Living is exhausting

MSU Billings students doing a self created and produced skit called Under the Blankets. Its about teen suicide. Part of a larger project started in Miles City where students use the dramatic arts to talk about the social and personal stresses of life growing up in these United States.

There is nothing as harsh as self judgment backed by a little bit of social validation. Those voices, oh those voices in my head. They never stop. The voices. They never stop. They never stop. Until you do.

And so it ends. The four young women in the skit are all dealing with different aspects of the issue. From survivors to manic depression.

Yeah. There are monsters that kill under those blankets.

Personally, the line that bugs me the most is "snap out of it." As if.

Post presentation conversation. I get why the advocates for mental health want to get people to this about mental illnesses as a health issue and I agree with one caveat.

Happy people don’t kill themselves. People living in supportive environments, people comfortable with who they are, people with roles they enjoy, these are the things that make people happy. So yes, some of it is the scripts we play in our minds, but some of it is collateral damage from an economic system that doesn’t care.

Posted in Cognitive Scripts, Daily Life, Depression, Health | Leave a comment

Women’s Rights in America

imageLiving in NYC I was on the same street and used the same subway entrance as Elizabeth Cady Stanton did in the last decade of her life. On days when I walked passed the building she used to live in, I often thought about how the arguments about rights have changed over the past two centuries. And the progress we’ve made.

Progress?  No doubt.  Fair and equal? Far from it. Planned Parenthood has born the brunt of the anger and backlash against the gains women have made in the past few decades. And women’s rights to control their on bodies and lives along with it.

The Hobby Lobby decision is sad in so many ways. It reinforces my belief that health care should not be provided through insurance paid by employers. It drives home the inanity of the of position of corporate personhood.

Finally, I agree that everyone has the right to their beliefs and to behaviors that conform to those beliefs. But with freedom comes responsibility. And as often happens, in the Hobby Lobby case one person’s rights conflicts with another (and I am talking about the owners of Hobby Lobby, not the person Hobby Lobby). I find it sad that we live in a country that continues to prefer the rights of one wealthy person over all the thousands who work for them.

Which leaves me with one last thought.

Where have all the wobblies gone?

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Samuel Clements for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The book was published in the United States in February of 1885. Samuel Clements is a candidate for humanist of the month for February for the 2016 calendar.

The following is from Huckleberry Finn.  It is when Huck is thinking about turning the runaway slave and Huck’s travel companion Jim into the authorities.

“It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie–I found that out. 

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter–and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.

HUCK FINN.

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking–thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”–and tore it up.” 
― Mark TwainThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Whom do humanists thank on Thanksgiving?

Whom do humanists thank on Thanksgiving? Humans of course!

I always thank those who made the feast possible.

Article written for Billings Humanists at http://ow.ly/r3wKr.  There are two related questions over on Quora on this topic, the one is more about what to do if asked to lead the prayer and the second about the etiquette of being a non-prayer at a meal with prayers.

Posted in Daily Life, Epistemology - Religion and Science, Humanist Movement, Humanist Values | Leave a comment

November 16, 2013; Skepticon 6 is underway in Missouri

Found out earlier this week that Skepticon 6 is happening this weekend in Missouri.  They are live streaming at http://skepticon.org/.  The schedule is at http://skepticon.org/schedule/.  Looks like a fun event.  Road trip next year?

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Why isn’t gambling considered capital gains? Deconstructing the conversation about capital formation and taxation

Mr. Burns is the 1%.

Long before the 1% meme, we had Mr. Burns. I wasn't able to trace this to the source. I am linking to the largest one I could find.

The conversation about capital gains taxes, a higher income tax for higher incomes and capital formation needs to be broken down.

First, not all forms of investment are equal. Some are about growing the economy by growing a business and some are about growing a pile of money. The “don’t tax the rich” crowd deliberately fail to make this distinction because they want you to believe that both forms of investment deserve to be treated the same way. They shouldn’t be treated the same way and historically, we have not treated them the same way.

There are two ways people use money to make money. The traditional way is to invest in a business, either a start-up or a business that is expanding. The business does well and you get your money back as a dividend, as income or you cash in your stock. The goal is to make money by providing a widget or a services that people want and one of the outcomes is that you grow the economy by adding wealth. If the business prospers, the business, the old and/or new employees and the investor makes money. This is using money to build something to make money.

Historically, the newer way is to invest in financial instruments such as options or derivatives or to use stocks as a financial instrument through what I call day trading, the practice of buying and selling stock simply to accumulate money. No money goes directly back to the business nothing new is added to the economy, one person definitely gets richer (the person handling the transaction) and if it is a profitable investment, the investor makes money. This is using money to make money. Functionally, this is no different than gambling, with a bookie handling the transaction and the investor putting his or her money on Fancy Dancer in the fifth.  More importantly, the net effect to the economy is zero. Money changes hands and the person doing the exchanges makes their transaction fee, but no new services are offered and no new widgets are manufactured. There are no new jobs. There is no economic growth. There is no new wealth.

In short, investing in a start-up or expanding business grows wealth. Investing in a financial instrument grows money.

Interestingly, it was the collapse of financial bubbles created by unregulated trading in financial instruments that created the Great Depression and the Bush Recession. But that is a different topic.

So, the cut taxes on the rich argument treats investing in a business and investing in a financial instrument equally by saying they both stimulate the economy. But since investing in financial instruments does not stimulate the economy, capital gains or income from these investments should not be treated the same way as investments in a business. Historically, we have tried to draw that line. Examples include reinvestment credits and the tax distinction between short and long term capital gains.

So, if someone tells you that cutting taxes on the rich grows the economy, call them on it. Ask them how betting on whether or not a stock goes up or down (puts and calls) is different from betting on whether or not the local high school basketball team will win or lose by five points. Where are the jobs? Where is the wealth? More importantly, why is gambling on the local high school team illegal but puts and calls are legal? And why is it okay to tax gambling winnings but not capital gains from options?

Tax cuts for investments that grow the economy? Sure, all for it. But we should be raising taxes on capital gains from financial instruments that make money without making wealth without adding value.

Posted in 9 to 5, Free Market Politics, Politics in these United States, The new economy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

We are not a democracy.

Freedom of Speech poster from WWII War Bonds drive

This is the Norman Rockwell poster based on Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech. It is from the Government archives (http://1.usa.gov/A6WY5e).

We are not a democracy. The United States of America has never been a democracy. Some small towns in the USA are a democracy, but if you don’t live in a town with town hall meetings where everyone at the meeting gets to vote on the issue of the day, even the town you live in isn’t a democracy.

So, what is a democracy? The Greek root is people govern or rule. If you look at the dictionary, you will find a definition that contradicts my position.

From Dictionary.com:

de-moc-ra-cy? ?[dih-mok-ruh-see]
noun, plural -cies.
1. government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

So, the dictionary is always right, right? Wrong. The dictionary reflects the popular usage of the word. Not the usage intended by the folks coining the term. More on that later.

So, why does this matter? Because being in a democracy implies that you, an individual citizen, have direct control over government and policy matters that affect your life and the lives of others around you. In the current political climate, it is used to imply a majority run amuck voting to increase your taxes for their entitlements. These entitlements typically include, “welfare” in general and specifically Social Security, Disability Insurance and Medicaid (and sometimes medicare). The logic then continues to blame these programs for the growing federal annual deficit. This is far from true as the single most significant holders of the federal debt is the federal government mainly from the social security and medicare funds. But that is a different topic.

So, if we are not a democracy, what are we? Recite the American Pledge of Allegiance with me…

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

(This is the 1923 version of the pledge of allegiance. The original was written by the American Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892. The god part was added during the communist freak out of the 1950’s.)

…And to the Republic. We are a republic. The US Constitution has always been a republic. So were the Articles of Confederation. By modern usage of the words, a republic is a form of a democracy where representatives are elected by the general population of citizens and the representatives make all the actual decisions on the issues of the day.

Which continues to lend to the confusion.

So let’s agree to make a distinction between a direct democracy where everyone gets to vote on everything and a representative democracy where everyone votes for a representative who goes off an makes decisions for you.

Here are three reasons why I believe the distinction is important, if not critical to solving the issues facing America and in a general sense all citizens of Planet Earth.

First, it was important to the framers of the American constitution. The constitution was written to protect future citizens from what they considered two extreme forms of government, the absolute monarchy (although at that point England was a constitutional monarchy) and majority rule or democracy. In either case, the framers understood that those not in power (not the king or not in the majority) ran the risk of being oppressed by those in power. A very good discussion of the constitutional framers thinking on the abuse of power by the majority was written by William H. Huff on his website (An Important Distinction: Democracy versus Republic). In other words, the framers chose a representative form of government because they feared that the rule of the majority would be come the tyranny of the mob.

Those of you who are arguing that our democracy is broken because people are voting themselves entitlements are not understanding this point.  This is exactly why the constitutional framers picked a republic over a democracy. So that couldn’t happen.  And in reality, it doesn’t.

The second reason is that if you do not understand the difference between (and now I am falling into the common parlance) a direct democracy and a representative democracy, then you do not understand the political process in these United States and if we do not understand the process, then how can we hope to fix it?

The final reason? Our representative democracy is broken. (The checks and balances are broken as well, but that is a separate topic.) When was the last time you felt that the government represented your values, your ideals, your dreams and desires? Do you even know your representative? His or her name? Their phone numbers? The most glaring issues with the current system are all about how our representatives are selected, how they raise money to win elections, how to hold them accountable once in office, how to know what they are doing once in office, where does their personal wealth come from, and the list goes on and on.

But note the common thread. We are putting people into positions of authority over us without knowing them in a system that is skewed towards the narcissistic, self-centered sociopath. (Think about what it takes to be successful in politics, then tell me I am wrong.)

The framers of the constitution did an incredible job of dealing with the problems they knew and could foresee. (Did you know that most of them were against the idea of intrenched political parties?) But they were only men (yes, men). Limited by their knowledge, the times, their assumptions, hopes, dreams and desires. They couldn’t foresee the automobile, television, computers or the internet. They were worried about the accumulation of wealth into too few hands, but didn’t do anything effective about it.

No, they did a great job for 1787 when the US Post Office used horse-drawn coaches to carry the mail over dirt roads. It is now 2012. It is a different world. It is time to re-examine the processes and assumptions that we allow to govern us.

That process begins by understanding and using precisely the words used in our civil discourse. Like understanding the difference between a democracy and a republic.  Language matters.  First rule of critical discourse.

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Rapture Day 21 May 2011: Shooting a grizzly bear will only make it mad.

As I write, it is 21 May 2011 in Fiji. According to Harold Campy, rapture will begin globally at 6pm at the International Dateline with a massive earthquake and tidal waves. That will be around 2 AM here in New York City. I am probably not going to wait up for it.

I remember reading the bible during my early teens and have a clear memory of the description of the second coming of Christ in the Book of Revelations. That memory is, “boy is this guy pissed off”. The passage was all about smiting and pestilence and fire and lots of other nasty things happening to those who didn’t believe in Christ. Which is what rapture is all about. The good guys get to go to heaven and the heathens remain in the misery they deserve for not believing in the true God.

Or in other words, my god is bigger than your god and he is going to smote your tush.

Which makes a ton of sense when you look at history and realize the passages were written from prison by someone who was there because he didn’t agree with the official state sponsored religion. In those days (and days not so long ago in some parts of the world) if you didn’t agree with the official religion you either kept your mouth shut, or if caught, you went to prison, were tortured and if you didn’t recant, were put to death using slow, painful methods like burning at the stake or being hung up on a crucifix. For example, most of the writers of the New Testament (or the 13 apostles for that matter) did not die in bed of old age.

By the way, this is why the founders of the United States of America insisted on a separation of church and state. They had experienced and suffered enough from state sponsored religions and as students of history realized that government did not derive it’s authority from god, but from the governed. And that when god and the power of government mixed, bad things happened to people.

So, when I heard that the world was ending again and that Rapture was scheduled for Saturday, I chuckled. Christians (and Protestants specifically) have a long history of scheduling the second coming of Christ, something I have been bumping up against it all of my adult life. Sad to say, I also joined in the general teasing mockery of the notion and by inference anyone who would believe in such.

Then I remembered my mother and a conversation we had years ago.

My parents are what I call good Christians. Active members of their Catholic parish and diocese and extremely giving to those who are less fortunate and in need of aid or comfort. For educational reasons (I was on an accelerated math and science track), I ended up going to Catholic high school for a couple of years. Because of that, I ended up in a religion class and was introduced to Thomas Aquinas and his proofs of the existence of god. Suffice to say, that I went in not thinking about it and walked away going, what a minute, that doesn’t make sense.

That set me on a path that is known in the vernacular of cults and conversion as a seeker. Years later, as a vocal atheist, mom and I talked about how I ended up there and why I couldn’t go to mass with her any more. As I took her through the rational arguments, one by one, there suddenly was a moment when the lights went out in her eyes and I realized that I was crushing her faith and as a consequence her and I suddenly felt really bad. I stopped, apologized and never raised the subject again.

First point. Faith is a very important part of some people’s identity. Like your heart, it can not be removed without consequences.

Despite the catholic childhood, my parents raised me to be a scientist. My dad was a scientist. My mother was really smart. They encouraged me to read broadly and to think. I got a chemistry set in grade school. I needed to know why.

In the 1970’s with “cults” popping up left and right as an entire generation went seeking after Krishna and Moon and ended up in places like Jonestown. How could it happen? How could seemingly caring, rational, educated people do these things?

Here are a couple of things I learned as I sought answers to what I now see as a fundamental question about human nature.

It is not enough to be a rational person.

Doesn’t sound right does it? We believe that it is good to be rational. It means we are living, thinking, breathing, sentient beings. Still three thousand years of thinking and writing about how we think, one thing is clear, being capable of rational thought is a necessary but not sufficient condition to making good decisions.

Following is my over simplification of the evolution of our understanding of reason (and here is a nice summary of reason).

I am going to talk about three different types of reason as it relates to making decisions, reasons, logic and evidence.

Decisions made with reasons means you have a reason for your decision. They can be good or they can just be a reason or an articulated though. For example, the following are all reasons:

  • I’m the mommy,
  • It felt right,
  • I don’t like Mondays’
  • I knew it in my heart, and
  • My dog told me to do it.

Having a reason, means you are a rational person. Faith falls into this category. A is A.

Logic adds cause and effect to the reason. If A, then B. A good example of logical reasoning is a discussion about human rights. All people are created equal. Therefore all people must be treated equally by the government. The problem with logic is that first premise. Is it correct? Before the equality of humans, the world was run under a notion called the Divine Right of Kings. It too was logical. God made one person the King. Therefore, as Mel Brooks would put it, “It is good to be the King.”

By the way, Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God are all logical proofs.

Then someone decided to ask, do we know if this works? Adding evidence to a logical proof allows you to see if your starting assumptions are correct and if the link between A and B exists. It allows you to say, we tried it. It worked. If A, therefore B then C is a demonstrable.

So, if you are the type of person where outcomes matter then being rational is not enough. You also need to be logical, willing to look for evidence to support your decisions and capable of changing your position when the data doesn’t fit your view of the world. This is my expectation of a rational person. However, by definition, someone who starts from the assumptions (1) that God exists, (2) that the Bible is the literal word of God and (3) that we can interpret God’s intent from his word and then comes to the conclusion after doing the above that all the good guys are going to heaven at 6pm Fiji time on 21 May 2011 is being rational as well.

As I said, it is not enough to be a rational person. A mature person, uses rational thought, examines outcomes and changes assumptions to fit the data.

This leads to my second point. What happens when your data doesn’t fit your world view?

Back in the 1950’s a social psychologist named Leon Festinger sent some graduate students to hang out with a group of people who believed that on 21 December 1954, the world would be destroyed by a flood, but that the devout would be picked up at midnight, in the nick of time, by UFOs. (See When Prophecy Fails.) They followed the group after the prophesy failure to see what would happen. This lead to the psychological theory known as Cognitive Dissonance.

Again over simplifying (as this is a corner stone of modern social and cognitive psychology) when faced with evidence that a world view doesn’t match with the world, people get upset and being the social animals they are have three choices, (1) change the world view, (2) change the world to fit the world view, (3) convince other people that their world view is right after all. Option three creates a heightened state of anxiety than can never be resolved, but can be relieved by social confirmation.

So this is why, laughing at people waiting for rapture is not a good idea. They have already chosen a rational world view which feeds on rejection of the world as they experience it on a daily basis. They are sheltered within their social group and will emotionally feed on external group rejection and live within the shelter of the in-group social support.

This is what drives the religious right. This is where the emotional fervor and energy comes from that enables what I call social insanity such as the Tea Party and the John Birch Society. Their world view is not in-sync with their experience of the world and so they are driven to find others who agree with them and to try to change the world into their image of how the world should be.

I wish I had an answer. But I know this, laughing at them won’t work. It will only make them madder.

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Music and the net: an unfulfilled promise

The early proponents of the net promised many things. One of them was that talent would find audience without the “middleman”. It was the to be the end of the recording industry. Power to the recording artist. Record executives, up against the wall.

Mystikal at sync up

Mystikal at sync up 4 talking about his journey through social media to promote his music.

While the landscape has changed in the past 20 years, the power dynamic hasn’t. More importantly a new model for connecting audiences with talent hasn’t emerged. Technologists and artists are trying (remember myspace), but there are many obstacles remaining.

Here in New Orleans, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation created the jazz & heritage talent exchange to help musicians in New Orleans find their way through the tech forest.

Sitting here at sync up 4 hosted by the Foundation. The current session is an interview of Mystikal about his journey through the new landscape and social media. I guess I would summarize it by saying just do it.

I foresee a large consulting industry emerging as this develops.

While search engines, community spaces, tweets and twits abound the search for your “thousand true fans” continues.

My two cents? The dust is just starting to swirl.

Posted in Culture and Technology, Digital Convergence, New Orleans, Popular Culture | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The City Care Forgot – Spring 2011

Strip mall closed since Katrina.

This strip mall is on Gentilly near the Industrial Canal and has been closed since Katrina. The neighborhoods surrounding the mall are still empty.

This is our sixth Jazz Fest since that the confluence of human and natural events we now call Katrina. I recall the first year we were here and the relief that so much of what made New Orleans special was still standing. The second year, it was the shock that so many building still wore flood lines. While the worst of it seems over, it is apparent that much of the city will not be coming back.

The building boom after WWII increased the pace of the spread of neighborhoods into areas below sea level. Enabled by the government built levees and insurance as well as modern building techniques and roads, this created the neighborhoods that became the focal point over rebuilding. The picture here is taken on Gentilly Road just before the bridges that cross the Industrial Canal. South of here is zoned industrial with a focus on shipping (the canal connects to oceanic shipping) and north is post war middle class detached housing. While the neighborhoods are back. The shipping and jobs are gone and so is the shopping. What has returned to the area is fast food.

What is also still apparent is the need for infrastructure. I do not know what is in store for New Orlean’s future. But the old catch phrase, “The City that Care Forgot”, seems strangely prescient these days.

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