Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sauce: Goose, Gander

Just sat through 11 minutes of video (posted and duly re-posted on the Facebook walls of some friends) in which an Obama-supporting chap interviewed a succession of Tea Partiers, highlighting a certain lack of resolution in their data. Pause for popcorn:

Sorta like if Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segments were produced at MSNBC, right? Not the most stellar performances of wonkery from the lumpen non-wonkers.

But it reminded me of something. Let's see....

Oh yeah! That was it.

So, what's the take-away from this little exercise in compare-and-contrast? Well, that would kinda depend on  your chosen set of goggles, now wouldn't it? Is it an indication of how much more [insidiously] effective Right-Wing media outlets are in promoting a set of talking points? Is it a sign of the Left-Wing Media's emphasis on emotionally salient but factually-unfurnished memes? Is it a simple matter of (Camera One) Tea partiers' brainwashed vacuity? (Camera Two) Obama supporters' blinkered adherence to the cult of their Dear Leader's personality?

Is it an indication of how the granularity of much-needed data gets sand-blasted in an environment of entrenched partisanship, such that individuals on  both sides (not to mention all the other possible "sides") are deprived of the means (or even the vague sense that there is a need) to flesh out their wafer-thin comprehension of Very Important Stuff?

And where in this process might we situate the act of promulgating one of these clips in the absence of the other?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Two In The Hand

I've sat on this report all day, watching updates and waiting for confirmation ("fool me once...").

By now, I'm reasonably satisfied that this is legit. Bill Roggio over at the Long War Journal reports:
Iraq's Prime Minister and the US military confirmed that al Qaeda in Iraq's top two leaders have been killed during a raid in a remote region in the western province of Anbar.
"Abu Ayyub al Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al Muhajir, Abu Omar al Baghdadi and a number of al Qaeda leaders in Iraq were killed during a security operation in al Thar Thar region in Anbar," Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki told reporters at a press conference in Baghdad, according to Voices of Iraq.
US Forces Iraq, the US military command in Baghdad, confirmed the report in a press release.
"A series of Iraqi led joint operations conducted over the last week resulted in the Iraqi Forces with US support executing a nighttime raid on the AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] leaders’ safehouse," the press release stated. "The joint security team identified both AQI members, and the terrorists were killed after engaging the security team. Additionally, Masri’s assistant along with the son of al-Baghdadi who were also involved in terrorist activities were killed."
During the operation, one US soldier was killed in a helicopter crash, and 16 al Qaeda associates were detained. (emph. added)
My heart goes out to the buddies and family of the helo pilot who lost his life in this highly significant raid. It was surely not lost in vain, as this is otherwise all kinds of good news. First of all, it was predominantly Iraqi security forces, with support from US forces, that executed the raid, which again underscores the success the COIN portion of OIF has enjoyed in training and fielding an increasingly effective and professional Iraqi military (to say nothing of the assets among the indigenous population which it was able to utilize in obtaining the intel that guided the strike, intel which a cowed and cynical pre-Surge population would never have dreamed of providing).

Second, this strike has essentially decapitated AQI, demonstrating that even the highest of the high in that organization is vulnerable. The psychological impact of such a blow cannot be overestimated. You can say "Whack-a-Mole" till you're blue in the face...but it doesn't change the fact that these miscreants' prospective replacements, in addition to being less experienced and possessing less street cred, will slink about with the full expectation that the slightest misstep will leave in the face.

Which brings me to the last point (see bolded text above): Those "16 al Qaeda associates [who] were detained" were sufficiently high in the food chain that they were kicking it in the same safe-house as the two Top (mangy, flea-bitten) Dogs in the AQI hierarchy. The degree of detailed operational and organizational intelligence which can be wrung from these "associates" represents a veritable treasure trove of actionable information which will ripple outward to the lowliest torture chambers and bomb-making shacks. Even in the unlikely event that they are not singing like canaries inside of a Mosul Minute, the mere possibility that they'll make like a Muezzin  will force every Talib, Da'ud, and Hanif to scramble for new procedures to throw off the Pimp Hand of Justice. They'll get panicky. They'll get sloppy. And more and more of their thermal signatures will fade to ambient.

And, lest all this talk of strategic significance obscure it, two Very Bad Dudes have been shuffled off before they had a chance to wreak more bloody mayhem on the poor mother's sons and daughters who would have been shredded in the demonic dervish-dance of their demented demolitions.

High Fives all around for our brave and competent forces and their stalwart Iraqi allies.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Man Bites Dog: Honest Reporting From WaPo on Tea Parties

And the title is where the snark will end. It was refreshing in the extreme to see this editorial by the Washington Post's Robert McCartney on his personal investigation of a Tea Party rally.
I went to the "tea party" rally at the Washington Monument on Thursday to check out just how reactionary and potentially violent the movement truly was. 
Answer: Not very. 
Based on what I saw and heard, tea party members are not seething, ready-to-explode racists, as some liberal commentators have caricatured them. 
Some are extremists and bigots, sure. The crowd was almost entirely white. I differ strenuously with the protesters on about 95 percent of the issues. 
Nevertheless, on the whole, they struck me as passionate conservatives dedicated to working within the system rather than dangerous militia types or a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. 
Although shrinking government is their primary goal, many conceded that the country should keep Medicare and even Social Security. None was clamoring for civil disobedience, much less armed revolt.
Clearly, the author has differences with the Tea Partiers. This is not a problem; dialog on the issues does not require complete agreement (that's why they call it 'dialog!'). What is most edifying about this piece is how it openly looks at the degree to which the worst stereotypes put forth about the movement hold up to scrutiny. McCartney shows the ability to disagree with the Tea Partiers on the issues without the need to marginalize and misrepresent them. Instead, he went and found out for himself. He talked to people. He questioned them on the issues, but he also soaked up their vibe. Then he reported honestly on what he found, without shady selective emphases or narrative-supporting innuendo.

Not much more to say on this: it was just nice to see a journalist in the MSM do his job with the integrity and forthrightness which enables his readers to engage in genuinely critical thinking. He does not take it upon himself to villanize or slander, in order to preemptively foreclose on people's access to the variables which will guide their thinking on the matter, just because he might not like some of the conclusions to which they might come.  We could do with quite a bit more of this. Please do read the whole thing.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

David Emerges

Check out this article about a 5-axis milling rig which uses sophisticated 3-D design software to carve a helmet out of a solid block of aluminum.

Information technology meets precision robotics, and achieves something resembling kinetic poetry. Form emerges from brute matter in a gleaming spray of metal shavings, a marriage of genius and machinery which would make Michaelangelo weep (with joy? with grief?). 

Don't miss the extraordinary video. 

Belated H/T to Mr. Hengist who, I now recall, sent me the vid months ago.

Friday, April 16, 2010

NYTimes on Microlenders: Slaking a Thirst for Profit with the Blood of the Poor!

[by Mr.Hengist]

A couple of days ago the NYTimes published an article by Neil MacFarquhar (“Banks Making Big Profits From Tiny Loans”, 2010-04-14) on microloans in undeveloped countries.

It’s written in the typical NYTimes style of understated indignation and offence at what he characterizes as exploitation of the poor. Microloans, you see, were supposed to be “the long elusive formula to propel even the most destitute into better lives.” That’s the setup, anyway, but let’s face it: Liberals don’t actually think that business lending is the solution to poverty, but they do believe that anything that puts more money into the hands of the poor at least has that going for it.

MacFarquhar lets Nobel Peace Price winner Muhammad Yunis, “the economist who pioneered the practice”, state the thrust of the piece:
“We created microcredit to fight the loan sharks; we didn’t create microcredit to encourage new loan sharks,” Mr. Yunus recently said at a gathering of financial officials at the United Nations. “Microcredit should be seen as an opportunity to help people get out of poverty in a business way, but not as an opportunity to make money out of poor people.”
… and by that same token I guess you could say that the printing press was invented for making bibles, yet look how the NYTimes has debased it by publishing fishwrap. Having “created” the idea of making very small loans to very small businesses (not quite the Nobel Prizeworthy breakthrough, that), Yunus apparently believes he owns the idea and how it should be used. How dare other people use his unique idea in ways he hasn’t approved! The nerve of some people.

Some banks and financial institutions, ace reporter MacFarquhar informs us, have been charging interest rates of up to 100% - or more! Some of them! Up to 100%! And some of them more than that! … and some of them less than that. The article doesn’t actually provide much by way of numbers, but it does provide a breadcrumb trail by way of reference to the Microfinance Information Exchange (“The Mix”) and in doing so provided what’s probably the most salient piece of information in the whole article. It's contained in a single sentence, orphaned in the middle of the article, and in it is a key fact which is succinctly provided and subsequently completely ignored:
“Adrian Gonzalez, lead researcher at the Mix […] found that much of the money from interest rates was used to cover operating expenses, and argued that tackling costs, as opposed to profits, could prove the most efficient way to lower interest rates.”
It’s a forehead slapping revelation which undercuts the whole thrust of the article. The interest rates charged are irrelevant so long as the microloan enterprise is to be considered a self-sustaining business, as opposed to a money-losing charity. Charities can and do throw money at social problems with the expectation that their outlays will not be repaid, whereas for a business to continue as a going concern the balance sheet can’t stay negative for long before it goes tits-up.

The interest rate charged is therefore irrelevant because banks and financial institutions are not charities and can’t expect donors to replenish the institution as they bleed red ink. If progressives are going to ride their hobby horse of outraged indignation over greed in this business sector then the relevant metric is the profit margin, not the interest rate. As revealed in this quote, while the interest rates are high, so are the expenses.

That’s to be expected in a business of this nature. The low interest rates to which we’re accustomed in the developed world are possible in part because of our business environment. For example, we have the infrastructure to make informational contact and money transfers between parties simple and quick. Lenders can phone, send letters, or even dispatch a representative if necessary, and vice versa for borrowers – although, for microloans, the very nature of the small loans makes for small profits to begin with, and every added expense therefore will loom disproportionately large; it's cheaper to make one loan of $10K versus a thousand loans of $100.

Furthermore, we can also rely on our judicial institutions for recourse in the event of a dispute, whereas in the developing world judicial recourse is often not an option. Considering that the risk is borne by the lender. The lack of a venue in which to sue the borrower in the event of default makes it easy for a scammer to simply take the money and run.

That would be the worst-case scenario for the lender, but even excluding those whose sole object is thievery, the majority of the target-market of lenders are going to be poorly-educated and unable to make even simple business calculations. Consider the example provided in the article of Maria Vargas of Mexico City, who “has borrowed larger and larger amounts from Compartamos over 20 years to expand her T-shirt factory to 25 sewing machines from 5. She is hazy about what interest rate she actually pays, though she considers it high.” She considers it high, but the truth is that if there were a more competitive rate she would have taken it. In a competitive market the invisible hand will find the true rate, and it's higher for borrowers like Ms.Vargas than for better credit risks in a market backed by an effective judiciary. Note that it’s her factory, and she’s borrowing the money, but she doesn’t quite know what it’s costing her. I’m not blaming her for her poor education, but consider that she’s probably a typical borrower. She simply does not know how to figure out the costs of this business transaction, so the prospects of her paying back the money she’s borrowed are considerably diminished when neither she nor her bank can say for sure whether the transaction makes business-sense in the first place.

The Mix has a detailed Excel spreadsheet for Y’08 which has some interesting information. Since I’m not a financial analyst it’s a bit difficult for me to make heads or tails of the wealth of information provided in it, but the profit margin for For-Profit lenders had a median of 7.3%, whereas the “profit” for Not-For-Profit lenders was 3.3%. So much for the outrageousness coin these loan sharks are skimming from the poor, eh?

The article also has a cautionary tale for progressives:
"In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega, outraged that interest rates there were hovering around 35 percent in 2008, announced that he would back a microfinance institution that would charge 8 to 10 percent, using Venezuelan money.
"There were scattered episodes of setting aflame microfinance branches before a national “We’re not paying” campaign erupted, which was widely believed to be mounted secretly by the Sandinista government. After the courts stopped forcing small borrowers to repay, making international financial institutions hesitant to work with Nicaragua, the campaign evaporated.”
That’s right: when the Leftists encouraged default the private capital took flight. With losses all but guaranteed, no sane businessperson would do that kind of business there. Profits are what motivate people to invest. No profit, no money from private enterprise. One way or another it’s got to pay off or they’ll take a hike and put their money to work elsewhere. Just as importantly, the rewards must be commensurate with the risks or capital will seek equally low returns on investments of comparably lower risk. This isn't opinion: this is basic economics and it's completely lost on these Socialists.

Socialists and charities are free to make low-interest loans to poor credit risks but they’ll require a regular influx of capital to replace their inevitable losses. When these social engineers create an untenable business environment, free capital walks – the lenders won’t profit, and (pay attention, you progressives) the entrepreneurial poor don’t get loans. Nobody wins – happy now?

The article continues with this threat:
“The fracas over preserving the field’s saintly aura centers on the question of how much interest and profit is acceptable, and what constitutes exploitation. The noisy interest rate fight has even attracted Congressional scrutiny, with the House Financial Services Committee holding hearings this year focused in part on whether some microcredit institutions are scamming the poor.”
Oh, yay! Congress will hold hearings. This will surely end well.

… and finally, the article closes with this:
“You can make money from the poorest people in the world — is that a bad thing, or is that just a business?” asked Mr. Waterfield of “At what point do we say we have gone too far?”
Answer: Since it’s not your money that’s being loaned out you have no business asking.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Leaker Plugged? UPDATED

Via Ed Morrissey over at Hot Air, comes this WaPo story on what appears to be the identification and indictment of an NSA staffer who may have been a source of the leaks which enabled certain unnamed major news outlets (cough--NewYorkTimes--cough) to blow the cover of two successful tools for the monitoring of terrorist activities against the US. Quoth Ed:
The indictment doesn’t name the paper or identify the subject matter, but it also doesn’t appear too difficult to connect dots in this case.  The Times produced most of the original reporting on these secret programs, including the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP) that eventually got retroactive cover in a rewriting of FISA laws.  They also exposed the secret bank-tracking program Swift that turned out to be both completely legal and extraordinarily effective — before the Times blew its cover.
This is another one of those issues which, in even a reasonably sane political climate, should transcend partisan politics. This staffer was sworn to protect this Nation from all threats, both foreign and domestic. If he had a problem with the Administration's use of its Constitutionally delineated powers, then the course of action was to seek redress within the scope of his role as a defender of that Constitution. The fact that he (i.e., the leaker, whether or not this particular individual turns out to be guilty) felt that he was empowered to sabotage the mechanism of National Security by going to the fracking press with classified programs (leaving aside what I feel about the NYT for running the stories...might generate content warnings if I let myself go there) makes him an enemy of the state, an outlaw in the most literal sense. Similarly we as citizens need to look at this sort of behavior as wholly unacceptable, whether we agree with its motivations or not. It is yet another subversion of the processes of rule-of-law governance by arrogant individuals with a greater regard for their own feelings than for the consequences of their little tantrums on the safety of their fellow citizens.

Kudos to the Obama DOJ for going after this. I don't care what side of the political spectrum you live on; this kind of vindictive political vigilantism endangers us all, and constitutes the skinny end of a wedge toward anarchy.

UPDATE: Powerline's John Hinderaker appears to have read the article more closely than I, finding (in plain sight) that:

Unfortunately, Drake's leaks don't appear to be the ones that threatened national security. Rather, they put NSA's bureaucracy in an unflattering light:
Gorman's coverage of NSA often placed an unflattering focus on NSA administrators. An August 2006 story quoted intelligence officials as showing that the NSA eavesdropping facilities in Fort Meade were at risk of paralysis because of electrical overload and potential failure of the power supply.
Dang. Still, though far less critical than finding the wanker(s) who spilled the beans on the specific programs whose beans were spilled, this is nonetheless not entirely insignificant an indictment. Not only does this guy's alleged misbehavior violate the lawful processes by which such things ought to be handled, but it did reveal potential sources of vulnerability in the infrastructure which subtends our intelligence-gathering operations. One can easily imagine some inventive enemies were looking very carefully at ways to overtax certain electrical sub-grids...

Still a generous helping of just desserts, even if it's not the top banana split I would've liked.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Up, Up and Away!

In the annals of Kool, this thing is cleared for some considerable altitude. Have a look:

Ever since the Solotrek company went belly-up in 2003, I'd been sadly resigned to the demise of the personal flying vehicle (though there may yet be some life in the old girl). Naturally, I was plenty stoked to see this mentioned in the comments of a long-forgotten tech-blog post.

The recon and Special Forces insertion possibilities of this thing are obvious, the civilian uses (beyond the Just Plain Rad factor, of course) are rather less so.

But it's the kind of thing I just feel a little cooler for sharing a world with, anyway.

The Shape of Things to Come?

It's been said  (I'm looking at you, Mike) that there is no material difference between the Demoblicans and the Republicrats, and that they were both pushing the Republic (or Democracy. Whatever) toward the abyss, albeit at fractionally different paces.

It's hard to argue that there's been as much of a clear difference between the parties as one would like, or as would be healthy for a national dialectic out of which a healthy set of workable compromises could emerge. There hasn't. So the calamitous deficits and debts being raked up by the Democrats is harder for the GOP to attack without getting chuckles, given the less-calamitous-but-still horrid free-spending days of their own turn at the tiller...and the till.

Then along comes someone like the new NJ governor, Chris Christie, whose avowed purpose is to trim, or, rather, carve the fat from the bloated budget of New Jersey (and, yes, the irony is not lost on me...unlike Christie's navel. Har-har). Contrary to the most cynical projections of what would happen when he took office, he seems hell-bent on doing just that, going after some of the most ornery and entrenched interest groups in the Garden State like a fiscal weed-whacker. He is not making a lot of friends in the corridors of power...but he appears to be genuinely thick-skinned about it (somebody please stop me!). Here, in the Examiner, and here in the WSJ Christie is presented as someone who has made it his job to speak to the voters as adults, who are called upon to make hard choices for the health of their State. Imagine that!

I can't help but see the hand of the Tea Parties in the electoral victory of someone like this, and in polls like those in the primary race between the centrist Charlie Crist and the Tea Party Anointed and genuinely impressive-seeming  Marco Rubio. Even the stunningly unexpectedly successful new MA Senator Scott Brown --hardly a TP type-- caught some of the energy of a wave which, for the time being at least seems to be surging higher every day. Even the establishment GOP has been forced (albeit not always in an above-board manner) to adopt language which is in line with the TP's insistence on adherence to fiscal restraint, federalist decentralization of small, responsive government, and free-market solutions over Beeg Goverrnment Prrograms (/Boris and Natasha).

And if nothing else the Tea Partiers are practical: they won't be fielding Tea Party candidates where a credible GOP contender walks the proper talk (they remember Ross Perot). More to the point, they don't have to. As their message disseminates to a wider and wider swathe of an increasingly disenchanted electorate, the GOP is going to feel quite acutely the need to align themselves with that zeitgeist. And, contrary to the gleefully histrionic ululations of the Left about how such "Purity Tests" signal the imminent Balkanization and demise of Conservatism in America, this is a good thing. The Tea Partiers are becoming the king-makers, without aspiring to the throne.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the imposing figure of Chris Christie, with sharp humor and considerable momentum, continues to work to clean up the immense mess left behind by decades of Democratic profligacy. And he really doesn't care what stands in the way of doing the job for which he was hired:
As Christie puts it: "It should've been dealt with years ago. It wasn't. ... If people don't like it after four years, they can send me home." 
More like this, please.


In a sadly predictable development, adversaries of the Tea Party movement have hatched a scheme to "infiltrate" Tea Party events, and deliberately disseminate and perpetuate their carefully-nurtured stereotypes of those groups. Specifically, they aim to "Propagate [the Tea Parties'] propensity for paranoia and suspicion...we have already sat quietly in their meetings and observed their rallies." UPDATE: The page is gone, leaving only an appeal to buy a tee shirt to support the "Crashers" founder. Yah. I'll get right on that.

Side question: if you actually have enemies sitting in your midst, posing as friends while collecting intel for an attack against you, do you still qualify as 'paranoid?'

Anyway, they go on:
"Whenever possible we will act on behalf of the Tea Parties in ways which exaggerate their most unappealing qualities (misspelled protest signs, wild claims in TV interviews, etc.) to further distance them from mainstream America and damage the public's opinion of them. We will also use the inside information that we have gained in order to disrupt and derail their plans."
Well, it's certainly inspiring to see people who are so confident in their arguments and in their own ability to persuade others to see things their way. I mean, seriously? This is the most constructive use for these people's time? This is the political equivalent of kicking over another guy's sand castle because yours came out lame...and everyone knows it.

Bob Owens, over at Pajamas Media executes a proper take-down of this misbegotten tactic (and of its not-entirely un-pathetic creator):
Smears and deception have been part of politics from the beginning, but the proud, brazen nature of those who embrace this sort of activity is a direct affront to the sort of civic involvement we need to have in a healthy republic. These are vile tactics by any moral standard, championed by individuals and groups that care not for debate and dissent, but instead thrive on creating a climate of mistrust and fear. Perhaps this is the kind of world they desire to live in, providing they have the power in that world. 
One has to question the character of individuals involved in such an effort, and their trustworthiness in any endeavor. They create stereotypes and perpetuate them for media consumption in order to demonize and alienate their fellow Americans from one another. And to what end? 
The website exists for one reason and one reason only: to stifle the voices of those with whom they disagree and to render mute a rising chorus of dissatisfaction with a government that is acting in ways that deeply distress a growing majority. It is a censorship plot. It is an attempt to stoke anger and distrust, and it is as insidious and distasteful to the hearts of free men as any book-burning or pogrom.
Emphasis added to shine a light on the crucial factor here: the misguided souls who engage in these sorts of  eliminationist antics believe, like the Operative in Serenity, that they are tasked with creating a Better World. Toward that noble end, they believe, even such wanton acts of subversion of the national dialog are justified. After all, if you feel that you have a pretty good bead on how the world ought to be, and the only thing standing in your way is a noisy rabble of fly-over denizens in bright tee shirts and tri-cornered hats, then no holds are barred. Goes to show even the most noble aspirations are not immune to the blight of arrogance, and the bullying which it spawns.

One can grant that there are pure intentions behind their opposition to the Tea Party vision of small, accountable, fiscally responsible and federalistically decentralized government. But even if they start out with a good-faith vision of a government which takes upon itself the duty to provide for its citizens and to oversee the distribution of this Nation's wealth in a just and equitable fashion, even if they truly feel that theirs is the more humane and responsible course for this Republic, these particular individuals have ended up in a far darker place. The moment they arrogate to themselves the right to deceptively discredit their political opponents (rather than engage them in issue-oriented, constructive and informative debate), they have ceded not just the high ground and the low ground, but the upper levels of the sewer system to boot. They have declared, in effect, that they have too weak a case to risk making it forthrightly...or that the American public is too stupid to comprehend it and make the "right" choice if they did...which is not an especially promising indicator of their faith in the democratic process or in the citizens for whose welfare they purport to stand. Standard Scenario: Imagine if a group of Tea Partiers had created a web site promoting plans to attend Coffee Parties with the intent of covertly discrediting them [Sidebar: I'd just as surely be slamming them if they pulled this nonsense] is worth reflecting for a moment on the fact that this has not occurred.

I derive no small comfort from the ease with which this puerile plot was pulled into the purifying sunshine  (owing, in large measure, to the amateurishness and sloppiness of its founder). It's a twofer, really: not only will it very likely fail (no doubt despite the best efforts of a host of friendly media outlets to slather the airwaves with decontextualized 'reporting' of these schmucks' shenanigans), but it will expose the sheer intellectual and moral bankruptcy of these Teabag-slamming agents provocateurs.

It would be a delicious irony and a fitting cautionary tale if it should come to pass that the very public Epic Fail which all-but certainly awaits this bunch of juvenile party-crashers should play a part in the crashing of their Party.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Don't Let Politics Ruin Your Relationships"

The following is a wee editorial I just threw together for the local weekly in which I advertise my practice. I don't know if this is the final form which will survive the editorial process, but I rather like it. I can only hope that it makes it to print, and that it helps to drain some of the toxins from at least a few political conversations here and there...

Don't Let Politics Ruin Your Relationships
[Noocyte], Psy.D.

Many of my clients in private practice occupy that strange phase of life known as the late teens. One of the first things I do when they turn 18 is to hand them a brochure for Project Vote Smart ( It's an organization which provides unbiased and thorough information on candidates' and sitting politicians' positions on a wide variety of issues. Usually, my clients just give me a funny look. After all, on your average 18 year-old's “To Do” list, politics comes in just south of “start flossing.”

But these are highly charged times, politically. I have seen more than one relationship slam hard into a brick wall of opposing political views, and there doesn't seem to be a proper air bag in sight. Take Health Care (please!). If you support the current Health Care Reform, be prepared for someone to accuse you of being a Socialist who wants to mortgage your grandchildren's future. If you oppose it, someone will accuse you of wanting poor people to die. Tends to make rather awkward affairs of family dinners!

But it doesn't have to be that way. One of the things I do as a psychologist is to understand, from the inside, how people put their worlds together, how they make sense of things, and how that sense leads them to make the choices they do. This is not a magical ability which only therapists possess. Much of it is a simple matter of asking questions.

The next time someone endorses a political position with which you disagree, take a moment and catch yourself in the act of assuming things about that position...or, worse, about that someone as a human being. Note the flood of images and adjectives which rush into your head (“Greedy Fascist;” “Fuzzy-Headed Hippie;” “Just A Kid...”). You know what I'm talking about.

Stop yourself. Ask them to help you understand their reasons for believing what they do. Listen as they lay those reasons out. Don't interrupt, even if you have the Perfect Argument for why they're Dead Wrong. Take the time to summarize what they've said, and wait to see if you've got it right. Then summarize your position, and politely ask that they extend you the same courtesy. Don't expect to change their mind, and try not to be defensive if they seem to be out to change yours.

Remember the overall context of your relationship with the person. Ask yourself if the fact that you sit on opposite sides of a given fence is a good enough reason to torch both properties. When all else fails, be prepared to Agree To Disagree.

After all, we're all alone behind that voting-booth curtain. No sense being just as lonely everywhere else!