Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Let’s beat up on the media

I’ve been reading an interesting pop psychology book called “You Are Not So Smart.” The book details various ways that our brains and minds can trick us into misreading reality.

In one chapter the author argues that in times of emergency, instead of freaking out like you might think, many people refuse to acknowledge the peril around them. They seek normalcy and discard any incoming information that interferes with that interpretation.

As the author points out, we can more easily convince ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they seem because the media often inflates dangers that turn out to be nothing.

Regular media overhyping and panic building over issues like Y2K, swine flu, SARS, and the like help fuel normalcy bias on a global scale. … With so much crying wolf, it can be difficult to determine in the frenzied information landscape when to be alarmed, when it is really not a drill.

I’d almost forgotten all the media hand-wringing over Y2K and the total non-event it turned out to be.

This comes around to a related thought I’ve been having. When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, the media treated as a joke. The same is basically true with Bernie Sanders. Frankly, I thought of these candidates as jokes. But we may be approaching a point where the final contest will be Trump versus Sanders. Whatever you might think about either of them, you have to give them credit for believing in themselves when “the establishment” did not.

Do we already have “free education”?

Welp, I’m back to linking to a Scott Adams post on Trump, but this time because it hits on an argument I’ve made myself: with the plethora of free information on the internet we should rethink education. Adams notes…

Trump could take “free college” off the table by saying college is overrated for most people. You can learn almost any skill over the Internet, so what we need is a way to accredit certain collections of skills.

I’ve spent the last couple weeks watching my girlfriend’s son use youtube to educate himself on techniques for filming and lighting movies. There’s tons of useful info out there. But, of course, all his learning is meaningless unless it is verified somehow. This would be the accreditation idea Adams speaks of. Will we see a rise of accreditation institutions that do not teach – that would be up to the student – but simply verify that a person knows what they are talking about? I’d love to see that.

I will say, I’m dubious Trump can make that argument stick for the current Presidential race; people are too wedded to the old ways. But the idea itself has merit and may take hold.

The other take on Trump

Lately, I’ve featured Scott Adams take on Donald Trump on this blog. Adam’s argues that Trump is a “master persuader” who wins arguments by signaling subtle cues that bypass actual argumentation. (Read pretty much any of Adam’s posts on Trump for examples.)

Adam’s posits that Trump is in complete control of his blustering persona. Adam’s has even stated he feels Trump uses ego as tool he can turn on an off e.g. Trump doesn’t feel actually insulted when people disrespect him.

At Vox, an author presents a different view. He argues that Trump has a need to dominate every social situation and this need is built into Trump’s core character.

Trump doesn’t make people feel that way. Indeed, he has constructed his entire professional life around him being the center of universe, the focus of any room he’s in. He doesn’t want to be liked, he wants to be respected and feared. He wants to be the top dog; he is obsessed with it.

I think people often misread that as a species of strength, but its true origin is fear — deep, pre-verbal fear, down in the brainstem.

Some scientists have looked into what makes conservatives conservative. One thing they’ve found is that conservatives are more sensitive to negative features of the environment — to threat, contamination, disorder. At the far right end of the spectrum is the authoritarian, who dreams of total control, freedom from all threat, “peace through strength.”

And that’s Trump (who, not coincidentally, refuses to shake hands for fear of germs). He must be in control, have all the leverage, in every situation. (If he doesn’t, he just declares bankruptcy and moves on.) He is hyper-attuned to disrespect or disloyalty, as the feud with Fox News this week showed. And a hair-trigger fight-or-flight reflex makes him prone to outbursts and personal attacks whenever he feels threatened, which is often.

It’s pathological. And the thing about pathologies is that they cannot be taken on and off like masks. They are pre-conscious; they order incoming experience.

I will say, as much as I find biological or psychological theories about behavior compelling I’m aware they are very difficult to prove. Is Trump’s lizard brain controlling his behavior or a “master persuader” cerebral cortex? Nobody can really claim to know for sure.

On a side note, one things bugs me about the Vox article. At one point the author states.

And here’s the bedrock obstacle to Trump’s success: there are simply not enough struggling, resentful, xenophobic white people in the US to constitute a national majority sufficient to win a presidential election.

And beneath that is a picture of Trump talking to fans. One smiling female fan is what looks to be Asian and beyond that a browned skinned women, possibly Indian or Hispanic. This is is a picture of about seven people total. It’s of course possible that this photo was somehow rigged by Trump to show his multicultural appeal but it’s an odd choice to use under a paragraph making the opposite case.

Signaling cues

I’ve been thinking a bit more about this signaling idea prompted by Scott Adams’ musings on the rise of Donald Trump. I find a lot of it ties in with things I’d already been thinking about.

Let’s consider this scenario. You bump into a friend and he says, “I’m going home to listen to my new collection of Bing Crosby CDs.” At first glance this might seem an innocuous, almost boring statement. But I would argue much is being said beyond the straight facts. For one, this person is saying they like Bing Crosby, which affirms a few things about their identity. It affirms that they don’t only listen to modern music, but have an affinity for the classics. And specific classics—Crosby represented the white establishment music of the time, a genre of music that is basically maligned by hipster musicians of the modern era (not entirely; this is a complex assertion but I think the gist holds true.) In a way, there’s something “politically incorrect” about liking Crosby as opposed to, say, a grittier black artist like Bessie Smith.

So, basically, that simple statement is loaded up with all sorts of subtle, cultural cues. This person isn’t just telling you about their evening plans, they are telling you about their identity. And depending on how you respond, you will tell them about your identity.

Adams’ assertion is that Trump is similarly loading his statements with these kinds of cues: subtle hidden meanings designed to appeal to a certain kind of voter.

One comment that Trump made that perplexed me at the time was Trump’s statement that illegal Mexican immigrants were hordes of rapists and murderers, though he did add, “some, I assume, are good people.” The “I assume” got me there. It’s like, “Geeze, Donald, you can’t even say that amidst the millions of Mexican immigrants there are, IN FACT, some good people?” He was actually leaving the possibility open that NONE of them were good people.

Let’s hold that thought. Consider another scenario. Let’s say you see a guy selling his car for $4000. You walk up to him and say, “I’ll give you $100.” Do you really expect to get the car for $100? Do you really think that’s a fair offer? Of course not; you’re saying ‘I drive a hard bargain.’ You will buy the car of the guy really wants to sell it, but you’re not going to be an easy mark.

My suspicion is that this was Trump’s real goal with the “good people” comment. He was saying, “I’m a tough negotiator. With me you don’t get to try and convince me that half of Mexican immigrants are good people, you try and convince me that a few of them are. I can lowball with the best of them because I hold the cards.” And people like tough negotiators for President; they like people who drive a hard bargain for “our” interests. I might even argue that this comment appeals especially to business people (small or large) who understand the intricacies of bargaining.

Of course it’s a dangerous statement since it could alienate so many people that it costs him the nomination. We will see of course, but he’s still in the lead.

Does Trump believe it?

I’m continuing to enjoy Scott Adam’s posts on politics—here’s a recent one arguing that the rise of political outsiders like Trump and Sanders is the result of social media bypassing representational democracy.

There’s another point Adams made somewhere in some other recent post (that I can’t track down at the moment)—the point was that one of Donald Trump’s strengths is his immunity to embarrassment. That might seem like a questionable ability. Doesn’t embarrassment keep you from making a fool of yourself? Sometimes, yes, but it could be a hindrance depending on your goals.

Personally, I find people who believe in insane conspiracy theories to be annoying. One of my early complaints about Trump was that he touted this insane “Obama is from Kenya” conspiracy theory*. Only an idiot would believe that. Trump, whatever you want to say about him, doesn’t seem like an idiot. So why does he believe it?

*For the record, I find the “Bush planned 9/11″ theory equally insane.

Well, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he just realized that this is a good way to signal to a certain group of Americans (roughly speaking, Nixon’s silent majority) that he’s on their side. Frankly, most of those people may not buy the Obama/Kenya theory but it’s anti-Obama and that’s enough for them.

Trump is immune from embarrassment and has no problem presenting himself as someone believing in something that on its face is quite idiotic. That’s my theory anyway, and it does seem to explain some of the inconstancies of Trump’s character (like how a basically smart/educated/rich guy can believe in nonsense. He doesn’t.)

The same thing might be said of Trump’s “Build a Wall to keep out Mexicans” plan. He knows it’s a preposterous, expensive idea. But he merely says the words to serve as signal to potential voters.

There was an interesting experiment described in this “Moral Tribes” book I’m reading. A generous welfare planned was described and called a “Republican plan” and experiment volunteers self-described as Democrats rejected it while self-described Republicans embraced it. The situation was reversed and so were the results. It almost seems like the we’re at the point where the substance of things is irrelevant—it’s entirely about symbolism. This is true with Trump and it’s true with Sanders (whose policy proposals are basically substance-less and have no chance of getting through Congress.)

It’s very possible this is one of the most interesting times in American history. I’m not uncertain that if Trump is elected that he won’t just turn around and announce that the whole thing was been a big, crazy challenge he gave himself to see if he could bullshit his way into office.

UPDATE: Here’s a Scott Adams post that gets to the heart of the argument that Trump is immune to embarrassment.

Trump intentionally accepts the scorn of many as a cost of winning. And it works.

Ask yourself if you could withstand the types of criticisms Trump withstands every day. It would kill a normal person with a fragile ego. One can only endure that type of abuse when you see ego as a tool, not a character trait. Trump doesn’t mind the criticism because people are attacking his choice of tools, not his personality. Only Trump knows his inner thoughts, and apparently he’s okay with them.

Always remember this: Ego is a tool, not a personality trait.You can manipulate your ego, as Trump shows us, to gain advantage in this world. I took the Dale Carnegie course years ago and they teach this very thing. Today when I embarrass myself in front of millions of people – which I do about once a week – it just seems funny to me.

Scott Adams on Trump

I’ve been dimly aware that Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert comic strip, has an interesting blog that I should probably check out more. I only recently found out that he’s been making predictions about the political rise of Donald Trump that have been quite accurate (while the rest of the media has been baffled by Trump’s rise.)

Adams is a certified hypnotherapist and argues that Trump is what should be called a “master persuader”—a brilliant pitch man. Part of Adam’s thesis is, as I understand it, that people don’t really think logically, instead they respond emotionally to various cues. A good hypnotist, or politician, can manipulate people by transmitting these cues. That is what Trump has done, says Adams. Sounds nutty, but Adams has been making predictions about Trump’s fortunes with a high degree of accuracy based on this theory.

This Reason article provides some detail.

“What I [see] in Trump,” says Adams, is “someone who was highly trained. A lot of the things that the media were reporting as sort of random insults and bluster and just Trump being Trump, looked to me like a lot of deep technique that I recognized from the fields of hypnosis and persuasion.”

This also ties in with a book I’ve been reading called “Moral Tribes.” In the book, author Joshua Green argues that we are programmed by evolution to cooperate within groups; this behavior leads to the success of our individual genes. Green basically says that we have subconscious programs in our mind/brain that control our behavior. Presumably these programs could be activated by the cues Adams talks about.

The point of all this is that people who are baffled by Trump’s success despite his lying and general self-aggrandizement are missing the big picture. Trump knows exactly what he’s doing by sending signals to persuade people (more emotionally than logically) that he is a good choice for President.

I myself have said that while I think a Trump presidency could be a disaster for the solar system, I understand the appeal of his refusal to bow to political correctness. I’ve long identified in myself an anti-authortitarian streak, a dislike of being told what to do or say. The political correctness camp specializes in telling people what to do and say (often with very good reasons, but it’s still bossy.) Does Donald Trump behavior appeal to my “anti-authority mind module”? I think so.

The new heroin epidemic?

I caught a bit of the final Democratic primary debate last night. One question popped that I was not expecting, asking what the nominees would do about the heroin epidemic.

I wasn’t aware we were in the middle of a heroin epidemic and I remember being underwhelmed by the numbers present in the last one, during the grunge-filled 90s. So what are the details? This CNN article says…

In general, drug overdose deaths have been on the rise for the past two decades, but the number of deaths from heroin use is up by 39%.

That means 5,927 people died after using heroin in 2012 and that number jumped to 8,260 deaths in 2013. Those are the latest numbers available.

And to give context…

For perspective: The number of people dying after abusing drugs is higher than the number of people killed in traffic accidents.

Well, waitasec… they mean the total number of people dying from any type of drug (not just heroin) is higher than traffic fatalities? That’s what I will presume though they never in the article actually provide that number.

Of course, if you know me, you know I feel the “let’s compare fatalities from X to traffic fatalities” to be disingenuous as traffic fatalities have gone down substantially in recent decades. (Check out the graph titled “Trends in Automobile Fatalities” on this page.) As I always say, we ought to celebrating that auto fatalities have gotten so low as opposed to using the new lower number to make comparisons.

One final ironic point made in the CNN article. Efforts to prevent people from getting legal opioids may be what driving them to heroin.

Federal, state and local governments have been cracking down on illegal prescription drug sales with some success, according to the Journal study. That may have a connection to the rise in problems with heroin.

Law enforcement has shut down many pill mills. Governments have created rules that tighten prescription practices. Drug manufacturers have been creating more abuse-deterrent versions of their drugs.

All this effort to stop prescription drug abuse has made it much more of a challenge for addicts to get their drug of choice.

That may mean they turn to heroin, a drug that gives users a similar kind of high, but can be cheaper and now may be easier to get, according to the Journal study.

Gender inequality in the arts

Over at the web site (never heard of it before today) a post compiles comments from female authors who are able to pursue a writing career because of their husbands’ financial support. For example…

“Writing did come late to me, long after a many times disrupted career as a painter. I have worked different jobs, a few years as a midwife, studied art, became a mother of four and now I write in my spare time. My husband is financially supportive but kind of questions the writing stuff. Our youngest is still in school and after almost 25 years of working at home and from home I do feel I ‘earned’ the time I so desperately need to be creative. I take my husband’s reluctant sponsorship anytime and thankfully we are able to manage our humble life. Neither do I complain nor do I feel guilty. But boy do I hope this book will be published.”

It’s reasonable to ask how many male authors have a similar set up. That said, the article makes a decent point…

Every bestseller list is dominated by women and this is primarily due to their competitive edge. They can simply keep on writing, while being financially supported by their husbands. Some women feel guilty about this, while others see it as their husbands [sic] responsibly [sic] to be the breadwinner of the family.

I myself have wondered whether the book market is corrupted by this kind of patronage. Are the price of books driven downward because many authors are willing to produce at a loss (one supplanted by their spouses’ incomes?)

I’ve actually seen something similar in the world of music though with a gender twist. When I was in the L.A. country music scene there were a couple of guys (who shall remain nameless) who seemed to have no problem putting out quality albums year after year, often featuring top-shelf players. I was always unclear on how they made this work. Were good session musicians donating their time simply because they were impressed with the songwriting? Were these guys managing to simply sell way more albums than I was? I finally started to hear that at least some of these guys had wives with great incomes. While the wives may not have been supporting their husbands music careers, the need to put food on the table was certainly mitigated.

I suppose it has always been this way and probably always will be.

Hierarchy in music and society

In the realm of music there is the genre of what’s called “atonal music.” Basically this is music that avoids a key center. So while standard music is usually said to be in the key of C, or F#, or whatever, atonal music cannot be said to be in key. If you think of the key of most music as being its center of gravity, you could thinking of atonal music as kind of free floating. (In fact atonal music is often used for scenes of outer space in movies.)

In essence, what atonal music is doing is refusing to create a hierarchy of notes. In regular music, the most important note is the same as the key center. For example, C is the most important note in a song in the key of C major. It’s usually the starting and ending note of the song and it’s the note being hit when we feel a melody or musical phrase has “settled.”

My suspicion has been that atonal music grew out of the philosophy of communism and generally anti-hierachical political thought. To that way of thinking one thing should not be more important than any other. Including notes.

I was reading a book this morning on music and it made an interesting point. The whole class system of music which involves keys and hierarchies of notes really came about in the 1700s—right when the complex class system of people was cementing itself in Europe. So I must ponder that while it may be true that atonal music represents a political philosophy, so too does standard key based music.

Of course, part of why communism never really caught on (when it did it basically had to be implemented at the threat of a gun) was because hierarchical notions seem ingrained in our social intelligence (as they do in the intelligence of monkeys, birds and even ants.) And with music, something just feels right about key centers. And atonal music, while at times interesting, is challenging to listen to. It seems like we are wired for hierarchy in both social behavior and music.

Thus I have spoken.

Why is there less gun violence?

With the San Bernardino shootings we’re being exposed to another spate of articles about gun violence. One point that occasionally jumps out of these news bits is that gun violence has actually substantially declined in over the past 20 years. You’d think this would be a fact people would celebrate but it’s all but ignored. Most people couldn’t be blamed for thinking gun violence is getting worse. (This is an example of one of my beefs with the news—good news does’t sell.)

It would be interesting to figure out why gun violence has gone down. Well, The Washington Post takes a shot (ha – get it?) at it in this article: We’ve had a massive decline in gun violence in the United States. Here’s why.

Some reasons are not too surprising: more cops, better policing etc. But some do seem unexpected. Americans are drinking less alcohol. And, a drop in exposure to lead could make people less violent.

Besides alcohol, lead is another substance that has been shown to make humans more aggressive. Lead is toxic, and it can affect the behavior of children who are exposed to the metal while their brains are still developing. After the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, refiners were required to sell unleaded gasoline. Jessica Reyes, an economist at Amherst College, has argued that the children born after that law took effect breathed in less lead from car exhaust and that their brains were healthier as a result. She has estimated that the removal of lead reduced violent crime by no less than 56 percent.

This idea was the gist of a Mother Jones piece a few years back and while I approached the article dubiously, it made a strong case.