31 October 2009

Rationalizations as Substitute for a Costume

I had been traveling so incessantly that I didn't have time to don the costume I had planned for tonight's party: I was going to be the health careless plan. I didn't have time to get the IV set up with high fructose corn syrup in the bag, cigarettes in the shirt pocket, etc. So instead, I dressed normally, wearing a little flip book around my neck, the cover instructing people to "Lift tabs for costume explanations," something which revealed the following for those patient enough (and as it turns out, comfortable enough in my personal space) to turn through the tabs.

• Oh, I’m wearing a costume. It’ll just take you a couple of generations to realize it.
• As usual, I could not think of what to do – only what to say. I don’t have a costume but I do have a series of implausible excuses.
• I lost my costume in a really elaborate Ponzi scheme. You’re just lucky that I’m still dressed.
• This is not a costume. It’s a disguise. I’m in a federal witness protection plan and no longer answer to the name Vinnie.
• We’re all wearing costumes all the time. It is only on Halloween that anyone realizes what they’re doing.
• I am from the future, wearing a period costume from the early 21st century. Sadly, I cannot prove it simply because my costume is so realistic.
• I am an anthropologist of costumology. I am here to study you and your kind.
• I can’t believe that you’re still thumbing through my lame excuses for not wearing a costume.
• Oh please. You don’t think this is what I really look like, do you?
• Oh!?! Traditional costume party?! I thought the invitation said traditional customs party. Pity, really, because I had finally decided to learn this culture.**

* thank you Beth
** thank you Allen

30 October 2009

Big World - Small Brain

Rigorous empiricism eventually wears down any narrative needed to make sense of our world. No theory of the world seems capable of making sense of ALL the data.

The trick of making sense of the world is knowing when to stop paying attention to data and start paying attention to your narrative. If you start too soon, you land in a fantasy world, deluded by your own simple explanation. If you start too late at the game of ignoring data and focusing instead on your narrative, you are never quite able to convince yourself that you - or the world - make sense.

We started down the path of the empirical method with the perhaps naive notion that we could make sense of it all. That might have reflected a conceit that only ignorance can breed. It might just be that reality in all its messy sprawl is simply defiant of any neat theory to explain it. If anything does make sense of the world, it might be music. I'll have to collect more data before I can tell.

Like Dogs Watching Television

It is not just that they don't understand. You can't even begin to get them to understand just how much they don't understand.

28 October 2009

I Hereby Nominate Thomas for Nobel Peace Prize

Today at the client site, I kept walking by a poster promoting a presentation by a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. It seems to me that this would be a great thing to be able to include on a resume or in introductions. And given the nomination process is so opaque, I don't know why someone can't credibly claim to have been nominated.

In fact, I'm nominating Thomas for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thomas, feel free to casually mention this in conversations. And don't feel obligated to clarify for anyone just who nominated you.

[As a side note - and in no way to suggest that Thomas requested this nomination, much less solicited it - if any of you would like to be nominated for any Nobel Prizes, just let me know. I see no reason why only those who are accomplished or president should get all the glory.]

26 October 2009

What is the Purpose of Teaching Purpose?

Life's purpose is an odd and curious question. It might be the reason that just as we reach a point in human history in which the likelihood of dying from hunger or violence has gone down, we find a rise in the search for therapy and self help books, a susprising persistence of unhappiness.

In less developed communities, the work for food and shelter is enough to busy a person. Years ago, a little friend of ours from Texas, born in the late 1800s, announced to us, "Stress? All this talk about stress? We never had time for stress. We were too busy working."

And without a crush of information that needs to be processed and numerous myths and worldviews competing for our attention and undermining one another, life's purpose is essentially a given.

Here in the 21st century, survival is a given for many. Nor can we expect to duck the question of what overarching purpose to accept or define, defining what matters.

I wonder if taking a job or partner is not too often a substitute for the hard work of defining a life. The unemployed or recently separate are forced into an existential angst that the rest of us would just as soon avoid.

For the most part, there is little in traditional education to deal with this question of who one will be. It's left to the Learning Annex and issues of Oprah magazine.

Given this is hard to grade and harder to prescribe, the process of defining who one will be is likely to stay out of school curriculum in spite of its importance to leading a happy and fulfilled life. Meaning is too hard and too controversial so we'll just keep children focused on polynomials and parenthetical asides rather than purpose. Because if we have learned nothing else about education it is this: if you can't grade it on a standardized test, it ought not to be taught.

22 October 2009

The Dubya is for Wotivation, you wascally wabbit - George Bush's New Speaking Career

George Bush has begun his career as a motivational speaker. Even by charging about what the local cinema charges for tickets to see Zombieland ($19) and adding in speakers like Colin Powell, Zig Ziglar still has tickets left. Apparently the number of people wanting to know how to sell war for all the wrong reasons is not that big. I find this oddly consoling.

Pat Buchanan reports that white Americans over the age of 30, asked to choose which institution they believe in, say "none." Presumably, this is not belief in the sense of existence, like when someone believes in God. This is belief in the efficacy or intention of institutions.

Not to jump on the racist bandwagon, but one can appreciate whites' frustration with institutions. Believing the propaganda from every side, whites are told they are the privileged and yet there is little sense of control over their lives - even a form of anomie. Blacks and Latinos know that racism explains a great deal of their feelings of alienation; whites are more confused, in the same way that the most popular kid in high school can't understand why he feels lonely. When you are supposed to be the in group, it is disorienting to feel on the outs.

Rather than turn to guns or racism - as Pat would seem to suggest - it seems worth turning to the very institutions towards which the polled expressed such dismay.

There are at least two elements to this. One has to do with better managing systems, actually applying advice from gurus like Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, Russell Ackoff,and Peter Senge. Institutions are, in part, distrusted because they are so poorly managed. Two, creating trust in institutions will require a dispersal of control to the people whose lives are so defined by them. We may not like it that employees want more quality of work life or families want more religion in their children's schools, but local control leads to a sense of ownership, more learning, and greater satisfaction.

Whites are probably more likely to feel disenfranchised by a lack of control but everyone would benefit from it.

And speaking of race and local control, how about allowing a justice of the peace to refuse to marry an inter-racial couple? Or letting a pharmacist refuse to give out morning after drugs?

On first blush, this is almost like allowing conscientious objectors to refuse to fight. But there is a very real difference: no one drafts pharmacists or a justice of the peace. We wouldn't allow a volunteer soldier to join and then become a conscientious objector. If you are a justice of the peace, you marry people. If you are a pharmacist, you dispense prescribed drugs. No one is forcing you to be a pharmacists or justice of the peace. You are free to quit. Meanwhile, it seems absurd to let someone decide whether or not any one person or type of person is deserving of your service.

A lot of fuss has been made over Obama's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. I joined in the chorus of "What? Why?" when he got it, but it is a reminder of just how relieved the world is that Bush is gone. If peace is the absence of war, maybe the Nobel Prize committee felt rushed to reward him before he sent more troops anywhere for any reason - as American Presidents are wont to do. Maybe if one wants to reward American presidents for peaceful tendency it is best to do that in the first few months of their presidency?

20 October 2009

Renaissance Popes (Helping the Protestant Cause)

Bad popes and CEOs, while possibly not a sign of the apocalypse, are a sign that an institution has gone rogue. When the church is about the glorification of the pope, or the corporation is about enriching the CEO, it is an institution in bad need of reform or reinvention. It is hard to imagine three popes who could do more to dissuade Europeans of respect for medieval authority than the 3 Renaissance popes.

Think of the fun Fox and MSNBC would have reporting on these popes. A pope with sword on hip, swearing at his soldiers to urge them on in military campaigns? Another pope who, when a cardinal, was rebuked for hosting orgies?

Alexander rather fittingly took his name from the conqueror Alexander the Great rather than some milquetoast saint. Pope Alexander purchased the papacy in 1492. As Columbus was discovering a new world, Alexander was bribing fellow cardinals for their vote, an investment that he and his children would recoup.

Where a modern CEO might think it fun to throw multi-million dollar parties for a child, Alexander’s gifts were more creative. He bought his children lavish wedding parties, private bull fights, political positions and even armies with which to conquer new territory. Alexander had at least 7 known illegitimate children, a natural enough product from a man who seemed so at ease with sex. As pope, he once hosted a party that included a contest matching his guests with prostitutes and then dispensing gifts to the guests who demonstrated the most impressive feats of virility.

Read more ...

17 October 2009

The Game Show Restaurant

Perhaps you need a place to invest your money or want to start a business. In either case, you've come to the right post today because I have an idea that seems sure to succeed: the game show themed restaurant.

There are so many possibilities for the game show restaurant, a place themed in garish colors and loud sounds, but I'll just list a few here. Imagine walking in past food supplies - stacks of canned peas next to the canned laughter and applause.

You can order from the menu or get called up by the emcee of your section to choose between three doors.
"Okay Bob, you picked door # 2. Let's see what was behind door # 1."
Dramatic music ...
"Oh no! You missed the filet mignon for only $4.95!" So, do you want to switch to door # 3 or could I interest you in this thai chicken salad for only $9.50?"
"Go for the tied chicken salad," the studio audience yells.

Every time food comes to your table, the waiter bounds up to your table with your meal and says, "Tell 'em what they won, Bob." And the overhead voice from the kitchen intones, "Our guests have won a lovely grilled chicken sandwich on sourdough, a cheeseburger, and a cup of lentils (I told him he should have chose the thai chicken salad)! And all for a price less than a weekend in New York at the Grand Hotel."

The menu up front will be in board form. One column, Tastes like chicken, has items priced at $5, $7.50, $10 ... etc. and other columns have labels like chef surprise; things we do with beef; once lived underwater; faceless, not tasteless; and food you eat before you eat your food. Ordering would have an element of risk.
"I'll take 'food you eat before you eat your food' for $7.95."
"Okay. The answer is, 'Thousand island on the side.'"
"Uh, 'What would you like on your house salad?"
"Close enough. Anything else?"

You can, of course, fill in other fun-filled activities and ways to spice up the inevitability of eating. And tell me, when is the last time that Newsweek, the New York Times, or Fox so generously offered their readers or viewers an opportunity to make millions? Blogs - because there is just no better bargain than free.

16 October 2009

We Are Financing the Chamber of Commerce to Work Against Us

Read this article to see why I once thought that Elliot Spitzer would be - and should be - our president in the next decade:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce must be stopped. Here's how to do it.

The intro ...

The U.S. Chamber
of Commerce
—the self-proclaimed voice of business in Washington—has been
wrong on virtually every major public-policy issue of the past decade: financial
deregulation, tax and fiscal policy, global warming and environmental
enforcement, consumer protection, health care reform …

The chamber remains an unabashed voice for the libertarian worldview
that caused the most catastrophic economic meltdown since the Great Depression.
And the chamber's view of social justice would warm Scrooge's heart. It is the
chamber's right to be wrong, and its right to argue its preposterous ideas
aggressively, as it does through vast expenditures on lobbyists and litigation.
Last year alone, the chamber spent more than $91 million on lobbying, and,
according to lobby tracker Opensecrets.org, it has spent more than twice as much on lobbying during the past 12 years as any
other corporation or group.

The problem is, the chamber is doing all this with our money. The chamber
survives financially on the dues and support of its members, which are most of
America's major corporations listed on the stock exchange. ..

How, you might ask, do we own these companies? Public pension funds and
mutual funds are the largest owners of equities in the market. They are the
institutional shareholders that have the capacity to push management—and the
boards of the corporations. Yet the mutual funds and pension funds have failed
to do so.

The Dangers of Outsourcing

The Marriott here in Philadelphia has an interesting wake up call. The woman's voice has only a subtle accent, but her message suggests that she might not be local:

"Good afternoon. This is your wake up call," she says, even at 7 AM.

And to be fair, by planting the suggestion that it is already after noon she does help a person to get out of bed more quickly.

14 October 2009

Why Men Don't Ask for Directions

Wandering the streets of Philadelphia with Beth and Allen today, I shared one of my many (no way to prove it wrong) theories. I realize that I've not shared this with my two other faithful readers, so I will address this oversight.

Men have always been territorial. We crack down on gangs for protecting their turf using the state's monopoly on force to arrest these hooligans. Why does the state have a monopoly on force? To protect our turf. It is like a Russian doll - turf protection in layers. Men claim territory and are prepared to protect it with force.

At various stages of social development, men would have stumbled upon locals who knew the turf. If these men acted as though they belonged, they might be left alone. But if they stopped to inquire with the locals about where they were and where they were going, this would alert the locals to the fact that these interlopers did not belong. The men who had the gene that led them to stop to ask for directions were all killed off. The only male genes that survived were those that gave one a sense of uneasiness about asking for directions.

Women find this frustrating because, genetically, they were received in a manner that, for matters of self censorship, I will simply call the opposite of murder. Women who stopped to ask questions of strange men might actually get some variety into the genetic line rather than abruptly ending it. Men and women are programmed completely differently when it comes to asking strangers for directions.

I'm glad I could clear that up. I now return you to your regularly programmed web cerfing.

11 October 2009

Abstract Notion of the Day - Let Systems Compete and People Cooperate

Competition and cooperation play together in nature. Some like to emphasize the competition that pits the gazelles against each other, the loser becoming lion lunch. Others like to emphasize the cooperation that enables the lions to bring down the gazelle or that prompts the mother to raise the child.

So which should we bring into our social and economic life? Should we emphasize competition or cooperation?

I'd like to offer this suggestion: competition between systems and cooperation between people.

Let companies go bankrupt, political parties, ideologies, and administrations lose power, and educational approaches go out of favor. Let systems compete to win or lose based on how well they do. Meanwhile, ensure cooperation between people, doing what we can to ensure that everyone thrives.

To reverse this - to have no competition between religious or political or educational systems (essentially some kind of a monopoly) while forcing competition between people is to create a system that arrests progress and makes even the winners miserable, worried as they are that they might lose their place.

One of the problems with this goal, though, is that people become the system they are a part of. It is hard to become intimate enough with a system to use it and yet not become defined by it. "I am a Stanford grad ... a mechanical engineer ... a Pentecostal ... a Republican ... a Jungian ..." we say and these systems we've adopted become less our tools than our selves. With such a belief, it is hard to casually accept the failure of systems and not see it as, somehow, a threat to ourselves.

The religious martyr may be the most extreme example of someone who no longer holds the system loosely in hand but, instead, is held tightly by the system. For them, Islam or Christianity or the cult has become more important than life itself and they will die for it.

This might be the biggest challenge we have in our education system: raising children to learn how to use systems without becoming defined by those systems. I'm convinced that we're not going to make much progress with our current definitions of liberal or conservative, for instance, and as long as major swaths of the polity or politicians define themselves this way, progress will be slow. And yet people need some orientation, even if it is one they'll abandon as goals or processes change. As long as people define themselves rigidly by these systems, competition between systems will equal competition between people.

10 October 2009

Brain Wired by Culture

Some parts of a woman's brain change up to 25% through the course of a month. "When I started taking a woman's hormonal state into account as I evaluated her psychiatrically, I discovered the massive neurological effects her hormones have during different stages of life in shaping her desires, her values, and the very way she perceives reality," writes Dr. Louann Brizendine in The Female Brain.

I mention this because I want to make a bold claim. One that I think will be proven in the next decade or two but is not - to the best of my knowledge - yet proven or even claimed by any serious professionals.

It is not just that people in different cultures and points of developmental history have different opinions and beliefs: their brains are wired differently.

To take a simple example, in schools were children don't feel as safe and violence and bullying is common, test scores are lower to reflect, I believe, more time spent in the fight or flight portion of their brain and less time in the frontal lobes.

The brain of a villager living in a rural area of Afghanistan who suffers from hunger, is regularly coerced by threats of violence, and feels as though he has little control over his life will be bathed in a very different set of hormones and chemicals than the brain of a Greenwich villager living in New York who worries about overeating, is regularly persuaded by advertising, and feels like he has no purpose in his life. It is not just that these two people have different beliefs about the world. I would argue that these two have very different brains.

My personal opinion is that a sense of control is the biggest determinant of how the brain is wired and world view formed.

And this matters for policy. Imagine going into Mississippi to "help" the locals to give up on their curious religious beliefs and odd superstitions in order to become more developed and prosperous. It probably would not be long before they had taken up arms to chase you and your BMW-driving friends out of town. It is not as though you can simply offer some new information to change how they think. You would likely have to change the way their brain is wired, the way they make sense of the world. You cannot simply bring new policies into old brains, put new wine into old bottles.

It might just be that the answer is to change conditions for the next generation as much as possible. Alleviating hunger. Adding control and order to the point that people feel less intimidated in their daily lives. Offering choices to the young. These actions might plant the seeds for then introducing policies that will be welcomed rather than repulsed.

I love the idea of psychology, cognitive science, and therapy. I think that happiness and peace of mind is more important than we allow. But as I get older, I am more inclined to believe that social systems do as much to define psychology and cognition as anything we could do with an individual in a particular social milieu. To change the individual, you have to change the social system. Change the world he lives in and you change the individual. I predict that we'll even find that if you change the world he lives in, you change the very composition of his brain.

09 October 2009

News Warp Up for the Week

I was going to post about the plausible reasons why Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but my list includes only one item: he got Cheney to leave office without any violence. (It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which Biden would have given his acceptance speech with his skin sprinkled with bird shot.)

Communication major Sarah Palin's comments about the value of the dollar now leap straight from Facebook to the Financial Times. Meanwhile, analysts are scratching their heads about why the traditional media is floundering.

And speaking of journalism that makes you wonder who they have not laid off at these papers, Bloomberg has a headline, U.S. Trade Deficit Unexpectedly Falls as Exports Rise. Given that the trade deficit = Exports - Imports, it would only be unexpected if the trade deficit fell as exports rose. This headline is akin to "Residents Surprised to Find Streets Wet After Latest Rain Storm."

NASA scientists had an interesting idea: turn cameras into high-speed projectiles and aim them at what you want to photograph. Their good idea of smacking two spacecraft into the moon as a means to photograph it did not work too well. Curiously, the crashed cameras have yet to return any pictures. This could still change photography, though. Imagine news conferences in which every photo session looks like the incident in which Muntazer al-Zaidi threw his shoes at Bush. Instead of throwing rice at weddings, guests may just throw disposable cameras at the lucky couple. As if celebrities don't hate paparazzi enough already, just wait until they adopt the latest from NASA.

Rush Limbaugh may buy the St. Louis Rams. [The rich and poor just have different toys, Martina Navratilova says. "The rich guys buy a football team, the poor guys buy a football."] If he does, the team will be easy to defend against. You can hear the defenses they face look at each other before every play, shrug and say, "What do you think? They'll go right again?"

There is a conservative effort to expunge the Bible of its liberal tendencies. In this version, Jesus still heals people but charges for his services.

06 October 2009

Today's Big Idea for Congress

I generally dislike term limits. They seem to me a way to ensure that the lobbyists have all the experience and the legislators are perpetually going - but never getting - up a learning curve. With that said, I'd like to propose term limits of a particular kind.

Here in California, we are about to provide the second recessionary dip courtesy of a mandated balanced budget. California's requirement that budgets be balanced inevitably exacerbate the highs and lows of business cycles. When the economy is booming, the state gets more revenues and floods the economy with some combination of tax cuts and spending. When the economy is faltering, the state gets less revenue and makes things worse by increasing taxes or cutting spending.

Governments need discretion to raise taxes and cut spending during booms and lower taxes and increase spending during recessions. Governments can offset swings in the economy.

But of course, once you give a legislature power to run deficits, there is no stopping them. And, as they did through most of the last administration, they run deficits even during a boom time.

So, how do we allow legislatures the power to offset recessions without enabling them to create chronic deficits? I'd like to propose a "three-deficits and you're out" policy. Members of Congress can vote for deficit spending - but only three times before they are out. They have the tool to offset recessions but not to avoid hard choices regarding spending cuts and tax increases.

This proposal might need one other provision to make sure that the legislature doesn't fail to offset recessions. Not only would they have only 3 deficits, but they'd be allowed nation-wide unemployment of only 10%. Local recall elections would be triggered by the third recession in a congress person's career and nationwide recall elections would be triggered by 10% unemployment rate.

And once we get that in place, I think that we ought to have a similar policy for the declaration of war. Knowing that they are ordering soldiers (and foreign civilians) to death by the declaration of war, a congressperson ought to be able to authorize only one war before hitting his or her quota. "Not only am I willing for our young people to die in this conflict, but I am sacrificing my own seat to authorize it."

I am aware that there are a few details that would need to be worked out, but as a blogger, my work is done.

02 October 2009

in which your humble blogger feels compelled to opine on the day's sex scandal

Apparently, Bush and Clinton are every kind of thrilled to see David Letterman is in trouble, but the two have very different responses. George wants to do some stand up at Dave's expense but aids are trying to convince him that he'll need something more than the one line he's come up with so far. ("Ha! He's so stupid!")

Clinton, by contrast, is trying to use this as an opportunity for healing. He called Dave and told him, "I feel your compulsion."

As it turns out, Jerry Springer was the future of television, but without shame. And that is an important lesson for would-be blackmailers everywhere: only threaten those with a sense of guilt. If you can find them.

Dave makes a good living mocking the sex lives of others. All HR and publicity issues aside, it'll be interesting to see whether becoming the butt of sex jokes will throw him off his game. [Note that the phrase "becoming the butt of sex jokes" sounds dirtier than it actually is. I think.] It has to seem like a trip through the looking glass to have gone from delivering punch lines to being one. "Confucius say, People living in glass houses should turn out the lights before having sex with interns."

But it would seem optimistic to extort $2 million from an unmarried guy who has had sex. You might be able to extort $2 million from an unmarried guy who has not had sex, but only if he thought he had no other alternatives for it.

I just know that if I ever have an awkward confession to make, I'd like to do it before an audience all giggly with laughing gas and the novelty of being on TV.

Watch Dave here.

01 October 2009

It's Not War

The latest Newsweek reports on the length of American wars. By their accounting:

Vietnam War 8 years, 5 months, 21 days
American Revolution 8 years, 4 months, 16 days
War in Afghanistan 7 years, 11 months, 22 days
Iraq War 6 years, 6 months, 9 days
World War II 6 years, 2 days
World War I 4 years, 3 months, 15 days
Gulf War 1 months, 13 days

War is a battle to invade or repel an invasion. It may or may not topple a government when it is over. At its conclusion, either a government has surrendered or two governments have negotiated a peace.

Occupation is a battle to rule a people. There is only one official government. If there is no government change to come, no opposing army to surrender, and no land to conquer or give up, there is no way to "date" the end of that battle.

The War in Afghanistan threatens to become the longest American war because it is an occupation. You can date the fall of Iraq or the Taliban supported government in Afghanistan. By that measure the wars were short. There is no good way to date the end of the occupation - or even a good way to end an occupation.

[It's worth noting that the American Revolution also ended with victory on the side of the lesser power whose chief advantage was that they had no where else to go as they battled an occupying force.]