Tagged: politics

“Hyperloop” sounds like something out of science fiction… good.


I’ve written in the past about ideas that, while not entirely feasible, are still helping push our society forward in the direction of a better tomorrow. With science and technology, it is often just as important to be ambitious as it is practical, unless we want ours to be a country of stagnation – comfortable but lagging in every way that matters.

It seems straightforward. Innovation and progress are goals to strive for, and for a long time that’s what our country fawned over, but in the past few decades those ideals have been replaced by fear and xenophobia. Often xenophobia takes the shape of fearing people different from ourselves but it also applies to ideas different from what we know. America is now a country desperate to hold onto a perceived past – imagined more than real – of a simpler time and devoid of shades of gray. It fears what it doesn’t know and doesn’t seem to want to learn.

Conservatism, even it’s name suggests an inability to move forward, is built on fear. It’s chief weapon is fear, and it is swung wildly and ferociously in all directions. What is opposition to immigration reform if not a form of racial fear? What is opposition to climate change if not a form of environmental fear? What is opposition to gay marriage if not a form of sexual fear? Progressivism has it’s flaws, but it often in the form of caring too much, not too little. It dares to try to change things. Conservativism clings on.

I didn’t intend to write this as a way of bashing conservatives, but it is important to note their popularity in America as a testimony to how far we’ve fallen. Instead of approaching the changing geopolitical, social and environmental challenges with gusto and a will to always try to better ourselves, we’ve allowed an entire national political party to provide a giant hole in the sand for defeatists and pessimists to stick their heads in.  And that’s because fear is easy. It’s easy to be small, and isolationist, and enjoy the sense of superiority that tribalism provides no matter how objectively false it is. What is harder is doing something.

That is why, when an ambitious plan comes out by a creative thinker it is crucial that we let it thrive.

Also, he gets his fashion advice from Ricky Gervais apparently

Also, he gets his fashion advice from Ricky Gervais apparently

In many ways, Elon Musk is the best of what American capitalism can provide. When people think of that “entrepreneurial spirit” that is so often trumpeted by politicians and cited by frauds like Donald Trump to justify their wealth, it should be for people like Elon Musk that they look to as the defining argument.

Elon Musk, a South African-American inventor and entrepreneur, is bold. While still in his 20s he co-founded Paypal, that site you use to securely shop online. It was enough to make him rich, but he didn’t rest. Next he co-founded SpaceX, that privately owned space program that is still the only one that has ever launched a nongovernmental space craft into orbit and successfully docked with the International Space Station. (Musk has said in interviews that he was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation book series, so give another point to the power of science fiction as a motivator.) Finally, he went on to co-found Tesla Motors and still works as head of production design. He’s a guy who gets things done.

Now, he wants to get it done quicker by moving people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in times that conventional transportation cannot come close to matching.

Wired.com describes his plan:

Musk’s proposal to revolutionize mass transit is called the Hyperloop. It would transport passengers in individual aluminum pods powered by turbines and solar energy in above-ground tubes, cost $6-10 billion to build, and make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes.

But it only exists in a 57-page alpha white paper. And if someone grabbed the idea and ran with it today, Musk says it would still be 7 to 10 years away.

It began with an idea similar to the vacuum tubes used to shuttle the check from your car to the bank. But maintaining that level of vacuum for hundreds of miles, according to Musk, was untenable. “The basic calculations for energy was enormous,” Musk said during a conference call. And it’s also incredibly dangerous. So Musk enlisted a dozen engineers from Tesla and Space X to start playing with the idea. They wanted to use to existing technology, require as little land as possible, and get the pressure down inside the tube, determining that about half-bar of pressure was the sweet spot. And now Musk and Friends have released it to the world.

Two tubes — one for each direction — would be mounted on pylons spaced between 50 and 100 meters apart, and Musk envisions the Hyperloop running alongside Interstate 5 in California. Because it’s elevated, there’s less environmental impact (farmers can still use their land), it can be built to withstand earthquakes (using the same technology as buildings in the Golden State), and would have solar panels mounted on the roof.

“There is way more surface area on the top of the tube than you need [to power the Hyperloop],” Musk says. “You would have more power than you could possibly consume.”

Inside the tubes, each pod would be mounted on a pair of skis made out of inconel — the same metal that SpaceX uses to handle high heat and pressure — with air being pumped through small holes in the skis to create an air cushion. Combine that with magnets and an electromagnetic field, and you’ve got levitation with very little drag.

Now this is years away from being a reality. That’s fine. In fact, that’s a good thing. It gives us a vision for the future that is beyond the next 140 character tweet we’ll read. It should motivate and inspire, and more importantly, remind the next generation of would be engineers that, to paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, they come from a country that is not descended from fearful men. America can still do great things, if only we have the courage to dream of them.

See, told you.

See, told you.


Republican National Clowns: The RNC’s latest unintentional joke


Recently, CNN and NBC separately announced that they would be airing documentaries about Hillary Clinton. At best, that should have aroused an “Oh, that’s cool” response from anyone. If you have been following politics in the last, let’s say, two decades, or if you plan on following politics into, let’s say, 2016, Hillary Clinton is a person of interest.

Television has always been a medium of guessing at the public’s interest in people and events and anticipating a demand of that interest. That’s its entire business model. People want to watch things with people and things they care about: Hillary Clinton being an obvious choice. This whole thing seems so darn reasonable and straightforward that it should come as no surprise that the Republican National Committee, the head of the GOP, has overreacted badly to it.

You see, Hillary Clinton, three years away from a 2016 election, already terrifies the GOP. This isn’t baseless worrying, Hillary Clinton has a sizable lead in popularity and name recognition over pretty much anyone else in the potential candidate pool. Hillary Clinton (despite early jabs by Republicans) is fast tracked to the DNC’s nomination for President. But let’s not lose our heads, all of that is still three years away.

Republican's Wife: "Honey, you were shouting in your sleep. What's wrong?" Republican: "Nothing. It's nothing. Just a bad dream."

Republican’s Wife: “Honey, you were shouting in your sleep. What’s wrong?” Republican: “Nothing. It’s nothing. Just a bad dream.”

The GOP, already hurting after two sound presidential defeats (by a socialist, atheist, Muslim no less) are worried. So when they heard about these two documentaries they promptly freaked out. They needed to prevent these documentaries (which they assumed would be pro-Clinton) from airing. The only problem is that stupid “freedom of the press” and, gasp, “independent private industry” were working against them. So they played the only card they had.

In a letter to CNN and NBC, RNC chairman Reince Priebus said that if CNN and NBC didn’t drop the documentaries, he wouldn’t allow either network to air the Republican Primaries. In other words, Mr. Priebus threatened to take his toys and go home.

Obviously, threatening to not air your own party’s primaries on two large networks is kind of like punching yourself in the face to avoid doing the dishes. The GOP wants attention for its candidates, that’s how it gets people inspired to vote for one of them. The only way this threat has any sort of bite is by the fact that in recent elections the GOP primaries have become wildly popular with people just tuning in to watch a train wreck. It shouldn’t even be considered controversial to say that the typical Republican primary is filled to the brim with absolute clowns: Literal jesters with no hope of appealing to a national audience but allowed to share the stage – and sometimes win a straw poll or two – with Presidential hopefuls that actually have a chance. Last election’s was a doozy.

We had Herman Cain – Pizza mogul, 9-9-9 flat tax proponent, Pokemon quoter, sexual harrasser, all around idiot.

We had Michelle Bachman – Climate change denier, gay basher, insane person.

We had Rick Santorum – a frothy mixture of homophobia, idiocy and religious zealotry.

We had Donald Trump – Billionaire, blow hard with less brains than hair.

We had Ron Paul – a crazy person’s crazy person, paranoid, racist and kind of weird looking.

And watching the debates was like watching a beauty pageant with ONLY Miss South Carolina’s.

So by threatening to pull that circus off the air for CNN and NBC, the networks do miss capitalizing on the sheer rubbernecking potential of a group of people who know people are laughing but aren’t quite sure if it’s with them or at them. For television ratings, it’s as close as we get to a “sure thing” without being a Two and a Half Men rerun.

Like Rick Santorum, it too is popular for irrational reasons

Like Rick Santorum, it too is popular for irrational reasons

Of course, NBC and CNN will risk alienating the increasingly alienated GOP and air the documentaries. No more than ever, they have to. Interest in the two documentaries is probably higher now than ever. They also can’t be seen as backing down to a political party (not after the outrageous PBS Park Avenue cancellation debacle that seriously harmed the reputation of that highly reputable network). The show must go on, whether the RNC likes it or not.

My only consolation to the RNC is how stupid they are being for thinking this is going to noticeably sway the 2016 presidential election. By assuming that Hillary Clinton is the de facto nominee, they are losing sight of a history filled with “de facto nominees that end up kicked to the curb”, most recently in the form of Hillary Clinton herself by a young upstart from Illinois who went from unknown to presidential nominee in less than two years.

The RNC is also mistaking NBC and CNN for Fox News. I can see how it’s easy to do. They are used to networks that broadcast unfiltered propaganda for the Right and understandably assume that other Networks must operate the same way. It’s the “thieves think all people steal” effect. CNN has responded to this unreasonable demand by telling the GOP to wait and see before overreacting.

The GOP has assumed that any documentary focusing on Hillary Clinton must show her in a good light. High praise from the Right, if you think about it. Maybe what scares the GOP about Hillary Clinton the most is the fact that they are closet fans of hers, secretly wishing a GOP candidate would emerge that was half as interesting and half as popular as the woman in the pantsuits.

El Salvador is what a world without Roe v. Wade looks like

fertilized egg

Yesterday, a Salvadoran woman had to have an emergency caesarian section to deliver a baby that had no chance of survival. Here is the horrible reason why it came to this:

A seriously ill woman denied a medical abortion has had a successful cesarean section to deliver a baby that doctors have given little chance of surviving, El Salvador’s Health Ministry announced late Monday.

The 22-year-old woman, known only as Beatriz for privacy reasons, underwent the operation in the afternoon after 27 weeks of pregnancy, the ministry said. Her baby girl was born without a brain.

“No one can say how long she will live,” Morena Herrera of the Feminist Collective for Local Development told The Associated Press. “It was painful to see the little creature. That’s what the grandmother told us, and the doctors confirmed it.”

The country’s Supreme Court last week prohibited an abortion for Beatriz, who suffers from lupus and kidney failure and whose lawyers said the pregnancy was threatening her life. Her plight drew international attention and a ruling from the Inter-American Court on Human Rights that El Salvador should protect her life and help her end the pregnancy.

That’s right. A baby without a brain was given the right to life over the (very fully brained) mother. Have we all lost our minds?

Of course, El Salvador is known as one of the toughest anti-abortion countries in the world. Abortions are almost never considered, but shouldn’t this be a little nudge to the rational thinkers there that maybe a blanket anti-abortion policy can have pretty awful unintended consequences? You would think.

But before we are quick to judge El Salvador for its backwards and barbaric social policies, let’s take a moment to remember that there are serious presidential candidates in the United States who are praying (literally) that our abortion policy looked like that.

Both Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have, through interviews and legislative pushes, demonstrated that they are firmly committed to outlawing abortion under any circumstances, including when the mother’s life is in danger. A life is a life, they reason – in that simplistic way that only an ideologue can say with a straight face.

, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.

“I feel comfortable believing horrible stuff” – Rick Santorum(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michele Bachmann, when not out right lying about Obamacare or on a muslim witch hunt, did her part to propose several bills in the House of Representatives that recognized the “pre-born” (a nonsense term, meant to play to our emotions, just like “pro-life”) as having equal protection under the 14th amendment. What it was really meant to do was get rid of abortion through subterfuge. And if an embryo is protected under the 14th amendment, then suddenly it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that the mother should be made to suffer if the child could conceivably live.

What’s not being discussed is the VAST differences in subjective quality of life for the two concerned parties. An embryo does not feel (at least not in a meaningful way), but the mother does. The fetus does not fear death or experience existential dread at the possibility of nonexistence, but the mother does. The “pre-born” does not have a network of loved ones and family who depend on him or her for emotional and possibly financial support, but the mother’s does. So what’s going on here? Why the obsession with pre-natal people and total disregard for post-natal ones?

It comes down to the soul. That little, indefinable something. The 21 grams of spiritstuff. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are convinced that the soul is imprinted onto the first human cell and that destroying that means destroying a little part of God’s plan. This narrow theological view is then applied to an entire society of people who perhaps don’t share the same idea, but can’t, or won’t, shout as loudly.

It’s time we started thinking about quality of life, and not just quantity. People aren’t content to just exist. We want to live well. Rightfully so. I would rather live in a world that had less people but more happy people. We can also benefit from a great share of resources, and benefit the rest of the planet by our reduced impact. Pro-lifers like to cite some scare statistic like “over 50 million people have been murdered by abortion”, but I bet the animals whose habitats would have been destroyed to make room for them are grateful they never made it past the clump of cells stage. Again, these cells are not people, and while they are “potential people”, that doesn’t entitle them to anything. If that were the case, then we couldn’t even stop there. We would have to give equal consideration to even potential potential people. In that Universe, even having a menstrual cycle would be a tragedy. “There goes your baby brother,” a father would say as his whole family solemnly watches the tampon go down the toilet.

Even though Michele Bachmann shrewdly decided that she can’t win her upcoming election and has decided to pursue her passion of earning millions in the private sector, there will be others out there, waiting, biding their time. And when they stand up, and try, yet again, to chip away at Roe v. Wade or Planned Parenthood or birth control, we must have the intelligence and commitment to rationality to meet their eyes and remember the lessons of El Salvador.

Republicans hate science, until they need it to make a point


Recently, a survey came out showing that American women have been gaining huge ground on men when it comes to being the breadwinners in a family (defined as making the principle income). In about 40% of American households, it is now true that it is the women who make the majority of money. While this should be lauded as another step towards true equality in domestic and professional life (after all, the number should be around 50% if gender wasn’t a factor, because in every household SOMEONE has to make more, so it should look like a coin toss), it was received by Fox Business Network as the end of the world.

On Lou Dobbs Tonight, goofball Lou Dobbs brought in a panel of three other men (you know, the experts on women’s issues), and lamented how we “are watching society dissolve around us”. The others somberly agreed to this premise as if it were a foregone conclusion. Let’s strip away the veneer and say what is truly happening: In 2013, a Republican with his own talk show on a widely watched network can essentially say that women earning as much (or working more) than men is going to “dissolve” this country. Oh and then he shoehorns in abortion somehow, because why not?

English: Erick Erickson at the Republican Lead...

Erick Erickson trying to get attention (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The person in the panel who is getting the most attention is Erick Erickson, a guy whose only real goal is to get the most attention (well done, sir). Tired of the typical arguments that many conservatives use when justifying their sexism (the Bible, tradition, the Bible, etc.), he decided to go at it from another direction. The old, tried and true, science argument. Good grief. Here’s what he said:

“I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology — when you look at the natural world — the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complimentary role.”

See liberals? How can you accuse conservatives of being “anti-science” when they won’t hesitate to use science (or at least the word “science”) if they think it will further their point? Unfortunately, that makes him look more anti-science. It makes him look like he doesn’t understand science. And it definitely makes him look sexist.

I’ve always been fascinated that people can feel fine using arguments long after they’ve been debunked. It’s a fallacy to argue from ignorance, but its lunacy to continue to do so after you know it’s wrong. In this case, all it takes is finding women earning the primary income and not destroying the country, which there is ample evidence of, because about 40% of households already have this happening and the country is not eroding away.

English: Television and radio host at CPAC in .

Unless you believe this guy  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They also show an amazing ability to compartmentalize. In the same breath that they are saying women need to be playing a “complementary role” in society, they can applaud Michelle Bachman as if she were the candle in the darkness of Congress. But, of course, they don’t mean Michelle Bachman, they mean minority women, they mean divorcees, they mean families having babies out of wedlock. As a fun game, I suggest sexists like Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson do something I’d like to call “take Michelle Bachman, and replace her with another woman” and after several exercises you will have a brief glimpse of what it’s like to view the world as a socially aware, intelligent, empathic person rather than a complete scumbag. Trust me, it’s an adrenaline rush, and as a bonus, you don’t always have to feel embarrassed of your own opinions. It’s great.

But what really bugs me is when people who consistently deny some science, choose other bits to believe in. That’s what religion is for, guys. The pesky thing about science is that it’s kind of a whole package. The only thing you have to “believe” is that the scientific method is the best way humans have of getting to knowledge. The rest of the “facts” and “theories” are derived from that assertion. So while you’re googling “ways to deny Climate Change” and you stumble across “Some animals show gender roles” you have to pick one, because they are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, when reading the “some animals show gender roles” article, you’ll notice that scientists are very careful not to stretch their findings past the facts (that’s what television is for). So just because you read an article that pointed out behavioral dimorphism in gorillas doesn’t mean you can extend that to 21st century human beings. In fact, you probably shouldn’t because you’ll probably look like an idiot (and end up pissing off Megyn Kelly)

megyn kelly

Megyn Kelly complimenting, but not dominating, the Fox News logo (Photo credit: glamourmagazine)

So instead of proving some point about the sexes, you’ve only held up a mirror to reflect your own inner beliefs, Erick. And your beliefs have more basis in the Old Testament than they do the science lab. It wasn’t science that said “women should obey their husbands”, that was the Abrahamic God (Colossians 3:18). And it’s not science that says women are ruining our society, that’s you.

It’s sad that we are having this discussion in 2013. We should be ashamed that we’ve given a platform to these men. It’s degrading to the women (also known as these men’s sisters, mothers, wives, friends, coworkers) who have overcome so much to earn a financial place at the table, and it’s disgraceful to the young girls and emerging women in this country who have to listen to their importance trivialized. Despite what Lou Dobbs, Juan Williams, or Erick Erickson think, we need them, and not in the kitchen, but in the office and in the boardroom. Our world is too complex, too important and too precarious to leave 50% of the population out of the discussion.


Know a climate change denier? Turn up the heat

ice wall

A few days ago, as I was driving home from work, I happened upon a story on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that piqued my interest. The story was about climate change. In a recent study that analyzed other studies, researchers found that 97% (yeah 97%) of scientists, when talking about climate change, agree that it is happening and that mankind has something to do with it. Keep in mind that these are the people who study climate change as a career. It was a pretty astounding figure considering the public’s general belief that climate change is a highly contested topic, subject to intense debate within the scientific community. This study suggests otherwise.

That was an interesting story, and I’m always happy when scientific literacy in America gets put under the microscope, but what they said near the end of the segment blew my mind. Here is the transcript:

MAYBACH: People’s assessments of climate change are very susceptible to what they’ve recently experienced in the weather.

HARRIS: And after this past cold winter, American opinion about the existence of climate change dropped seven percentage points, to 63 percent.

So because of it being kind of a tough winter, Americans are now more pessimistic about global climate change as even existing. That is insane. It also highlights a common problem that scientists face when they seek to inform the public about their findings: “common sense” is just way more attractive.

Shoveling Snow #2

“This means I don’t have to sell my Hummer right?”

There are numerous, numerous, (numerous) instances that we could point to that show common sense or the prevailing wisdom failing to actually be true, but for some reason, even though we’ve been burned many times before, it’s still hard for many people to accept that what is happening right in front of their eyes isn’t always the whole story. Partly, this is because there is a lack of understanding of how science works and what makes a scientific theory much better than “just a theory” (hint: there are more steps than just “hey, I have an idea and a Facebook account”). There is also the problem with a media that cannot help but run every story through a dichotomous narrative in which both sides of “an argument” are given equal air time. This leads to a false sense that both sides are equally valid. Which is a shame, because often times they aren’t even close.

It would be interesting to see if we could manipulate people’s opinions further. I envision a study that asks participants to come into a lab that has its heat cranked to uncomfortably hot levels and then gives them questionnaires on their opinion about global warming. Would just sitting in a warm room make people more comfortable with the existence of man-made climate change? I suspect it could. If you have a stubborn friend who refuses to see the facts, perhaps you could sweat it out of him.

This effect also highlights the dangers we face when we allow a scientifically ignorant congress to be influenced by a scientifically ignorant public and ignore the experts. We have got to be willing to defer some opinions to people who know better than us. Especially now, as the world is getting more and more complex and intuition is getting less and less helpful. Policy should be steeped in data driven research that can enable us to look clear eyed at the complicated and sometimes daunting problems that we face going forward in the 21st century.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is one of the remarkable things about Angelina Jolie’s decision to get a double mastectomy, it represented a pragmatic, unflinching and courageous position on her body and her future that said “I refuse to stick my head in the sand and get by on mere hopes and prayers when the data shows I am in harm’s way and if I act now I can give myself a fighting chance”. It was brilliant. Now let’s all do that and get a grip on climate change now, because even if our heads are protected by the nice cool sand, our butts are still roasting.

“Ice Wall” Image courtesy of Flickr, Taraji Blu

Bring it on down to Veganville

I know, I know, I’m super late in the game here, but I finally got around to seeing the Justin Timberlake “five timers” Saturday Night Live episode. It was mostly good, with a few misses (Caligula anyone?) but this Veganville skit was surprising.

Sorry for the quality, Youtube is a beautiful thing but it has its limitations. The Justin Timberlake in a funny costume singing about a food and dancing is already a regular occurrence but what I loved about this particular skit is the fact that it took an often mocked group (vegans) and never once stooped to mocking them. And it must have been tempting. After all, the writers for SNL have tight deadlines and demanding schedules so a quick and easy punch at Vegans would be easy. The 95% of Americans who don’t identify as Vegetarians or Vegans would laugh (probably half-heartedly because they’ve heard it all before) and the skit could be over and done with. Instead, the writers had the courage to never betray the character Justin Timberlake plays.

A lesser skit would have gone something like this:

Meat guy is trying to sell meat. Vegan guy in tofu costume comes up and starts rapping about vegetarian dishes. Meat guy tempts him with the foregone conclusion that meat tastes so much better than anything a vegan could eat. Vegan guy breaks and starts shoving his face with sausage.

The premise being that vegans are:

A) Deluding themselves

B) Moral hypocrites

C) Easily led back to the “better” life of meats

If you laughed at a skit like that you would be laughing AT vegans (or the stereotype of them) and not WITH them like was done in the real sketch.

Hats off to SNL for avoiding that tired trope. It would have been poor comedy and also poor taste. I’m not advocating either way for a particular lifestyle (maybe in another article someday), but it’s a larger statement about the easy victimization of minority groups that we should look out for (especially ones that are perceived as choices and not unavoidable such as skin color or disabilities). There are ways to talk about these groups without betraying them or selling them out for the benefit of the majority. Other TV shows/comedians/movies/books/etc. would do well to take note of this skit and marvel at it’s courage.

English: Justin Timberlake at the Shrek the Th...

Nice work, Tofu-man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


When evidence isn’t enough: Inside the #FreeJahar movement

We believe that within the chaos caused by the Boston Marathon explosion, two young men were wrongfully accused of something they did not do, and one of them has lost his life before even getting the opportunity of a proper trial.

So begins the Change.org petition created by Anita Temisheva in support of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged “Suspect #2” in the Boston Marathon bombings and the rolling chaos that spilled into the streets of residential Boston later that week. As of writing this her petition has over 13,000 signatures. Most of those who put a reason do not cite clemency or mercy but instead a steadfast belief that the Tsarnaev brothers were set up.

On Twitter, the movement has manifested itself under the hashtag “#FreeJahar” and it’s gotten so much traction that at times that hashtag can be found trending world wide. I won’t cite individual tweets because I don’t believe reading them out of context would be useful to understanding their arguments. In many cases, the #FreeJahar supporters have their hands full with countless people sending vitriolic messages to them in response to their opinions and so meaningful dialogue has shut down. Instead, I will try to paraphrase their arguments.

First though, I think it’s important to distinguish these people from an entirely separate group of people who have been clumped together with them. The #FreeJahar movement does not appear to be linked to terrorist sympathizers, fanatics, or those active in the Jihadist movement (source). Instead, the movement consists of, as Spencer Ackerman puts it in his article for Wired magazine, “a mix of conspiracy theories, sympathy for Tsarnaev and skepticism of the official narrative surrounding the 19-year-old’s arrest.” In other words, most simply can’t believe that the person the FBI has identified would be capable of doing the things he’s accused of. Predictably, his parents are among those who think he has been wrongfully charged. His Mom has said “I am really, really, really telling you this is a set-up.” His father agrees. But that circle of disbelief has expanded past his circle of family and friends that knew him into a wider net, the internet. It’s a phenomenon we didn’t see during 9/11 and it demands an explanation.

The case against the Tsarnaev brothers looks pretty solid. At around 2:45 p.m. on April 15th video from surveillance cameras shows what appears to be one of the Tsarnaev brothers slipping off his backpack and leaving it on the ground. Several minutes later the bomb explodes and the man believed to be Tsarnaev can be seen casually walking away while panic engulfs the crowd. The following Friday a man is carjacked in Cambridge. The two men ask the man if he heard about the Boston explosion and then one of them says “I did that.” Later, in the firefight and manhunt that ensued, explosives similar to those used in the bombings are recovered by the police. Finally, when Dzhokhar woke up at the hospital he admitted his involvement in the bombing, citing religious motivations. Along with the very public nature of these actions, there is truckloads of physical evidence placing the two brothers at the scene of the crimes on Friday, and at least circumstantially, at the marathon itself. None of this matters of course to the supporters of the #FreeJahar campaign. Any piece of evidence used in support of their guilt is either dismissed as false or turned around and used as further support. Some go so far as to say that the brothers oftentimes harebrained schemes are proof positive that they were innocent until framed.

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

What interests me is not that there are people who believe the brothers were framed but why this particular instance of conspiracy thinking is so attractive (and judging by the prevalence of supporters it’s pretty attractive).  First I want to talk about how information is disseminated in today’s world.

Twitter and Facebook, not online new sources, have replaced newspapers. It’s not only that we live in a time where information changes so fast that print media can’t keep up (I would argue it doesn’t have to but I’ll save it for another

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

article), but also the very ingestion of information has changed. In previous eras, information was made available in large chunks (such as in books, newspapers, or pamphlets) that were meant to be read in full before they could be fully understood. It’s how we are still taught to write essays in school: A thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and finally a conclusion. Those days are gone. We live in the age of 140 characters. If the information can’t be conveyed within the confines of those 140 characters, it’s not going to be widely read. Facebook is even worse. Ideas are reduced to a picture and a caption. The merits of a particular argument can’t be weighed because they aren’t even acknowledged. And like a bacteria, the antidote of real reporting and fact checking can’t keep up because the misinformation evolves so fast. It’s in this hazy, fact checking starved world that things like #FreeJahar thrive. Suddenly a picture really is worth a thousand words. Show the picture and the audience is left to their own devices to fill in the words, often times with their own preconceptions or expectations.

That’s the second catalyst for a conspiracy: we already had an idea of who would do this before it happened. The perpetrators of this crime were very different than what we expected them to be. Sure, they were Muslim but they were also white; they were assimilated Americans, both culturally and legally; they were young; they seemed normal. It’s a lot different than the guys we saw on 9/11, or the shoebomber, or 24, or Homeland, and they don’t look Iranian. Our expectations were thwarted and it makes us skeptical. We watch with the same uneasiness that an audience watches a magician walk into one box and emerge from another. That’s not right, our brains scream, that’s not how things are supposed to be. This, I think, is really the heart of the conspiracy. We are in disbelief that someone like US could do something like THAT. Dzhokhar could be one of our sons. Or one of our children’s classmates. To borrow a phrase from President Obama, “If I had a son, he would look like Dzhokhar.” and that’s heart breaking. I don’t blame people for feeling betrayed.

Dszjokar Tsarnaev pic

Dszjokar Tsarnaev  (Photo credit: stream47)

The brothers resemble mass murders much more closely than they do Islamic terrorists (and in America we define those two things very differently). If these boys hadn’t been Muslim then we probably wouldn’t have labeled them terrorists at all. After all, the Aurora shooter wasn’t viewed as a terrorists. Neither was Jared Loughner who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people in Arizona. The motive for the Aurora shooting remains vague but Jared Loughner was certainly motivated by political reasons. Senator Lindsay Graham never called for his Rights as an American Citizen be stripped from him in the wake of his massacre the way he suggested Dzhokhar’s be. So now we have a conflict. On the one hand we have typical American young men, going to parties, going to school, quoting Jay Z on twitter. On the other, they have been labeled terrorists by their government and placed in the category of radical Islamic extremists. I can forgive people for feeling a bit of disbelief at those disparate categories colliding like they did on April 15th.

What isn’t excusable to me is to ignore the lessons that this heinous act can teach us. Some people payed a high price for this lesson, I would say too high a price, but sticking our heads in the sand will not make up for it. As we get further into the 21st century and technology enables us to be increasingly interconnected with the rest of the world we are learning again and again that there aren’t any easy solutions. The problems we once thought were black and white are many shades of gray (I’ll refrain from making a 50 Shades of Grey joke, we’ve come too far). The Boston Marathon bombing is another example of the messiness of trying to attribute specific characteristics to predicting an act of violence. It can be frustrating to admit that we are largely clueless when it comes to anticipating attacks but keeping a realistic perspective is imperative. If we are looking only for one thing it’s far too easy for people who don’t fit that mold to slip through the cracks. In a way we are all #FreeJahar devotees. As we cast a weary eye towards the bearded man with a turban sitting three rows ahead of us, we missed the Tsarvaev brothers sitting next to us. If we even noticed them at all, we may have even said to ourselves: “No, not them. They look just like me.”

The anatomy of a conspiracy

Recently, I wrote about Glenn Beck and his awful treatment of a Saudi injured in the Boston Marathon bombing. I wrote that piece the night after they caught the two brothers who were, in all likelihood, responsible for the terrible violence that played out for days on our television and computer screens. You can find that here. I assumed, as has happened before, that Glenn Beck would slink away, and never mention this particular story again. After all, there are tons of potential conspiracy theories to choose from and nobody knows as well as Beck does that you have to keep up with the current news cycle.

That all changed when I woke up the day my article was published and found that Glenn Beck was once again in the news. Sometimes, things don’t go as I imagine they will (go figure).

Instead of, as I predicted, Glenn Beck simply ignoring his erroneous reporting, he decided to double down. In an impassioned monologue on his radio program (watch above), Beck states that he and his “investigators” have uncovered a lot of troubling details about the Saudi national (which he insists on referring to as “the Saudi national once considered a person of interest” because why not). Beck seems to have found evidence that he is a “bad, bad, bad man”. Then, Beck starts to cry because why not. At length, Beck demands that the U.S. Government release the information they have on this “once considered person of interest” or, gasp, he will TODAY.

Which he is running with on his radio program and website as I write this. Apparently, the Saudi, who he decided was a part of the terrorist plot, is now NOT being investigated by the government in connection to the terrorist plot. DUN DUN DUN. If that doesn’t sound very scary, obviously you haven’t entered into this from the lens of Glenn Beck’s irrational, racist fears. It doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility that in the hours after the bombing the investigators would look into a foreign Arab, that after all, what we have been told for a decade a terrorist will look like. It is also unsurprising that after no evidence is found for his guilt that the government would stop looking into him and attempt to damage control about having looked into him in the first place (it makes us look a bit prejudiced, I’d say).

But this is how conspiracy theories go. If memes are like genes, then conspiracy theories are like viruses. They are persistent, fast moving and hard to kill. For someone like Glenn Beck who already assumes a government cover up, any fact can be used to confirm that theory. The Saudi is being deported? He must be a terrorist. He isn’t being deported? The government is protecting him.  Suddenly, things such as files classifying him as not a suspect become suspect. I can imagine Glenn Beck sitting in a darkened room, running his eyes over pages and pages of documents trying to find links to his theory. It’s the equivalent of middle schoolers playing with an Ouija board, spooking themselves. You’re pushing it, no you are!

One of humanities greatest assets is our ability to detect patterns. It’s so important, that we actually get a psychological benefit from the act of finding patterns. If you’ve done a crossword, a word scramble, or played a video game recently you are experiencing the effect of your brain being high on pattern recognition (if you did this on 4/20 you may just been high, though). Do any of you like music? Wow, all of you? That’s so cool, me too. Well guess what, we are enjoying patterns. A beat is a pattern. Did you hear that latest pattern by Dr. Dre? That pattern was sick!

Hidden Red, White, & Blue Sparkle Stars 12.2

I just got you so high on patterns, man (Photo credit: ♥ Crystal Writer ♥)

So clearly, humans love patterns but that can also lead us astray. If we start finding meaning when there is none (think “shapes in the clouds”) we begin to go too far and risk losing an accurate view of our environment. This can lead mothers to ban their kids listening to Led Zeppelin due to the tenuous idea that playing their tracks backward reveals hidden satanic messages. It can also lead to Glenn Beck publicly demonizing a young man because his preconceived biases have betrayed his pattern detecting brain into thinking there is meaning when there is none.

English: Political commentator Glenn Beck at t...

No one has ever accused Glenn Beck of “knowing too much”(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, it is always possible that Glenn Beck is right and he has stumbled upon a vast cover up that reaches the highest levels of government but it doesn’t seem likely. Firstly, if the type of shadow networks existed that Glenn Beck thinks existed, and if their power was as absolute as Glenn Beck thinks it is, then Glenn Beck would have been silenced long ago. He knows TOO MUCH! In reality we are living with a government that is cumbersome, unwieldy and ineffectual. We can see that just by looking at how pathetic it is when trying to accomplish even simple tasks. It doesn’t appear to be the ALL POWERFUL ALL CONTROLLING juggernaut that its detractors claim it to be.

Unless….unless that’s what they want us to think… WAKE UP SHEEPLE!


EDIT: Stumbled across a great article about recent conspiracies and why we should not pay them any mind. Check it out: http://thedailybanter.com/2013/04/why-people-believe-conspiracy-theories-and-why-you-shouldnt/

The Irony of Gun Rights advocates

Yesterday, a gun control bill was killed in the senate. This wasn’t a “take all guns away” bill, or a “national registry of gun owners” bill (although some Republicans misreported that it was), it was a bill to expand background checks. Background checks for guns. If that sounds pretty harmless, that’s because it is. If it sounds obvious and straightforward and not terribly controversial, congratulations you are part of roughly 90% of Americans who polls suggest support this bill.

So why did it die?

Well, first you have a “cowardly” group of Senators, although another term for them might be “sociopathetically pragmatic”. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) sums it up nicely in that piece:

I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like “tough vote” and “complicated issue.” I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.

There it is, laid bare. It’s not how Fox News will frame it, not even how the President will frame it (he still has to work with these people for three more years, after all), but that’s what happened. Senators on both sides of the Aisle (and, of course, one side more so than the other) put political capital and fear of retribution ahead of preventing another murder, another suicide, another accident.

What sucks is they’ll probably get away with it, too. That’s how these things work. Hard science using hard data is largely forgotten in the wake of tragedy. Pundits cry out “How could this have happened!” but they mean it rhetorically and politicians urge people to come together and pray, or hug their children (assuming they weren’t the ones who lost them). Everybody ignores the science because to face it would mean to acknowledge that this wasn’t a “random act of violence” but one more data point on a pattern that has been emerging for years. They ignore it because to face it would be too hard. How could this have happened? We allowed it to.

A major argument that gun rights advocates use is to suggest that restricting guns is restricting freedom. They say that guns in the home are the last bastion of defense against “tyranny”. They’re wrong, but that’s beside the point. The irony here is that a bill like this being killed with 90% public support is proof positive that our system of democracy is savagely misaligned. The only tyranny here is that a small group of wealthy and politically powerful men and women were able to, for reasons as shallow as profits and image, outmaneuver the entire country’s moral intuition. To take a page from their own playbook, this CANNOT be what the Founding Fathers intended. They could not have foreseen a political system moored so completely to the interests of business that even a massacre of 20 children cannot result in any constructive legislation.

Somebody should tell the guy on Facebook holding an assault rifle and warning that he is willing to die shooting to protect his freedom that he already lost it. Sure, in this case it’s to a political lobby that he thinks is on his side, but it demonstrates a larger point that public opinion can only do so much now. “Speak softly and carry a lot of cash”, to update a popular witticism. Next time it might be something he does care about that gets filibustered because a corporation or interest group has decided it might cut into profits. The NRA aren’t the only ones who have taken note of how easily they derailed the political process, anyone with an agenda and a sizable bank account could do the same thing. They might even be able to do it more easily, most agendas don’t have to contend with 11,422 homicides and 19,392 suicides in 2010 (source).

To be fair to Obama and the Senators who confidently assured us that the bill would pass the Senate, if not the House, they were outmatched. No one could have expected the NRA to be so gifted at getting their message out there and more determined to not yield one inch in the direction of gun safety. It’s no longer enough to have 20 dead children, you must have a strong enough message. We truly live in the age of memes. For a look at four reasons why the bill failed, The UK’s The Telegraph sums it up nicely in this article. It explains how determination from the gun lobby and diffidence from the left destroyed any chance this bill had. Maybe we should have seen it coming.

Truthfully, we really do have one final bastion of defense against tyranny. It’s the one area that cannot be entirely subverted by money and interest groups. Say it with me: Voting. As the billionaire Koch brothers and Karl Rove learned in the last election, money doesn’t buy everything. It’s important to elect people who won’t be bought either. That’s not always easy to see during an election, and once they get to the capitol or the White House they may have second thoughts about their campaign assurances to remain stoic in the face of the Lobbyists but we can try. We can move the needle in the direction of morality and away from the side of pragmatism. It will have an amplifying effect as well because as representatives start seeing that their jobs are in jeopardy not because of the NRA but because of their constituency, they might hesitate to listen to the NRA’s nonsense. If you’re looking for a place to start your research for the 2014 elections, you may want to consider the 46 men and women who decided to vote against common sense and integrity yesterday.

bill busters