Monday, January 23, 2012

Steve Jobs

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's incredible biography of Steve Jobs, and it was even better than I thought it would be. There are so many great insights in this book that it almost demands a second reading.

I came away from this book totally convinced that Jobs was one of the great visionaries of the 20th century. That's not to say that I think Jobs was a moral man....far from it. He was a total asshole to most people (including to his closest friends, apparently). I'm absolutely amazed that all those years of Zen training and Hindu spirituality--that he obviously took quite seriously--made absolutely no impact on the way he dealt with other human beings.

What impresses me about Jobs is that, in an age where people are content to mass produce crap solely for the sake of profit, he was motivated primarily by an exquisite aesthetic sensibility that drove him to create beautiful, well-made products that people loved to use.

I remember when I got my first Ipod about seven years ago. From the moment I opened the box (which itself was a thing of beauty) and saw the black shiny device, I was madly in love. And unlike the Microsoft products that I had formerly used, which were so damned buggy, the Ipod always worked like a dream, synching perfectly with the extensive music collection I had on my computer. The Ipod wasn't just a toy, it was a work of art.

There's so much more I could say about Jobs and this book. Instead, I'd encourage you to read it for youself and form your own impression.


The people who invented the 21st century were pot smoking, sandal-wearing hippies from the West Coast…, because they saw differently….The sixties produced an anarchic mind-set that is great for imagining a world not yet in existence. (Bono, quoted in Steve Jobs)

I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I want them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they are talking about don’t need Powerpoint.

Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

You always have to keep pushing to innovate. Dylan could have sung protest songs forever and probably made a lot of money, but he didn’t. He had to move on, and when he did, by going electric in 1965, he alienated a lot of people….The Beatles were the same way. They kept evolving, moving, refining their art. That's what I’ve always tried to do—keep moving. Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Here's How We Get it Completely Wrong

The following are Buddha's insights on wrong view, or the unskillful ways we have of looking at the world:

This is how one attends (thinks) inappropriately:

'Was I in the past?
Was I not in the past?
What was I in the past?
How was I in the past?
Having been what, what was I in the past?

Shall I be in the future?
Shall I not be in the future?
What shall I be in the future?
How shall I be in the future?
Having been what, what shall I be in the future?'

Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present:

'Am I?
Am I not?
What am I?
How am I?
Where has this being come from?
Where is it bound?'

(Discourse on Right View)

So what else is left to think about? (Or not think about?) And what role does philosophy have in a system where one is discouraged from engaging in speculative thought about past, future, or present?

One could spend a life-time thinking just about this! (Or, rather, not "thinking" about it at all).

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Real Success of Occupy Wall Street

A recent report by the Pew Research Center found that 2/3s of Americans now believe that there are real conflicts between the rich and poor in this country (click on chart for larger image) and that such economic conflict now represents the greatest source of tension in the United States.

What struck me when I read about this report in the New York Times was that majorities in every demographic group that was polled--young and old, black and white, rich and poor, educated and uneducated--clearly think that the kind of economic inequality that we have in the United States represents a serious problem. Even 55% of conservatives believe this to be the case.

The report, I believe, shows that Occupy Wall Street protests last fall clearly have changed the political discourse in this country in ways that are extremely positive for a progressive agenda. In this sense, even if Occupy Wall Street disappears completely from the political landscape in this country, the movement has already succeeded in focusing public attention on its central issue--income inequality in the United States. And, even more importantly, it has succeeded in getting just about everyone to recognize that this kind of inequality represents a serious problem for the long-term viability of our country.

The real question now is: what comes next? Public opinion on the issue of income inequality had shifted but won't mean anything if this doesn't translate into some kind of concrete legislative agenda that restores the economic balance in this country into something more favorable for working American families.

Fortunately, President Obama, who in the past has proven willing to sell out the interests of the poor and middle class in this country to appease conservatives in Congress, seems to have finally realized that a little old fashioned class warfare of the type employed by Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt might actually prove to be good politics right now. He also appears to understand that Americans want to see their President fight on their behalf rather than constantly working in the interests of multinational corporations and banks.

I don't image that anyone as testicularly challenged as Barack Obama can remain in populist mode very long. It's just not in his temperament, I'm afraid, to rail against the "malefactors of great wealth." But, if he does manage to squeak out a victory this fall, he will owe his success almost completely to the hard work of Occupy Wall Street activists.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sic Semper Tyrannis

Sadly, this hasn’t been a very good year for dictators around the world. Since January 2011, when protests broke out in Tunisia, no fewer than five of the world’s most notorious dictators have died, been killed, or have been put on trial:

January 14, 2011: Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia after weeks of violent protests erupt in that country.

February 11, 2011: Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak resigns after 18 days of protest against his rule. On April 13th, he is arrested and put on trial for murder.

October 20, 2011: Lybian dictator Moammar Gadhafi is humiliated, tortured, and killed by rebels.

November 23, 2011: Yemen dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh resigns from power after being injured in an explosion in his presidential compound.

December 19, 2011: Korea’s demented dictator, Kim Jung Il, dies of natural causes (we think, anyway).

Of course, there are plenty of other nasty, vicious, pathological dictators who remain at large (Putin in Russia and Bashar al-Assad, being the most notorious). And let’s not forget Hu Jintao, President of China and head of the Chinese Communist Party, who continues to authorize acts of oppression against dissidents in his own country and genocide against the people of Tibet. But, even given the staying power of these tyrants, the trend is not good for dictatorship as a political system.

It seems that the Arab Spring that erupted last year gave oppressed peoples around the world the idea that collective action could lead to the overthrow of even those regimes that had been around for decades. In our own country, Occupy Wall Street is serving a similar role, showing how ordinary folks can resist the equally tyrannical power of multinational corporations.

Winter is here now, but my prediction is that by spring we are going to see a renewal of collective action against autocratic political and economic systems in the United States and throughout the world. Citizens have only begun to get a taste of political empowerment and they’re certainly not going to give that up—especially not when they have so many examples of success to inspire them.

Right here in our own country, for example, two very positive movements have arisen that threaten to challenge the stranglehold that corporate interests have over our political process:

Americans Elect, which I wrote a previous post about, has begun an on-line process for nominating a candidate for president. This nomination process, which is completely open and transparent, has the potential to demonstrate that alternatives are possible to the two corporate-controlled parties that exist in this country.

Even more inspiring, the activists and citizens behind Occupy Wall Street have called for a Constitutional Convention to challenge, among other things, the corrupt notion of corporate citizenship and the grossly unprogressive tax policy that exists in this country.

Movements like these alone won’t end tyranny in the United States or around the world any time soon, but they are indicative of a significant political trend taking place all around the globe: human beings, individually and collectively, are beginning to realize that the only real solution to our seemingly overwhelming human problems is for the people themselves to begin to take control of their own destinies.

This populist, international revolt against tyranny in all its subtle forms won’t happen over night, but it will inevitably happen. The technological revolution, which makes it so easy for activists to communicate and coordinate with one another, has provided the tools for collective action. The greed and stupidity of the autocrats themselves—whether these are puppet dictators in third world countries or the avaricious CEOs of multinational corporations like General Electric or Bank of America—has provoked the rage that will fuel these movements.

In 2012 revolt will be inevitable. All that remains to be seen are the specific forms that this revolt will take. Whatever happens, 2012 promises to provide even more headaches—and rolling heads—for dictators, tyrants, and autocrats of all types than even 2011 did.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Guilty Pleasures, Universal Wisdom

Last night order was reestablished in the cosmos and the celestial choir was singing in praise of the genius of the human species. Last night the fifth magical season of Jersey Shore premiered on MTV.

It was a very long time coming—over six months, in fact. Far too long for me to go without what has become the ultimate guilty pleasure in my life.

Fortunately, our heroes and heroines of the Garden State managed to endure the trauma of having to spend an entire season in an utterly horrible place like Florence, Italy. How they were able to survive all those months without the benefits of proper American-style gyms, tanning salons, and guido hair stylists is anyone’s guess. But survive they did, and now Snooki and the gang are back where they belong—in the great utopia of southern New Jersey.

There was certainly quite a lot of drama in the fourth season of the show: Snooki hooked up with Mike (and Vinny?) and was witnessed in flagrante delicto by Mike’s best bro “The Unit” (How do they come up with theses names, anyway?). Naturally, Snooki wanted to keep all this dirt from her dim-witted Jersey boyfriend back home, Jionni, and the rest of her housemates. But Mike—drawn as ever to conflict—made it a point to share the gory details of their “smooching” to anyone who would listen (immense conflict ensued). Meanwhile, Mike got into a brawl with muscle-bound Ronnie, who himself continued to abuse his long-suffering former girlfriend, Samantha. Not wanting to be left out of the limelight, Deena embraced the “love that dare not mention its name” in an attempt to show that she was at least as much fun as her pal Snooki. While all this went on, Vinny and Paulie continued their long-standing “bromance,” but had much more difficulty hooking up with non-“grenades” than they did back at home.

The fifth season of the show certainly didn’t disappoint this Jersey Shore fanatic. Vinny cried, Jwoww philosophized, Ronnie showed off his muscles, and Mike—aka “The Situation”—continued to plot, scheme, and generally make himself despised by the rest of the cast. The guys meanwhile settled right back into their usual ritual of GTL (gyms, tanning, and laundry), had their hair cut in proper guido style, and immediately went cruising for willing Jersey girls in GTF (grenade free America).

The plot-twist in the season premiere had to do with Mike egging on The Unit to inform Jionni about Snooki’s infidelities overseas, while at the same time trying to convince Snooki that he was over his addiction to drama. Vinny meanwhile is feeling blue because he misses his chubby Italian momma, but fortunately has his best bro, Pauly, to look out for him. The depth of the relationship that these two have is indicated by the fact that Pauly is willing to forget about hooking up for an entire evening to minister emotionally to his friend. As he so aptly puts it, “Bros before hoes.” Of course, this doesn’t stop Pauly from acquiescing to Ryder’s carnal invitation, although, once again he views this in a moral framework: “Ryder's looking good tonight, but she already had sex with Vinny. And I'm not really cool with Vinny's sloppy seconds, so I don't really know what to do with her. But, I don't want to be rude.” Let’s just say that he quickly gets over his reticence about going where so many other men have gone before.

All in a day’s work!

What accounts for the popularity of Jersey Shore? It can’t just be the tackiness and vulgarity of the stars, because there are an infinate number of reality shows featuring even more perverse individuals (ever watch any of the Real Housewives shows?). I also don’t think that Americans are hooked on the show because, as some have suggested, it is a kind of morality play, where we all look forward to seeing vicious behavior ultimately punished. As anyone who has ever seen the show knows, bad behavior on Jersey Shore is never really punished. If it were, then Snooki would be dying of cirrhosis of the liver and The Situation would have been murdered by one of his housemates long ago.

No, I think that we watch the show because it actually reflects American values and ideals in a way that no other show ever has. As Bill Maher once put it, there are only three main problems with Americans: we’re lazy, selfish, and stupid. And nowhere else on television are these three qualities better exemplified than on Jersey Shore.

Here’s a little test to prove my point: imagine that you could have a life that involved working only a few hours per week in a job for which you could never be fired. The rest of your time would be spent tanning, working out, eating, drinking, and hooking up with (mostly) attractive people. You could behave anyway you want, break any cultural taboos you feel like, act on all your most base impulses if you desire, and no one would hold it against you (not for very long anyway). Best of all, you would be paid a ridiculous amount of money for all of this, so you could continue to live this way for the rest of your life, if you wanted to.

What American wouldn’t jump at an offer like this?

All this talk we keep hearing about family values and Christian ideals from right-wing politicians and pundits is just that—talk. When we look at the way Americans actually live, the values are virtually the same as you’d find on Jersey Shore. A little less extreme, perhaps, but basically the same. In those “red” states, where people keep talking about wanting to return to traditional morality, there is just as much promiscuity, whoring, drug use, alcoholism, adultery, abortion, and the like, as there is in the “blue” states. Actually, data shows that inhabitants of the red states in the Bible Belt partake of these immoral pleasures to an even greater degree than their so-called decadent counterparts on the coasts.

So much for decent Christian values!

So, I think that we watch Jersey Shore primarily because it offers a confirmation of our own American ethos: pursue pleasure as often as you can, get rich quickly, think only about yourself, and don’t ever worry about the consequences of your actions. We watch the show and we feel better about how vacuous and immoral our own lives are. As bad as we may be in terms of our own lives, at least we’re not a Snooki, Deena, or Mike (aka The Situation).

And that’s gotta count for something, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How Well Would You Do?

I'm always amazed when I hear people suggest that, if someone is living in poverty in this great nation of ours, the fault must be entirely his own. After all, this is supposed to be the land of freedom and opportunity, isn't it? And if someone has enough drive and ambition, he should be able to find some kind of job that can support a decent standard of living, right?

Comments like these serve to indicate just how indoctrinated Americans have become to conservative free-market propaganda. We've been hearing this sort of nonsense since the Reagan years: it wasn't true then, and it certainly isn't true now.

In a country with over 9% unemployment--with rates far worse for minorities and those without college degrees--it simply isn't that easy for people to find jobs at all. And when jobs are available, quite often the salaries that these positions pay barely enable a person to survive, let alone provide adequately for a family. Making matters even worse, at the same time real disposable income dropped 1.7%, food prices have risen 4.8%, health care costs rose 5.4%, and gas prices rose 4.4%.

To hit home on just how hard it is to survive these days on a working class salary, a 33 year old copyrighter named Jenny Nicholson came up with the concept for a computer game called Spent. The game lets you apply for various jobs at different rates of pay, and then shows how the kinds of ordinary expenses that everyone has create a situation in which it is virtually impossible to survive on the kinds of salaries that many Americans depend upon.

If you're one of those people who constantly complain about lazy riff-raff feeding off the public trough or if you're so well off that you never have to think about the price of things like gas or cereal, you might just want to try this program.

It may not turn you into a bleeding-heart liberal overnight, but it might just inspire you to begin questioning some of the "self-evident truths" about the working poor that you always took for granted.