips too?" He began again to twirl his bagel. "This is enough. Take this to heart and it'll keep you busy for decades."

As it turns out, Bernard is a romantic. It suddenly occurred to me the path his wobbling bagel followed was that of a heart.

Error Alert Levels

It's time for a truly practical warning system for the American people: the error alert level. Instead of the rankings of low, guarded, elevated, high, or severe used by Homeland Security, we could have an error alert system that informs the citizenry of its leader's state of mind, as follows:

Grounded (Green): regularly discarding and modifying theories and hypotheses as new facts arrive.

Idealistic (Blue): reluctant, but ultimately willing, to discard preconceived notions when opposing facts begin to arrive.

Ideologue (Yellow): will accept facts that contradict one's world view as long as acknowledging these inconvenient facts helps one to make policies more effective (even if said policies are mere instruments to impose the very worldview now being contradicted by facts).

High (Orange): unclear from the bloodshot eyes just what this leader believes or where he was the night of the accident. Has completely confused a sense of confidence with proof.

Delusional (Red): We can't know the facts for years, maybe centuries. You'll need to trust my sense of destiny. Historians will hold parades for my descendants.

I've gotten agreement from both parties to begin using this system. Leaders will agree to wear ties that correspond to Homeland Security's color code, alerting the polity as to their personal error alert level. As you can see below, George has already begun to use the color system for his ties.

25 September 2007

The Steep Cost of Hating Ahmadinejad

The folks at Columbia University showed their bravery, mocking Iranian President Ahmadinejad's lunacy this week. On a normal day, I'd cheer the discomfiting of the powerful. I would, that is, if only it weren't for this seeming like more preparation for yet another delusional war and if only we Americans did this to our own presidents and not just the foreign ones.

The criteria for invading Iran ought to be simple. Iran's population is double that of Iraq's, so we ought to estimate it'll cost twice as much to wage war there. (Putting aside the nearly inevitable additional costs that will come as a result of the entire Muslim world quite reasonably seeing the US as intent on toppling all Arabic governments if we do this yet again.) Estimates of the total cost of the Iraq war range from about $1 trillion to about $2.5 trillion - working out to somewhere between $10,000 to $35,000 for each family of four. (Just imagine having that little pool of cash to draw from as you make mortgage payments over the next decade.) So, Americans are disgusted with Ahmadinejad. Fine. Will they pay double what they'll pay for the Iraqi war? $50,000 to $60,000 per family to see him ousted? And shouldn't there be a requirement to pay that amount up front? Mad at Ahamdinejad? For only $50,000 you can finance a military campaign against his country. Perhaps the Bush administration could imitate PBS fund drives, or go door to door soliciting the cash. ("Honey! Do we have $50,000 we could give to this Pentagon official at the door?")

Secondly, Ahmadinejad, the man who put the mad in Ahmadinejad, is braver than George. As reported here, George, whose staff has “micromanaged and laboriously controlled for the past five years to weed out the merest whiff of protest,” ensuring that George never has to face a forum like Ahmadinejad faced at Columbia, a situation in which his lunacy is ridiculed rather than silently endured or supported by equally delusional supporters. If only our president had to face his critics, like the British Prime Minister or like someone accountable to his electorate.

If you're going to buy the buzz about how evil is Ahmadinejad, be prepared to pay $50,000. Personally, I just don't think it's worth it. I wouldn't buy a used car from George and Dick. I certainly wouldn't buy a used excuse for war. What's the tag line on the marquee? The Iranian invasion - from the people who brought you the Iraqi war.

24 September 2007

Draw a Line

The kindergarten teacher had passed out a worksheet and told the class, "Draw a line between the turtle and the cow." Not only did the children seem to be taking a long time, some of them complained, "This is hard."

Hard? wondered the teacher. Why is this hard? Walking over to their desks she saw why. Most were laboriously drawing a "lion" between the turtle and the cow.

[True story from my wife's school this week.]

Ahmadinejad - Bush Steel Cage Match Scheduled for Rockefeller Center

Shocking news from the White House today. Bush and Ahmadinejad have agreed to a Steel Cage Match. If Ahmadinejad wins, the U.S. will agree not to invade Iran. If Bush wins, Ahmadinejad has agreed to license a Fox News channel to begin broadcasting in Farsi throughout the country.

(In Iranian focus groups, an adaptation of Fox News did better than expected. Audiences of all ages particularly enjoyed the talk show that included an angry leprechaun named Will O'Wile, a neo-conservative with Tourette's whose frequent outbursts earned him beatings from an equally angry imam armed with a small cricket bat. Also popular was Bill Kristol-Meth, a commentator with a beatific smile who continued to make increasingly outlandish predictions about the efficacy of American policy while ingesting large quantities of pharmaceutical products.)

His staff reports that Bush is excited about the impending match and already has an outfit. "He already has a little cape he likes to wear when making important decisions," said one aid. "He's very excited about unveiling his new look to the American people." In addition to a cape, his outfit reportedly includes Lycra tights and cowboy boots. For Bush, this is more than a way to resolve his differences with Ahmadinejad - he hopes to silence critics who say that with Karl Rove gone, George has no idea about how to raise his approval ratings.

[AP picture of exhausted leprechaun thanks to Melissa McEwan at Shakesville.]

22 September 2007

Globalization and Tribal Nation

Since 1989, the NFL's revenues have grown by more than 6X, to over $6 billion a year. Major League Baseball and the NBA have also steadily grown, fueling in turn a sports reporting and analysis industry that has benefited companies like ESPN, Fox Sports, and the major networks.

What has driven demand for sports? I think it's obvious that we're wired to want "us vs. them" situations - to take a side in a conflict. We want something visceral, something engaging, something that smacks of violence and tribal warfare. The problem is, in a world increasingly global where former enemies (or at least those we didn't care about) are now trading partners, there is a dwindling opportunity for such situations to arise in the natural world. Gone are the days before the birth of agriculture when 15% of the population could expect to die in physical conflict. Such situations are gone, but the genes that helped us to survive this period are not.

Into this void of the modern age stepped professional sports, offering us a fix for our tribal impulse. We have an us vs. them. We have conflict. We have clear winners and clear losers. And, thanks to stadiums and broadcasting, the experience of a few can be shared by many, the vicarious thrill and frustration packaged for easy consumption by those of us whose daily lives are not the sites of any great drama or such clear rules and score keeping.

In an age when abstract, global dynamics define our lives, and vague goals define success or failure, professional sports gives us a means to feed those parts of our psyche that felt most at home in kilts or loin clothes, a time of tribal chiefs and the ability to see one's community around a single camp fire. 15 to 40 men on the field or bench, success clearly defined and important, outcomes decided in the space of hours rather than decades. It's a chance to feed one's inner warrior without the risk of blood shed. It's modern sports.

Professional sports - making the world safer for primal impulses.

21 September 2007

Welcome Back to School! Here's Your Packet of Destructive Forces

Kids have been in school for weeks now. If this is their first time, they likely left home full of excitement, their eyes aglow with expectancy. Given it is mid-September, they may already be disillusioned with the experience, as is cce's darling daughter.

We all are born with intrinsic motivation. A baby doesn't need the reward of strained carrots to learn how to crawl or talk. In fact, at no stage of our life do we learn more quickly than at this one - transformed from nearly comatose bundle to bouncing, running, jabbering person in just a couple of years.

But intrinsic motivation is gradually destroyed by a series of destructive forces encountered at school and work. Children are given incentives to learn - gold stars and A's. Although there is no evidence that such incentives actually enhance learning, there is lots of evidence that such incentives dissuade children from learning. Short term, the inducement of a reward makes a child do more of the rewarded activity. Longer term, such inducements actually convince children that, sans inducements, this activity is not worth doing. (Imagine a child who spoke whenever his mother smiled and said, "Good boy! You can talk!" but talked only for such rewards. Presumably, we teach activities we'd like people to continue doing.) One thing that children learn is that learning is not worth doing for its own sake - a ludicrious conclusion akin to concluding that eating, sleeping, or hugging is not worth doing unless we're rewarded for it. Learning is intrinsic to being human and it takes an elaborate and medieval educational philosophy to change this.

Worse, grades and rankings in school further the damage. It has always been - and will always be - true that there are variations in intelligence, learning styles and the speed of learning in any group. Nothing we can do will end such variation. Bad managers latch onto this inevitability as if it matters - as if they can do something about it. They spend all their energy trying to codify rankings, tweaking the standings, focusing on who is excellent and who is merely good. Such effort is proof that they lack the simplest understanding of systems and human psychology. (Or, to be fair, are teachers or supervisors forced by their system to engage in these rituals that will someday be written about with the same disbelief we use to write about rain dances or drowning witches.) The more people focus on rewards and rankings, the less they focus on the tasks we're rewarding them for doing. Again, repeated studies have shown that such rankings make people less creative and result in lower quality work. People who are distracted do not do their best work.

Good managers understand that there will be variation but focus on the overall system. Sure, Ariela did better at math than Sam. So what. Look at the distribution for the entire class and look for ways to move that upwards. Maybe the introduction of new methods will move the curve upwards. (And if you use hands on methods instead of verbal ones, you may find that Sam is suddenly doing better than Ariela. Ranking is largely a function of method and task. Differ the methods or task and a very different ranking emerges.)

Great managers understand that tapping intrinsic motivation is much better than forcing extrinsic motivation.

If you have children forced into such a system, coach them through this. This is a game they have to play, but one that they should understand as a game with perverse rules. If you are a policy maker, work to lessen the insistence on grades, rankings, and even rewards. No matter who you are, read or listen to Alfie Kohn. (I'd recommend W. Edwards Deming but for all his genius, he was never terribly accessible.) Kohn has the audacity to actually point to research, rather than folk lore, and point out that the emperor of education has no clothes. Quite simply, research does not support current methods - a sorry fact that should could continue in no other domain but this: NASA, the Pentagon, the Federal Reserve, the EPA would never continue to get funding were they to so thumb their noses at empirical data. Alas, failures in methodology are merely blamed on the children who obviously are not trying hard enough.

20 September 2007

Bubble, Bubble, Toil & Trouble: the paradox of financial bubbles

For the average investor or home owner, the bubbles the press loves to warn about are simply noise. Bubbles occur less often than people think simply because there is more demand for good investments than there is supply - a condition that always drives up prices. Perhaps the simplest bit of evidence that demand outstrips supply is this: there are now more mutual funds and index funds than there are stocks listed on various exchanges.

How is a person to tell the difference between high prices and a bubble? At one point, stocks are simply pricey by historical standards. At another point, said stocks are outrageously priced, a sure sign of a deluded populace.

Of course, such a distinction is hard - if not impossible - to call in advance. I live in a County where the median house price topped half a million recently. Sure sign of a bubble? San Diego is blessed with gorgeous weather, the climate of an indoor shopping mall, and all the accouterments of a big city (well, not New York or Paris style accouterments). Houses are getting larger. Each year, only about 2% of the houses sell - meaning that market prices are set by an elite few - not by the average Joe. One could probably point to as many reasons why $500k was justified as reasons why it was evidence of madness.

The bubble that set the bar for all subsequent bubbles was the Dutch tulip mania in the 17th century. At the peak, tulips sold for hundreds of times what an average man made in a year. (Put in perspective, a 100X multiple of the average American working man's wage would set the price of tulips at $40 million a bulb - probably the kind of item that Home Depot would keep behind the counter.)

It's easier to expand the number of tulips than the number of homes or profitable companies in which one can buy stocks. In this sense, the Dutch tulip mania is probably misleading. Tulips reached a price they've never attained since - as contrasted with stock prices that "peaked" in 1929 and are now more than 30X what they were at that peak.

Bubbles make for good press. As a country, we are still squeamish about returns to capital. Not "working" for one's money seems unnatural. And yet investments do generally rise in value, as much as we like to wring our hands as markets reach all time highs. (Even this is misleading: if you put money in a bank account that paid only 2% a year, your account would reach an "all time high" at the end of every month.) In any case, demand for evidence that our neighbors are mad is always steady: demand for stories about a financial bubble feeds a small industry.

It's true that prices for even homes and stocks can rise too high. But bubbles seem to invariably follow from an increase in quantity demanded - an increase of money "demanding" investments that provide a return. Little commented on is what a huge amount of money is in search of returns nowadays - trillions and trillions all bidding up the prices of stocks, real estate, gold, bonds, fine art and crude oil.

The Dutch tulip mania reached its frenzied peak only decades after Dutch investors were introduced to the Dutch East India Company. Even by today's standards, the Dutch East India Company was a remarkable investment, paying an 18% annual dividend for two centuries. Such returns on such a scale were unprecedented and laid the foundation for capitalism - international bond markets, stock markets, and Central Banks as we know them were just a few of the more impressive consequences of this early investment miracle. But what to do with the 18% dividend payment? Where to invest it? The supply of good investments was spotty. The result? People bid up the price of even very questionable investments such as tulips.

Why did stock prices rise in the late 1990s? Why did home prices go up in the early double-oughts? For the same reason. Financial markets are more adept at providing money for investments than entrepreneurs and companies are at providing sound investment opportunities for such money. The demand for good investments periodically outstrips the supply of such investments. The result? Prices rise. (And I'd argue that this will continue to happen with even greater frequency.)

Is it a bubble when the prices rebound to the bubble level within three to ten years? Or is the market simply getting ahead of itself?

The real lesson is that it’s a seller's market. It's worth noting that the majority of the richest Americans didn't get that way from savvy investments. They got that way because they created a great investment - a successful company, typically. (Or had the good sense to be born to someone who did.)

Investment prices will rise and fall more than we'd predict in a linear world, but unless a person can neatly time such rise and falls (something at least as tricky as dancing with an epileptic) these perturbations can only be treated as noise - static you put up with while trying to listen to the radio.

It's probable that home prices in San Diego will continue to fall this year and next. By contrast, it's certain that median home prices will someday top $1 million. If you are in these markets for the long haul, scary price drops in home or stock markets should be treated for what they are - temporary discounts.

We're fascinated by bubbles - whether in fearful anticipation or living in their aftermath. And this is the paradox of bubbles: if we are certain that they can't happen, they will; if we are certain that they can happen, they won't. Lesson? Don't fear bubbles but make sure that the people around you do.

18 September 2007

Free Speech! Arrests Included!

Here's the situation. Kerry is speaking in Florida. Young guy asks him a series of questions ("Why did you cede to Bush when there were reported voting irregularities?" "Why not impeach Bush before he invades Iran?" "Were you a member of skull and bones at Yale?"). It could be that there is more to the story, but it appears to be a typical open forum kind of impassioned, somewhat rambling sort of speech, sort of question.

This video captures what happened next. The police forcibly escort him away from the microphone and then taser him at the back of the hall. Kerry shows why he lost the election by demonstrating an apparent ignorance of what is going on to the very guy who just asked him a question - at the least demonstrating the tone deaf approach that left even his biggest supporters feeling fairly ambiguous about his candidacy. (If Bush goes down in history as the worst president, what will that say of Kerry's candidacy?)

I blame this in part on the now mindless competition to get tough on crime. We've hired a ton of police officers and they, quite simply, don't have a lot to do. The trivial becomes a big deal and even a guy at a microphone attracts a half dozen police officers.

A part of me is fairly incensed at a society that has become this intolerant of speech and this tolerant of arrests for no good reason. (The guy hollers at one point, before being tasered, that they don't need to arrest him because he'll walk out of there.) But a part of me is delighted to be living in this age of YouTube. As the public sector is made more public - as even arrests are subject to the review and scrutiny of the general public - this kind of nonsense will have to wane. And that's good news.

Happy Hammicus

Yesterday my darling little wife surprised me with a great birthday party: live music from Hammicus, philosophical volleyball, and a smattering of friends. It was wonderful.

Hammicus is actually a Latin word that refers to the unfortunate fashion choice some men make on our nation's beaches. They play their own compositions - their songs are infused with a mix of reggae, country, folk, rock, and pop. Delightful.

Bob Vincent, Kale Roosen, Toby Remmers, and Matt Elley are not only all singers, songwriters, and play multiple instruments - but they are guys I consider friends in spite of their obvious age deficit. (It'll be decades before they celebrate their 47th).

My only wife (Sandi is second from right) and a few friends.

And me - terrified of aging.

In all, I went off to bed feeling quite indulged. Live music and lively discussion - two of life's essentials.

17 September 2007

International "Declare Yourself Emperor" Day!

Today, in 1859, Joshua Norton declared himself Emperor Norton I of the United States. And although many considered him delusional, he nonetheless had the good sense to make this proclamation in San Francisco - a city that humored him for the rest of his life. He issued imperial bonds with which he paid expenses and his fellow San Franciscans both accepted these bonds and bowed and curtseyed when he passed by. He held audience with city officials and, to show his fairness, he attended a different church service each Sunday (before establishing a universal church that encompassed all religions at the same time that he announced the dissolution of the Republican and Democratic Parties). Mark Twain lived in San Francisco during Norton's reign and based a character on him in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His most famous order was that the U.S. Congress should be dissolved (an order sadly ignored by the U.S. military and Congress alike). The day after he died, 30,000 people came out into the streets of San Francisco to pay homage to the emperor.

In the spirit of the day, I'm declaring myself Emperor and would encourage you to do the same. Now you'll have to excuse me. I'm off to the mall to find a pair of epaulets.

Read more about Norton:
At Wikipedia
Article by Tony Leather

15 September 2007


"You should have a goal to be whelmed," Bernard counseled me, his hands busily unwrapping his fourth piece of gum, his advice barely squeezing past the unwieldy wad.

"What?" I countered, my gaze fixed on his mouth, amazed that he could so quickly insert so many pieces of gum in so little time. I expected him to suddenly stop, pulling a jaw muscle and using his big, moist eyes to communicate his distress, wordlessly pleading with me to call 911.

"Whelmed," Bernard said.

"Whelmed?" I repeatedly stupidly. "And what does that mean?"

"It should be your goal," Bernard said. "It should be everyone's goal."

"So you say." I paused, hoping he would volunteer more. But he seemed happy just to work on his half dozen pieces of gum, no longer fumbling with wrappers but merely chewing with what might have passed for a smile if his mouth had not been so distorted by the wiggling wad of Wrigley’s. "And what is whelmed?" I asked, finally taking the bait.

"Whelmed is good. Over-whelmed means that you're stressed. Under-whelmed means that you're bored or unimpressed. Whelmed - that's just right."

"Whelmed," I repeated. "I see."

"The golden mean. The happy medium. Whelmed," Bernard repeated, sagely.

"This from the guy with a pack of gum in his mouth? A pronouncement on moderation."

"I'm nearly 80," Bernard said, looking offended. "You want I shouldn't share my hard earned wisdom with you?"

"No. I want you should share it."

"Whelmed," he said, looking a little offended that his precious advice hadn't been received with more respect. "That's all you're gonna get from me today."

13 September 2007

Tunes On, Plugged In, Tuned Out

I was at the college bookstore the other day, indulging my fascination with textbooks and assigned readings, on the campus of the oddly named IUPUI (a mash up university acronym for the campus shared by Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis). A guy with headphones proudly told a clerk, "When the phone rings, the music stops so I can talk." The clerk was impressed. The voice in my head said, "And when do you ever get the silence that requires you to entertain yourself?"

My buddy David (who occasionally swings by R World to express his disgust with my expressing my disgust at Dubya and his plans), wrote me the other day about his work at RAND. Our founding fathers had days, weeks - even months - to reflect on important questions and issues. Today, policy makers at every level are continually flitting from conference to task to book to meeting to conference, and on it goes, never really getting time to merely reflect on all that steadily inundates their consciousness. Meditation and reflection was thought important in an earlier time when souls, too, were thought important. Such arcane practices are seemingly less valued in an information age, a time when the goal has seemed to become focused on increasing bandwidth rather than depth of character.

What does all this mean? Have we become all input and regurgitation, no longer inclined to mull things over? Are we gulping down even fine wine as if it were water from a hose, swallowing ideas without chewing?

Perhaps we've put too little value on doing too little - and hence our time and ability to reflect has gone the way of mindless manual labor that forced one to reflect, or at least daydream. (And we've even subcontracted daydreaming to Hollywood, able to watch videos on iPods while filling in even the most trivially small gaps in our schedule.)

I've got an opinion about the implications of living increasingly thoughtless lives, but I'm not going to share them. Instead, I'll merely suggest that you give this some thought - mull it over, if you will.

12 September 2007

Puppy Warnings

This at Yahoo, a warning:

Sep 12, 2007

Avoid online puppy scams
Don't be a victim of Internet fraudsters luring you with cute photos and false promises.

I'd have to guess that the warning is lost on these little puppies, bedazzled as they are by everything on the Internet. It seems to me that puppies are just victims waiting to happen. I, for one, don't think that the warnings will do them much good, however well intentioned it is for the folks at Yahoo to try to warn them.

11 September 2007

Why Conservatives Prefer Sedentary (rather than activist) Judges

One of George W's few (only?) inarguable successes is in the area of judicial appointments. Intolerant of activist judges who pretend to be members of the legislative rather than judicial branch (ignoring precedent or strict interpretations of the law) George has moved to reverse a trend of recent decades. His appointments of Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court have been only the most visible of his many court appointments. As with so much about George, success in his goals actually represents a setback for the country. George is judging judges through the lens of an outdated philosophy.

Our founding fathers were Enlightenment thinkers - inspired by the genius of Isaac Newton and John Locke, British thinkers from an earlier generation. Galileo and Copernicus had observed that the earth seems to revolve around the sun, but couldn't explain why centrifugal force didn't send us spinning off of the earth's surface into space. They had data but no theory. Newton, with his theory of gravity, explained both why the earth spins around the sun and why cows, dogs, and fair maidens don't spin off of the surface of the earth and into space as our little planet hurtles around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. Our Renaissance thinkers embraced reality as superior to authority, refuting the Bible and Ptolemy and siding instead with the data resulting from their observations. The Enlightenment thinkers added law to this data. And at their best, Enlightenment thinkers imitated Newton, articulating laws that explained planets and people. For George, Enlightenment thinkers represent the height of intellectual progress.

Renaissance thought was essential to progress, but it was not enough. Enlightenment thought turned out to be no different. In this way, even philosophy is rather like any product invention - delightful at one point and insufficient at another. Imagine people in the 21st century having to use hand cranks on cars and you can imagine the complications arising from governance in the 21st century that relies on centuries-old philosophy. Just as Enlightenment replaced Renaissance thought, so did Pragmatism displace Enlightenment thought. At one point Enlightenment philosophy was the height of intellectual progress. That point has passed.

Teddy Roosevelt - the man who invented the modern presidency - appointed Oliver Wendell Holmes (pictured above) to the Supreme Court. Holmes had helped to invent pragmatism, the philosophy that became to the 20th century what Enlightenment thought was to the 18th century. Holmes' philosophy infected the thought of professionals in every discipline - including the law.

A pragmatist is less concerned with the universal application of a fork than whether it's appropriate for what he's eating. A fork is fine for salad but not for soup and questionable for donuts. A pragmatist wants a specific solution to a specific problem in a specific context. Engineers, thinking like pragmatists, may use equations and principles, but as starting points - not as the final solution. A true pragmatist might question whether such a thing as universals even exists. Einstein's relativity theory is replaced by quantum physics; both go beyond the delightfully clean and predictable and constant world of Newton's universe. Universals give way to the particular.

Activist judges offend conservatives for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious variation in outcomes that simply makes no sense. This month's Atlantic reports on such inexplicable variations in judgment.
Demographics may account for some of this variance, but they don’t explain the discrepancies that the authors found in the judgments of officials in the same buildings: At the federal immigration court in Miami, one judge granted asylum to 88 percent of Colombian applicants, yet another ruled in favor of just 5 percent.

This kind of variation drives conservatives nuts - and for good reason. But there is another reason that conservatives are so offended by activist judges. Conservatives are Enlightenment thinkers - unwilling to accept a world in which seemingly similar cases might be judged differently. They are offended, oddly enough, when judges use judgment.

For many conservatives, progress in technology is all well and good, but for them, there need be no "progress" in philosophy or worldview. Progress from Enlightenment thinking to Pragmatism represents a falling away from the truth - not actual progress.
George has succeeded at getting more conservatives appointed. To the extent that he has, he's succeeded at stifling progress on social issues. As seems to be his legacy, George's personal goals once again conflict with the general pattern of social progress.

07 September 2007

Satire Still Falls Short of Reality

I've tried both in this blog: serious and satiric. As it turns out, I simply can't keep up. News is now playing out like satire. Walter Cronkite has given way to Jon Stewart.

A few days ago, I jokingly suggested that Bush's statement about what a mistake it was to leave Vietnam should actually be construed to mean that he wanted to go back into Vietnam. Then today at the APEC summit, I learned that we are, in fact, still at war with North Korea. My father is in his late 70s, but his war is not yet over. Could it be so absurd to send troops again to Vietnam when we have yet to leave Korea?

And then, in the midst of the nonsense that supposedly passes for discussion of Iraq, Osama Bin Laden reminds us that, in fact, our politicians are not as deluded as they could be. Bin Laden's solution to ending the war in Iraq? We Americans should simply convert to Islam. And to illustrate his disinterest in the material world, Bin Laden has apparently dyed his beard in order to appear younger. Perhaps in his next video there will be evidence of botox treatments, a means to look more relaxed and thus more appealing to the younger generation. It's hard to believe that it would register as any more absurd.

05 September 2007

Presidential Candidates' Issues

Fascinating little widget. Click through on a candidate's name and see what kind of issues they're most associated with in news reports.

As a side note, how sad is it that education is consistently under-reported, compared to the other issues? Obama seems to be most associated with education and even his indicates - at the time of this posting - a 10 to 1 ratio of Iraq War vs. Education. Our national policy has truly been hijacked by this war.

Sources Say - Bush to Invade Vietnam

Bernard had asked me to dinner at P.F. Chang’s. He said that he was supposed to eat with his sister and her husband and couldn’t face it alone.

“This is supposed to be a nice restaurant,” Bernard’s sister Mattie scoffed, “but they don’t even give dinner rolls.”
Bernard rolled his eyes. “It’s Chinese food, Mattie. Chinese food. They …” his voice trailed off. After 73 years, he knew better than to try to explain things to her.
“Or, as the Chinese call it, ‘food,’” I volunteered. The confusion in Mattie’s eyes was matched only by the alarm in Bernard’s as he shook his head, indicating that I shouldn’t say such things.
“She has a memory like a bunny rabbit’s tail. It’s short and fuzzy,” Bernard had told me in route to the restaurant. “She has three stories you’ll hear – at least one of them twice.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“What?” he said. “You want to hear the stories three times tonight? It’s not enough that she repeats these stories – you want me to tell them to you first?”
“Good point,” I said.
And with that, Bernard proceeded to tell me the stories.

“I voted for Bush. I thought it was unfair that he lost to that boy from Arkansas.” Mattie rolled her eyes. “What a mistake that turned out to be.”
”That was his father,” Bernard said.
“The boy’s father beat Bush?” Mattie asked.
“No, he …” Bernard trailed off. “Never mind.”

“I am so glad that he’s going back into Vietnam,” she continued.
“He’s what?” asked Bernard.
“He said on the TV the other day. Bush thought it was wrong that we left Vietnam.”
“He didn’t say he was going back in.”
“I’m sure he did,” Mattie said, turning to her husband who was looking entirely baffled by the house chow mein. “Didn’t he honey?”
“Um, yes dear.”
“I think they call it a troop surge,” she leaned forward conspiratorially. “Once we go back in we can at least bring those poor Oriental people some decent food.”

On the way home from the PF Chang’s, I had to pull over so Bernard could step outside to hyperventilate. It seemed appropriate that my fortune cookie had read, “You will soon feel a sense of great relief.” As soon as we’d said good-bye to Mattie, I had.

04 September 2007

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Say

This, in it's entirety, is from The Week. George, the boy in the bubble.

Free Speech

How Bush avoids dissent.

The Bush administration may not know how to plan for a hurricane or a war, said The New York Times in an editorial. But never let it be said it can’t plan a political rally. As a result of a lawsuit by two protesters and the American Civil Liberties Union, the White House has been forced to release a manual that details how President Bush’s speeches and other public appearances have been “micromanaged and laboriously controlled for the past five years to weed out the merest whiff of protest.” All those attending Bush public events, the manual instructs, are to be carefully chosen, with attendees searched for concealed anti-Bush banners. Seats closest to the stage are to be reserved for “extremely supportive” fans of the president. In the terrible event that a heckler somehow gets within earshot of the media covering the speech, a “rally squad” is to surround him waving pro-Bush placards and chanting “USA! USA!” Every modern administration has stage-managed public events to some degree, of course, but this White House’s obsessive suppression of dissent is “out of place in a democracy.”

It’s even creepier than that, said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.com. Dissent wasn’t banned at these rallies just for the sake of creating an image of a president “universally adored” by his people. It was also banned “to protect the tender sensitivities of the president himself.” Protesters, the manual commands, were also to be kept out of range of the presidential motorcade, thus sparing Bush the unpleasantness of knowing there are people who disagree with him. Now we know why Laura Bush says she doesn’t believe her husband’s abysmal poll numbers, said Tim Grieve in Salon.com. The first couple travels everywhere in a bubble of stage-managed love. Bush himself has said that one “‘amazing’ part of the presidency” is the support he gets on the road from ordinary Americans. “Amazing? Not so much.”

There’s a bitter irony here, said USA Today in an editorial. The White House’s Presidential Advance Manual was released to the public only after a lawsuit was brought by a West Virginia couple, Nicole and Jeffrey Rank, who were handcuffed, arrested, fingerprinted, and briefly jailed for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts at an Independence Day speech the president gave in 2004. After the Ranks had been hustled away, Bush told the extremely supportive crowd this: “On this Fourth of July, we confirm our love of freedom, the freedom for people to speak their minds. ... Free thought, free expression, that’s what we believe.” Too bad he forgot to tell his advance team.

03 September 2007

Waiting for Deliverance

Today Sandi and I went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls here in San Diego. The scrolls come from the Essenes, a Jewish sect from the first century. One topic that obviously held their attention was end of world scenarios - a transformational battle between good and evil that will result in paradise.

Today, our culture places hope in a different transformational event: the lottery.

The Internet Is Closed

The Internet was to be closed today. It's Labor Day and when the Internet is functioning, it suggests lots and lots of working folks - systems administrators, programmers, and web site administrators. The intention was to give everyone the day off.

The problem? They couldn't find a place to hang the sign.

02 September 2007

File Under: Transportation Solutions

Naturally 7 on a subway - now this is how you take the sting out of commuting. (My favorite is the guy who never unplugs his iPod and misses the whole thing.)

01 September 2007

Primary Elections Accelerated - the inevitable conclusion

Report from the future - Hawaii, November, 2019

“Noah is a beautiful child, compassionate, persuasive, and patient,” said Mary Kepler, head of the Democratic National Committee. “I’m not surprised that he’s won the 2056 primary election.”

It was a confluence of events that led to this odd and unprecedented event – the election of 8 year-old Noah Rodriguez to represent the Democratic Party in the 2056 election, a general election still 37 year away at the time of Hawaii's primary election.

It began in 2005 – the year that Americans made presidential politics their one outlet for an interest in politics. That year, the contest to determine who would be sworn in as president in 2009 began shortly after George Bush's re-election. Oddly, the twists and turns of the campaign kept American’s attention right up to November of 2008.

Cable news networks learned an important lesson from this: presidential politics means ratings. There simply isn’t a national audience for local politics. Presidential politics proved the perfect match for cable news’ drive for share ratings. So, the stations that made news a 24-hour-a-day affair decided to transform an election that previously went on every four years into a contest that went on for an entire four years. Historians noted that Bush’s re-election had far less to do with the success of his policies than Karl Rove’s success at turning the presidency itself into a political campaign. Policy was overshadowed by politics and America began the age of perpetual political campaigns.

Meanwhile, states began to aggressively compete to matter in this process. Iowa and New Hampshire had for decades exercised influence over national politics that was disproportionate to traditional metrics like population or the GDP. Resenting this advantage, other states moved up the dates for their own primaries. First Florida and then Michigan moved up their dates in defiance of the political parties. Once started, there was no way to check this drive to “be number 1.” Nevada, in keeping with the spirit that made it the first state to legalize gambling, was the first state to truly cross the line: they scheduled their primary election to determine the candidates for 2012 in 2008 – one entire election cycle ahead of the national election. They were the first but not the last. States continued to compete to be first.

Finally, by 2019, Hawaii, resentful of the fact that it didn’t even merit a visit in a typical election year, became the first to proclaim that “Our Children Are the Future Leaders.” They held an election contest that included candidates still decades away from being qualified to hold national office. The youngest was a 7 year-old whose mother swore that he’d never once thrown a tantrum, and the oldest was a 19 year-old whose chin whiskers made voters nervous, evidence as they were of hormones and the complications brought on by a libido.

“We’re looking for someone innocent, without a past to explain,” said Alberta Misou, expressing a common voter sentiment when questioned about the surprising popularity of these “vote for the future” campaigns.

Innocence, though, does come with a price. One of the more embarrassing moments of Hawaii’s 2019 campaign came when 9 year-old Thomas Peterman actually peed himself in response to a particularly hostile audience question during one debate.

Yet for all its flaws, this election for the future remained popular. 14 year-old political analyst Chloe Bennington explained, “If you haven’t created a name for yourself on the national stage by the time you’re 13, you can pretty much forget about ever holding a national office.”

As it turns out, she is right. She already has her own show on CCN.com and contract through 2035.