Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas Everyone!

And to all a good night. I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Homeward Bound

After one last Japanese-style Holiday party, I'm on my way home for three weeks, spread out between New York, Philly, Ithaca, and Charlotte, with other stops possible depending on the time - in addition, my girlfriend will be meeting my parents for the first time. Oh, and the decade is coming to a close. Should be an eventful three weeks.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Reality TV

Jonah Goldberg is more of a classical conservative than I consider myself, and in his more strident writings he sometimes cross the line between provocateur and jackass, but he is a smart, well-read guy who often has a sharp, on-point take on things from the conservative viewpoint, and his latest column in the National Review is definitely worth checking out.

As much as a generally libertarian outlook appeals to me, one aspect of the philosophy with which I've always found myself uncomfortable is the glib ease with which it ignores the less appealing aspects of the free market system - among them the fact that, without social or cultural mores in place to regulate them, they often end up peddling products which appeal primarily to the lowest common denominator - base instincts which humans, even the best of us, share.

This is of course a problem in traditional marketplaces, as the comparative ease with which Doritos outsell health food will attest, but it is no less so in the realm of entertainment. Reality television is, for the most part, cultural garbage - a sort of carnival freakshow in which viewers are invited to gawk at the stupidest, shallowest, vainest, pettiest, and most venal and selfish people among us, and revel in their exploits. Even if we are not ourselves cruel, or vindictive, or duplicitous, or violent, we generally find people who are fascinating to watch - just look at the commonness of gangsters, killers, bandits, and other similarly immoral types in our fiction, as opposed to their rarity in real life - and whatever our reaction to them, be it hatred, contempt, or hidden aspiration, we can't look away.

That's not a new observation, and people have been using it to posit that fiction (in the broad sense of all imaginative art and literature) is fundamentally immoral since the time of Plato, if not before, and that fiction that depicts immoral behavior is particularly dangerous. As a lifelong aesthete I've of course never bought that argument, and I still don't, but it does have a bit more traction for me when applied in the case of reality TV, because there is an important distinction between fiction and reality TV. We can watch or read about the exploits of a thoroughly villainous fictional character - say, Milton's Satan, or Long John Silver, or Michael Corleone, or Dr. Doom - and enjoy the experience, without any real danger that our indulgence in fantasy will perniciously affect the way we lead our real lives. As appealing as we may find those characters, we can't ourselves become fallen angels, or pirates, or mafia dons, or supervillains, so assuming we are not psychotically deluded into believing otherwise, the immorality of their actions is unlikely to act as an impetus to bad behavior ourselves. That's not so in the case of the moral pygmies of reality television. The message the medium sends is that you, too, can become (relatively) rich and famous by being a backstabbing, cheating prick a la Richard Hatch of Survivor, or acting like the empty-headed, narcissistic twats on The Jersey Shore. That is really not a good message to send. While I don't like the air of classism inherent in the formulation of Arnold Toynbee that Goldberg cites, that a society thrives when the common people aspire to the mores of the upper classes, and decays when the inverse is true, I can't help but agree that there's something seriously morally amiss with a culture that adopts the debauchery and self-absorbed idiocy of preening, IQ-challenged lunkheads as one of its foremost forms of entertainment, or elevates those self-same lunkheads to the status of quasi-celebrities. Society suffers when real people act like that, and anything that encourages them to do so ought to be viewed with suspicion.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said of the experience of watching gladiatorial games "I come home greedier, more ambitious, more inclined to venal pleasures, crueler and even more inhuman, because I have been among human-beings." I feel the same way about watching reality TV, and I wish it a swift death.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Well, yeah...

President Obama has announced that without a health care bill, the U.S. will go "bankrupt" because of high medical costs. There's no doubt he's right about that - Medicare is a massive fiscal sinkhole that's only going to get deeper and wider as a greater share of the population ages into retirement. The problem is, he hasn't made a convincing argument that the bill that's on the table - or any bill that contains enough goodies to placate a sufficient majority of the various relevant special interests to stand a chance of passage - won't also cause us to go bankrupt. I am deeply pessimisstic about the possibility of some kind of sane reform - it's looking increasingly likely the problem won't be fixed until the service output end of the system stops working, and thanks to the miracle of irresponsible government borrowing that could be quite a bit farther off than the failure of the revenue intake end of the system is likely to be. We're not about to stop digging until this particular hole gets quite a bit deeper, I'm afraid.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I'll be home for Christmas...

In less than two weeks, no less. This weekend has been dedicated to Christmas shopping and some last minute preparations (cleaning house and whatnot), and I'm still busy, but - soon enough it's back to the U.S. for the holidays. Much as I enjoy traveling, and exploring new places, Christmastime is not my favorite time to do it - all things considered, I'd much rather be at home for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The first step to reducing CO2 emissions? Stop holding summits on how to reduce CO2 emissions

Apparently, transportation for the ongoing Copenhagen climate summit, the so-called "summit to save the world", is being provided for by, among other things, a fleet of 1,200 limos and 140 private planes. There are not enough limos in the country to meet demand, so they're being driven in from places hundreds of miles away in Sweden and Germany, and the airport in Copenhagen doesn't have enough space to park all the planes, so they're shuttling off to other airports in the region when they're not ferrying about VIP passengers. Suffice it to say, all of this requires quite a lot of fuel - the carbon footprint for the eleven-day event is expected to be the same as that for a city of 150,000 over the same time period, for a summit that will not even produce any sort of binding agreement on how to deal with climate change, just a "statement of intent". Maybe I'm being too harsh, though - everyone knows it's impossible to actually accomplish anything unless you first form an intent to do so, and then, more importantly, state that you have formed an intent to do so, and intend to act on that intent. Besides, maybe they'll all be buying carbon offsets.

Snark aside, while it's easy enough to rake people like these over the coals for their hypocrisy and self-satisfaction, and they certainly deserve it, this story does shine an interesting light on what is, from the perspective of the developed world, an under-explored aspect of the anti-climate change movement - privilege. It is almost exclusively a movement of well-off people in well-off countries, i.e. people who can afford the luxury of a massage to their moral vanity via activism on long-term issues that may or may not be problems years down the road (and, in the wake of revelations like the recent Climate-Gate data fixing scandal, the threat presented by rising CO2 levels is less clear than ever). For people in India, or Brazil, or China, or Vietnam, or any of the many other nations that have recently begun to stabilize the precarious and uncertain nature of existence in a pre-industrial agrarian society via the wealth- (and CO2-) generating processes of industrialization and urbanization, it's much less clearly the most pressing issue in the world today. I tend to agree with people in the developing world. Human-induced climate change may indeed prove to be a serious problem in the decades to come, and even if it doesn't, we should still be striving to reduce the amount of carbon we consume in order to conserve fossil fuel. But global poverty is a serious problem right now. It's true that people in poor countries may suffer from malnutrition, disease, and starvation in the year 2050 as a result of risen global temperatures. Guess what - they're suffering from malnutrition, disease, and starvation right now, because they're poor. Now that, in at least some parts of the developing world, that seems to be changing, rich white people want to tell them to knock it off, because the carbon they're producing manufacturing our luxury goods is un-PC? Something tells me that's not going to fly.

Monday, December 7, 2009

That Sinking Feeling

Yesterday I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), a worldwide exam administered by the Japanese government to recognize and certify accomplishment in the language. This was, to put it bluntly, a wipeout. I took level 2, the second highest, which consists of three sections - vocabulary and knowledge of kanji (Chinese characters), listening comprehension, and grammar/reading comprehension. The first two were okay - not great, but with a pass/fail line at only 60%, probably good enough. The third section, however, was murder - rather than the structures that Japanese generally uses, the ones I've actually learned over the last few years, the test mostly covers obscure and little-utilized aspects of the language, for which I, having begun studying them far too recently, was, to understate it somewhat, ill-prepared. I'll definitely be taking the test again next year - this time with a lot more preparation.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Moral Improvement Through Moral Failure, Tiger Woods Edition

Personally, I don't think there's much point in commenting on the Tiger Woods scandal - he's far from the first celebrity to rampantly cheat on his wife, or to conceal a rather scuzzy personal life behind a stone wall of inaccessibility - his role model as a sporting/global marketing icon, Michael Jordan, beat him to that by at least twenty years, and if you'd put a gun to my head and asked me for a yes-or-no answer as to whether I believed Tiger had ever cheated on his wife, cynic that I am would have bet "yes". Certainly I think less of Woods as a person in the wake of these revelations, but I don't really want to waste any more oxygen thinking about it, and it's certainly true that I don't want to read hypocritical, sanctimonious screeds condemning his behavior in the paper.

What I also don't need to read, however, are pieces of apologeia like this. For a man with a wife and child, getting caught screwing his way through a parade of cocktail waitresses, club bunnies, starfuckers, and other assorted bimbos, and being forced to apologize publicly because you were caught, is not an opportunity for personal growth. It's a forced end to a pattern of egocentric, self-entitled, and frankly disgraceful behavior that it seems likely would have gone on had it not been uncovered. Tiger may mean it when he says he's sorry, but I suspect what he's really sorry about is getting caught, and it's as easy to read his apology as self-serving as sincere. If he really felt all that bad about betraying his family, he wouldn't have gone on doing it again and again, would he? If a normal married guy engaged in this kind of behavior, most people would consider him childish, irresponsible, and self-centered at the very least, and more likely a complete asshole. So please, Mr. Reilly, lets not wrap this turd up in a nice Hallmark bow and try to sell it as a learning experience or an endearingly human flaw that makes a superb athlete less distant from the rest of us, shall we?

Whenever there's a scandal of this sort in entertainment or sports, journalists who cover those fields seem to split into three camps - the titillators, the scolds, and the apologists. The titillators report every lurid detail they can uncover with barely concealed glee, the scolds issue sanctimonious lectures on how we shouldn't be titillated, and the apologists write puff and spin aimed at rescuing the tarnished image of the celebrity in question. None of these are useful journalistic functions and the fact that they are so prevalent is one of the main reasons the mainstream media in these fields, for lack of a better word, sucks. I don't expect entertainers or athletes to be model human beings, and most adults I know (especially those who've actually had encounters with celebrities) don't either. When a celebrity has done some scummy things in his or her personal life and it becomes news as in this case, or as in the Steve McNair case earlier this year, I can form my own opinions on it. I don't need the mainstream media to admonish me for thinking a guy who runs around cheating on his wife left and right is a scumbag (and I might add, I wouldn't be as inclined as I am to articulate that "judgmental" opinion if the media didn't adopt "hero worship" as a default attitude toward its subjects and place these people on pedestals to begin with). And I also don't need a load of warm-and-fuzzy horseshit about how the experience of being exposed as a scumbag makes you a better person. Just put a sock in it, please.