Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fidel Obama

It's amazing to me how much traction the patently ridiculous notion that Obama is going to be another Fidel Castro has in the Miami area. I've encountered numerous people - even well-educated ones - who buy into this ludicrousness, and the only reason why I can fathom it is that, to many Cuban voters, the most important aspect of any candidate is their relationship to Cuba. Obama's a Democrat, the party of Bay of Pigs fumbler JFK, so he's already essentially disqualified for that reason; add to that a comment like "redistributing wealth" and it's Viva la Revolucion. There is no relationship between Obama's history of centrism and Cuban-style communism, but to rile up the bitter old men who sip cafe con leches on Calle Ocho, Obama is being regularly compared to the man who is to Miami Cubans what Hitler is to the rest of the world.

This canard has been circulating for a while among people here, but it's appalling that a senator would make the same completely false comparison. However, this seems to be consistent with the GOP's strategy of drumming up irrational fear about Obama: not only is he an Anti-American, Muslim, and terrorist sympathizer - he is also a communist in disguise.

Ironic, too, that the GOP recently oversaw the biggest socialization of the banking sector in American history. McCain is just as much of a socialist as Obama on this huge count. Offhand comments about "redistributing wealth" aside, the GOP-led government over the last eight years has asserted its muscle into the lives of ordinary Americans in ways that would make Fidel Castro jealous: illegal incarceration at Guantanamo (Cuba!), wire-tapping of citizens, state-sanctioned torture, intimidation and purging at the polls... all of this has a lot more in common with Cuban-style communist totalitarianism than Obama's comments to Joe the Plumber. Senator Martinez and other Cuban-Americans should take a closer look at their own party before declaring Barack Obama the next Fidel Castro.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Re: Idiocracy

Moved from the comment section of Idiocracy.

We need to separate the idea of conservatism from the Republican party (in much the same way, though to a lesser degree, we need to separate the word progressive from the Democratic party, but that's another post). In other words, I don't think we have a conservative party. All we have are Republicans.

The Bush administration is not a conservative administration. Under Bush the national debt has soared and government size and spending has increased dramatically. The Bush Doctrine ratcheted up the level of interventionism in our foreign policy to unprecedented levels. States have lost a good amount of autonomy under an increasingly overbearing federal government. There has been an all out assault on individual liberties, especially privacy. Competition in a free market has given way to a pattern of cronyism, no-bid contracts, and bailouts for those favored firms who are too big to fail. Lastly, the rule of law has been consistently trashed, whether from ignoring democratically enacted laws with signing statements, spitting in the face of international laws and treaties, unprecedented secrecy, a politicized justice department, and the shielding of cronies and lackeys from any accountability. Take almost every idea of the conservative movement, and Bush has done the opposite.

The Bush administration defines the Republican party today, a party that is not liberal or conservative, but rather in a category of its own. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but the combination of an extremely secretive, anti-democratic form of governance, interventionist policies both domestically and abroad, and the open collaboration of corporate and public interests makes the administration almost proto-fascist. If there was ever a time for a genuine three party race, now would be that time.

Interestingly, the Republican primaries started to go in that direction. Each candidate ran against some aspect of the Bush administration, and each candidate embraced Reagan, not Bush, as the party standard-bearer. Reagan brought a lot of disparate factions together under one tent, but under the later Bush years that coalition started to fall apart. The Republican primaries this year were incredibly revealing, in that they showed these various forces battling each other for control of the party. You had Huckabee, representing the Christianist-wing of the party; Paul, the libertarian-wing; Romney, the corporate-wing; Thompson, the personality-wing; Tancredo, the xenophobic-wing; and Giuliani, the authoritarian-wing. (The fact that McCain is not easily categorized is telling).

Each of the candidates exaggerated some parts of the platform at the expense of others. Huckabee was an economic populist, Romney (despite all his efforts) was an elitist, and Mormon (read: not-quite-Christian). Giuliani was too socially-liberal, to metropolitan. Thompson was a joke. Ron Paul, the closest thing the party had to a small-government, fiscally-conservative, non-interventionist, pro-individual rights conservative, was universally dismissed.

In the end, with a fractured base, independents pushed McCain over the finish line. The fact that he was disliked by much of the base would be a short term problem. One of the defining characteristics of the Republican base is a team mentality. During the primary, the talk-radio, Fox-news crowd attacked McCain as not being sufficiently "conservative" enough for the base. No matter. It was only a matter of time before they came around to a his side, especially against the threat of an Obama or Clinton presidency. Again, you don't go against the team. (As an aside, I read on a right-wing blog a complaint from one the readers that too much of the internal disagreement within the party had been voiced to the public. In his mind, you only mention your doubts about a candidate in private, lest you hurt the team)

So that brings us to today. We have a collapsing economy, two collapsed wars, and a President who is giving Nixon's approval rating a run for his money. Congress has single digit approval ratings as well. McCain is clearly going to follow in Bush's policies in every meaningful way. The only thing Republicans have to run on is the team itself. Team McCain must win, team Obama must lose. Is it any wonder that McCain's only approach is to paint Obama as a traitorous Muslim sleeper-agent? Hence, the idiocracy.

So, are conservative principles discredited? Tough to say. We know that Bush's policies are thoroughly discredited. Going further back, I think we can agree that Reaganomics, trickle-down economics, is also thoroughly discredited.

But what about conservatism? I guess that depends on how you define it. Is deregulation all bad, or is the problem simply the mix of deregulation in some areas and tacit/explicit regulation in others? As Andrew Sullivan pointed out on Bill Maher's show a few weeks back, even tax policies such as the home mortgage interest deduction distort the market, encouraging owning a home rather than renting. What about moral hazard? Business' need the threat of failure in order for the market to function properly. My opinion is that we need regulation, but I don't think you can say with certainty that deregulation is entirely discredited based upon the economic crisis. This may be academic, though. Is Communism a discredited philosophy, or simply the way Stalin and Mao practiced it?
I don't think many people have the stomach to answer that question, and the same goes for deregulation.

In sum, the Republican party is no longer the party of Reagan. In the same way I would say the Democratic party is not the party of FDR. We have a political landscape in which the language and party cliches we use have not caught up to the reality of the political situation. Only an intense lack of self-reflection allows McCain to tout his party as the party of fiscal responsibility and individual freedom. Our Republican politicians live in an irony-free zone, unwilling or unable to see that the Republican boat has left the harbor, and conservatism was left on the dock.


Since many of us were born, the American political map - with blue states on the coasts and Great Lakes region and red states everywhere else - resembled many other maps showing different aspects of American culture and economy. It roughly correlates to the map of obesity rates, with red states being fatter than blue ones; it matches the prevalence of Wal-Marts in US communities; it matches a map of US education levels. Are Republicans really fatter, more prone to shop at Wal-mart, and less educated than their Democratic peers?

Increasingly, yes they are. In today's NYT David Brooks published a revealing article on the shifting culture of political conservativism. When the modern conservative movement started, it was intellectually radical, challenging the status quo academic thinking regarding taxation, the role of government, etc. Its leaders, while weary of the liberal, Ivy League elite, also valued education, achievement, and intellectual rigor. This was the conservativism of William Buckley: populist but sprinkled with erudite sesquepedalianism. Through the mid 1980s, THIS was the conservative moment, and its appeal was broad - in 1984, Reagan took every state but Minnesota. But soon after Reagan, the GOP began to undermine this loose coalition of urban conservative intellectuals and rural voters. Instead of taking on just the liberal academic elite, they began taking on educated, coastal people in general. "Elitism" was not just used to describe liberal NYU sociology professors: it was used to describe any Californian with a good education and relatively high salary. This bargain had a Faustian tone to it: as the shift occurred, most of the intellectual muscle of the United States fled the conservative movement. Now, all the states with the most money (save Texas) are Democratic; lawyers donate to the Dems at a rate of 4-to-1; doctors, 2-to-1; tech workers and executives, 5-to-1; even those in the financial industry, those stalwart Wall Street Journal readers, donate a lot more to the Dems (2-to-1).

What is happening here? I propose two explanations, the first political the second more philosophical. A big reason for this massive shift in allegiances, of course, came about in GOP strategy think tanks. It was observed - and rightly so, as Karl Rove has demonstrated - that if the mass of relatively uneducated, southern and western Evangelicals can be mobilized, they will overwhelm the coastal "elites" in the electoral college. The electoral map from 2004 is stunning: virtually the entire mid-section of the country is red. Although these were the regions affected most by Bush's Iraq War, were decimated most by trickle-down economics, were - in short - losing more from conservative policies than the coasts, these were precisely the people voting the bums back into power. Thomas Frank's great book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" is an intriguing meditation on this important question: why do so many people in red states vote against their own economic self-interest? The answer, of course, are the ever-raging culture wars and the GOP's shrewd manipulation of them to get out the vote while never actual making a dent in the actual issues value voters care about. Herein lies perhaps the biggest stroke of political genius of the last 20 years: divide the people along cultural lines, invent issues that stir up emotional responses, and let the idiots duke it out with the "coastal elites." Joe Six-pack will inevitably overpower the tweed-wearing snob.

This is the political reality of the shift. But there is also an underlying philosophical transformation going on here. Backing up a bit: I've always leaned Democratic my whole conscious life. Indeed, one's family is the greatest predictor of political bent and my family has no shortage of "libruls." However, even in high school and before, I always understood and respected the conservative position. I didn't necessarily agree with it, but it was a consistent, rigorous philosophy with its own logical contentions, approaches, and solutions. Of course, this form of conservativism - the one that makes sense - it still out there. I consider George Will and David Brooks, for example, to be smart, principled conservatives. I don't always agree, but I always read their columns. Pat Buchanan, despite occasional forays into extreme right-wing cant, generally fits into this category as well. But David Brooks doesn't set the political agenda in small towns in Ohio; George Will isn't a commentator on FOX News; Buchanan is far more active on public broadcasting than he is in the screaming head, vitriolic media so frequented by red America. Politics aside, as all of the aforementioned conservatives agree, Republican ideas are in a state of emergency. Real world facts have changed but conservatives keep pounding home the same points they've anchored themselves to for years: cut taxes, keep military spending high, half-assedly pursue "cultural" issues, distrust "Big Government" (what about "smart government"?), etc. ad nauseum. Watching Palin speak is a exercise in beating a dead horse - although the world has changed, the talking points remain the same. The Republican philosophy is starting to rot.

Frankly, I don't understand how anyone can look at the hard realities facing us today and believe that the modern Republican message addresses them at all. I understood back in 1998 - I'm at a loss now. Barring those individuals who will vote for whoever says they're pro-life or pro-gun or anti-gay, the facts are so clearly in the Left's favor that it's a miracle the GOP is still hanging on to 43% of the popular vote. The list is way too long to list here, but over the last eight years many sacred cows of Republican thinking have been completely discredited. The failed wars show the limits of American military power and the tragedy of Empire; the ongoing economic crisis shows the complete failure of deregulation to create a fair, balanced financial system; the $10+ trillion debt shows us the unsustainability of tax cuts to the rich and spending beyond our means. (Ironic that conservative presidents have rung up such obscene deficits in the last 25 years.) The list goes on.

I've come to a certain conclusion: as conservative principles have begun losing their power to express the world, those who know better - ie., the educated coastal "elites" - have fled. Despite the handful of smart conservative analysts, scholars, and writers keeping the old intellectual revolution alive, the primary voices of the movement now are Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, et al. THEY are the ones driving opinion in rural red state areas, not the aristocratic William Buckley. As conservative principles have lost their intellectual power, therefore, the GOP has resorted to the only reasonable strategy they can adopt to maintain power - hoodwink stupid people into voting against their own interests. The ideas can't stand up on their own, but if you get Hannity screaming about the liberals coming to take away your American values, then you might get some traction. The GOP today relies not on southerners, Joe Six-packs, or Christians - it relies on stupid people.

Update: The conservative Wick Allison's assessment of conservativism is right on the money.

Update II: And another recent Op-ed piece by Bob Herbert that amplifies the argument here.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Lucid Dreaming Experiments

For the past year I have been dabbling with lucid dreaming techniques. For those you that aren't aware, a lucid dream is where you realize that you are dreaming and by becoming awake within the dream you are able to manipulate the dream itself. Many of the techniques I began using can be found in the book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreams by Dr. Stephen Laberge. Laberge actually did his PhD research at Stanford proving the existence of lucid dreams and is considered to be one of the pioneers in the field.

I had decided to attempt to lucid dream in large part so that I might explore my own subconscious mind and also to tap into Jung's idea of the collective unconsciousness. I have had many dreams which some would consider to be precognitive, that I personally just consider weird and a bit interesting, but I tend to think we all have these dreams where we sometimes see the future, it's just that some of pay more attention to our dreams then others. Some of us also choose to not recall our dreams, which I will discuss in another post and how one can choose to remember their dreams if they would like to.

Using lucid dreams for spiritual purposes is not original. The Tibetans have been using something they call Tibetan Dream Yoga for at least a thousand years. I will perhaps talk about this at another time.

My most successful experiments of late have been with the aid of over the counter supplements. The main supplements I have been using, particularly galantamine, I first read about in Thomas Yutchak's book, Advanced Lucid Dreaming. Galantamine essentially works by helping to boost the levels of acetylcholine in the brain, which are at their highest point during REM activity. If you choose to use galantamine it is necessary that you wake up after roughly five or six hours sleep since most of your deep REM periods are towards the end of the night. I will speak more on the brain's neurotransmitters and how they effect sleep later if there is an interest.

For now, I will be posting a series of my supplement experiments below. If there is sufficient interest in these posts I will also post about some my actual dream results.

The lucid dream attempts that I made are referred to as Waking Induced Lucid Dreams or WILDs, since you are waking up and doing some mental exercises which allow the dreamer to move from waking consciousness directly into the dream state.

First Log, September 27, 2008:

The substances I used were 4mg of nicotine gum, a b-complex vitamin (which included 50 mg of choline, 110 mg b6, and various other b vitamins), and 1,500mg of L-Tryptophan.

I began the night by taking 1,500mg of L-Tryptophan for the purposes of causing REM-rebound. In the future I will be taking 5-HTP instead of the tryptophan (I'm just waiting for it to come in the mail).

I woke up after six hours of sleep and took the b-complex and began chewing the nicotine gum. I chose the gum since it absorbs faster than the patch.

I used the LudicdRemix track and my normal meditation afterwards. After falling asleep an hour after waking I did not have an LD, but I did have an extremely vivid journey/quest style dream. My dream recall was better than usual as well.

I think I failed to attain lucidity due to how groggy the L-Tryptophan made me feel, which made concentration more difficult.

Most of my logs will be done on the weekends, since that is when I can spend the most time sleeping. Please feel free to comment and leave any suggestions for supplements you would like to see me test out.

September 28th, 2008

Before bedtime I took 200mg of B-6, I wasn't sure if this was the right time to take it or not, but it did produce a very vivid dream at around 5:00 in the morning.

I awoke at 5:30 and proceeded to chew a piece of 4mg nicotine gum for half an hour. I had some trouble falling back to sleep, this is probably due to the nicotine increasing my heart rate.

I had two dreams after falling back to sleep, both nightmares and I almost never have nightmares. I was not able to wake up within the dream and become lucid though. The nightmares were extremely vivid and the nicotine seemed to increase my recall.

I will be trying out galantamine w/choline on Tuesday hopefully. After I attempt using it alone, I may try combining it with nicotine.

September 30, 2008

I took nothing the night before and woke up at 7:00. I cooked my wife breakfast and took 8mg of galantamine, 450mg of choline, and a b complex vitamin. I went back to bed at 9:00.

I had two WILDs successfully, which I was quite shocked by. When I have had WILDs without the supplements it was much harder, although this still required a decent amount of concentration. Also, I was a little surprised that the descriptions of feeling like your entire body was vibrating were quite accurate.

Unfortunately, on the first WILD I woke myself up since I heard a noise in my apartment and on the second WILD I had a false awakening and thought I was walking around my house for a while until I woke up.

I experienced no side effects.

October 4th, 2008

This morning I woke up at 5:30, having slept for five and half hours. I took 8mg of galantamine, 450mg of choline, 1mg of yohimbe, 300mg of l-theanine, and a b-complex vitamin. When I took the yohimbe, which was taken for the purpose of control and being able to recall waking memory while lucid, I took it about 20 minutes after taking the other supplements since it absorbs faster than the others supposedly.

I fell asleep at roughly 6:30 and I had another successful lucid dream. With the yohimbe I was able to remember more easily that I was dreaming during the long dream. The dream lasted for roughly an hour and a half, but I was lucid for probably half the time, and towards the end I lost most of my control and awareness.

Tomorrow I may attempt the l-glutamine, l-theanine, amino stack, but with the added additions of EEGC and yohimbe. Most people seem to have trouble consistently attaining lucidity with the amino blend, perhaps with the addition of EEGC and yohimbe this blend might work better.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A German View on America

An American friend recently asked me how Americans were currently perceived in my home country, Germany. He figured that the image of the “Amis”, which is what we like to call US citizens, was still affected by the alarming proportions of the war on Iraq. Now, one thing I am absolutely certain of is that Germans never directly made your citizens responsible for the war. We only criticized your government (which was - and is to this day - a legitimate thing to do).

Having lived in the United States for some time, I found it difficult to give my friend an untainted answer to his question. So I decided to initiate a small survey, asking friends and family back home about what they think of Americans today. The results were both funny and serious. Some answers were very much expected, others were quite surprising.

Here are some of the answers that most of them would give me, whether they have been to the United States or not. Number one: Americans are fat. (They didn’t say “big-boned”. They actually all said “fat”). Number two: Americans are stupid. (Not “uneducated” – “stupid”). And Number three: Americans are all armed to the teeth.
Are these answers surprising? Probably not. Clearly, all three opinions display another stereotype about the American people. But isn’t there some truth to every single one of them?

Like so many other things in the USA, education is really only good if you can afford it. Unfortunately, this leaves many young people behind when it comes to receiving proper education. So it’s not fair to say that it’s their fault to be “stupid”. However, what I have experienced in America so far is that people are extremely curious about other cultures. I am constantly asked what life in Germany is like. Even if some of these questions can be incredibly ridiculous (Do they have electricity in Germany?), it still shows that there is a natural curiosity. The only problem is: The average American has no access to relevant information. The local news channel prefer to cover stories on crime and rape rather than foreign affairs. In school, US History is often more important than World History.

A similar account can be made for the obesity of the American people. That Americans are way too – sorry – fat cannot be denied. But it is really not surprising. Just take into account that you’ll get a hamburger for 49 cents at your local McDonalds but pay $1.29 for an apple in the grocery store (Good luck finding an apple that actually tastes like an apple). At a time of economic despair like today, the lower and middle class have little choice but to eat cheap junk food rather than an expensive home cooked meal. No wonder that all of the 50 American states have obesity prevalence rates of more than 20 percent. That’s a lot of body fat.

Some Germans also pointed out that the USA is full of opposite extremes. So for every obese person out there you can probably find one super fit, athletic, tanned and oiled person out there. “There is no healthy balance,” says one friend. You can find the same double standard when it comes to sexuality and alcohol. No one talks about sex, every one has it. Teenage pregnancies are the result. You can’t buy alcohol under the age of 21. Teenage kids develop the hobby of binge drinking.

That Americans love their weapons is a well known fact throughout the world, and it is also the one thing we cannot help but laughing at. The idea that every person should have the right to defend themselves and their property and is therefore allowed to keep a gun in their house, is nothing but ridiculous. Oh wait – it is also pretty scary. Unfortunately, a student running amok is no longer an American phenomenon. At this point, Germany would like to thank you, America, for this new export item!

Now let us not be too harsh on the American people. In my survey, there were also a lot of good things being said about America. Most of those Germans, who have actually been to the USA before, said that Americans were always very friendly and helpful. Coming from a country where fellow citizens think you are crazy when you initiate a conversation with someone you don’t know, I would have to agree with my friends on their perception. Americans are probably the most polite, obliging and outgoing people I know. This attitude is often perceived as a form of superficiality, probably because Americans immediately call everyone they’ve just met their new “friend”. In Europe, it takes a little longer to earn that classification. Over here in the US, however, people just randomly start talking to you on the bus or in the streets and if you look lost, someone will immediately offer their help. In Germany, it’s every man for himself.

The current state of the American economy appears to bring up two notions in the mind of the German people. On the one hand, we are extremely worried about the extent of this downfall and how it will affect our own economy. Its dimensions can already be felt on a daily basis in Germany. The sad thing: our economy was only just recovering from the 90's aftermath of the German reunification. And now it's blown into pieces just because some people over here feel the need to live their lives beyond any reasonable scale. This leads us to the other notion: Schadenfreude. For years and years Americans bathed themselves in their blooming economy, not thinking further ahead than to next month’ credit card bill. Some Germans, especially those of a younger generation, fell that America's arrogance and recklessness is finally getting its payback.

Patriotism is a concept very much surreal to the German people – for obvious reasons. When we visit the USA, the first thing we notice are the flags in your front yards and on your cars. United they stand – for better or for worse. But it is this patriotism that we feel is often misused by those in power. “Americans are very easily manipulable,” says another friend of mine, referring to the fact that many don’t question what the government and media tell them. Germans are very much aware that the constant threat of evil many Americans fear is a result of Washington’s manic propaganda. Last but not least, we’re all pretty much staggered when we see an American’s obsession with religion. And we can’t help but wonder if it is actual belief – or pure show. That politics and religion go hand in hand is also very disturbing.

I have to admit that, in my survey, I mostly interviewed people my age. So I was thankful when one of my friends was able to get her grandmother, Inge, to offer her opinion. Inge is 80 and has experienced the Allied occupation in Berlin at the end of WWII. “I am deeply grateful to America,” says Inge. “During the occupation, West Berlin could only be supplied through the American airlift. I won’t ever speak ill of the American people.”

One thing I have to mention about everything that’s been said so far. Many of my and my friends’ opinions are based on stereotypes and they are oversimplified. There’s plenty to analyze and to elaborate on. We might laugh at your country a whole lot, but we’re also very fascinated by it. The truth is: Whether good or bad, we copy pretty much everything you guys do. We also follow your current affairs and politics with eager eyes. Germany is very excited about this young and dynamic presidential candidate of yours, hoping that America will make the right choice in November. In this spirit, there is nothing left to say but: God help America!