The Perfectly Good Business (PGB)

There is such a thing as a Perfectly Good Business. It provides a Perfectly Good profit for its owners, a Perfectly Good living for its workers, a Perfectly Good product for its customers at a Perfectly Good price. It is a Perfectly Good neighbor to its community.

Obviously, the people running this PGB are total suckers. If a private equity (PE) firm sees such a business, you’d have one of those sequences from old cartoons where the PGB suddenly looks like a lollipop or a T-bone steak. Or maybe a pigeon.

I mean, if they’re providing a Perfectly Good living to its workers, clearly too much is going toward labor and those workers need to make less. If they’re unionized, the anti-union arsenal needs to be brought into play to crush the union.

If they’re providing a Perfectly Good product, there is money that can be squeezed out there. Can’t we reduce the quality? Why should it be Perfectly Good? Can’t it be made crummy, but spend some more on IP lawyers and marketing to mask that?

And, worst of all, if it’s a Perfectly Good member of its community, there’s certainly money to be made there. Why can’t it dump its waste into the groundwater, if that would save some money? After all, the people around are too poor to sue if they get cancer, and our lawyers can always twist the statistics to hide the cluster.

And all that money that comes from impoverishing the workers and denying their bargaining power, from reducing quality, from being a bad neighbor, all that new wealth and profit can go to some douchebag on Sutton Place who was clever enough to see this opening.

Lies and Belief

Lies are quick and easy, truth is slow and laborious. Lies are fun and sticky and quick, truth is complicated, counterintuitive and boring.

What is a lie? What is belief?

I think we know why people have the feeling we call “belief” — either a statement conforms to what we already believe (confirmation bias), or believing it somehow profits us (motivated thinking); we tend to believe things that are easier to remember (availability bias and the illusion-of-truth effect); we believe statements by people who resemble us (need citation); we trust and believe people whose names are easier to pronounce (need citation). We believe thing that create adherence to a group to which we belong. None of these have anything to do with a belief being what eggheads call “true.”

True, sometimes we believe statements after checking them against other statements that have passed a gantlet of tests. That’s much of science and scholarship. Nobody can know everything, so one relies on a body of credentialed individuals and an accepted body of knowledge; and we might know enough to judge whether a bit of knowledge is crazy or believable, even if we don’t understand all the details. But this is a niche definition of belief, mostly used for academics. I was going to say, for “business and academics,” since you’d think that business decisions would be driven by concern for adherence to what we like to call “facts,” but my speculation is that this is a sometime thing.

There is a belief about business that, due to the profit motive, everyone is somehow on peak performance and efficiencies are optimized. But the point isn’t to maximize to an ideal degree, but to surpass competitors. And anyone who thinks there’s not a ton of loafing and goldbricking in successful companies hasn’t worked for one. Even, maybe especially, in the C-Suite.

But anyway. There are flavors of “belief”, so when Don Jr says things about the “Democrat governor of Texas”, many people will believe that and repeat it. How many I don’t know. Would be interesting/horrifying to find out.

The power of the lie is that it is quickly made with little effort. Liars will apply a heuristic evolutionary algorithm, which is just fancy talk for come up with many lies, one after the other, with no concern for consistency, and some of them will die on the ground where they fall, and others will sprout and reproduce, like Dawkins’ memes or mustard seeds. If you only get one in a hundred or one in a thousand to take off, they are so cheap to do that this can be a successful tactic.

Telling the truth can be complicated and counter-intuitive and take energy. Telling a lie is instant and easy. See the old cliché, A lie goes around the world before the truth can put its boots on.

Just as there are people with an uncanny ability to remember and tell jokes or to tell stories in an entertaining, memorable way, there are those who are better at lying than others. Look at #45 — here is a compendium — and the various flavors of lie. Simple statements of exaggerated numbers, when few people know the real numbers. Or memorable fables of strong men weeping tears of gratitude. Compare that with Don Jr’s ham-fisted lie about the “democrat governor of Texas”.

What about the most recent Big Lie about Biden shutting off power to Texas? Where did that originate? How many people believe it? What would be actually involved in doing that?

But maybe you don’t need to be a good liar any more. Just a liar.

There is an element of religion in this acceptance of lies, as there is in the Qanon phenomenon. If you go to a religious service, and the leader of the congregation makes a statement about, say, the sea parting, it would be a serious breach of protocol to raise your hand and ask, Really? How do you know that? When the congregation is supposed to “repeat after me,” they just do; to do otherwise would be hideously disrespectful.

When I was little, my parents would send me to a friend’s house (the Kemps, if you must know) for Seders. I remember, during the ritual, asking if the story of the Exodus actually happened and everyone stopped and looked down as if I had farted. They kindly explained to me that that was not the kind of question one should ask. The question of “truth” was a rude question. Being a polite and cowardly little boy, I knew when it was time to shut up. But I didn’t understand why I had been rude for many years.

So, what does the religious right want? I mean, that it doesn’t already have…

Listening the the 538 Politics Podcast, the recent episode, What Could the GOP’s Future Look Like? Very interesting, quite right-leaning panel. One of them (I think Henry Olson) said that the clear center of the Republican Party included religious people who wanted to fight for a country where they did not feel cast out into the wilderness. They want to express their beliefs openly and in public. I paraphrase, I don’t have a transcript.

My first thought was, who’s stopping them? Anyone who wants to pray can pray, they want to tell everyone their beliefs, they can. They already have that. I suppose what they don’t have is the reaction to that that they might prefer, which is of course approbation. Not everybody will react and think, What a good person — they’re a fervent Christian, so they must be good and I’ll listen to what they have to say and (if I can get over my inner wickedness) maybe even be persuaded.

So they’re not getting the reaction they want. This is a fairly common whinge on the right (though not exclusively), where they say, What about my freedom of speech, as they’re speaking freely. What they mean is they don’t like the reaction they get to their speech, which, I emphasize, they are doing freely. The speaking I mean.

Another component is they want to feel differently. That I can’t help with. They want a country in which they feel differently… more in charge, perhaps? I would say they’re too in charge as it is. But I think that the sentiment that they want to feel less cast out is code for, they want to be more in charge and inspire subservience, if not fear, on the part of others.

I can see how a tribe held together by a belief in their ultimate victory in an eternal sphere, in which their Big Boss (God) defines morality by burning it into the very fabric of the universe, so that all those who believe differently then they are, by definition, to one degree or another, immoral. And what kind of world would it be, I ask you, if the moral did not try to impose their beliefs, by force if necessary, on the immoral? This is not a new stance. We’ve seen something like this since the dawn of religion, or with the dawn of cities, which is where this unitary punishing God took shape as a necessary adaptation to get groups greater than 150 to cooperate.

And it was a successful invention! The partisans of these religions took over in a Big Way.

So, when someone complains about not having something, and you give them the thing, and they still complain, something else is going on.

New Gear!

I updated my tablet, from a Galaxy Tab S2 to the S5e. The S2 I bought in December 2017 when I was working in Lyon, France, and my prior Android tablet, a Dell Venue, just gave up the ghost. The S2 worked well, until the battery finally died in March 2020. I replaced the battery, which turned out to be surprisingly easy. Opening up the S2 ended up being not that hard, and the battery is right there. It was taped in, but came out vey easily. The aftermarket battery was not as long-lasting as the original, and just about now, eleven months later, is going the way of the earlier one — lots of annoying spontaneous restarts, when the device is telling me there’s 25% left.

I had been wanting a larger tablet anyway. Black Friday came and went and I didn’t see anything cheap enough. Eventually, on eBay I saw that US Cellular was getting rid of pre-owned tablets. I got one that they classified as Excellent condition, and it really is flawless.

Around that time, my newly-minted son-in-law gave me a carry pouch with the Curaleaf logo. It just fits the tablet, along with a second pocket for additional gear. I felt I needed a little keyboard… and got a Plugable keyboard. I love Plugable products, and this is just as solid and well-made as their other products. It comes in a little case that also serves as a tablet stand. Elegant! It is just on the edge of fitting in the pouch, but does (and obviates the need for a dedicated tablet stand). So I have room for a cleaning cloth and my Google Buds.

I’m on the keyboard right now. Sweet setup. Now if only I could go to Alanna’s Coffee and sit there typing… Maybe soon. My 65th birthday is May 11, and with any luck I’ll have an appointment for a vacccine on May 12.

Stay safe!


Deepfake Mythology

Yes, impeachment has become cheap. I think the Clinton impeachment set the tone. Mind you, he was a cretin, but still.

There’s an interesting trend in science fiction having to do with super-intelligence… in humans, not machines. The template was a wonderful novella (or novelette, no idea, not looking it up) called Understand. Highly recommended. His approach became the standard for movies like Limitless.

The premise is there’s a drug which increases the dendritic density of the brain. Blah blah blah. The end result is hyperintelligence.

In some of these stories, they end up running for office. Maybe that’s what we need. Someone who can play five moves ahead of everyone in the country.

But until then, anti-trust on FB. Break up the social media universe into many small bits. I believe that government needs a balance of anti-trust and regulation. You can have either one very heavily and the other light, or you can do both. I think that’s what it needs. It’s bad to do neither.

Also some kind of thought given to algorithm control. Same problem with facial recognition or any of those algorithmically driven businesses. One approach is to deny proprietary rights, like patents (I’m sure I’m using the words wrong) to algorithms. If they were totally open, we could break them apart and look inside… or pay someone to, anyway. We have as little insight into algorithms as we do into biology, which is why both of those things are lousy areas for Free Markets. You can’t have a free market if the thing being marketed is incomprehensible.

That’s why Hayek needed to come up with a Wisdom of Crowds philosophy. He knew that markets fail when the buyer is ignorant. So he figured out how the buyer wasn’t ignorant… in the aggregate.

Of course, I’m not an aggregate, I’m just me, so I’m fucked when shopping for medical care. Or algorithms.

Even if one buys the Wisdom of Crowds argument, which is perfectly good for things of which people have some understanding, like how many jelly beans are in that jar, it is also true that Crowds are cretinous. They can adopt a falsehood as quickly and easily as anything else. In fact, what a Crowd believes has more to do with how “sticky” the narrative is than with how “true” it is. Boring truths but exciting lies, is what drives the world.

Due to FB’s recent changes in its algorithm, someone can put out some crazy shit, get 10k followers or likes or whatever, right away. If they just did it for kicks and didn’t really believe it before, they believe it now. And they evangelize. Stickiest ideas win.

[Side Note: I believe Qanon started this way, by evolutionary algorithms. Plug in a few thousand notions into FB in robotically generated accounts, they get tried out and stickier ones proliferate. Less sticky one die out and are never heard of again. It’s like a deepfake mythology. If there’s a takeway from this whole email, it’s those words.]

As you know, our memories are faulty. We believe things that didn’t happen, remember things that we never saw. Our mind is a fucking mess, but perfectly functional on a day to day level.

You can’t sell a political platform on a premise of, You don’t know how to think right, people are taking advantage of that, we want to protect you. That would just be insulting.
So we need a government that is, to a degree, paternalistic, much like Behavioral Economics was, sort of. When Medicare Part D was set up, under Bush II, it gave citizens a choice of plans. It was totally clear which plans were better for whom, but we were given choices. Which choice would be first on the list? It’s well known that people preferentially pick the top choice. It would have been easy and fair and right to put the best choice first, but let people pick another one. Instead, the Bush II administration decided they should make it random. So, picking the way people are known to pick, most people would pick the wrong program for themselves. They couldn’t possibly be “educated consumers” unless they had medical degrees. And “experts”, those foul creatures, were not allowed to help; they were thwarted. It’s just not fair.

The Magic of Illusion!

We all think that what we experience during our waking hours is the World. This is called naive realism. I could link to Wikipedia for this, but I’ll let Googling be an exercise for the reader.

The gist is we see stuff, we think stuff, we don’t ask too many questions. In some corner cases, such as hallucinations, we may have good reason to question what we see, hear, and think. Other than that, it’s taken as given, and it works pretty well. We see a crack in the sidewalk, we avoid it because we might trip and hurt ourselves. We look at our plate and decide what we want to eat.

Our thoughts do interfere with our perceptions of things. We stereotype people and may see them in different ways depending on our preconceptions. We may cross the street to avoid a scary empty house, and have no good reason to do that but have a feeling in our gut. The house is just a house, but we have a network of thoughts and memories having to do with empty houses, with childhood stories, with imagining who might be in it, even if we don’t see anything.

That’s one level where our perception is not purely seeing and dealing with the fact of the material world in front of us, but is brightly colored and lit by our thoughts that might be completely wrong or inapt to the situation.

There are scientists (here’s a link to an interesting presentation) who go further, and say that what we are not actually perceiving the world with our senses directly at all, but it all gets processed by our brain’s operating system, and that what we experience in our conscious minds is an artifact of that operating system. That it has much less to do with the actual world than we’d like to think.

Important note—None of this has anything to do with intelligence. You could have the most impressive ability to process data, to retain information, and also have your perceptions heavily colored by your mental life. Someone might be a brilliant and very successful businessman or lawyer and yet see the world through a scrim of illusion. They may see numbers on a spreadsheet with perfect accuracy, but see the reality behind those numbers in a way very different from someone else.

It is a truism that a lawyer’s job is to tell a story. They have many facts in front of them and, like a Tarot card reader, make up a story incorporating all the facts. If the story has narrative juice, that makes it compelling. Does it have a hero with believable motivations? Are the obstacles facing them shown in the evidence? Is there a satisfying resolution? All these make a story sticky where a list of facts would be nearly impossible to remember.

How do you remember the alphabet if you’re in pre-school? You sing it. A pattern of notes is imposed on it, you find rhymes, and that makes it memorizable. So the lawyer who crafts the better story wins the case. They may have to run the facts through a process like an audio equalizer, where you adjust all the various tones and pitches until you get just the sound you want. Anyone who has ever participated in a story-telling event, like The Moth, knows this process. Life doesn’t often present us with great stories. A story is a synthetic thing, crafted out of events in order to produce the desired effect in an audience. Great storytellers may do this intuitively; the rest of us work hard at it, with mixed effect. I’ve been to, and told stories at, a number of Moth events, and it is remarkable how some people—people with the most ordinary lives—manage to tell amazingly wonderful stories. And there are plenty of examples of people who have lived through amazing events, can only tell fairly boring stories about them.

This process of telling stories, and of running the facts of life through an equalizer in order to produce memorable stories, happens all the time in our brain. As we exist and move through our days, we hear a narrative in our head. That phenomenon is called the Left-Brain Interpreter (LBI). Here’s an article I could understand, and I’m no neuro-anything. Our LBI produces post-hoc rationalizations for our instinctive actions, and we seize on that narration as the “reason” we did something. I think we kid ourselves if we think that reason is at all real. Actually, I think consciousness is, if not a complete and total illusion, than an intermittent thing, only sparking up every once in a while, and when it is alive, feeding us lies.

I believe that what we do when we meditate is to quiet down the jabbering of our LBI and make an attempt (however feeble!) to perceive as best we can without mediation. Of course, what we might be perceiving (see above) is artifacts generated by our brain’s operating system, but still, the mental state we labor to invoke via meditation may be the closest we can get.

Okay, why is this interesting? Aside from, consciousness and thoughts and human behavior are interesting.

My prior post was about Kenin Spivak’s letter to Columbia Magazine. It caught my eye because he graduated from the same school (Columbia College) in the same year (1977) that I did. I didn’t know him—he graduated in three years (I took the usual four), he was pre-law (I was Physics with some Medieval Studies courses and a lot of theater), and he did law school and business school in three years, simultaneously (I think this was an actual program, so maybe not quite the miracle I thought at first… still, pretty impressive!).

So, you know, smart. Driven. Energetic. Ambitious. And smart, very very smart.

Yet this letter is borderline loony. See my previous post for details. And it made me wonder what’s going on in his head?

Here’s my thinking. He was, apparently, conservative back in 1977-80 in Law School. So he didn’t come to it as an adult. He is at home in that world. Friends, family, colleagues presumably. He (I’m guessing here but he does live in Beverly Hills) plays golf with conservatives. They smoke cigars and drink fantastic single-malt whisky at lavish private clubs (I’m not criticizing! Anytime they want to invite me I’ll go and have a whiskey and cigar with them… after I get my COVID vaccination).

Now let’s zoom out for a panoramic view. There was a time when Democrats had a firm hold on Congress, by historical alliance with racist Dixiecrats in the South. Then came LBJ and Civil Rights legislation and those Dixiecrats got angry. Republicans (Nixon) saw an opening and took it. Those Dixiecrats became Republican, and that created what we now see as the 50/50 government. It also removed any incentive for Republicans to cooperate with Democrats, which they used to do, and which older Democrats (Biden) recall as the good old days when you could reach across the aisle and get things done.

It doesn’t take a degree in game theory to see how that was no longer a necessary strategy for Republicans in Congress. Now that they could win more elections and take over Congress, thanks to their co-opting of the Southern vote, incentive to cooperate vanished like the snows of yesteryear. That cooperation Biden remembers fondly was not due to some wonderful nostalgic comity, but rather it was their only route to getting anything they wanted. Now they have another, better route, they’re taking it. Perfectly reasonable.

But there were other potential voters on the table. For starters, there were Black voters, Hispanic voters, women, young people. These had traditionally been low-turnout voters, but natural Democratic constituents. Obama’s election turned out many who had no or sporadic history of voting. This gave an edge, a small one and maybe one totally dependent on Obama, to Democrats.

But they, it seems were not the only voters available. There were the famous Working-Class White voters. Not to mention disaffected groups who never saw the Government doing anything that benefited them (even, of course, as they and their parents received Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA benefits… well, never mind) because there were people out there they didn’t like and the Government wasn’t doing anything about that! And the American myth of the majestic individual has a powerful draw.

Among those disaffected groups were the classic American Racists—John Birchers, Klansfolk, neo-Nazis, and all their brethren and sistern.

Now, here’s a puzzler—If you’re an old-line Republican, devoted to the cult of the Tax Cut and lower regulation and the myth that your contract with your workers is an agreement reached by equals after a fair negotiation, and suddenly you look to your left and your right and you see Nazis and Klansmen, what do you do?

You could jump up in horror and say, This isn’t for me anymore. Any club that would have these monsters isn’t a club I want to be in! But it’s hard—all your friends and family are still there, and there’s a tremendous social cost to leaving the tribe. We see this with young people who leave the Satmar Hasidic sect. They lose everything and they’re barely trained to deal with the modern world.

So you don’t leave. What else can you do? You can fight to exclude them. That’s hard, too, because now you depend on their votes. And the longer you do nothing, the harder it is to do anything. After all, why did you tolerate them for so long?

You could just ignore them. Whatever…

But if you’re a thinking person, that’s hard too. So you make excuses. You put them through your Mental Equalizer. You tweak them subtly so they’re just harmless clowns. If one of them is actually violent, well, they’re mentally ill.

You also need to balance it out. After all, if all the horrible people are on your side, what does that say about you? So if you don’t fight to get rid of them and you don’t ignore them, you need equally terrible people on the other side so you can engage in whataboutism and distraction.

It’s about turning beams into motes and motes into beams, basically.

If you’re on the right, and sitting with Nazis, who can you point to on the Left? Don’t ask me, I don’t know. But if you’re Kenin Spivak, esq., it’s “anarchists.” I find this a particularly inapt scare term, because Republicans also consider Democrats the party of Big Government. Anarchists, of course, want to do away with government altogether, at least if you go by the name. But you have to find a scary enough word. I would have thought Communists would do it, because I suppose there are actual Communists out there in the wild, but they want nothing to do with Democrats either. So he says the Democrats “appease” anarchists.

It’s very weird. On the other hand, he’s a storyteller, though not a great one. He has credit for co-writing a book, a thriller (fictional) about, I believe, Canadian pharma being sent to the US? Something like that… I believe (I haven’t read it, I did read a couple of reviews) it was intended to scare people away from cheaper Canadian pharmacies and rely instead on the wildly overpriced American drugs. Anyway, I never heard of it until I looked it up.

I actually believe that he believes, on some level, in scary anarchists who want to destroy the nuclear family, rather than just people who have alternative family structures and don’t want to be denigrated or denied benefits available to other, more standard, families.

Or maybe it’s not a firm belief but a narrative that he has found useful at the Beverly Hills Country Club bar. I don’t know, I’ve never met him. I hope to, one day, and have a cigar and a whiskey while we talk about Alma Mater. And scary anarchists.

Smart guy, nutty letter…

So I get my new issue of Columbia (Winter 20/21) and took a look at the letters. There was an article in the previous issue that was pretty lame, actually, along the lines of “why can’t we get along” with the Red/Blue divide. I skimmed it, but thought I’d look at the letters it engendered. Okay, the usual… wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along, we can’t possibly get along… that kind of thing.

Then I get to a quite long letter from the Right flank, from a certain Kenin Spivak, from my school and my year (CC77). He finished his BA in three years, and then got his business and law degrees at the same time over the next three years! Very impressive. Also, his address is Beverly Hills, and I rather doubt we’re talking about the flats of Beverly Hills (i.e., the cheap part… well, relatively cheap) or a Beverly Hills post office box. I expect we’re talking about the Good Parts. The parts where you don’t want to be a pedestrian because you’ll be stopped by the police… or a brown-colored driver in any kind of car.

I wondered if I ever met him. I was a Physics major and never had the most impressive work ethic (I think I pulled two all-nighters in four years; I still regret them), so I’m sure I never hung out with a driven, ambitious pre-law student. I doubt he was in the Columbia Players or Barnard Gilbert & Sullivan, which was my social circle. He probably was in the Sachems and the Nacoms, the group of high-achieving strivers. Basically, Columbia’s version of Skull and Bones, I guess, though I was never in either one so who knows. For all I know, they had a soup kitchen. Doubt it, though.

What struck me as odd were his many references to anarchists; he says it 4 or 5 times. Anarchists who want to destroy the nuclear family. Anarchists who seek the violent overthrow of the government (ironic, now). Anarchists who oppose Democracy (also kind of ironic at this point). Anarchists who are appeased by the Democrats, so Democrats become terrorists-by-proxy, of course.

I’m looking around and thinking, Anarchists? Really? Where? Terrifying! Is it like anarchists at the turn of the 20th century, who were scruffy and unshaven and carried bombs that were shaped like cannonballs, with fuses? Interestingly, those anarchists were branded as being predominantly Jewish. Like Mr. Spivak, esq.

I see he also goes on about the specter of cancel culture, which “…directly threaten(s) the safety and welfare of nearly every American.” I think he should really have a chat with Ross Douthat, a fellow (not to me, to Spivak) conservative, who wrote a really cogent editorial about cancel culture. I recommend it.

Spivak sounds batty to me, and I really have to wonder about the specter of these unnamed anarchists. Like many, primarily on the Right, he seems to have created a Fantasy Enemy. This Enemy’s existence is vital, because it allows Spivak to vote to, say, lower his own taxes and regulations on his business, but feel like he’s voting to Save Civilization. Much more satisfying! But it also provides a tool to rebut those who accuse Republicans of cozying up to White Supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other disreputable and frankly actually dangerous sorts. You need scary, unnamed “anarchists” if you want to say, No, YOU!

I try to think statistically, that all kinds of things are possible if not probably, and of course there are folk who consider themselves lefty who are murderous assholes. I’m sure there are Stalinists around. But, honestly, at this point in history, with the left in America being what it is, they are the party that wants to provide services. They are the party that is horrified at COVID going through nursing homes. Republicans, at this point in history, are the party that says, so what? They were old anyway. Republicans now are the people who can’t admit COVID is real or dangerous because they want to protect the Trump that lives inside them, like an organ. So if you’re looking for murderous assholes, I think you’ll have a much better chance finding them over there, on the Right.

At this point in history. Who can speak for the future.

Does anyone know this guy? I assume he’s alright, since he’s in Beverly Hills and all… Maybe a family member could call him and speak in a soothing voice. Tell him that they’ve checked, and there are no anarchists in Beverly Hills today.

(That we know of! Bwah-hah-hah!)

Putsch up or Shut up

In light of yesterday’s putsch. I generally feel perfectly comfortable ignoring Tablet, but a friend reminded me of this:

That’s a good analysis (i.e., I agree with it, which makes it “good”).

There is something very deep going on, brainwise, with people so invested in a public personality. Similar to Elvis, the Beatles, Hitler, anyone else who could command an adoring crowd. What is happening in the audience member’s brain? They’re focused intently on the person, and something something mirror neurons, and they start to imitate them and internalize them. Protect them as an element of their own identity; when people feel their identity attacked, they feel the same as if their body were being threatened by wild animals. With rock/pop stars, young women are the most vulnerable (they group-bond very readily), and this might be related to mass hysteria phenomena, as in Salem et alibi (just learned that from a crossword — it means “and other places”! Sweeeet…).

I’ve always believed that all of us have an opera in our headwe’re the hero, of course, and there are villains and all the other stock characters of opera. And the emotions are ridiculously heightened. Of course, it might be an action movie or a comic book—they’re all closely related. High emotions, high stakes, unmistakable heroes and villains.

How do we distinguish between the very compelling detailed, emotional story being told in the opera in our heads from the real world? At one extreme, there are true paranoid or schizophrenic delusions (I’m sure I’m using the terms wrong… sorry) and at the other end… I don’t know where the other end is, though I bet a lot of people (everyone?) thinks that’s where they’re at—everyone believes they are perfectly rational and that they can distinguish reality from illusion instantly and intuitively. I think at our absolute best and most rational (for whatever value of that word) we float in and out of our delusions, and maybe for some the delusions are like John Nash’s voices in his head that he learned to identify as hallucinations, couldn’t get rid of, but learned to ignore. To some degree we can probably switch back and forth, when we’re engaged in an activity that doesn’t bear much emotional freight. But as soon as our identity/emotion hair-trigger is touched, all bets are off. When you hear about subconscious or implicit bias, that’s what is happening. The continual noise in our head includes noises from the actual world and noises generated inside. In the rough and tumble of everyday existence, we’re lousy at distinguishing them. One tool for training that skill is meditation—mindfulness training. I’ve let it slide, I should get back to it.

Our perception is always mediated by what’s actually out there and our brain’s internal sound and light show. And what’s out there is cobbled together from the various bits and pieces retrieved by our senses to give us the comforting illusion of continuity and uniformity. Dreams are a great example of when the information from the world is very muted and attenuated and the noise inside is more vivid in comparison. During the day, it flips around. But it’s never, I think, all one or all the other.

Religion interacts with this system. Hence the conundrum of whose voice that is in your head: your own everyday voice, memory of important voices, or a supernatural entity? The notion that we can hear the voice in our head and interpret it as our own thoughts is sometimes considered a recent (in the history of humanity) innovation. Before that, thoughts were always someone’s voice.

Here’s a great article on how we fool ourselves into thinking we’re conscious (for our naive definition of consciousness, as a unitary mind making conscious decisions based on real-world observations, and then acting on those conscious decisions):

That pesky left-brain interpreter!

The Crown – Liberalism and Conservatism Defined

I don’t think I’ve seen a better short definition of Liberalism and Conservatism than in the episode of The Crown, Fagan (Season 4, Episode 5). This is the one where this everyguy, Michael Fagan, sneaks into Buckingham Palace not once but twice, and has a short audience with the Queen before he is arrested.

I finally found a site that offers the closed captioning text, which is as close to the actual script as I’ll get. Here are the relevant passages (bolding is mine):

Queen and Fagan

Fagan: I’ve tried everything else. Writing letters, speaking to my MP. Fat lot of good any of that did. Mirage of democracy. So I’ve come to you, the head of state. You’re my last resort. Someone who can actually do something.

Queen: What is it you’d like me to do?

Fagan: Save us all from her.

Queen:  Who?

Fagan: Thatcher. She’s destroying the country. We’ve got more than three million unemployed. More than at any time since the Great Depression. Doesn’t that bother you?

Queen: Yes, it bothers me greatly. But there’s nothing I can do about it. When you’ve been in my position as long as I have, you see how quickly and how often a nation’s fortunes can change. Joblessness, recession, crises, war. All these things have a way of correcting themselves. Countries bounce back. People do. Because they simply have to.

Fagan: That’s what I thought. That I’d bounce back. And then I didn’t. First the work dried up, then my confidence dried up. Then… the love in my wife’s eyes dried up. And then you begin to wonder, you know, where’s it gone? Not just your confidence or your happiness, but your… They say that I have mental health problems now. I don’t. I’m just poor.

Queen: The state can help with all of this.

Fagan: What state? The state has gone. She’s dismantled it, along with the other things we thought we could depend on growing up. A sense of community, a sense of, you know, obligation to one another. A sense of kindness. It’s all disappearing.

Queen: I think you’re exaggerating. People still show kindness to one another, and they still pay their taxes to the state.

Fagan: And she spends that money on an unnecessary war and declares the feel-good factor is back again. In the meantime, all the things that really make us feel good, the right to work, the right to be ill… the right to be old, the right to be frail, be human, mmm, gone. You may think you’re off the hook, but she’s got her eye on your job, too. You’ll be out of work soon.

Queen: Let me assure you, Mrs. Thatcher is an all-too-committed monarchist.

Fagan:  She has an appetite for power which is presidential, and in this country, a president and a head of state cannot coexist. Mark my words, she’s put us out of work. She’s quietly putting you out of work.

Queen and Thatcher

Thatcher:  On behalf of the government and the Metropolitan Police, I am so sorry. It is a national embarrassment that the Queen of the United Kingdom should be subjected to troublemakers and malcontents who feel at liberty to resort to violence.

Queen: Oh, but he wasn’t violent. In fact, the only person Mr. Fagan hurt in the course of his break-in was himself. And while he may be a troubled soul, I don’t think he’s entirely to blame for his troubles, being a victim of unemployment, which is now more than twice what it was when you came into office just three years ago.

Thatcher: If unemployment is temporarily high, ma’am, then it is a necessary side effect of the medicine we are administering to the British economy.

Queen: Shouldn’t we be careful that this medicine, like some dreadful chemotherapy, doesn’t kill the very patient it is intended to heal? If people like Mr. Fagan are struggling, do we not have a collective duty to help them? What of our moral economy?

Thatcher: If we are to turn this country around, we really must abandon outdated and misguided notions of collective duty. There are individual men and women, and there are families. Self-interested people who are trying to better themselves. That is the engine that fires a nation. My father didn’t have the state to rely on should his business fail. It was the risk of ruin and his duty to his family that drove him to succeed.

Queen: Perhaps not everyone is as remarkable as your father.

Thatcher:  Oh, you see, that is where you and I differ. I say they have it within them to be.

Queen: Even someone like Mr. Fagan?

Thatcher: Mr. Fagan is another matter. Two different doctors have reached the conclusion he is suffering from a schizophrenic illness. If he is spared criminal prosecution on account of his condition, then a nice, secure mental hospital will ensure he will not be a danger any longer. Now, if you will excuse me, I really must go.

I don’t even know

Just read an article about how in San Francisco nobody says hi in the street. Interesting.

I’m a native New Yorker, so I am very much part of the culture where you don’t greet strangers for no reason in passing on the street. Now I live in Los Angeles where you rarely pass people on the street, so it doesn’t come up. But I grew up in an apartment building where you certainly did say hello and converse briefly with neighbors, and I do greet my neighbors where I live now, in a neighborhood which seems very suburban to me (though my kids bridle at that description; I tell them, if it’s single family homes with lawns in front, it’s a suburb! Reasonable people can disagree).

I have spent time in, and love, San Francisco. Maybe real estate will drop and rents will become more affordable and interesting people for whom making money is not driving impulse of their life will move in again. Also New York, which is a shell of its former self, thanks to all the rich people and their unholy spawn.

What made San Francisco and New York so interesting in the 60s and 70s were the people who were in the counterculture. Not much money, but lots of creative vision. They could afford the rents, and they wanted to make music, do theater, paint, write, and create something. They were so exciting and fun to be around that they boosted the value of their towns until they were priced out and along with them, the small businesses that also could only exist because of reasonable rents. I remember when the last wrought iron company in SoHo closed down because their building was so valuable they couldn’t afford to stay in business. That must have been an interesting family discussion.

Part of this is, of course, boring things like interest rates. Without a reasonable return on T-notes, everything else in the world became an object of speculation. Computers accelerated this trend, so that hedge funds can invest in, say, 100,000 rental units. Used to be the overhead of managing those would make mass speculation a losing proposition. But now with software tools, it’s a pretty good investment.

And there’s no counterculture now. Thanks to tech, we are atomised and suffer anomie. But that trend predates tech — small towns have seen neighbor turn against neighbor in favor of big box stores and megachurches before anyone had a smartphone. My neighbor Larry’s hardware store? I can get a Chinese hammer for half the price at the Walmart! No wonder the small-town right wing is so emotionally messed up, heavily armed and on the constant verge of tears with anger and resentment. They stopped buying their local paper (again, turning against their neighbor to save a nickel*) and instead are feeding off hypercharged vicious rumors thanks to social media. The only newspapers left are national chains. Where before, some bright kid could get a job in local media, bringing much needed variety into the ranks of journalism and media, now those local jobs are just the fading memory of a dream, and only big city papers and chains remain, and they hire who they’re used to hire.

The culture of individuality has crushed the skull of the small town, leaving what amounts to an anthill after the passage of a mean child kicks it over. Eating each other and attacking anything in sight.

I don’t know where this goes, and maybe it doesn’t matter whether I know or not. Certainly COVID is increasing the sense of isolation. We are, after all, beasts evolved to live in extended clans of about 100, and if we’re forced to live only in groups of five, the results can’t be good.

* You could argue that this behavior is driven by downward pressure on wages. Also, that reluctance to fight that downward pressure is due to racial solidarity with bosses in the face of perceived threats by other ethnic racial groups. Pathetic forelock-tugging, I call it. But yes, I’m aware of these arguments. I suspect there’s a lot to them.