Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Those “huh?” sentences and the fate of Steve Bannon

I occasionally come across sentences that really baffle the mind. Consider this one from an article on Michael Anton, an advisor to President Trump.

A dandy compared to the famously rumpled Bannon who tells me presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is the White House’s best-dressed aide in a skinny-tie-sort of way, Anton even wrote a book about Machiavelli and fashion; he’s a true-believing Trumper who is also an expert on fine wines.

I believe the sentence is saying that Anton, not Bannon, referred to Kushner as best-dressed but it’s tough to know for sure.

On a side note, I often find memes taking hold that don’t seem particularly justified. For instance, many in the press seem to feel Bannon is doomed in his role a Trump advisor. The reasons for this seem to be some rather offhand comments Trump has made. Personally, I don’t know Bannon’s fate but it seems presumptions to conclude he is finished. Anton, this article, agrees.

As for reports that Bannon, now dumped from his official seat on the NSC Principals Committee after widespread complaints that a political adviser to the president didn’t belong among his top national security advisers, might be on the outs altogether, Anton argues that’s overplayed too. “He still goes to the meetings,” Anton says. “He’s still a close adviser.”

Trump… whaddaya do with this guy?

I peeked at the news app on my phone this morning, eager for news stories in the aftermath of Trump’s decision to bomb Syria. An Atlantic article appeared with the headline “Trump Was Always Going to Disappoint his Isolationist Supporters.” Another one on the Atlantic web site is titled “Donald Trump, Inevitable Hawk.”

One wonders, if the Atlantic was so confident of what Trump was always going to do, why they didn’t write an article about it two weeks ago? Events always look inevitable after they happen.

I don’t say this to pick on the Atlantic which I think is a great magazine. But they, like the rest of the press are jumping fropm narrative to narrative, desperate to explain Trump’s strategy and behavior. Give up, I say. There’s no ‘splainin’ it.

When Trump was elected we were told to expect the second coming of Hitler. This lasted until Trump failed to get his Obamacare repeal through and he became the bumbling, inept salesman. We were told Trump was basically a sleeper agent for Putin until he suddenly reversed course and bombed Syria.

Maybe all those things are true, maybe none. But people should stop pretending they know. How refreshing would it be to see an article that stated, “we don’t know what they fuck this guy is doing. We’re not even sure he knows.”?

UPDATE
I have to update this post with a bit more detail. I actually read the “Donald Trump, Inevitable Hawk” article and noticed this sentence.

While this episode may have been the one to finally debunk the pundit-pleasing myth of “Donald the Dove,” the truth is that Trump’s mutation into a missile-lobbing interventionist was, most likely, always inevitable.

How can something be “most likely, always” anything?

Kids these days…

I was watching an interview with comedian/commentator Adam Corrolla yesterday. He was defending his views, views which some call conservative but what he merely saw as common sense. Part of his take on things is the idea that people who can’t afford to have kids shouldn’t have kids. Seems reasonable enough, I thought. But it sort of feels like something is missing. To simply tell young, poor kids to not have kids until they can afford them seems like a doomed effort.

So why is this? We all understand that teens and young adult just make bad choices. Neuroscience can even offer a reason why, noting that the frontal cortex of the brain—reportedly key to foresight and planning—is not fully developed until one is in their mid twenties.

But we don’t really need science to tell us that young people make stupid choices. This is because we’ve all been young people and made stupid choices. Following this tangent got me thinking about my teens and twenties and musing, “What the fuck was I thinking?” Not in a chastening sort of way but more that of mild bemusement.

I look back at the period after I graduated from high school and think, “What was my plan?” I realize I was both naive and also unaware of the real possibilities of life. Part of my plan was to start a band and become a rock star, a rather pie in the sky pursuit (though I know people who accomplished this.) On the flip side, I think I thought it unlikely, even if I went to college, that I could do something like become a lawyer or scientist. Nowadays I feel such vocations could be well within reach if I felt like committing to them, which I don’t.

As it was, I ended up working at a car wash for eight years before stumbling into a career in web development.

I feel around in my memories for some tidbit of information that could possibility serve as a guide to getting young people to value their future correctly. I don’t really find anything other than a sense of understanding how some kid raised poor with little sense of hope could turn to creating a family (or at least having lots of sex) as a source of pleasure.

But we all end up paying for that.

Your personal robot slave

I’ve often talked here about why I think certain technological developments, namely AI, robotics and 3D printing could radically alter the landscape of employment. I am, of course, hardly the first person or only person to discuss this.

This Salon article is a worthy addition to the debate. The article posits that personal manufacturing robots and 3D printers could allow people to become a factory of one. Have you always wanted to produce and sell a line of rubber figurines in the form of the Loch Ness Monster? With your own personal manufacturing robot you could do so from your basement.

The article states:

This is already beginning to happen. In 2014, there were more than 350,000 manufacturing companies with only one employee, up 17 percent from 2004. These companies combine globalization and automation, embracing outsourcing and technological tools to make craft foods, artisanal goods and even high-tech engineered products.

Many American entrepreneurs use digitally equipped manufacturing equipment like 3D printers, laser cutters and computer-controlled CNC mills, combined with market places to outsource small manufacturing jobs like mfg.com to run small businesses. I’m one of them, manufacturing custom robotic grippers from my basement. Automation enables these sole proprietors to create and innovate in small batches, without large costs.

An interesting idea. Nonetheless, it feels somewhat utopian, doesn’t it? Are we really going to counter-balance the rise in unemployment caused by robots and 3D printers by turning households into small manufacturing units? This might work for a small subset of people, but it seems unlikely to be salve to the larger problem.

A commenter on the post makes a funny and similar point:

Some good points, but this techno-hipster bullcrap about the future being dufus hipster makers with at home 3D printers and trained on LEGO Mindstorms making artisanal pickle jar openers being the future only serves those who are selling the hipster shovels.

Hmm, that’s an understatement

You have to find some humorin this Washington Post report on a political rally turned violent.

The video makes it hard to see what sparked individual violent incidents. At one point, two men began punching each other. A woman was hit in the face in the scuffle, further angering people. As that was going on, someone released a mist of pepper spray, and people in the dense crowd started coughing and rubbing their eyes.

Then, the mood of the rally soured, according to the video.

Yes, only then did the mood sour. Until then it was going swimmingly.

Connecting the dots between Scott Adams and “The Game”

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I spent a lot of time during the election season commenting favorably on cartoonist Scott Adams’ analysis of Trump’s campaign. I even wrote a few articles over at acid logic on the subject, including this one where I compared Trump’s persuasion abilities to similar skills I had seen described in a book about the world of pickup artists called “The Game.”

As such I shouldn’t be too surprised when I read this profile on Adams and come across this passage.

[Adams] has an airy office upstairs, where the books on display include Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade and a signed copy of The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, a book of strategies for seducing women. (Adams said he hadn’t read it.)

I would argue that “The Game” isn’t a strategy book, it about the people who use the strategies.

Another interesting tidbit about Adams in the profile.

Around the same time, Adams said, he was making up to $1 million annually from public speaking, charging up to $100,000 per speech, until in 2005 he suddenly lost the ability to talk with other people. The mysterious condition is known as voice dystonia. While Adams could still speak normally to himself and to his cat, and he could even sing and recite memorized poems, he could no longer have conversations. “I think that’s what led to the end of my marriage,” he told me. “Losing the ability to speak made me feel like a ghost. It was incredibly lonely.” The inexplicable condition, which doctors attributed to a possible mental condition, persisted for three years. Then Adams underwent an experimental surgery that involved cutting nerves that lead from the brain to the vocal cords and building a new path using nerves from elsewhere in the neck. A few months later, his voice returned.

Really, if you can still talk to your cat then nothing has been lost.

Donald the unprepared

There are many reasons one could find Donald Trump grating. You can find people airing their grievances all over the web. But I’m starting to sense that a lot of it gets down to this: Trump’s way of dong things flies in the face of how we are “supposed” to do things.

What do I mean by this? The conventional view of how one tackles a project is that you do research, develop your processes and then apply a lot of elbow grease and get it done. You develop a plan and then follow through with the plan.

I suspect this goes back to the Protestant work ethic that was later codified in business manuals. It’s certainly how I tend to do things and it’s how the previous President, Barack Obama, (remember him?) did things.

Trump clearly doesn’t apply this method. Rather he throws a bunch of “stuff” up in the air and sees what sticks. Very little of what he throws up has much forethought applied; it just seems to be what strikes him at the moment.

During the long election season, I frequently commented on Scott Adams’ assertions about Trump. One of them was that Trump often “A/B tested” his messages. For instance, here, Adams alleged that Trump A/B tested his insulting nicknames for his opponents (e.g. “Crooked Hillary,” “Low Energy Jeb.”)

At other times Adams alleged that Trump kept his policy proposals deliberately vague to allow people to overlay their preferred policy in the details.

In essence Adams argues that Trump is intentionally not a planner or a “details guy.” I think Adams is right, and it’s this lack of interest on Trump’s part in planning, in structure, that bugs people (including me.) It goes against everything we’ve been told. The message of modern life is “develop a plan, work hard at it and you might succeed.” Then this Trump guy comes along, makes it all up on the spot and ends up being President.

Now one has to ask: Is there something to this “make it up as you go” approach? There is the obvious advantage that, in a fast moving, ever-changing world, it’s much easier to change your strategy on the fly if you aren’t wedded to a particular implementation. This is the idea in business books like “Teaching The Elephant to Dance.” And we have seen Trump change his implementation on many things. He was for criminalizing abortion until he wasn’t. He was for a Muslim ban until it was a partial ban. He was for deporting illegals but now he’s for… well, I’m not really sure. As many have commented, he has no firm ideology.

But it also seem that not applying the proper thought and planning can only blow up in your face eventually. And I think that many people’s concern (and mine.)

Are kids wired to be negative nellies?

I continue to read “The Organized Mind” and come across an interesting passage about how age affects how we react to negative and positive information.

Older adults show a special preference for emotionally positive memories over emotionally negative memories, while younger adults show the opposite. This makes sense because it has long been known that younger people find negative information more compelling and more memorable than the positive. Cognitive scientists have suggested that we tend to learn more from negative information then from positive – one obvious case is that positive information often simply confirms what we already know, where is negative information reveals to us areas of ignorance. In this sense, the drive for negative information in youth parallels the thirst for knowledge that wanes as we age.

My first thought about this is related to music. It’s certainly true that youth prefer what we might call “negative” forms of music. Music styles like goth, heavy metal, punk and whatnot certainly advocate against the mainstream ethos of society. And interest in these music styles tends to wane with age. You don’t see a lot of 75-year-old punk rockers out there.

There’s also the stereotype of the wholesome kid who goes off to college, takes a couple of Noam Chomsky courses, and suddenly hates America. This is, of course, an oversimplification of what goes on there, but in essence, the kid is embracing a point of view that goes against the mainstream.

The point of all this being that this pursuit of negativity may be in some sense “wired” into our genes and brains. Younger minds are more receptive to negative ideas, and older minds more resistant to them. (Certainly, we think of older people as being more “traditional” than younger people e.g. they are more prone to celebrate mainstream beliefs and symbols.)

Trump’s can-do attitude

I’ve raved in the past about Daniel Levitin’s book “This Is Your Brain On Music.” Just now I am reading his book “The Organized Mind” which is essentially about how to train your brain to be more efficient. In a section on dealing with failure he has an interesting passage. (Note: the book was written in 2014.)

Billionaire Donald Trump has had as many high-profile failures as successes: deadend business ventures like Trump Vodka, Trump magazine, Trump Airlines, and Trump Mortgage, four bankruptcies, and a failed presidential bid. He is a controversial figure, but he has demonstrated resilience and has never let business failures reduce his self-confidence.

It did strike me somewhere around Trump’s victory that he epitomizes adages like “believe in yourself,” and “never let what others think of you stand in your way.” Trump seems quite comfortable just pounding his way to victory. (And pounding the people who stand in his way, be they political opponents of any stripe, beauty queen contestants, judges or parents of fallen soldiers.)

Levitin doesn’t end his analysis there though. He continues….

Too much self-confidence of course is not a good thing, and there can be an inner tug-of-war between self-confidence and arrogance that can, in some cases, lead to full-scale psychological disorders.

Narratology

Lately, I’ve become interested in the concept of narratology. Wikipedia conveniently defines it.

Narratology refers to both the theory and the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception.

As I see it, the theory of narratology lists the components of stories (themes, characters, archetypes, etc.) and also describes how stories guide or distort our perception of reality.

It’s the second part that interest me most. It’s the idea that we see the world around us and try and fit it into a narrative—a story to make sense of it all.

This certainly relates to politics and you see it now in the Trump era. Some people look at Trump and a defender of the little guy who will disrupt the corrupt powers that be. Others see a rising fascist who may destroy democracy. Obviously both groups have access same information, the same surrounding reality. How can they come to such disparate conclusions? (Additionally, both sides are manufacturing facts to support their narrative.)

This is where narratology comes in. I believe we have a story in our heads and we force what we see to fit into that narrative.

What do all good narratives need? A good guy and a bad guy. Someone to root for and someone to hate. The different groups have forced the emergence of Trump into their narrative.

(You might be asking me: what do you think of Trump? Check out my latest acid logic article for the answer. In general, I’m wary about him but doubt he’s the end of civilization.)

On a side note, I think narratology is related to health. I’m reminded of a story a friend of mine told me about his grandfather. The man walked into the ER one day, convinced something was wrong with him. He demanded the doctors check him out and they did, wearily reporting that everything was fine. The grandfather insisted it wasn’t and died that night. (I realize this anecdotal story doesn’t really prove my point, but it’s all that comes to mind right now.)

So where do these narratives—these story templates with which we generate our interpretation of reality— come from? Maybe they are, on some level, embedded in our biology. I’m pretty unclear on how this could be possible but Jung, among others, believed it. (I think he did; I’m not an expert.)

Or maybe narratives evolve and are passed culturally through Richard Dawkin’s “memes.”

For the most part, I’m wary of narratives. I think they blind us to the true nature of reality, causing us to make heroes and villains out of what are basically flawed if perhaps unusual and exceptional people. For the most part, I think our narratives fail us. (You can see this especially in numerous conspiracy theories that arise and are easily debunked yet still earn followers.)