The simplest form

On a now-defunct blog, I wrote about something I intended to write there someday: a summary of a memorable conversation with one of my law professors. I closed up shop at that blog soon afterward, without having written about that conversation.

I’m glad I didn’t write about it then. While I had a glimmer of an idea about my professor’s insight, it was fractional.

The books I’ve read the last couple of weeks have dramatically changed how I understand that conversation, and how it ties to … everything that’s frustrated me since I realized I’d confused a vision of reality with reality itself. Since I saw I’d been creating my vision of reality by fixedly looking at a little pond of things known to me while pointedly turning away from the vast oceans of information, ideas, perspectives that existed outside the pond. Since, most importantly, I decided to dive into the ocean.

The easiest way to summarize what I now understand is this: What’s left out of the pond is at least as important–often more so–as what’s let in. (Nowhere is this more startlingly clear than in the first few chapters of Goldacre’s Bad Pharma.)

But, of course, the simplest form seldom reveals–and often conceals–much. There’s more to come, after I’ve (1) finished reading Taleb’s Incerto books and (2) had time enough to articulate what I’ve seen so that it’s not as abstract as this … seed of what I hope will come.


The Attention Merchants

While I’ve written many posts about my no-love relationship with Facebook, I only ever wrote one post specifically challenging Facebook’s claim to be “free.”

My background is in software contracts. When I wrote the post described above, I was principally troubled by Facebook’s ever-shifting privacy policies. I said that it wasn’t free, because users were paying in personal data. That we didn’t have to directly fork over portions of our paychecks didn’t mean we weren’t paying somehow.

Naturally, most comments were along the lines of how (1) it is free and (2) “if you don’t like it, don’t use it.” I was so annoyed by the comments that I didn’t return this accidentally deleted post when I returned most the others.

A few weeks ago, my sister Rache recommended that I read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. I’d been talking about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and she thought this would be an excellent follow-on. She was not wrong!

Within a few pages, Wu pinpointed what I hadn’t been able to when I wrote my Facebook-ain’t-free post years ago. I’d been pointing at personal data as what users pay to access the service.

Why does Facebook–along with other providers of internet services–want lots of user data? The better to commodify users’ attention for others’ profit: “We’ve already seen the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it. But a consequence of this model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative.”

Data was a means to an end, not itself the end. Wu elucidates this further the deeper he dives into presenting his case, engagingly answering so many of my lingering questions.

Wu’s chapter on propaganda is an excellent overview of how susceptible human beings are to manipulation through attention capture. There’s a lot to this, but two quotes bear sharing here.

Edward Bernard, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was instrumental in successfully propagandizing the American public. He saw “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the masses as an important element in a democratic society.” There might be too much too-messy democracy without it: “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.”

(I hope you’re already asking yourself, whose peace?!)

Some days I read bunches. Some days I read little. Overall, though, I will not stop reading. Reading history and politics is my shield against propaganda; the more I read, the more robust my protection.

Nowhere is the need for this strengthening clearer than in the words of master propagandist Adolf Hitler himself:

I do not wish to be the subject.

Condemning curiosity 

About a year ago, I took a one-day course on continuous improvement. Part of our discussion that day involved examples of people wasting huge amounts of effort (and money!) to keep not-fixing problems. They’d tackle individual symptoms and then move on as if all were well. Sometimes that was enough; other times, it just led to greater total resource drain.

I offered up an example. I described a situation where folks in one region of China were having some pretty extreme health problems. Some Western medics came in with vaccines against what seemed to be a variant of another virus. Someone else cautioned against vaccinating without further root cause exploration, so they explored. They discovered soil extremely low in selenium, and so gave those ailing selenium supplements. That took care of the problem, whereas vaccinating against it could have yielded even worse problems from selenium deficiency.

I couldn’t remember where I’d read about this, a puzzle I just solved.

A couple years back, I bought Dr. Kelly Brogan’s A Mind of Your Own. I read up through the section cautioning against unquestioning praise of vaccines, and then set the book aside. “Man, is this lady paranoid!” I told myself.

Recently, though, I’ve had a hard time getting back to my previous healthy ways. I still eat mostly Paleo and walk a bunch, but I’m “supplementing” my Paleo with beer and not dedicating nearly enough time to quiet, restorative time necessary for stress management. My husband asked what he could do to help me get back on track; I replied candidly that I needed to dive back into my old readings and get in the right frame of mind, so that I want to do the right-for-me thing instead of just trying to force myself into it based on dusty old recollections.

So I picked up this book, and it’s cracking me up to remember how I felt about all this then. What seemed totally paranoid before I read dozens of books on politics seems perfectly reasonable now.

Most things mandated by the U.S. government these days aren’t mandated for the sake of citizens, whom legislators commonly refer to as “consumers.” They benefit transnational companies who long ago captured the government, enabling transfer of huge amounts of government funds to corporations.

Technology and epinephrine in schools, for example? Sure, there are arguably good things that come from that, but those are distractions from the core purpose: profit by engaging far, far more lucrative customers (governments) than any individual human. If individual consumers crushed by neoliberal policies can no longer increase consumption to improve profits, well, what then? Get that profit on a grander scale!

If any of this were really about human well being, my country’s government would not tolerate tens of millions of citizens–many of them children–starving, unsafe, and living (often dying) on the streets. It would not station millions of military personnel (and, increasingly, contractors–because profit!!!) at hundreds of bases around the world at great detriment to local peoples. It would not be the world’s most massive arm dealer, or itself kill so many millions of people overseas in pursuit “strategic” objectives.

Does this mean I think vaccines are bad? No. It means I know enough to understand that I should look deeper than this ridiculous good/bad dichotomy to explore the deeper context. Are vaccines as they exist now, mandated by the government for some corporations’ immense profit, really an unmitigated good? Who is regulating these vaccines, exploring their peripheral ingredients to ensure those aren’t detrimental in isolation and, especially, in combination? How much funding is given to such exploration? Is there independent oversight? If so, who oversees the overseers? Who responds to reports of adverse reactions, when, and with what urgency? My list of questions now is endless.

In another world, one where my government didn’t so often and flagrantly show its disregard for human life, I might be more unquestioningly accepting of vaccines … as I was when I set aside this book a couple years ago.

Now, I know enough to be wary and to always, always ask, for answer not by my government but by myself, cui bono?

Where most everyone around me kicks, knee-jerk, at the suggestion questions should be asked, I take that as virtual confirmation of a highly successful campaign of indoctrination. Why ought mere curiosity inspire such condemnation?!

The devil is, as always, in the details.

The Fifth Shelf

Last night, I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. This completed my fifth shelf of “politics-plus” reading since middle of last August. Back then, I’d picked up Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some in hopes it’d answer some new-to-me questions about the troubling state of so-called U.S. democracy.

In my hometown for the fiftieth anniversary of some of my adopted parents, I’d get my kids in their hotel beds nightly. Then I’d pace the length of our hotel room, back and forth, back and forth, unable to read such horrifying things sitting in place.

I really thought one book would do it for me, but … you can see how that turned out.

fifth shelf.png

As I discovered after finishing my first Greenwald book, even an excellent book can only answer so many questions, doing so while opening many more: Continue reading “The Fifth Shelf”

The Language of Politics

Have you ever listened to a politician speak and wondered, “What are you even saying?” or “Why are you even talking, since you’re not actually communicating anything?” I have, and often. In fact, there’s an almost 100% overlap between my hearing a politician talk and asking myself these questions.

Until now, I’ve assumed this as a universal, historical given. Reading Geoffrey Wagner’s essay “The Language of Politics” in Language in America (1969), I was astonished to see laid bare the chasm between what is (ambiguous nonsense presented with gusto) and what could be (practical, clear statements of intention and planned action).

Now, in the rare case where I DO bother listening to American politicians speak (generally a waste of time; see first paragraph), I’ll listen carefully for answers to questions like:

  • When you say you’re “bringing democracy,” what exactly do you mean by “democracy”?
  • What are the specific actions you’re planning on taking?
  • What are the estimated dates for these actions?
  • Do you have the consent of a majority of those who’ll be most impacted by these actions?
  • What specific assessments went into establishing these?
  • What does the best case scenario look like?
  • What is the worst case scenario?

Unless any politician answers questions with specifics and then routinely (1) publicly follows up with specific facts capable of independent verification and (2) commits to being held accountable for deviant outcomes, they’re not worth the time of listening. They’re speaking with the intent of avoiding accountability.

American politicians’ track record stretching at least decades back is far too abysmal to trust without verification. Most have routinely, tactically used language to create illusions of trustworthiness via language ambiguous enough to be interpreted many ways. Indeed, it “is because political utterances about democracy and so forth demands to be translated that politicians choose wooly language, on a high level of abstraction, behind which they may maneuver.”


  • “Orwell condensed this well: ‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.’”
  • “The word peace is totally fractured when it is forced to contain within itself children and old people horribly burned and maimed.”
  • “The nicety of being anointed with incendigel rather than napalm must seem to an Asiatic peasant the luxury of a very rich society, indeed. He has still been burnt raw by gelled gasoline fluid.”
  • “Pentagonese is an insulating attempt to create another form of language” (its euphemisms protect its agents, and no one else)
  • “Used as they have been in the past decade, words like democracy and freedomend up as no more or less significant than so many street cries, or the sounds of engines.”

This 4/9/17 post transferred from L2SP 7/15/17

Destruction courtesy consumption

Last night, my sister Rache called me at the beginning of a longish drive she was taking. Our first call didn’t work out, but we got to really talking soon enough.

Rache happened to mention a noxious tweet she’d seen earlier. It was, she told me, deriding poor people with too damn many kids–decrying the terrible burden they’re placing on the planet.

By now, you might be able to predict what I said in reply: “George Monbiot wrote a perfect article about this exactly!

I’d read the essay in a book, but the book was a collection of essays from The Guardian. I googled “george monbiot rich people carbon” (or, if you want to be precise, “george people.carbon”) and found what I was looking for within the first couple results. I read the essay, “Stop blaming the poor. It’s the wally yachters who are burning the planet,” aloud to her.

Early on, Monbiot writes that “the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2.”

Monbiot drives this home in one particularly scathing paragraph:

While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. I’ve been taking a look at a few super-yachts, as I’ll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they are accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet’s RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour I realised that it wasn’t going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 litres per hour. But the raft that’s really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3,400 litres per hour when travelling at 60 knots. That’s nearly a litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre.

While population growth is expected to peak this century, Monbiot sees no end in sight for the excess consumption of those wealthy enough to pass the environmental buck to the rest of the planet with nary a (government-mandated) consequence:

But no one anticipates a consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less – they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock’s words, “hiding from the truth”. It is the worst kind of paternalism.

Rache loved the article, so I sent her the link. Since our discussion was one of the first things that came to my mind when I awakened this morning, I wanted to share it here.

Monbiot is not alone in saying these things. Like points have been covered in many of my readings, including/especially one of my most informative reads so far, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Where Monbiot shines–apart from his riveting descriptions of experiences out in the wild–is in his ability to say so much so succinctly, and with such delectable wryness.

I hope you’ll read this Monbiot essay … and not stop there!

Kinda, thanks to Johnson

One of my adult students in Japan survived the American (nuclear) bombing of Nagasaki. She took me into her home and showed me her pictures, explaining how she survived the bomb’s chaotic aftermath. I took notes with the intention of writing about her experiences, but those notes disappeared when my home was burglarized in 2006.

I remember my elderly student. I remember our conversations. More than that, I remember a view shared by my many adult students: “I hate America. We hate America.”

They were always quick to add, “Not you! You’re lovely! The American people are very kind.” And I was quick to smile, showing that I understood the animosity wasn’t personal.

But I didn’t really understand. I didn’t understand until a few months ago, when I picked up a Chalmers Johnson book at random in a bookstore.

If you’d like to understand why my (lovely) Japanese students hated America, please read Johnson’s Dismantling the Empire. It is succinct, well sourced, and the best (genuine) answer you’re apt to find to the question, “Why do they hate us?”

I thought I understood, a decade ago. Now, I (kinda, thanks to Johnson) actually do.

This 4/4/17 post transferred from L2SP 7/10/17