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Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Walking the Federal Pot Plank: Time for More Mutiny

In Specific Facts on January 31, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Gwen Florio wrote in the Missoulian on December 19th:

A funny thing happened on the way to Missoula County District Court last week.  Jurors – well, potential jurors, staged a revolt.  They took the law into their own hands, as it were, and made it clear they weren’t about to convict anybody for having a couple of buds of marijuana…’

…The tiny amount of marijuana police found while searching Touray Cornell’s home on April 23 became a huge issue for some members of the jury panel.  No, they said, one after the other.  No way would they convict somebody for having a 16th of an ounce.  In fact, one juror wondered why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all…

…“I thought, ‘Geez, I don’t know if we can seat a jury,” said (District Judge Dusty) Deschamps.  The judge and former Missoula County attorney said he’s “more or less” convinced that marijuana should be legalized in some form, despite being “much alarmed at what I consider to be rampant abuse of what I think was a well-intentioned initiative”…

…On Friday (December 17th), (Defendant Touray) Cornell entered an Alford plea, in which he didn’t admit guilt.  He briefly held his infant daughter in his manacled hands, and walked smiling out of the courtroom…“A mutiny,” said (Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew) Paul.  “Bizarre,”…defense attorney (Martin Elison) called it.  In his nearly 30 years as a prosecutor and judge, Deschamps said he’s never seen anything like it.

Death and Taxes Magazine’s Andrew Belonsky reacted to the story as follows:

County Attorney Andrew Paul described the jury’s insistence as a “mutiny,” while defense attorney Martin Elison described it as bizarre. Deschamps, however, took a more expansive view, and called the impasse “a reflection of society as a whole on the issue.”

There’s every indication average Americans are mellowing to the idea of legalizing marijuana.  A Gallup survey from October, for example, found that 46% of Americans support legalizing the drug, a two-point increase from last year.  And though the AP-CNBC poll from April showed less favorable numbers for legalization — only 33% in favor, while 55% opposed — it showed an overwhelming support for medical marijuana: 60% of Americans think cannabis should be used as part of prescription plan.

Founding Father and President Thomas Jefferson said:

I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.

John Adams said of the juror:

It is not only his right, but his duty – to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.

So, the obvious question, ever-looming over our collective heads, why isn’t pot legal?  I mean lots of other things are legal, and lots of people seem to want to make pot legal, and I myself can’t seem to come up with much if any reasons not to make pot legal.  It’s a real head-scratcher.  Marijuana is essentially illegal across all of the United States (except for Breckenridge, Colorado, those rebels); but in many places the drug has been decriminalized to the point that getting caught with an ounce or less of pot is the same as getting a speeding ticket for doing ten miles over. 

You could almost call the war against marijuana the oxymoron of laws: proscriptions against the possession of pot aren’t really much more than symbolic at this point; enforcement of them serves to clog up the courts and costs money and time law enforcement officials could be putting to much more productive use. 

Now fifteen states have passed legislation for the legal use of medical marijuana under the care of a licensed physician for a host of medical conditions, to the joy and elation of many sick patients and the disdain of many politicians.

A recent Charles S. Johnson article in The Missoulian discusses some of the pushback to the Touray Cornell case mutiny and the effective black market for medical marijuana taking over Montana:

HELENA – Key members of the 2011 Legislature are determined to impose new regulations on a medical marijuana industry that some believe has reeled out of control in the past year.

Others are calling for outright repeal of the medical marijuana law enacted by a 2004 ballot measure, which 62 percent of Montanans approved, and one lawmaker wants to put the issue before voters again.

Repealing Montana’s legislation legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana would be inhuman.  According to Tom Daubert, a leading advocate for the 2004 medical marijuana initiative:

(Repeal) would be disastrous for patients who genuinely use and need the medicine, It would be disastrous for the taxpayers for the state to redefine 25,000 Montanans as criminals. It would be a law enforcement nightmare when budgets are tightened.

In other words, in the face of changing social norms for marijuana use, it would cost more and more money to defend some antiquated principle like prohibition.  While in Montana and parts of Los Angeles and Oakland, exploitation of loopholes in existing statute and loose oversight has been widespread, it’s not like that’s never happened with new legislation before.  Exploitation of legislation crafted in good faith doesn’t indicate that that legislation should be repealed so much as it indicates that that legislation should be fixed.  There will always be bumps in the road to saner social policy.

One of those bumps in Missoula county was Jason Christ, a medical marijuana provider.  Christ managed a traveling caregiver clinic which would go to different locations and arrange video conferences with doctors who would often provide a prescription for marijuana on the spot via pre-signed medical forms.  Ultimately Christ was found to be in violation of existing statute on the proper means of obtaining a prescription for medical marijuana.

Despite such abuse of new laws permitting medical marijuana, the legalization of marijuana makes sense when the stigma is removed and the facts are bared.  So let’s take a look at some facts collected from Drug Sense

The U.S. federal government spent over $15 billion dollars in 2010 on the War on Drugs, at a rate of about $500 per second. Source: Office of National Drug Control Policy

State and local governments spent at least another 25 billion dollars.
Source: Jeffrey A. Miron & Kathrine Waldock: “The Budgetary Impact of Drug Prohibition,” 2010.

The DEA’s annual budget for staffing alone is 2.6 billion dollars

Today is January 30, 2011.  It is 9:04 AM EST at press time, and federal and state governments have already spent $3,457,051,663 so far this year in the War on Drugs.  And its working so well.  It doesn’t take much of a deep thinker to realize the tax revenues – and I mean huge ones – incomes, and jobs that would go a long way to eliminating our deficit and ailing economy with the legalization of pot.  Yet prohibition drags on. 

But all is not lost. After flexing political muscles in fifteen states to push forth legislation on medical weed, Mr. Smith is headed to Washington.  A newly formed trade group, the National Cannabis Industry Association, is an organization of sellers, growers, and manufacturers (companies that not only grow pot, but produce THC synthetically) is coming together to promote pot on the Hill.

The federal government, as usual, is the principle force for obstruction.  While fifteen states are telling licensed physicians that it’s okay to dispense pot to their patients who need it, at the same time the good doctors have the federal government threatening to take away their licenses to practice medicine if they do.

The marijuana issue has been beaten and ultimately tenderized.  It’s high time (pardon the pun) we as a country get past old hang-ups and the stigmas of pot-smoking that have been looming over our heads since before the filming of ”Refer Madness”, and just legalize it.  We can smooth out the lumps afterwards.  I’d even be in favor of the formation of M.A.S.D. (Mothers Against Stoned Drivers), while I don’t think they’d be too busy.

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‘Hey I’m on a schedule here!’ – East/West Employment Protocol

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 30, 2011 at 6:57 am

Last month I stumbled across a job opportunity in Florida that seemed right up my alley. This was pretty exciting for me as jobs and my alley don’t normally hang out in the same neighborhood. The position, involving fingerprint analysis and expensive-looking machines, would jibe perfectly with my advanced education (advanced in age mainly). What tipped my stubborn work/life scales though was the prospect of living year-round within a short bike ride of the sand and surf. This was a place I could almost imagine being gainfully employed. So immediately (meaning within a week) I got to work on the application process. 

As with any application to a law enforcement agency, the paperwork involved a lot of swearing: I swear I don’t have any objectionable tattoos (or a forked tongue, a condition actually spelled out in the ‘no bodily mutilation’ section); I swear I don’t smoke (drinking, by its non-mention, is fine); I swear I have no history of repeated marijuana use beyond ‘experimental’ (Bill Clinton clause); I swear I have no recent DUI convictions. No problem, I’ll swear to all this and lots more, just hook me up to that polygraph. Oh and by the way I’ve got that ‘high school diploma or GED’ thing covered.

Imagine my concern then when I remembered that not two weeks before all this came my way I had agreed to teach a year-long English course at one of Fukushima’s zillion product manufacturing companies. I didn’t agree, exactly; Mr. Sato, an extremely nice guy who has a habit of dumping jobs on me, took my not outwardly disagreeing to take the job as a yes, and had already had three meetings and eight phone calls with the people at ‘Kaisha A’ about this upcoming contract which, it had by now been exhaustively determined, would last for one year. Obviously I needed to be more aggressive in my passively not agreeing to take on this new job, because unless there was an overload of applicants in Florida with high school diplomas or GEDs and no forked tongues I was going to have to take my practiced soft shoe to a higher level. ‘Well you see, Sato-san, right about when class is going into its third month here I’m going to be falling asleep to the soothing sound of the Gulf of Mexico…’

Through my world wide web of inside contacts I found out that this was the second posting for this position in Florida…in a town right on the Gulf…with amazing white sand beaches…and supermarkets with peanut butter… The second posting! It made me wonder if bodily mutilation was more common than I imagined among Floridians with GEDs. How could this position remain unfilled? More importantly, how much longer would this bit of good fortune last? Because now it seemed possible that my timely (read: slothful) application submission might actually spare Mr. Sato the grief I had been planning to trot out for him. This applicant evaluation was going to require a comprehensive background investigation, a polygraph exam, medical checks and my mother crawling through the attic back home to dig up my high school diploma so I could include a copy of that along with my graduate school transcript. For any normal governmental agency this process would take months and months. This was going to work out perfectly! I’d be evaluated, accepted and on a plane heading for Tampa even as I was still recovering from my hangover after the Kaisha class year-end party where my students, after a glib ‘Hi Kevin I’m fine how are you?’ would chug their beers and spend the rest of the night acting like I didn’t teach them a thing.

But then the Kaisha really started pouring on the procedure.

 

Allow me to explain a bit about Kaisha A’s streamlined approach to admitting visitors to their high-security complex, surrounded on all sides by five-foot-high chain link. Through June of last year I taught a beginner’s course there. Before the start of this course they had requested a resume from me – in Japanese. Fair enough. They think a year with me is going to turn their mumbling employees into global communicators then why wouldn’t they believe I could scratch out a few legible Kanji? It’s all just protocol anyway; nothing I wrote resembled the characters for ‘fork’ and ‘tongue’ so they just stuck my standardized form with attached photo in a file somewhere and got back to scheduling meetings to schedule more meetings. Now, eighteen months later, they are requesting another resume from me. Two, actually, since now they want an English version as if this will make them or me or anyone believe these classes are helping transform the goings-on there at the plant into a regular UN gathering. Mr. Sato – did I mention he was a really nice guy? – pulled out a photocopy of my first resume and told me he’d add a line at the bottom about the work I’d been doing for him in the past year and a half and send it in to those Kaisha A curmudgeons. That left me to handle the English version.

Which I have yet to get around to.

At the start of my first gig with Kaisha A, unlike the other teachers, I didn’t have a company-issued ID card to politely flash to the retired guy working the security gate. No problem, I’d get the standard guest pass in the plastic holder. ‘Please display it either on your jacket or on your shirt pocket,’ Grandpa-san told me. I went with option three and stuck it in my backpack. On top of the ID Card / Guest Pass, we were each given a gray card to slide through this small machine at the gate, which produced the same buzzing sound as Japan’s new tsunami warning system. Of course this was all simply a test to make sure these gray cards could make the machine buzz properly every week.

Halfway through the course-year we were herded into a room of tables piled high with boxes and wires and cases of green tea in cans. ‘We are taking your picture for your new ID cards.’ These efficient little beauties (not a reference to my picture), once we got them two weeks later, acted as both our personal ID and our buzzing machine tester. No more wasting class time fumbling for the correct card at the gate. We were our own buzzing machines now, on the job, working to get our students to stop answering ‘How are you?’ with ‘Yes.’

This one-card system lasted exactly one week.

‘This gives you access to the hallway,’ Old Security told me, handing me a new type of card to stick into my backpack. I actually needed it though, as there was for the first time no one standing by in the lobby to guide me to the same classroom I had been using for six months. A beep and a click and I was alone in a first stage restricted area. I peeked into my classroom; no one had shown up yet. So I decided to see how deep this little card could get me into the bowels of the Kaisha. But I only made it through a second door and around a corner when I encountered a man who had the acuity to see I wasn’t a regular employee, certainly not one with second stage clearance. It must have been the lack of stress lines on my face. Bouncing on my toes I asked him for nearest rest room – denoted clearly by the blue and red figures on the white sign halfway down the hall behind him but he turned me around and marched me back out to the first stage boys room. He waited by the door as I faked taking care of business so he could show me the way – all the way – to the classroom I had been using for the past six months. Then he told me to please sit down, walked out of the room and closed the door.

The following week the tsunami warning machine was gone, with no explanation.

With this superhuman mindset driving efficiency through the roof at Der Kaisha, it should come as no surprise that the start of our year-long course has been indefinitely delayed. Just like last time there are three classes planned, for three levels of English ability. Some of those from the previous groups will be returning (though all six of my former students are nowhere to be seen). Each of the new students has been assigned to a class based on his or her TOEIC scores, by no means a reliable barometer of anyone’s English skill but still the litmus test in Japan for determining who gets promoted faster through the company ranks. (‘True, Kazu has a way with people but Hiro over there in the corner scored forty points higher, he’s obviously the guy who will help us better compete both domestically and globally.’) The Firm, though, in their incisive wisdom, set up ten-minute one-on-one interviews with yours truly to make sure each of these newbies ends up in the right room for their skills. Miraculously all eight of them would be available on the same morning, and I was going to rip through them and get everyone in line and get this course started and ended before someone with a GED and an intact tongue made it to Florida.

The bummer was that I was going to have to get going on that English resume – until someone in a nice chair in a nice seventh stage office decided more meetings were in order before these crucial interviews could take place, potentially shifting the future of the company in an unanticipated direction, or in any direction.

Mr. Sato and I are standing by. Well, he is.

In the meantime, I have put my own razor-sharp brand of efficiency into effect. Surfing this particular law enforcement agency’s website, checking out all the nice photos of the beach and the sun setting over the Gulf, I happened to notice there was a 3-5 years experience requirement for the job I wanted. Normally I wouldn’t pay such brazen statements any mind, but somewhere in the application papers sitting under the lemon cookies on my desk it said I was going to need to get three separate pieces of paper officially notarized before sending them in. Evidently they needed me to totally swear I didn’t have any recent DUIs or mutilated body parts. Living where I do, this notarization process was going to take a bit of time and money. So while I was waiting one evening for my buddy to text me back I whipped off an email to Florida, asking them if a Master’s degree was an acceptable substitute for 3-5 years experience in saying ‘no these fingerprints don’t match’, and oh by the way can my mom come down from the attic now.

The answer was a polite and firm no (to the Master’s, not my mom, she can come down anytime).

So now I’m in no rush to rock the Kaisha and get this course finished. As a matter of fact I’m not all too keen on getting it started. If and when these inner stage meetings end and I can finally sit these new students down and spend ten minutes asking them if they know of any good ramen shops nearby, I think I’m going to nix the Fuhrer on the English resume idea. This will set off a whole new slew of meetings and tsunami warning machines – which will give the polite, firm folks in Florida time to realize that no one with a GED and a normal tongue is coming their way in the next 3-5 years and they might as well hire me.

I hope they are as efficient as I am; my open ticket to Tampa is only good for another eleven and a half months.

Memory, Memory, Mnemonics, Metacognition, Systemization, Learning, Postmodernism, and Memory

In Empires of the Mind on January 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Appropriately, this is the second time for me to write this post.  I don’t know whether to blame my mother-in-law’s computer or Squarespace (or myself) for ironically erasing a post about memory.  I’ll try to fight back impatience and frustration and craft a cogent argument.

I often play Memory in my kids classes.  This is the game where players turn over cards and try to match them from memory.  I usually play with a set of cards depicting colors and shapes (such as yellow octagon) or a set of cards depicting letters and animals (such as G, Goat).  When I first started playing Memory in my classes, I used only twenty cards arranged in a four by five matrix.  I found that such games typically lasted between five and ten minutes, and students very seldom forgot the positions and identities of any of the cards.  If there were four players, the final score would be something like 4-2-2-2.  Whoever went first or whoever was lucky enough to be last when there was only a few pairs left would often be the winner.  This unfairness usually didn’t bother me, since the primary goal of the activity was to memorize English objects, and the beneficiary of structural unfairness – that is to say the winner – seemed to rotate each class in random, egalitarian fashion.

Nevertheless, my class of seven-year-olds soon insisted that we use all the cards.  As a decidedly non-micromanaging, hippy teacher, I complied and began to arrange fifty-four cards in a six by nine matrix.  I found that this bigger version of Memory took anywhere from twenty to thirty minutes to complete and changed the nature of the game completely.  The advantage of going first or last was relatively minimized, and so was the egalitarian distribution of winners.  The same students won every time we played.

In the fifty-four card version of the game, winning seemed to be a function of not raw memory skill but how fundamentally-limited memory capacity was employed.  Of course, in terms of raw memory, some students were superior to others; but for the most part this difference was marginal: Susy could remember eleven cards; Nancy could remember thirteen; Jimmy could remember ten; Johnny could remember twelve.  It couldn’t have been this small difference in raw ability that was driving the emergence of lopsided final scores like 15-6-3-2. 

Instead, winning seemed to be based on the approach students took to the game.  Students with no strategy – who drew at random – were at an extreme disadvantage in the fifty-four card array, whereas students who made and followed some sort of rule – whatever it was – always seemed to win.  This rule could be, for example, always drawing new cards from the bottom left of the board, always drawing cards in clockwise order around holes, or always drawing in a counterclockwise spiral from the middle of the array. 

Students who employed some sort of general rule for drawing new cards only had to memorize the rule, the card, and the order – one constant and two variables; students who drew at random had to memorize card, x-position, y-position, and order – four variables.  Efficiency gains resulted in overwhelming victories for rule-following students, since these rules effectively reduced a game played in two-dimensional space to a game played in one neural dimension.

The ability to force ourselves into rule-following relates to what we call metacognition, or thinking about thinking.  Since the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment of the 1960s, metacognitive ability has been a greater predictor of happiness and success than I.Q.  Accordingly, I would put forth the hypothesis based on extensive anecdotal experience that teaching metacognitive shortcuts ought to be the principle aim of any elementary education system.  It is for this reason that I detest the idiotic emphasis on rote learning of facts and details which serves as the mechanism for standardized test based educational systems.

Metacognition is only one way of systematizing knowledge.  It is a fundamentally personal way of doing so, since the shortcuts that I employ may be different from the shortcuts that you employ, and specific gains in efficiency of thought are often arbitrary or unquantifiable.  In general, I believe the broader phenomenon of knowledge systemization is how civilization progresses.

What we now call “physics” represents the Newtonian systemization of formerly disparate and complex phenomena of movement.  What we call “chemistry” represents systemization of phenomena observed at the cellular and microcellular level.  (Sadly, the “founder of modern chemistry”, Antoine Lavoisier, was guillotined by Glenn Beck viewers during the French Revolution.)  “Biology” has only been systemized recently in what is called the modern synthesis.  Before Watson and Crick’s double-helix, biology was just stamp-collecting. 

Marxism, Thomism, Aristotelianism, naturalism, phenomenology, and other philosophical systems are less robust and arguably less useful attempts at systemizing knowledge.  So are democracy, libertarianism, conservatism, and other political ideologies.  Kanji, the Roman alphabet, linear B, hieroglyphics, and other writing systems, wallet-making, TPS Report filing, shoe-cobbling, the proper methods for growing sorghum, the intricacies of rice irrigation, the legal code, grammatical categories like nouns and verbs, religions, and really everything we have a word for (plus an infinite set of things we don’t) are all systems of knowledge built on other systems of knowledge and differing profoundly in usefulness, applicability, and degree of complexity. 

In a sense, systematizing knowledge is like putting it in the bank or taking it for granted (minus the negative connotations of that phrase).  When our civilization developed the systems that now underlie most of modern computing, we took physics for granted.  This is why I can sit at my mother-in-law’s laptop typing this blog entry without understanding what is actually going on below the keyboard.  (It also explains why I’m allowed to get away with general sophism, baseless speculation, and so many spelling and usage mistakes.) 

Systematizing knowledge is doubtlessly a good thing.  It allows human societies to progress (Whether that term means “move forward” or “get better” is irrelevant to my analysis.) and puts our curiosity to work combining and recombining, breaking down and building up various systems of knowledge.  Nevertheless, we can run into trouble by systematizing knowledge, because we can never be sure if the systems we have taken for granted are “correct” systems.

So when a formerly isolated from each other Civilization A and Civilization B – each having taken for granted disparate and unrelated systems of knowledge – confront each other for the first time, the result is massive misunderstanding – quite literally in the case of language differences – if not panicky violence.  Civilization A is faced with the choice of whether to forcefully assert what it just knows to be true – such as the superiority of liberal democracy, the existence of a supreme deity, the proper way to manufacture jet engines, or the capacity for technology to improve life – or to just subtract that system altogether; for example alchemy or metaphysics.

Here I make a speculative leap and hypothesize that the confusion of the postmodern world is the natural result of the uneasy, moony-style marriage of formerly isolated traditional programs.  Isolated groups systematize different knowledge differently.  We take for granted systematized knowledge at certain lower tiers on which we have built more complex systems.  Interconnectedness, freer information flow, less noise between preferences and ends, unprecedented degree of choice, and massive amounts of new data without the tools to process them naturally lead to chaos, confusion, and grasping at straws. 

This seems to make the postmodern age a new χάος resulting from the historical forceful imposition, arbitrary subtraction, or hot-rodding of systems we forgot how we once built, and which we must or are inclined to reevaluate, rebuild, and repair fully conscious of our past propensities for utter failure.

The Book Store

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 27, 2011 at 5:20 pm

The last time I went back to the States for Christmas, I paid a visit to my local Barnes and Noble megastore chain.  There was a massive “Young Adult” section, comprising almost a quarter of the store’s shelf space, subdivided into smaller sections, like “Young Adult Adventure”, “Young Adult Mystery”, etc.  My favorite subsection was called “Paranormal Teenage Romance”, and it was full of factory series trying to capitalize on the Twilight fad.  This section probably contained a hundred or so books.  

Across the store, past Biblical and New Age sections (I’ll refrain from making an irreverent joke here.) was a section called “Philosophy”, containing a hundred or so books.  “Philosophy” was sandwiched between a section containing a hundred or so books on the impending 2012 volcano-people disaster/redemption and a shady bathroom area with a sign reminding customers not to take merchandise into the toilets.

Upon closer examination, “Philosophy” was full of colorful books like “The Philosophy of Batman Begins”, “Dr. House for Dummies”, and “Dexter and Free Will”.  I ultimately purchased Dan Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea for about twenty-five dollars, Jurgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere for a rip-off price of forty dollars, and a Barnes and Noble publications’s full-color photo, oversized volume on anatomy and physiology on sale for only eight dollars.  These books are currently decorating my bookshelf until I overcome my crippling blog addiction.

Scott Pilgrim is a Christmas Tree

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Set in a world governed by video game rules, in order to earn the right to go out with the girl of his dreams, a 22 year old, charming but self-absorbed musician must first defeat her seven evil exes.

A cursory glance at Scott Pilgrim vs The World suggests that this film is amazing. There is a lot of humour involved, be it pithy dialogue or sight gags, and the film is edited in what is becoming Director Edgar Wright’s trademark short, snappy style – one minute Scott’s in a library, the next frame, he’s at home at band practice, and 10 seconds later he’s walking down the street, on the way to a party, all in one seamless, fluid motion. Not a moment or space is wasted. Wright makes things happen  at all times, whether it be driving the plot forward, making us laugh, or creating the smug feeling within ourselves of “I get that reference”.

The film also just looks great. The CG special effects are polished, and they perfectly meld the ‘real’ world with the gaming world. Wright tried very hard to perfect this film on the technical side to within an inch of its life.

However, once you pay more attention to this film, it becomes a soulless vacuum. There is not a single, likable, developed character in the film: the titular character is played by Michael Cera as a more selfish Michael Cera.

At the beginning of the film, Scott is dating a sycophantic high school girl named Knives Chau (best name ever) as a way to make himself feel better, because he still isn’t over his last girlfriend, who he broke up with a year earlier. He takes Knives for granted, then forgets about her completely after he discovers his (literal) dream girl, Ramona. It is only at the behest of his friends that Scott breaks up with his jailbait friend.
 
Scott’s personal arc in the film is about learning to love himself, but from the outset he loves himself a bit too much – when he reaches his personal climax, a Street Fighter-esque voice booms: “Scott earned the power of self-respect!” Great! Now can he gain the viewer’s respect?

Ramona, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is Scott’s love interest. In terms of the character, she is a flake when the going gets tough; she is nowhere to be seen. “Yeah, I do that”, is the explanation, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Scott to actually like her, aside from ‘it’s in the script’. In terms of performance, Winstead is fairly wooden. Also, it’s hard to act like a manic pixie dream girl when, next to the scrawny Cera, you look positively mannish.

The characters surrounding him do not fair much better: his gay roommate is a hypocrite who thinks that the hetero rules of relationships do not apply to him; his bandmates are a fame-hungry, money-grubbing guitarist and a drummer with a sullen attitude to put any emo to shame; Knives, his (ex-)girlfriend, is little more than a stalker for most of the film. In fact, the only likable character in the whole film is Young Neil, a guy who lives with the band members and sits around playing video games. His dim-witted nature and awesome delivery of the line “He punched the highlights out of her hair!” make him enjoyable to watch.

The exes in this film are pretty solidly cast. There is a camp Bollywood wannabe, in the form of Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), a skating-pro-cum-action-star Lucas Lee (Chris Evans, doing a smug Batman impression), DJs The Katayanagi twins (played by Keita and Shota Saito), Goth-chick Roxy Richter (Mae ‘her?’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spfGSbZTDbM&feature=related Whitman), and Big Boss Bowser comes in the form of Gideon (Jason Schwartzman). The most entertaining of the exes, however, is Brandon Routh, as the Vegan Todd who, after knocking out a young girl, delivers the golden line “What? I’m not afraid to hit a girl: I’m a Rock Star.”

A highlight of the film, Todd  is endowed with psychic and telekinetic powers, because quite simply, “being Vegan just makes you better than most people.” Watch his entire scene, and the best part of the film here.

In terms of plot, there is too much going on in this film, too fast. This 110-minute film’s goal is to show Scott fighting on six separate occasions plus provide effective context. This one film tries to fit in what in the original graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley took six volumes. As a result, too much is going on. In this context, the editing style praised earlier in this review now seems more like a necessity than a stylistic choice. At least two of the exes could have been cut (I’m looking at you, Katayanagi twins), and a couple of periphery characters, like Scott’s sister, could have also been removed entirely. This could have provided more wiggle room for the story, or a chance to create a semblence of chemistry between Scott and the object of his affections.

Due to the video game format of each fight becoming progressively more difficult, there are quite a few clever video game references, from the ‘vs’ sign coming up at the start of each fight to the defeated enemy turning into coins at the end o each fight. However, like the story itself, there are just too many references in general going on one can get lost in thoughts like ‘That was a Zelda sound effect!…That’s the baseline from Seinfeld!…That’s an Astro Boy T-shirt!’ and completely ignore what actually happened in a given scene.

Overall, the film is an over-ambitious attempt at representing contemporary pop culture. Its appeal is to gamers from the last three decades, as well as today’s hipster youth. After three films, Edgar Wright has finally put a foot wrong by spreading himself too thin. An obviously huge amount of effort went into the making of this film, but its story – in particular character development – is ultimately what is found lacking. Perhaps Wright is just very good technically and is unable to work without the type of emotional anchor that Simon Pegg provided in their two collaborations: masterpieces Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Ultimately, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is like a Christmas tree: it looks amazing with it’s shiny ornaments and bright lights, but is, in the end, dead inside.

In a film called Scott Pilgrim vs The World, you’ll be rooting for The World.

Time Management 2011 (‘Hey where are my keys?’)

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 25, 2011 at 1:40 am

Barely three weeks into 2011 and I can already hear the shatter and crash of people everywhere tossing their new year’s resolutions out the nearest window. Normally I wouldn’t notice it over the sound of the toilet as I flush my own promises away, right along with the back end of the year’s first Tuesday afternoon beer. But this January there’s a new kind of noise around the Kato household. Yes, that sound you are hearing is the smooth, even drone of methodical, almost superhuman planning.

I’ve thrown a few resolutions on the table this year. Not casually tossed under the kotatsu, or mindlessly slipped onto my desk, under a pile of what may be last year’s city tax forms and trail of related notices and summonses. No sir, I’ve been cultivating my powers of concentration in preparation for what is shaping up to be a landmark year for me. This year, no more minutes and hours will be wasted, lost forever in the vortex of inefficiency. This year, things are going to get done, frequently and fast, with none of my valuable ‘Run & Gun Time’ wasted on YouTube or dental floss or barely-bleeding kids.

It’s 8am as I sit down to pound this out. The kerosene heater is empty again and there’s frost on the insides of the windows, but I’m not going to squander a single moment on wimpy creature comforts. I just cranked out forty quick push-ups (all right, the last few weren’t too quick), and the kids can do the same when they wake up. Go push your trains around, or crawl back and forth across the living room a hundred times if you’re that cold, I’ve got work to do here. Talk about efficient; not only am I getting down to business several minutes sooner thanks to my brand-new razor-sharp personal management strategy, but I’m simultaneously teaching my nine-month-old kid the value of both time and exercise.

Well it’s coming up on ten o’clock now – I got a little too vociferous waiting for this idiot laptop from the Jurassic period to warm up and sort of woke the kids. If the apartment was so darn cold they should have stayed in bed, but out they came to destroy my first precious moments of the day. The older boy was screaming his tonsils out about the box of elephant cereal I let him get yesterday, while the little one wouldn’t stop bitching about his wet pants. Okay his wet and foul and putrid pants. With the wife up all night again trying to appease her motherly instincts, the parenting fell once again to me. So I stuck my one kid and his dumb-o cereal in front of a Curious George DVD and sat my fresh and clean zero-year-old on my lap, ready for a little morning multi-tasking. Then the runt reached out and slapped the keyboard and the dinosaur inside froze.

I refilled the kerosene tank to help warm my 2004 Brontosaurus back up.

Okay, ten-fifteen and the house is quiet again, the wife having hauled the kids off to some sort of pre-school or another. (I don’t bother asking about the details, they only get in the way of my efficiency.) On today’s docket is this post of course, followed by a bit of editing for an e-book I want to get out this week, a few targeted emails and some time devoted to reading and commenting on strangers’ blogs so they will do the same for me and then go tell all their friends to check out my stuff. (This is the centerpiece of my ‘Wildfire’ approach to cyber-notoriety; a couple of witty, thoughtful comments on a few select pages and my world will be set ablaze.)

Ah, I just remembered, I have to go out and get something for Mom today. Her birthday is coming fast and with my laser-like focus I seem to have let that tidbit slip from my sights. Better get it done now while it’s still on my mind.

This should only take a few minutes.

I’ve figured out the best parking lots to cut across and which traffic lights are the safest to run in order to get to the department store down the street in the least amount of time. I think I just broke my own personal best, although when I got to the register I realized I’d forgotten my wallet and had to come home and get it. The silver lining to this is that I could make a second pass through that foo-foo bakery in the supermarket on the first floor. I snag a few free samples of their maple almond bread every chance I get, that stuff is amazing.

Anyway, Mom is now taken care of, back to business for this self-employed wolf. Where was I? Oh yeah, Wildfire. So the sheer amount of blog content out there is beyond human comprehension. A lot ranges from adequate to enlightening, so a discriminating reader like me has a huge palette of options worthy of my valuable time. But news and politics and gossip don’t feed my ‘2011 Time Compression’ resolution needs. So I am eternally searching for

Doorbell! And there’s a postal van outside, which means a package. I’ll be right back.

You know, I’ve been pondering this one for nine years now. If the law really states that every household in Japan is required to pay this television fee why don’t they just bill everyone, or better yet simply deduct it from everyone’s paycheck or welfare check or bribe money? Why does NHK continue paying these otherwise unemployed people to go door-to-door trying to extract 2,400 yen from me when all I have to do is tell them very politely to piss off and close the door?

The package was for the girl next door, by the way.

I was just sitting back down to my laptop when someone from another tax-funded do-as-you’re-told agency called. Their timing is flawless like that. I think they’re in cahoots with those change purse toting NHK mercenaries. They can probably guess as soon as I say ‘moshi-moshi’ that neither am I Japanese nor am I very good at faking it. Yet they launch into their dokuhaku anyway, replete with all this specialized and ultra-formal lingo. I can barely understand the flood of syllables gushing out of their mouths. Heck I don’t even know if they’re talking about them or me or the girl next door. Just introducing themselves takes the better part of a Daniel Powter video (say what you will, I think Bad Day is a great song). They’ll go on reciting the entire prefectural tax ordnance bible if I don’t interject with an unmistakably foreign ‘um…uh…’ Then they spend the rest of the video apologizing for my being foreign and promising to call back when there’s a full-fledged human around.

And suddenly the wife and kids are back and it’s lunch time.

Spitting bits of tofu and soy sauce onto my computer screen while I yell into the kitchen for my son to sit in his chair and eat his lunch is hard to reconcile, even with my new year’s ‘Food is for Wimps’ slogan. So I have to chalk up this time to ‘Family’, one of my resolutions that has yet to develop any clarity. I maintain my working edge by keeping a pen and a piece of paper next to my plate and making loud slurping noises to fend off any distracting conversation. The afternoon is always a crap shoot; the wife may whisk the kids off to afternoon playtime or leave stinky pants with me or keep them both home for hours of raucous, docket-killing fun. In this last case I look for mindless chores to keep the circus mentally at bay; today it was speed-drying the last load of laundry over the kerosene heater to clear the hangers for tonight’s batch. And in between the shifting of socks and extra small shirts and cloth diapers I can sneak into my room and peck away at this post.

Here I redefine incongruity. I can’t float between laptop and laundry without my train of thought constantly derailing. Yet when I am staring at my screen I can forget about the laundry long enough to merit a call to the fire department. My ‘Take Control in 2011’ resolution appears to be finding a foothold, but a little while later the fire chief showed up anyway for a mandatory (according to some law everyone knows about and no one has ever actually read) on-location lecture about fire safety. My wife served up some green tea as Chief Yakitori was launching into his spiel, but somehow we got on the subject of cycling (‘Roll Like a Lion in the Year of the Sheep’) and by 3:30 the Chief and I were cracking open the beers I found under the steps.

He left an hour later when one of his men came to drive him and the fire engine back to the station.

The wife then asked me to go get some onions from down the street. Can’t have miso soup without onions when the older boy has a cough, picked up from one of his friends at school. With this I realized I hadn’t checked email all day and tried to log in for a peek while changing my still-smoky clothes, but my dinosaur was stuck in the tar pits again. So I shut him down and sped off into the dusky afternoon. This time I was only into the first parking lot when I realized I’d forgotten my wallet again. When I got home to a locked apartment I found that I had also left my keys and my cell phone inside. Where was my family all of a sudden?

I sat freezing on my front steps for thirty minutes before my wife emerged from the apartment of the girl next door with a small bag of onions. ‘Didn’t you get my text message?’

I spent dinner silently cursing George Stevenson and promising my son ‘Yes I will play trains with you after dinner now please eat your soup!’ Then after three trainwrecks and eleven rounds of ‘Daddy stop touching the trains!’ it was dirty dishes, bath time, throwing out burned clothes and charred pieces of wallpaper, milk, stinky pants and hanging more laundry. It was 10:30 when I got back to my laptop.

It was quarter to twelve when I closed out my email, put away the coconut cookies and pulled this post back up on screen. Now it is almost 1:30am.

What was I talking about?

Nowehere to Call Home

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm

<This guest post was contributed by Alisa Gilbert, who writes on the topics of bachelors degree.  She welcomes your comments at her email ID: alisagilbert599 at gmail dot com.>

Shanghai developmentI grew up next door to some of the most inviting and charming neighbors any young child could ask for. They were a couple – Henry and Mei – who had immigrated to the United States in the 1980s from the bustling city of Shanghai in China. Having become fast friends with their daughter, I was often over in their home and learned much about the culture and history of the country they had left behind decades before. 

As the years rolled on, the formerly jovial couple became more and more restless. After a trip to China to revisit where they had spent their formative years, the couple returned to America feeling rootless. Numerous expatriates are like Henry and Mei, who feel as if they have nowhere to call home. 

At a time when money was tight and the chances of finding great financial success in Shanghai were slim, Henry and Mei grew restless.They had heard rumors about the positive prospects available overseas in America, the Land of Opportunity, so they jumped to take advantage of them. Over the next decade, Henry and Mei scrounged and saved all that they could before they finally had enough to pick up their things and move to the United States with their respective parents, siblings, and cousins. A new beginning was waiting for them there, and Henry and Mei were determined to start a new, prosperous life in a new, prosperous nation.  Only Mei’s older sister remained behind in Shanghai. 

The couple settled in Texas, and despite initial language and cultural barriers, they quickly became a beloved part of the community. They easily assimilated into the American culture of their new home, with Henry buying a big Texas truck as his first vehicle and Mei learning to give up her Chinese garb for Western dresses and high heels. When their first child was born on American soil, they even gave her Barbies and Hot Wheels toys because these were the trinkets that every other American child in the neighborhood possessed. But despite adopting this American lifestyle, the couple still largely regarded their true home and heritage to be in China. 

Every time I went over to Henry and Mei’s home for play dates with their daughter, they would regale us with tales of China. We flipped through yellowed photographs, and Henry and Mei pointed out all of the things that they missed about the country, such as the sight of local storefronts where they used to go on dates, the smell of cooking oil and chicken stock in the air from the street-side food vendors, and the comfort of going over to a neighbor’s home at any time of day for a friendly chat and cup of tea. As much as they loved America, they also longed to return to Shanghai because – as Mei said once “China is still our first home.” 

In 2005, Henry and Mei finally had the chance to visit Shanghai. I was lucky enough to go with them, but when we arrived, I instantly knew that something was wrong. Instead of joyfully embracing the city like one would when returning home after a long time away,the couple was quiet. There were no excited recollections of fond memories, just a few disappointed whispers of how certain things had changed over the past two decades. The expanse of open sky that once hung over the city was now marred by towering skyscrapers. Henry used to wake up extra early to watch the sun rise when he was a child – now, the buildings blocked out some of the best views for sunrise-watching. The local storefronts where Henry and Mei regularly went to look at clothing and browse music selections were gone as well, having been replaced by gleaming, anonymous megastore chains. Even the intoxicating smell of street-side food that the couple remembered so well from their youth was missing. Now, all they smelled was vehicle exhaust from the car-choked streets that hadn’t existed before. 

Simply put, there was no longer the emotional attachment to the place that there once had been, and even when visiting her sister in the old house where she had grown up, Mei did not feel like she was home. The neighbors she used to visit for tea had all moved out. Now, there were people living next door that Henry and Mei did not know, and their eyes were unfriendly towards the strange visitors. Everything was foreign again, just like everything had been foreign to Henry and Mei when they had first arrived in America so many years before. 

Henry and Mei returned to America feeling rootless and lost, no longer knowing exactly where they belonged. Though they were loved by the community in Texas, they still felt like outsiders amongst the burger restaurants and English-language karaoke bars. For years, Henry and Mei had been fine with this, because they had always felt that even though they did not “belong” in America, they did have a home in China. But now they were torn between two countries without feeling like either was a real home.  Henry and Mei had suffered a huge identity loss. 

“My parents are too Chinese to belong in America, but they are also too American now to belong in China,” their daughter told me. “They feel like they don’t belong anywhere now, which is hard on them.” Henry and Mei had given up many parts of their Chinese culture as they assimilated into their new American lifestyle. 

Today they still hold on to many parts of their Chinese past, but those places and memories of Shanghai have since evolved into something they no longer recognize. Due to this curious mixture of two cultures by which they live their lives and the fact that the place they once called their “first home” has undergone such a dramatic change, they cannot completely identify with either one. 

Luckily, most days Henry and Mei are perfectly happy to be where they are. For example, they continue to take great pleasure in watching their American-born daughter grow up from a rambunctious toddler to a young woman now planning her wedding. Yet, once in a while, Henry and Mei long for home, though home is no longer an actual place and only a memory.

Rock and the Divine

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm

First Things editor Joe Carter suggests Creed is superior to Led Zeppelin after Creed supposedly saved a Norwegian boy from a pack of hungry wolves last week.  I posted the following in response:

Since Led Zeppelin is far and away my favorite musical act of all time, I often find myself defending the group from casual listeners who are more or less sick of classic rock radio stations overplaying Stairway to Heaven, one of the band’s more mediocre songs (although Led Zeppelin definitely has no duds.)

From the start, Led Zeppelin cared more about its own artistic mission than impressing critics. Originally called The New Yardbirds, the band, like Democritus and Siddhartha Guatama, was born into royalty, which it soon forsook. The group could have ridden its name to commercial success, but chose not to. The group changed its name following a famous dig by famous pervert Pete Townshend, who’s band The Who was famous for being loud. Townshend famously said of The New Yardbirds, “this band is going to sink like a lead zeppelin.” The group’s members agreed to change its name as a star-spangled middle finger to the decadent rock establishment.

Led Zeppelin I and II generally concern the band’s attempts to popularize blues songs it liked rendered in its own distinct, hard style, which is like that of no other band before or since.

While Led Zeppelin was so way far ahead of its time that it was ridiculed by the mainstream rock press and the 1960s Woodstock establishment, the band developed a cult following, which it then completely forsook with Led Zeppelin III, an almost entirely acoustic album. The band found its voice with Led Zeppelin IV, widely considered one of the most important albums in rock history, and the next album, Houses of the Holy was even better. Just to show that there was plenty more where that was coming from, Physical Graffiti was a stellar double album. This was followed by Presence, featuring the group’s best song, Achilles Last Stand. Finally, In Through the Out Door was chock full of tracks which we are all still trying to process as a civilization.

From the start, Led Zeppelin was considered a supergroup based solely on the raw talent of its members. Plant is a vocalist like none other, with a distinctive voice and complete lack of fear. Jimmy Page is on almost every list of the best guitarists of all time, although he has been derided by some for being sloppy. His style is better characterized by nonchalance. John Paul Jones’s distinctive base lines have served as models for aspiring bassists since, and John Bonham’s sheer endurance as a drummer remains unmatched more than thirty years after his death. In a sense, it was an accident of fate that these four musicians came together to produce one of the definitive musical catalogues of the twentieth century.

Led Zeppelin avoided the respective fates of Jimmy Hendrix and The Rolling Stones in that it neither burned out nor faded away to campy Boomerdom: the group had a sufficient degree of collective metacognitive awareness to call it quits after John Bonham drank himself to death in 1980.

Whether is came to writing songs about Lord of the Rings, Greek, Celtic, and Norse mythology, love for a pet dog, execution, black magic and the occult, or any number of bizarre, yet truly Romantic and profound topics, the poetry of the band’s lyrics is only equaled by its instrumental skill.

If I could go back in time, I would choose to be alive in the seventies, so I could go to Led Zeppelin concerts and witness twelve-minute Bonham drum solos, four or five minutes of nothing but rhythm and moaning, thirty-minute versions of Dazed and Confused, the fusion of obscure musical styles such as mandolin folk or carousel music or even cowtowing to synth with Zeppelin’s unique rock stylings, playing a double-fretted electric guitar, playing an electric guitar with a bow, playing a double-fretted electric guitar with a bow (which inspired one of the greatest scenes from one of the greatest films ever made, This Is Spinal Tap), the complete departure from and prodigal return to the hard blues-rock style that made the band famous in the first place, the third way of repopularizing and returning to blues within the rock program in the face of Pink Floyd‘s drab electronica and the stultifying punk of the Sex Pistols, and the boldest stance since Nat King Cole taken against the new disco fad unfortunately sweeping the Anglo-American music world. Like the Coen Brothers, Led Zeppelin was totally unsafe in the topics and themes it chose to pursue; the band always pushed the limits of what rock music was capable of while successfully straddling the fine line between mainstream and avant garde.

By the end of Led Zeppelin‘s run, the possibilities for rock were so completely exhausted that the genre was an effective wasteland comprised of acts trying unsuccessfully to channel Led Zeppelin for the following fifteen years up until the Grunge movement in the 90s. Stereolab‘s Laetitia Sadier famously said at Lollapalooza that rock was dead. If it was, it’s because Led Zeppelin drove it to Nirvana.

It’s, Like, From the Earth, Man

In General Principles on January 21, 2011 at 5:09 pm

“Graduation” by Peter BlinmanThere is a pervasive yet erroneous idea circulating these days that things are “good” because they are “natural”.  Advertisers for foods or beauty products often engage in label-slapping to that effect; moneyed hippies and bobos buy up “natural” products like nature is going out of style; obesity and cancer are explained away as cosmic justice for our civilization of plastic’s forsaking of the earth goddess.

Nowhere can this idea be heard more stupidly (or more harmlessly) than in a circle of close friends and random acquaintances passin da righteous civil disobedience on the left-hand side whilst listening to music about that with which goats love to play and/or watching marijuana-related comedy:

“Why is marijuana against the law? It grows naturally upon our planet. Doesn’t the idea of making nature against the law seem to you a bit . . . unnatural?”

Which one might naturally (no pun intended) counter with this pithy dialogue

Nick: Come on, what’s the big deal? It’s from the earth, it’s natural. Why would it be there if we weren’t supposed to smoke it?

Lindsey: Dog crap is here and we don’t smoke that.

The clear and obvious truth is that marijuana is harmless enough without having to appeal to its being natural.  People high on marijuana don’t commit crimes.  They don’t die.  They mostly just sit around watching stuff on TV and figuring out how to order pizza.

But this post is not about marijuana.  It’s about “natural” not entailing “good”.  After all, arsenic is natural.  The black plague is natural.  Even rape is natural.  In fact, the entirety of human society – from our legal code to our hallowed institutions of medicine – exists as a Hobbesian bulwark against the evils of the natural world.

That’s not to say that “natural” is “bad” either.  Recently, I’ve been linking to an excellent essay by Alex Rosenberg, a former professor of mine, and Tamler Sommers on the topic of how we can’t make value judgments on our prevailing morality simply because it is our prevailing morality (I also linked to this essay as part of the comments of my essay following last year’s TED Sam Harris affair.):   

Darwinian Nihilism departs from Naturalism only in declining to endorse our morality or any other as true or correct. It must decline to do so because it holds that the explanation of how our moral beliefs arose also explains away as mistaken the widespread belief that moral claims are true. The Darwinian explanation becomes the Darwinian Nihilist’s “explaining away” when it becomes apparent that the best explanation—blind variation and natural selection– for the emergence of our ethical belief does not require that these beliefs have truth-makers.

Indeed, something which the learned influence-peddlers of our society must learn and relearn is that the properties of “natural” and the properties of “good” have nothing to do with each other unless it is by subjective contrivance.  

It is amazing how far this elementary misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution by natural selection goes.  I could spend a lot of time here on mass media or religious opposition to Darwinism, which is entirely rooted in the fallacious understanding I have described above, but I have already written a mini-post to that effect:

…(S)ome questions for religious people: why oppose Darwinian explanations for human behavior?  Does studying physics or geology diminish the beauty of nature?  Does understanding how a zygote works make me love my daughter any less?  Does accepting that generosity builds community invalidate goodness itself?

Instead I would like to concentrate primarily on the organic food movement, something which I enthusiastically support, but feel must be sharply qualified.  I personally prefer organic food both because it is generally produced in a more equitable and environmentally friendly fashion by local farmers who are fairly compensated and because it tastes a lot better than the 40% corn 30% soy milieu of “regular” (but decidedly strange) supermarkets.  

Nevertheless, organic food is not superior to processed food because it is natural per se; although there is a rational argument to be made in favor of the superiority of organic food on the basis that it is natural given that “natural” foods are usually “old” foods and any adverse effects on humans would have been worked out long ago by the cumulative effects of natural selection acting over many thousands of generations.  A good example of this is cow’s milk, which archaeological evidence suggests took several generations to reach a non-vomitous equilibrium.

However, still to be accounted for are the anecdotal and empirical claims that organic food eaters are generally thinner and healthier than non-organic food eaters.  The prevailing take on this is that even if organic food eaters were shown to be thinner and healthier compared to non-organic food eaters when controlling for type and quantity of food, such a difference can be explained more parsimoniously by economics: organic food is more expensive, and wealthier people tend to be thinner anyways, so there would be a shared demographic; but there are so many variables here and they are so difficult to control for that it seems impossible to sort them all out.

My favorite way to interpret these anecdotal and empirical data is with a rational argument: that both the accumulation of wealth and remaining thin in a food atmosphere generally offering instant gratification require the ability to consciously delay gratification.  In other words, a wide variety of ways to succeed requires that we exhibit extraordinary strength in resisting what comes naturally.

Flights of Fancy

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 19, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Suvarnabhumi International, BangkokMy wife’s wallet is fat with stamp cards. Card for the gas station, card for the camera store, card for a curry shop I don’t think she’s ever even been to. She doesn’t even like curry. I myself don’t have the organizational skills to keep track of a stack of store cards, even if I did possess the inclination to hold onto them or the capacity to remember to use them. My wife hands me a supermarket card as I am heading out the door of the apartment, and by the time I’m walking through the automatic doors two minutes later (assuming I hit or ignored all the traffic lights on the way) I’ve completely forgotten about it.

Really, it’s hard to exist in Japan without amassing at least a modest collection of these insidious little gimmicks. I have a mess of them in a drawer from the haircut place up the street; I never bother or remember to bring the last one I got but I feel culturally insensitive if I don’t let them make me a new one. And every time I promise to bring my others to combine them and see what sort of discount I can get on my next cut. I may have enough to take over the place. Then once I do I am going to get rid of the stamp card system.

Before Japan outlawed free plastic bags at the supermarkets they gave out little green stamp cards to encourage people to reuse their old bags. I’m a pretty green guy, I reuse anyway, but I kept my ‘green card’ (get that double entendre?) (no wait, triple!) and after twenty eco-friendly trips to the market I got a buck off my eighty-dollar bag of rice. Once I did forget my card and they politely insisted they make me another one, the extra paper cancelling out the good of reusing my old bags but hey, this is the system.

I can’t even be bothered with frequent flyer mileage clubs. Fortunately, the wife can. She is a wizard with those alliance connections. (Okay, wizard is male but I can’t think of the female equivalent, unless it’s witch, a term that does not apply to a woman who gets me a free flight somewhere – but can apply when I forget to use my stamp card at the supermarket.) I think she’d flown exactly once with Alitalia when she sat down at the kitchen table one day with a stack of pens, two clean notebooks and a pile of mileage cards and mailed point reports from every major airline in the world, including a couple that didn’t even exist anymore. After two days of nothing but cheese sandwiches and No-Doze she had figured out how to squeeze Alitalia for two free tickets from Milan to Casablanca. And now, it seems, she’s done it again.

Even though my older boy is now three and thus eligible to fly for the same price and fuel surcharge as the average amateur sumo wrestler, my wife managed to score three free seats from some Asian carrier or another, valid in the next couple of months within a radius that includes Hong Kong, Guam and Saipan. A little time in any of these would be the perfect antidote to winter and the sprawling disaster area that is the unplowed Fukushima road system.

Instead we’ve decided to head over to the world’s most recent political and military center of instability.

Nine years in Japan and I’ve yet to see Korea. This of course does not count transfers I’ve made at Incheon International, which resembles a high-dollar shopping labyrinth with an airport attached. But if the two Korean airlines I’ve flown give any measure of what awaits, I think I may be able to look past the occasional overhead DPRK missile.

I look forward to airports and flights almost as much as I look forward to the place I am going. I’m serious, this is not a typo. An airport’s atmosphere is so often a reflection of the country it is almost like taking a glimpse into the present state of affairs of that country. A stopover in Beijing two years ago was a display of everything I heard about the city itself as it was preparing for the 2008 Summer Games. The floors and handrails and glass were so polished my eyes began to hurt after a while; then I opened a door to what I thought was a bathroom and saw a grimy room full of dirty peasant children attaching elastic strings to those baggage tags you’re supposed to fill out. Meanwhile, as a group of cheery-eyed young girls laughed and played with my then-one-year-old boy as he crawled around on the spotless floor, a man with rubber gloves and a forensic evidence kit worked the trail of prints and drool my son had left behind.

Mohammed V International in Casablanca had palm trees lining the road curving gently into the terminal area, where not a single person could be seen working save for the hordes hawking taxi rides. Casablanca itself was just like this – except for the part about the palm trees. Papeete Airport in Tahiti (also known as Faa’a International) was intimate, open and right on the water (on reclaimed land, apparently), and was electric into the wee hours with a crowd that seemed more local than traveler. That I didn’t have enough time on my layover to take a stroll down the street seemed regrettable until the guys at the currency exchange counter invited me into the back room for a round of bourbon and cokes. I’m trying to reconcile this with the fact my wife does not have an Air Tahiti Nui mileage card. On the other end of the good-times spectrum, at any airport in the US the security borders on paranoia. But once your shoes and belt and bodily orifices are cleared of all explosive devices you can go pick up a gun at Wal-Mart.

It’s tougher to see the soul of a country from the flight crew, but in some cases the resemblance is amazing. For our three hours from Milan to Casablanca, and back again a month later, the Alitalia crew didn’t quite seem to remember there were actually passengers on board. On a trip to the bathroom I passed an attendant sitting and reading a magazine. She didn’t look up because, I am convinced, she forgot she was at work. Or, perhaps just as likely, she didn’t give a cannoli. This contrasts with the cabin crew of any flight on any Chinese airline. They are keenly cognizant of your presence, and are quick to convey how annoyed they are by your inconvenient existence. The baggage handlers are an equally perturbed bunch, as I have witnessed both in person at the check-in counter as well as indirectly at the luggage carousel. Flying a Chinese airline is like buying any other Chinese product, and I will leave it to the reader to decide just what that means.

But by and large I love and prefer Asian airlines. Admittedly I am hormonally biased but the female flight attendants are generally beautiful creatures, a mix of swan, silk and lotus flower. They are polite and engaging and they give you free beer. By the end of the flight I don’t even care where I am. A couple times I’ve forgotten which country I’ve even landed in but wow didn’t that one attendant have the sweetest laugh. If my bags are in good shape at baggage claim I can assume I am not in China. If the customs officer doesn’t treat me like I’m the Emperor then I’m not in Japan. From there I don’t care which airport I am in, and the less it looks like Incheon the better if my theory holds true.

Leaving Phnom Penh International was like getting off a hotel elevator and expecting the lobby but instead stepping out into a back alley. For me this is not a problem; I don’t want a concierge when I travel. I want to be hit immediately with whatever the country has in store for me, and that can include a military presence or a sense of anarchy. Phnom Penh International did not disappoint in either of these.

Bangkok’s relatively new Suvarnabhumi Airport (also known as the ‘Airport of Smiles’) is, like Bangkok itself, big and modern and chaotic. Seven floors all connect in practicality via a series of long moving walkways which are heavily magnetized (like the floor of the prison in the Travolta/Cage classic Face Off) to keep luggage carts from becoming lethal weapons of rolling destruction. The same seven floors are also connected in atmosphere by a huge atrium, giving anyone anywhere in the terminal the sense that this is a big and wonderful place that can take you out with one faulty magnetized walkway. On the ground floor cab drivers swarm the new arrivals, while backpackers pound on the Internet kiosks that keep eating their coins. My first time in Suvarnabhumi, once I’d realized I wasn’t in Amari Airport (where I landed on my first trip to Thailand), I decided to find a quiet corner and try to catch a little shut-eye. I ended up spending the night in a little-used and evidently little-known room on the seventh floor, next to a cordoned-off Buddhist altar and in faint earshot of the ongoing bustle of Suvarnabhumi and of Thailand itself.

So what to make of Korea? Both Asiana Airlines and Korean Air provide, based on my limited experience, excellent service (provided by excellent flight attendants). The good folks at Asiana Airlines even went so far as to put the bike tool they confiscated from me at the gate into a padded envelope with my name and flight number on it so I would have no problems retrieving it once we’d landed in Kuala Lumpur (which aesthetically resembles nothing in Malaysia except the Petronas Towers). Yet Incheon itself gives an impression of ultra-modern, ultra-soulless ambition. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see for myself, up close, what Korea is all about. With visions of beef barbeque and kim chee and crowded marketplaces full of people whose words I don’t understand, I’ve got pretty high hopes.

Add a crew of silky, swanlike lotus flowers to the equation and I’ll have no problem when my wife wants to go a second time so she can use all those new stamp cards.