Monday
Apr072014

On McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

I cannot think what all the fuss is about. Surely it is obvious that every citizen is entitled to buy as many congressentities as he or she can afford? What has become of our beloved equality, if that is not true?

In order to simplify our modern principles of civics, I offer these maxims, beginning with the fundamental axiom:

money = speech


This is self-evidently true, in just the same way as is

corporation = person


and of course

creation science = science


and the classics

war = peace

freedom = slavery

and

ignorance = strength

Memorize these. There will be a pop quiz.

 

Thursday
Mar202014

Like, You Know, Really Knowing

I came upon an interesting article on conspiracy theories the other day. I’d like to tell you where it was published, but then I’d have to kill you.

Kidding! It was in Newsday, and it was written by the legal scholar and pundit Cass Sunstein. He discusses various reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories, how  such theories spread, and the fact that people who believe one such theory are more likely to believe in others as well. Indeed, in one much discussed academic study a couple of years ago it was discovered that people who believe in a given conspiracy theory are more likely to believe also in a contradictory one, such as that Princess Diana was killed by a government agency and also that she faked her own death.

The reasons usually suggested for believing in this way include an inherent or learned distrust of authority, or membership in an informationally isolated community or network, or a deep sense of powerlessness. I suggest another source for the disposition to believe, and that is the “need to know” that I have written of elsewhere.

The “need to know” hypothesis holds that the awareness of not knowing something, something that is salient for the one not knowing, is unpleasant. It evokes anxiety, and it motivates action to acquire the missing knowledge. I think of this response as being quite basic, nearly on a par with food-seeking or pain avoidance.

The catch is in the action to be taken to relieve the anxiety. In my speech-giving days I would assert that everyone has questions to which answers are desired, but some people have the additional requirement that the answers be true. Here on Earth, true answers are typically harder to come by than random and arbitrary ones. Sad, but there it is. Effort is required. Research, evaluation, criticism, testing, blah blah blah. Who needs it?

Happily, in the Age of Information, which has in fact become the Age of Nonstop Blather, answers of every kind and description come storming out of our TVs and xPhones and Twiddle accounts and emails and even those paper things that somebody in uniform drops off at the house from time to time. Most of the answers are to questions we haven’t asked or considered, but some of them hit home.

Free answers! Which is to say, answers that cost us nothing, cognitively speaking. Who could resist? Why resist? And this is where the famous “confirmation bias” notion comes into play. Any answer that flatters us a little bit by seeming to agree with our prior beliefs and prejudices has the edge on those that don’t. Who invites disagreeable guests into their homes? So much less do we invite disagreeable ideas into our consciousnesses.

There is a further aspect to this. An accepted answer relieves the anxiety of not knowing -- that is to say, it gives us a little ping! of pleasure. For many of us, that ping! is amplified if it seems to us that we now know something that others do not know. In a flash we are transformed from uninformed and anxious to knowing and superior. What a rush!

So, let’s say you are oh, a model, and let’s say you are married to a mediocre quarterback (just making this up on the fly, you understand), and a colleague of yours, more successful than you, tells you that vaccinating children causes autism. You think, “Boy, I was worried there for a while, but J---- says it’s going to be OK, and anyway, I like the feeling of knowing the truth, you know, the really real truth. To hell with those people who say I’m not too bright. They probably aren’t pretty. So there.”

Fortunately, you live in a country where twits are free to broadcast their idiotic “theories,” contributing to only a few collateral deaths among young children, and so you aren’t forced, like the poor Taliban and other co-believers, to start killing people wholesale.

Tuesday
Mar112014

Canon to the Right, Canon to the Left

Some group called the Amazon Book Editors has issued a list of “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.”

Let’s say that a reading lifetime is, barring mishaps, roughly 60 years. That comes to one and two-thirds books a year. Not terribly burdensome even for the reluctant reader. For those who enjoy reading, that leaves a lot of free time.

And free time will be needed in order to read some other, better books.

I’ve combed through the list a couple of times. Many of the titles would be new to me, except that I’ve seen them in comments on recent movies and television programs. The list is a strongly foreshortened view of the body of literature that has come down to us: 73 of the 100 books are products of the 20th or 21st century.

The oldest book on the list is the Odyssey. Well done, Amazon Book Editors. Then come the Bible and a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, and shazam! it’s the 19th century already.

I may be off a bit in this count, because so many of the books are unknown to me, but I judge 18 of the hundred to be books for children or “young adults,” the latter a book marketing phrase that means “older children.” These include no fewer than four books about one Harry Potter.

So far as I can tell, the list includes just four books of non-fiction. Three of those are autobiographical works by women, and the other is about Henrietta Lacks and the line of cell cultures derived from her. And there are just two books of verse, one by Edgar Allan Poe and the other by Shel Silverstein. On the other hand, there is a surprising amount of science fiction.

The Amazon Book Editors have a little trouble from time to time getting their authors straight. Pride and Prejudice is said to have been written by someone called “Ian Edginton,” and Charlotte’s Web is credited to Garth Williams.

The Thorn Birds, editors? Really? Gone With the Wind? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? The Phantom Tollbooth? These are among the hundred lifetime must-reads?

Killing the canon was supposed by the assassins to open the doors to diversity of voices and viewpoints. Instead, what came in the door was a lot of baby canons, or let’s call them popguns. Now you must read Beloved, or The Secret Life of Bees, or The Hunger Games. Pop! Pop! Pop!

Pshaw!

Friday
Mar072014

Me and Geopolitics

The current unrest in bits of the former Soviet Union provides me with what is probably the best opportunity I will ever have to confess the following:

When I first heard Julie London sing her great hit song of 1955, I thought it was "Crimea River."

OK, I feel better now.

Wednesday
Feb262014

Bitcoin and Honor

It would be natural for an analyst or pundit to explain to us all how the apparent demise of the bitcoin scheme demonstrates how digital technology has made it possible to create not only entirely new forms of exchange but also new forms of chicanery. It would be natural, but it would be wrong.

Regard, if you will, James Fisk (1834-1872), a “stock jobber” from Bennington, Vermont, who cut a spectacular swathe through the wild and mostly unregulated financial marketplace in the early years of what came to be known as “The Gilded Age.”

With the financier Daniel Drew and the speculator Jay Gould, Fisk set out in 1866 to wrest control of the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt. The trio’s principal method was the issuance of unregistered stock. They sold "watered" stock -- literally paper, of no intrinsic value -- for real money, then voted the stock to gain command of the company, which they proceeded to loot. In the course of the campaign it became necessary -- and it proved possible -- to buy the New York state legislature.

In 1869 Fisk and Gould attempted to corner the market in gold. Their failure triggered a disastrous drop in the market on “Black Friday,” September 24, when hundreds of investors were wiped out. A congressional committee was soon established to investigate the affair, and Fisk was asked where the money had gone. His reply:

          “Gone where the woodbine twineth.”

The congressmen were not satisfied with poetry and asked what he meant by that.

          “Up the spout.”

By contrast, today’s losers paid real money for a number, and one not even printed on a piece of paper, which might at least have had some scrap value. The number was generated by an “algorithm,” said to have been written by a pseudonymous computer fellow. The numbers piled up in some file somewhere, while the money piled up...where, exactly? Pretty much where the woodbine twineth, it seems.

When the hearings were over and nothing had been learned and no one held accountable for Black Friday, Fisk beamed and explained:

          “Nothing is lost save honor.”

There’s the analyst’s and the pundit’s point, if there is one. Nowadays, honor doesn’t figure into the matter at all.