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Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

Obama’s Perpetual Mulligan

In Empires of the Mind on November 30, 2010 at 4:04 pm

If there’s anything the recent ridiculous Nation/Mark Ames/Yasha Levine incident has revealed other than absurd tribalism or that Mark Ames is the Gwar of journalism, it’s that liberals have been giving the Obama Administration a pass on civil liberties violations in favor of pointing out how conservatives did the same thing when Bush was President.  From a Harvard Law Bulletin Jeri Zeder review of Charles and Gregory Fried’s new book, “Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror”:

The book explores three issues presented by Bush administration policies, primarily from ethical but also from historical and legal perspectives: torture; eavesdropping, surveillance and the right to privacy; and executive prerogative.

Of course I think the work the Fried’s are doing is great in principle, and I haven’t read the book, but this passage in the review ignores the fact that, while the Obama Administration has closed Gitmo and opted for Stalinist show trials instead of secret dungeon torture, the Administration has escalated da warz and the intrusiveness of our security state.  There has also been the unprecedented step taken of ordering an American Citizen to be assassinated.  I mean, holy shit, we’re talking like these issues of Executive power are all in the past and the real question now is how do we clean up the mess and deal with the fallout!  

While sane, caring individuals should abandon both parties, it seems like everyone just points more fingers at the other team’s current captain, which brings me to James Hanley’s recent comments on supposed public mandates for this kind of stupid shit:

And I repeat about the public, fuck them and their 0 DPM standard, when it interferes too greatly with my civil rights.

It’s also worth reading this E.D. Kain post in full.

I’m busy as all hell this week, so a few short posts is likely all I’ll be able to squeeze out, but I will have more on this topic soon with about a month’s worth of research in the next installment of my 9-11 Nine-Years Later series.  

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Reflections on Spending Thanksgiving in Japan

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on November 26, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I have spent Thanksgiving in Japan for the last four years, and I have slowly begun to forget about this great American holiday.  Yesterday for me was a regular work day.  I woke up early in the morning, played with my older daughter, made breakfast for everyone, played some more on the grassy expanse in front of the art museum, went to teach four classes in the afternoon, was home by eight, enjoyed my younger daughter’s newly developed capacity for belly laughter, ate pasta for dinner, and fell asleep at ten.  

The fourth Thursday in November is a regular workday in Japan, as is December 25th.  In the past – before I worked for myself – I was made to feel guilty for wanting to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter.  At Nova, my Australian boss explained to me that Christmas was not a special day for the Japanese.  The students would have no sympathy if I wanted to take the day off.  They might even quit the company or start hating America!  My first Christmas Eve here, a different Chris went out until 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning with some other wild foreigners and slept through his Christmas Day shift.  After that, I decided never again to spend Christmas in Japan.  

After Nova went the way of Enron and I began working at Makijuku, my new boss, an elderly Japanese woman who could have easily been a Roald Dahl villain in a past life (inside joke), expressed great disappointment every year I told her I wanted to use my paid vacation days to fly home and be with my family on Christmas.  She insulted my pride: “Look how hard the Japanese teachers work.  None of them want to take Christmas off.  They are all working on Christmas, these Japanese teachers.  Such great workers!” she’d say.  “So, I don’t have to work on Obon or the Emperor’s Birthday then, right?” I’d ask.  “But, why would you want to take off Obon or the Emperor’s Birthday!?  You’re not Japanese!” she’d laugh and roll her eyes condescendingly.

At first I tried my best to give these dastardly employers the benefit of the doubt.  After all, I was a guest in Japan, and respecting the culture was my first priority.  But I could not help eventually concluding that foreigners (and perhaps everyone – future post) here are systematically taken advantage of by a small, yet pernicious minority of wolves; being foreigners, we have no knowledge of or cultural connection to Japanese holidays, and even if we are aware of their existence, we do not expect them off.  The official rationale in the trusty Nova handbook was that, since these were days off for most Japanese big corporate workers, they were especially popular with students learning English for fun or as a hobby, so English lessons (and teachers) were especially in demand.  The result was that foreign teachers were given exceedingly few holidays – hence the Nova moniker, “No Vacation”.

I call this phenomenon “cultural charlatanism”, and I intend to thoroughly explore this idea as Dispatches from the Wild Wild East matures and emerges.  For now, let me define cultural charlatanism as the general tendency to take advantage of the ignorance of foreigners in holding them unwittingly to a double standard, in any country.  For example, in the United States, we expect the Chinese to make our food on Christmas Eve and to work on Chinese New Year; we find it incomprehensible that Indian restaurants are not open for business on Tuesdays, but our blue laws force them to close on Sundays as well.  I’m sure more and better examples abound, but I’m part of the dominant culture in the United States, so I’m probably not aware of them.  

Likewise in Japan, foreigners are often not allowed to celebrate our own special days, nor can we really celebrate the special days of the Japanese.  A full year in Japan is a full year of Ordinary Time for us – there is no punctuation, no Advent, no Lent, certainly no Triduum, just a blur; we are forced to create our own concepts of the special – a fully existential reality.

When I first came to Japan, I was extremely knowledgeable about sports, particularly football and baseball.  I knew who was good, what draft picks were expected to perform well, what teams were potential dark-horses or underdogs, the injury-status of various perennial all-stars, and who would soon retire.  I don’t even recognize half the line-ups of my favorite teams now.  When I come home once a year or so, I often find myself wondering how Manny Ramirez will do next year, or whether Jonathan Papelbon has made the much-heralded transition to a starter, whether Tom Brady is still more concerned with male-modeling than football, how Jason Giambi is handling being off the juice.  I soon realize all these concerns are five-years old.  If they aren’t, they’re lost to time somewhere in between.  Who is Rajon Rondo?

I accept these and other losses as the price I pay for choosing to live in a different world. (And a small price it is considering it is the result of a voluntary decision on my part from which I have benefited considerably in net terms.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a refuge or a slave or even an Old World minority.)  I can’t fully participate in conversations taking place in America, and I can’t fully participate in conversations taking place in Japan.  Sure, the Internet has made it easier to keep up with things at home, but who has the time?

The first few times I went back to America, I was surprised by just how fat people were, how out-of-control the security state had become, my relatives balding or being married or being dead, my parents in a new house, the sad state of popular music, the sheer amazingness of Comcast digital cable, how much the Big Dig really has improved Boston traffic, my favorite shows being several seasons ahead of the DVDs just released in Japan, my friends halfway through Ph.D. programs or married.  I should have known that home moves just like I do, but I seemed incapable of grasping this.  Now, I’ve been here long enough that nothing surprises me.  I have become a perpetual traveler.  Such is the fate of the migrant, the prodigal son, the drifter, or the voluntary expatriate: there is no Zion, only anomie.

The Virtue of Virtues

In Empires of the Mind on November 24, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Some of the 72 disciples of Confucius at Koshi-byo in Nagasaki

Sharon Begley writes in Science Journal in 2004:

The task was to practice “compassion” meditation, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings.

“We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts,” says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics.

In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.

Not since David Hume has virtue ethics found a place in the mainstream philosophy community, despite the fact that – more than any other moral framework – virtue ethics serves as the basic moral framework for all of the world’s major religions and cultures.  

Over the last few hundred years, a blink of an eye when compared to the length of human civilization and moral code, virtue ethics has slowly been cast aside in favor of Mill’s crude utilitarianism and Kant’s crude deontology.  But there are glaring, obvious problems with both of these approaches, which can only be resolved by virtue ethics; utilitarianism is prone to human error, and deontology requires the added complexity of language and its interpretation.  By being abstract in its very nature, and through emphasizing “being” rather than “doing”, virtue ethics tempers the errors of utilitarian ratiocination with intuitive checks and balances and avoids the problems of language and clarification which necessarily plague deontological moral constructs.  

This is not to dismiss the other two prevailing approaches to morality.  For a truly ethical, complex, understandable, and flexible system, elements from all three frameworks should be incorporated.  In terms of crafting delineated and clear rules for a society, it seems like virtue ethics is lacking.  Deontology should continue to take the lead in creating a base of rules for what is morally unacceptable.  Utilitarianism should largely continue to guide public policy for practical reasons.  But in terms of creating an enlightened and morally upright citizenry in a secular age, we could use a turn back to the virtues that underpin our societies and which long predate various religious parasitisms.  Perhaps in our rush to upheaval, we threw the baby out with the bathwater.  As of right now, virtue ethics is underserved in Godless society.

Virtue ethics seems well fit for the subjective, personal moralities that we would all like to be free to (and should) explore and develop, while at the same time providing something universal to serve as magnetic north for our individual moral compasses.  By meditating on abstract notions of compassion, or practicing willpower by giving up the things we like, or aspiring to be wise, or giving away our possessions, or even by exposing ourselves to extremes of heat and cold like the ancient Stoics did – by putting the instinctual and emotional animal to work for the reasoning and cerebral person, one ceases to be a mere human and becomes a saint.  Virtue ethics fosters a prescriptive rather than a proscriptive morality – what one should aim to become, rather that simply what one is not allowed to do.  It sets the bar higher that what is simply deemed “satisfactory” by society, with the individual moral agent in charge of both the speed and the direction of his own moral development.

Much was made of the ability (or lack thereof) of neuroscience to investigate individual moral actors and individual moral codes after the Sam Harris TED lecture last February.  While I also believe in naturalized morality, I see no reason to think we’ll ever be able to explicate general principles to serve any practical purposes, and I see no reason why we should.  Nevertheless, many psychologists seem to think that there has been an overemphasis on studying and understanding abnormally evil behavior and a lack of research or investigation into individuals who are abnormally virtuous.  It follows that there should be more studies like the Tibetan Buddhist monk study.  Look around.  Our future may depend on it.

Conspiring With Him How to Load and Bless

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on November 23, 2010 at 3:19 pm

November in Japan is a lonely, depressing month.  The bright colors of fall have peaked and gradually turn to brown.  It is still too early to ski, and Christmas vacation remains over a month away.  The weather is too cold to play outside, but not cold enough to play outside in the snow.  Days end at 4:30.  And there is no football.  Or Thanksgiving.   

To alleviate periodic episodes of anomie, I turn to the rustic luxuries of onsening and the harvest.  

An onsen is a Japanese hot spring resort.  Unlike western hot springs, onsens are not simply muddy holes in the ground, but carefully decorated and managed pools of varying size, shape, and material.  They are often deep in the mountains, or at least on the outskirts of civilization.  Fukushima being a rural urban center, I live at the confluence of several onsen resorts and often visit one if I have a free half-day.

A few weeks ago, my family and I went to a modern hotel which sported a swimming pool, a jacuzzi, a traditional indoor bath, an outdoor bath called a rotenburo, and a sauna.  No one else was swimming in the pool, and the afternoon sun reflecting off the peak fall foliage on the other side of the river behind the resort shone through floor-to-ceiling windows and turned the slightly broken surface of the water a flickering golden, orange, and red hue.  Freshly fallen fall leaves floated on the surface of the rotenburo.  The dry heat of the sauna provided a comforting respite from the crisp fall air and the pervasive water vapor of the indoor bath.  After soaking in a welcome and rare aether free of infants screaming, I bought a glass bottle of 5% milk from the vending machine and floated aimlessly back to my home with my family in our four-door Nissan.

I live in Hirano, an area of farmland on the edge of Iizaka onsen, the largest onsen resort near Fukushima City.  A friend and I decided to visit the public bath last week to relax and discuss economics, and after finding two onsens we knew of to be closed, we gambled on a place we had never been to.  With places like these, there is an appropriate respect and deferment due to locals, older people, and older locals, as with surfing.  We were careful to be unobtrusive.  When we entered the small facility, we were surprised to find a group of old men we knew from another place we frequently visit seemingly in charge.  “Hey, how are you guys?  Good thing you came here.  This is the best bath in Fukushima!” one said to me, as I entered the two-meter by two-meter 46°C water.  I suppressed any instinctual or emotional response to the heat as the Stoics once did.

In November, families often mark the passage of seasons by getting together for imonikai, which are big nabe parties.  Last weekend we drove to my wife’s aunt’s house, and we helped cook and eat a barbecued assortment of meats and vegetables and miso soup for fifty cooked in an iron pot in which one could easily fit a small child.  I asked my wife’s aunt where I could buy such a big pot.  She replied that she had received it from her mother, who had received it from her mother.  

I had to leave the party early for work, but when I got home, there was a regular-sized pot full of the miso soup from earlier in the day sitting on the stove.  Indeed, November is the best time to begin regularly making nabe again.  Throughout the winter, creative variations on a master nabe are enough for at least one meal a day; usually these soups are turned into curries by the end of their runs.  

Today, the family went to a friend’s house, and we made two varieties of curry – one with spinach, chick peas, chili, and homemade, homegrown tomato chutney – the other with ground beef, whole tomatoes, and onions.  A variety of garnishes were available for the more adventurous, and mature, soft, peeled and sliced persimmons provided striking relief to sweat-inducing spices. 

The Inductive: Volume II

In Uncategorized on November 22, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Here we are one year after launching The Inductive.  If you go down to the archives at the bottom of the right column, you’ll see that entries start in July of last year but this was at the old WordPress blog, which we imported to The Inductive last November.  Our Google Analytics account for this site dates from November 19th, so that is how we shall mark our anniversary.  

What We’ve Accomplished:

(1.) 207 published posts in Specific Facts, totaling approximately 165,000 words, which puts our one-year blog output about halfway between Angels and Demons and the Da Vinci Code.  

(2.) twenty-four published, full-length articles in General Principles, totaling about 72,000 words, the approximate length of Michael Crichton’s classic The Andromeda Strain. 

(3.) seventy-two published entries in Dispatches From the Wild Wild East – about 50,000 words – close to the length of E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times.  

(4.) nine reviews of classic or topical films and albums in the Art of Leisure – 13,000 words – the length of two full New York Times Magazine, New Yorker, or Atlantic articles.

(5.) The grand total word output for the Inductive thus far is approximately 300,000 words spread across 312 entries, which means at this pace, we’ll eclipse War and Peace sometime early next summer.

(6.) We’ve had somewhere between 60,000 and 90,000 pageviews in the last year, and somewhere between 23,000 and 30,000 unique visitors during that same period.  This makes about 250 pageviews and 90 visitors per entry, but there is a wide range.  Most posts for Dispatches from the Wild Wild East attract few readers, while our reviews seem to be very popular.

(7.) While today is only November 22nd, this month is already the best so far for the Inductive in terms of hits and visitors.  The blogosphere and Google have been kind to us.  The numbers showcased in (6.) should continue to increase steadily in 2011.    

(8.) Six authors from disparate backgrounds contributed to the Inductive in our first year.

What’s Changed:

Josh has disappeared into the African bush, and Joe has been busy with grad school work, so I have been the dominant voice of the blog for the last few months.  Since the Inductive started, the focus of my blogging has moved from specific policy issues to more esoteric political philosophy and cultural critique.  I have narrowed the focus of my articles to the effects of the attacks of September 11th on American culture and policy.  My work on Japan for Dispatches from the Wild Wild East has taken on a more scholarly bent.  

Ideologically, Joe’s pragmatic liberalism profoundly influenced my philosophical and consequentialist libertarianism, although we clashed repeatedly on economics and Rand Paul.  In many respects I have moved even further towards traditionalist anarchist thought since starting to write for the Inductive.

Goals for Volume II:

(1.) Between now and the New Year, I’d like to increase my blogging output in Specific Facts, without sacrificing quality and while continuing to publish at outside electronic and print venues.

(2.) We’d like to get more and more diverse voices involved with the Inductive on a regular basis.  And we’d like more comments and conversations.  We’d like to increase our readership and develop more of a community of regular readers.    

(3.) For Volume II, I’d like to refine existing concepts explored in posts for Specific Facts and mold these ideas into more polished articles for General Principles with strong – even ideologically aggressive -conclusions.

(4.) Both Dispatches From the Wild Wild East and Five-Tweet Reviews are ongoing projects that should continue in their current forms until at least next summer.  

 

Anyways, thanks to everyone for reading!  

 

Lying with Math

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on November 21, 2010 at 2:45 pm

I lie to and manipulate my students all the time using basic math, but it’s okay because I’m better than them.  Here is how I did it today with my class of three eight-year-olds:  

We had some extra time at the end of class, so I let the kids each choose a game they wanted to play.  One of the students chose Crazy Eights.  One of the students chose Old Maid.  One of the students chose Go Fish.  

Normally, I’d just have the students play paper, rock, scissors if they couldn’t agree on what game to play, but I really didn’t want to play Crazy Eights, since I’ve been playing way too much Crazy Eights recently, and a regular game of Old Maid usually clocks in at twenty-five minutes or so and we just didn’t have that much time, plus, I thought the kids could use a bit of work on using the verb “have”, so I really wanted to play Go Fish.  The real dilemma for me was how could I force the kids to play Go Fish without appearing arbitrary and despotic?

I grabbed two sets of cards and put them behind my back.  

“Okay, Helen, choose left or right.”  

“Right!”  

“Okay, you chose Old Maid, so that gets eliminated.”

“Now, Susan, left or right?”

“Left.”

“Okay, you chose Go Fish, so that’s the game we’ll play.”

Do you see what I did there?  There are actually an infinite number of variations on getting the kids to make the correct choice; sometimes, I simply change the rules mid-game and pretend that that was my intention the whole time; sometimes I’ll tap into the power of “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” or best-of-n paper, rock, scissors tournaments, or I’ll try a game of odd-and-evens, or basically whatever it takes for the kids to make the right choice.

When I do get the desired outcome, I simply choose to stop the “random” selection process, and the kids think that everything came out totally fair.  After all, we all saw Susan win the best-of-seven paper-rock-scissors tournament, didn’t we?  It’s great that I can get the kids to think they themselves chose Go Fish in some sort of unbiased, democratic fashion.  Sometimes, we’ll even have entire classes where the kids “choose” what to do.

The applications seem endless…

For instance, let’s imagine I’m President Obama.  I could elect to have suspected terrorists who confessed under torture undergo civilian trials to show everyone that America is not an arbitrary dictatorship.  If the juries in those trials find the suspect guilty, then I simply stop.  I could even elect to try higher-ranking suspected terrorists in civilian courts.  If a jury made the right decision once, it will probably make the right decision again, right?

But if the jury doesn’t make the right decision, I could simply hold the suspected terrorists forever under my super awesome “post-acquittal detention power“.  (This is kind of like throwing “dynamite” or even “atom bomb” in the rubber match of a best-of-eleven series of paper, rock scissors.)  

This way, I can manipulate the commoners into thinking that America is still under the rule of law and assert unchecked dictatorial powers at the same time!

 

(hat tip: Mark Thompson)

Old Is the New New

In Empires of the Mind on November 15, 2010 at 11:33 am

Ray of Hope – Cambodia by Maciej DakowiczJoe’s tweeting the self-repair manifesto reminded me of a post I had been planning with a similar theme: buying things new, throwing them away when they get old, and buying more new crap is the dominant paradigm of 21st Century consumer life.  How much of this is simple conspicuous consumption, how much of this is pure rational response to price distortions and poor policy, and how much is simple human nature (Young children especially seem to hate hand-me-downs, though this could be learned behavior.) is beyond both the capabilities and scope of this magazine.  But this paradigm must shift sometime.  We cannot simply produce-use-throw-away-produce-use-throw-away forever.  Self-repair is one good place to start.  Not only can we cut down on waste, but we can learn engineering skills necessary for the ever-increasingly-technical economy of the future.

Another way to cut down on waste is by renting instead of owning things.  My friend, Tim Hyer, started the company Rentcycle, which seeks to coordinate renters and leasers of all manner of products on the Internet.  It’s this kind of entrepreneurship that must dominate if we are to have both a truly global and a truly sustainable society.  

In addition to the two aforementioned solutions – self-repair and renting, I would propose a third, fundamental shift in consumer preferences: 

Why do we like new things and hate old things?  Take for instance a black hat, a camera case, an alarm clock, a necktie, a pair of headphones, and a desk (all things in my immediate vicinity).  Of these, the hat I bought second hand at a trendy second-hand shop, the camera case I bought new when my previous one broke, the alarm clock I received as a present from a co-worker after its previous incarnation failed, the necktie was part of my grandfather’s estate, the headphones were a present from my wife’s brother, and the desk I bought used from a former co-worker.  

These things (with the exception of my grandfather’s tie) all started as mass-produced, unspecial factory crap, yet they came to be interesting for me and accrued value in that sense throughout the process of ownership, whether ownership by me or another. (I can only speculate on the history of my black hat, and I do, and this is enjoyable.) Most old things indeed have unique histories and personalities behind them.  And these rare, subjective, semantic qualities should make old things more valuable than new things for all of us.

I have always been a person who finds it hard to throw or give things away.  I remember one time when I was five or six years old at Christmas and my mother asked my younger sister and me to think hard and choose one toy to give to needy children.  My sister chose to give away her favorite stuffed animal.  I chose a toy I had received with a Happy Meal earlier that day.  I remember the look of disappointment in my mother’s face, and I always thought that that one time when I was tested and failed meant that I was a stingy and cheap miser and would be forever.  

As I grew, I started to realize that the reason I don’t like getting rid of things is because I attach subjective value to them, not monetary value, but ever-increasing nostalgic value in the form of meaning.  When I look at my alarm clock, I remember those times I was late for work, and I laugh (both because corporate jobs are for suckers and because babies make it impossible for me to oversleep now); my desk reminds me of my former co-worker’s kindness; looking at my camera case makes me think of all the places I’ve traveled; and the necktie reminds me of my grandfather.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I decided to sell the bulk of our accumulated stuff at a flea market at the local Shinto shrine so we wouldn’t have to lug it all to America.  My wife had several boxes full of old clothes and CDs by the end of it, but all the things I decided to sell added up to less than half of one box.  I felt like I was selling my memories; even some of the clothes I barely ever wore had value for me beyond their monetary worth: as I placed my red sweater vest in the box, I remembered the one and only time I ever wore it – to a formal in college; I was so hot I was sweating through my shirt, but I couldn’t take off the vest since I was so hot I was sweating through my shirt.  

Luckily, it rained and the flea market was cancelled.

The Grass Is Always Greener

In Empires of the Mind on November 14, 2010 at 5:00 pm

I’ve written in defense of Facebook before, and Alexis Madrigal does it better than me:

…The real struggle is with ourselves to use Facebook well … You get to determine your level of investment in the digital world around you. You get to choose the people you listen and talk to. You have control over your data. You get to define who you are, no matter what your Facebook profile says. All that is not lost unless we choose to lose it.

I think this is obvious, and if you don’t get it, may nature select against your genes.  The one concern I do have with Facebook is that it is so much better than anything else at allowing users to use their own local knowledge to coordinate and manage information that it will soon come to monopolize much of the activity on the Internet (just like Microsoft with the operating system market in the 1990s) – future blogging will be solely on Facebook, email will be taken over by Facebook (perhaps as soon as tomorrow), games developed will be all for Facebook platforms a la Farmville; essentially, we could be seeing the genesis of something far more of a monopoly in any meaningful sense of the word than Microsoft ever was.

That being said, I’m keeping this watchful eye while continuing to enjoy the services provided by Facebook on a completely voluntary basis, as is any other user.  I especially LOVE the targeted advertising scheme, because I can appreciate the bigger picture and because I understand the alternative of saturated marketing.

I read the (previously linked) story on how Facebook could destroy gmail yesterday and more or less thought about it all day today.  Mid-thought this morning at around 10:00 I suddenly began to hear one of Japan’s characteristic noise-pollution advertisements and had a brief discussion with my wife about where it was coming from.  Usually these things come from cars which I then fantasize about flipping over and lighting on fire, but this one was actually coming from an airplane broadcasting advertisements from above at some absurd volume.  And I had no missiles.  

I began to think about how the advertisements I get on Facebook are usually of the kind I’d check out anyways and awesome – like I get advertisements for Tyrell Corporation T-shirts.  I would totally buy and wear a Tyrell Corporation T-shirt, and I imagine I see this advertisement because I list Blade Runner as one of my favorite movies on Facebook.  When I first saw this advertisement, I actually tweeted it because I thought it was so awesome, then I decided rationally that I already had lots of totally awesome t-shirts and didn’t need that one.  I routinely get offers for teaching jobs in Japan and people looking for Japanese translators, MBA programs, golf-based iPhone apps, and travel guides, which are all useful for me, since I sometimes buy stuff.  Facebook matches producers and consumers using math and statistics, which I also like.  

I don’t get advertisements for hentai sites, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up products, Baby Alive, or any other shit that I would never consider purchasing.  So that brings me to the rub for Facebook haters: which is it, are you corporate slaves, do you completely lack self-control, or do you just hate math and statistics?

David Simon on (Travel) Writing

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on November 14, 2010 at 9:54 am

David Simon, from in a 2007 interview with Nick Hornby at The Believer:

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

Beginning with Homicide, the book, I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out. I also realized—and this was more important to me—that I would consider the book or film a failure if people in these worlds took in my story and felt that I did not get their existence, that I had not captured their world in any way that they would respect.

Make no mistake—with journalism, this doesn’t mean I want the subjects to agree with every page. Sometimes the adversarial nature of what I am saying requires that I write what the subjects will not like, in terms of content. But in terms of dialogue, vernacular, description, tone—I want a homicide detective, or a drug slinger, or a longshoreman, or a politician anywhere in America to sit up and say, Whoa, that’s how my day is. That’s my goal. It derives not from pride or ambition or any writerly vanity, but from fear. Absolute fear. Like many writers, I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgeable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions. I see myself labeled a writer, and I get good reviews, and I have the same doubts buried, latent, even after my successes. I suspect many, many writers feel this way. I think it is rooted in the absolute arrogance that comes with standing up at the community campfire and declaring, essentially, that we have the best story that ought to be told next and that people should fucking listen. Storytelling and storytellers are rooted in pay-attention-to-me onanism. Listen to this! I’m from Baltimore and I’ve got some shit you fucking need to see, people! Put down that CSI shit and pay some heed, motherfuckers! I’m gonna tell it best, and most authentic, and coolest, and… I mean, presenting yourself as the village griot is done, for me, with no more writerly credential than a dozen years as a police reporter in Baltimore and a C-average bachelor’s degree in general studies from a large state university. On paper, why me? But I have a feeling every good writer, regardless of background, doubts his own voice just a little, and his own right to have that voice heard. It’s the simple effrontery of the thing. Who died and made me Storyteller?

So yes, for the drug dealers and the cops, I spent years gathering string on who they are, how they think and talk. When we needed to add politicians, well, I covered some politics so I had the general tone, but we added Bill Zorzi, the Baltimore Sun’s best political reporter, to the writing staff. When it came to longshoremen, we added Rafael Alvarez, a former reporter and short-story writer who had quit to join the seamen’s union and whose family was three generations in the maritime industry. And the rest of us, myself included, spent weeks getting to know longshoremen and the operations of the port and the port unions, just hanging around the shipping terminals for days on end, so as to credibly achieve those voices. Again, what I wanted was that longshoremen across America would watch The Wire and say, Cool, they know my world. I’ve never seen my world depicted on TV, and these guys got it. And I feared that one of them would stand up and say: No, that’s complete bullshit. So that never changes for me.

Which brings us back to Average Reader. Because the truth is you can’t write just for people living the event, if the market will not also follow. TV still being something of a mass medium, even with all the fractured cable universe now reducing audience size per channel. Well, here’s a secret that I learned with Homicide and have held to: if you write something that is so credible that the insider will stay with you, then the outsider will follow as well. HomicideThe CornerThe WireGeneration Kill—these are travelogues of a kind, allowing Average Reader/Viewer to go where he otherwise would not. He loves being immersed in a new, confusing, and possibly dangerous world that he will never see. He likes not knowing every bit of vernacular or idiom. He likes being trusted to acquire information on his terms, to make connections, to take the journey with only his intelligence to guide him. Most smart people cannot watch most TV, because it has generally been a condescending medium, explaining everything immediately, offering no ambiguities, and using dialogue that simplifies and mitigates against the idiosyncratic ways in which people in different worlds actually communicate. It eventually requires that characters from different places talk the same way as the viewer. This, of course, sucks.

There are two ways of traveling. One is with a tour guide, who takes you to the crap everyone sees. You take a snapshot and move on, experiencing nothing beyond a crude visual and the retention of a few facts. The other way to travel requires more time—hence the need for this kind of viewing to be a long-form series or miniseries, in this bad metaphor—but if you stay in one place, say, if you put up your bag and go down to the local pub or shebeen and you play the fool a bit and make some friends and open yourself up to a new place and new time and new people, soon you have a sense of another world entirely. We’re after this: Making television into that kind of travel, intellectually. Bringing those pieces of America that are obscured or ignored or otherwise segregated from the ordinary and effectively arguing their relevance and existence to ordinary Americans. Saying, in effect, This is part of the country you have made. This too is who we are and what we have built. Think again, motherfuckers.

And the only difference between what we’re doing and a world traveler getting off the beaten path is that our viewers don’t really have to play the fool. They don’t even have to put their ass out of the sofa. They now have a sense of what is happening on a drug corner, or in a homicide unit, or inside a political campaign—and our content, if gently massaged to create drama, is nonetheless rooted in accurate reporting and experience.

Simon is not only engaging in some real (justified) chest-thumping, but he’s making an incredibly bold claim, that watching a show like The Wire is superior to travel because the viewer is not constrained by himself.  As an (obvious) American living in Japan, the vast majority of my conversations with strangers start off about hot dogs and hamburgers, guns, baseball, and fat people; but there have been more than a few interesting conversations I’ve had on my travels.  I can appreciate what Simon tried to do with a show like The Wire.  

“Patriotism, That Least Discerning of Virtues”

In General Principles on November 12, 2010 at 6:01 pm

How many American flags are there in this picture? Closest without going over gets a free Inductive coffee mug.I thought of titling this one “Conservatism Eats Itself”. but we’ve already got one of those, so I’ll attribute the title of this post to Borges without providing a link. (press me on it and I will.)  What does it mean?  It skips over the incoherent question of whether or not patriotism qualifies as a virtue and goes straight to saying that patriotism is the easiest virtue to attain.  To be only patriotic is to settle for the lowest common denominator of goodness and to do so without thinking, without considering that there may be conflicts between patriotism and more sublime virtues.  To be patriotic is to acquiesce to groupthink for its own sake.  I’ll leave it at that, because I don’t want to violate Godwin’s Law.

Recently our President has taken heat from the absurd right for being insufficiently patriotic.  I’ll skip ahead to the cogent analysis from Andrew Sullivan (It’s hard to get excerptable statements from that guy when he’s on a roll.):

This is the era of the Big Lie, in other words, and it translates into a lot of little lies – “death panels,” “out-of-control” spending, “apologies for America” etc. – designed to concoct a false narrative so simple and so familiar it actually succeeded in getting into people’s minds in the midst of a brutal recession. And integral to this process have been conservative “intellectuals” who should and do know better, but have long since sacrificed intellectual honesty for the cheap thrills of enabling power-grabs. And few lies represent this intellectual cooptation of talk radio/FNC propaganda better than the lie that Obama has publicly rebutted the idea of American exceptionalism.

Where does one start? Where one always starts with these things – Jonah Goldberg:

Last year, when asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, President Obama responded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

This reminded me of the wonderful scene in Pixar‘s “The Incredibles,” in which the mom says “everyone’s special” and her son replies, “Which is another way of saying no one is.” But at least the president made room for the sentiment that America is a special place, even if he chalked it up to a kind of benign provincialism.

Oh really?

Here is the full Obama quote:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

In other words, Obama emphatically doesn’t reduce the idea of American exceptionalism to “benign provincialism.” Quite the contrary: he explicitly asserts that the values enshrined in the Constitution are exceptional, and defends them and the US’s history in front of a foreign audience. 

What ever happened to Gary Cooper?  You know the strong, silent type?  The quintessential American, the embodiment of conservative, rugged, independent virtues?  And when did trumpeting one’s own greatness become a virtue?  Modesty – more discerning than patriotism – really should be the true (conservative) virtue here.  As a country, we’ve reached a stage where if I don’t wear my American flag lapel pin to meetings where everybody is an American, if I don’t sing “God Bless America” at baseball games where every fan is an American, and if I don’t chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” at rallies for American elections where everybody participating is an American, I am not a true American.  I’m actually a bit embarrassed to admit that I cringe when these things happen.

Here’s an appropriate analogy: I love my family.  Nobody questions that I love my family.  Yet I don’t wear a pin of my wife’s face on my lapel, I don’t sing “God Bless Penelope” at work, I don’t tell other fathers that my daughter, Rosalind, is more beautiful that their daughters.  If I find out one of my kids is saying “my dad can beat up your dad,” I’d be disappointed.  

Why the inconsistency?