≡ Menu
church pulpit

American society is becoming more open.

A Gallup poll of Americans’ moral stances reveals a citizenry that is becoming more open, and less dogmatic. The poll compares change on various moral issues in the last 14 years, and there are some striking differences in that time, in particular concerning attitudes toward sex and relationships.

The Numbers

First off, between 2001 and 2015, pre-marital sex and divorce are two things that have gone from roughly half of the country tolerating to solidly in the morally acceptable column, with more than two thirds now viewing them in a morally acceptable light. These appear to be issues that are no longer particularly controversial for the time being, and moving forward, if other trends hold. The ship has sailed, so to speak.

The moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relationships has obviously passed a tipping point since 2001, with the number indicating moral acceptance increasing from 40% to 63%. With movement so dramatic, and so fast, it is looking like a question that might not be worth asking 14 years from now.

Meanwhile, attitudes about polygamy have had the most dramatic shift in proportional terms, moving from 7% acceptance to 15% acceptance. Obviously, 15% represents a small minority of the populace, but it is interesting to note such dramatic change, and were this rate of change to continue, it is easy to imagine this issue becoming part of mainstream public debate in the not-too-distant future.

The poll itself perhaps exposes its own prudishness, though, since it does not ask about polyandry, and it also totally ignores polyamory or open relationships as questions. This is a pity, since questioning the public about polyamory in this context might have been interesting. One would expect more people to support polyamory than polygamy or polyandry, since it avoids the issue of the institution of marriage.

Another recent poll conducted by YouGov showed exactly that, and it also showed that the issue is, like many of these topics, an area where religion is possibly a key driver of disapproving attitudes. Overall, 56% of the U.S. public view polyamory as morally wrong, and one wonders if the issue is nearing a possible 50/50 inflection point. There is a big religious disparity here, which I’ll address later. In the YouGov survey, 80% of those who identify religion as “very important” indicated polyamory is morally wrong, while 58% of those who identify religion as “not at all important” said they view polyamory as morally acceptable.

If we are to think of polyamory as consensual non-monogamy, then the views on non-consensual non-monogamy (in other words, cheating), have not changed much, moving from 7% to 8% acceptance according to the Gallup poll. Still, that small change does not contradict the general trend toward openness.

Indeed, on every question asked, in the past 14 years, the U.S. population has shifted toward more openness in terms of what is considered morally acceptable. Since religion is a key driver of moral attitude and opinion, not only for polyamory, but for most of these issues, it’s interesting to look at religious trends to see how these numbers will continue to move.

What About Religion?

Earlier in 2015, Pew looked at religious affiliation, and the results show that among so-called Millenials, only 57% identify as Christian. This is significant since every U.S. generation in recent times has seen Christians representing more than 70% of the population. When you also consider that the survey asks about “affiliation”, you can imagine some number above the unaffiliated of people who still identify with their religions, but aren’t active practitioners (and indeed, within religious groups, people still choose their own morality, since certain sects reject homosexuality, for example, while others in the same faith accept it).

The movement away from organized religion among other age groups is less dramatic, but still pronounced. Almost one in four Generation X-ers, for example, now identify themselves as “unaffiliated”. It’s interesting to note that while the religiously unaffiliated in the entire population have increased markedly in numbers (16% to 22%) in just the seven years from 2007-2014, the number of atheists, while also growing, still lies in the single digits. This suggests that people are not necessarily abandoning spirituality, but are rather abandoning the religious institutions that claim to provide it.

Among the Millenials leaving organized religion, several reasons have been cited in research into what is driving people’s decision-making. Billy Hallowell at The Blaze neatly summarized these issues, based on research by Focus on the Family and the Barna Group. The issues were: hypocrisy, politics at the pulpit, isolationism, sex and openness as reasons for people’s search for their own spiritual experience away from Christian institutions.

Indeed, anecdotally, many of my atheist friends have cited hypocrisy as a major issue driving them way from religion initially. Sex and openness are clearly reflected in the above surveys. When you consider that society as a whole is relaxing its attitudes on sex and openness according to what the survey shows, then restrictive religious thought is also incompatible for others as well. In short, people really have no choice but to leave organized religions, if they get to a point where they feel that the dogma forces them to live contrary to their ideals.

All of these numbers can make your eyes glaze over, but my own opinion on the matter is that religion as an institution is simply less important than it once was as a contributor to solving the problems people have, and providing the answers they seek. The reason isn’t really about religion per se, but more about the fact that people have more options nowadays. And it’s here that I want to get a bit away from the “religion” bit, and talk about why it’s really the “institution” part that’s clashing with modern society.

What’s the Role of Institutions in the Future?

Religious institutions throughout human history have been instrumental in enabling society to cohere. They have served as a mechanism for policing human behavior (i.e., their dictations on morality), while at the same time providing a way to have shared “groupthink”. (Of course, often this cohesion is forced but however it happens, it has the same effect.)

If most all the people in a town or kingdom or country can agree on some basic principles, then they can perhaps more easily work together on progress in other areas to make society better, and at the same time the religious institution works as a cudgel to goad people into supporting conflict against people with other ideologies. It is therefore a useful tool for elite members of society to use again and again to achieve goals, whether they be profit or territorial expansion or something else.

Generally Speaking, in this day and age, society has less of a need for that homogenizing function of religious and other institutions, because we have another tool (the Internet) that links all of us together into a collective network, regardless of our beliefs. Within this system, two things are happening: first, people are being exposed to things beyond their town or kingdom or ideology, which has the effect of creating a more complex understanding of other societies and cultures; and second, we no longer need to rely on any one particular group or institution to help guide us through our problems, since we have more options.

It used to be that the wise man, religious leader or witch doctor was the go-to person for guidance. Over time, society added other similarly centralized non-sectarian counsellors and authority figures. In the new paradigm, with instant and worldwide communication, people are creating their own support groups and subcultures that anyone can join. This creates the same sense of community (or micro-community, focused on a narrow topic), and these collective communities are undermining the supposed authority of those who previously declared themselves to have the answers we sought. Further, people may join as many of these communities as they desire, and where there are cultural collisions, the individual can sort out for herself which pieces she values and which she doesn’t, thus creating her own philosophical “remix”, so to speak.

To put it another way, and link it to the first survey on morality mentioned: maybe people are recognizing that a pastor or counsellor isn’t the only person to ask about problems with relationships or the morality of sex. They still have those voices available to them, but now people have a multitude of other options: there are a variety of non-sectarian specialists on almost any topic relating to the struggles of the human condition, and indeed there are support groups and online communities for virtually any topic, from the trivial to the philosophically profound. The result is perhaps a more cacophonous public dialogue, but one more suited to handling specific needs, while at the same time allowing alternative thought to be heard.

In that context, it is a recognition that centralized institutions generally, and religious institutions specifically, are slowly losing their primacy at the center of human societal organization. Rather, they are becoming one voice among many, and as the plurality of voices increases, so too the influence of those formerly dominant institutions on society’s attitudes toward morality will decrease, with the inevitable result being a more permissive society.

0 comments
Mars

Mars. No longer a matter of if, but when.

At a time when The Martian finishes its successful box office run, and one of the hottest entrepreneurs in the world claims he created his space and aeronautics company SpaceX for the express purpose of fulfilling a childhood dream to see humans on Mars, a manned mission to the red planet is looking a lot less like a far-off pipe dream, and more and more like an inevitability.

The rhetoric from NASA, too, has been getting more overt as the days pass, with seemingly far-away dreams finally beginning to solidify into actionable plans that they would like to target for the 2030s. NASA continues to partner more and more with the burgeoning commercial space flight industry, including SpaceX and others, enabling a new paradigm where interested parties in government and the private sector can share expertise and technology with each other. Having more brains (and work cultures) involved will accelerate development, and begin to lower costs for all types of space missions.

Meanwhile, the Chinese aerospace sector, including China Manned Space Engineering, continue to take incremental steps toward manned space exploration, including low-earth orbit flights, and plans for the imminent launch for the first pieces of what will become the Chinese space station. Their planners envision a multi-step approach, from the space station, to the moon, and finally to Mars. China, too, has even allowed a private sector project to piggyback on its mission around the moon, together testing a method of possibly bringing material from the moon back to earth.

This tells us that unlike the moon and other missions of the USA and Soviet Union from the 1960s and 1970s, any future mission is likely to utilize ingenuity from a combination of governments and the private sector, and will quite likely involve multiple nations. The Russian Federal Space Agency and the European Space Agency have both drafted plans for manned Mars missions, while the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Indian Space Research Organisation have developed technology that is potentially useful for trips to Mars and elsewhere).

Exhilaration around this new era of space exploration in movies like The Martian reminds me of the exuberance on the topic before and during the space race of the 1960s, as conveyed in countless movies, pulp fiction and TV shows from the era. This episode of Disneyland from 1957 makes a compelling sales pitch (just after the 25 minute mark) about colonization of Mars, complete with “pressurized houses and cities”, all as part of a necessary effort to counteract “the serious problems of overpopulation and depletion of natural resources”. (The last thought may seem somewhat quaint now, since by 2020 the population of Earth will have almost tripled since 1950 and it on target to hover near the 4x multiplier 100 years later, in 2050.)

One thing we know for certain, though: Earth is only a temporary home. Even if Earth weren’t temporary itself, its habitability for us bipedal humanoids certainly is. Whether it’s those problems of overpopulation and resource depletion, as Disney warned in the 1950s, or something out of our control like an asteroid impact, runway geologic or climate change, dissolution of the Earth’s magnetic field, the eventual expansion of the sun…something will eventually make life here impossible for us. The only hope for the survival of the human race is to hedge our bets, and that means planting our asses somewhere else, so that if one population center is wiped out, another can survive.

Eventually survival has to mean even getting out of our own solar system, perhaps sending out some sort of automated mission that can do something that seems outlandish today like reconstruct humans upon arrival in another solar system from DNA (3D printed people, anyone?). Or, maybe a warp drive is somehow possible, in which case some people could traverse the massive distances of deep space within their lifetimes, enabling direct colonization of other Earth-like worlds far away.

Whatever amazing possibilities await in the future, for now, getting some people to Mars is an important first step we not only dream of taking, and need to take, but seem poised to realistically be able to take.

 

0 comments
income tax

In a 20-minute rant on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver skewered televangelists and the IRS, exposing how easy it is to set up a “religious” tax exempt organization. To illustrate the point, the show actually set up a tax-exempt religious organization of its own: Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.

When you wade into this subculture, even a little bit, the absurdity of the laws surrounding this issue become immediately apparent. Con artistry, for example, can be prosecuted under fraud statutes. How are televangelists, as a group, different from con artists? They are allowed – publicly, on TV – to solicit people’s money, while promising “miracles”, for which they can provide no evidence or assurance.  But, then, on the other side of it, how are televangelists not religious leaders? They preach to people, cloaking themselves in the vague language of Christianity and people seem to believe what they say, so it is difficult to see how they differ from any priest, imam or rabbi.

Whatever they are, they bring in a lot of money, and this is the crux of Oliver’s argument. Personally, I do not agree with the income tax, and believe it should be abolished. But, since the income tax is the system we have, we are left with a problem. The problem is this: the IRS ought to be tasked with collecting revenue, not sorting out philosophical debates.  The IRS isn’t really equipped to judge what you do to make your money, they are more equipped to judge how much tax you owe based on how much money you take in.

So in this respect, the IRS rules Last Week Tonight lampooned with Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption are sensible. People debate what constitutes a religion, or religious organization, and the answer is far from clear: is it really the place of the IRS to parse the difference between the Catholic Church, the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Church of Scientology, or Kenneth Copeland Ministries? That would effectively mean that the IRS decides what is and what isn’t a religion, and this is way outside the purview of a tax collector.

Free Inquiry Magazine estimated that in the United States, the total cost to society of tax exemption for religious organizations is more than 70 billion dollars per year. (Keep in mind that amount includes more than just income tax. It also includes other taxes like property taxes, to which churches are also exempt.) To put that in perspective, tax exemption for churches deprives the government of more than enough money to pay for the entire food stamp program which provides food to disadvantaged families. When you realize that defining a religious organization is nearly impossible, and that the amount of money lost is significant enough to make a real difference for society, there is a very obvious solution: tax all churches’ revenue, and stay away from judging how they run their businesses.

(That is, if you’re going to have the income tax to begin with. But perhaps that’s a topic for another day…)

0 comments
guillotine

Lester Leroy Bower was executed in Texas a few weeks ago after sitting on death row for more than thirty years. Think about that for a second…the state decided he ought to die, and then waited thirty years to do it. If people have concluded that someone’s actions merit a punishment of death, why the hell do they wait thirty years to carry out the sentence? Why not just take him outside the courthouse and put a bullet in his head and be done with it?

Well, there’s a very good reason for that absurd waiting period, and it tells you precisely why capital punishment should be outlawed, but first I want to touch on some of the arguments about the death penalty, and why I think all of them, save for one, are irrelevant.

First, let me say that I had never heard of Lester Leroy Bower before a few weeks ago, and I had never heard of Bob Tate, Ronald Mayes, Philip Good and Jerry Mac Brown, the men he was convicted of shooting in an airplane hangar near Dallas, Texas. Bower claimed he didn’t do it, but a jury concluded otherwise. Even after reading,  I only know surface details, so let me be clear that this argument should not be construed as a conclusion about that matter specifically. But his story got me thinking about the sheer absurdity of the death penalty as a punishment.

Secondly, let me say I am not opposed to the concept of killing someone who killed someone. (I am also not opposed to imprisoning them for some time.) In the abstract, the logic behind capital punishment can make sense. The problem is that when abstract concepts get translated into real life, they don’t always hold up the same way they do in your head.

People who argue in favor of the death penalty cite reasons like its power as a crime deterrent, its cost relative to imprisoning someone for life, that murderers deserve to die, that the Bible says “an eye for an eye”, and the fact that victims’ families “deserve closure”.  Let’s look at these one by one.

Crime deterrent. Does the death penalty deter crime? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Take the example of Hong Kong vs. Singapore. These two city-states have a similar economic profile. One of them (Singapore) has the death penalty and the other (Hong Kong) doesn’t. Yet, crime rates are similar. Studies in the United States comparing states with and without the death penalty have been similarly inconclusive, or when they have skewed to one side or the other, one could argue confirmation bias from those running the studies. The deterrent argument is therefore pretty weak; it seems to me that if you’re going to do something as extreme as kill someone, your reasons for doing so should be overwhelmingly supported by data. The fact is, when it comes to deterrence, it isn’t.

Cost. Prosecuting death penalty cases costs more than prosecuting cases where the maximum punishment is prison time, and the appeals process adds even more cost on top of that.  Of course, the death penalty would certainly cost less if we took the convict out behind the courthouse and put a bullet in his/her head, but it just doesn’t work that way. More to the point: it can’t work that way, for the same reason I will elaborate on below.

Murderers deserve to die, and the Bible says “an eye for an eye”. These arguments are subjective. Do murderers deserve to die? Maybe, maybe not…one could make an argument either way. I’d say it’s more likely that no one deserves anything, and that you just get what you get, and maybe that’s more of a philosophical discussion. As for the Bible, most people in the world are not Christians, so what the Bible says or doesn’t say is irrelevant to them. And even if the Bible were some sort of factual encyclopedia, rather than a collection of religious parables, it’s worth pointing out that “an eye for an eye” is not the same thing as “a life for a life”, and furthermore the Bible also says “thou shalt not kill”, and it says “love thy enemy”, so citing the Bible, even if you believe in it, is as slippery a debate technique as citing the deterrence studies above.

Victims’ families deserve closure. Murder victims’ families have been through hell, and I understand the sentiment that they ought to get something to offset that suffering. But let’s not mince words: “closure” here means “revenge”. You can kill the killer, or kill 100 killers, and nothing is going to bring back the person that was murdered. So what they really want is their pound of flesh, and it’s totally understandable. I might even want the same thing. But, I’d argue that capital punishment doesn’t really give them closure in the first place. They may convince themselves that it does, but it doesn’t, and it’s for the same reason that the whole thing rests on shaky ground.

What about arguments against the death penalty? People argue racial and socioeconomic bias in convictions, that its finality prevents redemption, that the death penalty is “inhumane”, and that some people convicted are innocent, among other less compelling pronouncements.

Racial and socioeconomic bias. This argument is strong, but it only supports the one reason I’m getting to. In the United States, for example, access to money vastly improves your access to defense attorneys, so poorer people are more likely to have a weaker defense, and are therefore more likely to be convicted of a crime. Often criminal cases are swayed by technicalities, or by the charisma of the lawyer, things that have no bearing on the truth of what happened. Racial bias is well documented: blacks in America, for example, are far more likely to be convicted of the same crimes as white people, owing to systemic bias, and so-called soft racism. But I argue that as important as these points are, they are actually only a part of the real reason to be opposed to the death penalty.

Finality prevents redemption. This is a compelling argument also, but only for a certain audience. Certainly, if the state kills someone, they give them no chance to atone for their (admittedly huge) mistakes, and live a good or productive life again. What I meant about the audience is that it seems to me there is a large proportion of the populace that isn’t terribly concerned with convicted criminals having a shot at redemption. I’m not saying I agree with that, I’m just saying public sentiment seems to reflect a lack of concern for the rights of criminals, and so though there may be some merit here, it isn’t really a compelling reason for or against.

The death penalty is inhumane. This argument actually makes me laugh out loud. Human beings are predators; it’s how we rose to the top of the food chain in the first place. To kill is certainly human, if not humane. To think otherwise is, in my opinion, to live in a fantasy world of your own creation. Anyone who studies history or current events will find a world littered with people killing other people: war, crime and neglect have run rampant throughout human civilization, and will certainly continue to do so. So the argument that people are somehow above killing other people is patently ridiculous.

Now we get back to Lester Leroy Brown, and why his execution took 30 years to fulfill. As I said, the reason is obvious, and it relates to the only argument about the death penalty that you need in order to know the practice should be abolished, and that is this: we never really know we have convicted the right person. That’s why this execution took so long, because Mr. Brown must be given an opportunity to appeal the verdict. Why is he given that opportunity?

He’s given that opportunity because we all know that the justice system (any justice system, in any country) is inherently flawed. It’s flawed, because in most cases, we simply don’t know what happened. This is why there are about a million TV shows about piecing together and prosecuting crimes: CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, Motive, The Fall, etc. and so on. The fact that these situations have to be pieced together is what means we can never be sure of anything. Of course, on a show like CSI, they always use “science” to find the smoking gun that “proves” they found the right person, but then the writers of the show include a scene where the killer confesses, so that they can sidestep the obvious issues with the fact that most of their conclusions are based on circumstantial evidence.

If you’re not opposed to the concept of killing killers, you’d have no problem pulling the trigger to kill Lester Leroy Brown if you knew that he killed four people over a stolen ultralight aircraft. What a trivial thing (a $4,000 aircraft) to murder people over. Think about all the anguish and hurt and pain it caused for the families of those four other men, one of whom was apparently killed just because of the unfortunate timing of entering the hangar at the wrong moment. So yeah, fuck Lester Leroy Brown. He got what was coming to him. Right?

But how do you feel about killing him when you know that another woman came forward in 1989 claiming that her then-boyfriend admitted to killing four men over a drug deal gone sour, and also that one of his friends described to her the sound of the shots reverberating inside a big tin building? How do you feel about pulling the trigger when you know that this new information was never really examined in a trial, and that the information used to convict Brown was largely circumstantial, that it boiled down to his lying about being at the hangar, and having pieces of an ultralight aircraft at his home, for which he could not produce a receipt, which led police to declare theft as his motive? Can you produce a receipt for everything in your home?

Again, I’m only using this case to illustrate. I am not arguing that Brown was innocent. What I am arguing is that it’s murky: we simply don’t know what happened.  We’ll never know. The district attorney doesn’t know. The defense lawyer doesn’t know. The jury doesn’t know.  Assuming there wasn’t some witness we don’t know about, no one, save for Brown himself, or the actual killer(s), if it was someone else, and the four men killed, really knew his relation (if any) to that crime.

People might have gotten annoyed that I sort of brushed off socioeconomic and racial bias in the justice system above, but in fact here’s where that argument comes back around as part of a larger whole.  That bias results in more innocent people getting convicted…and that is what the real problem is.  If we were certain that our justice system convicted guilty people 100% of the time, then there wouldn’t be this bias in the first place, and we could be sure to execute people, no matter their race or social status. But the justice system doesn’t tell us who’s guilty; it only tells us that 12 people were able to be convinced about who’s guilty, and that is a very different thing.

2014’s popular podcast Serial makes this whole argument clear. Here is a long, convoluted story about a guy who was convicted of murdering a young woman essentially because of of the testimony of one person, even though there was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime. Listen to the podcast all the way through, and ask yourself: did he do it? If you ask that as a binary question, you can probably lean one way or the other: “he did it”, or “he didn’t do it”. But then go further and ask yourself a follow-up question: “How sure am I of that conclusion?”  Express that certainty as a percentage from 0% to 100%. It so happens the subject of that story is sitting in prison, but what if the penalty in that case was death…could you hold a gun to his head and pull the trigger?

In the end, there is only one reason the death penalty should be abolished. Even though many of us might agree in the abstract that we should be able to kill a killer, the problem is, we almost never really know for sure that we have the actual killer.

0 comments
Late Night with David Letterman

David Letterman stepped down after 30+ years on television this week. Another fawning treatise lionizing him for his brilliance isn’t really necessary, but nevertheless I wanted to write about his impact in an abstract sense. As a kid growing up in the 1980s with a penchant for the weird and surreal, and who harbored ambition to go into broadcasting, Late Night with David Letterman was must-watch TV.

Countless epilogues have been written, lauding his impact on television, or decrying him for “making the world a meaner place“. Is he the most engaging television personality in history? No. Is he, as Cher famously referred to him, an “asshole”? Maybe, but nor is he a corrosive influence on society. What Late Night represented, to me anyway, was a unique and difficult to describe boundary-pushing niche. After he moved to CBS, and got older, he captained a more conventional ship, in a sense like his idol, Johnny Carson. But his downright bizarre morning show, and subsequent NBC incarnation of Late Night, brought the experimental and absurd to the straight-laced network television universe.

Watching Late Night with an eye for the craft of making a show was a revelation. The show was a sort of quantum particle tenuously flipping state between sarcasm, sincerity, irony and snark, and this was groundbreaking, because it hadn’t been clear there was a place amidst those competing concepts to occupy in the first place. The early 1980s was a world where television viewers got used to being served up neat little narrative packages, with pretty bows on top, and then here came a gift that not only was shabbily wrapped, but you weren’t even sure what it was, and it often didn’t make any sense.

A particularly famous recurring bit was the Top Ten List. In its later years, the bit was essentially a grouping of jokes about politics or pop culture, but when it started, the whole point of the Top Ten List was that it didn’t make any sense. “Top Ten Pharaohs or Tile Caulkings” is one example. After a while the writers apparently had become tired with the bit. Perhaps boredom led them to come up with “Top Ten Reasons To Continue The Top Ten Lists Just A Little Longer”, comprised of a bunch of non-sequiturs. He follows the list with “viewer mail”, another recurring bit, which on this night serves instead as a vehicle to mock comedy itself. As people would say now, this is an example of when the show gets “meta”, and Late Night ventured into this sort of territory with regularity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Ql_fn0lNdg4#t=92

There are notorious stories of Letterman’s perfectionist nature, about how he would blow through two or three dozen jokes in the afternoon before selecting the four or five for the purposefully hokey monologue at the top of the show, or review the show after taping and rip it apart with a self-critical eye. So, they worked very hard to create a monologue that was essentially subverting the idea of what a monologue was, and went further, mocking the entire talk show format, even as Late Night deftly stayed within its boundaries.

This is why the most brilliant moments of Late Night with David Letterman in the 1980s were when the show veered into intentionally oblique territory. To put it in Letterman’s words from an excellent recounting of jokes that didn’t make the show:

I love the idea that the audience doesn’t know for a while whether it’s a joke or not.

And then there were the interviews, which sometimes also seemed to to be jokes…or not. Some of them inhabited this space that one wasn’t sure was friendly, or combative, or mocking, or just pure snark. Consider the various appearances of Harvey Pekar, a curmudgeonly comic book artist from Cleveland:

You look at this and you think “what exactly is going on here?” Perusing the comments on YouTube is amusing, because people take different things from it. (Pekar’s a loose cannon, Letterman’s an asshole, Letterman’s a corporate shill, Letterman was trying to be nice, whatever.) It is clear that in this interview, Harvey Pekar is being himself: an antagonist to power, while Letterman plays the role of member of the establishment, but I think it’s more complex than that.

These sorts of guests (Andy Kaufman was another) were Letterman’s way of subverting the ass-kissing, movie-plugging format. He’s the guy in the suit, he’s the straight man, and Pekar gets the latitude to rant. He appears to be sincerely annoyed with Pekar, telling him this forum isn’t appropriate, and is dismissive of his work creating comics (while at the same time giving the regional artist national exposure).

The obvious question is: “who chooses the guests?” The answer, of course, was Letterman. It was his show, and he decided who was on it. Letterman knows what Pekar represents (a man who holds no regard for the status quo, and who will not abide by the rules of talk show decorum), and though Letterman seems to have little respect for him, you see that after the contentious exchange, and a commercial break, Pekar’s still there, and the two men shake hands as the end music plays.

It was seat-of-the-pants TV. Letterman didn’t mind just throwing stuff out there (or off a five story tower) to see what happens, and these experiments frequently failed. But it didn’t matter, because he seemed to revel in awkwardness and uncomfortable silences as much as he reveled in laughs (often his own). He endorsed the absurd with repeat guests like Kaufman and Pekar, but also Penn & Teller, Jake Johannsen, Emo Phillips, Super Dave Osborne, and many more. One could argue that Late Night helped create space for absurdists who followed into the 1990s with vehicles like Ren & Stimpy, Mr. Show, Adult Swim, Kids in the Hall, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and others. This is a very unique, and amusing, legacy to have, and it’s as difficult to pin down as Late Night was difficult to describe.

In 1986 a particular episode featuring Raquel Welch was rerun while they were on break. It was aired in its entirety, but dubbed – in English – with different voices (Dave and Raquel voiced by Peter Fernandez and Corrine Orr, from Speed Racer). No explanation was given. 250 people called NBC to complain about the “error”. That pretty much sums up what Late Night with David Letterman was.

0 comments
red and white wine

I’m a sort of bullshit connoisseur. There are few things that entertain me more than watching someone say essentially nothing, and yet convince a bunch of other people that they said something. This is the prime piece of entertainment value derived from following politics, for example, or other charlatans like palm readers who are able to blather on about a whole bunch of not very much, but make money doing it. Anyone who appreciates all the nuances of this artform will eventually find themselves reading about the wine industry, because that is where it’s taken to a whole other level.

The entire field of “wine tasting” is a colossal edifice of bullshit built on an intricate lattice of hilariously meaningless adjectives like “austere”, “flabby”, “refined” and “steely”.  If you fire up your trusty Bullshit-O-Meter, you’ll undoubtedly log a higher reading from the rhetorical flourish of your everyday wine taster, even when compared against the average politician’s campaign speech. The charlatans who create and reinforce the industry’s culture spin this complex web of code words to make it appear as if there’s some unique intelligence or knowledge needed to “judge” a wine.

The end effect of all this asshattery is to create a sort of pseudoelitism, and that necessarily makes this a club people desire to join. So legions of wannabe elitist inductees adopt the same idiotic linguistic nonsense to make it appear that they, too, have unique knowledge about a topic which is at its base entirely subjective. To put it bluntly, in order to be a club member, you must adopt a silly way of speaking about your personal opinions, and then you must then sneer at other people who don’t express themselves in those same silly ways.

It is so subjective, in fact, that nine times out of ten in blind tastings, the same judge doesn’t rate the same wine the same way twice. It becomes even more laughable when you look at the research of Frédéric Brochet (“Exhibit B” in this io9 article), which showed that out of 57 wine experts, not even one successfully distinguished a white wine from a white wine dyed with red food coloring. Think about that the next time someone scrunches their nose when you pop open a bottle of “hearty” red to accompany your plate of fish.

Despite all this, people still continue to believe, and this makes the wine industry a snake oil salesman’s dream. The best bit for the charlatans running this con: when people think a wine is more expensive, they will say they like it more, even when the wine has been chemically altered to objectively taste worse.

That is pure brilliance, and the marketer in me can’t help but be impressed.

Have a glass of Pinot Noir while you watch Vox neatly summarize some of these points in three and a half minutes:

 

0 comments
Pluto and Charon

There are those of us who have a tendency to root for the underdog, an affinity for that which is furthest away, most difficult to find. So it’s no surprise that growing up, Pluto was the planet that most fascinated me. Sure, it’s probably a relatively boring hunk of rock and ice, but Pluto’s sheer distance and unknowability created for me a sense of mystery that outweighed those reasonably pragmatic assumptions.

These days, of course, Pluto is mired in controversy. It is, we are told, no longer a “planet”. Pluto now officially belongs to a class called “dwarf planets”. (One does wonder how it is that a dwarf planet is not a planet, when the word “planet” is right there in its name, but let’s set aside linguistic semantics for the moment.)

The reasons why Pluto is no longer a planet are outlined fairly well here. On the other hand, planetary scientist Philip Metzger makes a pretty compelling case about why Pluto is a planet. Some even posit that if Pluto isn’t a planet, then neither are Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, since it could be argued that our own planet has more in common with Pluto than it does with Jupiter or Saturn. All this debate about planets perhaps necessitates us taking a longer look at what we call a “moon”, since there are objects out there orbiting planets that we call moons but which are tiny specks. Maybe the real conclusion of all this is that any system of classification is inherently flawed.

Whatever Pluto is, it’s a big thing that orbits our Sun, and it’s worth looking at from a scientific perspective. In a couple of months, NASA’s New Horizons probe will take by far the closest look we’ve ever had, sending us the first detailed pictures ever of Pluto.

In order to pull this off, the spacecraft had to travel three billion miles over a period of nine and a half years, and then upon arrival hit a target 60 by 90 miles in size, within a window of 100 seconds, so that it can be in position to run all of its tests. That’s some serious sharpshooting.

For me, this is going to be exciting to watch, fulfilling that childhood desire to unravel a few of the mysteries of this far away hunk of rock and ice. I’ve got my popcorn ready.

More details about how the mission will go down in this press briefing:

 

0 comments
apple watch

The much-hyped Apple Watch will be hitting the public marketplace in the next couple of months, and this has pundits virtually tripping over themselves to predict the product’s price, or even ask for certain price points.

Apple’s main business is gadgets. Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad…these are all gadgets. The gadget industry is based on a continual upgrade cycle. Cynics see this as a money grab (and it has its financial benefits), but it’s also the nature of the beast. Faster chips, updated software and new advances in sensors and storage make available features that weren’t possible before. For consumers, the trade-off is that we get a new version of a gadget that allows us to do things we couldn’t before.

Is a watch a gadget? The answer is yes, of course, but the “gadget-ness” of a watch is not its main selling point. Watches are about style, and as you move up the price point ladder, they become about showing off, as well. Kevin Michaluk explains:

When moving into the realm of luxury watch pricing, It’s not about what the watch does for the owner. It’s about what the watch means to the owner….There’s a nice feeling associated with wearing a quality watch that you’ve purchased for yourself. It’s a reward and badge of pride for working hard and smart, and a constant reminder to myself that time is precious and to always make the most of it.

So, watches may be gadgets, but particularly at higher price points, that’s not the main thing the buyer is getting out of it. The buyer is getting a showpiece that communicates to others their taste, their status, their pride. In fact, really expensive watches don’t even need to be good at telling time (or much else).

Is an iPhone a status symbol? To some degree, it is. But perhaps a more accurate way of comparing iPhones and watches is that an iPhone is about as much of a status symbol as an expensive watch is a gadget. The utility of the iPhone is a much bigger part of the sales equation than the style or status, whereas the style of a watch is a much bigger component of the sales calculus than the utility. If we were to break this down into arbitrary numbers, we might say that the style/utility split for a normal watch or phone is 90/10 (either way), and that perhaps Apple Watch more closely approaches a 50/50 split between gadget and status symbol.

This must have been a difficult problem for Apple’s design team (one which Jony Ive alluded to in the Watch’s design video), because in order to have their smart watch be a workable software platform, there needed to be uniformity and standards, but at the same time they’re not going to sell many of them if they all look the same, because style is a huge part of the watch-buying decision-making process. The design team settled with a variety of materials and bands to allow the device to sit at different price points.

All of this means Apple is treading into interesting, and perhaps uncharted, territory, as the pricing of Apple Watch walks this line between gadget and fashion item.

John Gruber offered this speculation:

I now think Edition models will start around $10,000 — and, if my hunch is right about bands and bracelets, the upper range could go to $20,000.

Let’s use these numbers for the sake of discussion. Imagine that the gold Edition Apple Watch goes for $10,000+. That puts it in competition with Rolex, Breitling, Patek Philippe and others. The difference is, those other watches are at least 90% about style, and being objects that last for years, whereas Apple Watch is more like 50% about utility.

In a few years, there will be a much more capable Apple Watch that can do twice as many things as the first model. In five years, the Apple Watch software may not even support the original model anymore, making this soon to be released $10,000+ object visibly outdated. Wear it on your wrist and it’ll tell people that you’re rich, but at the same time if it’s the old model, it’ll just as efficiently tell people that you’re behind the curve. People who are rich enough might not balk at buying a new $10,000+ gadget every year or two, but there’s a sizable upper end of the market for whom even that would be a bit much.

This is precisely where it gets interesting. How does Apple (or other manufacturers who inevitably enter this space) balance the desire for high-end luxury with the desire for the latest and greatest?

I can see a couple of possibilities.

Perhaps Apple has defined the internal dimensions of the casing as a sizing standard that future iterations of the Apple Watch can conform to.  In effect, Apple’s engineering team would always know that they have so many cubic millimeters of space, and that they need to fit the circuit board and any other necessary elements into that space.  If they did that, then perhaps you could bring your casing into the Apple Store, and for under $1,000 or so they effectively perform a transplant on your device, updating it to the latest version.

Another option is that they offer a trade-in program. In this scenario, you bring your old gold watch in, and it gives you a sizable discount over the then-current version. It seems to me this option is less palatable for Apple, because it’s questionable how much monetary value they could extract from outdated Apple Watches.

There may be plenty of other options being kicked around, and it’s possible that internally these questions aren’t even answered yet. This promises to be an interesting bit of tension around this product for us to follow, a problem that doesn’t exist in Apple’s other product lines. This is an issue that may well come into play in other product types over the next decade, as the lines between fashion and technology inevitably begin to blur.

0 comments
solar panels

The energy market has always been about finding or extracting raw materials (wood, coal, iron, uranium) and expending their energy by burning or processing them. Solar power follows a different pattern: the energy is already there, and we use technology to harness it. Up to relatively recently, solar power has always been more expensive than other more common energy sources, which therefore meant it sat at the fringes, not really affecting the status quo. But this is all changing.

Because solar is a technology, it will not follow the same sort of cost fluctuations that traditional energy sources like coal and oil do. In fact, what it means is that cost will continually drop as efficiency increases, much like the computer microprocessor market. We will be able to make solar panels more cheaply, while at the same time making them more efficient. This means the value proposition becomes better and better with solar.

In just the next few years, the cost of solar per kilowatt will fall into the same range as oil or coal, and within 5 years or so after that, it will drop even further. We can probably apply a kind of Moore’s Law to the solar panel development market, allowing us to predict this with some accuracy. All of which means, everything we know about the economics of energy markets is about to change along with it.

The final impact of cheap solar, when coupled with advances in battery technology (likely to come from graphene), is to the structure of power delivery. Availability of cheap solar panels and good batteries leads necessarily to more distributed power generation, with individual homeowners and landlords adding power generation capacity to their own property.

Prediction: between 2015 and 2025, the energy market will experience major disruptions as a result of cheap solar energy. First to be disrupted will be pricing, followed by business models.

0 comments
memory cards

Professor David Glanzman from UCLA thinks memories in the brain might not be stored at the synapse, as previously thought. Instead, he and his team believe information stored in the brain might be in the nuclei of neurons, meaning that somehow restoring damaged synapses could restore memories in people with Alzheimer’s.

Some of the conclusions are speculative at this point, but aside from assisting Alzheimer’s patients, any advance in our understanding of how the brain functions increases the possibility of someday replicating our consciousness virtually.

0 comments