synthetic zero


April 23rd, 2011

Why aren’t people more up in arms about the Ryan plan? Because it is obviously pure political theater. It isn’t a bold, “transformative” plan, it’s simply an opening salvo in a political game, where the Republicans are throwing out an initial, crazy proposal in order to, in their minds, hopefully find something somewhere in the “middle” which is still, nevertheless, far to the right of where we are, today. There’s nothing at all serious about the plan in that neither Ryan nor anyone else actually expects the plan he put forward to become law. It’s an extreme, almost cartoonish caricature simply dolled up in the rhetoric of “reasonable” but which, if implemented, would have catastrophic effects on both the economy and on the health and well-being of senior citizens and the poor.

Ryan’s plan saves money simply by slashing benefits. Out of pocket spending would go from a minimum of $6,000 to $12,000, right off the bat. And then, after that, there’s no limit to how much seniors would be expected to pay, because it is *payments* which are capped, rather than expeditures by seniors. Furthermore, he uses the money “saved” by forcing seniors to pay much more for medical care by slashing taxes even further on the wealthy.

It’s a laughable plan which is simultaneously draconian in its impact on seniors and politically absurd. Americans don’t want massive cuts to Medicare, they don’t want to cut taxes for the wealthy even more than they are now.

Even more absurd is the fact that the Ryan plan does nothing to address cost increases in health care, except by capping payments. We already spend, in this country, due to our extremely inefficient, private insurance system, almost twice per capita what every other industrialized nation spends, and contrary to rumor many other nations have vastly MORE choice when it comes to choosing doctors and hospitals (try to get your HMO to pay a doctor outside of its plan, for instance: in France, you’re free to go to ANY doctor, and wait times are less, on average, than in the US).

We are reaching and exceeding Banana Republic levels of income disparity, and Republicans want to slash taxes for the wealthy? It makes no sense at all, the entire thing isn’t serious, in the least. Ryan himself would not have proposed this “plan” if he actually thought it had a chance of really becoming law. Yet “seriousness” is the rhetoric Republicans are using, a strange Orwellian doublespeak.

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April 23rd, 2011

Update: My loft has been sublet for the summer, thanks for the interest, those people who contacted me. I may be looking for someone to take it on longer-term, however, as well, depending on how things go, so… leaving the below blog post up for now.

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April 18th, 2011

Hey everyone. I’m relocating to San Francisco, temporarily, for the summer (possibly a little longer), so I’m looking for someone to sublet my loft. It’s a large, 1200sf loft condo with huge south-facing windows, solar power (reduces power bills), free laundry room in basement, bathroom with clawfoot tub, and convenient access to the 4/5/6 and 2 trains. It’s an open plan loft with two walk-in closets and a bedroom and a huge open living room and kitchen area in a brand new, converted industrial loft building in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, the closest part of the Bronx to Manhattan, an area where artists and others have been moving. Our building itself has artists and musicians along with other folks. It’s a very warm, friendly building, with easy access to the city, about 15 minutes by 4/5/6 to Grand Central and 20 minutes to Union Square (basically anywhere on the east side of Manhattan is easy to get to — the west side is another 10 minutes, typically, to get cross town on the L or 7, or 9 blocks from the 2 which goes to the Upper West Side).

I’m looking for someone to sublet from June through August for $1850/month, the exact end date is negotiable (can be a little earlier or later), or alternately someone who would swap their San Francisco apartment (of any size) for those same dates. I have two cats who would either stay here (to be taken care of by you) or come with me to San Francisco.

The building is dog and cat friendly. The neighborhood is mostly low income and not super gentrified yet but it has plenty of local shopping and restaurants. There are a few restaurants catering to the local artist/professional crowd, however. There’s an art gallery on the first floor of our building. It’s pretty safe, crime rates are down to about the national average, even though in the past it was a fairly dangerous neighborhood, 15 years ago: major crime is down 90% from the early 90’s.

The rent includes heat and gas, but not electric (however electric bills are lowered somewhat by the solar panels, typically $60 or less even at the peak of summer). It’s wired for cable internet and satellite TV; if you’d like to take over those for the duration of your stay, internet is $50/month, and DishNetwork is about $85/month. I can also suspend one or both of those during your stay, if you don’t need one or both.

The apartment is furnished with flat screen TV, couch, bed, dining table, kitchen, dishwasher, fridge, pots, pans, microwave, toaster oven, etc.

Email me if interested!

Read the rest of this entry »

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April 3rd, 2011

In a post on the IDP blog, Nancy Thompson quotes John Welwood’s Towards a Psychology of Awakening:

If the absolute side of our nature – undifferentiated being – is like clear light, then the relative side – differentiated being – is like a rainbow spectrum of colors contained within that light. While realizing undifferentiated being is the path of liberation, embodying qualities of differentiated being is the path of individuation in its deepest sense: the unfolding of our intrinsic human resources , which exist as seed potentials within us, but which are often blocked by psychological concepts.

….How fully the suchness of you shines through – in your face, your speech, your actions, your particular quality of presence – is partly grace but also partly a result of how much you have worked on polishing your vessel so that it becomes transparent.

There’s another twist to this story, however. One way of thinking of things is this:

ABSOLUTE / (relative)

I.e., sort of two “levels”, with the absolute the big container of everything, which differentiates itself into the relative, where all the “stuff” is and where “things happen”. This picture has its value, but it’s also very misleading, because it makes it seem as though these are two different levels of reality which are somewhat independent of each other, or where you have to kind of reach out from the relative world to pull in something from the absolute. The absolute reality starts to seem sort of far off, a bit detached from ordinary concerns. But there’s another picture which I think is a bit more accurate, or includes more features of what is actually the case, which is captured in the Buddhist Heart Sutra:

form is none other than emptiness, emptiness is none other than form

The way I imagine it is something like this: ordinary things are like an iceberg, where you see the top of the iceberg but it’s of a piece with this larger and larger ice but in fact the iceberg itself ends up being connected with the entire universe if you really fully appreciate its full substance. This is not just a theoretical idea but something that is concretely present at all times. It’s something we can actually rely on. The way “spring cleaning” is usually presented is: in order to work with relative “things” (the self, our concerns, things, other people, etc.) we have to use other relative “things” (psychological ideas, moving stuff around, arranging our lives). And there’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. But there are alternatives: that is, to participate more fully in this vastness of even ordinary “things”, to follow those out and allow them to become more what they actually are. From a psychological perspective this could just be something along the lines of appreciating the unconscious, all of that which we’re not ordinarily aware. But the point is, that which we’re not aware of can be directly relied upon (like an athlete going into the “zone”, not attempting to control every element of what they’re doing consciously, but relying on processes and forces far outside their conscious control, which tends to improve, rather than degrade, performance.) Problems which seem very intractable in ordinary space become much less so when you have a larger dimensionality to work with (which is where we all really live: we don’t live in just the apparent conscious reality, we live in the whole enchilada.) That allows us to live in both the relative and absolute worlds at the same time, to appreciate them as the same world. There’s a spaciousness present in each ordinary moment which is always available, but we don’t ordinarily appreciate. We aren’t limited to the confines of Flatland; we exist in a much larger dimensionality, even if you consider the “much larger” to just be that which is beyond conscious awareness. It’s a different sort of approach to spring cleaning.

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March 26th, 2011

On the Interdependence Project blog we discussed the pros and cons of the military intervention in Libya, and we had a good discussion, I think, of the topic. I wrote this:

…as a country we’ve engaged in all sorts of terrible actions abroad, and I’m very aware of those; overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran, overthrowing Salvador Allende, supporting dictators like Pinochet, funding the contras in Nicaragua, our covert operations in Angola, and on and on. We’ve engaged in atrocities and massacres. Not to mention the probably unnecessary dropping of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of which killed my father’s aunt and uncle and probably gave cancer to my uncle. We have a very chequered past when it comes to foreign involvements and in many if not most cases we’ve done much more harm than good.

Furthermore any use of violence is already at a point where things have deteriorated to a terrible phase. Contemplating all this I can’t in any way find a way to think of the use of violence as something “good”. It’s always bad; weapons are, as the ancient saying goes, “instruments of ill omen”. It’s sad, regrettable, awful. At best I think violence is something which is only sometimes the least bad of a spectrum of bad options, and only warranted in the highly unusual circumstance where other options are likely to be worse.

As far as who gets to decide this: obviously there’s no way you can know for certain. My only argument is that sometimes I do think, unlike some, that it is something that any civilization ought to hold in reserve, as a last resort, to protect people. Far better to avoid the need for it in the first place, far better to use any other option short of it, but in extremis, I think it should be there. There was a sad reason for samurai to exist, for warriors to exist, violence I believe is a part of nature. It is not necessarily a view which all Buddhist teachers would agree with and I respect those who disagree. This is my personal view.

When it comes to Libya, as I’ve said before, in my opinion the lives saved by this intervention will exceed, even in the long run, the lives it will cost. At the same time I’m highly sympathetic to my pacifist friends who are skeptical of every American international involvement, whether it is sanctioned by the UN or not, out of what seems to me to be a well-founded distrust of our motives abroad as well as our past history, and an additional skepticism of the usefulness of the use of military force in general.

Ultimately, however, I cannot agree with their blanket criticism of our foreign policy simply because I don’t really think it’s appropriate to view any given situation in terms of taking one side versus taking another. My aunt’s boyfriend and I once had a long discussion of this a few years ago; both my aunt and he are progressive political activists and he in particular had seen first hand the atrocities we had committed or supported in Central America during some of the darkest days of the Cold War. While I absolutely accepted his accounts as I’m quite familiar with many of those operations (they’re now public knowledge for the most part), that didn’t change my view that sometimes, just sometimes, we’re not on the wrong side. He then asked me, who do you think has the ideal government? And I said, “they’re all bad!”

What I meant was, every government of every country at some point in history has engaged in both virtuous and terrible acts, has been both a supporter of justice and freedom and a supporter of oppression and injustice. The crimes the United States has committed are long: the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population of North America is perhaps one of the most egregious, not to mention our sanctioning of slavery, and on and on. But then again the atrocities committed by other countries are no less heinous and in many cases even worse. Every ethnic group, every culture, every nation has done terrible things. So in my view we ought not to judge situations through the lens of taking sides, either for or against any given nationality or ethnicity, but rather we ought to stand and discern each situation as human beings living in the world. The enemy of justice is not a specific nation or nations, either our own or others, it is oppression, it is dictatorship, it is injustice itself.

I don’t believe this particular operation is, in fact, motivated primarily by a capitalist agenda to control the oil supply. I happen to think that we, and our allies, are actually primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. We are also motivated, I think rightly, by a national security interest, in that Qaddafi retaking power militarily would be a negative sign in the region, and would encourage dictators to try to hold onto power through bloody means — which would only tend to encourage extremism and the same forces which attacked us on 9/11. However, that doesn’t mean we ought to intervene militarily in Yemen and Bahrain and everywhere else: if there is a path to resolving the crisis through diplomacy or via other means, then we ought to utilize that approach. Military intervention is a last resort. I think in the case of Libya, it has become, through the actions of Qaddafi, the least worst remaining option.

Iraq in 2003 was not such a case. Bad as Saddam was, he wasn’t at that moment using heavy weaponry to directly attack massive numbers of civilians. He wasn’t positioning snipers to shoot people at the entrances to hospitals. He wasn’t firing antiaircraft guns at peaceful protesters. Maybe he would have done such things if provoked, but preventive use of military force is in my view always illegitimate. They didn’t greet us as liberators, throwing flowers at our feet. We went in and thousands of civilians died and we created chaos and disaster in the name of imposing democracy. Rather than supporting an internal, grass-roots rebellion, we were dictating to their country by force of arms what they ought to do.

In this case, however, I think the majority of people in Libya will be grateful to us. At least there is evidence of this, judging by this video of a march in Benghazi:

There are hundreds of similar videos posted by many different organizations online already. When the opposition takes over cities, there is celebration in the streets. When Qaddafi is in control, people cower in fear in their homes because snipers are shooting anyone who moves. As a human being on the planet Earth, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that in this case, the always regrettable use of military force happens to be on the right side of history. This time.

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March 19th, 2011

As part of a discussion on a private conferencing system about how the nuclear disaster in Japan happened, we got on the subject of Japanese decision-making, and the idea of “wa” or harmony. Some participants with experience in Japan expressed the view that Japanese decision-making is quite different than Western decision-making, more consensus-based; others who have also lived in Japan felt that this was a “snow job” and in fact consensus was just used by the powers that be to enforce their will on people, get them to go along with decisions they don’t really agree with.

I wrote the following in response to this, arguing that it’s a little of both, in reality:

The Japanese consensus approach can have the effect one of the participants described (i.e., a way of shaming people into going along with something they don’t really agree with) but it simply isn’t just a “snow job”. Japanese decision-making really is different, they go about making decisions differently. I have done contracts for Japanese companies, my father is Japanese, my mother is Japanese-American; our family decision-making style is radically different from the style I’ve seen in most American families.

There are dual pressures in a Japanese consensus situation; the first is the group wants to accomodate the needs of everyone in the group, and the second is people in the group are subtly expected to go along with what the group consensus appears to be headed towards. The former is the “positive” side of consensus and the latter is pretty necessary otherwise Japanese groups (families, companies, etc.) would never be able to decide anything, but it can also lead to some bad things happening as well, where people go along with bad decisions.

I grew up in the US so my experience of “Japaneseness” is skewed by this, but whenever I visit my relatives in Japan, etc., they have a similar style, though perhaps a bit more extreme in various respects. In both my family and my relatives’ families (in Japan and here) there really is an emphasis on consensus, harmony. It’s not just a “snow job” as John seems to cynically suggest — I always felt my parents took my concerns or issues quite seriously. At the same time, I felt a strong desire to accomodate them as well. It’s a two-way street. If anyone had a strong objection to a proposed decision, we’d pivot and go in another direction. Didn’t matter if it was my mom, my dad, me, or my brother. I observe the same thing in my relatives’ families. Obviously not every family in Japan is the same; I’m talking about my own relatives as well as my family who I think are representative of at least a certain common style in Japan.

There’s a downside to it. I feel myself, though I grew up here, a strong desire to go along with the group decision, if the people are close to me (coworkers, etc.) I remember this one time when my company (Electronic Arts at the time) held an offsite team-building exercise. We were supposed to decide as a group how to best deal with a situation where we were stranded in the arctic due to a plane crash. The idea was each of us were supposed to give our own individual answers to the questions, then we were to discuss as a group and come to a consensus.

Of course, the theory was that the group decision was supposed to be much better than any individual decision. I was assigned to a group of programmers.

The result: The managers group did really well. Their score was the highest of all the teams. And their group score was significantly better than any of their individual scores. My esteem for EA management went up a bit.

Our team of engineers didn’t fare as well. Our group score was dismal. And I had participated in the discussions, and had agreed with what the group had decided. I had gone along with it. The irony was, my own individual answers were actually almost all correct. My individual score had been close to the managers’ group score. I learned from this that perhaps I am a bit too Japanese sometimes. And also: if you dump a bunch of nerds into the Arctic, they might all die…

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March 17th, 2011

Saint Cecelia Hotel

I just got back from SXSW. It was truly intense. A bit more crowded than last year but I don’t think it has jumped the shark (yet) as some people have intimated. I met a lot of fascinating people and had a ton of great conversations, not to mention meeting in person a number of people I’ve known virtually for a long time. SXSW is a strange scene, it’s a bunch of nerds getting together, yes, but somehow you end up feeling a little like a rock star. And the people I met were not just the sort of folks you’d think you’d meet at a tech conference; I met Melissa Gira Grant, a feminist intellectual who writes about blogs and diaries and sex and runs the Third Wave Foundation, Katie Pomerantz, an LGBT activist who also runs an art gallery, a music promotion business, and a non-profit for LGBT issues in LA, Joanne McNeil, a brilliant art/culture critic and freelance writer who writes the Tomorrow Museum, Halle Tecco, a social entrepreneur and founder of a seed accelerator for health startups called RockHealth.org, Benjamin Bratton, a sociological/media/design theorist who gave a great panel on the dark side of urban technology with my friend Molly Steenson, Richard Nash, a book publisher with a subtle and deep mind who is now trying to create a new kind of publishing house and who gave a panel on how tech and art can learn from each other, an artist who runs a gallery and makes little magnetized blocks to let people create control circuits with light and sound and switches and logic by just sticking them together, Jen Bekman, who I’ve known virtually in various contexts but had never met in person, who runs 20×200 and the Jen Bekman Gallery, Siva Vaidhyanathan who wrote The Googlization of Everything and gave a great panel on the dangers of Corporate Social Responsibility (another person I’ve known online but never met), and so many other people equally interesting, I can’t even list them all. You have these intense conversations and then go party until midnight or 3am or later (my latest night was 4am). It’s like college except much better, with more interesting people and all the people are actually doing real things in the world.

And I have to say that tech nerds at SXSW kick ass at karaoke (particularly my SXSW friend Michelle Neuringer, who rocked Nirvana hard). Seriously. I’ve never heard so many good singers doing karaoke in my life.

I also managed to see Miranda July’s The Future (it was virtually impossible to get in, but Miranda was very kind to put me on the guest list, thanks so much!), a film about which I have so much to say I cannot even begin to say it. It’s both simple and straightforward and really intricate and multi-layered. I will try to say more about it in a future blog post. It’s also a film which is closer to Miranda’s performance roots, more surreal and I’m very glad to see her injecting some of this into her second film. More fans of hers should check out her earlier work.

In other news…

Libya. I hesitate to write too much about this because the use of military force is always a sensitive topic. I’ve written in the past about my rather unusual position when it comes to military matters: I think a lot about them. My family was samurai in the old days, maybe it’s in my blood but it’s certainly part of my family culture. In the end, for me, it comes down to this: military intervention I believe is warranted to protect your own people or if it is likely to save more lives in the long run than it costs. It’s not an either/or situation, there’s no simple rule, I am neither a dove nor a hawk, but I believe that military force should be used only rarely, but when it should be used it should be done decisively and quickly.

So yes, we shouldn’t intervene in every dictatorship in the world. I strongly opposed the Iraq War, I marched against it, I argued against it everywhere I could. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one was the cost was not worth the benefit. I believed it would not save more lives down the line than it cost, either on our side or on the part of Iraqis, both combatants and the innocent. But in this case, the situation is rather different.

There is an existing rebellion on the ground which controls large amounts of territory (for now). They are begging for our help and it’s pretty clear they have broad popular support in Libya (a bit less clear what their level of support is in every part of the country, but if you’ve been following the news closely you’ll read that in private, anonymously, Libyans in the Qaddafi-controlled western part of the country also secretly opposed to him as well, for the most part). There are widespread, confirmed reports of indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods. The Arab League has called for air support. We would not be sending in any ground forces.

Furthermore, I believe it is in our strategic interests, as well as the interests of long-term world stability. Intervening now would be a cautionary tale to dictators around the world. It would likely restrain dictators in other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and would give some pause, one hopes, to the leaders of Iran. More importantly it would undermine the argument that Al Qaeda has long used against us, that we are complicit in the support of dictators and oppression in the Arab world, and that they’re the only route to salvation. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolts have already weakened Al Qaeda, but if Qaddafi regains power it will undermine this argument.

We cannot and should not intervene against every dictator in the world. But in this case I believe action is warranted and urgently needed. In fact, had we intervened earlier Qaddafi might have folded. As it is, the longer we wait the larger the cost of inaction in lives. I further believe that while it will cost lives to intervene now, it will save more lives in the long run, not to mention protect us in the long-term future.

As for Japan, I think perhaps partly because I am of Japanese descent and my ancestors were samurai I feel a somewhat different reaction to the disaster there. The tsunami and earthquake were natural disasters and it is a tragedy but I have a feeling the Japanese are doing perhaps the best job one could imagine at trying to recover from it. But the nuclear disaster ongoing there is a different matter. The Japanese government has long been complicit in covering up safety problems at Japanese nuclear facilities (like our own government, frankly). So my main reaction to what is happening there is anger at the arrogance and ineptitude of government regulators in Japan when it comes to nuclear safety. The plant at Fukushima should never have been allowed to operate.

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January 31st, 2011

I promise to take a break from my doing everything else, working, writing code for my startup idea with Heather Anne, setting up my next show, thinking up pithy silly things to tweet, connecting with people in real life, taiji practice, eating, getting sick, traveling, meditating, and so on, to write something new here, in my “blog”. Meanwhile go read Khaela’s blog. She’s been writing some good things. And Miranda July has finally finished her second film, The Future, which I am eagerly awaiting seeing sometime in the future, as I didn’t make the trek to Sundance this year.

I will write something really brief about my insanity tweet. I was realizing today just how deep the insanity goes; in everyone, all the seemingly normal people all around us, and ourselves. We are driven by these crazy impulses, deep neuroses, fears, distortions; we live in fantasy worlds of our own creation which we don’t even see as fantasies, or projections or paradigmatic blinders, but just as “the way things are”; we are pushed by hidden agendas so deep we feel them as external forces, like gravity, we can’t seem to escape, our friends look at us and shake their heads slowly because they don’t understand what makes us do certain things but even if we’re vaguely aware of our own insanity, we can’t seem to easily escape its apparently inexorable grip. It’s what makes love so (nearly) impossible, too: our mutual insanities rarely overlap in entirely pretty ways, and the ways in which they collide only barely can be overcome by love, attraction, and passion; only fitfully, often, just long enough to reproduce and sometimes not even enough for that. But… if we are aware of our own craziness, it’s enough to be able to wake up a little from it, because we can’t entirely escape any of these distortions and obsessions, but we can, without a doubt, be somewhat more awake within them, and from there find a larger space, a larger being-ness which gives us a much more vast context in which to play out our participation in and with the world. An awake-ness which can truly give us room in which we can be crazy, but less harmfully so, to both ourselves and others.

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December 26th, 2010

Back from Christmas dinner with the relatives!

Peter Merholz opined on Twitter today that the reason Scott Pilgrim didn’t do well at the box office was because it was a “movie for mid-30s folks starring early-20s folks.” I’m not so sure his explanation is right, for some interesting reasons — for one thing I think Generations X and Y aren’t really that different. I know a number of 20-somethings who adored the film: for example, my friend, early-twentysomething T. loved it, calling it the “coolest shit ever” (admittedly she’s from Toronto so perhaps biased), but also my 27-year-old friends Katharine and Jennifer Rimm thought it was genius, to name a few. One review I read suggested it was perfect for late-twentysomethings, but less so for early-twentysomethings, who wouldn’t be familiar with the specific video game conceits in the film; I’m not so sure — I’m trying to get a New York-based 22-year-old friend of mine to see it to test that theory.

There is a generational issue with the film, however; one of my later-40’s friends told me she had hated the film with a passion, couldn’t relate to it, thought it was terrible on every level; pretty much the exact opposite reaction of most everyone I know who is 45 and under. I asked her if she’d played video games at home, as a kid — she hadn’t, and obviously that’s a big generation gap right there. I’ve often suspected that one of the main things separating Generations X and Y from earlier generations is video games (seriously), and that Gen X and Y are more similar than different, perhaps for that reason. Nearly all Gen X and Gen Y people I know (at least those who are sort of identifiable as being in those cultural groups, not necessarily exactly divided by age) grew up with video games at home from a young age. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it was an Atari 2600 or a Nintendo. I don’t really have a theory or any evidence here; it’s just a hunch that video games and computers at home have had a major, even perhaps defining, cultural effect on our generation(s).

If I’m right, and the film had fairly broad appeal, then the explanation for its poor box office would have to lie elsewhere: I think it was in the marketing. I think the people doing the marketing were trying to appeal to folks who like Michael Cera films. But that just doesn’t work: the trailer just made the movie look dumb: fight the evil exes! There was very little hint (just really brief, hardly-visible blips) that the film was actually a visually spectacular, absurdist, action-packed, brilliantly shot and edited, surreal comedy. Had the previews pushed that take on the film (far more representative) rather than spending so much time harping on the plot (who cares?) I think it might well have become a minor hit.

I mean: did you expect the film to be what it was, after seeing the previews and/or commercials? I certainly didn’t, and neither did most of my friends who saw the film. They were (almost) all very pleasantly surprised. And in fact, the few people who actually saw the film loved it; most critics also liked it, though some disagreed (not sure if generational factors were involved).

Here’s another extreme example of the power, for good and evil, of the misleading preview: the trailer for The American makes it look like a suspense thriller with George Clooney:

In fact, I was expecting exactly that, a standard thriller. What it actually was blew me away: a brooding, slow-paced, difficult, and beautiful work. It was an art house film, not a film really suitable for wide release. I kept thinking, most of the other people in this theater are probably hating this, and sure enough, most viewers hated it. But the marketing was so successful (and misleading) it actually was the number 1 film in its opening weekend! Many hapless moviegoers were bored out of their minds by a film that they had essentially been tricked into seeing. For both of these films, the fault/credit lies with the misleading trailer.

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December 25th, 2010

Though I am strongly progressive, I have never felt comfortable within the confines of the typical left-right debate that goes on in this country. For me, progressive means progress, which is to say, not ideological, but rather devoted to empirical understanding of what works and what doesn’t work, evolving ideas, and innovation.

What really doesn’t work for me is the tired left-right debate between those who supposedly favor “government regulation” vs those who favor the so-called “free market”. What I favor is not in the middle, between those extremes; it’s something radically different.

For example, let’s look at what has often gone wrong with government regulation. Totally centrally planned economies are destined to be extremely inefficient, for example; the right-wing darling Friedrick Hayek correctly pointed out why: even a benevolent central planner cannot process enough information quickly enough to optimally distribute resources. Markets, which are inherently decentralized, do this job much more quickly, and can handle and process far more information more rapidly and responsively than central planners ever could.

But that doesn’t make me a libertarian. It makes me an anti-Stalinist, against any form of Soviet-style central planning. Yet my opposition goes further than that obvious straw man; I’m also against the sort of micromanaging that we used to do of the telephone industry and airlines, for example, which I believe tended to stifle innovation and keep prices higher than they otherwise would have been. I think conservatives were right to attack and dismantle much of that. Prices went down and options went up in the aftermath of both moves (but also in the wake of the forced antitrust breakup of AT&T, we should remember).

But let’s now look at some successful regulation. Banking regulations such as Glass-Steagall, it turned out, were very good ideas which dramatically improved the stability of our banking system at the cost of damping some of its dangerous and unstable hyper-growth. Banking regulations in Canada, for example, protected their country from the financial meltdown we saw here. In urban planning, regulations such as Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundary and their clever mixed-used zoning had a spectacular effect on revitalizing Portland’s downtown and close-in neighborhoods and have made Portland one of the most livable cities in the country, if not the world. Or in telecommunications, the transition to HDTV was another example of successful government regulation which led to more, not less, innovation.

I think we can begin to see a pattern: “good” regulation tends to avoid micromanagement to the extent possible. It tends to set large-scale, overarching, big picture rules or guidelines, it doesn’t choose winners in the market and it doesn’t dictate, for the most part, how people innovate on the small scale. Sometimes government is ideal for setting up infrastructure (transit systems, public schools, libraries, fire, police), but when it comes to regulation, it seems to work best when government sets up fences but gives the private sector a lot of freedom within those fences. Successful regulation tends to increase competition, it even encourages or increases it (breaking up monopolies or preventing them from unfairly leveraging their market position to disadvantage new entrants to the market, for example), when possible, it doesn’t tell people HOW to do things, but, through clever large-scale policy, it can encourage larger-scale goals. Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary and their clever mixed-use zoning regulations had the effect of revitalizing the downtown and close-in areas which had been on the decline, and they reduced sprawl, and all this happened without the government dictating on a small scale where and how developers developed.

I think we need to develop a new theory of what kinds of government regulation work and what kinds do not, based on actual case studies. It should be evolving, not based on a fixed ideology. Do the research, see what works and doesn’t, figure out why and how it does when it does, or why it didn’t when it failed. Politics, I think, ought to become more evidence-based, more human, more pragmatic, and less based on abstract theory without a grounding in practical reality and observation. It’s not that the answer is “somewhere in the middle” between lots of regulation and none.

We need a new politics, a more human, perceptive, evolving, and evidence-based politics.

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