A Rally to Restore Sanity (and the First Amendment)

on Nov 1, 2010

This past weekend, I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear), hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It was an incredible experience, and perhaps one monumental to the direction of this country as over 200,000 individuals attended to support a cause not [directly] related to politics. The crowd in attendence was diverse – I was expecting a fairly young bunch but was pleasantly surprised to see much more than the 18-35 age demographic. There were plenty of folks older than 35 and many had brought their children with them. While this astounding rally was not a political one, it did relate strongly to the foundations of our democratic government, particularly to free speech.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution ensures the freedom of press. This is important in ensuring transparency in government and industry affairs. In essence, this permits anyone to call out these institutions on any fishy matters. Unlike in countries such as China or North Korea, you can bad mouth the government and not end up being taken away by the police. Instead, such coversation is actually encouraged in the US and we have a well paid [and listened to] media that is assigned the role of doing this. The very purpose of the media is to inform the citizenry, covering organizations and institutions such as government and business.

Despite fitting this definition, our present media machine is barely useful and perhaps even dangerous. It is full of noise – instead of providing useful information that we Americans can act upon, it tells us all the things to be afraid of, often unnecessarily so. It tells us the extreme points of view and that the country is divided among issues. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, pun intended, where most Americans are simply busy people that want a better country for everyone and are willing to compromise on issues to foster progress.

Although a significant part of our mass media is broken, there is much hope for it. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not merely political satirists – they are also the most influential journalists of this generation. Yes, journalists. They have stepped up to do the job that the rest of broadcast media has blatantly failed at doing. The hundreds of thousands of rally attendees understand this on some level, many unconsciously. And plenty clearly know what this is all about, as one rally member’s sign cleverly stated, “I get my news from Comedy Central and my comedy from Fox News.” Equally interesting is that the mainstream media didn’t understand that the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/Fear) was in fact about them, as this article [and the laughable videos of CNN, NBC, and Fox embedded] articulates.

Aside from Stewart and Colbert, the internet itself has proved to be a fantastic tool in reinforcing the First Amendment. Blogs provide a world of information in a globally accessible domain. The thoughts I share in this very post will reach more people than ever possible just a few years ago.

Transparency is not only important for the American people, but also for politicians. I believe that most government officials truly want to stand up for their official constituents (as in people, not corporations) and make the country a better place for everyone. But there are plenty of politicians that use the lack of transparency to push their own agendas forward at the cost of the American people. Likewise, insidious corporations will push for their interests when their actions can’t be unveiled.  However, we’re at a transition point, and one that’s for the better. We are reversing the consolidation of media. We have better tools than ever before to allow for transparency. A better world for Americans will prevail so long as we let useful media restore our sanity and prevent overblown media from keeping the fear alive.

Communication and Manipulation

on Mar 22, 2010

Have you noticed how deceptive advertising is? Breakfast cereal companies make health claims on their products – very misleading. Website ads purport weight-loss miracles – complete scams. Trickery appears to be all over our communication mediums. It’s so commonplace that we might accept it as a normal part of society. We seem to tune it out often enough. But there’s just so much manipulation, bringing us closer to non-human animals and turning back the the clock on our evolutionary progress.

Think, in all of the animal kingdom, humans are the only species to have an incredibly extensive communication system. Language (a technology built into us that we often take for granted) in humans greatly surpasses that of any other creature. There’s a simple answer as to why no other creature engages in this: manipulation. If any information can be spread, then false information can be spread. In non-human animals, spreading false information is a good strategy as there is always competition with others. This is why non-human animals don’t evolve strong communication (except in the case of closely related individuals where we do see some level of communication). Humans are unique in their ability to suppress these conflicts of interest and because of this, they assured that information communicated wasn’t malicious information, at the time elite communication evolved. (For a full detailing our our language history, see Chapter 9, Voices from the past: The evolution of ‘language’, in Death from a Distance)

Back to contemporary society, we see that manipulation is everywhere. The ancient condition that allowed elite communication to sprout is terribly disrespected. Today, we’re constantly exposed to deceptive information. A big problem is that much our mental mechanisms are too trusting and leave us open to manipulation. Another is that companies can get away with misleading people, and they’ll do it because it’s in their interest to do so. In the ancient condition, there were enforcement mechanisms to prevent the dissemination of bad information. We don’t have a very good system in place for that now. We need better enforcement on misleading advertising. We, as a whole, would be living much better lives with the absence of manipulative information.

We’re blessed with the incredible technology of elite communication. If it isn’t used mindfully, it will go to waste. It will be ignored. It has already happened to some degree. And where it hasn’t, often lie the victims of manipulation.

The Misleading Meaning of ‘Enriched’ Flour

on Mar 20, 2010

In many food products you’ll see the term enriched flour. This applies to grains such as wheat, corn, and rice. You’ll also see the addition of reduced ironniacin, and other B vitamins. This is all very misleading but, ironically, a good indication that the food has been processed.

When a grain is processed, it loses quite a lot of its nutritional value. When food companies first did this with grains, people became very sick and developed diseases. It was quickly noticed that processed grain was nutritionally deficient. The government stepped in and stated that food companies were to add back the missing nutrients. Hence they were enriched. While the quick-to-occur diseases were halted, there was no determination on the long term effects of processed grains. Decades later, we have a society afflicted with widespread obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

The fact remains that in processing grains, the food is broken. Even returning specific nutrients to the food can’t account for all that was lost. The mechanics of food and health is a complicated thing on the level of nutrients. So next time you’re shopping for grains, avoid the enriched stuff. Go for the whole grain. It’ll make a mountain of difference in your health and wellbeing. If you don’t find whole grains palatable, slowly introduce it into your diet and you will adjust to it and even come to enjoy it.

Using Social Influence To Be More Green

on Mar 17, 2010

As the adjacent graph jokingly indicates, the whole “Going Green” thing has spiraled out to a trendy thing instead of a genuine concern for our environment. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The fact is, people are being more eco-conscious. And this in turn is affecting larger level organizations. All sorts of companies are now talking green. The government is also embracing green policies. Do each of these groups really believe in being environmentally friendly or are they catering to their interests? For individuals, there is the social influence factor. For companies, it’s the bottom line and something else to advertise. For government, it’s reelection. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that individuals are cutting down electricity, companies are limiting toxic chemicals, and governments are investing in renewable energy.

This is a fantastic example of aligning private interests with public interests. By doing this, we neither run into the problem of uncooperative players due to a lack of enforcement nor do we need to create a system of enforcement. I’m not sure how long this green trend will last, but it has greatly helped lay down important seeds. This also provides a lesson on how social forces can harness selfish interest for a common good.

The Way We Live Will Sabotage Health Care

on Feb 11, 2010

Whatever new healthcare changes we have are ultimately doomed. It’s not that the reform ideas are bad ones; they’re actually outstanding and much needed changes. It’s just that the American way of life is very incompatible with this system. We Americans are health destroying machines and there’s no way our healthcare system can pick up the slack. We put very little means into taking care of ourselves and that has very serious, painful, and expensive consequences. Imagine if every unhealthy person in the country, which is to say most of the population, was covered by insurance. There’d be no way to pay for all of their medical expenses.

Unless we start eating better and doing more physical activity, among other things, we’re heading for a total disaster. We could very well bankrupt the country in trying to pay off health bills or fees for insurance. So take care of yourself. In doing so, you build your own “insurance” – one of your own wellbeing. I know it’s not easy as it does have its own costs, including time. But it’s one we’re better off paying now than the huge costs we’d incur in the future instead. We also need to approach our food system as we’re doing our health system, as food writer Michael Pollan has stated. With this, we will make eating healthier easily attainable goal.

Absurdity in a Soda Tax

on Jan 21, 2010

There’s talk in NY to instate a tax on soda in order to combat obesity. I believe these efforts are commendable because they could realistically reduce soda consumption. But I think the idea is absolutely absurd. We already pay a tax on soda: one that lowers its cost in the first place. Our tax dollars subsidize the production of corn and this greatly deflates the cost of producing soda. The cost of soda is artificially low because of this.

Applying a tax ignores this root of the problem and is instead a superficial fix. We would be much better off if the true price of soda was realistically reflected on the market. This would likely produce a stronger impact than a soda tax. Approaching the root of the problem would be extremely difficult though primarily because industries have a stranglehold on our government and the industries would fight hard to protect their interests. Still, if one part of government has the guts to consider a soda tax, there is hope that it can stand up for its people and not for the industries.

What do you think of the idea of a soda tax?


on Jan 14, 2010

When you’re sick, a fever is actually good for you. This adaptive mechanism works by increasing the body temperature to a level that’s inhospitable to whatever pathogen is making you sick. Oddly enough, many over-the-counter medicines, as such Tylenol, are fever-reducers.  While the medicine makes one feel better, it actually extends the length of illness. The existence of such medicine gives the false impression that a fever is a bad thing. Yes, the presence of a fever does mean that one may be ill, but it also indicates that the body is naturally responding to the illness in a positive way.

However, we still have these medicines on the market. They are potentially misleading because they offer relief from the symptoms of illness (which they do) but they do little, or may even work against, real recovery. Unfortunately, for the public, it isn’t in the interests of drug companies to advertise the true nature of their product. Perhaps the government, which is supposed to represent the interests of the population, should be involved in such matters.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these drugs should be banned or taken off the market. However, I do believe that anyone that considers these products be aware of their true consequences, negative and positive, to make a realistic decision. Some people may be willing to pay the cost of extended illness if they really want their illness symptoms out of the way for some important moment. That’s their decision to make and it should be an informed one rather that a misled one. Recent medical advice is consistent with the science as it states to “let the fever run its course.”  Perhaps there is hope in attaining greater transparency on drugs.

What are your thoughts on these over-the-counter drugs and do you use them?

Democratic Government?

on Jan 13, 2010

(democratic in the sense of the principle, as opposed to the political party)

The purpose of a democratic government, such as that of the United States, is to represent the interests of the citizens – the population at large. Just as each individual specializes in some field be it engineering or plumbing, politicians [supposedly] specialize in standing for the interests of the people they are the proxy for. This government is also [supposedly] funded by the people through tax dollars.

Yet the government doesn’t always have its heart in our interests. They instead often hold up the interests of industries: like the corn industry or the pharmaceutical industry. This occurs because these industry aligns its interests with those of politicians. Industries provide funding to politicians. Also, lobbyists for industries fill political positions and vice versa, going back and forth. Clearly we have conflict of interest issues and the interests of the American people are disregarded.

This isn’t the fault of any single entity. Each actor must do what is best to survive. The ones that don’t get replaced by the ones that support this improper system. The system requires overhaul and it appears that some of the current political powers are making progress on this end.

I’ll post more regarding this topic in the future.

How else does the government not live up to the ideals of democracy?