Category Archives: Politics

This program is brought to you by mind control

Let’s take a moment to think about what an advertisement is. The goal of an advertisement is to encourage consumers to behave in a certain way, predominantly to encourage purchase of a particular product or service. Decades ago, they did this by appealing to a logical customer acting in his or her own narrow self interest. Commercials focused on the new features of each product and how it would make life easier.

Does that commercial look strange to you? Slow and needlessly technical? Well, chances are good that you are more used to commercials like this:

Or this:

First, they’re more engaging. You probably didn’t make it through the first commercial, but did the second two tell you anything about the product? Anything at all? Excepting the unlikely scenario that you didn’t know that Kia was a company that made cars or that Coca-Cola was a product that you could drink, these commercials are devoid of information that would interest homo-economicus. Well, I suppose she’d learn that Coca-Cola contains added flavors and no fruit, but that’s hardly likely to encourage her to make the purchase.

These commercials appeal to parts of our brains outside our rational decision-making. That is, they want to circumvent the parts of our brains responsible for what most of us would think of as free will. What’s that called? Is it a free exchange of ideas? Or is it  something else?

If you were offered the opportunity to see an episode of your favorite show in exchange for seven shots of a laser that beams associations such as “COCA-COLA :: FRIENDSHIP” and “COCA-COLA :: HAPPY LIFE” into your head, would you take it?

What if the laser was the entertainment? What if it told you “PHYSICAL THREATS :: EVERYWHERE,” and gave you a little chill of excitement to enliven a dull evening? Do you think it would be wise to take that laser? It’s free.

How about a laser that repeats opinions to you you already hold? You feel good for the validation, but there are other people whose lasers artificially validate their own opposing opinions. Good luck with the free exchange of ideas when mind lasers are making everyone utterly confident that their own opinion merits no examination.

What does it mean for democracy that so much money and talent is invested in controlling the minds of purchasing and voting Americans? Even if you personally avoid commercials and apply careful criticism to the other media you consume, what can you do about people who don’t? Buy your own mind laser and try to shoot them until they are ready to see reason? How has that worked for you in the past?

In a nation founded on trust in the individual’s ability to make the best rational decisions for himself and for the collective, the fact that private industry founds its strategies on the absence or weakness of public rationality should be deeply concerning.


No Organized Party

On the way to the county Democratic convention, my Lyft driver told me about how Obamacare had hurt her and her family. For one reason or another, after the law passed her insurance through her husband’s employer saw an increase in deductible from $1,500 to $10,000 per year. Medicare told her she was not eligible when she tried to get support for her autistic children’s physical therapy. I had little reason to believe that the Koch brothers were now planting fake Lyft drivers to lie about Obamacare, so I had to take her story at face value.

The first three quarters of the convention was voting for people I’d never heard of.  The most important decision involved a choice between a man and a woman. “He’s going to do what’s right and not what’s wrong,” said the proponents of the man, to which the woman’s supporters replied, “She’s a woman!” To be fair, the actual candidates said a little more. The man said he was going to re-establish the Democrats as the big-tent party,  which impressed me at first. When I said I would vote for him, a woman next to me snapped “no glass ceiling for you.” As his speech went on, he failed to expound on what he meant by big-tent, though. I worried he meant going more conservative instead of reaching out to help and listen to the poor of all colors Bernie Sanders style. The woman described a laundry list of strategies to get better organized and reach out to voters, which I appreciated for its clarity, so I voted for her. She won.

Next was a series of elections with only one candidate. After that was an election where we were to select seventy-eight people. There was a sheet of instructions telling us how to vote. We were to carefully maximize the diversity in each district. The couple beside me diligently filled it out like a logic problem, using the provided list of what proportions of people were in each district and carefully meeting the criteria of the attached sheet. I wanted more progressives, so I voted for the two people who explicitly listed themselves as progressive and didn’t bother with the rest.

At lunchtime I learned that the Young Democrats never received my order and believed I had just given them $15 just for whatever they felt like ordering themselves. Frustrating, but the generic sandwiches were fine.

The last segment of the convention was by far the best. We had a collection of resolutions to vote for. At each resolution, anyone could vote to pull it for corrections or to remove entirely, or a silent room would leave it as part of our official list to be sent to the district level. One man said to pull the statement against the death penalty, but when he saw the arguments that accompanied it he said they were convincing and backed down. One man pulled a number of different resolutions just to fix their grammar. At one point he called for the removal of text claiming that North Carolina had always stood against oppression of all kinds, as it simply wasn’t true. All of his amendments passed without opposition.

Even though it was trying at first, overall I was happy to have attended the convention. I didn’t affect much change this time, but next year I will be better prepared to draft and submit my own resolutions and stand on the floor to make statements. It does feel like this is a level at which an individual can make a difference.

What Bernie Sanders Can Do

Anybody paying close attention to democratic politics lately has probably noticed that Bernie Sanders is making a lot of ambitious statements about how he thinks the United States can be in the future. The claims are so ambitious, in fact, that some people think that he’s just making things up. They wonder how he could possibly accomplish all the things he’s described, like universal healthcare and higher education for all, in just eight years with a solidly obstructionist Republican Congress. It has gotten so bad, that for a while my girlfriend would fly into a rage whenever I brought Bernie Sanders up because she was worried that it would break my poor little heart when all of the things he supposedly was claiming would happen shortly after he was elected to office failed to materialize.

Now, maybe I missed the part where he promised he was going to make all these things happen himself and in short order. Assuming, though, that what I have seen of his stump speeches is representative of his claims in general, what he’s saying is this is where our country should be, not that he’s going to take us there in four years on a magical socialism train. Bernie Sanders is in fact one of few politicians vying for the office of president who freely admits that the president himself has much less power than people ascribe to him. He’s more than happy to tell people what they want to hear because it turns out people want to hear the way that America should be. This radical notion of thinking about how things could be better rather than assuming that things will never be better and starting from there is, to say the least, inspiring.

This is not to say that Bernie Sanders would unequivocally be the better president. Bernie Sanders hasn’t been on the national political stage as long as Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton, at least based on her voting records in the Senate, is comparable to Bernie Sanders in her policy preferences. Hillary would be a good president. Anyone voting for Bernie Sanders should vote for Hillary in the election if she wins the nomination. Hillary has more experience in foreign policy than Bernie Sanders, yes, and she may be better at fending off the bizarre assaults that come at her from the right, if only because she has had to deal with more than Bernie Sanders has had to. Hillary’s previous experience in the White House could very well help to get policy through that otherwise would not. According to conventional thinking, Hillary Clinton is more electable than Bernie Sanders. However, according to conventional thinking Bernie Sanders would never have gotten as far as he has, either.

In a nation living in the smog of corruption for so long that it doesn’t even know what it’s like to live without it, Bernie Sanders a breath of air so fresh it is literally hard for people to believe it could be real. Hillary Clinton described politics as poetry and policy as prose, with her being better at the latter than the former. Perhaps counterintuitively, I argue that we need poetry right now. If Bernie Sanders can’t make any of the things he talks about in his stump speeches happen during his tenure as president, our nation will only be better for him trying. Because when the president tries, when the president steps up in front of America and says that he agrees with the American people that this should be a country where influence is voted on rather than bought, when the president speaks at his inaugural address or his State of the Union and says that access to healthcare is a right, not a privilege, when the president cites the science and says that global climate change causes more terrorism, when the president makes an address and says that the top 1/10 of 1% should not own as much as the bottom 90%, when the president speaks to what is best for Americans rather than what is in an arbitrary center between the right and left wings of US politics, people listen, and people talk, and people act. We need people listening, talking, and acting on what’s best for this country. We need to change the dialogue, and amid all the things that he could not do, that is something that president Bernie Sanders could do, and should do, and will.

Or if he loses the nomination, it’s what we should keep pressure on Hillary to do. Bernie Sanders doesn’t have to win to help change this country.

The Purpose of Life

Has anyone ever told you the “purpose” of something? The purpose of a fork is to allow us to pick up our food without dirtying our fingers. The purpose of food is to be eaten, don’t play with it. The purpose of sex is to have children. The purpose of a woman is to have children. Nobody knows the purpose of life.

If you’re offended by some of those statements or are still wondering about the last quandary, let me help you out. There is no such thing as an absolute purpose. A fork has many uses, including but not limited to propping up a window, poking open the cover of a new yogurt container, or prying open a tupperware that has sealed shut. Women are people who get to define their own purpose. Man or woman, the purpose of your life is what you decide it is.

If anyone tells you not to use something for other than its purpose, ask them why. If they can’t tell you why, they’re not worth listening to. The same goes for someone telling you what your purpose or the purpose of someone else is. If they give you a reason that doesn’t make sense, explore it more deeply. Keep asking questions until it makes sense. Rely on your own understanding, don’t listen to anyone who says your understanding is not enough.

If your purpose appears to be to serve an all-powerful being with inscrutable goals and priorities, consider asking that being to prove that it exists. If it can’t or chooses not to, you’re free to do what you want.  If it does prove that it exists, well, you should probably do what it says.

If your purpose is to serve a nation, ask what about that nation makes it worth serving? If your nation tells you that it’s not safe to tell you what it’s doing, ask why. If it tells you it’s not safe to tell you why, keep asking. You can serve your nation best by making sure it sticks to the values that it claims to hold. If it doesn’t, is it really your nation?

If your purpose is to serve humanity, by all means serve humanity. Whatever particular cause or organization you choose to be part of to advance humanity’s cause, apply the same scrutiny as when serving a nation.

Critical thinking is what makes you human. Once you give up your skepticism, you give up part of your humanity. Your purpose is no longer your own, it belongs to the entity you refuse to question.  You’re giving up your freedom to define your life. If someone tells you that your purpose exists without you choosing it, it’s not true. You choose.

Cover image repurposed from:

Those Poor Rich Folk

I am wealthy. When I hear my fellow childless computer science graduate students complaining about being poor, it is difficult for me to understand their situation.  Regardless of how little actual money I make, it seems to be enough to support my needs. It comes with affordable health insurance, and pays for my education, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m living the high life.

It seems to be common, though, for people making much more than me and generally owning much more to feel poor. A well-publicized example is of Todd Henderson, who in 2010 wrote a blog entry about how hard it is to live on $400,000 a year. To America’s credit, Todd was so vilified for his post that I feel a little bad even bringing it up again after all this time. Only a little, though. Todd had the good sense to remove his post, but it’s an indication of just how out of touch he was that even The Wall Street Journal, timeless friend to fat cats everywhere, suggested he might try saving money by toning down his sense of entitlement just a bit.

Why do Todd and people like him think they’re poor? What Todd’s post suggests is that they grow accustomed to an expensive lifestyle. This lifestyle quickly becomes ingrained as the de facto standard when one’s friends and neighbors are also living similar lifestyles. So Todd feels that he is making a huge sacrifice when he, for instance, gives up his gardener.

As I mentioned before, I don’t feel poor, even though I make much less than Todd. Granted, I’m not raising a family, but mainly I think that my ability to feel wealthy comes from the fact that I was raised in a household that discouraged conspicuous consumption and told me to compare myself not to my friends and neighbors but to everyone in the world.

This has actually led me to feel obscenely wealthy at times, simply as a middle class American compared with the rest of the world, a conceit I believe my father and my sister may share. It’s only my mother’s common sense that has prevented the three of us from giving away all our money and living as Munks monks.

I had a couple more paragraphs where I continued to point out why Todd shouldn’t consider himself poor, but I relented. He did take his article down four years ago after all, and plenty of people have said plenty of things about it already. I will post this article, though,  posted in 2012, wherein he suggests that the wealthy people such as Bill Gates, Will Smith, and Stephen King who are concerned about the excessively low tax rates on the very rich should just donate extra money to the government themselves, if they love government so much. I’ll let you decide what you think.

The Penniless Researcher

An old creative writing teacher of mine recently posted on Facebook that Iggy Pop, a famous musician, could no longer support himself on his work. He blamed this on consumers, referring to a “give-me-stuff-but-I-won’t-pay-for-it culture.” This struck me as an unfair analysis, so, along with some other readers of this fellow’s Facebook posts, I looked more deeply into the issue.

The first thing that we found was that Iggy Pop has a net worth of $12 million. The issue here might be more along the lines of managing one’s money rather than not actually having enough money. The general point remained, though. Even if Iggy Pop is not actually as poor as he makes himself out to be, many artists are. Next, I tried to think of a solution that would offer artists a living wage while not taking art away from those who could not afford the prices it used to fetch before digital distribution.

The first answer was obvious: the radical divide between the rich and the poor is to blame. The middle class is the greatest consumer of affordably-priced art. If each member of the six billionaire Waltons – heirs to the Wal-Mart empire, buys a book, that’s six books sold for the price of a book. If the Waltons’ wealth-equivalent of middle class people each buy a book, the exercise is left to the reader, save to say that that’s a lot more books sold.

On another thought path, what if we could encourage art by subsidizing it? It turns out we do with the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), but it gets so little funding ordinary folks like me don’t even know it exists.  This led me to think: what would science be if the National Science Foundation (NSF) were gutted like the NEA?

There would still be lucrative industry jobs, just like artists can get good careers as commercial artists, and there would be a few scientists who manage to develop something amazing, patent it, and become vastly wealthy, just like Iggy Pop, but then there would be the rest of the scientists, studying things with no direct benefit to any corporation. These scientists would likely be much like the struggling artists of today, barely making ends meet, telling themselves again and again that it’s all about “loving your work” while the roof of their cardboard box house/personal lab caves in on them from the rain. Then the public would benefit from their work. Maybe they’d get a private donation or two – enough that they could afford a new box. A big refrigerator box where they can lay down at night, and some plastic wrap to keep it from getting soggy and falling apart. Newly dry, and safe inside strong, reinforced cardboard, they think what a gift it is to be spending every day doing what they love.

But I digress. My old creative writing teacher and I agreed that more money to the NEA could help get new artists off the ground and encourage our nation’s creativity without shutting out the less wealthy consumers. I suggested that he write a letter to his representative to make this happen, and he said that although he lived in DC and didn’t have a national representative, he had already written several to various local representatives, crediting his letters and those of others with keeping the arts program open at one of his local schools. “Oh,” I said with a start, “you’re way ahead of me.”



Ever since Nate Silver of correctly predicted the last presidential election, he’s gotten a bit of a name for himself. Now he’s apparently the face of election polling. All of the activist emails that I get have been saying things like “Nate Silver says we can’t do it. He says we’re going to lose. Let’s prove Nate Silver wrong.” I’ve been getting a lot of these emails.

Then my friend got a job canvassing for Kay Hagan, incumbent senatorial candidate for North Carolina. From what I understand, the below Dilbert comic roughly represents how his job works.


That’s not fair. He’s allowed to get help from friends as well as family. Now I’m out canvassing for Kay Hagan in Hillsborough. Not because a boss with devil horns for hair forced me to, but because I personally would rather have Kay Hagan in congress than her competitor, and I like to try and make the things I want to be be the things that are.

I’ve learned a lot in my two canvassing endeavors so far. Mostly that the people on the list to be canvassed are often people who don’t want to talk with canvassers. It’s remarkable how many people don’t answer their doors.  Once a person started to open the door and then abruptly stopped, probably noticing that we weren’t anyone she knew. My father, canvassing with me, also noticed that people often didn’t want to talk with him. There seemed to be a disproportionate number of people in the shower in the middle of the day when a canvasser was at the door.  Once a little girl at the window shouted at her mother “Mommy, I’m hiding upstairs! You can hide with me if you want!” No one answered the door.

Nevertheless, we did get some people willing to talk to us. A lot of people were more invigorated by dislike of Thom Tillis than like of Hagan, so I encouraged them to think of a vote for Hagan as a vote against Tillis. It seemed like someone here and there may have gone from not voting to voting for Hagan. I hope so.