Archive for January, 2011


Don’t Fear the Reaper, pt. 1

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult.

This song PERFECTLY captures the book I’m reading right now, and with this post, I’m going to try something new, which is to write shorter, more focused posts but write more regularly. You see, my problem is that I try to write a post about a whole book that I read and I find that I just can’t do it. For example, when I wrote about Consider the Lobster, I had to, when talking about “Up, Simba” just insert random observations at the end because the post was taking me forever to write and there was no way I could extend things further

So as I said, shorter, more focused, and more serialized.

I am reading a book right now called The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. In this post I want to describe the general tone and historical / intellectual position of this book.

The book is about existentialist freudian psychologist, which may be such a mouthful of academic jargon that some readers will just quit right here. But please don’t, because I can offer simple (and perhaps interesting) clarification. Freud roughly thought sexual desire became fragmented, perverted, amplified, and redirected in a variety of ways. These ways contribute to the immense variety of psychological characters and states that we find in the world. “Anal” personalities, childishness, slavishness, oedipal desires, aggression, and so on.

This book is existentialist because it largely agrees with Freud about the unconscious being the source of all psychological activity, but Becker disagrees that SEXUAL motives are at the heart of everything. Rather, he claims that a FEAR OF DEATH is the unifying drive behind all psychological states.

According to him. every personality quirk, social institution, scheme of cooperation, and source of anger results from various ways that humans tries to wrestle with, and deny or evade their ultimate finiteness, animalness, and fragility.

I plan to evaluate many of these arguments in coming posts, but here I just want to give you a flavor of what this book is like.

First, its very intellectually sloppy. It just kind roams around all over the place, mentioning many of the same species of ideas again and again with less precision each time. He psychoanalyzes Freud, which maybe wasn’t cliche in his time, but still comes off pretty boring (who really cares what a crazy and ridiculous person Freud was. I guess just for laughs).

What is more fun is to psychoanalyze Becker, who is obviously deeply in love with Freud, calling him the “master” in many places and stops in the text to meditate on his genius and his ability to transcend his fear of death and lot of other incredible statements. He writes, of one of Freud’s smaller, lesser-known works (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego),

A book of fewer than 100 pages that in my opinion is probably the single most potentially liberating tract that has ever been fashioned by man.

Seriously? Seems impossible.

Also the book is heavily dogmatic in that Becker, at many points, just assumes the truth of psychoanalytical theory and at many points flies off the handle talking about how psychoanalysis is the crowning point of all empirical theory and that it will liberate man once and for all. I guess the 60s had just finished and this sort of ridiculously vague intellectual approach was in vogue.

Listen to the rhetoric at this point:

Imagine a scientific theory that could explain human slavishness by getting at its nexus; imagine that after ages of laments about human folly men would at last understand exactly why they were so fatally fascinated; imagine being able to detail the precise causes of personal thralldom as coldly and as objectively as a chemist separate elements. When you imagine all these things you will realize better than ever the world-historical importance of psychoanalysis, which alone revealed this mystery.

You’ve got to be kidding me. As if pscyhoanalysis alone revealed these truths and as if its even successful at doing this. This arrogance infects the whole book, and apparently, this book won the pulitzer prize. Again, totally baffling to me.

None of this is to say that the book is a waste of time, there are a bunch of very interesting ideas in here, but I’m just giving the flavor of what we’re dealing with.

Lastly, let me leave you with this.

What are to make of the following report by a winner of the Miss Maryland contest who describes her first meeting with Frank Sinatra (a crooner and film start who gained wealth and notoriety in the middle decades of the 20th century in the United States):

He was my date. I got a massage, and I must have taken five aspirins to calm myself down. In the restaurant, I saw him from across the room, and I got such butterflies in my stomach and such a thing that went from heat to toe. He had like a halo around his head of stars to me. He projected something I have never seen in my lie… when I’m with him I’m in awe, and I don’t know why I can’t snap out of it…I can’t think. He’s so fascinating…

First, Becker decides to CLARIFY who Frank Sinatra is? Even I know who that is and I loved roughly fifty years after Becker. Who wouldn’t know that? It’s like asking people today about Michael Jordan. Also, the way he clarifies it is so funny, calling Sinatra someone who gained prominence “in the middle decades of the 20th century.” What an unnecessarily sophisticated explanation.

Last, the quote about the Miss Maryland winner is pretty incredible too, and I may have something more substantial to say in some upcoming posts, one which will probably be on this (if you want to read ahead).




I want to go on the record with a prediction

Arizona is passing some law challenging the legality of birthright citizenship, i.e., people who are born in America count as citizens.

As always, I need to read more on this before I become comfortable with a solid position on it, but I want to put my gut instincts down on this one and make a prediction.

My gut reaction is that this is pure political laziness. The fourteenth amendment is brutally specific about people being born in America counting as citizens.

Section. 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

If Arizonans want to challenge this provision of the constitution, they can lobby for change in the normal way, by starting a constitutional convention or by trying to get congress to introduce an amendment. I think using those approaches would be reckless and foolhardy, but at least they would stand a chance of having some legal bite.

As things stand, I have a simple prediction: the supreme court slaps this down and the whole thing goes nowhere. Let’s see what happens.



My theory about Boston

I complain a lot about Boston on this site, and a lot of that complaining is about the road system (here, here, and here).

Today though, driving back from some time I spent with my little brother (from the big brothers big sisters program, not my biological brother who lives in Austin), and I was looking at all the snow and the lack of parking spaces and the really decayed store fronts and everything else, and my overarching theory about the reason for Boston’s failings as a city struck me.

Sure, Boston has good points, I can admit that. I can even admit that it may have good points that many people my age appreciate. Still, I think Boston has a lot of problems, and what is the source of these problems; the major cause of its suckiness in my eyes?

The answer goes back to the mobility problem that Boston is inadequately poised to deal with. Put in economics terms, it is very costly to move around in Boston. Some of this cannot be blamed on the city as a human institution. In other words, the climate makes things cold and creates a lot of snow and that makes it unpleasant and messy to be outdoors, not to mention filling up the streets and parking spaces with snow. The constant freezing during winter also rips up the streets. Ok, fair enough. Boston starts from behind because of its terrible location.

But Boston does nothing to remedy this state of affairs by refusing to improve roads or speed up the T, or make it run to where people want to go.

This has a wide-ranging group of consequences. One is that people just don’t travel. The cost of movement is high, so people stay in. This a verified consequence as I have seen graffiti and craigslist personals (yes, I was looking at craigslist personals as a joke, I realize that sounds like the exact sort of thing that a loser looking at craigslist personals would say, so you’re entitled to disbelieve. Still though, the truth is that I was glancing through it with some friends). A surprising number of the personals just say “I don’t meet people because its so cold that I just don’t want to go out.” Besides speaking to the lonely nature of our society, these people are explaining a profound truth about Boston: that it encourages people to just give up on movement throughout the city.

The second consequences of this is less social and more classically economic. Because the cost of moving out of one’s neighborhood is high, each little store is granted a de facto monopoly. This is why there are WAY more dunkin donuts per sq ft. than you could think was possible as well as why there are WAY more very low quality, fatty, greasy, take out place than you would have ever thought possible. The reason is that low quality stores of all types can subsist merely by being 8 blocks closer than their competitor. In Dallas, you would just travel those extra 8 blocks for the better prices/product/service because doing so costs almost nothing. In Boston though, it can take a broken axle and thirty extra minutes to travel those 8 blocks. So, you get an inability to capitalize to returns to scale which leads to inferior and higher priced products than could otherwise be the case.


Why I Cheat on My Boyfriend

I was going to title this post “please read: it’s excellent,” but figured I would actually get more readers with the title that I’ve chosen, which is the title of the piece that I transcribed below.

Tufts has something called “The Public Journal” which is a collection of really honest and anonymous writings from students at the college. I picked it up absentmindedly one day and found some things to like. I also found the short piece that I will reproduce here in its entirety because it is so honest and moving. I don’t want to ruin its power with a lot of over-analysis, but I will say this, it says a lot about human beings, about loneliness, and I think, if we’re honest, a lot about our own habits.

Here is the piece, I think its less than 400 words.

My boyfriend is great. He’s smart (3.8 GPA in the Department of Engineering), attractive (a lacrosse player), funny, and so, so nice. I love hanging out with him. We go on adventures and make the most of our little town. And he treats me well. He tells me that I’m beautiful and he looks into my eyes when we have sex. I know that I am lucky to have him.

The guy I cheat on him with could care less about me if it’s not after 2 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday. I don’t think he knows my last name (I know his, it’s long and very German). We don’t do anything together besides share sex and cigarettes. He doesn’t fuck better than my boyfriend and he’s not even better looking.

I always thought that I would be loyal, even throughout the long-distance relationship thing. I’ve never had any sympathy for cheaters. It degrades trust.

But I responded to that text (probably a mass), “wanna hang out,” stone-cold sober, sitting in my pajamas on a rare Friday night in.

There was no rush of adrenaline to my muscles as I tip-toed out of my room, and I didn’t feel any other kind of rush when he answered the door to his house.

Then we fuck. And it feels good. Not great, but it’s nice to be doing it again.

He sometimes asks questions after we do it: were you satisfied, how did you lose your virginity, want to do anal. Tonight he asks why I decided to hang out with him. We don’t keep secrets he knows about my boyfriend.

I just say, “I don’t know, my boyfriend was busy.” Both of these things are true, but I don’t know what the connection between them is.

We fall asleep together. This is the first time since freshman year, when we started this relationship of ours, that we’ve spent more than forty-five consecutive minutes together. He puts his arm around me while we sleep and when I turn over, he reaches out to replace his hold on me again. I appreciate this small gesture.

I wake up first, to the sun streaming in. I pass an hour, connecting dots of color in his “Starry Night” poster hanging on the wall. I feel nothing. Not even guilty. This is the exact same feeling I get waking up next to my boyfriend.

This girl is not psychotic. At least, I think, judging by her prose, she is an introspective and mature individual who has failed at something, and who has let herself down. We all do it. We could hate on her, but I think it would be far more mature to acknowledge the commonality of her situation.

The guy too, I don’t think, is a bad human being, but his actions, small and seemingly insignificant, have huge consequences, and you can feel the weight of their assault on decency and dignity, perhaps of anyone who reads this…

We all do damage to others so effortlessly, so naturally. That is the lesson for me, and the flip-side is that you can believe the hype. You CAN, if you choose, treat your every action as having massive, rippling significance. You can, if you are so inclined, know that your smallest action of kindness, politeness, and sacrifice are helping define the human race as more powerful and more noble.


I’m a rough boy

We use labels very recklessly in our society. In fact, labels often do most of our thinking for us. The words democratic and republican immediately call into being a host of judgments in their respective users, and for a more dramatic example, one can easily remember a time when the label “black” came along with a host of various value judgments.

It’s remarkable to  me how in each age, we, as a society realize that certain labels are no good anymore and cannot be used to stand in for serious thinking about something. We learned that “black” doesn’t mean lazy (well, we’re trying), and we unlearned the idea that “communist” meant spy (McCarthy) and we’re trying to come to grips with the idea that “gay” doesn’t mean weak or disgusting. How in the world though does the GENERAL LESSON keep escaping us: that labels can never do our thinking for us. I find it to be a testament to the unbelievable inertia to ways of thinking about things.

Rather than lament the transcendental limitations of our species to see problems when they arise, I want to focus on a specific label that I can think has gone unexamined for a long period of time.

The label is “soft on crime.” Politicians have a hard time going NEAR any reforms that could be perceived to be letting criminals get off with less punishment. People who try to get better conditions for prisoners are basically talking to walls, and interventions such as mental health courts, drug courts, recidivism programs, job training, after school programs and and on and on get NO ATTENTION in serious policy debates.

We have a lively debate on this country from everything from energy to war, and at least, in these debates, one can say that both sides are at least represented (though we know, they are often represented very poorly). Not so with crime. When is the last time you heard any politicians with any power seriously discuss what to do about about our skyrocketing prison population? The war on drugs continues year after year despite being one of what I consider to be the least defensible policy decision in this country.

It would be boring to just sit here and whine about the usual problems. A bunch of black people are in prison for drug crimes and our prisons are overpopulated and dangerous. Recidivism is very high, on and on. Waa Waa. But see this chart just in case you’re interested. It’s a good chart, and I looked for a while before picking it (though I can’t understand why it’s so damn fuzzy).

What I want to point out is the way that our attitude of being “hard on crime” or “tough on crime” or whatever, costs our society in even immeasurable and insidious ways. Chief among these is the way that the prevailing attitude that tough on crime means “doing shit to people that is really harsh” results in a lot of outrageous prosecutorial behavior and innocent people being convicted. Scott Turow’s book Ultimate Punishment that I just read outlines prosecutor conduct that is just straight OUTRAGEOUS. Not only, a vindictive mentality surrounding crime puts innocent people at risk by encouraging prosecutors to FIND SOMEONE.

Texas, has a huge problem with this, though luckily the new Dallas DA is working very hard to end this.

This article is quite revealing and you’ll definitely want to read it if you’re a Texan. This new DA is basically instituting all these procedures to make sure that innocent people aren’t getting executed or spending life in prison and he is being branded as “soft on crime.” To me that’s just laughable. He’s trying to use DNA evidence to correct witness testimony that has been scientifically demonstrated to be unreliable so that the right people are in jail. It’s very sad to me that he even has to defend himself against allegations like “soft on crime.”

Being soft on crime is one of the worst things you can be, and the ways to win this label are mind-blowingly broad, even though many highly respected research groups keep trying to tell us that there could be huge savings from thinking for FIVE-SECONDS about crime and its relationship to society.

Here’s a quote

Estimates that about one-quarter of
the drop in crime during the 1990s can
be attributed to incarceration do not
inform us about whether reliance upon
incarceration was the most effective way
to achieve these results. A variety of
research demonstrates that investments
in drug treatment, interventions with
at-risk families, and school completion
programs are more cost-effective than
expanded incarceration as crime control
measures. Regarding drug use, a RAND
analysis concluded that the expenditure
of $1 million to expand mandatory
minimum sentencing would result in a
national decrease in drug consumption
of 13 kilograms, while dedicating those
funds to drug treatment would reduce
consumption by 100 kilograms.24 In
another analysis, researchers concluded
that shifting the federal drug budget
to reduce funds earmarked for supply
reduction by 25% and doubling treatment
funding would decrease cocaine
consumption by 20 metric tons and save
over $5 billion.25 In addition, every $1
invested in drug treatment returns more
than $7 in savings to society, as opposed
to a net loss of nearly 70 cents for
enforcement approaches.26

Now there is such a thing as being “soft on crime.” One really could naively give too much leeway to criminals in the justice system and hurt deterrence by lowering sentencing, but as near as I can tell, we are not close to that point yet. We incarcerate a bunch of people at very high expense and its something that is not even SERIOUSLY discussed, because politicians are so worried about appearing soft on crime.

This brings me to my final point of this post, which is that politicians must be leaders in order to earn our trust, and we must reward leaders when they act properly. Without that two-relationship of trust, representative democracy breaks apart. If you ever watch “Meet the Press with David Gregory,” there is an interesting and depressing theme that he often plays out. He often asks Republican legislators that come on his show to definitively reject the claim that Obama is not a U.S. citizen (polls show that something like 20% of all Americans believe Obama is not a citizen). He says something very simple to these lawmakers. He says “you are one of the leaders of this country. Is it not a requirement of political leadership that you dispel these false beliefs on the part of many of your constituents?” It is really surprising how many of these legislators will not come out and say, in plain English, in a simple sentence, in four words: Obama is a citizen. It’s just unbelievable. And I don’t mean to target Republicans, Democrats are guilty of ridiculous stuff like this as well. You might as well ask Democrats, “is there any evidence that Jared Loughner was influenced by political rhetoric?” I’m sure many would not just simply admit that there is none.

This is a sad state of affairs, because leaders have to be courageous in order to command our respect, but it seems that, as I’ve mentioned many times on the blog, the concept of respect — a complex and nuanced notion — is being replaced by other modes of approval such as “liking” “supporting” “preferring” or “agreeing with” all of which require much less brainpower and are completely unreflective. This creates a violent cycle where leaders must pander, which makes them seem like hopeless demagogues, and then we see them as hopeless demagogues and lose faith in their ability to lead.

This cycle of cynicism has continued for at least two decades now, and I see no end to it in American politics. The long term results of this will be disastrous.

PS: Even John McCain in his 2000 campaign (see “Up, Simba,” which I analyzed here) had to defend himself against the charge that he was soft on crime, even though he was, in that campaign, for vast new initiatives to fight the war on drugs.

ZZ Top, I’m a rough boy.


Politics, Despair, and Words

I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster and I’m currently on his essay called “Up, Simba.” I’m either really dense or have not gotten to the part of the essay that makes sense of the title.

The essay is about John McCain’s bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. The premise is that Wallace, not a political journalist, is sent, nonetheless, on an expedition normally reserved for political journalists. The expectation is that he applies his incisive and hilarious eye for detail toward the political scene. This essay I think is very good, but it has further lowered my opinion of Wallace’s work (though overall my opinion of him is still very high), for several reasons, though I also want to touch on some of the real innovations of Wallace’s style generally, and what this essay provides.

Wallace claims that his coverage of McCain’s campaign is really coverage of the ultimate anti-candidate, and reading this piece is like entering a time warp. You see, as Wallace saw things back then, McCain was a fresh face who was genuine, and not only that, appealing to YOUNG voters. In essence, McCain was Obama before there was Obama. But now there is Obama, and ironically, he beat McCain, who, according to Wallace, first attempted to win by being an anti-candidate. Things are tricky though because Obama really isn’t an anti-candidate, but rather a “post partisan.” The difference might be important.

Anyway, Wallace begins by talking about McCain’s military service, and I think this is a necessary and proper thing to do in a piece like this: it simply shows respect for the sacrifice that we’ve all heard about so many times. Wallace’s telling of the story is pretty good because he really tries to capture how scary and incredible the whole thing was. I didn’t realize how many bones McCain had broken by his captors. Simply unreal.

Anyway, after this introduction where Wallace essentially “pays his respects,” things change a lot. First, I think Wallace kind of fails in his journalistic mission in that he doesn’t really cover anything about McCain’s campaign, rather the covers THE COVERAGE of McCain’s campaign, spending many pages cataloging press personalities and habits. Of course, this is hilariously funny in many places.

The humor, I believe, comes from the skill that Wallace can exercise most effectively, which is the ability to SOAK UP a way of talking. The first part of the article not dedicated to McCain’s war record is simply a LIST OF TERMS. An insider’s dictionary if you will that Wallace provides and then seamlessly makes use of in the rest of the article as if he was a long time member of McCain’s press corps. As he says, a “pencil” is a journalist, and after introducing that term, he NEVER AGAIN (at least I don’t think) says journalist. Everyone is a pencil and he expects his audience to remember this term and mentally deploy it as if Wallace were using “dog” or “cat.” In other words Wallace does a lot of work himself making sure his article can talk the talk and then he DEMANDS that his reader enter the subject matter with the same immersive and obsessive attitude. He asks a lot, and is rewarded for the confidence he implicitly places in his audience.

Not only does this make for great writing, but it exposes and reveals the quirky habits that make for hilarious observations. To put it another way, Wallace learns to speak a different language as a way of opening himself up to observations that others might (and in fact do) miss. Just as one learns more about China by learning Chinese, Wallace learns more about every facet of life by starting, always, with its language.

As a resulting of starting with the argot of what he’s covering, Wallace is able to fluidly pick up some enduring jokes. For example, he refers, as the McCain staffers do, to Bush as the “Shrub.” And though the lead bus in McCain’s caravan is the straight talk express, the next two buses are bullshit 1 and bullshit 2, which get abbreviated (another Wallace favorite) to to BS 1 and BS 2. The 12 really arrogant reporters for newspapers like the WSJ. etc. get named the twelve monkeys, and Wallace pokes fun at them throughout.

There are other great descriptions too. I’m kicking myself for not getting all of them because I have no excuse since you can bookmark on an iphone with the touch of the screen. Nonetheless, here are a few.

Describing Alison Mitchell

…a slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home crocheted and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification.

But through all this, Wallace says almost nothing that isn’t nihilistically cynical or useful about politics. He does mention that the networks try to focus on what they call “fighting words” which consist of attacks against the other candidate, but Wallace smartly points out that for some reason, no network considers it fighting words when McCain utters some literal fighting words like “we’ll put troops in other countries if they don’t control the outflow of drugs from their borders.” Boom. THOSE are fighting words, but according to our media, an institution that fails to cover politics with any passion because Wallace believes that the average American is just plain sick of politics. He also believes that our politicians are just big babies; large people wearing diapers. And his defeatism is bizarre because by his own lights, McCain is a true leader. In fact, by many criteria, one of the most amazing leaders America has had in recent years.

Back to crushing cynicism about the political process when Wallace titles a new section “who even cares who cares.”

All in all, my big criticism is that Wallace never sees the value in anything. I mean, I feel for the guy, because we all know he was very depressed and so its not surprising that he didn’t “look on the brightside,” but I mean, just looking at his work, its very flawed due to his inability to find redemption in anything. As Nietzsche would put it, his nihilism was passive and defeatist rather than ever becoming active or creative. He’s so cutting and incisive which makes him funny and easy to read, but now, and here’s the big point of the whole essay, reading him is so fun because, for all his sophistication, its a little like a trashy action movie. One just feels the rush of destroying, of cutting everyone and everything down. It’s how you feel when you’re with your best friends and you’re just making fun of one person after another. It’s really fun, and I think it may even be good in many ways, but you can’t keep it up forever and after a while you feel a little numb inside.


Other things I don’t want to dwell on but must be mentioned. Wallace describes things as if he knows nothing about the South. I wonder if he had ever been south of the Mason-Dixon line before this article. Some of his prejudice shows.

The characterization of the cell phone culture (remember, pretty new at this time) is also scary accurate and penetrating. Anyone who wants to do sociological research on the history of cell phone use MUST read this article.



Salmon, State of the Union

A friend sent me this interesting little slice of I don’t know what.

The  cynical interpretation of this is that people are hopeless and that our democracy is ruined. While I believe that both of those things are true, I don’t believe this article provides evidence for that.

The reason why is that I think it shows that people focus on humor, which is something that I have talked about on this blog as having big effects on happiness and the kind of people we can be.

Also, I’m not very concerned that people don’t take the state of the union  seriously, because I don’t really think they should. I mean, clearly Obama wasn’t making any precise policy formulations or anything. I don’t blame him for that, but given its style, its probably appropriate to think of the speech as more a literary construction than anything else. A point, by the way, that I argue for here.

Anyway, the stuff about Salmon is off base anyway because the funniest part of Obama’s speech was him saying “we do big things.”