2012-06-12 (Tuesday) § 5 Comments

I think maybe any attempt to prevent stupid people from having input in governance is an existential threat to democracy.  Everybody is supposed to have input whether they’re smart, stupid, good or evil.  That’s what I understand the fundamental doctrine of democracy to be, that all of us will be better off long-term if all of us get some say in governance.  As soon as we start trying to define some set of people out of the demos, we’ll have given up on that doctrine.  Barring some well-articulated intellectual stopwall, it’s a slippery slope from there to aristocracy, which after all means the doctrine that the “best” people should be in charge.

Special interests according to Assemblymember Susan Bonilla

2012-06-12 (Tuesday) § Leave a comment

I got a call back today in response to an email I sent to my California State Assemblymember, Susan Bonilla.  I was asking what she understood by the term “special interests”.  I hear a lot of vague references by California politicians to “special interests” as an assumed public enemy, and I wonder what parties are included in that category.  The nice man who called from Bonilla’s office said he understood “special interest” to refer to any group that lobbies legislators for a particular policy that will have a general impact on the state.  So if I were to get together with my neighbors to contact Bonilla and ask for help with a local issue, that wouldn’t be a special interest.  But a statewide taxpayers’ group asking for X or Y change in tax policy would be.

I very much appreciated getting a direct, clear answer from my representative’s office.

What’s a special interest?

2012-05-22 (Tuesday) § Leave a comment

In the politics of California, my state, I often hear people refer pejoratively to “special interests”.  Most often it’s definite: “the special interests”.  Who’s that?  I understand the phrase to mean any interests other than general interests, i.e. ones that don’t belong to the entire population.  Not everyone is a parent, so wouldn’t that include the interests of parents?  Homeowners?  People who earn a wage?

I may be misunderstanding a coded reference here.  The definite article makes me think so.  Maybe it’s an understood term for a specific set of parties that are easy political hate magnets, like labor unions and big businesses.

[edit] I sent a message to my state assembly member, Susan Bonilla, to find out how she interprets the term “the special interests”.

A civil discourse site?

2012-05-21 (Monday) § Leave a comment

Would you visit a website devoted to user discussion of controversial issues if it required (and enforced by moderation) that all posts be aimed at either 1) convincing another user of your point of view on something, starting from premises they already accept, or 2) arriving at a point of agreement or a common goal with another user who you generally disagree with? Let’s say all these conversations would be readable by anybody.

Here’s an idea for how it would work. There’ll be a form you fill out to start a post with the fields “Topic” and “Assertion” (multiple fields). In the Topic field you describe the issue you’re trying to arrive at agreements about. In the Assertion fields you detail some premises your view starts from that you think you can get most people to agree with. You can connect some assertions to others with arrows to show that you think one follows from another. Lots of (unlimited?) links are allowed in the chain so created, so if you wanted, you could detail a whole argument from the most abstract of premises to the most concrete of conclusions.

You create the post. Your topic shows up in a list. When people click on the topic, they can see the assertions displayed with all their connecting arrows like flowchart objects. They can add comments on any of the assertions to explain what would have to change about that assertion for them to buy it, or why they don’t think it follows from what you say it follows from.

Above every input form (comments, post creation) is a reminder that your purpose in writing must be to arrive at agreement with another user on some particular point, and any input that obviously doesn’t aim at that goal will be removed.  In other words, anybody who isn’t interested in finding common ground with people they disagree with or reconsidering their existing views will not be interested in this site.  But people who are pursuing those goals will be able to pursue them more clearly and with a wider variety of people through this site.

Luljeta Kuqi on her view of the world outside Albania during communism

2012-05-12 (Saturday) § Leave a comment

Here’s another interview snippet from my recent visit to Albania.  This is my former host mom, Luljeta Kuqi, talking about her understanding of the world outside Albania during the communist isolation of the country.  It’s in Albanian, but an English translation is below.

L: Because at that time the Voice of America was on the radio.  He [Enver Hoxha, Albanian dictator] got rid of the station.  He didn’t allow it.  My father – I remember when I was little – he turned on the radio and held it up to his ear like this, and told us “shhh”.
K: Only your father?
L: Only our father.  We didn’t know.  We minded our own business.
K: What impression did you have of – you as children – of the countries – of the world outside Albania at that time?  Or did you not have any –
L: We had been raised under the idea that outside of Albania everyone was an enemy.  They would kill us, they would kidnap us, they would come here, they would do this and that.  The enemy would come, he would go here and there.  So we felt hatred even earlier on, because we didn’t know anything.  Because that’s what Enver Hoxha taught us, that’s what he said.  Fascist Italy.  Fascist Italy.  We – the Italians, the Italians would come, they would kill us, they would kidnap us.  What would the Italians have wanted here, killing us, what for?
K: Did you think people were all poor outside of Albania?
L: Yes, that’s what they said, that they were worse off than us.  Because we didn’t know anything.  Whoever tried to cross the border, whoever wanted to cross the border, if he was caught he would be killed.  He [Hoxha] didn’t allow it, because he said “He’ll talk to others and tell them how it is out there.”  A very harsh regime, Kenji.  Fifty years.
K: Fifty years.
L: Fifty years, very harsh.  When Enver Hoxha died, everyone cried.
K: They cried sincerely?
L: They cried sincerely.  Everyone cried.  “What are we going to do?  Italy will come, they’ll kill us.  The Germans will come, the Greeks will come.  They’ll come, they’ll kill us,” because Enver told us –
K: You thought of him as a protector.
L: Yes, he was our commandant, our protector.  That’s how it was.

Albanian transcript

Vilma Qerfozi on hit songs at the end of Albanian communism

2012-05-12 (Saturday) § 5 Comments

I was in Albania recently and sat down to chat with my former Albanian language teacher, Vilma Qerfozi, and a current Peace Corps volunteer, Sergio Munda.  She recounted some of her memories from the end of the communist isolation of Albania in 1991.  Here’s a snippet of our conversation.

VQ: We had the skirts of Lambada, which we found at the used clothes market.  And everyone was crazy after Lambada.  And after twenty years we have another song which is as popular as Lambada is, Mosa.  [singing] “Mosa, mosa, assim você me mata.”  And I think this is amazing, that after twenty years there is another Portuguese – no, Brazilian song playing on.  But yeah, it was Lambada, everyone crazy.
SM: Lambada was the song of 1991.  What was the song of 1997?
VQ: I don’t remember any song from 1997.  Just the noise of the weapons.  And we were amazed how there is one song in the world which is the most beautiful.  And later on we learned that this is normal.  Outside, like every year, there are new hits.  Like, every summertime there are new hits that are popular, and each season has its popular song, like summer hits, fall hits, and so on.  And then I remember this, saying that “Ah, this is normal.”  You know?

Behavior plan update

2012-02-29 (Wednesday) § Leave a comment

About a month ago I came up with a plan to control how I spend my time at home.  The basic scheme I came up with, as I later learned from a Freakonomics podcast (thanks to Stephen and Becca for linking me to it), is called a “commitment device”.  A commitment device means you set up consequences for your future actions that your future self won’t be able to avoid.  It’s a way of dealing with the fact that different functions in your brain are driving your actions at different times, and those different functions sometimes have conflicting goals.

Freakonomics recommends against

Dubner of Freakonomics concluded that “self-imposed commitment devices are rather imperfect” because in two such cases he looked at, the subjects eventually triggered their self-imposed punishment procedures, and the costs to them were pretty serious.  In one case, a guy with a gambling addiction signed up for a list that would get him arrested if he set foot in a casino.  Eventually he did, and he was arrested.

The other case involved a guy named Adam who wanted to get rid of some habits he thought were unhealthy.  So he wrote a $750 check to Oprah, whom he dislikes intensely, and gave it to his friend to mail to her if he ever got “any credible evidence” that Adam had done any of the things he committed not to do.  This last resembles my system very closely: a monetary penalty to be spent in a way that the subject despises on a gut level, and the assessing of the penalty to be done by a trusted third party.  My Oprah is the Republican Party and my fine is $30.  Less painful a fine than Adam’s, but significant enough to be emotionally salient to the unconscious brain functions that want to derail me from my preplanned agenda.  This balance is key.  I don’t want a single infraction to cause serious life problems for me, but I do want it to sting, and I want repeated infractions to start causing serious life problems for me.

Unlike Adam, I haven’t had a fine assessed yet.  Today is agenda day #26.

Pressure valves

One key advantage of  my system over Adam’s is that the target behavior is defined in a way that allows pressure valves.  Adam had no outlet for the drives of the parts of his brain that he was trying to get under control.  He simply wasn’t allowed to do certain things that those parts of his brain really wanted him to do, and the slightest infraction incurred a penalty.

For me also, the slightest infraction incurs a penalty – but for me an infraction means not doing something.  The target behavior is to spend predetermined amounts of time focused on particular activities.  What my unconscious drives want me to do that interferes with the target behavior is things like browsing the web or sitting around thinking about nothing in particular.  I can still do those things.  I can even stop in the middle of a task to do them.  I just can’t credit the time so spent against my preplanned agenda items.

Sample agenda

It may make things clearer to give a sample of one of my daily agendas.  Here’s yesterday’s.

61 minutes: Math.
31 minutes: Music textbook exercises.
10 minutes: Scales.
Shut off computer and go to bed before 9:45pm.  Don’t turn computer back on.  No reading after 9:45pm.

Exactly what time I do these things doesn’t matter.  I just need to spend the full duration doing them before bedtime.  This allows flexibility for things like groceries, washing dishes, answering phone calls.  But it’s still specific enough to keep my eye on the clock.

The very writing of this blog entry is one of my agenda items for tonight.  I have to spend 90 minutes on it, or less if I finish it before then.  In other words, if I hit 90 minutes and I’m not done yet, I can call it a night.  But the clock is only running while I’m actively working on the entry.  Daydreaming and Facebook time are allowed but require the stopwatch to be paused.

The real motivator?

Recent introspection has led me to think maybe the money isn’t the biggest part of my motivation to keep my agendas.  The imagined outcome that I really recoil from when I glance at the clock and realize I’m going to have to register a fail if I don’t get started right away is not the paying of $30 to the GOP (may low voter turnout be ever their lot).  It’s the prospect of having to report the fail to my friend, who has agreed to referee the matter for me (and who is a loyal Republican).  In other words it’s shame.  For this reason, my scheme might not work so well for some people.  If the money doesn’t sting at the right moment, and if shame doesn’t drive you like it drives me, you should probably rig up some other kind of motivator.  Another key element, of which I bear within me a boundless source, is guilt.  I never find myself contemplating the option of failing my agenda but not telling my friend about it.  The guilt of that secret would torment me.  And what if he found out?  The shame!

Why go through all of this?

Unlike the guys discussed on Freakonomics, I’m not running this commitment device because I’m at risk of hurting others or destroying my own life.  Life is pretty stable and healthy for me right now.  But I’m not where I want to be yet.  My job is reliable and stress-free but unfulfilling.  I want to be spending most of my time doing something that I’m proud of and enjoy.  That means I need to put a lot of time into developing certain skills.  Throughout my whole life until recently, I’ve had serious trouble sticking to my plans for how to spend my free time.  So far (26 agendas to date), this particular commitment scheme has altered the frequency with which I stick to the plan from “seldom” to “always”.  That’s a tool I can turn to many important uses.  I want to develop some songs into a presentable form and write more of them, so I need to spend a lot of time getting good at the keyboard, recording and editing.  I want to understand economics, so I need to learn a lot of math.  I can now be confident that I’ll put the necessary time in, as long as I have it to spare after work.  Just put it on the agenda.

Or maybe I’ll run into new limitations.  Maybe as I crank up the amount of agenda-defined time (as I have been doing, slowly), I’ll find that the motivational pressure to crap out increases beyond the capacity of the existing pressure valves.  I hope not, but if so, I don’t think that will be a catastrophic outcome.  The GOP will get some money from me, and I’ll grimace with chagrin and make any needed adjustments to future agendas.

Now I need to figure out what I should be focusing on most.  For the next few days it’ll be music.  I really want to get some songs into presentable shape.