Tag 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.

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: kalanlp.com

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.


I visited a Chinese restaurant with Alice and a friend of mine the other day. This is the restaurant that serves the stinky tofu, for fans of the original Sam’s Blog. I ordered it again, not with the intention of eating it myself, but of feeding it to Alice and seeing her reaction, which, unfortunately, turned out to be disappointing. What’s more the tofu made the whole table smell like horse manure and even when I wasn’t eating it threatened to ruin my meal. Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth and attempted to distract myself with the otherwise excellent food and conversation.

The conversation was, as it turned out, the most interesting part.  My friend, an immigrant from China, told me that she was against the DREAM act because she thought that we should be trying to help the countries the people were fleeing be better places to live instead. Certainly that does seem like a better long-term solution than just having everyone in countries with problems move to the United States, but of course it doesn’t seem particularly applicable in the short term.

My friend mentioned that she, who had come to the United States legally, was not a citizen, while the undocumented immigrants covered in the dream act would become citizens. She mentioned how her work visa renewal got in late and due to this bureaucratic mix-up she cannot get a driver’s license for possibly as many as three months. We had to pick her up to take her to the restaurant.

She went on to describe how China actually has immigration restrictions within its borders. In order to leave the province of your birth, you have to have sponsorship from an employer, for instance. China does this because it is so crowded that population centers like Beijing could not possibly sustain the number of people that would go there if they had free reign to do so, she said.

This raises the question – if everyone who wanted to live in America could just go and live there, what kind of a nation would we have? Could the famous breadbasket of the world support perhaps, let’s conservatively estimate, two billion people? I am fully in favor of housing refugees when their own countries have troubles, but the notion that we should just invite everyone to come live in our country indefinitely may be dangerous. Then again, keeping them out seems selfish and cruel, and making all of those countries great places to live is a tall order. Not to mention, we still haven’t figured out how to help all the people that already are here!  Once again the right thing to do is difficult to determine.