America’s other national religion

Americans lined up outside stores last week for deals on technology ranging from tablets to TVs. Many spent all of Thanksgiving, a day intended for reflection on the many blessings we already have, camping outside Best Buy to get a good deal on a laptop.

Black Friday, that national holiday celebrating consumerism in America, is ironically placed one day after Thanksgiving. We’re thankful for the things we have, briefly, right before we run to the store in order to trample other Americans to get a deal on an iPad.

And now Black Friday is actually invading Thanksgiving: some stores opened during the day itself, meaning you could start shopping before you’ve even digested your turkey.

I know many of you who will read this aren’t American, or even Western. You’re from India, or China, or Mars. But all of you are familiar with the idea that Christmas is becoming too commercial. It’s a cliche that transcends borders, thanks in no small part to Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

The talk is that America is a Christian nation, but it’s not the complete reality. We have a second major religion, which I’ll get to later.

For now lets talk about the universe. Some night this week I want you to hold a tennis ball in front of your face and look at the night sky. That ball is blocking light, however feint, from thousands of galaxies further away than you can contemplate. All of those galaxies contain hundreds of billions of stars, many of which have planets orbiting around them.

And that’s just the one’s we’ve managed to see.

If the odds of life arising spontaneously are one in a trillion, your tennis ball covers up more than enough galaxies for it to happen multiple times.

I point this because some of us believe that a single entity created all of this, and is in control of it. That’s power beyond contemplation, and it might sound silly, but it’s what some of us in the West believe.

Some of us also believe that, two thousand years ago, this entity became human. That he was born an infant and had a relatively normal childhood in Roman-controlled Palestine.

Weird, right? But it gets even better: we believe that entity, while human, gave up the things most of us value most: wealth and power. He lived without possessions, preferring to travel light. And when people tried to make him king he turned them down.

But not only did the most powerful being in the universe scorn power and comfort for himself; he questioned the morality of having it. He said it was easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven, and told the rich without ambiguity to sell everything they own and give it to the poor.

We killed him, the story goes. Humanity couldn’t let someone say things like that, so we killed him.

Anyway, this is the month that entity was born in human form, some believe. And we celebrate the birthday of this man, who could have had everything but instead lived simply, by buying shit we don’t need and giving it to people who probably don’t want it.

Because like I said, there’s a second national religion in America: consumerism.

Christianity, in its early days, took over pagan festivals and turned them into Christian holidays. The winter solstice became Christmas, easter displaced a fertility festival. Consumerism is doing the same thing today and most people don’t notice.

So this year, during December, try to do something good. Help the poor. Give money to worthwhile causes. Make our planet better, because you really don’t need another tablet.

Originally part of Technophilia 46: Sexiest Man Alive 

Hey, media: stop letting Apple use you as its PR department.

For all the talk of social media being the future of marketing, one company stands outside it all: Apple. This company’s every move is speculated about constantly on every social network, but how many people follow Apple on Twitter? None; they don’t have a Twitter page.

Apple knows a truth about social networking no supposed social media expert ever talks about: starving the beast is more effective than stuffing it. Information is only powerful if revealed on your terms, and Apple is the master of this.

So much speculation is built up by the time an Apple announcement happens that every journalist and blogger is compelled to write about it, even if they don’t think the actual announcement is that big a deal, because of the time investment they’ve already made.

Speaking of not being that big of a deal: the new iPad. Numbered-names are gone, and the resolution is higher. The device is more powerful. Also: Apple told journalists the post-PC age is here, and they all dutifully wrote that down and published it.

Here’s a hint: new versions of products come out every year, and they’re going to be better than last time. Other companies will copy the feature. It won’t magically connect you with other human beings or make you happier, but advertisements will subtly tell you otherwise.

In other words: Apple is a company making money by selling products. Journalists know not to cover every politician’s press conferences unless there’s reason to think something interesting will happen. It’s high time we did treated Apple the same way.

A version of this article appeared in episode 13 of Technophilia Podcast.

Gas Is Too Cheap

Gas prices are too low. Far, far too low. Within decades we will regret ever charging as little as four dollars a gallon for gas.

Divide global oil reserves by global oil consumption and we’ve got 33 years left.

Oil is a limited resource, and we’re going to run out of it. That’s not some liberal projection; that’s math. That’s reality. We should be preserving the oil we have for essential things, like farming, and restructuring our communities to reflect the coming post-petroleum era.

At the very least we, as a society, need to stop subsidizing fuel prices before our runaway consumption leads to an inevitable disaster.

The Blame Game

Disagree? You’re not alone. Gas prices being too high is the topic de jour in the media right now in America, and everyone is looking for someone to blame.

Some say the problem is jerks in the Middle East, demanding basic human rights and dignity without stopping to think what impact this might have on gas prices. Others say the problem is entirely based on Wall Street, as speculators drive the price higher and higher just to earn more greedy money.

Others, seemingly out of habit, blame Obama. The President can, after all, magically control gas prices; he is only increasing them now out a deep-seated hatred for America.

Regardless of the reason for the price increase, however, I think it’s a good thing prices are rising. Don’t get me wrong: I do have sympathy for working class families hit hard by increasing prices, and the economic recovery is being hindered by the rise. Still, these problems are superficial compared to the ones we’ll face if we let gas prices stay this low for much longer.

Until what we pay for gas accurately reflects the long-term consequences of using gas, we’ve got problems on our hands.

Not What You Think

Before you start ranting in the comments, denying climate change is an issue and stating the wars in Iraq and Libya have nothing to do with oil, know one thing: my argument requires neither that you believe climate science is valid nor that our foreign policy has consequences. It is, and it does, but realizing gas it too cheap requires accepting neither premise.

No, realizing gas is too cheap requires only some basic math.

Don’t believe me? Follow along. I’ve made a few calculations using WolframAlpha, an online tool that can calculate just about anything. Feel free to check the links below to check my work.

Simple Calculations

America consumes 18.6 million barrels of oil a day. That means that, on average, an American consumes 0.06 barrels of oil a day. It takes 16.66 days, or just over half a month, for the average American to use up a barrel of oil.

No problem, right? After all, a 2002 estimate claims world oil reserves total around 1.326 trillion barrels, so there’s a lot of oil to go around yet. Divide world oil reserves by US oil consumption and you’ll find that we’ve got 145 years and 9 months left before we run out of oil.

There’s one obvious problem with that calculation, of course: more countries than America use oil. China consumes 8.2 million barrels of oil a day, for example, and Europe uses 15.39 million barrels a day.

(That’s right: America uses more oil than all of Europe combined, despite Europe containing 286.5 million additional people. USA! USA! USA!)

Anyway: if you add up the oil consumption in China, Europe and America you get 42.28 million barrels of oil a day. How long can the world’s oil reserves hold out against that combined consumption? 64 years and 5 months.

That’s just America, Europe and China combined. Never mind India (2.98 million barrels a day), Latin America (8.089 million barrels a day) or the rest of the world. Take every country out of the picture besides America, Europe and China and we don’t even have 65 years left.

I can reasonably expect to live that long.

Divide global oil reserves by global oil consumption and we’ve got 33 years left.

Most people on earth can expect to live that long.

But wait: there’s more.

All of these figures assume that current oil consumption will remain static in the coming decades. It won’t.

In most countries on Earth oil consumption has been trending upwards for years, even accounting for the decline caused by the recent depression. China and India will see particularly big rises as their economy awakens.

It’s also worth noting that much of the global oil reserves will never actually be extracted for a variety of reasons. Some would take more energy to extract than they would provide, and some are too environmentally risky.

No Easy Answer

So what solution do I offer? I mostly just want people to realize that our current era, of cheap energy, could well be an unusual bubble in global history.

We should probably stop subsidizing sprawl, shifting infrastructure funding away from expressways and toward sidewalks and bike trails. We should certainly re-think any subsidies of the vehicle industries.

More importantly, though, we need to take the need for alternative energy a lot more seriously, because non-renewable energy sources run out by definition. Increasing the tax on gas to help research these alternative could be a step in the right direction, but that might not be politically possible. Our society it built on the assumption of cheap gas, and people won’t give that assumption up until it’s too late.

Why should they? Gas it too cheap for anyone to take the idea of oil running out seriously.

Few things happen without some sort of economic motivation, and at four dollars a gallon people are just barely starting to change their lifestyles. Be it purchasing efficient cars or driving less, or even using a bike instead of driving, change is happening. Any action government takes to reverse this would be a mistake.

People Talking Without Speaking: The Ignored Disaster

Sitting in front a computer. That’s what I do lately.

It’s what most of us do lately.

Learn the conventions of the web. Tweet it. Like it. Digg it. Write a snappy headline or no one will read it. Stay on top of the trends. It doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not; give people the surface. Don’t confuse, engage.

Give the people what they want.

Meanwhile, in the real world, suffering exists for very complicated reasons. People in Pakistan continue to recover from the flood, but you wouldn’t know it from Digg or Twitter. It’s not as sexy a disaster as hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, I suppose, so we don’t talk about it.

Maybe the problem is that Pakistan is too complicated. Right now a poor man is turning turning to Islamic extremists for help. Is that because his democratically elected government is corrupt, or because years of military rule means civic institutions lack the resources to properly care for people?

Or, considering what a mess much of New Orleans still is, does government really even matter in this context?

All questions worth asking, but regardless that man is going to find a way to feed himself and his family. That’s what people in hard situations do: they find a way. That’s the human spirit.

But from here I can’t understand that spirt. Sitting in front of a screen everything is blurry. To me, that person is an abstraction; another hypothetical chip I can throw at an argument no one is listening to.

People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening. And I’m a part of it.

I sincerely believe the world is becoming a better place for the web’s existence, but I fear we’re becoming too simple in the process. We need to find a way to bring complicated arguments to the web, or we’re going to drown in the sheer volume of our simplistic statements.

This isn’t some abstraction; real people are being overlooked because of our inability to process complex information. Let me know if you have any ideas, but I’ve got to get back to work now.

Donate to UNICEF’s efforts in Pakistan.

What We Need To Protect – a short story

He approached the castle, not knowing what to expect. He knew that the amulet would respond in some way to the castle’s defenses, and he knew he needed to get inside if there was any chance of ending it all.

He didn’t know, however, that the amulet would completely destroy the eastern wall. Running to avoid the resulting bits of stone flying through the air, he managed to shield himself behind a tree.

For a moment he touched the tree that saved his life, with no small degree of appreciation. Then, looking at the wreckage, he noticed that someone had already gotten inside the castle, without the amulet. She was looking at him with profound frustration.

“You moron,” she said. “What was your plan?”

He said nothing, wondering how she managed to get inside the castle.

“Never mind that; get over here!” she quickly said. “Don’t just stand there.”

“I didn’t expect the wall to explode,” he finally said, approaching the now absent wall. “I kind of thought a door would appear or something.”

“Whatever, just get over here,” she said, pulling him behind into a nearby room. A closet, as it turns out, and not one with a lot of space. They were pressed against each other.

“All said, I really can’t complain about this turn of events,” he said, smiling.

“Shut up,” she hissed. “What are we supposed to do now? This entire side of the castle will soon be crawling with guards. We’ll never get to the crystals.”

“You worry too much. We have the amulet, and that scares them. I say we work with that.”

He opened the door and looked around. Clear. He approached the area just outside the former wall and used his sword to cut out a little sod. He then dug a hole and placed the amulet inside. He restored the sod, patted it in place to obscure the hole, and ran back to the closet.

“Great, now we’re stuck in a closet with no amulet,” she whispered.

“Trust me.” he replied. And so they waited.

“What happened here?” they soon heard a voice say.

“I don’t know” said another. Behind them the slow but steady sound of steps announced the approach of the wizard. Then a deep, rich voice.

“Obviously,” said the wizard, “someone has the amulet. They probably hope to steal the crystals.”

“Well, then we’d better rebuild the wall,” said one of the guards.

“Really? You think that might be a good idea?” replied the wizard, clearly exhausted with the quality of his help. “Just find the amulet and leave the wall to me.”

All that could be heard after that was a slow chant, followed by the sound of stones being pulled into each other. The wall was rebuilt.

For an instant, anyway. Another explosion quickly took the wall down again.

“It worked!” she whispered.

“Yep. Now we just wait for the second explosion…”

More chanting, then stones coming together, then an explosion. Chaos.

“And…go!”

They ran out the door, headed straight towards the crystals. The guards were busy looking for the amulet, and the wizard was busy cursing at them.

And there, in the next room, were the crystals. Three of them, all on pedestals, all glimmering in their respective shades of blue, yellow and red.

All unprotected.

“They’re…” he gasped, his breath taken away by majesty of it all.

“Beautiful,” she helpfully concluded. “Now let’s grab them and get out of here.”

And so they did. Behind them they heard the continuous explosion and re-construction of the eastern wall, highlighted by panicked guards and the alternating yelling and chanting of the wizard. With all the panic no one was watching the western door, allowing for an easy escape toward the forest.

“No chance anyone can see us now,” she said, gasping.

“Nope; none at all,” he said, admiring what was around him. They were in a small meadow, nestled in trees beside the mountains. A small stream flowed nearby.

“It’s beautiful here. Reminds me of what we need to protect. Of why we fight.”

“Indeed,” she said, looking around. “I have to hand it to you, I was pretty upset at first but you did come through,” she added, looking straight into his eyes.

“Well, I try,” he said, returning her gaze. His heart beat quickly. He took his helmet off.

Instantly he found himself in a sterile white room. Three walls were lined with people wearing white body suits and plastic helmets, miming sword fights and spell casting. He didn’t recognize any of them.

At the far wall was a desk manned by a petite woman, who was looking at her computer screen. “Done for the day then, buddy?” she asked, her eyes never looking away from the monitor.

“Yeah, I should get going,” he said. She didn’t say a thing.

He took off the suit and left it at the desk. He grabbed his keys and wallet from a nearby locker, then headed outside to his car. Plugging his phone into the car’s stereo, he turned on some music.

Merging onto the freeway, he stopped paying attention. During his drive he passed mostly parking lots: three Taco Bells, an IKEA, five strip malls, two McDonald’s franchises.

And one park, nestled in trees beside the mountains. A small stream flowed nearby.

In this park a group of children were playing a pickup game of soccer, and at the precise moment he passed half of them were loudly celebrating a goal with a flurry of high-fives.

He saw none of this, however. He just kept driving, not really looking at anything and not even listening to his music. When he got home he spent a couple of hours online before falling asleep on the couch, alone.

‘Idiot America’ shows how truth became a product

You might not guess it from the title, but Idiot America is perhaps the most loving tribute to the United States on book shelves right now. In many ways an extension of his famous October 2005 Esquire article Greetings From Idiot America, Charles P. Pierce’s latest book covers everything from the Terri Schiavo circus to climate change denial to Sarah Palin to the story that started it all: The Creation Museum. All of this is done with love and wit, aimed to both amuse and highlight the absurdity of our present national dialog.

For example, here’s how Pierce introduces the Creation Museum:

“Outside, several [people] stop to be interviewed by a video crew. They have come from Indiana, one woman says, two toddlers toddling at her feet, because they have been home-schooling their children and they have given them this adventure as a kind of field trip. The whole group then bustles into the lobby of the building, where they are greeted by the long neck of a huge, herbivorous dinosaur. The kids run past that and around a corner, where stands another, smaller dinosaur.

“Which is wearing a saddle.

“It is an English saddle, hornless and battered. Apparently, this was a dinosaur used for dressage competitions and stakes races. Any working dinosaur accustomed to the rigors of ranch work and herding other dinosaurs along the dusty trail almost certainly would wear a sturdy western saddle.

“This is very much a show dinosaur.”

Excerpts like these are combined with a wide variety of stories from America’s past and present to promote Pierce’s central thesis, which is simple to grasp: America, once the mindchild of Enlightenment ideals, is becoming a place where truth doesn’t matter so much as marketability. Calling the place America is becoming “Idiot America,” Pierce claims we live in a society where expertise is regarded with at best suspicion and at worst hostility. Idiot America is based on three main premises:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
  3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

Throughout the book Pierce does a great deal to defend what he calls The Great American Crank. He devotes quite a lot of ink to Ignatius Donnelly, a 19th-century congressman and amateur scientist whose book Atlantis : the Antediluvian World (Barnes and Noble, Project Gutenburg) made the concept of Atlantis a phenomenon at the time. Pierce calls Donnelly the quintessential American Crank, a person outside the mainstream of the day who pushed the nation’s imagination to places it otherwise wouldn’t go.

The problem, to Pierce, isn’t the cranks. Cranks are an essential part of our national fabric, part of what makes America great.

No, the problem is that we’ve made our cranks into commodities. They have TV shows and book deals, and if they sell enough books or yell loudly enough what they say is just as valid as the opinion of a scientist or any other expert.

Or moreso.

Essentially, Pierce states that we live in a nation where everything is in the wrong place. Religion is mixed with science, entertainment with journalism and politics with faith. All of these things are weaker for being mixed together.

Particularly vivid, to me, is Pierce’s discussion of one of the most surreal election in America’s history:n 2008. McCain, previously a moderate, campaigned against legislation he wrote in order to garner votes in Idiot America. The nomination of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate was perhaps the epoch of the craziness:

“The more people pointed out Palin’s obvious shortcomings, the more the people who loved her loved her even more. She was taken seriously not merely because she had been selected to run, but also because of the fervor she had stirred among people in whose view her primary virtue as a candidate was the fact that she made the right people crazy. Their faith in Idiot America and its Three Great Premises was inviolate. Because the precincts of Idiot America were the only places where his party had a viable constituency, John McCain became the first presidential candidate in American history to run as a parody of himself.”

The book is worth reading if only because it’s the first thing I’ve read that made sense of the 2008 election, but there’s a lot about this book that makes it worth picking up.

Not that it’s without shortcomings. Pierce doesn’t mock the premises of Idiot America in action on the left nearly as much as he does on the right (he claims this is primarily because the right was in power as he wrote the book.) As someone who lives in Boulder, Colorado, I have to say that these three premises are alive and thriving on the left. It also seems, to me, that there is something iconic about Pierce criticizing the way truth has become a marketplace via a book with an extremely marketable title.

But perhaps I’m nitpicking. What Pierce does best here is contrast the crazy notions of the past with the crazy notions of today. For example, his conclusion regarding the Creation Museum:

“Counternarratives are designed to subvert conventional ideas, but there is nothing at all subversive about the Creation Museum. The ideas in it are not interesting. They’re just wrong. It’s a place without imagination, a place where we break our dragons like plow horses and ride them.”

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