Saturday, November 1, 2014

Fear Nation

"Danger! Danger! Danger!"
America, we have a problem. This is a problem that you won't find on the news. So if you wait for your favorite news channel to tell you what the problem is, you'll just grow old. And most likely scared. Either way they won't tell you not because they're hiding the problem, but because for the most part they haven't a clue. Yes, there's irony in there somewhere. But let me use one of the many recurring bad news subjects that they report about frequently, to find our problem.

In 2007, a Harvard Law article concluded that there was no proven correlation between gun control and murder or suicide. I'm surprised I have not heard the pro gun lobby promote the article more. But regardless of where you stand on the issue, here's my problem with the logic used by the authors of the study: one of their central arguments revolves around the United Kingdom, and the fact that the UK already had a relatively low gun death incidence before tight gun control laws. Therefore, the fact that after tight gun control they still have a low incidence compared to the US disproves a correlation. The problem with that logic is that it ignores a different kind of law: that of supply and demand.

The US has one of the least restrictive marketplaces in the developed world, something at least half of Americans see as a global competitive advantage. In many ways I believe it is a healthy competitive advantage. But I am also convinced that when you elevate any man-made system into demigod status you've just set it up for failure. There is a reason the American founding fathers set up a system of checks and balances: no one, not even the free market, should ever be above scrutiny.

So let's scrutinize the market for one moment: a basic marketing course teaches that to penetrate a market with as much of your product as possible you have to be able to touch at least one emotional trigger in your customer-buyer. One of the most common emotional triggers is fear. The business of fear is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world, but especially so in the more deregulated marketplaces. 

In case you're not familiar with emotional branding or fear-based selling, here is a short list of industries that thrive on it: insurance, pharmaceuticals, retirement / financial planning, alarm and security systems... you get the point. Now, to be clear: just because you work in any of those industries does not make you a bad person. In fact, a lot of good comes from those industries, no doubt. But just like all individuals are imperfect, so is the marketplace we create.

One more free-market dynamic before I tie it all together: private media cannot exist without advertising revenue. So for example: in America, if you frequent travel channels on television you will notice a lot of advertisement from airlines, hotels, and related travel products and services. And if you frequent news networks like FOX News and CNN, you will notice a major amount of advertisement from fear-promoted products and services. Firearm manufacturers don't advertise on mainstream TV in the US, but they benefit vicariously from 24-hour fear-based news programming. Without any significant restrictions, the average American can go from a FOX News Special Report to an AR-15 assault rifle in about an hour. 

If you follow the gun control debate in the US, you will notice that the pro gun lobby emphasizes the word "ban" over "control". You will also notice that what follows is a message of fear about freedom lost. In a highly deregulated marketplace, the result is highly predictable. So are firearm sales profits.

So what does any of that have to do with gun control in the UK and a Harvard University study? This: the UK has and always had more market restrictions than the US, and therefore the flooding of its marketplace with any product, including guns, has always been a much more difficult endeavor. All the government of the UK did years ago, as it realized that there was a real danger of its marketplace being flooded with firearms, was to preempt the move.

How is the UK market more restrictive than the US? Higher levels of government involvement, higher overall taxes, higher cost of living, higher cost of doing business, and a culture that has not embraced the marketing of fear as profusely as the US has. Yes, America: freedom does indeed have a price, and blood is not its only currency.

I think it's ironic that Harvard Law did not consult with its top-ranked business and economics school next door. Surely they would have been reminded that the laws of supply and demand almost always predetermine the laws of a government. Gridlocked gun control by itself will never work in the US. Only a paradigm shift collaboration between fair gun control and a mass detox program against a culture of fear-addiction will solve our problem.


(Click on image to view video clip)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Alive Inside" - A Review and Commentary

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory is a 2014 American documentary film directed and produced by Michael Rossato-Bennett. The movie's website summarizes the film this way: "Alive Inside is a joyous cinematic exploration of music’s capacity to reawaken our souls and uncover the deepest parts of our humanity. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett chronicles the astonishing experiences of individuals around the country who have been revitalized through the simple experience of listening to music. His camera reveals the uniquely human connection we find in music and how its healing power can triumph where prescription medication falls short."

I have been preaching for a while that the genre of documentaries has come of age in a big way over the past decade or so. In some instances, they have easily surpassed the average fictional movie in quality and critical reviews. Recently I had the unexpected pleasure of attending the local premiere of Alive Inside, which turned out to be yet another instance of documentary excellence. I say unexpected because I had actually braced myself for a very difficult subject matter: dementia and Alzheimer's disease are not exactly the happiest of topics, especially when it hits so close to home (both my parents have been diagnosed with dementia). But as the film gods would have it, something very inspiring happened: Michael Rossato-Bennett has managed to turn the far-from-happy-ending of our fragile human condition into a story of hope.

Before I get to the hope part, let me make sure you understand just how relevant this story is. First, according to the Alzheimer's Association in the US (and I would be willing to bet the following numbers are relevant across the world)one out of three people dies with Alzheimer's or another dementia.  Let that sink in for a moment. Among you and just two other people closest to you, one will die with dementia and/or Alzheimer's. Every sixty-seven seconds, someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. 

Like the "Six Million Dollar Man", we can keep improving physical technologies, extending the official life of our bodies with every surgical, chemical, or biogenetic breakthrough. But as for the real life inside of us, we haven't a clue. We know that we have a brain, which we prefer to call a mind, and that it is somehow intertwined with something we awkwardly call a soul. As for any breakthroughs in understanding where or what a soul is, we might as well be getting excited about fire and the wheel. Ever since we began suspecting that our mere bodies were not the real essence of life, we have collectively done almost nothing to understand that essence, never mind be able to extend its tenure inside our physical bodies. Spiritual and religious thought leaders may disagree with me here. But with all due respect to them, our mass warehousing of our elders speaks to the contrary. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical and surgical industries have been given all but carte blanche to do whatever they see fit with our aging souls.

Enter some hope, via a man named Dan Cohen. Cohen is a social worker and founder of a nonprofit organization called Music and Memory. In order to capture the significance of what Cohen has discovered, try this mental exercise yourself: think of the last time you stumbled upon an old, favorite song or musical piece you had not heard in years, and think about the instant reaction it stirred in you. Now imagine being in a drugged state of partial consciousness, for what could be a month or a decade -- you're not sure. Imagine finally, someone walking up to you, gently placing a set of headphones on your ears, and playing that same song or musical piece... 

Better yet, don't imagine any of this. Find someone with dementia and do exactly that for them (one out of three elders, shouldn't be too difficult), then sit back and watch them come alive right in front of your eyes. Or, make it a point to watch Alive Inside for yourself. My bet is that, either way, you will experience a soul-touching moment.

"There is no pill that does that..."
- Alive Inside

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Call Center Girl

Customer Service has been called anything from an oxymoron to one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Apparently, somewhere in the middle, is a portal of sorts. A portal to a dimension that can only be described as, The Call Center Zone…

"Sir, I'm going to reset your cable TV box from my end and send an update to it, that should do it. The reset will take about ten minutes..."


Two minutes later: "Sir, is it done rebooting?"


"That's because it's only been two minutes, it takes about 10 minutes. Give it more time..."

"Uh, sure."

Two minutes later: "Sir, is it done rebooting yet?"


"Yeah, it takes ten minutes, you have to give it time."

"Whatever you say."

Two minutes later: "Sir, how about now?"

"Zip. Nada."

"Of course. Ten minutes haven't gone by yet, sir, be patient."

"Of course."

One minute later: "Sir, is there anything wrong with your phone? I don't hear any noises in the background..."

"Um… you want me to make noises over the phone??"

"No, no: the reason I keep asking you every two minutes is because not a single sound is coming from your home. Normally there's some kind of noise on our calls. Kids screaming, dogs barking, things like that. It's also a way we know we're still connected to the customer. Is everything OK?"

"Well, it WAS... but frankly now I'm a little self-conscious. I come from an Italian family, you know, lots of screaming all the time... I've worked very hard for the silence you're hearing. But now you're making me wonder if I've taken things too far..."

Nikolai looks at me with that look he gives when he's thoroughly confused by what's going on. Tech support woman interjects:

"No, no, no, I'm so sorry sir, I didn't mean anything by it! Oh my god, I was just making conversation, you know, since we do have to wait ten minutes! No, you're fine, no need to worry... take as long as you need sir, I'm in no hurry, really..."

"Okie dokie." A few seconds later I start humming "O Sole Mio".

"Oh, I know that one... It's Italian right??"


"Is it the one about the moon and a piece of pie??"

"I'm not sure. Hum a few bars for me?"

"You know: 'When the moon eats your eye like a big piece of pie...'  Oh... I'm sorry, can I put you on hold for a minute?"



"Thank you for holding, I'm back."

"No problem. Box rebooted, problem fixed by the way."

"Good! And sir, my supervisor would like to know if I have resolved your problem to your complete satisfaction..."

"Please tell your supervisor that you can sing Italian songs to my cable box anytime. Fixed the problem, I don't really care what technology you use. Your competition was using fiber optics, and they couldn't get it to work if their life depended on it."

"Oh I'm so happy to hear that! Thank you for being a valued customer!"


Tech support woman giggles, and then hangs up. Nikolai rolls his eyes and sighs. I don’t remember if most dogs sigh or not, but Nikolai sure sighs a lot. Maybe it’s a Siberian thing. It couldn’t be an Italian thing, because it would involve a lot of paw gesturing and a lot of barking.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Travels With You

Ridin' Kiev's Underworld (Photo by Sanskrity Sinha)
One of my earliest (and few) possessions is a travel certificate that a now defunct airline gave me when I was six months old. Let me pre-empt my wiseass friends here and say that, no, it wasn't aboard the Wright Flyer I. It was a big 'ol jet airliner, equipped with four jet engines and six miniskirted "stewardesses". Barely a jet, according to the Smithsonian museum, but I'll take it. I probably smoked an entire pack of Marlboros on that trip, as this was even before the days of "smoking sections". Oh, but the miniskirts more than made up for it... six months old or not, Mad Men world here I come.

When you travel long distances frequently from an early age, your view of the world is going to be different from that of a normal person. Just a few short years after my flight debut, I found myself in Bogota, Colombia. "They speak your language, you'll be fine." So they sent me to a British school, for good measure I suppose.

They speak your language… of course they do. It finally hit me 40 years and many kilometers later, as I was wandering the streets of Kiev, Ukraine. It's not the language, stupid. First of all, let me get this off my chest: the Beatles were spot on about the Ukrainian girls… my sweet lord. But I digress. Within living generations, the people of Kiev have been pissed off first by Hitler, then by  Stalin, and now... by Stalin's Mini-Me, apparently. You would think that by now they would have a right to be fairly angry, and you would be right. But something amazing happens when you figure out how to transcend differences. Here's a short story of how I learned this lesson from a Ukrainian bartender named Alexander the Great.

So there I was, not a word of Ukrainian, never mind Russian. I finished my meetings, most of them with an interpreter, and I needed a drink badly. No interpreter, just me, the underworld of Kiev's metro, and the first bar I happened to come across. Before my interpreter left me to fend for myself, I asked him how to say the one phrase with which I arm myself whenever I happen to experience radio silence from Houston: "I am sorry, I don't speak (fill in your language)". He told me, I memorized it, good enough. Vodka & tonic, here I come. I looked around the smoky bar as I walked in, and I observed what the first guy to walk in the place did. Body language, eye contact, speak. My turn: same body language, same eye contact, speak: ya pereproshuyu, ya ne hovoryu po- ukrayinsʹky. Bartender looks at me for a second, then all of a sudden smiles and says "It's OK, I don't speak much fucking English!" We both laughed, and I decided I was going to try a universal language: I stretched my hand out to him, smiled, and said, "I'm Joe."

Two hours, three tonics, and four vodkas later, we knew this much about each other: he knew that I ("Joe Cocker" is what he decided he was going to call me) was born in Argentina, had lived in the jungles of Colombia (couldn't talk him out of that one, "jungles" it was), grew up in Rome, and currently lived in New York City (close enough, Cincinnati doesn't register on the world radar). I knew his name was Alexander the Great (Alex, but he said I could call him the long version of his name), couldn't decide between two girlfriends, was an engineer (he pointed at the lights, but I'm pretty sure he meant electrical, not a lighting engineer), and that his uncle had been executed by the Nazis after an infamous World War II incident called the "Death Match". I had actually heard about that story during one of my meetings in Kiev. My client drove me around the city for about a half hour before dropping me off at my hotel, and pointed out the stadium where the match between the Nazis and the Ukrainian team had taken place. The Nazis had challenged the Ukrainians to a football match, but after the Ukrainians beat them, there were rumors that some of the players had later been arrested, and some were even executed.

The story had made an impact on me, and when I heard that his uncle was a part of it, I was moved. I asked him to share a shot of vodka with me in honor of his uncle. I raised my glass towards the photo of Alex's uncle in uniform and said “sapsybi”, and we downed our shots. We exchanged contact information, I gave him one of my cards and left a big tip. He looked at the tip, picked it up, and gave it right back to me. I stretched out my hand to say goodbye, but he hugged me instead. In just two hours, Alexander the Great and I had managed to connect, with about 10 words of Ukrainian and 50 words of English.

Almost ten years have passed since I met Alexander the Great. Neither of us kept in touch, though I always hope he remembers the time Joe Cocker stopped by his bar. He might even tell the story that way, because our communication was actually more about the music than it was about the vodka. After much prodding, I did sing the first few lines of "With a Little Help From My Friends". For his part, he gave "You Are So Beautiful" a try, and I have to say, he almost nailed it. Cocker convulsions and all. But as far as connecting with another fellow human being goes, it doesn't get any better than having a bartender in Kiev look at you across the bar, and pour his heart out by telling you that, well, you are so fucking beautiful. To him.

It is right there and then that I began to realize, not only is communicating hardly about knowing a language, knowing the world is hardly about traveling. People are not small-minded because they have not travelled: they are small minded because unchallenged fear is dominant in their lives. I have met many self-professed road warriors who carry themselves around with self-importance and arrogance. And I have met people like Alexander the Great, the real road warriors in my eyes. The ones who have never travelled far by common standards, yet whose priority to connect are flying them across the universe and leaving many road warriors in the dust.

Here's where the great lesson I learned gets astrophysical, so fasten your seat belts: last I calculated, I have broken the million kilometers of travel mark a while ago. Let's say I travel another million or two before I die. So what. Approximately two million kilometers is what the likes of Alexander the Great travel every hour. Well, technically, we all are traveling that much, but not everyone is paying attention: six-hundred kilometers per second (just over two million km/hr) is the resulting speed that our spaceship Milky Way is zipping towards the Great Attractor (a brilliant name if you ask me, a high-five to the scientist who came up with that one).  I have come to a conviction that guys like Alex are intuitively aware of this universal law of gravitation. 

So travel away, by all means, our world is indeed a wonderful place. But if you don't work hard to connect with people around you, wherever you or they happen to be, then let me respectfully submit the following for your consideration: getting on an airplane and traveling thousands of kilometers away is not going to magically make you capable of connecting with the world. As the great astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote in “Contact”:

You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.” (Constellation Vega Alien to Dr. Ellie Harroway)

Scene From "Contact" (1997)

Mother Should I Run for President? (A Video Blog)

Almost forty years ago , the British psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd released its masterpiece titled " The Wall ". The double...