Name that Country!

Really quickly – what’s the first country that comes to mind from the following description?

  • You’re not allowed to travel without papers or warrantless searches from the authorities.
  • You have no right to a speedy trial, and can be indefinitely detained.
  • When crossing the border, you’re subjected to propaganda in the form of announcements and televisions talking about how great the country is and how it’s keeping you safe.
  • If every single email or phone call you’ve made has been secretly recorded and compiled.

North Korea?  The USSR? Communist China? Cuba?

Nope – it’s the United States of America!  All in the last 12 years too!

Martin Jacques TED Talk on China’s Economic Rise

This is a great talk and synopsis of Martin’s fabulously well researched book “When China Rules the World” which I reviewed a couple years ago on this blog.  If you’re not up for reading the 500+ page book, this is a good way to get the gist, and it’s updated with some post-financial crisis analysis.

His fundamental argument is against the conventional thought that when a country modernises it also westernises and that we can’t use Western ideas and thoughts to frame China when attempting to make sense of it.

Why Does This Have to Be So Hard?

Today the internet is protesting SOPA and PIPA, and it’s impressive to witness.  Absolutely huge sites are blacking out to raise awareness and prevent these bills from passage.  It leaves me feeling both hopeful and saddened.  I’m hopeful that this type of activism can help curb bad bills, but ultimately I’m mostly just sad.

Here are two bills that are almost universally opposed by constituents, are fundamentally flawed from both a logical and technical perspective, opposed by the entire technology industry, and are clearly funded and pushed only by rich and corrupt special interestes.  Yet the only thing preventing them from passage is massive worldwide outcry the likes of which we’ve literally never seen before?

Maybe this is democracy working, but it feels like things shouldn’t be this hard.  Particularly in a representative democracy.  Bad bills are bad bills and they should be dealt with, but I think the reality is that this isn’t even that bad of a bill when stacked up against recent travesties like the NDAA.

So maybe we can pull out of this tailspin as a country, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion this is how empires die.

Goodbye Current Events

I’m trying something out and it only tangentially happens to correspond with the New Year.  It looks like a resolution, but it’s not.  Essentially, I’m going to unplug from most current events when at all possible.

This flies in the face of my normal desire to read and know about current events obsessively.  I may not be a full fledged news junkie, but I definitely used to read two newspapers pretty extensively, and generally spend large chunks of time reading about current events.  I even used to take daily notes of important events with the goal of being able to identify trends and analyze coverage, particularly longer running items like the 2008 Financial Meltdown or the Arab Spring.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I was better off reading well researched books that came out a few months or years later.  I enjoyed the treatment of the events better, they were more informative, and the coverage more balanced, and the whole experience was of course seasoned with hindsight.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but should yield the following benefits.

More Time

The idea had already been percolating a bit but was reinforced during the last few months of an international move where I literally didn’t have time to follow current events.  The end result was I didn’t care that much.  And I had a lot more time to devote to moving.  Now I’ll have more time to devote to other things.

More Accuracy

There’s a name for a phenomenon (that I don’t have time to research) where you read media coverage of an event or detailed subject which you know a lot about and realize that the article is inaccurate, missing important details, or misses crucial nuance.  You smirk as you realize the reported missed the point or didn’t do the subject justice, then move on to the next article and trust they’re getting it right on all those other subjects on which you’re not an expert.  I’d rather research things in a more classical manner and read books by experts, and challenge their ideas with research.  None of this requires a newspaper subscription or online RSS reader.

A More Informed Citizen

The upcoming presidential election in the United States will probably be one of the biggest wastes of time and money since the last one.  Here’s a great article that surfaced recently which sums up my opinions pretty well: the US political process is dominated by money (94% of the time the candidate with the most money wins) and both political parties are essentially the same.  I’ve seen one blogger call them the Coke and Pepsi parties and I’m convinced it’s true.  Both spend a lot of time telling you they’re different, but at the end of the day, most people wouldn’t be able to objectively tell.  Certainly both parties are hellbent on remaining in power and enriching themselves.  Both are consistently advancing positions that I greatly disagree with and won’t be able to affect by voting for one candidate over another.  For damn sure I could never tell you (and I’d challenge you to honestly reflect for yourself) how one party affected my life compared to another to any measurable degree.

During the previous mid-term elections, I received a polling call that went through every single office and their attendant candidates that was up for election in South Florida, and asked if my choice as a voter would be affected by learning the following information.  All of them had been convicted for some form of fraud, bribery, election campaign funds misappropriation, and more.  The third party candidate calling me made a really good point: everyone in both parties is a criminal!

Ultimately, for the last two elections I’ve ended up spending an hour or so on Politifact for all non-national races, read the presidential candidate’s books, and talked to a few people I trust and made my decision.  I’ve found that the above process educated me significantly more than the breathless campaign coverage I was reading every day.

A More Interesting Person

I’m not going to ignore current events – if people are talking about things that are happening, I’ll tell them I haven’t heard of the event, and they can explain it to me.  It’s better than talking about the weather, it avoids me monologuing on my own opinions which can be a drag to others, and it’ll ultimately make things more interesting for both of us.

A Few Exceptions

I will still maintain a daily reading of technical, work related, and hobby related blogs.  These are intensely interesting and enjoyable, and aren’t really focused around current events most of the time.  I will also maintain a daily eye on the weather and train schedules because this is how I get to work.  I will monitor financial and investment information, but will limit most decisions to being made in a minimum 3-5 year time horizon (which is what I do anyway) and not worry about current doom and gloom.  Any substantive investment strategy should always assume gloom and doom by default and prepare for it, not react to the horrors of the day.

This is Not a New Idea

This is not a new or even novel idea.  I’ve seen this discussed in the book “I Was Blind but Now I See” by James Altucher, I believe it’s referenced in “The Art of Nonconformity” by Chris Guillebeau, and when I really think about it, it’s how I lived the first 15 years of my life without internet access in Asia.  I’m not really worried.

Updated 8 Jan 2011:

Updated thanks to a comment that just came in through email.  The phenomenon I mentioned above was coined by Michael Chrichton and is the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.  He also mentioned this in an essay title “Why Speculate?” Thanks “jcs”!