Monday, April 30, 2012

Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 4: Doctors

     In another article (link), I pointed out that medical school is an extended infomercial for the drug industry. In this article, I’ll describe how patients and doctors collude on jacking up the cost of medical care in the United States and some other countries. No, I’m not suggesting that patients deliberately shortchange themselves by telling doctors how they can make medical care more expensive. I’m suggesting that there are many superstitions surrounding concepts of Western medical care, and doctors’ customers—many of them shouldn’t be called patients—are so swept up in these superstitions that they demand that doctors adhere to them. Some of these superstitions are as follows:
1. There’s a medicine for every person’s ailment.
2. Every medicine designed to treat a given ailment is equally effective on all patients who have that ailment.
3. Medicines necessarily cure diseases.
4. Medicines are the only cures for diseases.
5. Only a quack would let a patient leave his office without a prescription.
6. The quality of medical care is best measured by the number of prescriptions or other treatments the doctor prescribes.
     Ordinarily, I don’t even take an aspirin for a headache or cough syrup for a cold. A few weeks ago, though, I had such a bad cold that I went to a doctor. After examining me, he wrote a prescription for four drugs, and not one of them was cough syrup. That wasn’t an exceptional case.
     With taxpayer subsidized medical care around here, it’s not unusual for someone to leave a doctor’s office with six prescriptions. I don’t know of even one doctor who would dare tell a customer, “You don’t need medicine. You need rest, plenty of liquids, and a balanced diet. Once you’re well, you need to get more exercise. You’re a slob.”
     That would never happen. Any doctor who prescribes commonsense treatments for ailments would be immediately labeled a quack. Just how effective is medicine, anyway? 
     According to one article I read and couldn’t find again, only a third of all medical prescriptions are effective. Under the best of conditions, when a drug is approved for medical use, that’s because it has been shown effective in certain cases—usually severe cases. If you don’t have a severe case of something, it’s useless to take a medicine that’s effective only in severe cases.
     Nonetheless, the superstition persists that a medicine that’s effective in treating one person’s ailment is just as effective in treating everyone else who has that ailment or an ailment similar to it. Few people want the doctor to tell them that there’s no medicine that will do them any good.
     In many cases, the customer’s complaint is really just a complaint and not a symptom or a disease. Let me give you an example of the difference. If you feel sluggish, you have trouble breathing, and your head hurts, those are complaints. If you have a high temperature, dry throat, and chest congestion, those are symptoms. If the doctor tells you that you have the flu, he’s telling you that you have a disease. If your heart stops beating, your body assumes room temperature, and your muscles become rigid, a prescription is useless. Let’s take a couple of common complaints.
     One customer complains of sleeplessness, which he self-diagnoses as insomnia. Actually, insomnia is just a fancy word for a complaint known as sleeplessness. The other customer complains of being tense and irritable due to pressures at work. Does either of them need drugs? Probably not. Sometimes insomnia is due to less need for sleep. In most other cases, it’s due to distractions that can be shut out; thinking about them makes the sleeplessness worse. In either case, insomnia is nothing to lose sleep over. As for tension and irritability due to pressures at work, school, or elsewhere, prescription drugs—psychotropic, or mind-altering, drugs—almost always do more harm than good. I’ve never heard of a case in which anything good came of these classes of drugs for tension or depression.
     Rather than offering you a prescription written in Latin, you’d be better off getting one written in three words of plain English: “Deal with it.” If you insist on the prescription being written in Latin, maybe the doctor can please you by writing, “Illigitimi non carborundum,” which is faux Latin for, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
     I’m sure that a lot of doctors’ customers would rankle at the suggestion that they should eat well and otherwise learn to take responsibility for their lives instead of looking for drugs to treat their symptoms. Yes, I said, “Symptoms.” In all but a few cases, most drugs do nothing to treat diseases; they treat only symptoms. Most doctors are honest enough to admit this fact to their customers, but ingrained superstitions die hard. Drug customers still insist on a drug that will “cure” them.
     Another ingrained superstition that refuses to die is the belief that a doctor is not a doctor unless he’s a celebrity spokesman for the drug industry. Caveat vendor—let the seller beware: If drug customers don’t get the drugs they crave, they’ll just look for another pusher. That’s just the way the drug industry wants things to be. Here are some interesting statistics and links to the information used to obtain them:
1. Physicians are 9,000 times as deadly as gun owners. (link)
2. Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States, after alcohol and tobacco. Fourth and fifth are traffic accidents and gun violence. (link)
3. Taking the lowest estimate of how many Americans are killed by medical malpractice each year (120,000), American doctors kill over twice as many people each year as the Mexican Drug War has killed in the last five years. (link) 
4. Over 106,000 Americans die each year just from the side effects of prescription drugs “properly prescribed and properly administered.” That’s twice the number of Americans killed in traffic accidents. Over 2,000,000 Americans suffer “serious side effects” from these “properly prescribed and properly administered” drugs.  (link) and (link) 
5. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Americans die from illegal drugs each year.  (same source as #4)
6. Of 100 U.S. medical schools, 75 of the offer fewer than 25 hours of instruction in nutrition—usually interspersed with instruction in non-nutrition courses. Only one fourth of all U.S. medical schools offer even one course in nutrition. One U.S. medical school offers no nutritional instruction at all. (link) 
     The bottom line is, doctors are not in the healthcare business. They’re in the business of treating injuries and symptoms. If you want healthcare, see a nutritionist or a practitioner of "alternative medicine” (a.k.a. a traditional healer).
     See parts 1 through 4 of this series:
     "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 1: News Reporters"
     "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 2: Politicians"
     "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 3: Pastors"

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 3: Pastors

     In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I described how people deceive themselves into believing that news reporters and politicians are all-wise, all-knowing workers of miracles on our behalf. Pastors, by and large, are a strange breed of cat. Most of them, usually through omission but sometimes through outright distortions, deny that our Creator performs miracles, yet they do nothing to dispute the notion that keepers of the matrix are continuously working miracles on our behalf. Most pastors are unconscious participants in the Establishment’s schemes to shear the sheeple.
     Let’s look at the issue of miracles first. Then we’ll get to the matter of how pastors help shear the flock.
     During my formative years, I was taught certain things about praying for people who were seriously ill or injured. I was taught certain other things about praying for the terminally ill and mortally injured.
     I was taught to ask the Lord to heal that person, and to make the prayer in the name of our Savior. If the person was terminally ill or mortally injured, I was taught to pray for a miracle on that person’s behalf. If the Lord’s answer to the prayer turned out to be, “No,” I was to accept His wisdom.
     That’s not what I see these days. Nowadays, when someone is seriously ill or injured, some nut gets up and prays that the Lord will “give the doctor wisdom” in healing that person. Is that the best they can do? Aren’t doctors already supposed to know what they’re doing when they treat a patient?
     When someone is terminally ill or mortally injured, nuts similarly pray for comfort and peace in accepting that person’s unavoidable, imminent death. Even pastors and missionaries are not exempt from this foolishness.
     When people are afraid to ask the Lord for things that only the Lord can do, I question whether they truly believe in Him. To most pastors and missionaries I’ve met over the past twenty years, our Creator is not so much a reality as He is a metaphor for an overly rigid and intolerant façade of morality. I call it a façade because many of these doubters are Pharisees who make a show of refraining from things they are never tempted to do, while excusing themselves for their lack of justice, mercy, faith, and honesty.
     We are told that the Lord no longer performs miracles, because people today don’t need miracles. Who is more in need of miracles, people who believe in them or people who don’t?
     A doubter once said that a miracle is the suspension of the laws of the entire universe on behalf of just one person who admittedly does not deserve it. This definition is presented as “proof” that a belief in miracles is absurd. Quite to the contrary, I see it as evidence of our Lord’s infinite love for each person.
     At one place I had worked, a newly minted medical doctor taught math for a year before formally entering the medical profession. On one occasion, she was asked to pray for a seriously ill person. Of course this got my attention, as I wondered how a medical doctor would handle a prayer of that nature. To her credit, she avoided the foolishness of praying that the doctor doesn’t foul things up. She prayed simply that the Lord heal that person—which is what a believer would be reasonably expected to do.
     Since then, I observed that medical doctors seem more inclined to believe in miracles than pastors and missionaries are.
     I promised to tell how pastors facilitate robbery. Let me take you on a trip down Memory Lane.
     I once read a book variously called Meditations, To Myself, and other titles, written by Marcus Aurelius. He stressed the virtue of seeing the essence of things and not being taken in by embellishments that people imagine them to have. Basically, he was espousing the virtue of simplicity. I remembered the lesson, especially since it somewhat resembled the thoughts of Henry David Thoreau in Walden; but, at the time, I didn’t internalize it.
     Years later, I read a book called The Teaching of Buddha, in which the sage taught virtue of simplicity as a means to contentment. My first thought was, Didn’t Marcus Aurelius and Henry David Thoreau say the same things? Then I thought, Wait a minute! Didn’t Jesus say the same things?
     I immediately turned to the Sermon on the Mount and read it. It was there. In short order, I realized that the Bible—particularly the New Testament—is filled with admonitions for us to live simple, practical lives. My next thought was scathing: Why have I never heard this in church?
     I have often heard that the teachings of Jesus were meant to provoke thought but were impractical, even during the first century. What if that’s a lie? What if Jesus really meant what He said?
     Practicality is a flexible term. Whether something is practical depends on what you most value. 
     Every pastor I have known has preached to us on how to live “good” lives without ever leaving the matrix called Western Civilization. Within the matrix, we’re expected to be “good” consumers and set “good” examples for non-Christians and lure them into the Western Civilization matrix, so that they can become “good” consumers of corporate products and services. They don’t say that in so many words, but their omissions speak volumes.
     We are reminded of a verse from First Timothy, saying that women should be modestly dressed, but we’re told that the second half of the verse is irrelevant. That’s the part that prohibits the wearing of costly jewelry or other ostentatious adornment. (link to relevant verses) Anyone following that commandment would be a poor consumer of corporate goods and services..
     We are reminded of Genesis 2:26, in which the Lord commanded us to “subdue” and “govern” the earth, but I have never heard even one sermon outlining what responsibilities this command entails. Some pastors have told me that the Bible doesn’t specifically say anything about our environmental responsibilities but that we should respect the environment as the Lord’s creation. The truth is, I have found enough Bible verses on the environment to fill a single-spaced, 75-page book. What’s wrong with our seminaries that pastors are unaware of even one of these verses?
     Some religious denominations exist outside the matrix. They include the Amish and the Pentecostals. There are probably others, and “respectable” Christians are taught to avoid becoming like them.
     Let me repeat an earlier question: “What if Jesus really meant what He said?"
     To read other articles in this series, see "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 1: News Reporters," "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 2: Politicians," and "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 4: Doctors." 
     In the coming days, watch for part 5 in the series.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 2: Politicians

     Some of the world’s biggest humbugs are politicians, especially when they’re running for office.

     Suppose you were to ask a hundred people, “How are jobs created?” Chances are, every one of them will tell you that jobs are created when someone produces a good or a service at a reasonable price and needs help somewhere in production or sales—or words to that effect. Suppose you ask these same people, “What causes people to choose one tourist destination over another?” That’s a big more complex, but most people will give you a pretty reasonable answer.
     In short, most people have a fairly clear understanding of cause and effect. They know how jobs are created, they know how tourism is generated, they know that crime is caused by criminals, that dumping toxic waste into water causes the water to be unsafe to drink, and so on. Somehow, though, common sense flies completely out the window when political candidates make campaign promises.

     During every election year, politicians who have never created goods, services, or anything else of value in their entire lives promise to create thousands or even millions of jobs. Astonishingly, millions of otherwise sensible people actually believe them. Politicians who have never sat at the desk of a travel agency promise to attract thousands of new tourists each day to certain places without having the slightest clue as to why people would want to go there.
     Do you believe that swarms of tourists will want to descend on such places as Timmonsville, South Carolina; or Whitman, Nebraska? No? Would you believe it if a political candidate promised that he’d cause it to happen and didn’t even bother to explain how he’d do it? If you’re like most voters, you probably would.
     Timmonsville is my hometown. It was a sleepy little town of 2,100 people when I was growing up there, but it has recently grown a bit livelier. Now a bustling dystopia of 2,320 people, Timmonsville recently has had several murders; and the town council is playing a shell game with the town government’s debt. There are 100 women for every 70 men in Timmonsville, partly because 38% of the households are headed by women with children.
     The last time crowds of tourists descended on Timmonsville was July 14, 1955, during the centennial celebration. For the sesquicentennial in 2005, though, they seem to have figured that there was nothing to celebrate.
     According to one web site, there are 59 attractions in the Timmonsville area. Not one of them has a Timmonsville address, most are over 30 miles from Timmonsville, and a fourth of them are over 40 miles from Timmonsville. The town doesn’t have a movie theater or a newspaper, probably because town gossips can entertain and misinform you in real time.
     If murder, political incompetence, genealogical mysteries, and the articulate form of cannibalism are too taxing for your system, you might vacation in Whitman, Nebraska. It’s an unincorporated community situated about 100 miles from the nearest interstate highway and over 20 miles from the nearest crossroads town. It sounds like a great vacation spot for recovering heart patients.
     From one of the photos I’ve seen on the Internet, I see that there’s a hill somewhere within sight of Whitman, Nebraska. I’ve been through both Kansas and Nebraska, and I was taken aback by the realization that there was a hill in either of those two states. You could stand near the South Dakota border, look southward, and see almost into Oklahoma. If treated to the right kind of publicity, a million tourists from Kansas and Nebraska might be eager to travel hundreds of miles to see what a hill looks like. The brick-veneer, vacant storefront could be converted to provide travel information, in case hills are so unfamiliar to the tourists that they need someone to point it out for them.
     A politician wouldn’t have to give a reason for tourists to swarm to Timmonsville or Whitman. All he’d have to do is promise a field of dreams based on the notion, “If you promise it, they will come.”
     People also have the notion that politicians—particularly officeholders—are experts on every political issue. They’re not. Ideally, a politician specializes in one or two areas and tries to become conversant in other areas. Mostly, he relies on well-informed staff to supply the deficit in his knowledge.
     Most people have the idea that, if you want something done in (for example) Congress, you go to your congressman. That’s a dumb idea. He didn’t get elected because he understands the issues; he got elected because he’s a good actor and salesman—and has a more impressive head of hair than most men (assuming the congressman is a man) his age.  Senator Christopher Dodd, at left, was born in 1944.   At age 68, he has more hair than most men have at 48.
     You get things done by finding out which staff member knows the most about your issue and is likely to be sympathetic to your position. You won’t have to waste his time and yours getting him up to speed on the issue. Once you have the staff member on your side, keep in touch with him (or her). The staff member knows what the congressman knows and doesn’t know, and will save everyone time explaining the issue to the congressman.
     There’s another reason you should avoid seeing the congressman right off the bat, especially during an election campaign. To most people, every political issue is either a human need or a human desire. To most congressmen, every political issue is a public relations opportunity. This puts you and your congressman at cross purposes.
     If you don’t believe me, look at your congressman’s eyes when you try to explain your situation to him, and they’ll tell you what he’s thinking. He’s not listening to understand your point; he’s listening to locate your hot button. Once he thinks he has found it, he’ll reach into his bag of sound bites and spout one for you. Sound bites don’t help constituents, but they do help the congressman’s image in the eyes of the sheeple.
      Even when your congressman pats you on the back, he may be just feeling for a place to put the knife.
     One of my favorite quotes in literature comes from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Even after the little dog Toto had exposed the “wizard” as a fraud, the main characters in the story demanded that the “wizard” keep his impossible promises to them. He responded by conning them again, this time with a clock, a medal, and a diploma. After Dorothy, the tin woodman, the scarecrow, and the lion left, the Wizard of Oz said to himself, “How can I help being a humbug when people expect me to do things that everyone knows can’t be done?”

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 1: News Reporters

     Within the matrix—also known as Plato’s Cave—the world is populated by wondrous, magical beings that exist to perform miracles especially for us. You probably tell yourself that you’re not naïve enough to believe in them; but, to an extent, you probably do. I try not to believe in them; but we all, to an extent, allow our wishes to become father to our thoughts.
     You may have heard the movie definition, “The matrix is the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.” The wording of this definition doesn’t tell us who is pulling the wool over our eyes, so we assume that someone else is doing it.
     The “Great Showman,” P. T. Barnum, knew better. Barnum was famously quoted as saying, “The American people love to be humbugged.” Humbugging is a collaborative effort. Whenever we want to have the wool pulled over our eyes, some humbug will sell us the wool for a hefty profit.
     Thus wondrous, magical beings inhabit the matrix world that we mistake for the real world. They include news reporters, politicians, bankers, pastors, doctors, teachers, and many others. Many of them are humbugs; with others, we like to humbug ourselves.
     I've already dealt with bankers as racketeers. In this series of articles, I’ll focus on news reporters, politicians, pastors, doctors, and teachers.  For once, I'll give lawyers a break. 
     In our imaginary world, every reporter is an investigative reporter who is an expert in every area on which he reports, and he has all the time in the world to verify every assertion that comes his way. No one would dare lie to a news reporter. Even if someone were incautious enough to lie to a reporter, the reporter always knows the truth. For all these reasons, we can believe every word of every news report—or so we like to tell ourselves.
     In reality, news reporters are basically like the rest of us. They get the job because they can communicate well enough to be understood most of the time, they’re willing to accept the insultingly low pay that most reporters get, and they’re willing to do such degrading things as sitting through a boring speech from a self-important buffoon while eating pasty instant potatoes and rubbery chicken.
     There’s such a thing as proper news attribution. That’s news reporter lingo for, “I don’t know if what I’m writing is true or not. I’m just telling you what somebody told me.”
     There’s a simple way to disprove the omniscience of news reporters, and it’ll take only five minutes. Take a red pen to the first page of a newspaper and place a red mark under such words as alleged, said, according to, documents show, and all other words indicating that the news reporter isn’t sure if he’s being told the truth. You’ll find yourself underlining more than eighty words and phrases, and the page will look as though it were subjected to lingchi (凌遲)—known to the West as "death by a thousand cuts."
     There’s a saying in the newspaper business that the real news is that somebody said that something is true—not that it really is true. Only investigative reporters can know if it’s true. If you want to know if something is true, you’ll have to research it for yourself. If you research a story and find out that it isn’t true, you haven’t insulted the reporter. On the contrary, you’ve given him another story—if his editor is willing to print it.
      The use of attribution, though, doesn't necessarily mean that reporters are all that committed to accuracy and honesty.  Attribution serves only to protect reporters in the event of lawsuits for libel.
     Let me give you a glaring example.  When Salvadoran leader Roberto D'Aubuisson Arrieta was alive, countless "news" reports said that he "has been linked to right-wing death squads."  So, what was the link, and who did the linking?  Not one of them got into specifics, and it was as if they were singing from the same page of musical arrangement.  The day after D'Aubuisson's death in 1992, the official report in the press said that he "personally ordered the deaths of hundreds" of political opponents.  While it may or may not have been true, no attribution or evidence of any kind was offered for this sudden revelation.  After all, dead men can't sue.
     There’s also the question of bias. All reporters are biased, just as everyone else is biased. Bias is simply another term for frame of reference. Here’s how it works:
     There are far more news stories out there than there are news reporters to cover them. The editor, based on which stories he thinks are the most important, decides which stories are covered and which are ignored.
     When the reporter arrives at the scene, he finds more facts than he could possibly use. Based on what he thinks is important, and what he thinks his editor will think is important, he decides which single fact is the most important, selects the facts that will support that fact—henceforth known as the “main idea” of the story—and ignores all other facts.
     You’re probably familiar with the inverted pyramid style of writing. Supposedly, the most important “who, what, when, where, and possibly how and why” are written first. If you read only the first two paragraphs, you should know the story. The next paragraph supposedly contains less important information, and so on, until the least important information is written last.
     People kid themselves into thinking that the most important fact is in the lead paragraph, and that the story could not have been written any other way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writers have been known to build their careers on writing articles for which the last paragraphs of news stories were used as the lead paragraphs.
     Below, I have written the last paragraph of a recent news story, reworded in the style of a lead paragraph:
     “International Cooperation Office Director Hsu Min-huei yesterday appeared to suggest that Tibetan officials were lying about the purpose and content of last week’s meeting between Department of Health (DOH) Minister Chiu Wen-ta and Tibetan Health Minister Tsering Wangchuk in Taipei. Hsu said that Chiu’s only intention was to meet former Health Minister Lee Ming-Liang, as Chiu had heard that Lee was in the building and wanted to meet him. Tsering just happened to be at the meeting at the time Chiu was meeting with Lee.”
     That paragraph, by itself, is current, controversial, and of local importance. It makes a more relevant story, in my opinion, than the lead paragraph the newspaper actually used. The newspaper’s lead paragraph was a transparent attempt to use cherry-picked facts to express the newspaper’s editorial slant that government officials of Taiwan (which Beijing says doesn’t exist but threatens to invade anyway) are freely meeting with government officials of Tibet (which Beijing says doesn’t exist but tries to suppress anyway.)
     Just think of what reporters don’t tell you because of their decision to treat one fact as the most important fact, rather than any one of hundreds of other facts.

     In this article, I have dealt only with some of the main aspects of news reporting on which people pull the wool over their own eyes.  Check out the rest of the series:
     "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 2: Politicians" and 
     "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 3: Pastors
     "Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 4: Doctors"
     I intend to post the other articles in this series in the days to come.
     To see other ways that people are fooled by the news media—or fool themselves—see the five-part series “How News Reporting Really Works.”

Monday, April 9, 2012

Trayvon Martin's Death: What Really Happened

     Since late February, Americans have been polarized in dueling versions of a good-versus-evil morality play. Neither version is realistic. In reality, neither Trayvon Martin nor George Zimmerman was wholly in the right. Each made a series of unwise decisions that progressively narrowed their options until only one option remained. At that point, each one had a reasonable fear of death at the others hands.
     Here is the way it happened:
     There was a young man named George Zimmerman, an older boy named Trayvon Martin, a controversial law, a rash of burglaries, societal perceptions, unconscious signals, and some rain.
     Zimmerman was a conscientious Neighborhood Watch volunteer who was frustrated at his and others inability to end the burglaries in their neighborhood. He was pudgy for his twenty-seven years, and he stood five foot nine; his weight was not reported. Martin was a troubled youth: the product of a broken home, shifted from pillar to post, having a checkered relationship with authority figures; and, at the time, staying at his father’s fiancé’s home. At seventeen,  Martin was a strapping six footer and tipped the scales at 160 pounds.

     During the last hour of Trayvon Martin's life, he had just bought some candy and a can of tea from a local store and was passing through the neighborhood where Zimmerman lived, apparently looking at residences as he passed them. Possibly due to the weather, Martin had raised the hood of his pullover, covering his head and partially obscuring his face. While similar articles of clothing have been in use since the Middle Ages, hooded pullovers (hoodies) are now perceived as popular among members of youth gangs.
     Zimmerman didn’t “single him out,” as some people have misleadingly said, because there was no one else from whom Martin could have been “singled out.” Because no one else was passing by Zimmerman’s range of sight, the neighborhood watch volunteer noticed him. Martin, in turn, felt uncomfortable under Zimmerman’s gaze and proceeded cautiously—some would say, furtively.
     Zimmerman, troubled by the recent burglaries, interpreted Martin’s manner as “behaving suspiciously.” He called 911 to report the matter.  (police report) (911 call)
     “White, black, or Hispanic?” the dispatcher asked.
     Zimmerman wasn’t sure. He hesitated and said, “He looks black. He’s wearing a dark gray hoodie, jeans or sweat pants, and white tennis shoes.”  [Race baiters would later zero in on Martin's race and the hoodie, suppressing the other information in the description.]
     As Zimmerman eyed Martin and spoke to 911, Martin’s picked up the signal that this man was talking to someone about him. Martin approached Zimmerman, possibly to ask what this was all about. “He’s coming this way,” Zimmerman said.
     Those words and the look on Zimmerman’s face were enough to convince Martin that he should leave the area. “He’s walking away,” Zimmerman said. As Martin walked away, Zimmerman followed him, continuing to talk to 911. Then Martin began to run.
     What happened next was the sort of thing that police officers today are trained to avoid. Police departments today try to restructure their officers’ response in such a way as to “slow down” the action. Zimmerman was not a trained police officer.
     As Zimmerman followed Martin, his heart raced and he spoke to 911 in quick breaths. Adrenalin and testosterone pumped through his system, distorting his judgment. (This isn't speculation on my part.  It's an inescapable fact.)  That was precisely why policemen today are expected to slow down the action.
     “These a**holes—they always get away,” Zimmerman whined.
     Who was “they”? “They” were the ones who had been frustrating Zimmerman and others by burglarizing homes and getting away with it. In just a few minutes, Martin had been transmuted from someone acting suspiciously to “They.” Under his breath, Zimmerman sighed, “F***ing coons.” Yes, that’s the plural of coon. In Zimmerman’s mind, Martin had become not just one person but an entire race of—race of what? In his sense of helplessness, Zimmerman had passed down the slippery slope from concerned citizen to dehumanizer of his fellow human beings.
     “Are you following him?” 911 asked.
     “Okay, we don’t need you to do that.” Under Florida law, Zimmerman from that moment was required to break off the chase. From the sound of his breathing, and the sound of wind in the cell phone, it’s clear that Zimmerman continued to pursue Martin for perhaps a moment longer. Zimmerman’s breathing soon returned to normal.
     Zimmerman had lost sight of Martin. He tried to give directions to 911 as he looked for a spot where he could meet a policeman.
     In the meantime, Martin placed a cell phone call to his girlfriend and told her that a man was following him. Martin abruptly ended the call.
     Neither witnesses nor news accounts reveal whether Martin was cornered at that point. It’s clear, though, that Martin attacked Zimmerman, pushing him to the ground.
     An eyewitness saw someone in a red “sweater” (actually a jacket) being attacked. Martin was wearing a gray, hooded pullover. Because Zimmerman was the one being attacked, the witness thought that Zimmerman was calling for help. Earwitnesses and a recording of a 911 call indicated that it was Martin who was calling for help. Martin’s father said that the one calling for help was not Trayvon Martin. (video)
     Chances are, the person calling for help was one who had had less trouble with authority figures. That would have been Zimmerman, though that doesn’t mean that Martin didn’t also consider himself in mortal danger. A voice recognition expert has been hired to determine which one was calling for help. (video)
     Nonetheless, it’s also clear that Martin was getting the better of Zimmerman in the struggle. As the two struggled, Zimmerman pulled out his gun and shot Martin. Trayvon Martin died on the spot.
     Was Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter? That would be for a jury to decide, if the case goes to court.  Thus far, the prosecutor has said that he doesn't have enough evidence to get a conviction.
     False witnesses have come out of the woodwork.

     ABC News, in telling their version of the story, presented a Photoshopped image of Zimmerman, showing him as being more light-skinned than he really was, and showing Martin as he had looked at the age of fifteen, an unspoken suggestion that it was a recent photo. To their credit, it was ABC News whose enhanced video showed that Zimmerman had injuries to the head and face.  (video)
     Zimmerman's lawyer also told falsehoods about the case.  After condemning others for telling falsehoods, the lawyer exaggerated Martin's actual height by three inches.  (video)
     The infamous demagogues such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have grandstanded in this matter.
     In another tent in this media circus, people have lifted two embarrassing photos (out of how many?) from Martin’s Facebook page and used them to present Martin as a one-dimensional “gangsta.” Yet another has Photoshopped a familiar photo of Martin to depict him as making an obscene gesture. We’re also treated to the news that Martin had used marijuana, had been twice suspended from school for playing hooky, and he had been found to have burglary tools (which tools?) and a dozen articles of women’s jewelry in his possession.
     Our judgment is becoming distorted. We need to “slow down the action” and let the police continue the investigation.  In the interest of restoring calm and sanity, I believe it may be helpful for a post-racial person of national stature to step in and act as the voice of reason in this matter.  I have a few in mind, but I'll avoid suggesting their names.
     While I have strong opinions as to what should be done to settle the matter, I see no reason to voice them now or while the case is being adjudicated—if it is adjudicated. The voicing of opinions should be left to those who can be trusted to calmly and rationally deal with the matter.
     For now, I’ll say only that it’s not enough for justice to be done. It’s also important for people to believe that justice is done. Thus far, that’s not happening.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

How to Raise Living Standards, Spend Less, Enjoy Better Health, and Improve Environmental Protection—All at the Same Time

     The title of this article is quite a mouthful, and it promises you more than even a candidate for public office ever dared. Well, I'm not a candidate for public office, and I dare.  I taught Advertising and Marketing for almost two years before the theme of this article occurred to me. It may well be the most original idea I’ve ever had.
     Advertisers know that nobody buys a product or service because he wants that product or service. He buys it because he wants a benefit that the product or service seems to offer. The advertiser, then, sells products by selling benefits. Hidden away in that basic observation is the secret of how each of us can raise our living standards, spend less money, enjoy better health, and practice better environmental responsibility.
     Let’s take Coca Cola, for example. Nobody buys a Coke because he wants a Coke. After all, as soon as he drinks the Coke, he no longer has it. He buys it because he wants to quench his thirst, enjoy the flavor, and perhaps gain some quick energy.
     Let me give you a few more examples. People buy air conditioners because they want comfort. They buy ballpoint pens, usually because they want help in remembering something. They buy cars to get from point A to point B, though they may also buy a car to gain the approval of others—approval that may be leveraged into tangible benefits. Judging from the content of beer commercials, it seems that purchases of beer have less to do with refreshment and flavor than they have to do with having fun.
     Your brain has a kind of filter that acts like a guard standing watch at the gate. When someone presents a message at the gate, the guard looks at it to decide whether the message is true. If the guard accepts it as true, the message is allowed to enter a waiting room (soft wiring) where it’s still seen as “another person’s” message. After a time, the message is either dismissed, or it’s given a job as an accepted fact in your brain’s hardwiring.
     There is, however, a way to fool the guard at the gate: The message is presented as entertainment and not a message. Since your brain likes entertainment, the embedded message is admitted and immediately becomes part of your brain’s hardwiring. For that reason, advertisers disguise their sales pitches as entertainment.
     Advertisers also pull a sleight of hand. First, they try to get you all excited about getting a certain benefit. Then they use entertainment in a way that’s supposed to cause you to think that the only way you’ll get the benefit is by buying their product.
     In the video commercial below, a Nokia cell phone is presented in a way as to suggest that it offers people a unique benefit. If you look at it logically, though, you’ll find that all it says is that you can use a Nokia cell phone to take pictures and send the pictures to someone who has a cell phone with similar functions. There's nothing new or unique about that.  I believe that most cell phones already have those functions.

    In the allegorical novel Gulliver's Travels, the king of Lilliput walked with a limp because the heel of one shoe was a sixteenth of an inch higher than the heel of the other shoe.  To a very, very small person, that's a big difference.  
     Advertisers—whether commercial, political, or otherare in the business of making minuscule differences seem vast.  While target consumers are focused on a very few, nearly identical products, they tend to lose sight of countless other options.  The "cola wars" of a few years ago caused target consumers to focus on two nearly identical forms of sugared water, at the expense of endless other possibilities, most of which had nothing to do with sugared water. 
     Returning to the Coca Cola example, I said that advertisers try to con you into thinking that  you'll get the benefits you want only by buying their brand.  You may be thinking, Oh, I’m not that gullible. I don’t have to buy a Coke. I can buy a root beer, a can of lemon tea, a can of coffee, an athletic drink, or any one of hundreds of other drinks.
     That’s the usual response I hear, but think about it for a moment. Every product I just mentioned is nothing but sugared water, albeit with only slight variationsvariations so slight that they may sometimes be called Lilliputian.
     Is sugared water the only way you can get refreshment, flavor, and quick energy? More to the point, is sugared water the best way for you to get refreshment, flavor, and quick energy?
     Processed sugar makes you thirsty soon after you’ve drunk it. Your energy level drops twenty minutes after a temporary boost. Most of the price of a container of sugared water comes from manufacturing the container. The sugared water itself costs next to nothing.  Pollution and waste are major byproducts of the manufacture and transport of sugared water.
     Chances are, you know hours in advance that, at some time during the day you’ll want refreshment, flavor, and quick energy. Chances are, there will be many days when you’ll want those benefits. A little preparation on one occasion can provide you with the benefits you’ll want on all such occasions.
     Every few weeks, I buy a large box of raisins. Every two months, I buy a box of green tea. Whenever I go bicycling, and on other occasions, I fill a bottle with green tea and fill a reusable plastic container with a handful of raisins. I take care, though to let the tea cool before pouring it into the plastic bottle; otherwise, a small quantity of melamine will seep from the plastic and into the tea.
     This combination of green tea and raisins does a much better job of giving me the benefits of refreshment, flavor, and quick energy. It’s also healthier for me. It costs only a fraction of the cost of a Pepsi or Coke. It’s also more environmentally responsible.
     Where did I get the bottle for the tea? Not from the camping supply store. That one was too bulky and cost around US$15.00. Not from the school supply section of Carrefour. That one cost around US$4.50, was easily breakable, and looked as though it would leak. As a last resort, I went to the dairy section of Carrefour and found one that was perfect. It was the right size, shape, and weight. It was durable enough to last three years and counting, and it cost less than US$2.00.
     There was a bonus: It was full of yoghurt. I didn’t have to pay anything for the yoghurt. As long as I paid for the bottle, the yoghurt was free.
     Forget what advertisers tell you. When you ask yourself what brand you should buy, you’re limiting yourself to either the advertised brand or something almost just like it.
     Instead, ask yourself, “What benefits do I want?” Then ask yourself, “What’s the best way to get those benefits?” In most cases, you’ll select something more beneficial, healthier, cheaper, and more environmentally responsible.
     If what you want is comfort, why buy an air conditioner? A fan, an awning on the sunny side of the house, or comfortable clothing would be as beneficial, healthier, cheaper, and more environmentally responsible.  
     If an Emberá, a Trobriand Islander, or any one of a billion or so other rainforest natives and other tropical peoples has a chance to read this, he'll probably laugh at the heavy clothing the man in the photo at right is wearing, as if he were afraid of freezing to death.  (Wouldn't a loincloth be cooler?) By the standards of many rainforest natives, the woman's manner of dress must be puzzling.  It's considered indecent for a woman to expose her thighs; and she's too warmly dressed from the waist up.  (Wouldn't a loose-fitting skirt be cooler?  If she has to wear a top, why not a loose-fitting tee shirt?)  A billion or so people have no need of this article except as confirmation of how wasteful billions of other people really are, even as we pat themselves on the back for recycling things we never needed in the first place.
     It's a dreadful mistake to assume that buying most of our products from corporations makes us more advanced than people who don't have to do so.  In the composite photo below, the Emberás have better swimming facilities than the multimillionaire Al Gore.  If our own rivers are too polluted for swimming, it's largely because of our purchasing habits. The Himbas' homes, made of clay and sticks, are naturally cooled, and at no expense. The palace in the photo employs fewer natural advantages and is shockingly wasteful in all other respects  The Emberá and Trobriand villages are cooled at no cost via cross ventilation.  
     In case you're wondering about the photos below, the structure in the middle of the Trobriand village is for the environmentally friendly storage of yams, a staple crop.  (How do you store your yams?)  The Emberás use juice from a local berry to decorate their bodies and to ward off insects.  The Himbas use clay as both decoration and sunscreen.

     I've spent a few paragraphs on the folly of relying on sugared water to get refreshment, flavor, and quick energy; and a few other paragraphs on the folly of using air conditioners when all you really want is comfort.  Let's quickly look at two others: ballpoint pens and hand-held computer games.
     When it’s feasible, why not use a refillable mechanical pencil instead of a ballpoint pen? As a memory aid, a cell phone camera that you already have may also be a better option.
     As for hand-held computer games, sometimes “nothing” is more beneficial than something. Taoism teaches that even “nothing” is something. Do we really need, for example, to fill our lives with stimulation when we’re more in need of silence?
     Try my technique for a few weeks. Before buying something, decide what benefits you want and decide on the best way to get them.  
     I mentioned four advantages to using this technique: savings, more benefits, health, and a cleaner environment. There are more: a sense of freedom, more control over your life, and greater happiness and self esteem.  Self esteem is the most satisfying form of status.

Back to Part 1: How to Raise Our Living Standards by Lowering the GDP
Back to Part 2: The Emperor's New Logo
Back to Part 3: Waste Products are Wasted Products

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Waste Products are Wasted Products

    (This is part 1 of a 4-part series on how we can—and should—do what conventional wisdom tells us is impossible. Each of us can—and should—enjoy a higher standard of living while drastically reducing the negative impact we have on the environment. In achieving these seemingly contradictory goals, we can achieve two other seemingly contradictory objectives: We can spend fewer dollars on greater benefits and enjoy better health.)
     I walked into the classroom, holding a trash bag. Without warning, I emptied it onto the floor and asked the class, “What’s this?”
     “Trash,” several of them replied.
     “What’s another word for trash?”
     “No, garbage is food that has been thrown away. Another word for trash is waste. That’s because it’s useful, but somebody has thrown it away.” I picked up a broken paper clip and asked, “What’s this?”
     “A paper clip.”
     “Not anymore. With this piece broken from it, it can never again be used as a paper clip. A philosophy called stoicism teaches us to see things as they are and not just for the purpose people give them. Basically, what is this?”
     “It’s metal in the form of a wire. Is a wire useful?” We then discussed how a length of wire of that form could be used.
     (Only a few months after conducting this class, I found a paper clip of that size on the street. Since the spring on my son’s bicycle seat was broken, I immediately saw the value of the wire. With the paper clip and a pair of needle-nose pliers, I fixed the seat, and it’s still firmly in place a few weeks later.)
     I picked up the items one at a time, and we discussed how each one could be used. I then assigned them to rummage through their trash can at home, bring something to class and tell how they used it. Some of them did so, and they taught me things that hadn't occurred to me.
     I can't claim any originality in the idea I'm presenting in this article.  When I was growing up, I enjoyed reading a regular column called Hints from Heloise.  When I was in junior high school, my Citizenship teacher, George Reeves, taught us that we should not limit uses for things to their originally designed purpose.  From 1964-67, I had the example of the Professor (my favorite character) in the television series Gilligan's Island, in which the professor ingeniously made necessary items from whatever was at hand, but he couldn't fix a three-foot hole in a boat.  For two decades or so, I was a regular reader of the magazine Mother Earth News, which now describes itself as "the original guide to living wisely."  From 1985-92, I thrilled to watch MacGyver each week, in which the title character solved complex problems with everyday items such as chocolate bars, gum wrappers, duck tape (now often called duct tape), and—yespaper clips.  Now that I'm a Boy Scout leader, I try to give my charges new insights into the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared."
     As I look around my apartment, I see all manner of things that would have otherwise headed for an incinerator or a landfill. If they had, their destruction would have further degraded our environment, wasted useful products, and created a demand for further cradle-to-grave pollutants.
     I've been using the same beverage coasters for almost twenty years. I had found them stacked outside a bar that was being gutted and replaced by a furniture store. The coasters, which had been designed to be used once and thrown away, enjoyed a longer life than the bar.
     Atop one of my book case stands the rack on which I display dozens of shells from my seashell collection. The book case had been discarded after a typhoon. The seashell display stand was once a cosmetics display stand in a women’s store. Most of my hundreds of seashells came free of charge from beaches all over Southeast Asia.
     Empty bread bags make excellent sandwich bags, although (Ahem!) some people prefer sandwich wrap. When the next bread bag becomes available, the old bread bag makes a pretty fair receptacle for recyclable plastics.
      I have several uses for zip lock bags that had once held items from the grocery store.  When I  pedal along the biking trail, I bring one along to protect my camera in case of rains.  Otherwise, it holds a few sheets of toilet paper.  On other occasions, a smaller zip lock bag holds tea bags.
     When I go somewhere overnight, an old 35 mm film canister that hasn't held film in several years is a suitable container for a teaspoon of coffee and dehydrated milk.  A 1.5-ounce, screw-top bottle is a serviceable container for the honey I use to sweeten my coffee.
     The oranges that members of my family eat during the growing season supply us with enough orange peels to make Charleston spice tea for a year. Grape seeds are chewable and are richer in anti-oxidants and other nutrients than the rest of the grape.
I could go on and on, but it might embarrass and anger someone who cares what vain people think. Besides, I’m sure you’re getting the message.
     Two forms of reuse worth mentioning are downcycling and upcycling.
     You probably already practice some form of downcycling. Downcycling is using a product for a lower purpose after its original purpose has expired. For example, you've probably cut sheets of used paper into quarters, stapled them and used them as memo pads.
     Upcycling refers to turning an item to a higher purpose than it originally had had. I’ll give two examples. Sawdust, which has no value, can be turned into particle board. To give another example, a lawyer who has passed away can be composted into natural fertilizer, thereby turning a harmful substance into something beneficial.
     Remember: Don’t buy something new if you can get something just as good second hand or, better yet, for free. Don’t recycle when you can upcycle, downcycle, or reuse. Finally, if you’re a lawyer, you can practice reuse by retelling the above joke, substituting the word blogger.
(In part 1 of this series, "How to Raise Living Standards by Lowering the GDP," I describe how the GDP is an unreliable measure of prosperity.  In part 2 of this series, “The Emperor’s New Logo,” I describe the folly of buying things that don’t exist except in the minds of gullible, emotionally stunted buyers. Part 4 is the tour de force of this series. By learning how advertisers narrow our decisions to Hobson’s choices, we can break the matrix. Part 4 is titled, “How to Raise Our Living Standards, Spend Less Money, Enjoy Better Health, and Improve Environmental Protection All at the Same Time.”)