Category Archives: Random Thought

The Pitchfork And The Brick

riot

A while back I watched a video of David Simon from the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. (How cool is it that such a thing exists?) David Simon is the creator of The Wire. He also created Treme. He makes it his business to study urban and economic development in order to write compelling dramas about them. So when he talks about income inequality and where he thinks it’s headed, I listen. He got to a point in the hour long talk where he’s thinking about where things are going and he says this:

“We’re either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, at which point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.”

This week I found an open letter by billionaire Nick Hanauer called “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats”. It’s a scathing letter explaining in detail why the middle class must be rebuilt by paying workers more money. In words that eerily echo David Simon’s he says:

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”
These are smart men who know what they’re talking about and I don’t see a lot of compelling arguments going that refute their claims. More to the point, if you’re looking for it, I can see evidence of this war happening already.

Anyone who is paying attention can see that we have an increasingly militarized police force. Recently a Massachusetts SWAT team when asked for records of their activities claimed to be a corporation or a private mercenary force. This isn’t a promising sign when you have SWAT teams in other parts of the country injuring 2-year-olds.

When people aren’t getting injured or killed by the police, they’re getting arrested and imprisoned. In America we have 5% of the population and yet we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. We are incarcerating humans at a rate never before seen in human history. We are then taking those prisoners and forcing them to work for little to no pay often to increase the profits of private companies running state prisons. This is the legal slave trade of America. And you’ll find no millionaires among their ranks. Most prisoners aren’t white. Most of them are poor. All of them will have a difficult time finding a job if and when they are released increasing the likelihood that they will resort to crime resulting in more prison time.

Of course this isn’t the only problem. These days we have an increasingly large group of people who feel it is necessary to arm themselves with guns. Many of these people are anti-government. Many are poor. And thanks to gun laws so lax that even Mexican gangsters come to our country to get guns because it’s easier many of them are exactly the sort of people who shouldn’t have guns. Despite an annual death count that is nearly equal with car accidents, instead of increasing gun control laws, we have made guns even easier to get and easier to fire legally.

The combination of open carry laws and stand your ground laws make it possible for two people to openly carry guns, feel fearful of the other one and shoot each other without any law being broken. This isn’t the Wild West. It’s worse.

So we have unparalleled income inequality. We have unparalleled militarized police. We have unparalleled imprisonment. We have unparalleled private citizen armament. What we have is a class war being waged and it’s only just beginning.

If I were a billionaire, I’d probably do everything to erase my public existence, buy a fortified yacht, and hide out in the South Pacific until it’s all over.

Unfortunately, I’m a few billion dollars short of being a billionaire. Like most of you I’m living paycheck to paycheck at a pay rate closer to minimum wage than it is to the average CEO’s. I think it’s safe to say that the war is here and it’s going to get A LOT worse before it gets better. I’m talking Mad Fucking Max worse.

It could be that David Simon and Nick Hanauer and I are all wrong about this and it’s going to be fine. I accept that and I don’t have any questions about it.

What I don’t know is what should we do if we’re right? What do the people in the rapidly shrinking middle who don’t want to throw bricks or raise pitchforks do to prepare for war? How do we increase our chances of survival? Arming ourselves and stalking up on food doesn’t seem like a good choice because you don’t know how much food or ammunition you’re going to need and the best gun in the world doesn’t make you bulletproof. Is it as simple as drastic relocation? Should those of us who see this thing coming just get out of the country and try to find a safe place? (Though what place is safe from what seems to be a global class war?) These are questions I genuinely don’t know the answers to and I’m curious what others think about all of this.

I know it sounds a bit paranoid and most of us think that something else will happen before the pitchforks and bricks, but it’s a situation where we should start thinking about contingency plans before it’s too late.

I’m interested in what you think. Go ahead and comment below if you have anything you’d like to contribute to the conversation.

–       Jack Cameron

You May Be Right…

wrongI’ve spent a lot of time arguing with people on the Internet. Hours. Days. Hundreds of Facebook comments. I’ve been called a ‘lib’, ‘libtard’, ‘typical liberal’ and a host of other names you can find in any Kevin Smith film. On three occasions that I recall, someone I was arguing with changed their mind and thanked me for new information. On fewer occasions than that, the people I was arguing with changed my mind.

In an ongoing debate regarding his book Free Will, Sam Harris said, “In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind.”  A good friend of mine who is an ardent atheist has been recently confiding in me his absolute frustration with how otherwise intelligent people can believe in something as silly as a big old man in the sky who created everything.

I recently read this very revealing article about the psychology of irrational fears such as the blanket fear of GMOs.  The article basically points out that much of the fear of GMOs is based on emotion rather than fact and that trying to debate fact vs. emotion is a no-win situation because you can tell people something isn’t true but you can’t tell them how they feel isn’t true.

Unfortunately, you’re not likely to have much luck in a debate by saying, “Your opinion is not supported by facts. It’s just emotion and faulty risk assessment.”  So that leaves us at a bit of a dead end. If it’s logic vs. emotion and emotion won’t even admit it’s emotion, then we’re stuck. There are also situations where people look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions simply because there isn’t enough evidence to say definitively one way or another what is actually true.

And so we get these loud and long conversations in which neither person gives up until Godwin’s Law is applied and at least one of the two positions is compared to the Nazis. The result is typically that people who already agree with one position or another chime in with their two cents or click ‘like’ on a comment. Perhaps a like-minded individual sends you a friend request or something. But the only thing people tend to ‘learn’ from these discussions is that ‘Some people are morons.’

I don’t have an easy solution for this. I have only one idea. That idea is that we enter into these discussions with a thought most of us are entirely uncomfortable with: For the purposes of the conversation, allow that everything you know is wrong. Allow that just maybe your well informed opinion or thought on the matter as to what is true is somehow misinformed or that other more reliable information exists. Simply go into the conversation thinking that the person you’re talking to has something to teach you.

It’s not always true. There are idiots who have Internet connections and despite their mental deficiency, they still know how to type. I’m not saying you should leave all of your knowledge and common sense at the door. I’m just saying that you should allow for the concept that there’s something you don’t know and that the person you’re talking to might have something worthwhile to share that’s contrary to your current point of view.

I was once pro-death penalty, anti-abortion, anti-gay, and Christian. None of those things are true about me now and that’s because I was allowed that others I encountered might have information I don’t have and they might be right and I might be wrong. If both people in a debate can enter with this mindset, there’s a better chance for learning, growing, and changing.

–          Jack Cameron

The Newsroom And ‘American Nostalgia’

I recently watched the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new show on HBO called The Newsroom. It has received ratings up there with Game of Thrones and highly mixed reviews. Personally, I loved it but then again I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin. Hell, he could probably write a movie about Facebook that would be Oscar-worthy. Oh wait, he did that. I’m not going to review The Newsroom, but I would like to use it to talk about something else.

The opening scene of The Newsroom starts the show off with Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy going on a rant that will inevitably be compared by everyone to the justifiably classic rant in Paddy Chayevski’s Network. The rant starts off by talking about everything he feels is wrong with the country and ends with everything he feels used to be right with this country.  In the New Yorker, Emily Nusbaum writes a fairly snarky article where she says among other things, “Much of McAvoy’s diatribe is bona-fide baloney—false nostalgia for an America that never existed—but it is exciting to watch.”

Here’s the pertinent part of ‘McAvoy’s diatribe’: “We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

Now the typical line against this sort of talk is that also during this time we weren’t treating women, black people, gay people, and yes, pretty much anyone who wasn’t a straight white American guy like fellow human beings. This is true. No sane person disputes this. But the people who love to point this out tend to think that those wrongs regardless of the fact that they were eventually righted somehow erases absolutely every good thing any white guy did during that time. And that’s absolute bullshit.

Anyone who thinks that America couldn’t possibly have stood for great things or done great things while also doing terrible things is seeing the world in a very screwed up way. The truth is we do great and terrible things all the time both as a country and individually. Just last week Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 out of 48 charges stemming from accusations that he molested boys. But he was also one of the best assistant coaches of college ball in history. His crimes are unspeakable and wrong in every possible way. He’ll probably spend the rest of his life behind bars and rightly so. But this doesn’t erase the coaching he did. For some he was a monster. For others he was a mentor. These things, as much as we might wish otherwise, are not mutually exclusive.

America in the mid to late 20th Century was full of this sort of dichotomy. And it’s important to acknowledge both sides of it. It’s not “false nostalgia for an America that never existed”. It’s a glass half full way of looking at a certain part of American history. Yeah, we as a country did some shitty things in the 1960s but we also went to the moon. No amount of racism or bigotry erases that fact or makes that fact less great.

When it comes to The Newsroom, it’s clear that Aaron Sorkin’s argument is that journalism has failed to live up to what it used to be. You have to try pretty hard to not see that. And it’s pretty clear that most news anchors aren’t today Edward R. Murrow or Walter Chronkite. Both of those guys were great men and part of what made them great was speaking about the bad things that were happening as well as the good. This is clearly what Sorkin’s McAvoy character aspires to be.

I’m a white heterosexual male and I think that people who aren’t any of those things deserve every right and opportunity that I get. I also think that white heterosexual males, who have admittedly had it pretty good for most of history shouldn’t get the shaft just because of they were born white guys. I’m not saying us white guys have it tough. We don’t. But ignoring the accomplishments of white men and acting like it’s some sort of fallacy when we talk about great things white men have done is the exact sort of discrimination that us white guys have been guilty of for most of history, so we know it when we see it. And it’s just as wrong when it’s done to us as when it’s done to anyone else.

Most of the founding fathers were slave owners. OJ Simpson was a great football player and a criminal. Bill Clinton was a great President who made terrible personal decisions. If you’re under the impression that in order to be great you have to be perfect, well, that’s not very American of you.

– Jack Cameron

Some Thoughts on Free Will Part 2

Sam Harris’ book, Free Will argues that free will is an illusion. If he’s right, this has some interesting consequences, many of which I’m still thinking about, but I’d like to share some of the results this line of thinking has caused.

If everyone’s free will is an illusion and all of our actions and thoughts are the results of genetics, circumstances, and chance, then certain things stop making sense. Regret, for example, becomes silly. If free will is an illusion, then every choice you made was in fact the only choice you could have made given who you are. You could not have possibly done anything else because to do so would require a change in your genetics, experience, or chance. So there is nothing to regret. Ever. You can still feel bad for things you’ve done that you feel bad about, but really you could not have done anything differently and still be you.

This thought alone could save some people years of misery. How many times have you thought ‘If only I’d done that instead…’?   If we accept Harris’ argument, then we could never have done anything other than what we did. Of course we can still learn from our mistakes and misdeeds, but we can stop beating ourselves up over the fact that we made this mistakes in the first place.

The next thing I noticed was that one of the central motivations in my life was quite suddenly irrelevant. In a world without free will, how can you possibly justify vengeance? It would be like that scene in the Life Aquatic when Bill Murray says he’s going to kill the shark that killed his partner to get revenge. If there’s no free will, then a person who has wronged you has just as much responsibility as a shark. Of course this doesn’t mean that we should let everyone in prison go free and that they are absolved of all guilt. Much like the shark, there are people who are genuinely dangerous and need to be locked up. Outside circumstances like laws and sentencing still change the behavior of people even if there’s no free will. But things like the death penalty and getting revenge quickly become pointless, like hunting down the tornado that destroyed your house.

Perhaps the biggest change that this line of thinking creates is that it effectively eliminates hate. I’ll do a little paraphrasing and use an example like something in Harris’ book. Let’s say that a good friend of yours was murdered by a man who had a brain tumor in his frontal lobe that caused him to act out violently. The brain tumor doesn’t negate the tragedy of your friend’s death, but it’s difficult to hate the man who did it. If the man who killed your friend had surgery that removed the tumor, he would no doubt feel enormous remorse and never think to do anything like that again. You’d likely pity him. In a world where free will is an illusion, all murders become the result of genetics, circumstance, and chance. It’s hard to hate someone when but for those three things, you could be that someone. Again, I think it’s important to point out that though such lines of thought eliminate hate, it doesn’t negate the danger that a murderer or any other violent sort may represent.

The most interesting thing to me about all of this is that while it may make things like regret, vengeance, and hate irrelevant, it doesn’t do the same to positive thoughts and emotions. If we understand that free will is an illusion, then we start understanding people as more like weather patterns. Some are very nice. Some can be outright deadly. And this understanding gives us more empathy towards others, even towards the worst in our society.

So accepting that free will is an illusion eliminates some of humanity’s worst traits and preserves some of its best. And it does all of this without a ‘God’ or a set of belief systems that can’t be proven and don’t relate to our daily experience. It becomes a way of looking at life that gives you sympathy and understanding while not making you naïve. It creates a framework that, if anything makes me feel as though you’re more a part of the universe than apart from the universe.

I’ve read Sam Harris’ Free Will three times now. I expect I’ll read it some more and have more thoughts on this. When I do, I’ll post them here. In the meantime, I’d advise you check out Free Will. He does a much better job of explaining his argument than I’ve done here and it’s one of the most enlightening books I’ve ever read.

–          Jack Cameron

Some Thoughts on Free Will Part 1

When I’m creating a story, I start with the basic concept. We’ll use ‘girl gets a dog’ for the purposes of this article. Then I start working on the characters in the story. What sort of girl is she? Why does she want a dog? Why is she getting the dog now? What sort of dogs has she had in the past? I answer these questions and dozens of others and come up with an idea of this girl that I’ve created in my head. The more I figure out about her, the more real she becomes to my imagination. Eventually, if I do my job well enough, I can imagine this girl in any situation and how she might react. And this lets me tell my story through the character.

It would be somewhat silly for me to ask you if this girl has any sort of free will. She doesn’t really exist outside of my head and this article. And yet, when I was reading Sam Harris’ book, Free Will, I couldn’t help but think about how I and other writers create characters. Often you’ll hear novelists and screenwriters talk about how the characters take on a life of their own. They do things we don’t expect them to do but are entirely true to who they are. And yet, of course, these figments of our imaginations have no true free will to speak of. The girl was always going to get the dog.

Sam Harris’ book argues that you and I are not so different from this girl. We are the sum of our genetics and experiences, most of which we have absolutely no control over. These things inform our decisions to the point where the decisions can’t really be said to come from us at all. We could never have chosen to do otherwise because that’s just not who we are.

It’s unnerving to think that we aren’t the masters of our own fate. Instinctively, we want to deny it. And yet, if the more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes. How often do we hear people in the gay community say that they never chose to be gay? How many people have claimed that they did not choose their profession? Or on the flip side of that coin, how many times have you heard someone in love say they chose to fall in love with someone? When I really think about it, I can’t see any way around the fact that we don’t really have any real free will.

I won’t try to convince you that free will is an illusion. Harris does a fine job of that and if you’re interested, you can read his book. Instead, what I’d like to talk about next is what it means if it’s true. It’s a revolutionary concept. It effectively changes the way you look at everything.\

More tomorrow…

– Jack Cameron

Humiliation Is Not An Act of Love

Recently the above video has been making the rounds. The basic idea of the video is that this guy’s 15-year-old daughter complained about how her parents were treating her on Facebook. She attempted to block her parents from seeing it, but as I’ve mentioned before, nothing on the Internet is truly private. In response, her father posted this video of him going off about her behavior for everyone to see.

This is a technique called public shaming. It’s been around since the Middle Ages. Thanks to the Internet, every few months, we get a new example of some frustrated parent doing this to their child. The typical response is the digital equivalent of patting the guy on the back for standing up to his daughter’s bad behavior. Or they’re glad that he ‘gave her a taste of her own medicine’.

In America, we absolutely love vengeance and people getting what they deserve. Mel Gibson made a career by making movies about that in the 80s and 90s. So these reactions in many ways, are only natural. The problem is that public shaming is not good parenting. It’s not discipline. It’s just vengeance. And it’s vengeance on your own child.

Some will argue but that she will learn from this. However, simply because someone learns from the experience doesn’t make it a good thing. People learn not to walk through Central Park at night when they get mugged.

What the father in this video did was humiliate his child. And he did it because he was humiliated by what she wrote. What he taught his child was that her behavior was okay and that the proper thing to do when you’re humiliated is to escalate the situation. This is wrong and it isn’t the act of a loving parent.

I am a father of teenagers. I understand firsthand the frustration that comes from raising teens. I do get where the guy is coming from, but abuse is wrong no matter what. And humiliation is a form of abuse. It’s not a form of good parenting. It’s a form of weakness. Rather than humiliating your child, how about teaching your kid that respecting other people is important? You can talk to your kids all you want, but ultimately they are going to learn by your example. If you show them that humiliating people is okay, then that’s exactly what they will do.

This guy is frustrated because his daughter doesn’t have any respect for him. He probably wonders where that comes from. He should look in the mirror.

-Jack Cameron

My thoughts on the whole Netflix/Qwikster thing

I went to Safeway the other day and was shocked by a new business that had opened up next door. It was a video store. With the exception of Red Box or the DVD section in the local grocery store, video stores are practically extinct. This is due in large part to the prevalence of Netflix. Netflix has changed the way we watch movies. And they are about to do it again.

Recently Netflix announced that they were going to effectively split the company in two. Their DVD by mail service that was the nail in the coffin to your local Blockbuster is now going to be called Qwikster. Meanwhile, their streaming service which you can use on most gaming consoles and Blu Ray players, will continue to expand under the Netflix banner.

Qwikster will continue to have the wide variety of movies and TV shows you’ve come to expect from Netflix. In addition to that they’re adding a video games section for an additional charge, much like they do with Blu Ray DVDs now. That’s the good news. There’s more than a little bad news. The most noticeable change is that the two sites are not going to have any interactivity. So the movie in your DVD queue and your streaming queue will no longer be able to interact with each other like they do now.

There are many who see this move as stupid. It’s hard not to see how this makes getting DVDs by mail a bit more of a pain. In this age where everything is connected, Netflix is separating things. Netflix has become the preferred way of watching movies by being ahead of the curve at every step. So why would they make a mistake now?

It’s simple really. One of the reasons Amazon.com has successfully killed many brick and mortar book stores is that Internet technology only gets cheaper and real estate only gets more expensive. When it comes to cost, technology beats traditional every time. The bottom line is not only is streaming movies less expensive, it’s getting cheaper all the time. Whereas the Unites States Postal Service has threatened to shut down entirely if they can’t increase revenues. For Netflix, a perfect world would be one where they don’t have to mail their customers anything at all.

So what’s the solution? If they simply got rid of their DVD by mail service, we would all simply go to Blockbuster or Red Box for our DVD needs. You can’t just cut people off. They’ll find another outlet. What you do instead is slowly introduce the concept of streaming. Make it available using a computer. Then make it available for people with X-Box 360, then PlayStation 3, then Wii, finally make it available on Blu Ray players. And make it part of the DVD by mail service. Eventually, even the people who don’t usually use streaming will try it out.  They’ll watch a TV show on their computer at work during lunch or something.

Once you’ve got a good audience through a slow ramp up, you can start charging for the streaming and the DVD by mail separately. The result will be the some people will choose the streaming and some will choose the DVD by mail. And some will actually pay more for the same service you were providing. Now that you’ve established your audiences, you can further separate them by making them into two separate entities. This will make even more people choose between one or the other. Since it’s more cost effective to stream movies, keep the Netflix brand and name connected to the streaming service. Give the other company a name that sounds like other failed Internet companies like Friendster and Napster. Call it Qwikster.

Now you’ve got two separate companies with two separate destinies. The Netflix streaming service continues to increase its library. Qwikster will eventually raise their prices due to the cost of postage or whatever other excuse they can come up with. And more people will leave Qwikster. Maybe they’ll have new releases only available on Netflix. Eventually, Qwikster will die. And when it does, Netflix will still be going strong with their streaming service. They’ll have cut their costs, increased their profit and retained the majority of their subscribers. It’s actually a very good marketing strategy.

While I’m sure that Netflix’s streaming service will increase (assuming the studios let them),  they won’t include all of titles that are currently available on DVD. Unfortunately, this means that soon there will be thousands of titles that aren’t available unless you want to buy them. It means hundreds of thousands of hours of television and movies that new generations will never see. As a guy who likes old movies, I think this sucks. Worse, I’m not sure that there is any way around it.

I don’t like this latest move by Netflix, but it isn’t stupid. What bugs me is that I’ll still be a Qwikster subscriber until its last day because it’s still the best game in town.

– Jack Cameron