After watching the very first episode of HBO’s Westworld it was hard for me to deny that the show’s appeal, aside from superior writing and cinematography, has a potential to spill over from the world of entertainment into our public and political discourse. Already now, after episode 3, it’s clear to me that its aim goes beyond a mere Sunday night pastime; the showrunners cleverly are setting us up to ask questions that we don’t ask ourselves but should. The show of this caliber is long overdue. I’m not writing a recap though, there are plenty of those already. This is just a brief glimpse of the show’s potential as a cultural and political imprint.

What is a real world? Is it the world where you live and work, or is it an adult Disneyland where, like in a videogame, you assume a character, and break out of your inhibitions? But then, the same case – that you’re playing a character – can be made about your everyday existence. The world where you live and make your living is, too, a world of pretense. That’s a marketing ploy behind Westworld – a fictional Wild West-themed park where you can break away and indulge in your fantasies. It does offers you a release, a manufactured freedom, but where you essentially trade one type of mask for another. Would there even be a demand for such a theme park if people found fulfillment in their real lives? Today, when our identities revolve around what we do for a living, we’re prevented from knowing who we really are. It is, perhaps, this search for identity, rather than pure entertainment, that provides a steady stream of customers shelling out $40K a day for the experience.

The park is a place that, as one frequent visitor points out, “answers a question you’ve been asking yourself: Who you really are.” Yet, it doesn’t take us long to spot the obvious extension of this premise: It is also a place to discover who you are not but want to become.

As sentient customers of Westworld how do they choose their game character? If you chose to become a nice guy in Westworld, is it because you’re prevented from being a nice guy in your real life, or is it the opposite: you’re an asshole who wants to be good but prevented from a moral conduct by the overwhelming forces of the real world? Is, then, a simulated reality a reflection of your genuine character or a channel for release of suppressed evil tendencies? And conversely, if you’re a nice guy in the real world who recoils from murder and rape and injustice, why would you want to engage in “violent delights” in your spare time? Can nice guys become bad if given a chance and shielded from judgment?

Dolores, a robot whose task is to be abused and/or ‘saved’ by the customers, muses: “I think when I discover what I am, I will be free.” She’s up to something here. While her consciousness is merely a code, it’s the code that brings her closer to singularity – that is becoming sentient. The allegories and the implications and allusions to our own humanity are immense here. It enters Kantian territory (I’m a little obsessed with Kant these days; took Kantian philosophy class this fall, so I’m like a teenager who’s just discovered Ayn Rand!) What if we, too, can’t be free until we figure out who we are?

If we are a thinking species, a sentient beings, this distinctive feature offers a liberation from a mere reliance on instincts. Dolores is not yet free because she’s a subject to her programming. We as humans are (free), in a sense that we possess a free will. But then other constraints come forward, the constraints of a moral code.

It blows my mind what these guys – writers, producers – are aiming for, if this is their plan, which I think it is. They want us to think of freedom – a grand concept – in a philosophical sense. In the course of the series, as robots gain consciousness, I suspect we will be faced with a question: who is more human and thus more free? Here, I would like to separate the notions of libertarian freedom from philosophical (Kantian) freedom. I wrote on the concept of freedom before as I was trying to give this overused and, frankly, too broad a term, a definition. I’m not satisfied with the notion of libertarian freedom where a person’s freedom is manifested merely in his actions – things that he does because there’s no physical preventive mechanism. Kantian freedom, on the other hand, is not a freedom to do what we like. Such freedom originates in the world of ideas, the a priori world as opposed to empirical world, thus it is guided by reason and not our desires or inclinations. Because it is guided by reason, it is also a subject to moral code, to rules that are universal and independent of our earthly circumstances. Thus freedom, in a philosophical sense, is the ability, no, a requirement to live by a moral code that is a) universal and b) binding because we’re sentient beings (as opposed to, say, animals who cannot be expected to abide by the notion of “ought”). It is, thus, unfortunate that the word and the concept of ‘freedom’ has been so watered-down, so emptied of meaning in current public discourse that it now means whatever you want it to mean. That is another big reason why I’m so excited with narrative possibilities of Westworld: it will force us to ponder on these concepts, it will force us to ask ourselves questions we were too busy to ask before.

A Feminist Rant

I couldn’t sleep after the debate night. It’s as if some kind of lurking terror has been unleashed that we had only a vague idea of. I thought we were civil, I thought there were rules and norms, I thought that women would be defended when such obvious and hostile misogyny is displayed, if not by locker room bro, then at least by a person running for the highest public office on earth. I didn’t think it was possible for any man to dismiss it with such ease. But what I saw Sunday, it was chilling, haunting. This is not locker room talk, as we, in a routine gaslight manner, are led to believe. It was a peek at reality that we have been pretending doesn’t have a place in our democracy. Trump threatened to jail Hillary and the room cheered.

I wasn’t the only one in my terror. The chill has reverberated across the entire XX-chromosome community, whether liberal or conservative.

Here’s a conservative Christian woman appalled at GOPs misogyny.

And here’s a twitter rant of another conservative woman who has been defending GOP for years and had finally had enough.

There’s such a profound sense of betrayal, such a crushing, visceral hurt in these words of conservative women, who spent their lives defending their fellow Christian men, only to be let down in such manner because of a mere political expediency.

And this essay by Rebecca Traister is a must-read. For men especially.

Men are in for a rude awakening in November. Good. I’m sick of this bullshit. Women are “to be revered” Paul Ryan said after the tapes came out. What? “Revered”? That statement is revealing on so many levels. In his attempt to paint Trump’s behavior as unacceptable, Ryan revealed his own misogyny: women are objects to be admired. Furthermore, other Republicans, in their attempts to assuage an important voting constituency – white women – pulled out their usual rhetorical staple of “our daughters, wives and mothers”, as if women only exist as appendages to men, but not as independent human beings worthy of respect on our own.

Such men are incapable of examining where their sentiments towards women are originated. And women played along for too long. Fox News women thought that if they comply, look beautiful, wear tight dresses, then they will be allowed into the boys club, become one of the boys and thus protect themselves from a second-class citizenship. But even such strategic acquiescence has been revealed, last summer, by the sexual harassment suit that brought down Roger Ailes, as inadequate. So, no matter how you try to position yourself, you’re bound to lose: if you’re dykey or fat or fall short of modern-day beauty standard then you’re a loser. And if you show your cleavage and dye your hair blond and promote the conservative party line, there’s still no guarantee that the men of power will stand up for you when it matters the most.

The 19th Amendment remedy is coming this November. About time!


The Difference Between GOP and Dem Ground Game Philosophy

canvassing-for-hillaryThere’s a psychological difference in how Republicans and Democrats approach grassroots organizing. You can sense a near disgust in Republican circles when a word ‘community’ or ‘organizing’ is even mentioned. Yet, this is what wins elections these days.

Koch brothers had a rude awakening the last time around, in 2012, when they spend many millions on air campaigns for Romney and got nothing to show for it.

I think a big reason for the inadequacy of GOP ground game infrastructure can be found in a scam-like nature of the entire GOP voter interaction. It started back in the 1980s with Lee Atwater and his mailing lists that were used less for political purposes and more for scamming those voters, mostly old and scared, out of a few bucks. I mean who else would buy Ann Coulter books and gold coins if not a retiree who’s been told, for years, to be afraid. He’s been conditioned and groomed to become a perfect customer, not a perfect voter.

But there’s a deeper damage to the GOP electoral efforts that has the same origins as the direct mail scams. Yes, they will buy the books and herbal cures, yes they will go and vote, but they will not be engaged with the civic, communal life on a deeper level, because such involvement implies volunteering, doing things for free – a notion that short-circuits the business-oriented mind of an average GOP voter. The side effect of this meritocratic, ‘no free lunch’ mindset is that civic life – an activity that you’re not compensated for – is considered a waste of time. Thus Republican volunteers expect to get paid for knocking on doors and expect to get paid for the number of calls they make while phone banking. They’re incentivized the same way as the hapless low-level Wells Fargo employees were incentivized to open phantom bank accounts: the result looks good on paper, but the end-goal – having real customers with real accounts, or in this case, bringing people out to vote – is not achieved. But, hey, everybody got paid in the process! The suits got their millions of consulting fees and the rank-and-file got their $50 for a hundred phone calls. With such a mindset, that treats the civic life as a business, the final result – winning elections – becomes secondary to fattening your bottom line.

Democrats – and I witnessed it firsthand many times – don’t think like this. There are armies of unpaid volunteers who will not miss a door and will call the same number again and again until they get an answer simply because they are not doing it for money. They are doing it for the end result – winning.

Thoughts on Trump and the Elections.

If Trump wasn’t for real, this whole electoral charade would be a magnificent, devastating, masterclass artistic performance. Lose or win, on November 8th, he could’ve given a speech for the ages along the lines of: “Behold how close an unscrupulous buffoon like me can come to running this country. There! Scary? You’re welcome,” and recede from public view never to be seen again. This simple move would secure him the kind of recognition, in the annals of history, that he so desperately seeks – a statesman of the troubled Republic, a bloodletting nurse to the feverish GOP.

It’s unfortunate that he won’t. While a performer by inclination and trade he lacks the artistic message. With Trump there’s no purpose to the show, just the show itself. Even if he wins, he acknowledged that his VP Pence will be running the country. So it’s not like he even wants to do the job; it’s not like he wants to tell us something with this performance. He simply wants to be known as someone who was able to get the job, who ‘won.’ Like in WWE, he doesn’t want to land a devastating punch, he wants to be seen landing a devastating punch.

Which, perhaps, is all there is to him. So with Trump’s presidency we’ll essentially be getting Mike Pence’s presidency, as Trump views his task as solely to #MAGA. That is the scary part. Trump’s various policy ‘whisperers’ who have to tip-toe around his ego to sell him standard GOP policies, can never be sure whether he ‘got’ their drift or not. With Pence there will be no such doubt. We’ll get the Ryan budget, the Scalia-like SCOTUS nominee, we’ll have Larry Kudlow as Treasury secretary and perma-giggling Stephen Moore of The Heritage foundation (I never saw him NOT smiling while discussing his right-wing economics on TV. Wonder why) as his chief economist.

But with an egomaniac like Trump, I doubt we’ll get the repeat of a Bush/Cheney presidential dynamic. While Pence and Co. will want to quietly do their thing, Trump will keep fucking things up that will inadvertently sabotage the smooth running of the GOP fleece machine. With such a short fuse and thin skin he will overstep his executive authority in a matter of months of not days; the matter will end up in the Supreme Court which will rule against him; he will refuse to comply, triggering the constitutional crisis. And at that point, seriously, who the fuck will care about ‘growth’ and tax cuts?

While I’m growing concerned with the tight race I still think it won’t come to this, barring a late-October force-majeur. I canvassed for Hillary in Easter PA with a couple of comrades last Saturday and found this rust-belt area surprisingly anti-Trump. Without PA Trump can’t win. But still what a sad commentary on the state of the republic that has no defense mechanism in place to prevent another dangerous demagogue from winning, if not now then a few years down the road. I guess we’re gonna have to get used to holding our collective breath every four years.

WSOP Main Event

Finally got to sit down and put together a write up of my very first WSOP Main Event.

This year they increased the starting stack to 50,000 chips from 30,000 during previous years and levels to 2 hours from 1 hour 50 minutes. I really like it as I tend to play better with a deep stack – there are more opportunities to actually play poker with a deep stack. You can both sit and wait for the hand, or you can try a few maneuvers, none of which, if unsuccessful, will be a death blow, with plenty of time to recover.

Towards the dinner break on Day 1 I built up my stack to about 55k, all without any kind of premium hand, just picking up small pots here and there. As I was relatively card dead the entire time, I expanded my range to play ace-rag. One of such hands cost me dearly. I got A4 offsuit in position and called a small raise preflop from an aggressive guy. The flop came 234. It wasn’t a bad flop for me so I decided to float the guy. He bets on the flop, I call. Turn is a 7 – a rather innocuous card. He bets again, I call. River is a K. Here he makes a large bet that could be interpreted as just going for the pot. I think that while it’s possible for him to have K (he raised preflop), his raising range is much wider than AK, KK, besides if he did have AK or any K, he would’ve probably checked the turn. So I thought my A4 was good. I call and he turns over K4 for two pair. So I was right about my A4 being good, just until the river. My stack was down to low 30s after that hand. I bagged 29,000 at the end of Day 1.

On Day 2, at a new table, I was the shortest stack. Again card dead I decided to try a few raises in position, but it’s hard to scare anybody with a short stack. After raising and missing the flop a few times my stack got down to about 15K, when they broke our table and moved us to different tables.

With blinds going up I was under pressure to do something fast, but also to balance my shoving range. Although many books will recommend shoving with any two face cards I decided to wait for some really premium hand; thus KQ twice went into the muck and so did pocket 22. Finally, when down to 11k, I peek into my cards and see KK. A raise in front of me makes my decision easy. I shove, the guy snap calls and turns over QQ. My kings stand and I double up to high 20s.

Then the fateful hand. I’m in the big blind with J8 of hearts. Now, looking back at it I missed a huge warning sign – no raises preflop. Now, at this kind of game, there are almost no unraised pots preflop. I’m pretty sure that during my entire 2-day run this was the very first pot that went unraised. So the action went very suspiciously, but I failed to give it too much thought. So I’m in a big blind and there are 3 other limpers. So I get to see the flop for free. The flop comes 567 two hearts – an excellent flop for me with a straight and a flush draws. I’m first to act, I bet about a third, utg min-raises, probably just to see where he stands, mid-position calls, button folds and I call. The turn is a 10 of hearts, I got my flush. I bet again, the utg folds and the mid-position calls. River is a black A. At this point I go all in and the mid-position snap calls and turns over AK of hearts for a bigger flush. It took me a few moments to realize I was dead and out.

So that was my run. I can’t say I got super unlucky. I’ve heard so many stories of set over set and some sick suck outs on the river that to lose with a made flush doesn’t seem like a reason to complain.

But still, poker is a cruel, sick game.

Cruz’s Chutzpah And Trump’s Inadequacy

Between Christie and Cruz I always thought it was Christie who had the balls, Cruz being more of a Machiavellian calculating weasel. It’s amazing what a few days of GOP convention can do to my perceptions. I was totally wrong. Christie proved to have neither the balls nor the winning vision, selling his soul to Trump but getting nothing for it. Cruz, in addition to playing a smart, long game has also demonstrated an impressive chutzpah yesterday at the convention, in front of increasingly hostile crowd, when he refused to endorse Trump. He clearly positions himself for 2020 and I can’t say that he won’t have an advantage during the inevitable finger-pointing after Trump’s spectacular crash and burn.

Let me dwell a bit longer on the topic. Over the course of the last decades, that perhaps started with Bush II theatrical landing on an aircraft carrier in 2003, the displays of power, mostly on the right, have devolved into displays of unearned and misplaced masculinity. The less time a person has spent in or near the military or a physically dangerous situation, the more he will want to prove to a given audience his macho credentials. Thus modern day American understanding of toughness has two key elements, neither of which has anything to do with actual courage: it’s belligerence rooted in insecurity. To even further degrade the actual meaning of courage, that belligerence is not directed at someone who can respond in kind, but to a mere female political opponent, delivered to an already agreeable, and frenzy-whipped crowd. “Guilty or not guilty?” chanted Christie from RNC stage, in a mock (but in reality, real) witch trial of Hillary. “Guilty!” the crowd roared back, stroking Christie’s fantasy of being a righteous, brave warrior.

Indeed, even Trump, whose life quest seem to be about squashing people’s doubts about his fortune, victories – business or personal, his virility and his toughness, generally avoids situations, whether strategically or out of fear, where he can face an unfriendly audience. He wants to be friends with all the tough guys around the world and he veils it in the rhetoric of ‘making deals.’ The business world, and specifically the dog eat dog New York commercial real estate world, where Trump claims to have domineered, is a metaphorical war zone, littered with corpses of developers and builders. Trump has been killed there a long time ago and the only franchise that has kept his name in lights is, well, his name that he lent to new construction – a nice racket that, due to recent events, might soon come to an end. Trump is neither courageous, nor good at making deals, unless filing for a strategic bankruptcy or stiffing his contractors counts, in his world, as a ‘good deal.’ I imagine him negotiating the status of the Baltic States with Putin – itself an unimaginable scenario just a few months ago, before the American politics has been so distorted by his candidacy. The fact that, in his mind, this is even up to a negotiation, speaks of his inability to perceive of a situation that has no ground for deal-making, like, for example, when your daughter is harassed by a bully. In that scenario, that is becoming less and less hypothetical, the poor Baltic States will be a mere token for Trump’s thoughtless personal brand posturing. Trump’s tactic has never been to put himself on the spot, to risk his own money; it is Trump’s partners, the others, that traditionally have the exposure. Should he, God forbid, become President, his bag of tricks that worked so well for him in reality TV – a squint in the eye, a catch phrase, a limited roster of over-recycled adjectives (Amazing! Unbelievable! Tremendous!) – will fail to impress the more serious, less gullible counterparties. And the way out of the mess will be paid, like always, by someone else, a third party.

Kant vs The Hedge Funds









This is the quote by Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund manager who supports Trump, at a recent Romney retreat, cheering on the anti-Trump crowd to join him in defeating Hillary Clinton. (Hillary=White Walkers, get it?)

The problem with the hedge fund guys is that, in their mythology, they are all brave, valiant, noble warriors fighting against some dark forces. I understand the urge and underlying mental dynamics: It is difficult for a man to do his job while recognizing that the very nature of that job is predatory. A man is not made this way. At the end of the day he wants to feel good about himself.

Thus we often witness the construction of elaborate mental schemes by those with power and leverage, aimed at the public, but also, in a way, at themselves, because getting validation of their goodness through public channels – such as charity – mitigates their furtive feeling of worthlessness. Still, a public praise is a weak consolation to such a smart group of people, simply because they know more than that adoring crowd of know-nothings. That’s why, receiving public accolades at a charity gala is always met with self-deprecating modesty: that self-deprecation is hardly faked. Deep down they know that it is undeserved; they know how they made their money. Such inadequacy is manifested by their public admiration of the truly noble, mostly fictional characters: Jon Snow, Obi Wan Kenobi, Batman. They wish they were like that. For example, I’m willing to bet that Trump, who avoided service in Vietnam, wishes that he would have avoided that service in a manner of Muhammad Ali – by being a conscientious objector and spending time in jail for his noble beliefs – rather than being a soft-ass run-of-the-mill son of a rich man.

Often, the argument in the defense of such guys goes along the lines that they are smart and risk taking. Intelligence, awareness and risk-taking are important qualities in a person, as I, too, hold those in high-esteem. But the argument usually stops right there as if smarts and risk-taking are good qualities in themselves. For some reason, we as a society, don’t demand that those qualities were channeled to the public good or just simply good. For us, smarts in the service of self-enrichment is admirable enough.

This is a problem. Even worse so, as philosopher Immanuel Kant says in his ‘Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals’, “without the principles of a good will those qualities may become extremely bad, and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.”

We only wish that our villains would be stupid and inept, but more often than not, they are not.

Kant, who spent decades pondering on the issue, makes a point separating goodness stemming from inclination from goodness stemming from duty. That is an important, illuminating distinction that renders the entire ‘hedge fund good guys’ argument impotent. Charity, a favorite public display of goodness, is an inclination, not a duty, and therefore, according to Kant’s logic is disqualified from an absolute good. He gives an example of a philanthropist clouded by sorrow of his own, that (the sorrow) extinguishes all sympathy for the lot of others. While he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their troubles because he is absorbed with his own.

This is an inclination, not a duty. But notion of duty is absent from our public conversation. We often argue that if an agent charges you a fare fee because otherwise the market forces would put him out of business, then such a dynamic should be celebrated as beneficial to both. Kant disagrees. Or rather, he’s unsatisfied with such motivations. If the market forces were not there to inhibit the unscrupulous agent, he then would be free to charge you whatever fee he wanted. For Kant the absolute good, or good will, is for an agent to do the right thing even when the restricting or triggering forces are absent. This is the kind of level of thinking that is out of reach to our valiant hedgies, and sadly, to the public as well. We still can allow a standard economic argument to end with a simple: “but it makes money” cudgel and go on our way.