Our society fears death. And so we build an entire web of serious boundaries around it, talismans to protect our psyches – the solemnity of religion, the highly ritualized cultures of hospitals and the military, the hiding away of homes for the elderly. Even the complete lack of thought that most people give to wondering just how that hamburger or lamb chop ended up on their plate.

It is easy to see why this is so. Most of us deeply fear the cessation of our own life. We know it will happen, but that inevitability creates an existential contradiction: To dwell on our own death too closely – to acknowledge that this life we are experiencing is all temporary – might drain the meaning from our lives. And so we fortify ourselves with a world of carefully constructed symbols to guard against such thoughts.

Which is what is so wonderful about Halloween. It is the one time of year when we get to laugh in the face of death. We dress up in silly costumes, pretend we are visitors from beyond the grave, decorate our houses with toy skeletons and teach our children how to carve pumpkins into grinning demons from hell. In short, we have fun.

I love wandering around New York City on Halloween night. It is the one night of the year when strangers smile at each other, all enjoying the same shared joke. Normally serious adults wander around the streets in outlandishly ghoulish outfits, and by unspoken agreement all cares are put on the shelf for one magical evening.

And in a way this is logical. The only way to truly laugh at death, to be able to summon an easy and untroubled laughter in the face of death, is to not fear it. And so on All Hallows Eve we instinctively go back to that one time of our lives when death had no real meaning.

For just this one night of the year, we each return to our childhood. For childhood is the only time of our lives when we know what it feels like to be immortal.

Ask not…

It’s been forty seven years since John F. Kennedy said, in his inaugural address: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” In that time so much has changed in this country, but at our best I think we’ve retained a core belief that hard serious work and a spirit of pulling together can make the world a better place for all.

In the last eight years this core belief has been buried. Our government has asked nothing from us other than to consume. Such disasters as the attack on the World Trade Center, the devastation wrought by Katrina, and other tragedies around the world such as the horrific tsunami that hit Thailand on December 26 2004 were followed not by a call from our government to rise to the occasion, to jump in and contribute our time and efforts, but rather a strange sort of spiritual void. If we were told anything, it was to shop more.

I think that this is relevant as we examine the two presidential campaigns, and how the populace has responded to them. McCain’s message is oddly dispiriting. When not engaged in oddball lunacy like trying to tie Obama to the Weather Underground, his focus is almost entirely on faulting Obama for the phrase “Spread the wealth”. And that’s where McCain’s strategy misses the mood of the country.

We’ve all just gone through a strange period of time where the encouragement of unbridled greed, a government policy that smiled upon go-for-broke lust for wealth at all costs, has led – literally – to the bankrupting of our entire system of capital flow. And in the midst of this mess McCain is building his message around the anti-tax symbol of “Joe the Plumber”.

But what does that symbol really represent? Rather than reinvesting our wealth in new Joe the Plumbers, citizens trying to build up their small businesses and contribute to our GNP and national competitiveness, McCain’s example seems to encourage an “I’ve got mine Jack” message of everyone for themselves. The image of America he’s projecting seems to be a pack of jackals fighting over the last scraps of food.

Obama’s message, on the other hand, seems to be that of a kind of corporate CEO who wants to reinvest in order to build up the corporate wealth. Encourage new businesses, give tax breaks to the small entrepreneurs just starting out, use the revenue base to help develop new economic centers of growth. And he points out that this kind of plan is only effective if it’s long term. We need to invest in education – and also adequate health care for those kids we’re educating – because not to do so is tantamount to eating your seed corn.

It’s the message that any sensible leader conveys – and that Kennedy phrased so eloquently in 1961. Fundamentally people don’t want to be jackals. It’s a sickly, ugly feeling to realize that for the last eight years your government has been encouraging you to trade away your humanity, your core sense of decency and interconnectedness with your countrymen, for a temporary illusion of fiscal security. More calls to naked greed and selfishness are the last messages that America is in the mood to hear right now.

While McCain’s message fails to connect, Obama’s message succeeds because it is sensible, and fundamentally it fits the American ethos. Collectively we direct our tax money – and our time in volunteering for public service – not to create some sort of blind senseless socialism, but as a kind of cooperative capitalism in which we increase our pool of productive citizens, and the collective well-being of those productive citizens. This is what America does best, and it’s about time we got back to it by putting in the real work – the hard work – that we know we are capable of.

Circular causality

My friend Jon and I were talking over dinner this evening about the theme in Science Fiction stories of “circular causailty” triggered by time travel. In its most common form, this theme shows up as an invention that exists in the future and is brought back into the past by a time traveler, thereby causing the future invention to exist.

Nowadays most people are probably familiar with this concept from James Cameron’s “Terminator” series of films (and more recently TV serial). In the second film of the series, we find that the computer chip which causes machines to be sentient was “invented” by the scientist Miles Dyson (played by Joe Morton) who had actually lifted all the ideas from a computer chip that had traveled back from the future.

Long before Cameron was throwing these concepts around, Robert A Heinlein wrote “The Door Into Summer”, originally published in 1956, a novel in which an inventor travels thirty years into the future through suspended animation, discovers that ideas he had been vaguely thinking about are now ubiquitous inventions, and then sets about time-traveling back to the past to recreate those inventions, in order to make sure the future turns out right.

There are other stories with this general theme, but I think those two may be the most iconic. In my opinion this entire concept breaks an important implied contract with the reader. Allow me to explain.

Sci Fi generally starts off with some non-real premise – time travel, parallel universes, an encounter between two intelligent species, an unexpected mutation. A world is then rendered that is quite consistent within the ground rules of the initial premise. This is why Sci Fi can be so useful as political or social allegory – it removes us to a “safe” alternate place to allow frank discussions of technological hubris, prejudice, xenophobia, overpopulatin, and other issues that may be more easily assayed with the dispassion that comes from distance.

What disturbs me about the concept of circular causality is that it does something else entirely: It destroys the distinction between “human mind” and “the world outside the human mind”. Where do these inventions come from, if not from human minds? They are, after all inventions. The authors are clearly not suggesting some sort of deity at work. Rather, the inventions seem to spring full blown from the Æther, a kind of heavy handed Deus ex Machina imposed by the author for plot convenience. By presenting us with a logical impossibility, the author gives us no self-consistent premise from which to push off.

When it resorts to this kind of transparent intellectual fakery, Sci Fi runs the risk of losing its immense allegorical power. When an author posits an invention that invents itself, he leaves us an allegory that uninvents itself.

When in Rome

Today somebody mentioned Rome, and it brought back memories of my very first visit to that enchanted city. What struck me more than anything was the contrast between the bustle of the place – people darting around like crazy in their tiny little cars and vespas, and the timeless majesty of the architecture – all of those magnificent Roman palacios lining the Piazza Navona like a row of houses for the Gods.

As soon as you find yourself in the middle of such a scene, you realize exactly what Fran Lebowitz meant when she said that “Rome is a very loony city in every respect. One needs but spend an hour or two there to realize that Fellini makes documentaries.”

Case in point: The very first time I ever saw Rome, it was from the car of my friend Flavia’s boyfriend. Flavia lived in Perugia, about 83 miles away (or I should say, since we’re talking about Rome, about 134 kilometers away). Which means it took us a little less than an hour to get there, driving at a speed which is apparently considered normal in Italy. And we hardly seemed to slow down when we entered the city.

At one point, as we were racing down the strada, Flavia suddenly shouted to her boyfriend “stop, stop the car!” (they were all nice enough to speak in English when I was around, which was very sweet of them – in my experience, Italians are quite lovely and thoughtful people). He jammed on the brakes and the car screeched to a dead stop, right there on the street.

Flavia jumped out of the car, ran to a nearby parked automobile, and proceeded to pull the hubcap off one of its wheels. She tossed the hubcap into the back seat of our car, jumped back in, and we continued on our way.

I was speechless for a moment, trying to process what I had just apparently witnessed. Then, summoning up the courage to speak, and worried that in my cultural ignorance I was missing something essential, I asked her why she had just stolen the hubcap from that person’s car.

Flavia’s answer was, I guess for Rome, perfectly logical: “Because yesterday somebody stole the hubcap from my car.”


I raised a fortress dark and tall
Of thick and solid stone
And hid myself behind the wall
I’d built to be alone

One day a bird came into view
Most delicate of wing
Between the fortress stones she flew
And she began to sing

      Although she sang so bright and clear
      And sweetly all the day
      I turned away and would not hear
      For song birds fly away

Her song was pure and light as air
But I was like the stone
Cold, unmoving in my lair
For other birds have flown

Yet as the seasons drifted by
The patient song bird stayed
Her singing seemed to sanctify
The solitude I’d made

      Although she sang so bright and clear
      And sweetly all the day
      I turned away and would not hear
      For song birds fly away

Until one day I understood
Her song of pure delight
My fortress disappeared for good
Transfigured into light

And now at last I’ve come to see
That I am not alone
She sings to me and I am free
My world no longer stone

      And still she sings so bright and clear
      And sweetly all the day
      I turn to her, and hold her near
      That we may fly away

L’esprit d’escalier

The french have a wonderful phrase “l’esprit d’escalier” – literally, “the spirit of the staircase” – which describes that feeling of thinking of just the right way to respond, after it is already far too late. I’m sure you’ve been there: You wake up at three in the morning, your friends all gone home, the bar long closed, when it occurs to you – that perfect clever comeback that you didn’t think of earlier in the evening. Now of course, lying there in your jammies, it is far, far too late.

Thinking back on the third and final presidential debate this last week, it occurred to me that there was a quality to Obama’s performance – a quality totally lacking in McCain’s – that brings “l’esprit d’escalier” to mind. Perhaps a small digression would help here…

Suppose you had a magic stopwatch (bear with me here) that you could click every time you said the wrong thing instead of the right thing. Like all good magic stopwatches, this handy gadget would freeze time – that is, everything except you – giving you plenty of time to think over what you should have said. Then you could just rewind the watch by, say, twenty seconds, click on it a second time, and replay the moment, this time getting it right. Voila – no more “l’esprit d’escalier”.

I think of this when I think of the real battle that McCain and Obama were waging. They both knew that it wasn’t a battle about the issues – we know their respective positions on the issues, and by now they’ve pretty much both locked those positions down to familiar talking points. No, it was more of a contest to see whether McCain could get Obama mad.

Nobody cares all that much if McCain gets mad. He’s almost supposed to get mad. He’s the war hero, the old curmudgeon. Many of his supporters even like that quality in him. But for Obama it could be fatal. In the minds of millions, he would instantly transform from this fascinating figure of mystery – the mixed race intellectual, the multicultural orator – to an altogether different figure – the angry black man. As unfair as that is, it is a reality, one the Republicans are all to eager to exploit if they can just find the right button within him to push.

So McCain said one incendiary thing after another, trying to locate that button. Some of it, like the silly Ayers stuff, sounded outright ludicrous coming from the mouth of a presidential candidate. But what fascinated me wasn’t the tone of McCain’s attack – belligerent, insulting, dismissive – but rather Obama’s response.

Almost any of us ordinary mortals (myself included) would have sooner or later blown up at this kind of stuff, gotten angry or adopted a tit-for-tat tone in response to such below-the-belt taunts. But that’s not at all what Obama did. Through it all he remained calm, collected, almost relaxed, no matter what was thrown at him, methodically dismantling McCain’s attacks with clear and well articulated factual responses.

And I have come to realize that I was witnessing the kind of performance somebody like me might have turned in if I’d had the chance to try it over and over, had time to put aside my anger at being attacked, to regain my composure and my center, and maybe to play the tape back to see whether I was getting it right. In other words, if I’d had that magic stopwatch.

But Obama did it in real time, with no retakes, no magic stopwatch. He understood the game the Republicans were playing – the game of “let’s try to show America an angry Obama” – and he ran circles around them. Yes, from time to time his answers slowed down – you could see the wheels turning in his head, the care with which he picked his words to avoid the rhetorical landmines they were expecting him to stop on at any moment – but he did in fact get through the entire debate without stepping on a single landmine, without uttering even a single string of words that the Republicans could later take out of context to say “behold America – the words of an angry black man!”

How Obama manages to stay so calm and collected, to summon such presence of mind in the face of such a persistent and high level of hostility and goading, I have no idea. But I do know that he has the kind of presence of mind that I want in my Commander in Chief.

Interplanetary time

If you ask yourself what time periods are the most fundamental to how humans keep time, two jump out at you: a day and a year. Wherever you are in the world, at whatever time in history, you could always be sure that it would get dark and then light again in the time period of a day, and in most parts of the world you could be sure that it would get cooler and then warmer again in the time period of a year.

So it would seem that these are the most natural intervals for humans to use in measuring the passage of time. But I would argue that this might not be the right way to look at it. One day some intrepid humans may very well leave our little earthly sphere and explore the universe, perhaps settling onto other planets. When they get there they will undoubtedly find that our earthly day and year have no particular meaning, other than as a kind of nostalgia.

I would suggest, should the situation arise, that we humans replace these merely geological temporal units by one that we will be taking with us wherever we go – a unit of time that is built into our very DNA, and that we can be sure will travel with us to the farthest reaches of the Universe.

There is only one logical candidate for this distinction: I propose that humans adopt, as one interplanetary year, the time interval of nine months.

Economic Immunodeficiency Virus

There has been much discussion recently about the proper role of government in regulating financial markets. As we know, the regulatory doctrine of the Bush administration was an absolutist “less is more”. And as we know, this doctrine has led to catastrophic failure.

Specifically, there was no mechanism whatsoever for any regulatory agency to even be aware what transactions were taking place as one entity made a deal with another to take bets on the outcome of some financial indicator or stock movement. And as bets were built on top of other bets, and those deals started to build upon previous deals, there was literally no record available to flag an alarm as the entire edifice started turning into a very tall and very rickety house of cards.

If you look at a thriving capitalist society as a healthy organism – one built upon competition – it’s possible to view a government that supports and encourages capitalist trade as a kind of immune system. As long as the system is functioning properly, the immune system is quiescent. But when the system is subject to attack, the immune system is supposed to be responsive, to swing into action, so that the market can go back to healthy functioning.

What the Bush administration did, by dismantling even the possibility of detecting any irregularity in the system, was essentially to induce a kind of economic auto-immune deficiency. In effect, in the last seven years our government’s policy rendered our financial trading system EIV (Economic Immunodeficiency Virus) positive.

A system can go on for years in EIV-positive status, without even knowing that anything is wrong. But of course as soon as the system suffers any sort of viral breakdown, the lack of a functioning immune system can quickly prove fatal.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Napkin sketches

The last time I was in the University Cafe in downtown Palo Alto was the height of the Dot Com era. The cafe has really large white paper placemats – it lays down clean new sheets of white paper every time another table of customers sits down to order.

Back in 2000, at the height of the internet mania, it seemed that every table was filled with very important looking people busily sketching business plans on those sheets of white paper – structured stock offerings, returns on investment, phased rollout strategies, and all of those other great Dot Com phrases. By the time any meal was done, diners would have filled their white paper placemats with lots of little diagrams and charts, scribbled profit/cost estimate curves and projected timelines.

And at the end of every meal there was the all-important ritual of folding up that piece of paper, no matter how coated it may have become with coffee rings or gravy stains, and putting it in one’s pocket. What had once been a clean expanse of white was now a road plan, a treasure map, a guide to the Holy Grail, the key to the next big IPO.

As we know, most of those placemats ended up not being worth the ink scribbled on them. Plans came to naught, companies went belly up, and a chastened Silicon Valley fell back down to earth with a resounding thud.

Today, sitting in that same cafe, my friends and I ended up discussing some cool research ideas. At some point I took out a pen and started to make sketches on the big white placemat before me. We all got excited looking at it, we brainstormed a bit, adding things here and there, and by the end of the meal we all felt that we’d really made some progress, and even had a kind of game plan for what to do next.

When we left, it never occurred to us to take the placemat with us.