Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Hurt Locker

I am completely fascinated by the new movie The Hurt Locker. I've seen it twice now in theaters and think I may go back for a third viewing.

As an account of the war in Iraq, it is flawed (as this post by Brandon Friedman at VetVoice makes clear).

But as a metaphor for a particular worldview, it's almost perfect.

The strangest thing is, I don't even think I share the same view on the war as the filmmaker (Kathryn Bigelow). But what's brilliant about the movie is that Bigelow doesn't examine the big political questions at all. Rather, Bigelow shows us the war through the eyes of the individual soldier and what he sees in the course of doing his job every day. Seeing the wires and the fuses and the bombs and the guys who want to kill us -- through the eyes of a soldier, for two and a half hours, has a profound impact on how one looks at the war I think.

I think too often we tend to look at problems top down from a 30,000 foot perspective (to borrow a phrase from David Allen). What The Hurt Locker does is show us the war from the ground up -- where the problem is sometimes just 3 inches away.

I'm not gonna say any more than that, other than, if you do see it -- try to see it in a theater with surround sound -- the sound design of this movie is incredible (if you are in SoCal it's worth the $13 bucks to see it at an ArcLight theater). And if you want to chat more about the movie -- please leave me a comment in the comments section.

In defense of Phil Jackson

As any reader of this blog knows, I'm not a big fan of Phil Jackson. I've never seen a coach look so completely lost on the sideline as Jackson. But after Mr Magoo won his 10th title, I challenged myself to see the wisdom in his approach. And I think a powerful case can be made for his method. I'm not saying it's correct (other than the 10 titles which make him the most successful coach in NBA history) only that a strong case can be made. (-;

Okay here goes:

During Game 5 of the finals -- the Lakers went on a 16-0 run in the second quarter that sealed the game and the championship. Stan Van Gundy called 3 TIMEOUTS during the Lakers' run to try to stop the bleeding but nothing worked. During the regular season, Phil Jackson will never call a timeout to stop another team from making a run. He just won't do it. Jackson will allow his team to be completely humiliated on national TV -- is even willing to lose the game, but will not call a timeout to stop a run.

But maybe that's his genius.

As a result of knowing that Jackson will never call a timeout to stop a run, his players also know:
1. It's on me to make sure the other team never goes on a run in the first place.
2. It's on me to make the decisions that will stop the other team's run.
3. I better work my ass off in practice so that I'm never put in the position of being humiliated on national TV.

Jackson's genius may be that he puts the entire onus for winning on the player, rather than on himself as coach. Most nights Jackson looks as if he could give a damn whether they win or not. A player looks over at the bench for guidance and Phil Jackson is looking up in the stands trying to find the churro vendor so he can get a snack. So the player just has to read the defense himself and make the decision. That's why you see the Lakers so animated on the bench during timeouts. Kobe is grabbing the whiteboard drawing up a play -- Gasol and Kobe are figuring out how to break a double team. The Lakers players know it's entirely on them -- and as a result they perform at a higher level than any other team in the league.

That's why they call him the Zen master -- on the surface of it -- wandering the sidelines looking completely lost and not calling timeouts seems like a losing strategy. But in practice it shifts the thinking of the players in ways that make them more responsible and more effective year after year.

Some thoughts on "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins

I've started reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It's really thoughtful and helpful, I think, at tearing down some of the old myths that are preventing the world from moving to a more peaceful plain. Dawkins is not as engaging a writer as Sam Harris (but few people are), but he's much more accessible than Dan Dennett and more pleasant than Christopher Hitchens. As I've said before, in general I think the new atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett) are doing some important plowing that will ultimately make the world a better place.

That being said, I WISH Dawkins (and some of the other modern atheists) would do three things:

1. Acknowledge just how strange and wonderful it is that there is something rather than nothing. There was nothing and then there was something and existence is very strange and very awesome.

2. Acknowledge just how terrifying the thought of not existing is for most people. The brains of atheists must be wildly different than the brains of the rest of us. They seem to lack the connections between various regions of the brain that trigger the blinding panic at the thought of not existing. They seem nonchalant to the point of never mentioning what I think it probably a very real emotion for most of us. In fact the terror of not existing might be one of the most powerful emotions in the human experience and one of the primary reasons for the enduring (so far) power of religion.

3. Stop over-applying evolution (and the process of natural selection) to questions it does not answer. Evolution is correct, true to the best of our knowledge, and explains the history of life on earth. But evolution tells us nothing one way or another as to whether there is a God. There was a big bang then everything else happened. Okay, so what!? Evolution does not tell us if there is an ultimate creator of the universe or not. All it tells us is that Biblical literalists are incorrect and dumb. Okay, but we already knew that. I feel like, for every problem, Christian fundamentalists pick up a Bible and start waving it. And I feel like for too many problems, too many modern atheists pick up Origin of Species (or something by Stephen Jay Gould) and start waving it. And in neither case does the text explain all that its supporters claim it explains. Evolution tells us what -- it does not tell us why and as a result scientists ('The What is all there is!') and religious folk ('The Why is all that really matters!') are too often talking past each other.

Look, calculus has only existed for 300 years. Modern medicine has only existed for about 75 years -- since the advent of antibiotics (1928). Democracy in its modern form (without slaves and with universal suffrage) has only existed since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The pill has only existed since the 1960s. Humanity and human thinking is really just in its infancy. Isn't it at least possible that some sort of spiritual technology, some sort of spiritual practice, some sort of spiritual breakthrough could happen as big as calculus, antibiotics, democracy, or the pill? Something so big that it would make all the previous attempts at the question seem silly (just as antibiotics made blood-letting seem silly). It seems to violate the very open-minded, evidence-based approach of rationality to claim that atheists (probably) know the answer to the ultimate question when, in many respects, the human race is really just beginning to figure things out.

Taxing bad stuff to get less of it

You'll see that I added a Twitter widget to the right hand sidebar that displays my most recent tweets. A couple days ago, I tweeted:

Want to solve health care, the budget, obesity, diabetes, & global warming? Tax the hell out of soda, sugar, cigs, carbon, & toxics. Done!

Today I want to play this concept out further and examine what this says about the larger political context. Let's break it down like this:

1. I believe the policy solutions to many of our most pressing problems as a nation are known and readily available.

2. Both conservatives and progressives agree that when you tax something you get less of it (said differently, the more something costs, the less of it people will buy -- taxes raise the cost of things, which thereby decreases the amount people will buy.)

3. We can actually calculate the true cost of various unhealthy choices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published research in 2002 showing that the cost of each pack of cigarettes sold in the United States was more than $7 in medical care and lost productivity. Just this week the CDC estimated the public costs of obesity in the U.S. at $147 billion a year -- roughly 9% of all health care spending in the U.S.. Similar figures can be calculated for the cost of pesticides and other toxins in everyday use a well as the true cost of a ton of carbon dioxide (which causes global warming).

4. So one solution to our various public policy problems -- declining public health, rising health care costs, toxics, global warming, etc. -- is to tax the hell out of the things we want less of in society (as I tweeted above). Tax the hell out of:
  • cigarettes (at least $7 a pack)
  • soda (at least 3 cents per 12 ounces)
  • sugar (at true cost)
  • transfats (at true cost)
  • toxics (at true cost)
  • gasoline (at true cost)
  • carbon (at least $43 a ton but probably higher)
The benefits of these taxes would be twofold: 1.) The taxes would raise revenue to pay for much needed services -- health care, transportation infrastructure etc. (and repay the full cost of each of these choices). 2.) The cost of each of these items would be higher -- so people would use less of them -- people would smoke less, eat less sugar, use fewer pesticides on their lawn, switch to organics, and consume less energy and more locally produced food. Win, win, win, win, win, win. Done, done, done, done, done, and done right? Easy peezy right!

5. But, let's play that out (and by now you're probably raising your own doubts about the viability of these proposals). So what happens the first day after Congress proposes a 5 cents per pound tax on sugar for example?
  • Sugar lobbyists storm the Hill and start flooding Republican and Blue Dog Democrats with campaign contributions. Okay, no big deal, it's still in the public interest -- it'll get passed correct?
  • Then the TV ads start -- Harry and Louise and their kids start crying into their soda talking about the dark days of sugar lines around the block for a pack of gum.
  • Then the TV networks figure out that if people are consuming less soda, then Coca-Cola and Pepsi have less money for advertising -- and so suddenly news coverage becomes obsessed with concern trolls worrying about the sugar tax.
  • Newspapers owned by the TV stations (like the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal) start editorializing about the dangers of the evil sugar tax. Other publications, following the herd, join the chorus.
  • The right goes into full outrage mode -- whipping their base with talk that, "First they wanted a War on Christmas (TM) and now they want to outlaw childhood and joy." And religious surrogates for the corporate right go into hysterics, decrying from the pulpit, "You'll have to pry this Snickers out of my cold dead hands."
We all know the playbook because we've seen it before. I'm not saying it can't pass -- but only that there are lots and lots of interests (beyond the individual sugar producers for example) who get brought to bear on preventing even urgent, life saving reforms.

6. But here's the kicker for me. If we can't pass even obvious easy reforms -- like a true cost tax on cigarettes, sugar, pesticides etc. then what makes us think that we can pass meaningful reform that tries to achieve these same policy objectives by other means? If we don't have the votes to do it in the correct obvious way, what makes us think that a more complicated convoluted bill will enable us to achieve the same goals? Lobbyists have calculators too -- they can figure out whether the proposed bill will reach the stated objective or not and will respond accordingly. That's how bills that start out rational become irrational -- in trying to placate interest groups the original goal can get lost.

7. So I don't know, I guess all of this leaves me feeling like, politically, if you're gonna take Geneva take Geneva. If we want to reduce global warming -- propose a carbon tax and force and up or down vote rather than producing a voluminous, nicely titled bill, about (maybe) regulating carbon (a bit). Because in making a bill more complicated -- we lose the momentum and moral upper hand in the debate. Let people know what they are voting on, keep it simple, and force the vote. If you have the votes great. If you don't -- let's not pass a bill that claims it will achieve goals that it likely will not actually be able to achieve (but will only make us feel as if we have done something grand when we haven't).

8. Which of course is what Congress actually does. Representatives and Senators are smart people -- if they had the votes for a simple bill they'd just pass it. But they don't -- so they try to cobble together 50% +1 -- picking off a vote here and there with incentives and compromises. But that suggests that our entire political system is deeply irrational from the outset. The invisible hand theory of markets suggests that together the interests of each individual party will meet our collective needs. But practically speaking, when it comes to legislation promoting a common good, placating the individual interests of effected parties is often at odds with the rational public policy interests of the nation as a whole.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Eliot Spitzer was the last line of defense

When the definitive history of this era is finally written -- it will be revealed that during the period 2000-2008, there was effectively only 1 regulator left in this country. His name was Eliot Spitzer.

The federal government under the Bush Administration gutted all oversight and regulation of Wall Street (and any other industry) appointing industry cronies to look the other way as Wall Street stole your 401(k) and then raided the U.S. Treasury.

First as Attorney General (1999 – 2006) in the state of New York then as Governor (2007 – 2008), Spitzer was the only man left in the country interested in and effective at prosecuting the criminals on Wall Street. So naturally the fat cats on Wall Street (and their enablers in the Bush administration) wanted to take him out.

Enter Roger Stone, Republican political hit man, swinger, and frequent patron of strip clubs. Stone learned from a call girl at the Miami Velvet strip club that Spitzer had been using prostitutes from the Emperors Club escort service. Stone tipped off Bush's FBI who promptly launched a massive investigation and took down the only regulator left in the country.

In the weeks and months that followed the dragon of Wall Street greed swallowed its own tail -- leading to the complete collapse of the banking system in the U.S.

One guy stood in the way of Wall Street greed. And when Eliot Spitzer went down -- the deluge of corruption that followed swamped the entire world economic system.

So yeah, Spitzer probably shouldn't have been banging hookers. But on the other hand -- one huge reason why most Americans have lost 30-40% of their net worth is because Spitzer was no longer around to check the unregulated power of Wall Street.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A little personal manifesto

Life is suffering, sometimes. Other times it's pretty great.

The sources of suffering are manifold. Sometimes suffering is caused by gripping and attachment, yes. But there are lots of other causes of suffering. I'm sure you will be able to think of many examples.

The key to reducing suffering depends on properly addressing the cause of the suffering. The starving need food, the homeless need shelter, the sick need medicine, the lonely need community. Let's talk about sitting on our asses with our eyes closed as a noble vocation AFTER everyone in the world has attained basic human rights (and even then it seems like perhaps not the best use of one's time and talents on this earth).

You may not be able to eliminate all suffering -- sometimes life sucks. But maybe you will. If you do, let me know (no prank calls please).

The pursuit of happiness causes lots of suffering because humans experience a wide range of conditions and emotions -- not just one (and not just none). For example love, meaning, and the sacred can all be experienced even in the absence of happiness.

Love it pretty great. We can experience love even in the midst of suffering. Love is why we are here. Most people experience love through family. Some few experience love through work. Some through contemplation, some through play, some through arts, some through music, some through prayer. However it finds you, please honor it and those around you.

NRA -- What's up with the word Rifle in the name?

The other day I started thinking about how strange it is that a group decided to call itself the National Rifle Association. "Rifle" is the word that sticks out as unusual.

Check this out:

  • The Second Amendment talks about the right "to bear arms" but makes no mention of rifles per se.
  • The broad class of weapons that the NRA seeks to promote are called "guns." A rifle is just one type of gun. So why wouldn't the group name itself after the class -- NGA, National Gun Association -- rather than NRA, National Rifle Association?

Just as "Tea Bagging" at first appears to be an embarrassing oversight by clueless conservatives only to turn out, upon further investigation, to be a deliberately coded sexual taunt, so too I believe the word "rifle" in NRA is both intentional and reveals their deeper motives.

As any decent psychologist/sociologist will tell you, the rifle is a symbolic representation of the penis. What the NRA is promoting is not just the right to bear arms or own guns -- quite literally they are promoting male dominance and male superiority in society. When Charlton Heston says, "You can have my gun, when you pry it out of my cold dead hands" he's not just talking about "rifles" -- he's talking about his entire phallocentric, cock-centered view of the world -- where the interests of men and more specifically the interests of the male cock are to be honored as sacred. Indeed the rifle or the gun becomes the tool by which the patriarchal male inflicts his cock-centric view upon the rest of the population. So quite literally, on both a practical and symbolic level, the National Rifle Association is a collection of people dedicated to rifles, that is to penises, and promoting the wants, desires, and interests of penises (and their owners) as the central defining values of American life.


Can we just call it like it is on this whole Birther thing!? Republicans often speak in code so let me just break this down: what Birthers are really saying is, 'a black man can never be a real American.'

That's why they are so completely unhinged. Obama's election, in their minds, changed the definition of what it means to be an American and they are furious at having their white privilege eroded. First they claimed Obama was Muslim. Then they held protests where they told Obama to suck their balls (that's why even as they were being ridiculed they didn't change the Tea Bagging message -- that was exactly what they wanted to be saying). Now they're saying 'he can't possibly be American' and manufacturing the birth certificate nonsense.

In each case, prominent racists like Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, and Bill O'Reilly are the ones promoting these memes. The particular form of outrage they come up with each month (Muslim, Rev. Wright, Tea Bagging, birth certificate, etc.) does not actually matter -- it is just packaging to carry their core message that only white people are real Americans. But they can't come right out and say that without facing censure so instead they speak in code and try to pass this vile nonsense off as legitimate debate.

Update #1: Jon Stewart completely smacks down the Birthers.

Handicapping the 2012 Republican nomination

Mitt(ens) Romney is not gonna get the Republican nomination in 2012. Evangelicals and Mormons are like Shiite and Sunni -- they both claim to worship the same God but they hate each other. And Evangelicals make up 60% of Republican primary voters. That's why Palin could put on her hip waders and give the finger to Alaska -- she's the darling of the evangelical wing of the Republican Party -- and the evangelical wing of the Republican Party IS the Party.

Gallup conducted a poll back in 2007 that revealed that:
  • 5% of Americans said they would never vote for a black candidate;
  • 11% said they would never vote for a woman candidate; and
  • 24% said they would never vote for a Mormon candidate.
Mitt just ain't getting the nomination.

Things that seem normal but aren't, Part 2

Continuing my occasional series, "Things that Seem Normal But Aren't" I've got some new ones to add to the mix:

4. Woody Allen movies. Woody Allen is a creepy old guy who literally married his own long-time partner's step adopted daughter [see discussion in comments]. Ewww doesn't even begin to describe it. So I guess it's no surprise that Allen's latest movie, Whatever Works, follows the contours of his life. The plot courtesy of Wikipedia:

Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David), an eccentric, misanthropic University of Chicago graduate and chess teacher from Greenwich Village, finds a young woman (Evan Rachel Wood) from Mississippi lying on his doorstep. He takes her in for the night and eventually marries her, despite their 40 year age difference and their clashing cultural backgrounds. His philosophy on the matter is that life is short so he might as well enjoy himself.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about Woody Allen movies is the adulation he receives from old (creepy) white male reviewers -- like this embarrassing gem from Richard Corliss at Time Magazine:

Not again, we hear you groaning. Another Woody Allen movie that propagandizes crabby old guys attracting cute young women. This is not a comedy scenario; it's a criminal offense, right? Except that in Whatever Works, Allen has taken his usual ingredients--mismatched pairings, the collision of the bitter and the sweet, an abiding love for Dixieland jazz, classic Hollywood movies and his hometown--and somehow made his freshest film in ages. After four pictures abroad, two of which (Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona) were pretty good, the 73-year-old writer-director has found new vigor and warmth in his old surroundings. Melody's perky nature rubs off on Boris and on the entire enterprise. No kidding: this is the feel-good movie of the year and a cinematic soul massage.
"Soul massage" -- riiiight. It's glorified mainstreamed pedophilia and it's just flat out weird that it passes for normal in our society.

5. Las Vegas. Imagine a mutual fund that publishes its returns and shows that you will lose at least 2% a year and will likely lose much more than that. And then imagine that the mutual fund company tells you -- don't worry about losing all that money -- it's gonna be fun!!! And then imagine lots and lots of people telling you how excited they are to invest in that mutual fund on weekends. Very strange indeed.

Even the hugely successful ad campaign, "What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas" -- seems an odd allusion to the fact that the "What" in question is your money -- and it will definitely be staying in Vegas. Compare the excitement of people flying into Vegas with the depressing scene of people leaving Vegas and you'll wonder why folks continue to believe that losing money intentionally is fun. Somebody is paying for those pretty buildings and all of those blinking lights and that someone is us.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lizard Brain vs. Pre-frontal Cortex in political ads

Nicholas Kristof had a great piece last week in the NY Times, called, "When Our Brains Short-Circuit." He argues:

Evidence is accumulating that the human brain systematically misjudges certain kinds of risks. In effect, evolution has programmed us to be alert for snakes and enemies with clubs, but we aren’t well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought.

This has a number of important implications for policy. Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard explains:

“What’s important is the threats that were dominant in our evolutionary history,” notes Daniel Gilbert. In contrast, he says, the kinds of dangers that are most serious today — such as climate change — sneak in under the brain’s radar.

Professor Gilbert argues that the threats that get our attention tend to have four features.

First, they are personalized and intentional. The human brain is highly evolved for social behavior (“that’s why we see faces in clouds, not clouds in faces,” says Mr. Gilbert), and, like gazelles, we are instinctively and obsessively on the lookout for predators and enemies.

Second, we respond to threats that we deem disgusting or immoral — characteristics more associated with sex, betrayal or spoiled food than with atmospheric chemistry.

Third, threats get our attention when they are imminent, while our brain circuitry is often cavalier about the future. That’s why we are so bad at saving for retirement. Economists tear their hair out at a puzzlingly irrational behavior called hyperbolic discounting: people’s preference for money now rather than much larger payments later.

Fourth, we’re far more sensitive to changes that are instantaneous than those that are gradual. We yawn at a slow melting of the glaciers, while if they shrank overnight we might take to the streets.

In short, we’re brilliantly programmed to act on the risks that confronted us in the Pleistocene Age. We’re less adept with 21st-century challenges.

The reason why I quote this article and Professor Gilbert's findings at length is because these four features (personalized and intentional, disgusting or immoral, imminent, and instantaneous) -- are EXACTLY the Republican playbook for creating fear-based political ads. Republicans don't make ads that appeal to our pre-frontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for rationality). Republicans make ads that appeal to our ancient fear-based lizard brains.

The #1 Republican ad in the 1984 election featured a wild bear.

The #1 Republican ad in the 1988 cycle featured a shadowy black rapist.

The #1 Republican ad in the 2004 election cycle featured a pack of hungry wolves.

And then in 2008 Republicans recycled the wolf ad and created an ad alleging that Obama wanted to teach sex ed to kindergartners (when in fact the bill in question was about protecting kids from sexual predators).

In every case, Republican media consultants are looking to invoke threats that are personalized and intentional, disgusting or immoral, imminent, and instantaneous. Their entire game plan consists of trying to trigger a conditioned fear-based emotional reaction to progressive candidates. They do it because they believe it works. But I also think there is a bigger tell here -- they create ONLY fear based ads because they know that their policies are not rational -- that one really can't justify wars without end, no health care for 48 million Americans, and tax cuts for billionaires. So they just gin up the fear machine year after year and hope that it works. Sometimes it does (1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004,) and sometimes it doesn't (1992, 1996, 2008). Interestingly, both Clinton and Obama knew how to appeal to voters emotionally (as well as rationally). Dukakis and Gore made strictly rational appeals -- and subsequently lost.