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After-the-Fact Whorage

Thanks to Corrupt.org, The Fourth Checkraise (multiple) and American Digest (also see here) for some nice recent linkage. Those are all blogs I read and are on my blogroll (or if they weren’t, I’ve since remedied that).

UPDATE: And for the record, I don’t hate smart people either. But ‘Smart People’, on the other hand…. ;-)

Why I’m Not Likely To Become A Trillionaire

Somewhere deep in a climate-change argument I got into with someone, I ended up coming up with the following, which I think nicely encapsulates the #1 problem I have with climate-change believers:

One effect in isolation is not sufficient to describe a multidimensional physical system.

Of course that one effect I’m talking about is ‘the greenhouse effect’. Because most climate-change believers think their case is made instantly just by pointing to the greenhouse effect. They think that’s all they need to do and they’re done. They are wrong.

Actually though, I do need to amend my principle slightly to the following:

One effect in isolation is not sufficient to describe a multidimensional physical system, unless it is shown that it is.

What we have are essentially a politicized army of self-anointed climate experts seeking to overhaul my life based on their third-grade-level Oral Report on “The Greenhouse Effect” complete with arrows drawn on their giant posterboard coming down from space, hitting the earth, and then bouncing/cycling up and down forever. This argument, such as it is, is based – almost as a matter of pride – on reducing the entire complex oceano-atmospheric-biosphere system governing the earth’s climate evolution to a completely one-dimensional story:

CO2 up, temperature up – CO2 down, temperature down

The climate, in all its glory and diversity, has only one single dimension in the view of these SCIENTIFIC GENIUSES WHO STAND ON THE SIDE OF SCIENCE. That dimension being ‘How much CO2 is there’. Oh, maybe they’ll admit that there’s more to it than that – but they really genuinely love telling only the one-dimensional story, don’t they? When push comes to shove, that’s the basis of their argument, is it not?

To give the example I use often: if one effect were always enough, then I could point to the fact that my bank account earns interest (“The Interest Effect”?) and automatically conclude that I’m going to be a trillionaire. To any doubters I’d just say: “It’s very simple. My bank account earns interest. Therefore each day it has more money in it than the day before. So, given enough time, this system is going to blow up to infinity. It will certainly surpass 1 trillion!” I could even make a giant poster-board with upward-pointing arrows about it and everything. All of which, of course, freely and stupidly ignores all other possible effects on the size of my bank account, such as rent, bills, trips to Vegas, etc. etc.

Let’s be clear about something though: there certainly are physical systems where one variable is likely to be enough to describe them well enough for your purposes. A dropped ball in a vacuum hits the ground with what force? The initial height, one variable, is pretty much all you need. A planet’s orbital period can be gauged from the one variable, its orbital axis (through Kepler’s laws). The conservation of energy says that the initial energy of a system in isolation stays the same. Etc.

The climate properties we are interested in are not like these systems. Unless you show that they are. Which virtually none of the people using this argument have. Maybe this is unfair to expect of them, although I’m not sure why if they’re all going to posture as such Smart People on the side of Science all the time, but in any event they don’t get to just ignore or wish the problem away.

The climate is a humongously-many dimensional system. Yes maybe if CO2 goes up, the temperature goes up, because there’s a greenhouse effect. But maybe other stuff happens. Maybe all the extra energy just stirs up the oceans a barely-perceptible amount, which absorb it all like a flywheel. Maybe there are feedback, self-limiting or cycle effects, like when predators eat all their prey, thriving for a while, but then start starving when they can’t find any more prey, which therefore start increasing, etc. To really get a handle on any of this, you need a model. A real model, not the third-grade version. Well, climate science has its models. And I think they’re a load of crap.

You don’t? Why not? Have you looked at those models? (I have.)

This is the problem I have with the one-dimensional story. The one-dimensional story bypasses all these considerations that are really central to the issue. The one-dimensional story is for simpleminded one-dimensional people who don’t want to bother to dig into the real story but do want the benefits/power/honor they think will accrue to them in the telling of it; for people who don’t want to do the leg-work but do want to skip ahead to the part where they get to tell other people what to do: in other words, it’s tailor-made for Smart People.

Smart Terror Management 101

Needless to say, the government’s reaction to the failed terror attack has been a case study in quintessential Smart Personism:

  1. Regardless of what happened exactly, assert unabashedly and brazenly and without factual basis that you did everything right.
  2. Use the sweeping, unaccountable, arrogant power you’ve Smartened yourself into to disrupt and insert yourself into the lives of all those normal, mostly-not-Smart People who don’t really matter anyway.
  3. Don’t waste your breath trying to justify (2) on any sort of logical grounds. Let all complaints and debate fall on deaf (but Smart) ears. Remember: you’re Smart, so whatever you came up with is axiomatically Smart, no matter how dumb-ass it is, and anyone who criticizes you is automatically being Dumb, and probably a racist who didn’t go to as good a college as you. And even if, in the end, what you come up with turns out to be not so smart after all, you’ll just fix it later. Indeed, they’ll probably need to keep you around for even longer and for more money just to fix it later. So much the better!
  4. Finally, go around insisting that (1)-(3) is how things are always supposed to work in a Smart world. Bad stuff happens to little people (or is barely avoided), but you, a Smart Person, Smartly ‘manage’ the aftermath in ever-more intrusive ways. That’s why you get paid the big bucks. That’s how things are supposed to be and it is wrong and Dumb of anyone to suggest otherwise.

UPDATE: The above response is nothing more than what was instilled in Smart People from their childhood, of course. They were told they were ‘gifted’, so nothing they did could be wrong, not really. The major skills they learned – grade-grubbing, asking for ‘extra credit’ opportunities, creating and padding their college applications – mostly revolved around arrogantly citing their own supposed accomplishments. And just as their adolescence taught them that the world owed them things – ‘gifted’ classes, a spot in an elite college, etc. – they see no reason this shouldn’t continue. So if disrupting the hell out of the rest of the country for no good reason is what it takes to cover their asses and hide the fact that they have no real-world solutions to the problem, then so be it.

The Power Of The Phrasing

Sometimes it’s all in how you phrase it.

If I were to ask you, Should private groups of people be required by the government to sign contracts, with anyone who asks them to, that are virtually guaranteed to lose them hundreds of thousands of dollars on each one? You’d probably say no if you had any sanity. At the same time, more likely than not you’d totally agree that “insurance companies shouldn’t be allowed to deny coverage to those with a pre-existing condition” – even though that’s exactly the same thing.

Resolving the Smart People Paradox

The Smart People paradox is that, as a Smart Person – thus going through life knowing how smart you are – the world doesn’t always seem to need or value your Smarts as much as you know, deep down, they should. To remedy this sad state of affairs, you need to find some aspect of society that you can claim is going horribly wrong and that only a Smart Person (such as yourself, and all the Smart people you went to college with, etc.) can fix, in return for a six+ figure salary in perpetuity, a large house in the suburbs, and important schools for your ‘gifted’ kids, and all the rest.

The paradox is that once you find such a problem you can’t actually fix the problem. Right? If you did, there would go the salary, the ‘gifted’, etc.

Anthropogenic Global Warming is the perfect solution for this dilemma faced by poor, downtrodden Smart People everywhere. Here is a problem that (you can argue, using your Smarts) all of society should bend all its effort and capital towards. It is a globe-threatening problem, so it requires a global solution, which means tapping tax money from not just here or there but heck, why not from everywhere (but mostly from the US cuz we have deep pockets). As a problem, it can’t actually ever be proven to be ‘solved’, not even in principle, for the same reason that it can’t be proven to exist in the first place. (If you doubt me, quick try to fill in the blanks: “We will know that global warming is solved when we measure the variable ____ at time ___ and the measured result is less than ___.”) The solution methods all involve intellectual-intensive make-work products that can supply an infinite number of man-hours of busy work for overeducated Smart People from virtually all the favorite Smart Person fields of endeavor: laws and regulations (for the law-degreed), endless chemical monitoring and filtering (for those with engineering degrees), newly-invented financial derivatives and securities (for the finance types), unendingly highly-marginal improvements to numerical modeling and 3-D color data visualization (for the science/math types), all supported by heavy IT support (for the computer geeks).

If you were to describe this project that Al Gore blithely insists on everyone else creating, to a group of investors, they’d quickly observe that you are describing the largest corporation in the history of humankind. But this is all going to be created by government fiat so no need for any pesky concerns over feasibility, scalability, achievement metrics, or (god forbid) rational cost-benefit analysis. Instead, just think of all the career opportunities for otherwise-unemployable Smart People! And the best part is: while the Smart People are all busy living the cushy lifestyles supported by the budding and indefinite AGW-stopping infrastructure we’re going to build, they’ll get to tell themselves they’re saving the world by doing it. Just by existing, and going to their make-work, and collecting their six+ figure paychecks.

Saving the world.

This is something Smart People of times past could only dream of. Smart People of the 1950s might have had to work for Lockheed-Martin or Dow or something. No longer. Now you can be Smart, and Smarten yourself into a phony job (made up by other Smart People), and you’ll all get to tell yourself and everyone around you that you’re saving the world while doing it. If factory workers and truck drivers have to be taxed more, have their movements restricted, and afforded fewer overall opportunities to support all this, well hey. They’re not Smart. And probably racist too.

Al Qaeda’s Real Strategy

What are they going to do, make us all roll up our pant legs?

By this point the following theory half-suggests itself: Al Qaeda isn’t really trying to blow anything up. Not really. They’re just trying to make our society come to a halt (and reverse its progress) by making us waste countless man-hours and GDP doing dumb things on a massive scale.

Levitt and Dubner make the point in SuperFreakonomics that the “shoe bomber” (who didn’t actually detonate any bombs) may have caused far more net damage to society than is generally believed. Every. single. person. now has to take off their shoes at an airport. This is dumb. It is wasteful. It is demeaning. The operating theory behind it (that all shoes are capable of concealing bombs, and that shoes are especially likely to be concealing bombs) is ridiculous on its face. Why only shoes? Why not jeans, and dresses, and bras? What’s so special about shoes?

The answer is: ‘because there was that Shoe Bomber dude’.

This is reactive and backward-looking security at its most lamebrained.

Now this Nigerian seemed to have bomb-making materials under his pants. Great. There go our pants. “Take ‘em off!”, will go the Smart security cry. “For safety.”

Al Qaeda’s real strategy at this point, you see, is not to actually wage real attacks. It is to come up with fake attacks (whether or not they are actually likely to work doesn’t much matter) that will force our security efforts into dumber and more wasteful backward-looking acts of silliness.

That’s my theory, anyway. And I’m not entirely joking….

Websites I Sign Up For And Don’t Use, Pt. 999

At the parents’ house for the vacation with nothing to do, I finally submitted to Facebook. One minute later, my reaction was the same as when I accepted someone or another’s ‘LinkedIn’ request:

Now what?

I really don’t have time for maintaining that kind of nonsense.

My “DJ” Rule

To any rave/house music/etc fans out there:

My DJ rule is, if his name isn’t Jazzy Jeff, I don’t wanna know about it.

Regressives

You know how a cornerstone of most futuristic fiction is that things get better? There’s something called progress in store for us. Think of the airplane flight depicted in 2001 – a Pan Am airplane flight from the earth, to a space station. With comfy seats, plenty of room to sleep, even private video-phone booths. Even in dystopian futuristic fiction (like post-apocalyptic stories), in which things obviously aren’t better, the setting still tends to show that stuff got better before the big nuclear war or whatever destroyed everything.

On that note, here are some things that haven’t gotten better.

  • air travel. Obviously. Demeaning security lines (take off your shoes! shoes = dangerous!), ‘oversold’ flights are the norm, some airlines now charge for luggage and food, and if I’m not mistaken planes just plain have less space than they used to.
  • toilets. If you’d told someone in the ’50s that the toilet of the future would be weaker-flushing and just plain flimsier than the ones they already had, would they have believed you?
  • electronic equipment longevity. Obviously the iPhone is a wonder and we have gadgets galore that can do things that supercomputers couldn’t do in 1980, but it struck me recently that I’ve been using a digital alarm clock that has been functioning perfectly for 30+ years (I am not its first user). There was a time I actually re-sold a boom box. Nowadays people switch out their cell phones every two years, and the nice new stereo you get from Best Buy will collect dust and feel like such a piece of crap four years from now you’ll probably just throw it out when you buy another. Electronics have become commodities, and near-disposables.
  • (paper) grocery bags. I remember when grocery bags were bigger than they are now. They really just used to be bigger. I don’t know when or how it happened but somehow a decree went out at some point to make them all about 10% smaller. Yes they now usually have handles, which I suppose is an improvement (though you can rarely rely on them), but why are they all smaller?
  • parking spaces. When I was growing up the local supermarket had nice, long, spacious, diagonal parking spaces. Diagonal parking spaces – i.e. the best kind of parking spaces known to man – are becoming a thing of the past. The thing of the future is cramped, tiny, perpendicular parking spaces that require 3-point turns 90% of the time. Again, I don’t know when this decree went out, but it apparently did – no more diagonal parking in new developments. Even the lot in front of my old local grocery store (which of course now has an extra building with a Starbuck’s and Subway in it on the parking-lot corner) has gone all perpendicular. So, so sad.
  • fast-food packaging. Used to be, when you went to a McDonald’s you’d get all your food in nice styrofoam containers, that unfolded and made convenient platters. Now, wherever you go, you get a flat, limp burger wrapped in flimsy paper. This reduces the experience, at least for me.

Now, some of this will sound like whining to you. You may dispute some of it by saying ‘but that’s only because [logical reasons X, Y, Z]‘. Fine, but I don’t think that rebuts my basic point: these things have all gotten worse not better.

The interesting question, then, is why have these things all gotten worse? What made them get worse? What has hindered them from getting better? I think I know. Hint: some of these things, anyway, have a lot in common.

But what?

Why Those Who Think They Are, Aren’t

Although as I’ve said it’s difficult to define the Smart People, there are some general observations that can be made of their properties. The most striking Smart People trait is that they all think they’re so smart. Smart People may not consistently be smart but they sure are consistent in how smart they think they are.

Smart People, whether genuinely smart or not, put their Smartness out there for others to gape at and admire. They advertise it. They wear it on their sleeve. They seek out and take advantage of any and all opportunities to show it off. They want to make sure that everyone else gets it, i.e. that they, themselves, are really really Smart. And of course this includes everything up to, perhaps especially, calling other people Dumb. Smart People, even otherwise nice Smart People, call certain types of other people Dumb so often and in such a callous/juvenile manner that it’s almost impossible to explain any other way than as just yet another irresistibly backhanded, thoughtless attempt to call themselves Smart.

One often gets the impression that the vanguard of the Smart People are drawn disproportionately from the folks who grew up ‘gifted’ as children. They were told they were ‘gifted’ by all the adults around them, praise was lavished on their supposed giftedness by their teachers and parents – they were Special. Their childhoods were a dizzying and seemingly neverending whir of gold stars, A-pluses, ‘advanced’ classes, experimental tests filled out with No. 2 pencils, etc. Perhaps this sense of being gifted became so fully integrated with Smart Peoples’ personalities that they came to depend on it, like a crutch. Never having developed an independent sense of self-worth, they came to feel an emotional reliance on this constant stream of praise from others. So when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped (after schooling was over and it was time to grow up) they instinctively sought out ways to replace it, to fill the void in their lives left by its absence.

Many Smart People issues can be best understood as desperate cries for help meant to fill this void. Wring your hands about Climate Change and advocate some overhaul of society and the economy – maybe you’ll get a gold star. Start openly applauding something, anything called Health Care Reform regardless of whether you let alone anyone else knows what’s in it – gold star please? Let’s have terrorists captured on a battlefield in foreign nations tried in domestic courts – extra credit?

Maybe it’s a mistake to take any of these political policy positions seriously. Maybe they’re not meant as serious, real-world policy positions at all. Maybe they’re better understood as something closer to class projects. Real-world implications never mattered for any of their class projects before, why should they now?

This observation may not seem all that earth-shattering. It may even seem obvious. Of course Smart People think they are smart, you might say. Because they are!, you might say.

To that let me just say this: I have lived and worked around some awfully smart people. Ranging from the fairly-smart to the super-smart. And the smartest people I’ve known simply do not behave like Smart People. They don’t go around calling other people Dumb. They don’t go around seeking out ways to advertise their smartness. They don’t speak in dogmatic terms of absolute certainty. They don’t advocate sweeping overhauls of society to bring it in line with some vision they have.

There is just a huge gulf between how genuine supersmart people (people who truly are smart, and know it, but are secure in that knowledge and don’t feel the need to advertise it) behave and how, say, Al Gore behaves. It is almost impossible to overstate the size of this gulf. I look at how Gore and some of the other Smart People behave and, at times, I become genuinely embarrassed for them.

The point of this post is that I’m not sure the general public understands that. I fear that the layperson may tune into these Smart People and simply assume that that’s how real smart people are, because they haven’t been around enough real smart people to recognize the difference. This would explain why the signals Smart People are so busily trying to send all the time so often seem to work: a lot of people buy it and conclude that Golly, those Smart People must be awfully smart.

After all, just look at how smart they’re always saying they are.

What I’m trying to explain here is that it’s not exactly true that ‘saying you are smart’ is a sign of smartness. In my experience, it’s something close to the opposite. Indeed, all else equal if I see someone trying to advertise their ‘smartness’ I’d tend to downgrade my estimate of their intelligence a notch.

Sitcom Politics, or Why I’m So Happy We’re Going To Be Having All The Healthcare

The ’90s sitcom Friends once had a gag where two characters had to pretend to want to have sex with each other. Chandler had not yet revealed his romance with Monica to the group; Phoebe had begun to guess. To test him she decided to feign sexual interest in him and thereby (via logic that only makes sense in sitcomworld) force him to admit he was unavailable – thus come clean about Monica. To cover his tracks and keep the Monica relationship theoretically a secret, he feigned that he was receptive to her advances. They continued the game of one-upsmanship, each in turn making wilder and yet lamer advances (Chandler: “I’m so happy we’re going to be having all the sex”) until one or the other broke and admitted what they both already knew, so that the audience could clap and go Wooo!.

I’m not exactly proud of my intimate knowledge of old Friends plots so let me get to the point: what the Democrats are doing with this health care thing reminds me of nothing so much as that episode. I’m watching this from a distance and the more I think about it, the less it seems to me that most Democrats actually want to vote for any of these bills. I think most of them are pretending to want it, so they don’t give the game away, but secretly hoping someone else (ideally, those evil Republicans, so they can be blamed in 2010) will back down and kill it. They’ve tried everything: stuffing it with poison pills, ridiculous pork, secret provisions. But so far nothing has worked. Nobody is backing down. Everyone has thus far successfully feigned interest in seeing this thing through.

That’s why Ben Nelson making a crazy demand and getting it is just part of the one-upsmanship. He probably didn’t expect that bluff to be called in a million years but that just makes it all the more funnier for the studio audience. It’s zany sitcom politics you see. Don’t you just feel like clapping and going Woooo?

Brittany Murphy RIP

I’m shocked and sad to see that Brittany Murphy has died.

There aren’t that many actors or actresses who impress me with their talent, who I notice and am pleased to see in any movie, and whose performances leave memorable and lasting impressions. I say this because it emphasizes the significance of the fact that Brittany Murphy, a relatively obscure actress, was one of them.

As far as I’m concerned she was the best thing about Sin City (I probably would have given her best-supporting-actress Oscar that year), helped make Clueless better than it had any right to be, was the only good thing about Don’t Say A Word, was charming and quirky in Uptown Girls, and gave a devastating performance (probably my favorite of hers) in The Dead Girl. This also shows her range – some of these are feelgood comedies, some are ‘quirky’ and indie, some are down-and-dirty stories of women in trouble, some are in between….

She was talented and underrated.

RIP

Sonic’s Important Guide To 2009 In Film

That’s right, the wait is over: here’s my list of the best movies of 2009*,**.

*that I have seen
**that have received at least 500 votes on IMDB b/c that’s how I look up what was released on 2009

  1. Star Trek. Call me a nerd, but this was top-notch entertainment and everything about it worked. Here’s my review.
  2. Inglourious Basterds. A return to form for Tarantino, but also something else entirely, original and bizarre and primal and moving. I found it hard to write about, so here’s my non-review.
  3. Knowing. Nicolas Cage is one of the more bizarre, ugly yet appealing leading actors there have ever been, and somehow I enjoy him in anything he does in spite of myself. The closest thing I’ve seen to a thinking person’s disaster movie.
  4. Adventureland. Another one of these teen comedies that unfairly gets automatic bonus points for being somehow associated with “Judd Apatow” even though as far as I can tell it had nothing to do with him (was directed by Greg Mottola, who also directed Superbad, which was produced by Judd Apatow). So I came into it with a lot of skepticism – the same skepticism I have for anything related to “J.J. Abrams” – but it’s charming and funny enough and avoids many potential cliches.
  5. The International. Decent paranoid-banking thriller. My review is here.
  6. Coraline. Beautiful to look at, a bit creepy (not for young kids!), fantastic score. The only knock against it is that the theme of the sensitive, artistic loner girl is well-trod by this point. See any Miyazaki movie. See any Winona Ryder movie from the late 1980s. Certain authors and writers are still in love with the Winona Ryder image, apparently, and can’t stop writing about her. Me, I’m ready to move on.
  7. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. There is nothing bad and a lot that’s oddly interesting about this Harry Potter movie. I guess the only problem at this point is that it’s yet another Harry Potter movie. The Harry Potter movies have long since all started blending into each other for me and I feel like they could have cut out a lot of the fat and the quidditch and the inevitable movie-concluding confrontations with big dragons and things (right? cuz each movie has to have at least one?) and just crammed the good parts of the story arc into about 2-3 movies. I do try to keep up with them, I dutifully watch them when they come out, but I have never grown attached to any of the characters and I can never remember which of the movies I’ve seen, what happened in them, or who the long-gone characters they keep mentioning were (Sirius Black – he was someone important right..? I think?). The one interesting turn this film takes is that Harry Potter has become more and more a straightforward British superhero. The earlier entries in this series were essentially a revival of thinly-disguised ‘boarding school’ stories a la Tom Brown’s Schooldays. But the whole thing seems to have morphed into Peter Parker/Spiderman, or perhaps Neo/The Matrix (with a British accent) before our eyes. Which is fine, but becomes less and less memorable or striking. I’ve already seen those movies.
  8. Wanted. Silly, crazy action movie with an ancient secret caste of people who can make bullets curve, and Angelina Jolie in the all-knowing Amazonian assassin role she’s perfected recently. Nothing terrible here, but in the end it’s impossible to take seriously. I think the best that can be said about this film is that director Timur Bekmambetov’s earlier stuff like Day Watch is actually a hell of a lot crazier.

Not seen yet, but I will, and fully expect to like:

Taken, The Hangover, Moon

Disgiftament Now!

It’s nearing that joyous, holy time where we’re all supposed to go out and buy rectangular objects for other people and give them to them unrequested. A sacred act which always fills my heart with a deep, abiding sense of the numinous.

But seriously, if I could sign some sort of Mutual Dis-Gift-Ament Pact, according to the terms of which nobody is ever required to give me a gift again and I am never required to buy anybody a gift again (*kids 12 and under excepted), I would do it in a heartbeat.

This is the point where you’re supposed to call me a Scrooge and a humbug. But hold on. Did you even read the part where I said I don’t want gifts either. Go read that part again. This isn’t about stinginess and it isn’t about selfishness. It’s about the fact that I have a hard enough time figuring out stuff to get for myself, so I’m utterly lost when sent out on this fruitless task to buy stuff for other people, and the whole obligation just sets me up for awkwardness, shame, and embarrassment.

Yeah, I don’t like enduring those things – so that makes me a Scrooge. Whatever.

The Smart People Crowd

An aspect of our political landscape that goes underreported is the role and influence of the faction I have taken to calling ‘Smart People’.

Even if you don’t know what I mean by that, you probably already instinctively know who I’m talking about. Smart People are the people for whom the most important thing of all is that politicians, leaders, bureaucrats, celebrities, etc. – basically anyone given a prominent public role in society – all be Smart. In addition, Smart People think that all those Smart People must be listened to and obeyed on every aspect of life, big and small, without constraint; in particular, listened to/obeyed by anyone who is not Smart. The driving motive behind how Smart People think and vote is to make sure that Smart People are in power, are respected, are given prominent and honorable roles in society, and have no constraints or limits on putting their Smart ideas into practice.

If Smart were a race, of course, then the ‘Smart People’ faction would just be another run of the mill nationalist-supremacist party. But Smart is not a race, it’s a…well what is it?

The odd thing about Smart People is that they all seem to know who they are. They recognize each other, instinctively. Actually, usually even non-Smart People (like me) can recognize them. The odder thing about the Smart People faction is that objectively they’re not always all that smart (although certainly some of them are), and there are some very smart people who don’t belong to it.

Barack Obama, for example, has obviously been crowned a Smart Person virtually from the moment he entered the national scene. Now, there is zero (0) evidence i can see that Barack Obama is all that smart, at least not any more so than tens of millions of other folks. But he is definitely a Smart Person. Even I can see that. Just look at how he…um…talks in soft tones while wearing a suit, raising his eyebrows in concerned ways, and being skinny (?). Well okay, it’s not clear how or why I or anyone else knows or thinks that he’s Smart, what is clear is that we just do.

Another example came in the 2004 Bush v. Kerry campaign. Everyone, including Kerry, knows that Kerry was the Smart Person candidate and that Bush was a Dummy. So dumb! Not like Kerry. Lanky, graying, concerned-eyebrow, pronouncing-Genghis-like-”Jenjis” John Kerry. So Smart! Obviously, the Smart People all wanted Kerry to win on account of how Smart Kerry was. But again, objectively, there is zero evidence that John Kerry is one whit smarter than George W. Bush. None. In fact if anything there may be evidence to the contrary. But again, it’s clear that Kerry is ‘Smarter’ than Bush, even today, and again, even I can see that.

This leads naturally to discussion of another Smart People obsession, which is that they can’t stand Dumb People. Nothing offends a Smart Person more than a Dumb Person being in any sort of position of power, prominence, happiness, comfort, or respect. The Smart Person nation went on an eight-year hissy fit about how Dumb George W. Bush was. Books were written about it, plays were performed about it, double albums were released about it, benefit concerts were given about it, people launched into deep depressions about it. There are probably at least some Smart People who expended 90% of their waking moments from 2000-08 having little more than variations and permutations of the single thought ‘George W. Bush is Dumb’ in their head. (And isn’t that oh so Smart to be fixated on that single idea for eight years? Sure seems Smart to me.)

And of course, this Dumbness obsession has recently been fully transferred to Sarah Palin. Indeed an accurate test for whether you’re in the presence of a Smart Person is to say the word “Palin”, step back, and see what happens. If that person says something normal like “Huh?”, “You mean Sarah Palin?”, or “What about her?”, that person may be normal or even Dumb. But if the person throws a hissy fit and starts talking about how Dumb Sarah Palin is, you know then and there that you’re talking to a Very Smart Person.

Once again, there is a strange disconnect because actual, genuine smartness and this Smartness thing we now have. Which is not to say they are opposites or even contradictory. Some Smart People are indeed genuinely smart people. There’s no doubt that Paul Krugman is smart, for example. There is overlap between smartness and Smartness, to be sure. But they are not the same.

Actually, a large contingent of Smart People consists of the very dumb people who merely want to latch onto Smart People so that they, too, can be considered Smart. Consider the Dixie Chicks sounding off about Iraq, or Sean Penn writing travelogue pieces from this or that third-world dictatorship. These are not smart people. But they have clearly figured out that by echoing the opinions of Smart People, they too can easily join their ranks – get articles about how ‘politically active’ and ‘outspoken’ they are. Articles that are not written about Dumb People.

This ease with which someone, however dumb, can sign up for being Smart and advertising their Smartness to others may also explain the sort of issue that Smart People are attracted to. Smart People are attracted to Smart issues like Global Warming/Climate Change. It’s very very Smart (even if it’s not that smart) to be concerned to an almost hysterical degree about the prospect of runaway Global Warming and oceans rising by twenty feet. Yes, that is so Smart. This issue has it all: by deciding to believe in it, without even looking at the evidence or reading anything yourself thus with very little in the way of upfront costs/investment, you instantly get to be on the side of Scientists (who are Smart), and Al Gore (who is Smart), and you get to make fun of Dumb people who are Anti-Science. And again, making fun of Dumb people is one of Smart Peoples’ favorite activities. It is extremely Smart.

Climate Change also illustrates the Smart Peoples’ fondness for arguing in favor of the autocratic, near-dictatorial control over everyone elses’ lives (of Smart People). To a Smart Person, the concept that there can or should be limits on the sorts of things that Smart People in power should be able to do, regulate, decide, and dictate, would make no sense. Smart People are annoyed by the Constitution, for example (if they even think about it at all). Mention the Constitution to a Smart Person, suggest that it restricts government power to do this or that, and you’ll get blank stares (if they don’t just start talking about how Dumb you are for saying it). Sure, they’ll agree that the Constitution restricts the power of Dumb people in government, like George W. Bush, but we’ve got a Smart government now – so what’s the Constitution got to do with anything? They’ve got Smart stuff to do, like nationalize health care, bypass Congress to sign climate treaties, and set up international taxation so Americans’ money can be taken from them and sent overseas. All of that is very Smart stuff to do. What’s the Constitution got to do with any of it?

I have only scratched the surface here because I must admit: I don’t really feel like I have a handle on the whole Smart People phenomenon myself. I don’t understand where it came from, I don’t understand why it persists, and I can’t even really define it. The Smart People faction has an ineffable, liquid quality about it; every time I think I begin to understand it, it slips through my fingers. Clearly it shares some of the properties of a high school clique – a continuation of “the In Crowd”. It’s true that sometimes those who are in the In Crowd are there because they are genuinely better-looking and richer and more charismatic; but sometimes, as with Smart People, to a large extent the only thing that objectively separates the In Crowd from those who are ‘uncool’ is that: the In Crowd can recognize each other and knows who they are and knows that they are cool – and they know that the ‘uncool’ aren’t them.

And the one thing that Smart People know for sure is that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is Dumb. In the final analysis this, above all else, may be the defining property of being Smart.

Heresy

One odd difference between left-leaning and right-leaning people is that the left inject politics into everything. I was at a dinner party where the subject of Nana Moskouri came up. Nana Moskouri is (or was, if she’s not still alive?) a Greek singer and that’s about all I know about her. (Actually, I guess I also know that she has a great voice, if you like that sort of thing, which not everybody seems to, but I’ll admit I like her music.) See, there was a Greek person at the party. The person who mentioned Nana Moskouri was obviously just trying to make small talk. Quick, how many Greek pop star types can you name? Face it: realistically, the list is either 0 long or it is 1 long (if you have heard of Nana Moskouri).

Anyway, so at hearing the name, the Greek person at the table scrunched up her face and said “well, her politics are very right-wing” (which I hadn’t known). Huh? No one was talking about her politics. Who even cares about some pop singer’s politics? Of course the guest then later acknowledged, as if begrudgingly, that she had a nice voice.

Why do lefties feel the need to do this?

As a conservative, if I were to behave like this there would be virtually no music (or movies, or TV..) conversation free from politics. I mean, I like, say, Green Day and all, and I could talk about how I think Green Day have been making some pretty good music to any Green Day fan. But let’s face it: approximately 3 of the last 2 Green Day albums have basically been song cycles about how stupid they think George W. Bush is. Their politics are not exactly a secret. Do I bring that up in Green Day conversations though? Hell no. Lefties, just imagine how annoying, obnoxious, and (on some level) rude that would be. And it’s not only Green Day. The list of such musicians/actors/etc for which I could inject politics into any discussion, but don’t, is endless. Somehow, I am able to look beyond their politics. It’s not like it’s that hard or anything.

So why can’t lefties do it? 99.9% of pop stars are lefties, and I don’t bat an eye. The 0.1% of pop stars who aren’t lefties, however, seem to drive lefties so nuts that it becomes all they can see about them.

The reaction is somewhat like the reaction you’d expect from a religious fundamentalist upon seeing a heretic. There would be no “yes, he’s a heretic, but he makes good french toast” or “yes, he’s a heretic, but he’s an excellent gin rummy partner“. It’d just be: he’s a heretic, period, and that person can and should be dismissed, banished from further consideration. The left behaves this way towards non-lefties. The right doesn’t behave this way towards non-righties. In a sense this may mean that on a fundamental level right-wingers just don’t care that much about politics. Not like lefties do, anyway.

How To Instantly Make Even The Coolest, Hippest Musician Utterly Boring

Put them on PBS.

So I have the TV tuned to this weird Elvis Costello thing I keep running into where he has other musicians on (but why Elvis Costello, I wonder?). There are Bono and The Edge sitting and talking to him. And I find the whole spectacle so boring it’s physically painful to look at. I had to turn down the sound. I’m averting my eyes.

Thing is, I like Elvis Costello a lot (circa late ’70s). And I like U2 a lot (late ’80s). But this is 2009 and they’re on PBS with high production values under gel lights talking to each other in front of a polite seated audience.

I would say it makes me want to puke, except it’s too boring for that. It makes me want to take a sleeping pill so I can nap through it instead of watching it. Same goes whenever I run into any other episode of this thing.

But why is that? As far as I can tell, these people Elvis Costello has on are mostly pretty cool. Right? So is it the seated audience? The acoustic sets?

Really, I just think it’s the PBS. There’s no other explanation that makes sense.

The Social-Analytical Split

One of the challenges I have is that my brain seems to work differently from most other people in my field. A former boss could never understand why, when faced with some technical or quantitative issue, my first instinct wasn’t(as his is) to immediately reach for the phone and/or go engage someone else in a heated conversation about it. My answer: because I’m trying to think. The ‘social’ part of my brain is not the same as the ‘analytical’ part. As far as I can tell they are located on opposite sides of the hemisphere.

Unlike for some people, the part of my brain that thinks is a completely different part than the one that pays attention to other people. If I try to switch on the latter, the former will take a break. How can I think when I have to concentrate so much on this…this conversation? For me, people – paying attention to them, trying to respond to the things they say, trying to pick up on whatever nonverbal cues they’re giving off – get in the way of true thinking. Think of how you drive a car: your foot is either on the gas pedal or the brake pedal. Not both. That’s me. Telling me to go pay attention to some people is the worst possible thing you can do if you want me to actually solve the problem. I can do it but only by taking my foot off the gas pedal.

A related issue is that if I’m stuck talking to someone I might actually appear slow on the uptake to them. Like if they make some subtle mathematical point I can appear as if I “didn’t get” what was being said. In fact this may even actually be true. Later, of course, I will “get” it, when the person is gone and I no longer have to pay attention to them and I can re-engage the thinking part of my brain. But the part of my brain that can understand quantitative arguments is just not the same part of my brain as the one that I have to engage if I’m expected to participate in the give-and-take of a conservation. People who are not like this tend to assume that discussion and hashing things out is a great way to get to the answer and a great way for me to learn from others. In fact it’s a terrible way and I cannot learn anything this way; it’s just a waste of time because to truly learn anything I need to go off and think on my own.

As a side note, this is part of why I was always so irritated by the push there often seemed to be to shove ‘group learning’ down our throats in school. In fact, the standard orthodox school environment (attending a ‘class’, sitting and facing the front quietly, as the teacher instructs) was ideal for my sort of brain, the quasi-’social’ exception scenario that proves the rule. After all, although there was a person I was meant to be learning from, I didn’t have to keep up a conversation with him/her, most of the time I just needed to pay attention to and absorb what they were saying. This, I could do! But whenever they said ‘okay now let’s split up into groups’, or ‘called on’ me to state my thoughts at length…what a disaster. Given the way my brain works, this is like asking a left-hander to write right-handed, with the expectation that the penmanship should be just as good (and criticism if it isn’t!).

On the flip side, the web/blogs are ideal, because although they can be superficially ‘social’ situations, in actuality there’s really no other person there to pay attention to. I can just focus on the words and analysis of same, during which time I essentially forget temporarily that there’s another person on the other end somewhere.

It’s only in the past year or two that I’ve realized most people truly don’t understand any of this, it has never occurred to them that someone could have a social-analytical split to their brain. Indeed in my field it’s basically a handicap because talking a lot, getting into dialogues, and ‘asking a lot of good questions’ are all considered must-have skills. If you do these things you may be considered an up-and-comer. If you don’t you may be considered a nobody. So basically I have to fake it; whether I can pull it off remains to be seen.

Fame Embarrasses Me, Apparently

Was in a small restaurant last night, when a big comedy movie actor walked in and sat down next to two other guys who’d been there for ten minutes or so. I recognized him at once, and then I got embarrassed. I tried not to look at him the rest of the night.

After all, one dude, staring at another dude, just because he’s seen him in movies and stuff? It’s a little fishy.

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