Archive for the ‘misinformation’ Category

Last week Jerry Seinfeld performed a killer rant on Jimmy Fallon about the ritual of the Post Master General coming hat-in-hand to congress to close the latest loophole in the postal service budget. The critique of the post office as the public face of government dysfunction is especially spot-on after a week of having my mail service suspended because my mail carrier refuses to get out of his truck when the pile-up of mid-winter snow prevents him from providing drive-through service.

Seinfeld connects antisocial smart phone etiquette with the temptation to treat the listening-back side of conflict resolution as an antiquated nicety that’s been marginalized by the self-selecting way we choose not to engage directly in disagreements — especially when those disagreements may cost lenders and issuers money as well as attention to customers without risk management operations of their own.

The I-could-have-called-you-and-I chose-not-to option is how VISA apparently resolves its one-sided dialoging of credit card disputes these days. Only they don’t email or text either. The U.S. postal service is the vehicle of choice for phantom, unilateral negotiations already rigged in favor of the risk management services wing of America’s prospering financial services sector — the same industry that hemorrhages our identities and personal fiscal affects at checkout registers from coast-to-coast.

They rely on the US postal service — the same  channel both clogged and sustained by retailer offers for their plastic. Then the too-big-to-fail folks carve out a tiny window to respond to this post resolution second round of paperwork. I heard a muted apology over the phone last week that this window lasts for ten  days. That’s almost the duration I’ve been without mail service during our recent winter storm surge.

Actually, ‘tiny’ may be too large an opening for what they provide when the consumer doesn’t even know that window has been opened, or reopened in this case. That’s because in the interest of fairness I asked for one-half of the dispute to be re-credited to my account. After attempting to contact the merchant and filling the necessary paperwork my card issuer, TD Bank did exactly that. Only they put the charges back. An unannounced debit to my account surfaced 10 days ago: the amount of days to resolve a dispute by VISA’s watch and four months after I filed my original dispute with the merchant.

In the letter I filed last fall with TD Card Services I documented my communications with ABV Kayak and Excursions on the Riviere Rouge in the town of Grenville, about 50 miles northwest of Montreal near Parc du national Mont Tremblant. The business consists of a website, Facebook page, a school bus, van, some kayaks, crash helmets, paddles, rubber suits, contractor-instructors, and a bucket of suds that the guests use to wash the bodily fluids from the prior wet suit occupants.  If you believe the marketing this shadow operation has escorted 150,000 auteur kayakers down river from their rented rec hall in the splendors of the Laurentians since 1981.

When I first contacted the marketing arm, the sales associate informed me that a full day trip would be broken into two parts, with lunch in between. I told her we weren’t sure that we wanted to do a full day of rafting. She assured me that the variety of currents, peak season scenery, and topography would make the full day trip well worth it.

However, when we got there, ABV informed us that the afternoon part would merely duplicate the morning run, and pass the exact same portion of the exact same river as in the morning run. We did not want to do the same trip twice and were mislead by the merchant’s misrepresentation that the full day excursion had different morning and afternoon parts.

We took only the morning part of the trip. ABV’s representative asked us to call the office the following Monday, and inform the office staff. He said that ABV Kayak Excursions would refund the unused afternoon portion of our trip, which is $244.23. I did try to reach the ABV office upon return. No one responded, We were mislead into booking a full day excursion, did not in fact take a full day excursion, and do not believe we should have to pay for a full day excursion.

It would appear that TD Bank agreed as well. These were the details that prompted the partial refund. As for putting them back on my card I’ll say this: I would answer for the counterclaims that ABV made on its own behalf except that TD Services now refuses to share them with me.

It must be something about the foregone closure of those tiny windows where dispute resolutions tend to dissipate in the bank’s favor. I suppose if Seinfeld was mocking the kangaroo court of hearing out its customers, he might say that our credit institutions and banks had come to an executive decision before this dispute ever arose:

“I decided I only want to hear my half of the conversation. This is what I have to say…

I think we’re done here.”

What is that invisible and shifting divide between helpful and hindrance? Between being useful and being used? Between being a consumer assisted by a labor-saving device and an unsuspecting supplicant being consumed by a tech consumer juggernaut? This boundary is often defined along age lines, between geeks and luddites, Silicon Valley versus the rest of us, etc.

But those boundaries can come down any time they’re crossed. And they’re being crossed faster these days than we know where those borders are shifting to. Do I want my sleep compromised by the timely interruption of the forecasted obstacles in the day ahead? Do I want my robo-car decelerating at the hint of a green-to-yellow traffic signal? If I pre-set my controls to accelerate for yellow lights will my settings be overridden by drivers willing to pay more for their need to run yellow lights (or outrun traffic laws)?

As Claire Cain Miller points out in last week’s New York Times piece “Apps That Know What You Want, Before You Do,” the lines between creepy and cool are not always so clear. Even drawing them to familiar boundaries can redefine whether these lines are crossable or whether we know which side of the divide we favor.

How about an app that tells you your team has stormed back from extinction and is on the verge of a heroic comeback? Who could argue with good unexpected news?

You don’t need to be a sage in your gray beard years to form a healthy distrust of one’s short-term memory. How about an app that guesses at all the PINs you favored the last time you checked your miles for a carrier you haven’t flown on since all the unused points were traded for magazines that had since suspended publication?

It’s the scope creep that shadows us in our expectations that our corrosive bodies can keep pace with our supple minds. By the time we hit 50 we have a strategy for nearly all the unexpected we can fathom from our heads, hearts, and stomachs. That’s where the specter of a programmable salad of personal apps sounds more suggestive than proscriptive, more about limiting choices than about optimizing the meaning of direct experience. That’s a world where we’re reaching out to engage skin, bark, dirt, and surf at the expense of touching another screen. But it’s not just the sensual world. It’s the fragility of our rattled dispositions. We need time to absorb the untimeliest of blows. Lay-offs, divorces, suicide watches, and cancer readouts are not necessarily what we want scanned into calendars, socialized to networks, or tracked by prognosis. The machine is there to mitigate the risk to the programmer, not the defective nature of the harboring human. Are we really being blacklisted when we’re disinvited from events that don’t support the commercial aims of the event planner?

One of the guys interviewed for the piece put it this way:

“We have a technology that isn’t waiting for you to ask it a question, but is anticipating what you need and when is the best time to deliver that.”

It’s helpful when the trajectories of predictive search factor in traffic patterns. I’m positively elated when my phone asks if I want to disable the shake to shuffle. You know I do. Maybe it will grow fonts as big as my visual deficits when it detects how big my faultering eyes need to enlarge interfaces? Until then a few more developers have to turn middle age, And create a clapper for all that as yet unattached body armor we leave behind. Most likely these will be from appointments we had little hand in scheduling. And that’s fine with a delivery system in which the messenger and message shaper are one in the same:

“The better we can provide information, even without you asking for it, the better we can provide commercial information people are excited to be promoting to you,” Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, told analysts in April.

ImageThe New Year greeted me with a blog post from Dan Tunkelang, chief information scientist at LinkedIn. I’m guessing based on earlier blips across my radar that Tunkelang serves as the chief big data officer for B2B behaviorists.

It’s Tunkelang’s responsibility to place a cap and plug or two on the fire hose of information. It’s still not drinkable for the average consumer but the spray alone can irrigate quite a few promising fields (or what Tunkelang might call data products – the ability to exploit a recurring experience that can be enhanced, neutered, or packaged into some new mutation).

This is heady stuff. Owning the formula for rationalizing the collective cognitive sensation of the online clickstream on earth and what’s worth noticing is not just for disciples of the Patriot Act. Figuring out an explanation for what happens between when we land on a page and what compels us to hit <send> is the cosmic mystery of our commercial age.

In the piece Tunkelang begins to unpack Abraham Maslow’s polemic on human motivation as a hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s work was not inspired by traffic patterns between servers or calls to databases but was engineered through his chosen field of psychology. Maslow concluded with an ideal – not a data product. Self-actualization was not premised on field studies or repeatable experimentation. He knew it when he saw it … in Einstein, Thoreau, Jefferson, Huxley, Jane Adams, and other high thinking boundary crashers.

It’s interesting that Tunkelang would recast a foundation as broad as human motivation on the subjective grounds of Maslow’s work.  Maslow had personality analysis and his intuitions. Tunkelang has petabytes to evidence his computer models. One perspective based on a rich, interior life; the other one patterned off the hall of social media mirrors we hold to our surface reflections and virtual connectedness. Perhaps these differences are not conflicting and take a backseat to the core of this framework:

These people were reality-centered, which means they could differentiate what is fake and dishonest from what is real and genuine.  They were problem-centered, meaning they treated life’s difficulties as problems demanding solutions, not as personal troubles to be railed at or surrendered to.  And they had a different perception of means and ends.  They felt that the ends don’t necessarily justify the means, that the means could be ends themselves, and that the means — the journey — was often more important than the ends.

Tunkelang sees self-actualization as a tool for framing perception. This harkens back to a time of professional distance objectified by the late 20th century mass journalism ideal of bias-free reporting. We’ve gone well past what sociologists like Daniel Boorstin proclaimed in The Image, his ground-breaking pre-McLuhan polemic. Borstin argued that most events were no longer spontaneous but orchestrated as pseudo-events and confused for public changes to the private world that concern me, a.k.a. news.

Fifty years on we don’t question that perception is reality. We’re no longer starved for information. Our hunger is for absolutes. Our excuse for inaction forms not from a lack of information but resolve on what to do with it, a.k.a. uncertainty. Our bias today is not red state, blue state 1-2-3. It’s that our forebears could afford more daring as if they came from a surplus of certainty – the biggest rear view distortion of all historic fictions.

Perhaps Tunkelang’s choice of Maslow is to guide an awkward baby giant like big data through the earnest compass of the self-actualizers Maybe the thicket of IP addresses, browser versions, and click patterns that tangle through a congestion of transactions is what tomorrow’s information scientists can use to define reality, or at least clarify the boundaries that encircle it? We’re now finally getting to where we can assess the reality of the perception.

What Tunkelang refers to as how we interact with and benefit from data is every bit as subjective as Maslow’s basis for a centered reality:

“Indeed, data scientists like my team at LinkedIn spend most of our time converting massive volumes of data into useful information — not just for people to consume directly, but also to power other analyses and products.”

The corollary here: what users consume indirectly are the analytics that LinkedIn processes from information products composed exclusively of these same people. Of course I’m not an insider B2B guy slaving over an arsenal of social media stockpiles. I teach outsiders how to make information work for them without getting too attached to the sources or the labeling or the Darwinian edict of a digital economy that one person’s content is another party’s revenue.

But forget about the free labor that stokes the Facebook furnace. Forget the Pavlovian insistence of Google Suggest. Attention factories treat human curiosity as a natural resource – even when we gorge on an unhealthy appetite of self-selecting rationales of our own reality-making.

How does Tunkelang view the realities of big data? One unflattering view is of its bulky and yet porous nature — a mostly dormant black hole that belies any golden opportunities to exploit it for material, academic, or community gain. In 2013 we are staring blindly into an ever-cascading  information surplus that operates inside a vacuum of understanding? The scarcity of our sense-making surfaces in our BS detectors, our acceptance of vocal minorities, and in the shouting matches that result. We don’t ask why. We mask our confusions through the distractions of texting and email.

We used to have professional attention managers like TV networks and newspapers. Today we’re no closer to managing our attentions as we are to deal with financial planning, hanging plasma screens, family smart phone packages, or disabling JavaScript.

Tunkelang models a world of attention managers as a community of trust-seekers. It’s not just whether a piece of evidence smells right but our own particular fragrance. After all, we are “often producers of information ourselves,” he points out: “We have an interest in establishing our own trustworthiness as sources.”

Tunkelang defines trust as the communion of authority (reliable provider) and sincerity (good faith provider). The rationale is that you’ll know my beef on Yelp is for real because I’ll get worked up in the future about the same beefy grievances. The problem is that the arms’ length relationship of authority to evidence is in fundamental conflict with the intimacy of direct experience. Our need for self-preservation reduces our ability to represent the collective interest. A blending of the two might be an aspiration but belies the algorithms and trust serums that can be teased out of big data or injected into the conversations of big networks.

That elevated wisdom would bind credibility and authenticity in a state of integrity. In such a state experience informs the voice of authority. That’s an authenticity which may still bring human trust into our digital age.

ImageThere’s a new storyteller on the horizon of human discourse. In May’s Wired, The Rise of Robot Reporters, Steven Levy chronicles the first tentative steps of a Chicago-based start-up called Narrative Science to dis-intermediate a news media in decline. Narrative Science, says board member and former Doubleclick CEO David Rosenblatt, is a “company that turns numbers into words.” What it does with that contrivance is the news room equivalent for turning the post Gutenberg belief in movable typefaces into delusions of pure wish-fulfillment — and profit.

Why Narrative Science?

It’s cheaper to manufacture  stories by tweaking algorithms. How does Levy rationalize that “Ninety percent of a news” will be baked in huge software ovens by 2027? Intelligence engines like those of Narrative Science will expand the sense-making machinery of the market — not displace the last journalists standing. But what happens when the robonews creates press accounts of events now off the official storytelling radar? Will we cast ourselves as the protagonists in stories of our own making? In a customized news product will we even feign an interest in outcomes that don’t include us or the generic abstractions that fill up the media calendars of today? Think consumers, voters, fans, parishioners, and the faceless legions that don’t really “get us.”

And when our self-interested leaders and blowhard media step over the line, they lump us into these groups and we get defensive. Sometimes we even tune out at not-so-subtle recent suggestions that bad news made a personal appearance in places and people we know and love.

So we sequester ourselves in experiences we control. And in a market of one we prefer to curate our own media pages from a source that will remain blameless: It earns our trust by presenting our own acceptable truths within worlds of our choosing. And if Narrative Science releases an insemination product we are no longer mere readers, listeners, or viewers but receivers to signals we were born to host. We can we can select spheres of our influencing too. That’s something no self-respecting journalist could deliver without compromising personal dignity and the professional reputation needed to stay employed: their power to persuade.

Why the News Media?

They can only shrink to a former glory profile that cuts a running hum of temporal impressions. What does persuasion look like to the reporter in the street today? It’s a sharp elbow above our personal radars and into the realm of foreground noise. But do we really need the paparazzi in camouflage for celebrity safari? Do we care that news organizations are in the business of embedding their checkbooks into an improvised explosive called the corporate news exclusive? When the competition for attention shifts to sports, who’d really pine for the locker-slamming platitudes of the post game show? Do the players long to justify their mistakes to sensation-seeking error-prone reporters? The fantasy league stats can speak for themselves.

Why us?

It’s not that we can’t handle the truth. And it’s not that we turn away from bad news. It’s that we prefer not to face someone else’s truth — especially the kind that means bad news for us. How is this behavior written into code? Levy writes about a strict adherence to data patterns as a perceived bug in the program:

“[N]ot long after the contract began, a slight problem emerged: The stories tended to focus on the victors. When a Big Ten team got whipped by an out-of-conference rival, the resulting write-ups could be downright humiliating. Conference officials asked Narrative Science to find a way for the stories to praise the performance of the Big Ten players, even when they lost.”

In other words the new black media box couldn’t read the social cues. It couldn’t weight the institutional pecking order of big amateur athletics: that the elites lost to the lesser-thans. Other rewrites don’t address hierarchies but the airbrushed portraits of our personal histories:

“Likewise, when the company began covering Little League games, it quickly understood that parents didn’t want to read about their kids’ errors.”  

The Serialization of Personal Reality

So how does artificial news tune out the necessary realities? According to Levy all it takes is for a battery of meta-writers to “educate the system.” Meta-writers are the human-based interpreters who devise the templates for pre-assembling the scripts that the algorithms follow to spawn these production bylines:

  1. From the blatantly transactional: What are the best restaurants in X city?
  2. To the slightly obtuse: What are the best private tutors for my kid needing help in Y so she can get into $?
  3. To the downright conceptual: Do I let Z medication run its course or elect to do the surgery?

Having addressed human events the real growth in the twenties will hinge on accounts of events without direct human intervention. Think about a camera crew assigned to your fantasy league. Imagine a press junket angling to photo-op their way into the gamifications of your choosing? What may have passed for myopic in a lapsed media age will set the standard for the new authenticity. What could be more sincere than to place our own creations on news platforms staged by the likes of Narrative Science?

Authenticity needs to act in cahoots with a disinterest and elevated credibility in order to be taken seriously outside our own orbits. That’s where our flights of fancy are grounded in a fact base, no matter how self-selecting those data sets:

“They put a box core and play-by-play into the program, and in something close to 12 seconds it drew examples from 40 years of major league history, wrote a game account, located the best picture, and wrote a caption.”

Headless hedders. Scoops without digging. Instant analytical gratification. Sounds like these alternative realities are being packaged to go. And no one’s going to miss the classifieds.

Artificial News, Real Growth

The market potential for artificial news manufacture is limited less by 20th Century conventions like the public interest or journalism ethics than by legalities — specifically the likelihood of fraud that manifests in our unwillingness to think for ourselves. Here are three hypotheticals:

1) Synthetic People. Narrative Sciences can juice the Klout scores of skin deep fabrications. That means the marketers don’t have to pony up actual perks for the drones who tweet their praises.

The temptation to generate celebrity mannequins could falsify outcomes as much as personal appearances. Hammond foresees an appetite to flesh out the statistical accounts with off-the-field developments like player injuries or legal problems.” That’s right. The very thing purged from the news cycles of the little league press becomes fair game once the merchandise becomes eligible for demotions, endorsements, and all forms of a professional sport referred to by the Roberts Court as “free speech.” Factoring in these frailties may create a better system: (1) for not only detailing but (2) analyzing our games, and conversely (3), gaming these very same systems by tossing a single grenade-like insinuation into the contagions of tomorrow.

2) Markets of One. The self-selecting machinery will reference a breadth of experience so shallow and constrained as to make our present day cable news echo chamber sounds as “fair and balanced” as the carnival barkers would have us believe:

“[T]he low cost of transforming data into stories makes it practical to write even for an audience of one.”

In today’s media climate all the pandering and hubris and alarmist jive in those opposition camps has been reduced to background noise. But there is no house divided in an audience of one. There are no deals to strike. There are no hard feelings to patch up. There is no further filtering or curatorship required. Our Google glasses have already filtered out all aspects of reality that hold no claims on us. And our narrative headsets bleed into our ears and bake a reaffirming acceptance into our tuning sections.

3) Disconnects. It’s one thing to draw from forty years of big major league data records to depict or simulate an event. It’s quite another to outsource its meaning — how it connects to us. To Hammond that’s the highest potential growth area — not recaps of little league games but packaging management reports or handicapping empty prophesies like this blog post for example.

Then again if we lose our independent streak, could we also lose some of our misplaced anxieties about a world too big to fathom, let alone shape? This may be just what the national health plan doctor ordered, whether through our own initiative or underwritten by our bankrupt Nanny State.

The real story behind Narrative Science isn’t about health care politics. It isn’t that robonews will replace journalists but that it will sell us on the worlds we don’t need to be sold on — the ones of our own design — until we can no longer detect where the authoring ends and our imaginings begin. No longer alerted, confused, entertained, or merely informed, we will be entranced. And it will take narcotics stronger than tomorrow’s news to distract us from the stories we’re told.

Are you looking through a broken pair of eyes? Are you ill-equipped to hear me?”

“Are you one of the cogs

Too busy probing the pleasure centres of dogs to get near me?

- Kevin Godley, Lol Creme| Random Brainwave, 1979

What happens when human curiosity is reduced to an engineering exercise?

Some major efficiencies happen like instant road maps and opt-in spell checkers. Who would ever want to predate a world devoid of “did you mean…?” But whether we meant to or not Google has assigned a demand-side value to the answers it provides and the way it provides them. That is a powerful and compromising brokerage.

Our passions and concerns are channeled into a need for certainty that only seems to increase with the lack of closure. We are not just hard-coded for self-containing narratives of a self-concluding nature. We will skip ahead and miss the good bits because we’ll be too stressed out to appreciate them if it all turns out for naught. Such behaviors turn out well for Google. We’re addicted to answers. Google is not a vehicle. It is the verb. It does not own the road. It stores the potholes below the crevices of its membranes. To deny that is to take away free advertising for a search media giant and our own self-expression in the same bated breath.

The problem is not that Google and the self-proclaimed ‘beauty’ of its new privacy policy is big brother in a barely disguisable ruse: “[A] simple, intuitive user experience across Google.” If anything Google is big bystander. Google doesn’t want to crawl inside our heads and decode our inner confessionals — that last veil of hesitation that tells us not to visit our untested assumptions on inscrutable Google. They want to bucket our articulations: (1) First into IP addresses, and then, (2) into groupings of indulgences and shadowings of flash-points. Just the very products of our experience that cause us to take notice and give money. They don’t call us users for nothing:

Google: “We never sell personal information.”
Subtext: “We always sell impersonal information.”

Okay, you’re thinking. So I’m a consumer. They package me up and send me off as a nameless aggregate into the awaiting clutches of their material witnesses: The Procters and Gambles, the seasonal influenza indices, the local pizzerias … all riding on the outcome of my reflexive back and forth with Google. I got my toppings, and my meds, and my brand name discount. Just pay the man and move on, right?

Less Why for the Ware

The problem is not spyware but literally why-ware — the analytical nature of motivation. These are temperments, not transactions. These are the understandings reached through interconnecting events, inwardly wired impulses, and group + personal dynamics that factor into our actions and rationale for the outcomes they deliver. There is no GPS on God’s green Google Earth that reconciles these complexities with our circumstances, decisions, and their consequences.

Google would be the first search media giant to tell you they are not in the business of telling us what to do. But what they trademark behind that steel trap of engineers and lawyers is the newly franchisable power of suggestion. That means that a post millennial tween who straps on her Google glasses will be free to experience that mediated tunnel of contraption-induced toolbars and pulldown menus that jog along-side the shoulders of these driverless thoroughfares. She will have no need for prior knowledge or personal experience or the need to remember her impressions or with whom she chooses to share them. As the latest FAQ on Google’s new privacy policy intones:

Google: “We can treat you as a single user across all our products.”

Yes, that is intended to be a consoling message to us memory-challenged users. Perhaps the real threat would have been to caveat that emptor:

Subtext: “We can treat you as a multiple product across all our customer segments.”

Birth of a Pathology

The biggest eyebrow raising to date is that Google’s bid at reality augmentation is what stoners in the seventies used to say about their sober counterparts:

1975: “Reality is for people who can’t face drugs.”
2015: “Hiding publicly behind an interface is like viewing the world through Google-colored glasses.”  

Us ivory-towered elites can’t have that. We retreat to our own 20th century safety zones. We condemn this intervention! It is a container devoid of serendipitous discovery! It is way too interesting for our kids to tune us back in again. We are so gone.

It is also the shortest distance between points she’ll no longer be capable of making — mostly why did she climb in her Google car and where did it drop her? That’s assuming the passenger will have the curbside capacity to reboot the override.

Will they resume the itinerary on the driver’s side? That’s assuming they can drive a manual as well as read one. That’s insinuating she can trick the Google car into telling her what she need to know and not what the car is programmed to disclose. That will be a hard truth from our user and a soft landing disclosed by Google. That’s assuming one can take this all in. They seem to be talking over one another.

And down will come civilization, cradle and all.

When I was working for a political consulting – slash – polling boutique in the late eighties a pre-maturing graybeard named Ed Reilly took me out to dinner. The gesture was a sign of thanks for ceding my personal life to the firm and forbearance for the blank checks yet to underwrite battles yet to be waged. (A personal life would claim me before I spent away a career in politics). The son of a Boston firefighter Reilly managed to straddle the line between a rip-snorting unionist and a pedigree kingmaker, spoiling for both fights and the spoils from winning them. Like so many pre-Aaron Sorkin era politicos, Reilly would ride the painstaking obscurity of his polling outfit to fabulous wealth through the Gucci-laced corridors of K Street.

As I remember the dinner was not about feasting on the vanity and self-importance of trade associations but about the eternal flame that draws all young operatives to the heart of the Beltway, world capital of the influence industry. By then Reilly had little appetite for progressive platforms or blue sky agendas. Most of his client-candidates were moderate or split-the-middle Democrats who appealed more to independents than liberals.

It was late ’88 and Ed was still smarting over the Lee Atwater-architected trouncing of sensible Michael Dukakis by pumped-up Poppy Bush 41. “Our party just doesn’t get it,” fumed Riley. “We invite the press into the backs of our campaign planes and buses because we care what they think and say. Then they go hunting for stories that don’t exist.” The Republicans care about one thing and that’s controlling the message: “They don’t give a rat’s ass what the media thinks — no invites, no complications.”

I’m reliving Reilly’s frustration at the insinuation by Newt of the “Grandiose Old Party” that the non-Fox news media are apologists for Obama’s failings. The fact the charge packs as much punch now says what?

* That our discourse has barely evolved — even backslid over the last generation of elections
* That Gingrich is hot, callous, and ravenous — three helpings that land far and wide of Obama’s plate
* That the messengers are shot down before they can squeeze off their debating points

I’ll be wondering about the messenger piece as Obama enters through the Congressional Chamber doors for his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. He will be staring openly into the very real perception of playing the co-star on the national political stage. However, in terms of his efforts to yank the spotlight most of those energies will be channeled on his path to the podium. It may seem like the sideshow lies in the fist-bumps, flesh-presses, and cordial waves ‘n winks as Obama makes his way to the center of the hall. But actually, most of his energies will be channeled towards that tightrope walk through the superficial entanglements of the pageantry. The fact he’ll arrive nearly depleted once he reaches the podium is not the story here.

The address itself will be a slam-dunk. He’ll nail the talk down. No flaps in these gusty political headwinds. Even the melody of his speech will be encoded automatically. Energy-wise Obama will give this address in his sleep and even his fiercest adversaries will know he’s in prescient control: the commander in speech. In fact he won’t just float over the hall — he’ll have his batteries recharging at the same time. But will that electrify his base anywhere as much as his tentative hold on power unifies the opposition? Obama may be a conciliator-pragmatist-moderate. But in his heart of hearts there is a fierce and uncritical belief that his detractors will do the right thing for the country in spite of their hostilities. That unyielding and romantic calculation has cost the country more than the benefit of a second Obama term.

Raising the Debt Ceiling on Inner Drive

In the book The Obamas we confirm the credible assertion that Barack lives in the same town as Michelle and the girls. And even though he can’t take the dog for walks he can share the same dinner table at least 5 out of every 7 evenings (baring crises and mid-terms). But the aspiration of family man is one with the sincerity of Barack the soloist:

* The guy whose much more comfortable debating the merits of Constitutional Law than the glad-hander

* The guy more tuned to schools of thought than to the schools that his adversaries’ kids just got into

* The guy oblivious to whose dates on what calendar were coming up when the time’s ripe to cash in on minting his next round of political capital

We were told by author Jodi Kantor of former Super Bowl parties where guests were invited to crunch pretzels and brewskies. We were told that Barack sat in his assigned chair for the game and never let the affairs of his super bowl party state interfere with the play-by-play or the halftime updates. The President of the United States was on the periphery of a room that he did not work and the evidence is this:

People who would otherwise stab him in the back are now entering through the front. There is no echoing chamber. Even in his own conflict averse party there are no minions, lieutenants, or defenders of the faith. Want to get Joe Biden to shuddup? Make him your veep and you shan’t hear a peep. We’ve gone from the Priceline-like bid-ups on the Lincoln bedroom during the Clinton occupancy to the mothballing of the mattresses and couches. Such is where strange bedfellows come to make exceptions to their unyielding public stances.

Gridlock We Can Count On

If the firework could be choreographed on the percentages then we’d have some positive correlation between unemployment numbers and favorability ratings. Then we’d have an Obama-Romney crash test that the operatives can rationalize. Gingrich is not waiting in the wings. He is fanning the flames of a sunburst as clarifying as a biker weekend tailgating down on a Federal Reserve meeting. See what the 99% elites think of that! What the right-skewing public seeks is the bloodbath that vanquishes the calculation and cleanses the resentments of a white America whose time is past — except perhaps when it comes to settling American elections.

Obama’s been called as many names as he’s learned to ignore since the bully-bigots of Indonesia threw rocks at him on his way to school. But the one name he can’t ignore is the scorched path between entrance and podium that gets gussied up as Big Gov versus Big Biz. Little Guy versus Small Biz. Taxes on the rich versus sacrifice for all. So long as Obama answers to the name of introvert we’re stuck in false choices. It’s sealing a deal he never signed up for and is no more prepared to make now than as a school boy in the streets of Jakarta.

So in the end how does Obama justify his second term? America can’t forgive temptation neutral technocrats. He could reprise his dress-down of Chief Justice Roberts over Citizen v. United in 2010: The single biggest reason for the side-show status of this season’s State of the Union. But as any populist-turned aristocrat like Reilly will tell you: We voters warm even less to knew-all-alongs than know-it-alls.

If the status quo was in friendlier territory, Obama could defend healthcare as a right with the same zeal that Bush 41 got elected attacking abortion and flag-burning. So why does one approach sound like a hail Mary with no time on the clock while the other runs the same clock out by sitting on the same ball? Picking a fight with George Stephanopoulas might keep the drive going. But the best way in is to beat the messenger to the punch of a quiz show called “medical bill in the mail.” The answer for us in Massachusetts is that we can pay them off without the help of venture capitalists or loan sharks.

From the front of the envelope to the back of the plane: Thank you, Governor Romney and Chairman Riley.

It’s hard to fathom an hour clad and out of bed better spent than last Thursday’s OnPoint from WBUR. A spirited forum led host, guests, and callers to philosophize between pragmatism and our perfect worlds.

I’ll take my inspirations from internal quandaries over debating public policies and handicapping horse races any day. Inside, looking out, and taking in a crisp and resonating distance. The broader business of our daily practices and how they present in our public American discourse is much more interesting than arriving at these meanings through the mundane abstractions of our fetishistic tax laws, per capita pollution levels, “good” cholesterol counts, and aggregations buried in the algorithms of Google and Facebook. That’s what OnPoint listeners witnessed in a zeitgeist-popping and enigmatic question of Too much self-reliance?

For the panel, host Tom Ashbrook snagged literary critic Benjamin Anastas. Ashbrook was justifiably smitten with Anastas’s New York Time Magazine essay, The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’, which raked Ralph Waldo over the “looking-out-for-#1″ coals in the December 4th issue.

To Emerson’s defenders, self-reliance was never a vehicle for piety or privilege but a reaction to conformity. Professor Alex Zakaris of the University of Vermont described Emerson’s rejection of his fellow New Englanders and their casual materialism as a loophole into “moral thoughtlessness.” He cited the travesty of obeying the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by returning these inventory turnovers to their receipt-bearing masters.

Emerson did not write blank checks to the future from unquestioning urge “to speak what you think now in hard words.” His approach was to purge the unreflective gratifications, clear the head. His humility divined this critical self-scrutiny to be arduous work without deadlines to meet: Specifically, the act of learning how to detect our own thoughts free of social conditioning. that’s nearly has hard to fathom for some of us as human inventories. We’re more anxious being offline than subjected to the zealotry of our now permanent campaigns.

Back to Emerson now — the pay-off of self-reflection was quite the windfall:

* Dividends of inner peace

* Triumphal, universalist connection of cosmic-like romance: “every heart vibrates to a reservoir of divinely ordained goodwill.”

* Did we mention self-reliance as a throw-in?

This is the note he sounds of a consciousness that regulates what comes into our hearts.

But hearts being what they are can clench themselves into thick, over-sized muscles. In the naval-gazing myopic absorptions of our day, we recoil at the stiff price on believing in ourselves at all costs:

* The little CPA in my soul tells me that the one percent are hoarders whose craven capitalism arranged for the decapitation of the middle class.

* The Paul Revere replica in my driveway is revving to defy any law that expands the rolls to make health care a civil right (and a social responsibility).

* I will deny the existence of global warming sooner than I’ll acknowledge the disappearance of the North Pole.

Can our swollen egos, bruised by the bumps of social conditioning, fit snugly inside these principles? That we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the self and its final say on these earthly arguments?

The compromises that manifest in partisanship happens on the group level. You know the groupings. You mean you weren’t invited to the shotgun wedding where the bride was given away for the unholy price of a Faustian bargain? We can’t pass a normal news cycle without the co-opting of the public interest by parties beholden to interest, or rather the self-interest of groups. Would Emerson say that corporations are people too? What is a more sincere expression of democracy than that?

I can think of one. That’s the passions harbored in the festering disaffections of tea parties and occupiers. We’re all on the authentic side of the majorities in our distrustful minds. The hypocrisies of autonomous libertarians queue on the receiving end of our reliable beltway punching bags and petty tyrannies: Big Government? Out of my tiny entitlements.

And you can have the FEMA trailer back, honest.

But it’s not about the money either. There’s another corruption summoned from the death of God — specifically the departure of the sacred from public life and the language of a higher calling that is not merely mutual but universal. Our essayist Mr. Anastas pushes back, brandishing Sarah Palin’s brew of “mavericky charisma.” The irony here is that these women and men of God use their direct channels into gated kingdoms, emerging with an endorsement, a charter franchise of “the chosen,” and new priorities and roles: now, Gods of women and men.

So many of these internal compasses point vehemently towards righteousness and away from “volumes of evidence” and “stubborn facts.” Is that Emerson talking, or the political discourse growling in the belly of our appetites for cable news?

Heart news is fair and balanced!

In guts we trust, and, gut the basis for trusting others.

When does rugged, two-fisted self-reliance decay into a defrauding of the Treasury? The pulpits of the heart are certainly authentic. But is that the stuff of the integrity envisioned by Emerson? If not, the bedrock of the American spirit may just be begging for a quake-induced fracking. What spills into our streets and leeches into our water tables would change us from the outside in.

That’s when climate change may arrive at our better selves. And we’ll take credit for a hotter sun coming up in the mornings of tomorrow.