Ulysses: Nobody understands this book, but they’ll never admit it

I took a course on Joyce’s Ulysses in college. There were sections dozens of pages long that the professor never covered because he had no idea what Joyce was talking about. When some one asked a question, the professor would completely change the subject, and the student would nod sheepishly and say without enthusiasm that he now understood. Students never admitted their obvious confusion because they were scared of being the one kid in the class too dumb to grasp this allegedly genius work. The professor spent his lectures repeatedly summarizing the few straightforward passages and using Joyce’s crude innuendo as a segway to flirt with a redhead who always sat in the first row. Everybody got A’s in a prestigious course on their resumes.

I never saw the meetings at AIG where they discussed their positions insuring exotic debt packages, but I imagine they were very similar to my Ulysses class. No one in that room could predict exactly how a CDO-squared would react to adverse market conditions, because no one in that room had any fucking clue what a CDO-squared was. None of the executives were dumb enough to admit that, though. The AIG executives had all studied in the same academic setting, and learned that if superiors didn’t understand the material, they only needed to give the superiors the illusion of understanding it themselves. Eventually, it created an environment where no one understood what the company was doing, and no one could afford to admit it. And we saw how that turned out.

Published in: on October 30, 2009 at 10:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

The War on Drugs: Why in God’s name do we put up with it?

In middle school History, kids learn about Prohibition in the 20s and what an absolute failure it was. In the future, kids will learn how miserably drug prohibition failed. Unfortunately, we’re stuck in the present, and the War on Drugs rages on.

There are three criteria that determine whether a law is beneficial. The first criterion is whether the law achieves its stated purpose. Drug laws are intended to deter people from using drugs, at which they clearly fail. Drugs are ubiquitous in our society and everyone knows is. There are social events, such as Phish concerts, raves, and any party in Hollywood, where you will not fit in if you are not on drugs. Planetariums hold laser shows where they play Pink Floyd music. Burning Man is allowed to happen. There are profitable companies whose main product is glow sticks.

In the 1980’s, drug dealers engaged in urban guerilla warfare over lucrative drug markets. Today, drug violence is down, and the DEA has the gall to take credit, as if their vigilant enforcement scared the drug lords straight. Drug violence has declined because drug prices have plummeted. Drug prices have plummeted because so much gets into the country that there is no longer a shortage in supply. In the 80s, dealers would kill the competition and reap the profit of their customers and territory. That does not work today because every user has five dealers on speed dial, and the hitmen cannot kill them fast enough, so they give up and try to make it as rappers. The War on Drugs has reached a relative peace because we lost. Those brave insurgents in law enforcement refuse to surrender, though. It’s a bit admirable, but far more tragic.

The second criterion of a law is whether it has any harmful externalities. Consider that the War on Drugs has caused America to possess the world’s highest incarceration rate. That includes war-torn African nations with prison camps. That includes China, where it’s illegal to look at Tiananmen Square’s Wikipedia entry. That includes Singapore, where they beat citizens across the back with a bamboo cane for whistling in public. And then people wonder why so many inner-city youth grow up with a criminal mentality. When a large number of your role models and peers are labeled criminals by society, you’re going to experience an inclination to become a criminal.

On top of that, prohibiting drugs shifts one of the world’s largest industries into the black market. Columbia will never be stable when its richest, most influential citizens are drug kingpins. Warlords will always control Afghanistan when they are the sole purchaser of the only profitable crop that grows there. Just as prohibiting alcohol did, the War on Drugs creates a more organized and profitable class of criminals capable of greater mayhem. It’s only a matter of time before the next Kennedy family is spawned from this mess.

The last criterion of a law’s merit is whether the law persecutes a minority within the population. In their defense, the drug laws do not do this. Surveys show that over fifty percent of Americans have used drugs, so the drug laws actually persecute the majority of American citizens. Any law that punishes the lifestyle choices of most Americans does not reflect the will of the people. Most of us do not have a problem with other people using drugs. In fact, the last three presidents we elected all admitted to using illegal drugs. Still, because this majority is too spineless to stand up for its beliefs, it allows America to waste billions and imprison millions as it continues to wage the destructive and absolutely unwinnable War on Drugs.

A better way of dealing with drug abuse is in our sight. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. If you tie up and shoot heroin in the middle of the street there, all you get is a traffic ticket. Not only have they saved themselves money on enforcement and sent fewer citizens to prison, but they actually cause drug use to decline. By taking away penalties for drug users, they have been able to encourage more users to admit that they have a problem and voluntarily enter rehab. Use has not skyrocketed, because unlike the conservative pundits who insist that drug laws are the only buffer that prevent a nation overrun by addicts, the vast majority of people have some common sense. If crack was made legal tomorrow, most Americans would not go out and try crack. They know that crack is very harmful, and abstain from using it because they care about their bodies, not because the government tells them not to.

There is no rational evidence that the War on Drugs is succeeding or that it benefits our nation. People are afraid to stand up and say this because opponents will label them a drug addict or a sympathizer with drug addicts. This is insane. People who never drink can tell that Prohibition was a terrible policy that harmed our society. It is time to employ some common sense and end the travesty that is the War on Drugs.

Published in: on October 23, 2009 at 10:55 pm  Comments (1)  

At Least They Didn’t Give the Peace Prize to Bono

Published in: on October 15, 2009 at 5:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Would You Hate a Guy Who Cured Cancer? You probably would

Let’s say hypothetically that this guy works for years in his basement laboratory and eventually develops the cure for cancer. Let’s also say he is only motivated by money. He determines that the best way to maximize his proceeds is auction off the cure, selling it to the 5,000 highest bidders, and then destroying it afterwards. People would call this guy the antichrist. Some one who easily could have saved millions of lives but let all these people die because he wanted money for himself would be more hated than Hitler.

The ironic thing is that if this guy had sat on his couch all day drinking 40s and robbing stores to pay for his heroin addiction he would be a sympathetic figure. Instead, because he studied and worked his ass off, saving five-thousand lives in the process, people feel that they are entitled to the fruits of his labor and condemn him when he doesn’t relinquish them.

By any objective standard, the researcher in question would be one of the greatest men who ever lived. If a fireman saves five lives in his entire career, he is lauded as an incredible hero; this guy would have saved five-thousand. No NGO ever saved five-thousand lives, and the twenty most prolific social workers combined could not come close to his total. Critics of our inventor will say it’s not what you do in life that counts, but what your motivation is, or some other moral relativist horseshit. These same people will try to condone the murdering fascist dictator Stalin, saying that he was only trying to create a utopian communist society and got lost along the way. This argument allows people to feel better about their lack of competence. They tell themselves that even though they would never have the capability or drive to save thousands of lives like our inventor, they would help more people if they could, as if this somehow counts. These same people claim that they would cure world hunger if they had one wish, and then live their lives resenting of other people’s popularity and material possessions.

The other argument people will use to criticize our inventor is that his actions promote inequality. People who further this argument will try to use to perverted logic to show that it’s somehow better to go to a remote Inuit village and give each of the fifty members one cherry than to single out one member and give him a year’s supply of caribou meat. Equality is an impossible notion. Everyone can and should have equal rights or equal protection under the law, but people stretch this concept to cover things like achievement, possessions, and even happiness. They will try to argue that curing the 5,000 richest cancer patients will somehow make life worse for the millions who were not cured. If anything, it would probably give them far more hope to know that a cure for their disease was possible and inspire a more energized research process. Equality pimps, however, will make some argument that those who do not get the cure will have their self esteem hurt or something dumb like that.

Guess what: the more humans evolve, the more material inequality will exist. When we’re all crawling on four limbs, we all travel in the same manner. When some one invents a Corvette or a hoverboard, not everyone will get one. The only people who could possibly argue that this is a bad thing are those whose worldview is dominated by bitter jealousy. To recap, our hypothetical researcher develops a cure that will give the five-thousand people who can afford it the gift of heath and may provoke jealousy in those who cannot. Whether you consider his existence good for the human race depends on whether you place greater value on human health or human bitterness.

Published in: on October 6, 2009 at 3:30 am  Leave a Comment  

The Marshall Mathers LP: Too immature, even for me

As someone who has memorized Superbad in its entirety and who got ready to go out last night by drinking to old Cash Money videos, it’s very rare that something is too immature and distasteful for me. Unfortunately, it’s gotten to that point with most of Eminem’s catalogue. I would never dream of downplaying his talent or writing ability, but as I take baby steps towards adulthood, I find that I cannot listen to his music without cringing.

Today I say goodbye to The Marshall Mathers LP after one last listen. It’s a sentimental moment for me, and I’m fighting to hold back tears as I write this. The Marshall Mathers LP (MMLP) played a major role in my youth and each song brings back a flood of memories.

When it came out in 2000, I was twelve years old growing up in the suburbs of Delaware. My peers and I loved rap, as it was the most compelling and badass music of the era, but we couldn’t help but notice that most of our favorite rappers didn’t look like us. We could recite the lyrics of entire albums, but as rough as our recess football games could get, we didn’t quite relate to the tales of violent street life.

Eminem tapped perfectly into our prepubescent angst. “We lost to St. Andrews in lacrosse and now Mom wants me to take out the garbage?!” I’d turn “The Way I Am” up loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage, shadow box at the foot of my bed and feel a burst of righteous empowerment. “They can’t make me take out the garbage, and they can’t make me do my algebra homework either. It’s my life and I don’t give a fuck.”

And my goodness could the man put words together. His songs had strings of cadenced multi-syllable rhymes that made the ABAB schemes we diagramed in English Class seem hopelessly pedestrian. “Pigeon-holed into some poppy sensation that got me rotation at rock’n’roll stations.” Eminem combined the verbiage of Edgar Allen Poe with the emotional maturity of a potty-mouthed fourth grader, which is remarkable. Whether remarkably impressive or remarkably pathetic is in the eye of the beholder, but it is remarkable nonetheless.

MMLP is Eminem at his peak as both an incredible lyricist and an abnormal psychology case study. Because the album resonated so strongly with me, it brings a flood of memories when I listen to it. It makes me nostalgic, but it’s the same kind of nostalgia I get when I remember waking up out of a blackout hugging the toilet in my freshman year bathroom. It’s kind of funny but it’s painfully embarrassing at the same time. When I listen to MMLP, my thoughts aren’t “those were the days,” but more along the lines of “wow, we would actually spend entire lunch periods arguing about who had the largest penis,” and “yeah, I’m glad I’m not in junior high anymore.”

I’m not sure exactly which part of the album was the tipping point that made me decide I could not listen to it as a decent adult. Maybe it was the chorus to “Under the Influence:” “So you can suck my dick if you don’t like my shit, cuz I was high when I wrote this so suck my dick.” Maybe it was the deranged “Kim,” in which he describes the murder of his wife in vivid detail and channels the spirit of a sick killer. Maybe it was that he spends an entire verse of “Criminal” describing his disgust and hatred of gay people and then finds it necessary to include a skit with a graphic simulation of gay group sex. Maybe it’s that he acknowledges and disses the Insane Clown Posse. Maybe it’s the two appearances by Bizarre, a less talented and more perverted version of Eminem who describes raping both his sister and his cousin in the same verse. Maybe it’s Eminem’s claim that if Jennifer Lopez were his mother, he would still impregnate her, creating a new brother and uncle (I actually still think that one’s funny. As I said before, I’m taking baby steps toward adulthood.)

There is very little mature rap music, but MMLP falls into his own category of immaturity. It goes beyond the good-natured if unrealistic alpha-male posturing and violent boasting of most rap, and becomes pathetic and depressing. I’m going to miss listening to the album, and even as I cross my fingers for Drake’s debut, I admit that it’ll probably be a long time before I hear a rapper that talented. But at a certain point, you have to let go of your childhood, and as an adult I just can’t bring myself to listen to MMLP. At least until the next time I get fired or have a break up, when I really have a deep angst that others can’t understand.

Published in: on September 30, 2009 at 10:25 pm  Comments (1)  

This Week on House M.D. (and next week too)

Tune in Monday for an exhilarating new episode of House. A rare strain of flesh eating bacteria is terrorizing hospital patients and the experts have no idea what to do about it, except for one man. House has a theory on how to stop it, but it requires a dangerous procedure that could risk the patients’ lives. The people in charge say it’s too reckless and forbid House from doing it, but he doesn’t listen to rules. He’s a renegade and a curmudgeon, but he’s a damn good doctor. Tune in and see if House’s refusal to listen to the medical establishment will pay off or ruin his medical career.

Published in: on September 25, 2009 at 12:16 am  Leave a Comment  

In defense of Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech

One of the main reasons we love sports is that they’re a very thinly veiled metaphor for war. For the first six million years of human evolution, we adapted to survive in violent conditions. The relative peace and safety we now live in is a very recent development. Suddenly, we’re supposed to sit in a cubicle for fifty hours a week, shake hands and smile politely. We weren’t built for this, so it’s not surprising that so many people spend their week counting down the hours until Sunday, when they can scream viscerally as modern day warriors try to break their opponents’ spirit. Most people do not have an outlet for their aggression and competitive fire in their daily life, and sports provide a tremendous release.

Michael Jordan broke the spirits of his enemies as well as any man who ever lived. He made it his life’s work, and when he could still do it we loved him for it. The people who say that Jordan was idolized for his grace and athleticism miss the main component of his mystique. Carl Lewis also defied gravity. George Gervin also made beautiful poetry with a basketball in his hands. Michael Jordan is placed on a plane above all other athletes because of how brutally he vanquished his competition.

During his Hall of Fame speech, Jordan offered us a glimpse into the psyche of a ruthless competitor. Instead of describing the glory of winning championships and being loved by people around the world, Jordan’s speech consisted almost solely of anecdotes about adversaries he crushed. Its critics found it at best unpleasant, and at worst the ramblings of a bitter sociopath. It was akin to a war hero giving a speech where everyone expected him to lament of the losses of his peers and thank God it had ended, but instead described in vivid detail the people he killed as if he had enjoyed each act of violence. People would shield their children from such brutal words. They would keep their distance from the speaker out of fear and repulsion. They would harbor serious and justified doubts about his ability to function in a regular job in a peacetime society. But goddamn would they want him to fight on their side again if another war broke out.

A man with the resolve and mental toughness of Jordan is capable of being a great hero or a great villain. Jordan is a hero because he used his powers for good. Had he put his determination and killer instinct to work as an assassin or drug kingpin, there’s little doubt he would have excelled and murdered dozens. Fortunately for us, and underworld figures everywhere, he entered an arena where the only casualties were John Starks’s pride and Karl Malone’s championship aspirations.

Though not as vicious as Jordan, all people possess some degree of aggressiveness and violent tendencies. We know it’s wrong, but we cannot help but respect and admire these traits in others. (How many times have you watched Scarface or The Godfather?) While we can dream of a utopian world where these traits did not exist in people, and lament on how peaceful it would be, these traits are hard wired into our genetic code and here to stay. Michael Jordan’s legacy should be that he showed us how to channel these aggressive and violent tendencies into something constructive, using them to improve the world.

Published in: on September 23, 2009 at 3:22 am  Comments (4)  

Sad Elitists: The literary critics who trash Harry Potter

If you want to make sure people realize that you’re a pretentious pseudo-intellectual who had a miserable childhood, be sure to mention how much you dislike the Harry Potter books. Readers who consider their tastes sophisticated consistently dismiss the books as cute, but of little literary value, when the novels are almost guaranteed to become the most influential and important fiction since Shakespeare. On top of that, they’re damn good books (even if the wizardry aspects are kind of fruity).

Rowling is truly an amazing author. She describes characters and plot so precisely that adapting her novels into movies was a relatively easy process, even with millions of fans itching to tear them apart for not remaining true to the books. She has a tremendous wit, and draws humor from the plot rather than resorting to contrived or obvious jokes. Most significantly, even though her books are about children, she covers the most difficult issues in literature. She addresses weighty topics such as death, jealousy, racism and fascism with a well-defined moral compass. She does not become preachy and generalize her characters as one-dimensional saints and villains, however. She develops them to be faceted and complex, making the reader empathize with their struggles to do the right thing when it is not always clear what that right thing is.

Detractors of the books hate them because they are written simply, without long words, convoluted sentence structure or difficult metaphors, which in their minds make the novels somehow less compelling. Those with this outlook on literature only read to fill their empty space where most people have a soul with some detached superiority that comes from reading books that most of the population will never read or be able to understand. It’s not surprising they would hate a book that makes millions of people experience a joy they will never know. Even with their postgraduate degrees and encyclopedic knowledge of the postmodern canon, these elitists could never create fiction that changed the world as Rowling did and they will never forgive her for it.

Shakespeare’s plays stood the test of time because they broke down all barriers. They come across as very literary today because the language sounds weird to us, but they were actually written in a style that was very straightforward for its time. Everyone in a town, from the ruling elite and nobles to illiterate peasants, attended his plays and could relate to the story and characters.

Rowling’s books are the closest thing since Shakespeare to achieving this. The Harry Potter series has transcended every social barrier and, in an era where people allegedly do not read books, become beloved around the world by everyone except the self-proclaimed literary elite. If you think this reflects poorly on society, you should go cry and wipe your tears with the pages of one of the desperately subversive and nihilist novels hailed as a classic in the past two decades, as you tell yourself how much more cultured you are than everybody else.

Published in: on September 17, 2009 at 8:04 am  Comments (1)  

Peace and Justice Studies: Turn your diploma into Kleenex

Let's save the world with your money!

At my alma-mater you can major in Peace and Justice Studies. Apparently, white guys were jealous of Women’s Studies and African American Studies majors and needed their own way to waste $200,000. The first lesson of this major should teach that economic prosperity correlates almost perfectly with a nation’s levels of peace and justice throughout history. Students would then be forced to intern at oil companies. Instead, they take a bunch of courses that teach how evil America is for being more fortunate than other nations. This doesn’t set it apart at all from most liberal arts courses, but it distracts from the major’s far more nefarious purpose.

If a school tried to offer a major in curing disease, people would condemn it for being a fucking joke. If you actually wanted to cure disease, you would have to study biology and chemistry in undergrad and then do years of grad school and years of research after that before you could even pretend to help in the fight against disease. If anything, society and civilizations are far more complicated than the human anatomy. Some day we will cure cancer, but we will never stop people from killing and persecuting each other. The idea that people expect to achieve this in four years of vacuous watered down courses on white guilt is absurd enough that only a college freshman could believe it.

Peace and Justice Studies isn’t actually about peace or justice. There is no course on the injustices perpetrated by radical Islam or the way physical violence is glorified in urban American society. The major is entirely about getting rich people to give money to useless people who work at NGOs. The statistics about the dire poverty and suffering in which most of the world lives and catalogue of terrible things done throughout history by rich white people that Peace and Justice Studies classes teach are used to trigger feelings of guilt in these same rich white people. This guilt rarely stems from actual imperialism, but from memories of cheating on spouses, sucking up to pompous bosses, and backstabbing friends in high school to move up in the social food chain. Fortunately, the successful have long ago suppressed such feelings and are unable to locate their origin. This leaves them ripe for some one with social conscious (it says so on his business card) to solicit a donation for his do-good organization. The rich person’s guilt is erased, the do-gooder gets to head a prestigious organization without ever learning practical skills in college, and most cities in the world remain urban war zones ripe with disease. Everybody wins.

It’s the oldest scam in the book, and it never fails. Condemn something everybody does, in this case possessing aspirations of wealth and ancestors who acted brutally in the 1700’s, which triggers their guilty consciences. Then sell these same people a remedy for that guilt. The church called their remedy indulgences and made a killing off of it for centuries. The key is convincing people that they’re evil, and then society grants you moral authority, or in layman’s terms a license to print money. Since people are fairly evil as a general rule, the convincing isn’t difficult. On second thought, a degree in Peace and Justice Studies isn’t such a bad investment after all.

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 8:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Shameless Exploitation: Otherwise known as the NCAA

Give the man his money.

Take a step back and actually look at the situation in the NCAA. You have incredibly talented kids, many of them coming from poor backgrounds, generating millions of dollars of revenue and not getting a cent. During March Madness or Bowl Season, networks, sneaker companies, coaches, athletic directors, announcers and sponsors all get paid. The kids who actually play the games get nothing. They put in intense physical labor, compromise their health, and a bunch of rich white guys make money off it. And this is somehow right because it improves the purity of the game. What a load of shit.

The concept of amateurs being more pure exists only in sports and porn. Would it make any sense if actors had to spend a few years working pro bono on network shows that made huge profits before they could earn a salary? Would you want to eat at a restaurant where the chefs weren’t paid and you didn’t tip the wait staff? Would it somehow be more pure if you got an amateur tattoo artist to put your crew’s logo on the side of your neck?

People have no sympathy for college athletes because they are jealous of them. It’s hard to feel sorry for guys who bang the girls we fantasize about and are worshipped like rock stars. Some of them will go pro, and a select few will become exorbitantly wealthy, but the majority won’t, and memories of cutting the line at keg parties won’t pay for therapy for the chronic back problems left over from the playing days.

It’s great that amateur athletes love their sports enough to compete for free. Most teams at the collegiate level make no money, but for a select few it is a business. NCAA athletes have no say in the TV contracts that get negotiated or the state-of-the-art arenas and stadiums that are constructed. If money is made from their work though, how is it possibly right that they don’t get any of it. If college sports want to be amateur events, they should let the players’ classmates and parents attend for free and eliminate TV timeouts. The reality is that high-level NCAA football and basketball hasn’t been at all amateur for years, and the kids working the hardest are getting absolutely shafted.

Published in: on September 10, 2009 at 7:13 am  Comments (6)