How We Should Respond to the New Terrorism

5:30p Wednesday night. That’s enough planning of the new class for school principals that begins in February. My night to make dinner. The Good Wife will be home in an hour. I can make an amazing salad in 30 minutes easy peasy.

How to burn the spare thirty? Obs, college basketball, but the games aren’t that compelling and you can only watch the Property Brothers so much. Surfing, surfing, how ’bout some pre-dinner self flagellation. Fox News.

And then it happens. . . today’s brilliant idea hits me with just 4+ hours to spare. There are two steps the U.S. and the West more generally should take in response to the new terrorism.

1st—Spend one night carefully watching Sean Hannity and other Fox “News” show segments that directly address recent events in Paris.

2nd—Do the exact opposite of what they advocate.

Railing about how the Obama administration and the US always coddles Muslims, the angry men on Sean Hannity’s panel were equal parts fearful and hateful. They demonstrated no knowledge of young French Muslims’ life experiences nor did they have any interest in the larger context of radicalism.

Consequently, they didn’t spend any time discussing prevention. Given the chance, they’d probably banish me to a Caribbean Island max security prison for even suggesting historical context matters. Because that’s probably a form of coddling. Now, as I write, Bill O’Reilly is lionizing the Moroccan-born mayor of Rotterdam who said Muslim immigrants who do not appreciate the way of life in Western civilisations can ‘f*** off’.

Instead of watching Fox News, we should listen to the French secondary school teachers in the suburbs of Paris. For a decade plus they have been trying to tell the French public that the alienated youth they teach are especially susceptible to radicalism. Despite being born in France, they don’t feel French. Many of their frustrations are born of institutional racism and religious persecution. The French government is so committed to secularism that it’s unwilling to accommodate hardly any of their religious practices.

Alienation is no justification for the horrific violence of last week. Worth repeating. Alienation is no justification for the horrific violence of last week, but a Rotterdam Mayor/Fox News mix of fear and hate will only make matters worse. To mitigate the problem governments have to think and act counterintuitively. Instead of succumbing to paralyzing fear and hate and the revenge it breeds, we have to be way smarter than anyone on Fox News about the underlying causes of radicalism. The more we think of this as a century long battle for the hearts and minds of young Muslims worldwide, than a ten or twenty year contest of military might, the better.

We need courage to reject the simple, fearful, hateful diatribes of the Rotterdam Mayor and Fox News. “An eye for an eye,” Ghandi said, “makes the whole world blind.”

Expanding Minimalism’s Reach

If our government’s closed, why are politicians still appearing on my television? I guess once you get in the habit of working really hard for what’s in the best interest of the people, you just can’t stop.

On Fox News I learned the shutdown’s Obama’s fault. Their refrain is “the American people don’t wan’t ObamaCare.” Guess I don’t count. At times like this, all you can do is watch Saturday Night Live.

My vote for most interesting Affordable Care Act article of the recent past, “An Overlooked Obamacare Flaw: Too Many Choices“. The gist of it:

. .  .the typical family will be able to choose from 53 health plans, on average, with a few states, including Florida and Arizona, offering more than 100. “There’s no way people are going to be able to make optimal decisions, except by luck,” says Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore University and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “If you have 40 or 50 insurance possibilities, there will be less uptake and people will make bad decisions.”

The seminal study of excessive choice was a 2000 paper recounting an experiment at a California grocery store in which two tasting tables were set up side-by-side: one offering samples of six jams, the other offering samples of 24. The “extensive” selection of jams attracted more shoppers than the “limited” selection. But only 3% of the extensive samplers made a purchase after tasting. Of those who sampled from the limited selection, 30% made a purchase.

“An extensive array of options can at first seem highly appealing to consumers,” the researchers concluded, “yet can reduce their subsequent motivation to purchase the product.” Too much choice, they found, can be “demotivating” and leave shoppers confused.

The same dynamic applies to decisions in which a lot more is at stake than deciding what to spread on your toast. After the government passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit in 2003, seniors suddenly could choose from dozens of plans that would help lower their prescription drug costs. But many found the offerings so confusing they didn’t sign up, while others mistakenly chose a plan that didn’t lower their costs nearly as much as it could have.

“Decision quality deteriorates as the number of plans increases,” one study reported.

Minimalists focus almost exclusively on decluttering tangible items that often overwhelm—clothes in closets, papers in file cabinets, everything in garages—while ignoring the less tangible, but equally cluttered areas of our lives.

We’re not just overwhelmed by our mindless consumerism and the trail of material possessions that results from it, we’re overwhelmed by a steady torrent of stimuli—whether it’s hundreds of insurance plans, emails, interpersonal interactions, television channels, or advertisements.

Advanced minimalism is the art of narrowing one’s focus and decluttering one’s mind by consciously setting limits. For example, I allow myself to read ten blogs at any given time. That means if you send me a link to your mind blowing blog, I’ll have to decide whether it deserves more of my limited attention than one of my current ten. In the same spirit, I recently deleted some television channels that were more popular with the birdies before they flew the coup.

Social science suggests that if consumers had ten insurance plans to choose among, they’d be much better off. Less is almost always more. This was, in large part, Steve Jobs’ genius—off-the-charts focus. Once he shrunk Apple’s product line, customers weren’t confused, sales caught fire, and the company quickly rebounded.

Another way to impose limits is to lean on others for help. Some of the most popular websites on-line help citizens and consumers narrow their choices to a more manageable level. For example, for bibliophiles, there’s FiveBooks. And for people who want to manage their time better and be more productive there’s Lifehacker. And for consumers overwhelmed by Amazon.com, there’s The Sweethome and The Wirecutter.

My aim is different than the people who write for Lifehacker. They want to help readers get more done. My question to them is, for what purposes? Set limits on stimuli that tend to overwhelm to think about larger life purposes. If we just let any and all email, media images, and the cacophony of modern life wash over us, we’ll live day-to-day without any sense of purpose.

Minimalism must be about more than cleaning out garages. Our goal should be to create silent spaces in our lives, and from them, purpose.

A Work in Progress

I need a personal motto.

A recent headline from Yahoo Personal Finance (YPF) read, “Apple Rebounds to $600, Time to Buy?” For the love of investing fundamentals, someone please alert the knuckleheads at YPF that the objective is to buy low and sell high. “Apple Plummets to $400, Time to Buy?” would make a hell of a lot more sense.

Unless of course Apple is headed to $1,001. Which leads to another recent YPF headline, “Top Analyst Thinks Apple Could Hit $1,001”. “Top Analyst” is code for really smart dude who knows way more than you and me. So I guess we should believe him. Wait. He’s also referred to as a “market pro” which means we HAVE to believe him. Thank you top analyst market pro. Since each of my APPL shares is about to go up $400, I think I”ll buy that Cervelo R5 bicycle I’ve had my eye on. More evidence of his intelligence—he covers his ass with “Could”. Here are some other “Could” headlines:

• Relative Unknown Ron Byrnes Could Win the British Open

• The Seattle Mariners Could Win the American League West

• Presidential Candidates Could Take the High Road

• Despite Barely Passing High School Chemistry, Ron Byrnes Could Cure Cancer

Then there’s “Dr. Drew” who received $250k to promote Glaxo’s antidepressant drug. Of course Double D never revealed anything about the payments. Most egregious, he repeatedly used his television pulpit to say it helped cure problems that exceeded what the FDA approved it for. Another doc (among many) was paid a cool $2m to promote the drug.

Daily reminders to read between the lines and remember things aren’t always as they may appear. Reminders too to get some splashy adjectives or a personal motto for yourself.

Cable news networks do it. CNN is “The Most Trusted Name in News”. The Supreme Court rejects health care mandate. Opps! Fox News is “Fair and Balanced.” Opps! And regular people who make wild-ass stock predictions do it. Top analyst, market pro. Another recent YPF headline read, “Goldman’s ‘Rock Star’ Gives His Market Outlook”.

Maybe I should follow suit. The examples illustrate an essential element of moniker or motto making. They don’t have to be true. Repeat them enough and create a hypnotic effect. So aim really, really high.

I’m thinking something like “Ron Byrnes, rock star blogger, friend of small animals, a tribute to humanity.” On second thought, it’s probably unwise to alienate large animals. A work in progress.

No doubt, that right there, “a work in progress,” is what my wonderful wife of 25 years (this week) would recommend for my personal motto.