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Monday, November 30, 2015

More Truth!

I’ve written about the truth before and probably will again. The primary reason for this is because the things I like to write about often go against deeply held beliefs shared by many people. These beliefs are so deeply held that they start to look a lot like “the truth,” but they are not. I’ve met people who think that if they believe something enough, it IS the truth. Wishing doesn’t make it so.

Here’s an example: “smaller government is better than big government.” Not everyone believes this and the people who do believe it call it “the truth.” Thus, they think their political opponents are corrupted by lies. Even science has had to deal with “facts” that have become obsolete. Newtonian physics was replaced by Einstein’s general relativity. The reality is - there is very little real truth.

Most of what we know are opinions and beliefs. Strongly held beliefs can become indistinguishable from truth. This is the source of most of the strife on our little planet. Just because you believe something with all of our heart, does not make it the truth and it doesn’t even make it right. In some cases, what might be right for you is wrong for someone else. That doesn’t make them bad, just as it doesn’t make you bad.

I try to approach a difference of opinion or belief with a very open mind. This is not something that comes naturally. It takes effort and training. It starts with conditioning yourself to start by asking questions when you encounter a difference in opinion or belief. Questions are the most powerful tool in your belt.

When you ask questions of someone, you are: A) showing respect for their opinion/belief, B) acknowledging that your own opinion/belief may be based on incomplete information, and C) opening your mind to new possibilities that could expand your understanding. Upon hearing an answer to your question, you might be tempted to think “oh, that’s wrong!” Your obvious next step is to explain the error of your co-communicator’s thinking. DON’T! Ask a probing question. Why do they believe what they are saying? Where did they hear the information that led them to this belief?

Often, differences of opinion/belief come down to events or properties that are facts. Finding a reliable source to resolve the conflict in understanding can bring enlightenment to one or both parties. Even uncovering a disputed “fact” can change the way we think about a particular belief.

What is most troubling to me is the growing number of people who don’t want to know the truth. Their beliefs are “good enough” for them. These people will either shout over you or just tell you outright that they don’t want to explore other possibilities. What is the source of this behavior? Are some people simply designed to latch onto one set of beliefs and hold onto them regardless of evidence to the contrary?

Ultimately, I am one who seeks the truth -- whatever it may be. I am not compelled to hold onto any opinions or beliefs that cannot survive careful scrutiny. Are you such a person? If not, why not? If you are unwilling to open your mind to new possibilities, then you should not be surprised when others are willing to kill and die for their misguided opinions and beliefs. That’s the truth!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Negotiate With Terrorists

Better yet, negotiate with everybody. Hey! I get the general idea of “not negotiating with terrorists,” but what got us there? Maybe terrorism is an act of desperation. If I’m right, not negotiating is just a way of treating symptoms and not a very good one. The better option is to work towards stamping out desperation.

Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. There will always be a few like-minded crazies who find each other and decide to blow or shoot someplace up. This usually ends in a ball of flame with the perps dead or behind bars. I’m talking here about organizations that are able to recruit and grow because their central message and goal resonates with lots of people.

What is that message? What’s the goal? Not the spun and redacted one that their enemies pass around, but the one that caused so many people to sign up. Maybe you’d need to put yourself in their shoes to fully understand it. Try. Somewhere at the root of it, there is some truth. There has to be. Most of us have a good enough bullshit detector to weed out the crazies. To grow, any organization needs some truth. Sadly, for some the truth may be that their lives are so miserable that getting paid to kill starts to seem like a good option. Of course, whose fault is that?

We owe it to the world to find the truth. Buried within it is an injustice that could be the basis for discussion. How many future terrorist groups are being ignored or suppressed now? Could negotiating help us to avert the havoc they would inevitably wreak upon us?

Most of us don’t ask these questions. Our government has taught us that this is wrong thinking. We are taught that we have enemies and they are bad people whose sole purpose is to wipe us off the planet. This is tribalism at its worst. If we are going to evolve socially, we need to stop seeing other groups as “them” and start seeing them as “us.” If we can do that, then we might show a bit more compassion for the strife that is causing them to organize against their oppressors (perceived or real).

Is this idealistic? Damn straight it is! So what? Is idealism a bad goal or something? I’m tired of the “we live in a shitty world -- deal with it!” attitude that so many people have these days. Who is selling us this garbage? They are the real enemy. They are the ones keeping us from getting at the truth that will ultimately avoid sending young men and women to die for the military industrial complex. Maybe that’s “they” we should be worried about? I’m just saying.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Life! Thanks for Giving

This is Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. of A. It is a celebration of the harvest and the bounty that the new land provided to settlers from Britain. For a few days back in the 1700’s, they even honored their hosts (you know, the folks that were living here before them). Turns out that showing gratitude is good for your health. I watched a TED talk the other day and some guy was going on about the “3 gratitudes” and this morning on NPR (sorry Fox) I heard them citing the research on gratitude and health again.

It always amazes me when someone puts a new spin on old knowledge and calls it a breakthrough. NEWSFLASH! Being happy is good for your health (both mental and physical). If this surprises you, then it is quite likely that you are an unhappy person. Also, probably not particularly healthy. Stress is bad for your health too. So, is there a cause and effect relationship here? Does reduced stress make you happier or does increased happiness make you less stressed out? Maybe they’re just two peas in the same pod.

So, what’s so special about gratitude? Maybe not getting everything you want is stressful. Maybe that stress reduces your happiness. Maybe being less happy limits the resources you have to achieve your goals. This is what some would call a self-reinforcing negative spiral. These are never fun for the people having them, so the trick is to find some way to break out of them before it goes too far down.

Gratitude shifts the focus to the things you do have. Here’s a little thought exercise for you. Close your eyes and imagine that you are dressed in a few rags. You haven’t had anything to eat in three days. You have had to drink dirty water and now you are sick. It is winter and you have no place to stay. You are lost, broke and you don’t know anybody. Somebody comes by and offers you a dry stale piece of bread. Are you grateful? Damn skippy, you are!

Now, take this lost, lonely, destitute, sick, hungry and homeless you and compare that situation to yours. If your life is even close to as good as mine, it would take you days to list all the things you’ve got going on. The “3 gratitude” idea recommends doing a few every day and spread them out so that you can continually derive the benefit of this realization.

Frankly, I think it’s just a clever gimmick. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great idea to be grateful for what you have. If this little mental trick helps you get to a state of gratitude for what you have then go for it. Some of us just know how lucky we have money, people who love us, food, shelter, health.

If you didn’t get that new Maserati that you really wanted, be content with the Corvette. Some people work so hard to get the extrinsic rewards that they think will bring them happiness that they don’t even notice all the things that they already have that were supposed to make them happy. You know what I call people who require “more” to make them happy? Losers! “More” is another self-reinforcing negative spiral. Try “enough” for a change.

Be thankful for everything that life has already given you. The joy of contentment can be part of a self-reinforcing positive spiral. You might just find that you get some of those things you were stressing about -- without the stress. Wherever you are in the world, have a happy thanks-for-giving day.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Myth of Time-saving Devices

I remember back in the late 80’s and early 90’s when “time-saving devices” were all the rage. I suppose these devices go all the way back the the 50’s. Take the electric can opener. Do you have one of these? We don’t. The dang things take up too much space. It’s a hassle to power them and they save you all of 20 seconds. What the hell will you do with an extra 20 seconds? Okay, I suppose if you’re big into canned goods and open 5-10 cans for every meal, this could add up, but seriously!

And, just because something is electrified, doesn’t mean it saves you time. Toothbrushes and razors are a case in point. It’s actually debatable whether either of these offers any value at all except that an electric razor is less likely to rip open a zit and cause excessive bleeding. Being prone to zits, I use an electric razor.

Then of course there’s all those lovely computing devices we all use. I’m as guilty as anyone on the planet. I have a multimedia computer connected to my big screen that I use to stream Internet content and watch digital TV from the antenna on my roof, an ultrabook (laptop), a tower PC for my recording studio, a Kindle Fire for reading books, a 7” tablet for stuff I don’t like doing on my Kindle because it is the worst Android device ever made, and a smartphone. Oh, and I have a laptop at work.

There is no friggin way any of this crap saves me time. As a matter of fact, these things fill my life. If you took them all away, I would have large expanses of time that would need to be filled with god knows what. I’d probably immediately set about trying to invent one or more of these devices just to occupy myself.

When I first learned to type in high school, I used a typewriter. For those of you under 40, this was a device that used hammer action arms with a raised letter on the end to strike an inked ribbon against a piece of paper to stamp a letter on the page. Many people don’t know this but the dumbass layout of a QWERTY keyboard was devised to avoid the hammers piling up on each other at the strike-point when people typed too fast. Some smart person figured out that if you put the letter is the worst possible position on the keyboard layout, people couldn’t go fast enough to jam the arms. It worked most of the time. Later, a guy named Dvorak invented a proper layout, but most of us still use the dumbass QWERTY one even though there are no longer any arms to jam.

Some devices, like the QWERTY keyboard, are designed just to slow us down. Take the video game console for example. These things scare me to death. I can only imagine the time-sink having one of these things around would impose. You may know firsthand. How many hours a week do you spend killing digital bad guys? If the amount of time spent killing digital bad guys was spent killing real bad guys, we’d all be dead by the end of the day...and I don’t mean just those of us in the USA. I mean all seven billion of us. Let’s face it, we’ve all been bad at one time or another and somebody out there knows it.

If instead of killing digital bad guys one day, everyone who plays video games went out and planted one tree for every bad guy they killed in their last killing spree, we could replant the entire Amazon rainforest, which would be a really good idea because at the present rate of Amazonian tree removal, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere won’t be the problem -- not pumping O2 into it will.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams famously talked about our propensity to derive pleasure from moving little green pieces of paper around and buying digital watches. Well, the green pieces of paper are all but obsolete and digital watches? Don’t get me started! Too late. At least they sat there and displayed the time. Modern digital watches do so much more. I think I have more fun listening to people with smartwatches justify their purchase than they do owning them. This has to be the dumbest thing to blow 500+ bucks on than has come along in a while.

Are you going to tell me that these little things save you the time it takes to pull out your phone? Really? And here I thought the electric can opener was a waste. This thing saves you 2-5 seconds (5 if you have it in a purse), which if you pull it out 100 times a day is a whopping 8 ⅓ minutes per day. Woohoo! That’s almost enough time to savor a Twinkie. Of course, half the time all the stupid thing tells you is that you need to get out your phone to actually see something. Then, you’d need to deduct the 5 seconds from your savings.

“But the watch counts my steps and tells me if I slept well,” you say? Okay, is this really important data? If you’re overweight, you need more steps. Period. If you’re not overweight, you’re getting enough -- keep it up. Counting them won’t help. As for sleep. I don’t know about you but when I had a shitty night, I don’t need my damn watch reminding me about it in the morning. If you can’t figure out how many hours you slept by subtracting when you woke up from when you went to bed, you don’t need a smartwatch, you need a frigging calculator! Better yet, get a 1st grade math education!

Hell, I don’t even wear a watch of any kind anymore. Back before the wristwatch, people had pocket watches. Today, some people still wear them to be stylish. I use my smartphone as pocketwatch. It is one of its many purposes. Someday, we’ll all have a chip in our head. That will really save some time. I can’t wait!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Fear: The Freedom Blocker

Most of the world now has an eye on the Islamic State after their exploits in Paris. In true terrorist fashion, they are trying to reshape civil society by preying on fear. Security and freedom are two ends of the same stick. When you pick up that stick, you need to decide where you want to hold it. Elevated security means controls on personal behavior and heightened surveillance. These things reduce privacy and freedom of action.

I applaud those people who went back into the streets of Paris and resumed their lives the very next day. It took a certain force of will to do it. Fear is a powerful agent. When you live in a war zone, your sense of reality -- your expectations -- are fundamentally altered. You learn to suppress fear in order to avoid going completely insane. It would be wrong to compare people living in a war zone with people who live in a place in which daily life is relatively safe.

Israelis may provide the best example of a civil society that faces elevated risk. We can learn from the Israelis who have to board buses to get to work or their home only hours after one such bus was blown up by a terrorist. Israeli citizens practice vigilance, but they don’t succumb to fear.

The fact is, you cannot keep terrorists out forever. That doesn’t mean we should drop our guard completely, but we need to think carefully about where we want to hold that stick. The United States is a country that values it’s freedom above all. Because we are newer than many countries, we have enjoyed the freedom that comes from immaturity. We are catching up fast! Regulations and laws continue to chip away at our freedom in the name of safety and security.

We need to be cognisant of where to draw the line. A certain amount of fear may need to be acceptable. Risks are part of freedom and we need to recognize that the choices we make have consequences. Many writers have explored the tyranny of a state left with the total responsibility for safety and security. It’s usually a very ugly picture. If “we, the people” want the freedom, we need to take up the risks as well. I don’t want to get blown up or shot, but I also don’t want to live in a police state. How about you?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Distributed Systems: The Antidote to Greed

Tonight I watched a documentary about Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway. Actually, Kamen is an inventor of many things. Look it up...I’ll wait. So, now you know (maybe) that Dean is a pretty impressive guy. He spoke about something near and dear to my heart - the evolution of distributed systems. In this case, he was talking about potable water.

Over 50% of all global fatalities from disease are caused by a lack of clean water. Building large water treatment plants in remote third world areas is not practical. So, he built a self-contained small unit that can service about 100 families. It costs about $2,000. What’s clever about this is that there is no central authority. Once the system is in place, it just works. He’s also trying to improve the design so that it’s easy to fix and at least some replacement parts can be improvised.

The powers that be in our global control system don’t really like these sorts of distributed systems. They remove central control and central control always goes to the most powerful people. Since by now we all know that power corrupts, the best way to serve “we, the people” is to take power away from the powerful and distribute it. We already talked about water. Let’s go down the list.

Money: central banks control the money supply. They manipulate it to ensure their interests are served first. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are distributed. There is no central authority and once there is widespread acceptance, it cannot be manipulated by powerful interests. You can read more about this one here.

Energy: utility companies are regulated by the government. This sounds good in principle. In practice, they work in partnership to ensure their interests are served. The cost of home solar and wind systems have been dropping rapidly. We are almost to the tipping point at which it is cheaper to power your home with one of these systems. There’s still a ways to go on battery technology, but we are extremely close. The utility companies have been doing everything in their power to ensure that distributed power systems are not on a level playing field with their product. Eventually, they will lose this battle, but they will fight it as long as they can. Once we each generate our own power, that’s one less thing that they can hold over us.

Food: Agribusiness has a dirty little (not so) secret. They are taking lots of unhealthy shortcuts in order to cheaply feed the masses. They, too, have a deal with the government that allows them to remain in tight control over their destiny. The local food movement is starting to cut into this a little, but there is a long way to go. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) are starting to catch on, but we need a lot more of them. These are small local farms in which community members pay a subscription fee that ensures that the farmer’s produce is funded regardless of the effects of weather, which can devastate other types of commercial farmers. The community shares the risk of a failed crop. They also begin to untether themselves from corporate food sources. Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) hate these guys. They bring frivolous lawsuits against them to bleed them financially until they go under. They need our support, so that they can eventually win out over the power brokers. Hey! Don’t forget to grow your own food if you have some land. We grew lots of veggies in a 4’ x 8’ plot. It doesn’t take much.

Information: Once upon a time, the media and the government worked very closely together to craft the message and life was simple and good. Our government worked for us and it was run by righteous and good people...or so we thought. The reality is that they lied to us and withheld important information from us. We did not know all the bad things they were doing. They continue to attempt to do this, but smartphones and the Internet are making it increasingly difficult to keep secrets. These two things represent a massively distributed information system that puts the power of information distribution in the hands of “we, the people.” The government and media hate it, but they can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so now we know what’s going on - good and bad. We still need to figure out what we’re going to do about it.

Medicine: the medical insurance industry is doing its best to reduce health in this country and they are getting it done. It is an artifact of history that the medical insurance industry was started back when healthcare was inexpensive and businesses could offer to pay for their employees’ health as a perk. It was a good deal for everyone back then. Unfortunately, as more and more testing and treatment options have become available, healthcare has become unaffordable for all of us. The system is designed to enable large corporations who have many employees to gain a huge financial advantage over individuals. You buy your own auto insurance, your own homeowner’s insurance, and your own life insurance. Why not medical insurance? Because the insurance companies don’t want to insure a bunch of sick people who can’t work. So, if companies pay, they don’t need to worry about the unemployed sick people. We need individual health insurance policies. Obamacare has tried to do this, but it is built on top of the corporate paid insurance scheme, which needs to be dismantled.

If insurance companies had to sign up each individual separately and they could only have one rate per plan type, given that they can’t refuse anyone, they would be forced to focus on the cost side of the equation. This would encourage them to pay for things that drive good health like fitness club memberships and dietary supplements. These things are cheap, but since insurance companies are in bed with healthcare companies that make money from sick people, there’s no incentive under the present system. Distributing insurance down to individual families would fix all of this.

Wherever you find a social problem, look for a distributed system for the fix. Consolidation of power and control is an artifact of human greed. Greed is part of our nature and it will likely take many thousands of years of biological evolution to work it out of our psychic composition. The best way to mitigate its effects is to disburse power and control. As it stands now, a very few people have consolidated massive amounts of power and control over the lives of people throughout the world. They will not give it up without a fight, but they have learned to avoid direct confrontation. Their insidious strategy is to create systems the inherently support their objectives. By seizing individual choices that favor distributed options, we can wrest control away from them in the same non-confrontational manner.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Ending Gun Violence

Let’s start with the obvious -- YOU CAN’T. When politicians and gun haters start talking about ending gun violence, I just want to smack them. Why don’t we outlaw anger and hatred, that should solve the problem, right? Maybe we could get giant electromagnets and wave them over everyone’s houses. This would pull all the metal objects out and we could sift through the rubble and get all the guns. This would allow us to systematically rid the entire country of all guns. Oh, wait! There’s that whole “right to bear arms crap.” Damn!

So, why did people need to bear arms in the first place? I know this one! It was because the folks that founded this country ended up fighting their own government for control of this place and they wanted to make sure that if this government got out of control, people would have the means to overthrow it. Well, bad news because our government got way out of control a long time ago and we didn’t overthrow it. Now, they’ve got way bigger guns than us private citizens will ever have.

Far from making automatic weapons illegal, we should legalize tanks and antiaircraft missiles. Our only hope now is that the military will turn on the leadership if they try to suppress us with military force.

What about hunters, you say? Good point. I guess when this country was founded, if you wanted meat, you either had to raise it or shoot it. Safeway, Kroger and Piggly Wiggly didn’t come until much later. Now, if you need to shoot your next meal, you probably live in Canada anyway. I guess you don’t really need a gun for that these days.

Of course, shooting stuff is fun. Even if it’s just a paper target, putting a hole in something from 50 yards away is kinda cool. That’s probably the real reason that gun lovers want to keep their guns, but they won’t say it because they don’t want to sound like a nut job.

Now, if you happen to be an actual nut job that wants to do some damage with your gun, you will probably figure out a way to make that happen. Nut jobs have the distinct advantage of not caring about rules. For example, if you were a nut job, you could start with just a baseball bat that you could get at Play It Again Sports real cheap. Then, you could bash some guy over the head with it and take their gun. See, this wouldn’t bother you because you are a nut job. No pesky law is going to stand in your way.

So in conclusion, the best way to end gun violence is to eliminate nut jobs. Maybe we could invent giant electromagnets that just pick them up. We could wave them over the whole country and just send all the nut jobs to Wyoming. We’d only need to relocate a few non-nut jobs people from there.

I think the Charlton Heston and all his gun toting NRA big mouths are dickheads, but that doesn’t make them completely wrong. I think that Obama and everyone else who whines about guns every time a nut job shoots up some place are dickheads too, but not completely wrong. Once again, complex problems rarely have simple solutions that don’t involve mass murder. Given that mass murder is the only simple solution, maybe it’s a good idea to keep the guns around for now.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Washington Insiders Lament

The Republicans have a real challenge this election cycle. They’ve got a bunch of candidates and those that are mostly on top of the polls are outsiders (Trump, Carson and Fiorina). Hopefully, voters will come to their senses in time for the primaries.

Hey, the sentiment is sound. Government sucks. The people running it are politicians. Therefore, politicians suck. It sounds logical. However, consider what Trump, Carson and Fiorina are trying to be. Politicians! So, who will do a better in Washington D.C., a rookie politician or an experienced one? Hmm...a question worthy of some consideration.

Turns out that the system of government we have includes lobbyists, bureaucrats, political science interns, staffers, military professionals and consultants. All of these folks interact with members of Congress and the White House in order to try to push forward their personal priorities. It is one big hot mess. Conflicting views serve to slow everything down. Some might consider this a good thing. If government made and executed on decisions quickly, we could trash things even worse - really quickly. Gridlock could be our best option.

Back to the central question: why would we want an outsider leading the charge? Maybe people think a guy like Donald Trump will come in there like a bull in a china shop and bust some heads. Trump will just bully all those other people in government into dropping in behind him. Maybe he could also blow some sunshine up all of our asses while he’s at it. Frankly, if he could make good on the expectations people have of “the outsider,” blowing sunshine up where it generally don’t shine would be the easier task.

No, I imagine that Trump, Carson or Fiorina would find out really quickly that in Washington D.C. there ain’t no consensus and there ain’t consensus building. The way things get done is by pulling in favors and making compromises. Sending your peeps out to gather up votes. It’s ugly tedious work and the three outsiders don’t have clue how to do it or delegate it. They’ll learn. They’ll suck at first and then maybe they’ll get better.

Or! We could just hire somebody who already knows how the game is played. What a concept! Even Obama, who was a rookie, but at least had a clue, screwed up. He screwed up so badly that he can’t even pass an immigration bill that EVERYONE WANTS! Geez. C’mon people! It’s fun to watch Trump, Carson and Fiorina pontificate about how good it could be, but let’s get back to reality -- already in progress. If we pick one of the three outsiders, say hello to President Clinton (mark II).