31 January 2008

Illegal Immigration or Xenophobia?

My wife is a Canadian. Years ago, her cousin had a permit to drive a load into the U.S. Given that work was slow in Canada, he over-stayed this work permit, running loads around California. Until one day, he was pulled over by Immigration. As the agents began to open doors and search for hidden compartments and hidden contraband and people, one of the agents walked up to Dennis, who was sweating in his cab.

"We're sorry about this," said the agent, looking directly at blonde haired, blue-eyed Dennis. "But we get so many illegal aliens around here."

"I understand," Dennis said. About fifteen minutes later, Dennis was on his way.

I'd say that the biggest lie about illegal immigration is that it is about illegal immigration. It seems to me that it's about xenophobia, about fear of other cultures. The real point, it seems to me, is to work towards some kind of imagined cultural purity.

30 January 2008

Yet Another Republican President?

Surprisingly, McCain has broken out of the pack (with Romney nipping at his heels). I'd argue that McCain, of all the Republicans, has the best chance of winning the general election.

If you look at McCain's positions on the major issues - the Economy and Energy, Health Care, and Immigration - you can see that his positions are not so far off from the Democrats. He has voted against drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and wants to reinvest oil profits into nuclear and alternative energy sources, for instance. (A position very different from Romney's.) His immigration policy is less xenophobic and more pragmatic than even Clinton's.

McCain is most notably distinct from the Democrats in his position on the Iraq War. Yet if the surge continues to lower the level of violence, his initial advocacy for it will, at a minimum, become less of an issue to a nation that has already swung from broad support to broad opposition and may swing yet again.

I love the fact that pundits keep talking about shifts in momentum, like first-week physics students trying to describe the movement of a pinball. The difficulty of campaigning on Super Tuesday without broad support has made casualties out of Edwards and Giuliani. Next week, it is quite possible that McCain will have emerged as the front-runner. I can think of no other candidate that the Democrats should fear more.

Feeling oddly bold about 15 months ago, I predicted the presidency through 2020. Right now, my prediction of McCain for the next four years seems more probable than it has in months.

News and Trends You May Have Missed

My children are fifth generation Californians, but even I have to admit that I find this state surprising at times. LA now has marijuana vending machines. Why is this surprising? It's obvious that a product like this should have been introduced in the Bay Area - San Francisco or Santa Cruz.

A mayor in a small town in Arkansas suddenly resigned, revealing that he was really an Indiana preacher who had abandoned his family in 1980 because satanists had abducted him and brainwashed him to erase memories of a murder he knew about. Thanks to truth serum, his memory and old identity have now returned.

8 year old twins in Ohio invented a special pair of boxer shorts that make it nearly impossible for the wearer to be given an wedgie. Their (apparent) response to bullying got them to the finals of the state inventors' competition this year.

The ratio of Latinos in Iowa to the number of full-time farmers is 7 to 4.

There are nearly 10,000 distinct and separate religions in the world - with two or three new ones created every day.

Soft drinks are now the leading source of calories in the average American diet, accounting for almost 1 in every 10 calories consumed. (In the early 1990s, white bread was the leading source.)

Women outvoted men 54 to 46 in the 2004 election. Women outnumber men in college by about 57 to 43 percent. The estimated ratio of straight women to men is 53 to 47.

1/4 of the U.S. population that has lived only under presidents named Bush and Clinton.

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

29 January 2008

The Rise of the Individual

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. Good governments don’t ignore one of these goals at the expense of another.

And this is a trick of the hardest kind: creating a system that makes allowance for the individuals for whom the system does not work. This is the paradox of progress. Systems don’t easily transform for the individual. Too much of what passes for self improvement is actually the act of conforming the individual to the system, to society, to the institution - improvement that makes us better congregants, citizens, or employees. We have not yet lived in a time when social systems were considered disposable and individuals essential to preserve; to date, our experience has been the reverse. Flipping this order would be transformative. Dopeless hope fiend that I am, I think it can be done.

“He didn’t think in human dimensions. Humanity was never of any importance to him. It was always the concept of the superman … the nation, always this abstract image of a vast German Reich, powerful and strong. But the individual never mattered to him. Though he always said he wanted to make people happy – he started a variety of welfare and recreational organizations in the Third Reich – personal happiness was never of the slightest importance to him. “
- Traudle Junge, in Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary

28 January 2008

Secret Decoder Ring for Bush's State of the Union

George delivered his last state of the union address. Here are select excerpts that I've coupled with what I suspect George was actually thinking. (What some (not to name names, Chesca) might construe to be a political rant.)

“We've made good progress. Yet we have unfinished business before us, and the American people expect us to get it done.”

They wouldn’t let me say, “Let’s get ‘er done” as a way to distract people from the obvious fact that we have absolutely no agreement about what “er” means.
“Most Americans think their taxes are high enough. … Make the tax relief permanent.”

Let us pretend that failing to tax while spending like drunken sailors has not cost the American public by larding them up with debt, and driving up prices (interest rates) for credit on trivial items like housing and college education.
“The budget that I'll submit will keep America on track for a surplus in 2012.”

The presidential equivalent of assuring your heirs that once you’ve been dead for 4 years, your finances should be in order.
“And to open the doors of these schools to more children, I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids. We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential.
“Together, we've expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply the same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.”

Instead of making education a right for every child, let’s take the first step towards making it a privilege, one for which we can selectively make grants.

“And let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.”

And make no mention of the fact that I’ve done all I can to slow, stop, and actually reverse all attempts to regulate greenhouse gases during my first 7 years as the most influential politician in the world.
“So I ask Congress to double federal support for critical basic research in the physical sciences and ensure America remains the most dynamic nation on earth.”

Let’s spend as much on our future as we do in two months in Iraq.
“And so I call on Congress to pass legislation that bans unethical practices such as the buying, selling, patenting or cloning of human life.”

And while we’re at it, I’m going to ban the sale of identical twins.
“We are engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century. The terrorists oppose every principle of humanity and decency that we hold dear.”

Or maybe this conflict between chaos and brute force with peaceful order was the ideological struggle of the 13th century. I forget.
“A free Iraq will deny al Qaeda a safe haven. A free Iraq will show millions across the Middle East that a future of liberty is possible. A free Iraq will be a friend of America, a partner in fighting terror and a source of stability in a dangerous part of the world.”

Wait a minute, this is the promise I made in 2003. I do hope that no one notices that none of this has really worked out quite like I had hoped.
“Our message to the people of Iran is clear. We have no quarrel with you. We have respect for your traditions and your history. We look forward to the day when you have your freedom.”

Of course, let’s not mention our decades long support of a regime that suppressed that freedom.
“Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear. Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment so negotiations can begin.”

What is less clear is why I’d make this a condition, given that my own intelligence community has already verified this.
“America opposes genocide in Sudan. We support freedom in countries from Cuba and Zimbabwe to Belarus and Burma.”

And as long as I’m talking about things I have no intention of acting on, I’d like to outlaw bad marriages, traumatic childhoods, and ennui.
“And tonight, I ask Congress to support an innovative proposal to provide food assistance by purchasing crops directly from farmers in the developing world, so we can build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine.”

And how a genuinely good idea snuck into this speech is beyond me.
“And so long as we continue to trust the people, our nation will prosper, our liberty will be secure and the state of our union will remain strong.”

Well, let’s not get crazy on the trust thing. I would still like to monitor everything the people say.

27 January 2008

Which Half of Your Brain is Dominant?

Which way is the dancer twirling? Clockwise or counter clockwise?

If she's moving counter clockwise, you are left brain dominant. If she's moving clockwise, you are right brain dominant.

Click through here is a list of the differences in the cognitive styles. Also, here's a small list of right vs. left characteristics.

Left Brain


Right Brain


For the record, I cannot get the dancer to twirl counter clockwise, suggesting that I'm right brained. I'm big on patterns, have disregard for authority or ranking, am free with feelings, and am spontaneous. But I am no good at manipulating objects (the only people worse at parallel parking then me don't bother, which makes me, officially, the least capable person to actually still try), something I'd supposedly be good at if I were right brained. And I do prefer talking and writing, which should make me left brain. But in spite of all that, the dancer only moves clockwise for me.

[And thanks, Jordan, for another intriguing bit of cognitive science trivia.]

25 January 2008

Campaigning to Impress the Video Gaming Generation

Enough with the debates. The same. Old. Words. and ideas. Again and again. And again.

Meanwhile, the first generation to grow up with video games is now voting. In large numbers.

So, here's my proposal. Instead of having the candidates answer questions, 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 ...

The candidates then have, say, fifteen minutes to craft responses. This could even go in rounds, with them responding to the response of their first response, a recursive causality just like the real world.

We might even give them a life line. As Life Hiker points out, the candidates decision about who to turn to for advice is at least as important as any other decision they make. Who do they call in the middle of financial crisis, for instance?

This, it seems to me, would be a great way to see what a candidate is made of, how quickly and well they think. We might even open it up nationwide, having debates for the final 10, top-scoring candidates. Or, we could just keep listening to them talk.

Riding the Wave of Globalization

I recently found this globalization gone wrong joke in my email:

I was depressed last night so I called Lifeline.
I got a call center in Pakistan. I told them I was suicidal.
They got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.
Monday, on my flight up from Dallas to Indianapolis, I rode by a woman who worked for Delphi, the auto parts manufacturer. She’s managing a project to move a factory from a rural area of Indiana to Mexico. “I can’t stay in the town,” she said. “The locals are pretty angry about losing their jobs.” This factory is one of the main sources of employment, and now it is gone. I’m not sure what’ll happen to the town, but I’m sure about why it is happening. “Machine operators here in the US cost $40 an hour. In Chihuahua,” she said, “they cost $70 a week.”

That night in the hotel, I get an email from my buddy Jeff. He’s getting laid off from his job in database design, along with 40 coworkers. The positions are being outsourced to a contractor in the Philippines.

Every color collar jobs – from blue to white – are being exported.

Globalization is not going to be stopped by legislation. It is not going to slow. It is not going to reverse. It is a reality for which politicians have given two very unsatisfactory solutions: either they tell constituents suck it up and deal with it; or they promise to stop it through legislation, a plan about as likely to work as outlawing lust.

It took us decades to adapt our school system to the creation of knowledge workers who could thrive in corporations and succeed in the information economy. Now, policy makers need to begin finding ways to prepare the next generation of workers to compete and thrive in a period of globalization.

It seems to me that a strategy for successful globalization would rest on at least three things:

1. Changing our attitude towards all things foreign. There is this odd tendency to think that foreigners have to learn English to talk to us. They do. And then they sell to us. We, by contrast, refuse to learn their languages, their cultures, etc. And we can't sell to them. The result? Huge trade deficits even when the dollar falls.

2. Dedicating our education more towards entrepreneurship. Low cost labor represents a threat to someone who is working and a great opportunity to an entrepreneur.

3. Give employees who own stock more say in company policy. Pension funds are the biggest owners of stock. It’s not obvious that they would chose to up their returns to capital by 5% if it meant that they would see their salaries fall by 50%. Employees own these companies. Let them have a say in how work is allocated and contracted.

Bucky Fuller said, “Use forces, don’t fight them.” Globalization is too big to fight, but it can be harnessed. I've ridden waves and been ridden by waves. I know for a fact that it is much better to ride them.

22 January 2008


It's possible that the markets are going to drop by another 10% to 15% in the next few months. You can smell the fear and frustration. But here's the one sure thing: if you are saving for a retirement that is more than five or ten years out, this is a great time to buy. Phase your purchases over the next 2 to 6 months, but get in now. When stock prices drop by 20%, everyone panics and flees the market. When shoes drop by 20%, they call it a sale and people flock to buy. ("Hey! They're having a sale on Wall Street!") If you buy tomorrow, you may well lose some money in the next month or two. But you will buy for less than if you wait until the market has recovered and again looks like a sure deal.

There are at least two good reasons to buy stock that aren't often mentioned. One, there are trillions of dollars seeking returns. Quite simply, where else will that go? Options like real estate and commodities and bonds are not really much better. Two, too often the prospects for the American economy and American companies are conflated. A growing percentage of sales come from abroad. Investing in multinationals represents an investment in the global economy, regardless of where the stock is listed. Both of these seem like strong arguments for long-term investment (which is what any of us building retirement accounts are up to).

Andrew Jackson may have been a populist who closed the central bank, but his advice could hold for investors: wait until you see the whites of their eyes. Investors are wide-eyed panicked. Now is not a bad time to buy.

Fred Thompson - Another in a Series of Jilted Lovers

They begged him to run. "We need a real candidate," the Republican voters said. "Run Fred, run," they urged.

But once he did, they looked him over once or twice and said, "Nah. I wasn't really all that interested in him. Who else do we have again?"

I was never a big fan of Fred's. This is not about defending the man as a candidate. But he must feel humiliated - like a suitor tricked into a series of tedious tea dates with the aged aunt before hearing that his love interest never was really serious. We all complain about the candidates, but I honestly think that the voters of this country are worse.

Poor Fred - seduced only to be rejected.

21 January 2008

World Markets Give Bush & Bernanke Bronx Cheer

Today, international markets voted on Bush and Bernanke's stimulus package. Apparently, they don't like it. Markets from Taiwan to Frankfurt dropped by 5% to nearly 8% - in a single day. This represents trillions of dollars in wealth that disappeared into the same place as yesterday's temperatures. This is sad news for investors who've already lost about 10% of their portfolios in just the first few weeks of this year - a reversal of all of last year's gain.

Why would investors across the globe be so unimpressed by the plan? Well, 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.

Bernard & Mandelbrot on the Future of Government

"Mandelbrot has it all figured out and he doesn't even know he figured it out!" Bernard looked triumphant. It warmed my heart just to see him so enthused.

"Who is Mandelbroth?" I asked.

"Mandelbrot," he corrected, "invented a new math that works for computers and their capacity for near infinite recursion. But he explained the natural outcome of government. He's predicted it and didn't even notice it." Bernard took another sip from his mug, licking his lips as he savored the flavor. I was almost positive that his eyes rolled back for an instant.

"New math predicts the future of government?" I was a little incredulous. I hadn't known Bernard to be particularly mathematical.

"Are you going to listen or just ask irrelevant questions?" Bernard was speaking fast - very fast. I let my silence be my answer.

"Mandelbrot," he continued, "posed this seemingly simple problem. Measure the coast of Britain. It's a simple problem, right?”

"Yeah. You might get some variation, but yeah, it should be pretty simple, no?"

"Exactly. You'd think. But it isn't like that. If you measure the coast of Britain by, say, map, tracing the periphery of the coast, you might discover that the coastline is about 1,200 miles.”

“Okay,” I slowly answer, just trying to get time to think. Bernard is not just taking fast - he's uncharacteristically talking about math.

“But let’s say that you now want to get more precise, so you use satellite photos. Now you can trace the various coves and small peninsulas a little better. Given you are tracing around more detail, you find that the coastline expands, the value grows. You might find now that the coastline is about 1,500 miles.”

“But if you take a variety of measures, the value will start to converge around some central value, right? I mean, there is variation but it wouldn’t be that great.”

“No. That’s the whole problem, according to Mandelbrot. As you take care to measure more precisely, the length of the coastline explodes towards infinity.”

“Infinity?” I try arching my eyebrow in what I hope passes for inquisitiveness and not confusion.

“Infinity. After the satellite photos, you send someone down to walk the coast, tracing the rise and fall of the cliffs and beaches along with getting a more precise measure of the ins and outs of the coast. Now, the coastline is closer to 2,000 miles. You get more detail and the coast gets longer. Suspicious, you keep looking more and more closely, finally going down to the point of measuring by a powerful microscope, tracing the contours and periphery of the molecules that make up the sands and rocks that make up the coastline. At this point, the value explodes exponentially - explodes towards infinity.”

“So, how long is the coast of Britain?”

“Nobody knows. All you can know for sure is that the value grows as you look more at the detail. It becomes more difficult – even impossible – to measure it as we move down further from the abstraction of it into the reality of it.”

"Okay," I say dubiously. "Let's say I agree. Let's go even farther and say I that understand. But Bernard," I lean forward, "what does this have to do with government?"

"Well think about it. We're living in a time of information explosion and self actualization. Never before has there been so much information to assimilate and so many lives headed in unique directions. As we have more information and more individuals actualize, the value explodes. Government is about gross generalizations, about approximations and universal truths. All that collapses when you drill down to more precise measures of the coastline, when you delve into the particulars of real lives, real people."


"Meaning that in the future, government will collapse. If the individualization continues, lives will become unique in ways that can't be measured - like the molecules that add up to light years of distance along the coast. There is no way to get the measure of that. No way to encompass that by any value. This means that it’ll defy generalizations! No one will know the length of the coast! No one will know how to govern such an individuated mass. No government could!”

"Bernard ...” I drift off, watching him enthusiastically drain his mug.

"THAT is good," he said, smacking his lips like a child with hot chocolate. "Waitress!" he hollers.

"I think she's called a barista," I correct him.

"Whatever," he says. "Waitress what is this called again?"

"It's a double espresso," she said with a smile. "You liked it?"

"I loved it! My synapses are firing like Chinese firecrackers. This is great! I'll take one more, please." At this point he wasn't even looking at the barista but was, instead, running his finger around the inside of the mug, joyously licking off the foam. He looked up at me, "And to think that I let you talk me into green tea for all those years," he shook his head.

"Bernard," I sighed. "Mandelbrot and government. I still don't understand."

He looked intently at me, not saying a word. I almost began to squirm. "Unless you start drinking these," he said, "I don't think you ever will."

19 January 2008

We Shall Be Released - Only One More Year of Bush

On 20 January, 2009, George Bush will vacate the White House.

Because of outrage fatigue, I've posted less about him of late. The more attention I pay to the boy cheerleader posing as an action figure, the more upset I get, so I generally try to ignore him. (Every boy goes through a "I want to be a superhero" phase. How absurd that he didn't go through his until after elected president.) He has been in doubt even less often than he's been right, an executive so far in over his head that he didn't even know he was in over his head. One would have hoped that the combination of thoughtless strategy and inattentive execution might have cancelled one another out, but we have not been so lucky. It's worth reviewing just a few of the man's more egregious moments as president, before comparing the economy under him with that under Bill.

As a measure of his disinterest in even his own ideas, it was only after he ordered the invasion of Iraq that Bush learned that there were both Shiites and Sunnis.

By the end of June, 2003, American troops had successfully invaded and begun the occupation of Iraq with an astounding 206 causalities (as in, it was an amazingly small number to suffer for the invasion of an entire country). Safely back in the White House, Bush's response to a question about insurgent forces was, "Bring 'em on." Since that utterance, 3,721 American troops have been killed by insurgents. (For the record, 2,819 were killed in the attacks on 9-11.)

Just prior to 9-11, Bush had completed the longest vacation yet enjoyed by a sitting president - 6 weeks in Crawford. During his vacation, he and Condi Rice did little or nothing in response to a memo titled, "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S."

By nearly any measure, Bush has presided over a setback in progress. From crime rates to job creation, fiscal responsibility to the performance of equity markets, the numbers under Bush have been paltry or pathetic. This without even mentioning his casual disregard for habeas corpus, his slander of McCain in the South Carolina primaries, his disregard for Americans' privacy, or his bungling of the post-Katrina recovery effort. He is, sadly, proof that the world is not made better every time an alcoholic begins drinking diet coke.

Here's a table prepared by Chuck Schumer's office, comparing Bush's performance with Clinton's. (And, of course, measures like unemployment have worsened since this table was put together.)

Bush may well have done more than mismanage the federal budget. He may have bankrupted the Republican brand formerly associated with competency in war and economics.

We've made it through 7 years. Surely we can make it through one more. Everybody, sing along with the late Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. We shall be released.

18 January 2008

Good Goods and Better Goods

"When I saw the old bum pushing his grocery cart down the street, at first I felt sorry for him. But then when I saw what was in his cart I thought, Well, no wonder you're a bum, look at the dumb things you bought."
- Jack Handy, Deep Thoughts

Philosophers talk about three kinds of goods: goods to have, goods to do, and goods to be. Goods to have represent simpler desires and are easier to attain than goods to do or be.

In the last 200 years, the developed countries have become adept at stimulating and meeting demand for goods to have. The result? Our garages are stuffed with stuff and people who think about such things warn us that we're stripping the planet of natural resources at an unsustainable rate. The data suggest that more isn't doing it for us anymore - quantities of happiness have not kept pace with the quantities of goods in recent decades.

This suggests that our economy still isn't particularly mature. We're still stuck at an earlier stage of development.

It might have been difficult to explain to someone in the 16th century just how many amazing social inventions would be required to get to the place at which so many had more stuff than they could keep track of: factories, retail stores, credit, and all the myriad and extraordinary inventions that support those larger constructs.

I wonder what a person 200 years into the future would tell us about how we developed an economy that went more directly after goods to be - allowing us to attain states of being that improved quality of life without relying on an increase in our quantity of goods. How many social inventions and oddly foreign practices would it take to create a community where goods to be were as easy to attain as our goods to have are today?

If economics goods to be represent the highest stage of economic development, this meandering path of economic development might yet turn out to be a full circle.

“Progress was understood to be a shining and unswerving vector, but it turned out to be a complex twisted curve, which has once more brought us back to the very same eternal questions which had loomed in earlier times, except that then facing these questions was easier for a less distracted, less disconnected mankind.”
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Given its a Friday and a soul ought to have something more than philosophy, here's a Radiohead music video (thanks Toby) that is beautiful and somehow seems quite fitting with a post about being. Now, don't just have a good time - be the good time. Enjoy the weekend.

17 January 2008

Stock Exchange Exchanges Stock in Exchange for Stock Exchange

News: "The New York Stock Exchange said today it agreed to acquire its smaller rival, American Stock Exchange, for $260 million in stock."

In other words, one stock exchange bought another stock exchange in exchange for stock.


I bet that actually makes sense to certain people.

Stimulating our Over-Stimulated Economy

Bernanke and Bush agree that our economy needs a stimulus. (Pelosi, Clinton, and Obama have also called for stimulus.) Basically, the proposal is to add about $100 billion in spending to our roughly $13 trillion economy (an infusion of less than 1%).

One, as long as they're doing this, why do it through banks? Why not send out vans and just pass out money to the homeless? Seriously. They'd spend money if they had it. Instead of a trickle down, we could have a surge up.

Two, is a stimulus really what's needed? Unemployment is higher but, at 5%, it is not that high. Meanwhile, a big part of the bump we're feeling is from home prices settling a bit. I'm not sure that's so bad. Here in San Diego, median home prices topped $500,000 for a while. If they kept rising at 5% to 15% a year, about .001% of households could afford homes, eventually. I'm not sure who benefits from that. If dropping home prices hurts the economy some, I don't know how that's to be avoided. Stimulating the economy so that home prices stay out of reach might help speculators, but it's not obvious how it helps normal people who just want a place to raise kids.

Three, our problem may be less a matter of stagnating consumption than over-stimulation. We already spend plenty. Many countries have savings rates of 20 to 30% (China's is close to 50%) but our savings rate is not far from zero. (Last year, briefly, our savings rate was negative.) It may be that stimulating the economy now is like offering an exhausted, crying baby a rattle.

Instead of more macroeconomic stimulus, how about a better safety net for this age of globalization? Why not offer longer periods of unemployment coverage, more aggressively fund training, and adopt policies that make housing affordable rather than expensive? 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.

16 January 2008

Huckleberry Fiend: This Year, We're Offering Voters a Traditional Theocracy in Addition to Our Normal Line of Nut Jobs

Thomas has a post pointing to this stunner:

"I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution," Huckabee told a Michigan audience on Monday. "But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view."

This, for me, is proof that Huckabee would be terrible at foreign policy. My logic? He actually thinks that in this matter of beliefs, there is only one view. It would be hard to display more ignorance in a single paragraph. Religion is more popular than ever - and more diverse than ever. In his new book, Microtrends, Mark Penn reports that "there are nearly 10,000 distinct and separate religions in the world - with two or three new ones being created every day."

Huckabee's naive notion that he can conform the Constitution to God's word shows such profound ignorance about the vast differences of opinion about God's word as to render normal people speechless. Not only would he leave hordes of Americans aghast at what he knows to be the word of God, but once he tried to communicate with foreigners, his utter conviction about the veracity and inerrancy of his world view would make it impossible for him to act any way but unilaterally. It is this confusion between certainty and proof that, of course, helped to make George W. the worst American president ever (and yes, I'm including all ASB and bridge club presidents since 1900).

I have a suggestion for a campaign slogan. Huckabee for President: Because Life is Just Too Short to Think Things Through. Personally, I don't mind a theocracy; it's dragging more than one person into it that disturbs me. If Mike wants an infallible constitution, surely there's a remote island somewhere in the Pacific where he can be alone.

15 January 2008

14 January 2008

Corporate Revolution & the 4th Economy

So, here's the question: can a guy in a t-shirt, sitting in his home office, trigger a revolution? In my on-going life as an experiment, this is me trying a new medium for (what is for me) an old message.

I mis-spoke twice.
One, I said that 90% of the American population was employed. Not so. About 90% of the work force works as employees (as opposed to working as independents or business owners).
Two, I said that the CEO's role will look more like that of venture capitalist and the role of a growing minority of employees will be ... that of venture capitalist. Again, I mis-spoke. That should be, the role of employees will look more like that of an entrepreneur.

Next time, maybe I'll try using notes instead of just talking extemporaneously.

13 January 2008

They Shoot Candidates Don't They? - The Most Dramatic Moment in Presidential Campaigning

For my nickel, Teddy Roosevelt provided the most dramatic moment of any presidential campaign. On his way to a rally, he was shot by a would-be assassin. He shook off advisers who insisted that he go to the hospital rather than the podium. The audience - in this time before cell phones, TVs, or even radio - had no idea that Roosevelt had just been shot until he dramatically opened his suit jacket to show the spread of blood. When his aides saw this, they panicked at the sight of so much blood and again insisted that he rush to the hospital and he again shook them off. (Now that, sports fans, is a called an attention getting opening and is far more effective than a joke.)

Roosevelt explained to his audience that his speech was more important than his safety. (And, fortunately, it was a long speech. The sheaf of papers in his breast pocket was so thick that it slowed the bullet. Had he been delivering a speech as succinct as the Gettysburg Address, he might have died.)

What mattered so much to Roosevelt? Issues that today we take for granted, issues that helped to create a far better world where capitalism in its rawest form was tempered by something more just and less brutal. His platform included advocacy of the vote for woman, limits on child labor, the introduction of old-age insurance, regulations on business and an end to racist practices. Although Roosevelt never served another term, there were probably no issues that better defined the difference between 1900 and 2000 than the issues he championed in this death-defying speech. He lost his bid for a third term (this time as a Bull Moose rather than Republican) but his issues eventually won.

I don't just love this story about Roosevelt. I love the thought of how speechless would be today's pundits and analysts who endlessly dissect oddly trivial moments like Clinton's recent emotional moment. Now that would be campaign coverage.

11 January 2008

The Effect of Brain States on Learning, Memory & Identity

Here's a fascinating post over at Cog Sigh about how a brain state can reinforce itself and how similar brain states can create similar memories and associations.

Here's a quote from the posting:

In practice this means that, for example, when I am depressed I most easily remember episodes and information that I encountered during past periods of depression (by depression I mean a mood, not clinical depression). We've all experienced how our moods seem to feed themselves, but just think about it in terms of identity. Identity is essentially composed from a series of key memories about the experiences that we have had and what we have made them mean about the world. If I am building a definition of myself (to a certain degree) from my own memories, then my understanding of who I am when I am depressed is significantly different from who I think I am when I am happy or calm simply because I am constructing my identity from a different set of memories.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, this is my daughter Jordan's most recent posting.)

Doomed New Year's Resolutions

“Men who have discovered the limits of arrogance make better company: You notice more when you're not running around imposing your will on everything.”
- Virginia Vitzthum

Change is a difficult thing but every year, millions of Americans purpose to do just that. Maybe I'm just so old that I've accepted who I am and have difficulty imagining myself as someone different, but it seems like this industry of New Year's resolutions is one based on well intentioned delusion.

The other day, I was talking to what seemed to be a darling woman. She said that she was going to get more organized for the new year and was even able to list out all the benefits of doing just that. "So why aren't you more organized already," I asked. My own suspicion is that she has made such resolutions before but finds herself, once again, resolving anew to be who she is not. Such an endeavor seems like such a waste of energy when she could, instead, build on what everyone else sees as unique - or at least rare - strengths. New Year's Resolutions can too easily be attempts to be like someone we admire rather than self actualize.

According to First Break All the Rules, what distinguishes the really extraordinary managers from those who are merely very good or even mediocre is how they deal with shortcomings. The motto of the extraordinary managers in regards to their employees seems to be, "Don't try to put in what was left out. Instead, draw out what was left in. That's hard enough." In other words, we all arrive at life with missing pieces. We can spend our energy and ambition trying to address this obvious and sometimes distressing lack, but it's not clear that it'll ever make much difference. Or, we can acknowledge what we actually brought to the party and find a way to make that work. It wasn't that Einstein failed to work hard, he just (as far as I know) didn't spend much effort trying to be a world class dancer. It takes a great deal of effort just to be good at what we're good at.

If you have to make a New Year's resolution (and given it's already 11 January you probably don't), make a resolution to enhance or strengthen what you already know to be a positive part of you. Save the scary and often unrewarding work of trying low probability goals for experiments when you are already feeling confident and are less likely to make failure mean too much.

09 January 2008

Pundits, Stories & Conspiracies

It had become a compulsion for me – dining with Bernard and Maddie. Perhaps it was because the clash between these two old siblings seemed like sublime proof of free will. These two had come from the same gene pool, were raised by the same parents in the same place and yet they had come to make sense of the world in such contrasting ways. Or, perhaps this was proof of destiny, so compelled did they seem to be who they were.

Bernard was disgusted. “These pundits all predicted Barak Obama would win. Once Hillary Clinton won instead, they explained her victory without even pausing to acknowledge that they can’t predict anything and so obviously don’t understand what’s going on. Prediction is the most basic proof of understanding,” Bernard concluded. “But these people are free from accountability. I want to be a pundit. Now that,” he paused, “is a sweet gig.”

“It’s like those mid day stock market headlines that are trying to track the bounce up and down and down and up and down again, making out like it all has meaning, even though anything they conclude at 10 AM will be rendered moot by 2 PM,” I added, trying to prove that I understood.

“Exactly,” Bernard agreed with me. “It’s like they’re excitedly reporting on the trajectory of a pinball or like kids trying to hum along with the radio that is tuned to static.”

Maddie said, “Well, the pundits just look foolish because they don’t know that this is all controlled anyway.”

“All controlled?” I stupidly asked.

“Yes. The Trilateral Commission decides who will become the new president. The election is just for show.”

“You think that democracy is a farce?” asked Bernard incredulously.

“You don’t have to use foul language,” Maddie chided. “But yes, I do think that democracy is just a drama made to distract people from how little control they actually have.”

Bernard and I were silent. Democracy as a distraction from control actually seemed, at some level, plausible. This was, for me, uncharted ground. I enjoyed Maddie’s company in no small part because she made me feel superior – something I was ashamed of the instant I realized it.

“You think that the whole thing is controlled,” asked Bernard.

“Well, obviously,” said Maddie.

He nodded. “We have a hunger for narrative. It started with a group of people huddled around a fire, afraid of the dark. They don’t know if they’ll be alive in the next instant. Someone begins to tell a story and they’re all transported. Suddenly, they think about tomorrow, they think about yesterday. Now their lives have a context – the invisible something that lets you see everything else. They have a narrative and now their lives make sense. Narrative made civilization. And to this day we’re wired to seek out stories.”

“And this has to do with conspiracy theories how?”

“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 …”

“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. The only honest thing the reporters of the elections and stock markets can say is, ‘Something happened today. We don’t really know why. Something new will happen tomorrow. It may or may not be like what happened today. As a matter of fact, we really haven’t a clue what is going on or what will happen next. Nobody does. We recommend that you liberally express your love and quickly eat your lunch because the next moment may not even arrive. We just don’t know”

“That sounds extreme,” I push back, but Bernard was on a roll.

“So we grasp for words and confuse syntax with synthesis of the facts, confuse coherent stories with coherent reality.”

“But reality always gets our attention sooner or later,” I say.

“Really? Do you know how many stories we consume in a day? We get reports at work. On the radio DJs are prattling on about celebrities. We watch movies and TV shows. We read books and articles. Listen when someone stops by our cubicle to tell us about their weekend. We’re story junkies. We can’t get enough. These writers out on strike, they’ve finally realized this. They want the money they should have for crafting the narratives that give our lives meaning – they are the modern myth makers. Our modern economy grinds to a halt without stories. No money from bankers without a good story. You don’t get elected unless you have a good story. You can’t win her heart unless you have a good story – or she provides one for you. She has to have something to tell her friends, and it’s a story. If they buy the story, they’re happy for her. If not, they advise her against making things serious with you.”

“I don’t know from stories,” Maddie said. "The Trilateral Commission chose Bill Clinton because they knew he’d pass NAFTA. It’s all a cabal.”

“What I said,” Bernard looked at me. “We love the idea of order and we’ll gladly trade reality for narrative. We’ll adopt conspiracy theories if they promise to make sense of our world, if they promise to add some structure to our lives.”

“You don’t have to talk like I’m not right here,” Maddie huffed. Suddenly, I felt for her. No wonder she so clung to her political fantasies. Growing up with a brother like Bernard, how could she not feel a desperate need for the very stories he so casually debunked? Who could take that much reality, really? At that instant, Maddie made sense to me. And for the first time, I envied her and her certainty. Bernard’s story about stories sounded good to me.

08 January 2008

Cynics Alert - Oddly Optimistic Blog Posting About America

Monday night, I flew into Washington National airport about 8 PM. The flight path sometimes goes right over the mall and I find the view inspiring every time. The monuments all lit up. The capitol dome behind Washington's monument. (Okay, Washington's monument is admittedly odd. Could we have erected a more phallic symbol to honor the father of our country?) The Jefferson Memorial aglow along the Potomac River. Then, as I drive south, I again see the beauty of the mall from another angle. It's a view that would have to inspire at least a temporary love of country in even the most jaded lobbyist.

This country is such a fabulously interesting experiment in social invention, such a brilliant bit of daring on the part of the founding fathers. And for all our kibitzing and whining about the way things are (I sometimes think that blogging is the equivalent of talking back to the TV), the results have been unpredictably spectacular.

When this country was founded, in the late 18th century, life expectancy was not even 30 years. Monarchs dictated even your beliefs. "All men were created equal" are among the most revolutionary words ever written.

Tonight, the pundits are analyzing Hillary's win over Barack Obama. Putting aside politics and who one would like to see win, I think that the Obama - Clinton victories are a beautiful thing. The Democrats are favored to win in the fall, so their primaries really do matter. And that a black won the first caucus and a woman the first primary is truly extraordinary.

It seems to give evidence to the claim that we are, indeed, still making progress. For the sake of your blood pressure, take a day to revel in this fact. This country was founded by idealists with a sense of urgency, possibility, and nearly inexplicable optimism. We've no reason to give up on that combination now. History is still being made and this is a fascinating time to be alive.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes? We Don't Need No Stinking Changes!

"Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani denied that 'change' should be the theme of the presidential race."
- Washington Times, 7 January

In other words, for Rudy and Fred, there is no apparent reason to change George W.'s policies. Color me stunned. (And perhaps it is not just drug testing that should be administered to our politicians but, additionally, ideology testing. It's obvious that the latter can impede one's perception of reality just as much.)

Polls indicate that between them, Giuliani and Thompson are likely to get fewer votes than projected third-place finisher Mike Huckabee. Maybe the voters of New Hampshire can be trusted to shape this election after all.

06 January 2008

Cure for a Recession - Sarkozy in America

Try this thought experiment involving French President Sarkozy. Imagine him here in the U.S. and how our 24 hour news stations, talk shows, and newspapers would cover his story.

Sarkozy had scarcely been sworn into office when he and his wife announced their divorce. Now, just months later, the press is reporting that he is soon to marry Carla Bruni.

Carla Bruni, a beautiful Italian model and pop singer, seems very comfortable posing nude before the camera. (Just do a Yahoo or Google image search to confirm this fact.) Imagine an American first lady who the nation has seen pose nude. (It's probably best not to imagine Barbara Bush.)

I'm not sure how the French talk radio shows and tabloids are dealing with this, but it makes me chuckle just to think about how much coverage there would be for Obama or Giuliani (Sarkozy was, after all, the conservative candidate) if they were to do something like this within the first months in office. It would likely get more coverage than the invasion of Iraq.

We're still a country more offended at men eager to use a penis than those eager to use a missile. (And Freud may have explained how the former gets us the latter.) We rate explicit sex X and explicit violence R. (Does this mean that parents would be more offended to walk in on their teenager in the middle of sex than in the middle of a stabbing? Wait. I promised myself I wouldn't wax serious about what, for me, is an amusing scenario - Sarkozy in America.) If Sarkozy were our president, fears of a recession would be easily abated - interest in his libido would help to fuel a resurgence in communications and media revenues that would make the Clinton - Lewinsky coverage look like a cat in the tree story.

And here she is - France's soon to be first lady. (Now we know that the guy in a window is to represent Sarkozy, and of course one more reason that she would never be an American first lady is simply this: she speaks Italian, French, and English. What's the quip? There is trilingual, bilingual, and American.)

05 January 2008

Fallujah is the Model?

NBC reports on how peaceful Fallujah has become in a piece you can see here, Fallajuh in Transition.

Most troubling is how unquestioning they are about how this city has become so peaceful. Quite simply, U.S. Marines monitor all traffic in and out of the city through five check points. Everyone must have a photo ID and bags, purses, and pockets are searched. Violence has dropped by 90%.

I find two things hard to imagine. One, that violence would have much room for expression here. Two, that Fallajuh looks anything like the model of what Americans thought they were buying when sold on the notion of democracy in the Middle East. Imagine that each time you entered your town or city, you had to go through the equivalent of airport security.

There are so many problems with offering Fallajuh as a model of what should be, but I will focus only on one. While this strategy makes the city more peaceful, its success depends on U.S. Marines standing guard year after year. Peace in Fallujah depends on our maintaining a police state indefinitely. As I've previously written, this suggests that even as measures of violence will drop with the troop escalation, this strategy just gets us further into the brier patch.

I don't know how we can reach any conclusion other than this: we've freed the Iraqi people from the militaristic rule of a despot for the militaristic rule of an American bureaucracy. That NBC can report on this as if it is a success is to show how much this administration and the press have distorted the notions of freedom and democracy or even what is worth fighting for.

04 January 2008

Why We Blog

Our lives begin to end the day we stay silent about the things we care about.

- Martin Luther King

The Delayed Side Effects of Sonograms

Of course, everything looks so inevitable in retrospect but ...

Last year, Apple's stock doubled. You could have bought 1,000 shares for just under $7,000 in early 2003 and those shares would be worth about $200,000 today.

The iPod seems to have led the revival of Apple. Who would have thought that the generation first discovered by sonogram would become rabid consumers of products that envelope them in sound?

03 January 2008

Mapping the Female Brain to Find the World's Most Effective Pick Up Line

This morning, my darling wife announces to me that she was in the midst of the most delicious dream when the phone rang. She reports this while still lying in bed, stretching her arms over her head rather sensuously as she yawns. The visual she provides me neatly ties into my own definition of delicious dream, and I’m convinced that we must be talking about exactly the same thing. When I get too bored by sleep, I dream. When I’m lucky, the dreams are delicious.

“What were you dreaming,” I curiously ask, trying not to look too eager to hear salacious details.

“I was in the most incredible shoe store,” she said. “It was like a shoe aquarium.” My little Canadian added, her eyes aglow, “and they even served tea!” As my expectations of erotica dissolved, she launched into details about the assortment of shoes on display, one pair in particular she was inquiring about when her friend Kate called.

I don’t understand women and shoes, but I’ve been given a theory that has to do with brain mapping. (If I could, I would avoid all shoes. My toes get claustrophobic and I will put on a jacket before I put on socks and shoes.)

My daughter, the cog sci major, shared a theory about why women so love shoes. As it turns out, the brain has regions that map to the body. The genitals map to a large region near the top, on the side of the brain, with the toes and feet immediately adjacent. (The brain map does not exactly accord with the layout of the body. Lips – vital for eating and loving – get disproportionately more of the brain’s real estate than, say, the leg.) One (fairly casual) theory is that the wiring for the genitals and feet sometimes overlap in ways that can, in the extreme, lead to foot fetishes or, more often, closets littered with shoes. Our very different "delicious" dreams might actually be exciting very similar regions of the brain.

Only now, happily married at 47, does it occur to me that some guy out there is on track to break Wilt Chamberlain's’s record for sexual conquests with the simplest of pick up lines: “I just love your shoes.”

02 January 2008

The Escher Expressway

If at first an idea isn’t absurd, there is no hope for it.
- Einstein

Coming home today, coasting downhill, I announce that this is the way to seriously increase gas mileage - simply build all roads to slope downhill.

"There are a few details to work out," I say, "but the general principle is sound."

"You'll have to call it the Escher Expressway," said my wife, Sandi.

I simply can't imagine why this won't work. We may even be able to do away with combustion engines altogether. Needless to say, I'm very excited about this.

Why George Is So Dangerous (Or, the gap between politics and policy)

There is a gap between politics and policy. Good politics will get you elected. Good policy will improve quality of life. Good politics focuses on getting power over. Good policy focuses on giving power to.

If you were campaigning for the votes of medieval serfs, you'd probably win votes by speaking out against witches who curse crops and babies and generally make life miserable. Your promise to crack down on witches might even get you elected. By contrast, the policies you'd want to pursue to actually make life less miserable - policies like turning the commons into private property so as to encourage investment, weakening the grip of the church on communities, and encouraging free thinking - would be met with, at best, tepid support and advocating such policies might not just cost you votes but could, indeed, cost you your life. Because every era has its superstitions and cultural momentum, there has always been a gap between what makes for good politics and what makes for good policy.

For my nickel, no one has better illustrated the gap between effective politics and effective policy than George Bush and Karl Rove. The most obvious example of policy that made for good politics and bad policy was, of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. George and Karl were masters of politics and the two stooges of policy, a frightening reminder that voters can be easier to seduce than reality. And there is nothing more dangerous than a politician who understands politics but has little interest in policy. Such a politician can do even more damage than someone with evil intentions.

For me there is a key to distinguish between policy and politics lies in the difference between power over and power to. Good policy not only improves lives, it gives people power to do things that they couldn't otherwise. Policy that provides education to children whose parents can't afford it, that is policy that gives people power to. Educated women have more power to choose whether to have families and how many children to have. Education is a classic example of policy that gives power to. By contrast, policy that only lets certain kinds of people own property or vote or choose whether to control one’s own reproduction is policy that exercises power over. This power over might make for popular politics (the distaste of the masses for minorities like gays, blacks, and rich), but it rarely makes for good policy that actually improves quality of life.

As you listen to the candidates, listen for what they are proposing and the kind of power that seems to enthrall them. Do they want to limit what people can do in bedrooms and boardrooms or do they want to enable people, including the poor or the minorities in privileges the mainstream take for granted? The former often makes for good politics - the latter usually makes for good policy. The more we’re aware of this, the smaller the gap between the two. After all, the success of a democracy ultimately rests on a confluence between successful politics and successful policy. What we don't need next year is to embark on another 8 year learning experience.