Friday, October 28, 2011

Maxx Moses, Concrete Alchemy

Maxx Moses, El Cajon, California

Maxx Moses, JamJar, Dubai, UAE

More of his concrete alchemy here.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Marijuana Showdown: The Feds vs. California

[Final addition: the Iranian government is implicated in an assassination attempt. Bad; but what's worse is they were outsourcing the actual labor to the Zetas on the ground in North America, one of several large, paramilitar criminal organizations that have been assassinating public figures in Mexico for over a decade. A failed state on our southern border is at least as big a problem as Iranian regional ambitions, but oil politics ensure we care more about the safety of Saudi officials more than Americans living in border states. The Zetas would have nothing without the revenues given to them by our big-government marijuana laws, and they wouldn't be getting hired by the Iranians to do hits in Washington D.C. Somehow that's getting lost in this story.]

[Added later: much scarier than the coming dispensary raids and shutdowns is the IRS ruling described in this article that will cripple the marijuana industry, and drive it entirely back underground. Because it's essentially an accounting law change it's much less mediagenic than the specter of jack-booted DEA agents busting down doors, but it's actually a much bigger threat. This is the cheapest trick the Obama adminsitration has used so far because it's not apparently a law enforcement effort but it will be no less effective for that.]

Above: a small business that Obama's thugs are trying to shut down. Not a joke. If you call yourself pro-small-government and you aren't outraged by that, you have to stop calling yourself pro-small-government.

Medical marijuana is legal in California, but still illegal under Federal law. Despite Obama's promises to the contrary, he's continuing to waste your money pursuing marijuana dispensaries that are legal in their own states. There's about to be a showdown in California. Jerry Brown, here's your chance to show voters what you're made of, and if you're really serious about defending civil liberties.

Having sub-national entities with their own governments is a good idea because as they experiment locally, the rest of us can benefit from what works, and avoid what doesn't. Of course that's only the case if those sub-national entities are allowed to continue the experiment. It's also worth asking what the results of the experiment have been. What's happened in California since these dispensaries proliferate that's been so bad? By the way, here's the SoCal map.

If your rallying cries are "small government" and "states' rights", now would be a great time to come to California's defense. Somehow I'm not holding my breath for any collective outrage from the Tea Party. The Tea Party and the right wing in general only seem to worry about keeping government small in those cases where it intrudes on Southern cultural values.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Key to Happiness (and Less Violence): Multiple Status Hierarchies

Stephen Pinker has been making the rounds talking about the decline of violence, and in his Edge talk he gets a great question from Jaron Lanier. It's a well-studied phenomenon that being part of more social circles means lower stress, which accords well with the Robert Frank observation that status is a zero-sum game. That is to say, if you play status games (which if you're human, you do) then the best way to avoid stress is to play multiple ones at a time, because people will always try to climb, which in zero-sum games necessarily means they're trying to take status away from you. So if you lose, at least you only lose points in one of the several games you're playing. In contrast, if your whole social world is your job, or your family, or your sports team, etc., then there's a lot more pressure on your status within that team, and if something happens to expel you from grace within that circle you're screwed - and you know it, which is why you're more stressed. Segueing back to Pinker's talk, such unipolar social stress can translate to violence:

JARON LANIER: I'd like to hypothesize one civilizing force, which is the perception of multiple overlapping hierarchies of status. I've observed this to be helpful in work dealing with rehabilitating gang members in Oakland. When there are multiple overlapping hierarchies of status there is more of a chance of people not fighting their superior within the status chain. And the more severe the imposition of the single hierarchy in people's lives, the more likely they are to engage in conflict with one another. Part of America's success is the confusion factor of understanding how to assess somebody's status.

STEVEN PINKER: That's a profound observation. There are studies showing that violence is more common when people are confined to one pecking order, and all of their social worth depends on where they are in that hierarchy, whereas if they belong to multiple overlapping groups, they can always seek affirmations of worth elsewhere. For example, if I do something stupid when I'm driving, and someone gives me the finger and calls me an asshole, it's not the end of the world: I think to myself, I’m a tenured professor at Harvard. On the other hand, if status among men in the street was my only source of worth in life, I might have road rage and pull out a gun.

Every time we read about a workplace shooting, it's difficult to imagine that these men (almost invariably) are well-connected socially outside their office or plant, in sports or family or civic service groups. Pinker's full discussion here; he also points out the decline in autocracies, which also bodes well for decreased violence.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Problems of Animals Governing Ourselves: Paleo-Diets and Paleo-Politics

"A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control's color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern."

-Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, November 2011

The idea behind the paleo diet is simple: many health problems (especially obesity) are linked to the consumption of foods which were not available, or not available in unlimited quantity, to our distant ancestors. Our bodies greedily store salt, because it was in limiting supply until the last few centuries, but evolution didn't anticipate McDonalds. Our bodies drive us to constantly seek sweets because for thousands of centuries, our ancestors would be thrilled to find one ripe fruit per week, as opposed to a rack of candy bars at every gas station. There was no reason to develop discipline, because nature did that for us. Salt and sugar weren't "bad stuff" because there wasn't very much of it around, so it was good to constantly crave it. Now that we've solved these scarcities and it's everywhere, our lack of an off-switch for these things damages us, and to avoid this, some people have consciously chosen a return to hunter-gatherer food sources.

But think about this for very long, and you quickly realize that our diet and diet-related health are just one example of the neurological mismatch that we Westerners, and in particular we Americans, have developed with our man-made environment. It generalizes to other aspects of our behavior, and so it may be that several challenges in modern American culture have a unifying diagnosis. Culture and economics are results of the aggregate activity of human nervous systems. It shouldn't be surprising that an animal which wandered out of its home continent fifty thousand years ago has not suddenly become uber-rational and infinitely malleable in its behavior, although many of these animals have assumed themselves to have achieved this. This is to say, our behavior has limited plasticity. The irony is that our cultural environment has so rapidly changed the physical environment we now inhabit - we've truly remade our world in our image - that it's not just diet where we're mismatched with the terrarium we've built for ourselves. Potato chips may actually be the least of our worries.

The dramatic change which is also the best candidate for unifying diagnosis is instant gratification, made most commonplace in the most consumer-driven society so far in history. What consumerism really means is that of any civilization in history, ours is most specialized in giving each other what we want right now, and this has not surprisingly changed our behavior. (If you've ever seen the sad spectacle at the zoo of lions, one of the most fearsome apex predators the planet has produced, patiently and docilely waiting to be fed, you start to understand this concern.) The obstacle-free rewards-for-nothing to which we've become accustomed have damaged us in at least three realms: diet and all the attendant health problems of obesity and heart disease; belief systems and epistemological closure; and the politics of taxation.

The problem with the politics of taxation need little exposition; people demand more services and refuse to pay for them, and somehow avoid seeing the disconnect; a certain unattributed quote about people in democracies voting themselves the contents of the treasuries comes to mind, all the more frightening because it's hard to make an argument as to why it's not correct. As for consumerism's role in epistemological closure: although confirmation bias is certainly not new, that so many of us maintain patently false beliefs despite a crush of information does seem to be something new - because we know what it makes us feel good to believe, and it hurts a little to change your mind, so nothing else matters. (It may be no mistake that dopamine, our main reward-anticipation compound, is elevated in psychotic people who often have delusional beliefs; you connect everything you see to the conspiracy you believe in, because you already thought it was true and feels good.)

Having been discussing this with people for a while, it was with understandable interest that I read the Vanity Fair article about municipal budget woes and California in particular, in which the journalist interviews a UCLA neuroscientist. This lengthy excerpt will end the post, because there's nothing more to say.

Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. with a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America's society is a by-product of America's success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. "Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited," he says cheerfully. "We've got the core of the average lizard." Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. "The only problem," he says, "is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food." Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now neuroscience does, too. "When faced with abundance, the brain's ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress," says Whybrow. "In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake."

The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want. The effect on the brain of lots of instant gratification is something like the effect on the right hand of cutting off the left: the more the lizard core is used the more dominant it becomes. "What we're doing is minimizing the use of the part of the brain that lizards don't have," says Whybrow. "We've created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded."

...It's a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences. It's not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans. Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They'd been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences. Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.