Sunday, December 19, 2010

Irony's A Bitch

I don't know if Julian Assange is guilty of rape or not - but I do know that he's the last person in the world who has a right to complain about someone inappropriately leaking sensitive information. Live by the sword, die by the sword, Jules old buddy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Assange On The Run

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been placed on Interpol's most wanted fugitives list, not, authorities insist, for the activities of his website, but for alleged rape and sexual assault in his adopted home of Sweden. Riiight. I'm no fan of Assange - he's a sanctimonious ass who cloaks himself in the mantle of free speech and postures as a human rights activist, while paying very little attention to the actual human costs of his info dumps. Furthermore, he's an awful hypocrite - transparency is fine and well, and an informed populace must hold its government's feet to the fire for democracy to function, but there's more than a bit of irony in this self-appointed revelator of government misdeeds that get innocent people killed being a man whose indiscriminate leaks get innocent people killed. But I have to think these charges may have been trumped up in an effort to bring him down. It's not like people haven't noted the logic of taking him out (literally or figuratively).

Despite my mistrust of the government, I can't muster too much sympathy for Assange. We need muckrackers - but we don't need zealots who see the world in black and white, with themselves in firm service of the latter. Absolute moral conviction is a very dangerous thing in the wrong people, and Assange is one of the wrong people. If he is brought down, hopefully whoever replaces him as the celebrity antigovernment activist du jour will be someone with a greater sensitivity to the power of free information to do harm as well as good.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Uwe Boll's New Low

German scheissmeister Uwe Boll has made a career of making shitty movies - he directed four of the 100 worst-reviewed movies of the last decade according to's count - but to this point you could at least say that he had the sense to turn his "talents" to the right kind of material, focusing as he has on lesbian vampires, zombie plagues, and other B-movie schlock. No more, however; Boll has decided that, like Stephen Spielberg, Roman Polanski, and Quentin Tarantino before him, he must make a film about the Holocaust. Furthermore, since previous films about the subject have been so tame - Disneyesque, practically - he wants to tell it to us straight: Auschwitz was a really terrible place, a "death factory". And he wants to show us, using the "talent" for "explicit depictions of violence" that he honed to oh-so-fine an edge by making all those latex zombie heads explode so realistically in his previous work. Unsurprisingly, preliminary reaction from critics has been less than enthusiastic. What's wrong, guys? You don't trust the guy responsible for Alone in the Dark and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale to treat one of the most tragic and horrifying episodes in human history with the gravity and dignity it deserves?

Personally, I'm mystified as to why any movie studio would be willing to back this project. Are there really people out there clamoring for a statement on the Holocaust from Uwe Boll? I have a hard time believing that, much less that people will be willing to pay to watch it. I'm a big believer in free speech. But every time Boll is allowed to make a movie, I become slightly less so. Perhaps this film will give a boost to the online petition to stop Boll from making any more movies.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


A new poll indicates that Americans would prefer George W. Bush in the White House to Obama. Given that Bush left office as one of the most unpopular presidents in memory only two years ago, and that Obama has pretty much made a living off of blaming him for everything but halitosis since his election in 2008, that's not a good sign for the president. It's a certain sign that he's going to have to come up with something better than "at least I'm not Bush!" as a reason for people to vote for him in 2012. Given that he appears intent on taking on the GOP and fighting what Republicans feel will be losing battles for him after their presumptive takeover of the House on Tuesday, it's unlikely that he'll seek to position himself as an above-the-fray Clintonian triangulator either. I'm not sure that bashing the GOP for obstructionism is going to work, however, given that voters generally disapprove of his agenda and are poised to reward Republicans for trying to obstruct it over the past few years.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Liberal Double Standard On Racially Charged Speech?

Radley Balko of Reason makes a very fair point re: response to the firing of NPR Juan Williams over comments he made about overcoming his personal fear of Muslims. Why is it that progressives feel it's okay to describe black people using language that, were it to come from a conservative, would (rightly) be decried as racist? I don't care what you think of Juan Williams' political views (and he doesn't seem like a staunch conservative to me), but referring to him using a racially loaded term like "lawn jockey" as Balloon Juice did is completely unacceptable.

The African-American community is not monolithic. It's composed of individuals, complicated human beings with their own opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints, just like any other demographic is. Some blacks, such as Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, and (debatably) Williams, hold conservative views. So what? They're entitled to do so. It's a free country. For other blacks to accuse them of selling out their race for opposing racial profiling laws or affirmative action or what have you is one thing. I don't agree with it, but I can understand where the impulse comes from. But for white liberals to do it strikes me as rather presumptuous, even when they're not using language that ought to have died out along with minstrel shows. When they do use such language, it's not just presumptuous, it's offensive. Like most people I know, I often think that political correctness is too frequently taken to ridiculous extremes. But certain formulations should be out of bounds in enlightened discourse. Declaring that any black that thinks like the stereotypical rich white guy is either a self-interested race traitor or a useful idiot is one of them. If white liberals such as the editor of Balloon Juice really believe in racial equality (and they should), they ought to just accept that such a person is merely an individual who disagrees with them politically and happens to have dark skin.

I don't think white progressives who talk like this are necessarily bigots, nor that most of them are cynical enough to deliberately exploit racial prejudice among either whites or blacks (Bill Clinton, with his comment on Barack Obama's "shucking and jiving" during the 2008 Democratic primaries, is one notable exception). But, for people who pride themselves on being racially enlightened, they come off as remarkably insensitve and simplistic in their thinking about racial issues. The black community does not belong to one party or ideology or the other. Many if not most may be liberals and vote Democratic, but that doesn't entitle Democrats/liberals to declare those who aren't and don't off the reservation. If there's going to be such a thing as an internal political debate among African-Americans, it should be left to them, and not subject to the self-important bleatings of white interlopers, conservative or otherwise.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

We Have A Bilbo

The long-delayed, two-part Peter Jackson-produced adaptation of The Hobbit finally has a cast, certainly a gigantic step toward getting the damned thing made. As a card-carrying, badge-wearing, rafter-shouting Tolkien geek, I'm very excited about that. Many fans of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy were disappointed when he announced he wouldn't be directing The Hobbit as well, but in tapping Guillermo del Toro he chose a replacement who proved with Pan's Labyrinth that he can make a fantastic fantasy film. In fact, I'd argue that he's a better fit for this material than Jackson is. Much as I admire the LOTR trilogy, Jackson's penchants for narrative bloat and visual excess had started to creep in by the end (for me at least, they ruined his follow-up effort King Kong), and I'm not sure I'd trust him to rein them in enough to do justice to Tolkien's story which, rich in action and adventure as it is, is an intimate, character-driven quest story at its heart. So long as Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis can be secured to reprise their roles as Gandalf and Gollum respectively (as is rumored), these movies should be excellent.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Anyone Care For Some Nevada-Style Fruitcake?

That's what the state's Republican primary voters have served up in the person of Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle, as Angle's latest bizarre and inaccurate statement in regards to Muslims in America attests. I'm no fan of Harry Reid's, and he's frankly among the Democrats I'd like to see ousted from the Senate. But I'm not at all enthused about his possible downfall given that his replacement would be a know-nothing loon like Angle.

It's a testament to just out of sorts the Republican party is that in a year in which all the fundamentals are in their favor, they may blow their chance at capturing control of the Senate by allowing people like Angle and fervent anti-masturbation advocate Christine O'Donnell of Delaware to get nominations in imminently winnable races. There are plenty of legitimate critiques to be made of both the Democratic agenda under President Obama and the Bush-style big government Republicanism it displaced and in some ways continued. Why can't the Republicans find smarter, saner candidates to articulate those critiques?

Monday, October 4, 2010


I'm back from Nagano, very sore and feeling the first symptoms of what I suspect is an uncoming cold, no doubt contracted as a result of running around sweat-covered in shorts and a tee-shirt in the chilly mountain air. Our team wasn't the worst there, but it wasn't the best either, and a draw that pitted us against the top three teams in the tournament in the group stage didn't help matters. We battled gamely but fell to the eventual champions on Sunday morning. At least I got to work on my goalkeeping skills - nothing improves you at that position like facing a lot of shots from skilled players.

Now, I'm just hoping this cold doesn't turn out to be anything to bad. I hate getting sick, particularly in Japan as the damp climate and lack of central heating always seem to mean it takes me forever to recover.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Off To Play Some Soccer

This weekend I'll be traveling to Nagano-ken, one of Japan's loveliest prefectures, to participate in a nationwide amateur soccer tournament. I'm not expecting to win (I've never played with most of my teammates before, but based on past experience I doubt we'll be particularly good) - all I want is to run around, get some fresh mountain air, and have a good time. The best things in life really are free.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On Unnecessary Technology

Jimi Heselden, the owner of the company that manufactures the Segway, has died after falling from a cliff while riding one of his machines. Police are still investigating the cause of the accident, but irrespective of whether mechanical failure, driver error, or simple misfortune is to blame, the tragedy illustrates an important point about technology - that the benefits that it brings aren't always worth the attendant risks and other costs. Near as I can tell, all the Segway does is allow people able-bodied people to move at low speeds over somewhat uneven ground while retaining their balance. That's a function easy accomplished by... walking. Heselden didn't need an expensive, complex piece of machinery to enjoy a jaunt along a cliffside walking path on his property - he could have simply gone for a stroll, and it's unlikely he would have gone over the cliff if he had.

This same dynamic plays out countless ways in lower stakes ways in everyday life. In my kitchen, I have a multi-part gadget that, depending on what attachment is being used, can be employed to cut vegetables, grate cheese, slice garlic, and the like. But it takes time to reconfigure it if I want to use it for a different function, the pieces are bulky, and it's a pain in the neck to wash, so it's not as if that versatility saves me any time, space, or effort. And if the cheese grating attachment, say, were to break, it would be more difficult and expensive to obtain a replacement component than merely to buy a new, separate cheese grater. This gadget, no matter its multi-functionality and nifty design, provides me precisely zero additional utility, and I wonder if I wouldn't be much better off with just a kitchen knife and an ordinary grater. Modern life is full of this kind of fundamentally unnecessary technology. Who really needs power windows or doors in a car, for example? It doesn't take much physical effort to turn a hand crank or pop a lock button, and with the old-fashioned option there are no unnecessary wires that can fray or circuits that can short out.

The ultimate goal of technology is to make life easier for ourselves, or to enable us to do things we otherwise couldn't. It should not be to demonstrate our own ingenuity by making things as intricate as possible, or to achieve marginal gains in comfort or convenience at significant risk or cost. Greater complexity is only an advantage if it brings with it greater functionality. If it doesn't, all it means is a greater number of ways in which things can go wrong. The great French aviator, writer, and engineer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said that "a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away". Things like the Segway definitely fall under the heading of things that could safely be taken away.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me

Today, I turn 31. In contrast to last year's epochal "holy crap, I'm entering a new decade!" milestone and the year prior's depressing realization that I had just about used up my twenties, the decade of life that's supposed to be fun and carefree, this one doesn't feel like a big deal. In a weird way, being at the beginning of a decade, rather than the end of one, actually makes me feel younger. It helps that I'm actually looking forward to things like settling down into a permanent career and a more stable living situation at this point, having gotten somewhat bored of the rootlessness and irresponsible pleasure-seeking and self-exploration of youth. Doesn't make feel any less inclined to celebrate or throw myself a party, however.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Won't The Stupid Voters Listen When We Tell Them What They Want?

Apparently mystified by persistent public opposition to his health care law, President Obama is blaming himself, not for signing a bill that started out unpopular and grew more so throughout the process of its passage, but for failing to sell it well enough. Obama continues to argue that the reason people don't like the law is because they aren't aware of all the benefits it will bring them. But as Reason's Peter Suderman points out, there's a simpler and empirically better supported explanation - that the public is aware of the law's benefits, which contrary to what the President thinks the Democrats have talked up to no end, but is also aware of its costs, which the Democrats have rather assiduously avoided discussing, and does not consider the former worth the price of the latter.

I haven't been polled, but I certainly fall into this category. I'm all for ensuring that people with pre-existing conditions can receive subsidized medical treatment for them if they can't afford it themselves, making health care plans more portable between places of employment, and the like. What I'm not for? The massive, cost-spiraling distortion in the health insurance market that forcing insurance companies to issue policies on which they are guaranteed to lose money will create. The higher taxes that will raise the price of new treatments and stunt medical innovation. The almost certain budget busting costs. The giant middle finger to personal freedom and constitutional rights that is the individual mandate. The unsavory backroom dealing that went into drafting the law. And most of all, the vast array of statistical gimmicks, euphemisms, blandishments, and outright lies via which the Democrats have tried to obscure all of this. I don't know how representative I am, but I know why I don't like the law, even though as a young person with a checkered travel history I stand to benefit from it in some ways, and it's not because I don't know what it's in. I'm not sure which is more offensive, the Democrats' arrogance in ramming this law through against the popular will, or their condescension in assuming that people oppose it because they're too stupid to know what's good for them.

It's widely expected that the Democrats will get hammered in the upcoming midterm elections, and very likely lose their governing majority in at least one house of Congress. I suspect that much of that is a result of the fact that the economy continues to sputter. But if health care does prove to be a salient issue in this campaign and hurts the Democrats as it almost certainly will if that's the case, they deserve it. Whatever the merits, or lack therof, of the particular laws they pass, parties that overinterpret their mandate and/or take the electorate for a pliable mass of idiots need to suffer for it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Remember, It's The Government's Money - You're Only Allowed To Borrow Some Of It

The tax collection of the U.K. is proposing a new policy under which all paychecks in the country would go first to the government, and only then be sent on to workers after the appropriate taxes had been levied. As will not come as any surprise to anyone who knows me, I hate this idea with a passion. I don't think it's some kind of first-step-towards-the-gulag power grab, as more histrionic rightists might call it. Britain is a country with a long and thoroughly ingrained democratic tradition, and absent some 1930s style economic apocalypse I doubt very much that totalitarianism will go on the march there. But I do think it's a dangerous and unnecessary expansion of the government's coercive power over economic activity, and betrays a troubling assumption at the heart of modern left-wing ideology - that the concerns of society as a whole trump the rights of the individual.

The potential for conflict between individual interest and the well-being of society as a whole has long been one of the key sources of tension in democratic societies, and while I don't deny that there are certainly cases in which societal interest should be paramount - nobody should be allowed to dump toxic waste in a river at the expense of people downstream, for example - any free society which wishes to remain that way must respect the autonomy, political and economic, of the individual citizen. By and large, people do not go to work because they feel some abstract commitment to do their part for society, they go to work because they have personal financial concerns and desires which working helps them to address. The paying of salaries is fundamentally a private transaction between employers and employees, and the money an employee receives is recompense for his or her labor. It's not the state's business. I'm fine with requiring people to pay taxes, but the idea that the government has any legitimate right to see peoples' paychecks before they themselves do strikes me as deeply pernicious, and not something that should be entertained even in the name of ostensibly worthwhile goals such as greater government efficiency or cracking down on tax evasion. It's not by accident that Locke cited the right to personal property as one of the necessary conditions for free and just government - without a fundamental distinction between what belongs to the state and what does not, there are too many ways in which the government can abuse power and coerce the citizenry. Just ask all those people in China who were displaced from homes their families had inhabited for generations because the government wanted to build a dam or an athletic stadium and hey, family ties or no the land didn't belong to the people living on it anyway. Legitimizing the notion that the government first gets to seize whatever portion of a person's salary is currently deemed necessary, and only then must pass the money on to the person who earned it, erodes that distinction, and that's a bad thing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Pox On Both Their Houses

In the midst of a heated exchange with Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, Reason magazine writer Nick Gillespie makes a very simple but oft-forgotten point - that one needn't have approved of the job George W. Bush did as President to disapprove of the one Barack Obama is doing. Like Gillespie, I happen to think Bush was an awful President, but that that doesn't change the fact that (on fiscal matters at least), Obama has been just as bad if not worse. Among the many things I disliked about Bush was his gross fiscal irresponsibility - not so much the substantial tax cuts or the massive spending hikes per se, but the fact that he pursued both simultaneously and with equal fervor, exploding a Federal deficit situation that had actually improved somewhat late in the Clinton years and leaving what was already going to be a long-term crunch looking likely to be much more painful when it finally hits. I did not vote for Obama because I wanted more of the same. But that's what we're getting, plus one - all of Bush's reckless spending, plus a little more from the long-time Democratic wish list.

The chart Gillespie posts basically tells the whole story - out-of-control Federal spending is a bigger problem than the tax cuts when it comes to the deficit situation. Whether the Democrats decide to continue the cuts or let them lapse makes no difference - we're still screwed, because we are still spending too much money we don't have. It's just a question of degree. To committed members of Team Red or Team Blue, it be convenient to bash the other side with this reality when they hold power and impolitic to mention it when you do, but for people who care more about the future of the country than the fortunes of a particular political party or its associated ideology, it's a big effing problem that needs to be dealt with one way or another. I don't want to hear from the Democrats when they're criticized for deficit spending that Bush did it too - news flash guys, that's why we fucking voted his party out of office. I want somebody, somebody, to stand up and be an adult and tell the voting public what they need to hear - that we're on an unsustainable course, that changing it is probably going to entail both tax hikes and spending cuts, and that people need to get used to that. As is, all I have is a choice of which conglomeration of connected special interests I let into the sty to begin feeding at the government trough. Pointing out that the Democrats are venal, short-sighted, and incompetent does not make one a Republican stooge any more than pointing out that the Republicans under Bush were venal, short-sighted, and incompetent made one a Republican stooge. It's possible for both sides to be wrong.

As an indepedent, I take the fact that partisan hacks from both sides despise me as a sign that I'm on the right track. Government, to the extent that is necessary, should be about solving problems and creating the most favorable possible environment for private enterprise (in business and elsewhere) to flourish. It should not be about handing out publicly financed goodies to your friends like Halloween candy because they helped to get you elected. Too often, that is what it is about, and anger over that fact is why I think anti-incumbent fervor against politicians in both parties is so strong right now.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Poverty On The March

In recession-related bad news of the day, the U.S. poverty rate has hit a fifteen year high, and the overall number of people living in poverty - about 44 million - is the highest it's ever been, at least since the Census began collecting poverty data in 1959. I suspect that political partisans on both sides will, after agreeing that this unfortunate milestone is in fact a result of the recession, make pinning the blame on the other side their first priority. Democrats will reiterate their long-standing assertion that it was Bush-era policies that led to the recession, conservatives will argue that Obama's supposed remedies haven't prevented it from getting worse - and neither will really consider the probable reality that if it is even reasonable to blame this situation on our politicians, both parties deserve some of it.

I don't have much patience or sympathy for liberal rants about greedy Wall Street speculators and the like. More than anything else, the crash was the result of a credit market that due to a combination of regulatory fiat and monetary mismanagement put cash on loan into the hands of a lot of people that weren't in a position to pay it back. Even if the government had regulated Wall Street out of building their junk pyramid of credit default swaps and other dodgy financial instruments atop it, there was still a mountain of bad debt accumulating at the center of the economy. At worst, greedy bankers merely found a way to take that crap and make a profit by recycling it into a slightly different form of crap, one in which the eau de impenetrable financial jargon made the odor slightly less offensive. They made a bad problem worse, but they did not create it. As for the Democratic agenda, well - with a painful debt-induced fiscal crisis pretty clearly on the way, I don't think shoveling massive amounts of money out the door to be spent on ill-conceived pork projects in the name of economic stimulus or enacting a massive and massively flawed new entitlement like Obamacare were the best ideas. Billions of dollars later the stimulus has not stimulated - the economy is actually worse off now than the Obama administration claimed it would have been had nothing been done - and Obamacare has already gone up in price before even taking effect.

However, I don't find the Republican claims that the way things were prior to the government tampering of TARP, the stimulus, etc. was reflective of the natural order of the free market, and that Barack Obama is some kind of uniquely pernicious socialist interloper, any less risible. The American economy has, both directly and indirectly, been shaped by government policies, many of them dumb ones, for a long time. George Bush was as much a promoter of the idea that people should own their own homes and look at them as investments and not just places to live as anyone, and did nothing to alter the market-distorting Clinton-era policies that led to the housing bubble. And no party that, when they had control of the government, started two optional, ill-planned, and unfunded foreign wars in addition to doing its own share of irresponsible domestic spending, deserves a platform to complain about the fiscal irresponsibility of the other side.

In some sense, grim news like this is just the market adjusting to actual reality. Much of the wealth that fueled the pre-recession economy turned out to be illusory. It therefore stands to reason that some of the gains that had been made against poverty also turned out to be illusory. As a society, we were not producing enough tangible wealth to support our lifestyle, from the rich investment banker making hundreds of thousands of dollars trading financial phantasms on down to the struggling lower middle-class family that stretched to buy a house they couldn't really afford. Our leaders, in their eagerness to buy us off with extravagant promises on the one hand and their reluctance to insist that we pay anything like the real price for anything we wanted on the other, enabled this overstretch, and continue to do so. This is not a failure of one political party or ideology or the other - it's a failure of the entire system, the whole nexus of government, high finance, and big business, and the Democrats and Republicans are both too much a part of that system to recognize it. While I don't agree with a lot of what the Tea Party types have to say, their inchoate anger does at least make a bit more sense to me when viewed in this light.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It's In The Photograph...

The last several days, I've finally gotten around to a project I'd been meaning to do for awhile - going through all my digital photographs, sorting and cataloguing them, and backing them up on CDs. It's been a laborious process, but one of the benefits has been reliving a lot of really great experiences that had started to blur around the edges a bit in my memory.

When I was in my early twenties, I felt that taking pictures of everything dulled the in-the-moment experience of being someplace beautiful or doing something interest. I didn't, for example, take a camera with me when I went to visit my brother when he was studying abroad in Italy in 2003 and the two of us spent several days traveling in Spain, though I visited quite a few famous places on that trip. But the older I get, and the more experiences I accumulate, the more I find that what people my parents' age said when I was younger and too impatient to sit still to have my picture taken, that someday I'd appreciate the value of documenting life as it flies past - rings true. I didn't have a camera with me when I visited Gaudi's masterpiece, the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. And now, while I retain an overall impression of the place, I can recall little about the details of it. It's not a mistake I'm inclined to repeat - I always take a camera with me when I travel nowadays.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On September 11th

For some reason this year's anniversary of the September 11th attacks feels sadder and weighs more heavily on my mind than those in past years - perhaps because it occurs in the wake of the summerlong "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy, with Americans egged on by a crazy Florida preacher and flag-burning Muslim protesters abroad antagonizing each other with one-upped acts of mutual rage and contempt. I'd like to think that tragedies like 9/11 would compel people on all sides of a conflict to reflect on violence, on its causes in the world, on the self-perpetuating and all-consuming cycle of retribution it engenders, and to step away from it. But sadly, if there is one thing we know about human beings it is that aggression, self-righteousness, and intolerance come naturally to us while open-mindedness, understanding, and compromise are things at which we must work very hard to obtain. I understand aggrievement and anger very well, but I do not understand what people who do things like burn qurans or stomp on American flags hope to achieve by expressing their aggrievement and anger in such inflammatory ways. It only widens the gap between people and makes it easier for them to justify maiming each other in the future.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An (Altogether Too Long) Post On The Upcoming NFL Season

With the 2010 NFL season about to kick off and every football writer in America and their brother offering their preseason predictions, I figured now would be a good time to put myself on record as to my own take on the upcoming season. I don't have the time or inclination to do a multi-page, team-by-team or division-by-division writeup (and there are plenty of that kind of thing out there, written by people more knowledgable than I am), so I'll just make a few random observations and predictions (of a probalistic nature - I hate pundits who say X or Y will happen).

Team Most Likely To Win The Super Bowl: Indianapolis. Not a sexy or particularly outre pick, but as long as they have Peyton Manning, you know they're going to finish the season 12-4 or 13-3, with homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, and more often it's a team with that profile that wins it all. Lots of pundits seem to be talking themselves into the Jets, Ravens, Packers, or Cowboys, but as of right now the Colts have a better combination of quarterback and pass defense than all those teams, and I think a good quarterback and a good pass defense are what you need to win it all.

Runner-up: New Orleans. I think they'll be better than most recent defending champs have been, as have a relatively easy schedule for an elite team and can still roll out plenty of weapons on offense. They'll have trouble winning on the road in the playoffs if they don't get home field advantage, however.

Team Most Likely To Have The #1 Pick In The 2011 NFL Draft: Tampa Bay. They have a shaky-looking second year quarterback in Josh Freeman, a coach who appeared overmatched in his first season at the helm last year in Raheem Morris, a defense that isn't very good, and a pretty difficult schedule. Not a good combination.

Runner-up: Buffalo. This team is a train wreck, and pretty much everything I said about the Bucs applies to them as well. Call it a toss-up.

Team Most Likely To Fail To Live Up To Its Preseason Press Clippings: Dallas. Not so much because they aren't a good team (they are), but because, as always with the Cowboys, the hype far outstrips the actual level of accomplishment on the field to this point. Everyone's making a big deal of Tony Romo finally winning a playoff game last year, but beating a banged-up Eagles team at home is not that much of an accomplishment - particularly when you go on the road the next week and get stomped as the 'Boys did in the divisional round game at Minnesota. Dallas enjoyed nearly perfect health among its key players last season, a circumstance that is unlikely to repeat, and as good as their first units are they are long in the tooth at a few key spots and severely lacking in depth. They don't look like a 13-3 powerhouse to me - a 9-7 or 10-6 bubble team/Wild Card entry is more like it - and I'd be very surprised if they're the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl.

Runner-up: New York Jets. The way everyone is talking about them, you'd think they were a powerhouse coming off a 14-2 Super Bowl season, rather than a 9-7 team that benefited from a massive dose of good luck to even get into the postseason, then got lucky again in drawing a pair of playoff opponents that they matched up very well against. I don't like the outsized, only-in-New-York hype, I don't like the distractions created by standout cornerback Darrelle Revis' training camp holdout and the presence of cameras recording for HBO's Hard Knocks, I don't like the fact that they jettisoned several of their most respected veteran players in the offseason, I don't like Mark Sanchez, who looks the part but on the field is still a mediocre quarterback at best, and most of all, I don't like blowhard coach Rex Ryan painting a massive target on his team's backs by declaring them Super Bowl favorites. This has all the hallmarks of a 6-10 type implosion as far as I can see.

2010 Playoff Team Most Likely To Take A Massive Step Back: Arizona. From a team that was only 9-7 last year, they lost two of their best defenders in linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle and their second best offensive weapon in receiver Anquan Boldin. Oh, and at quarterback they downgraded from borderline Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner to Browns castoff Derek Anderson. In fact, I don't think the word "downgrade" is quite strong enough to describe the dropoff there. A downgrade is going from a T-Bone steak to ground chuck. This is more like going from a T-Bone to beef-flavored Alpo.

Runner-up: Minnesota. Between star receiver Sidney Rice going down with an injury that will keep him out for half the season, his cohort Percy Harvin being plagued by migraines, and Favre already dealing with a gimpy ankle without taking a single hit, things are not off to a good start in Minnesota. They will probably be able to remain competitive by handing the ball off to Adrian Peterson 25 times a game and leaning on their defense, but I don't think a repeat of last year's NFC Championship Game appearance is likely.

2010 Also-Ran Most Likely To Take A Massive Step Forward: New York Giants. This is a talented team that suffered a rash of injuries at some key spots last year, particularly on defense, and wasn't able to compensate for the weaknesses those losses created, but they were 12-4 in 2008 and off to a very good start last year before the injury bug hit. If they stay healthy, they'll field a solid defense and an offense that can move the ball both on the ground and through the air, and for my money they - not the Cowboys - should be the favorites in the NFC East going into the season.

Runner-up: Atlanta. After a playoff season in 2008 they slipped up last year, partially as a result of losing quarterback Matt Ryan for a few key midseason games, but I think they'll be back to playoff contention this season. Like the Saints, they play a relatively soft schedule, and with most of their key players younger guys, the predicted future performance curve is still sloping upwards.

Player Most Likely To Win The MVP Award: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis. Again, the boring pick is the smart one.

Runner-up: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. Nobody doubts that he is surrounded by a lot of talent and will put up numbers. To be in the conversation, however, he's going to have to guide the Packers to a dominant season, something I think he's well positioned to do with the Vikings in position to fall off (see above).

Player Most Likely To Win The Offensive Player Of The Year Award: Chris Johnson, Tennessee. A ridiculously talented running back getting the ball behind a very good offensive line for a team that loves to run the ball is a good recipe for a monster statistical season. The media also frequently gives this award to players who have great individual seasons for bad or mediocre teams, which makes Johnson a prime candidate.

Runner-up: Drew Brees, New Orleans. He should have a huge season statistically even if the Saints don't repeat as champs.

Player Most Likely To Win The Defensive Player Of The Year Award: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets. This one's a bit difficult to handicap, as perennial favorites like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, and Ray Lewis have been taken out of the conversation by injury or age-related decline. I'll go with Revis, who should be motivated to prove that he's the best cornerback in the league.

Runner-up: DeMarcus Ware, Dallas. I basically picked him out of a hat containing a half-dozen names, but he's an elite player in his prime who should get plenty of chances to do what he does best (rush the passer), so he has to be a favorite.

Player Most Likely To Win The Offensive Rookie Of The Year Award: Ryan Mathews, San Diego. He'll get he bulk of the carries for the Chargers, who figure to need to run the clock out with a lead a few times, so he should end up with decent rushing totals even though they're not a great running team.

Runner-up: C.J. Spiller, Buffalo. He's perhaps more talented than Mathews, but he's playing for a vastly inferior team and is likely to be doing a lot of pass blocking as the team scrambles to catch up.

Player Most Likely To Win The Defensive Rookie Of The Year Award: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit. He was clearly the best player in college football last year, and only the importance of franchise quarterbacks kept him from going #1 overall in the draft. He should play every down for the Lions and have an impact against both the run and the pass.

Runner-up: Brandon Graham, Philadelphia. Perhaps it's my Eagles homerism showing through, but I think Graham, who's already won a starting job on merit, is going to have a very good season rushing the passer opposite Trent Cole.

Breakout Player: Shonn Greene, New York Jets. He'll be the feature back for a team that has a good offensive line and loves to run the ball. 'Nuff said.

Runner-up: Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia. I doubt the Eagles made a mistake in trading in the aging Donovan McNabb for Kolb as their starting quarterback, and by the end of the year I think we'll all see why. Or perhaps, as an Eagles fan, I merely hope so.

Player Likely To Decline: Favre. He's always been turnover prone, even when he was surrounded by great players in Green Bay, so I have to assume last year's low interception totals were an aberration rather than the result of a sudden, late-career epiphany about the wisdom of protecting the football. Plus, as previously mentioned, there are the injury concerns (both his and his teammates').

Runner-up: McNabb. As an Eagles fan, I've watched him decline somewhat in effectiveness the last few years as he lost the elite mobility that made him so dangerous earlier in his career, and that was when he was protected by above average lines and had the likes of DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek to throw the football to. In Washington he's playing behind a very iffy line and aside from a decent pair of tight ends is throwing to one of the worst receiver corps in football. That makes it rather unlikely he continues to have the success he's had to this point.

Coach On The Hot Seat: Eric Mangini, Cleveland. Not so much because of anything he's done or failed to do to this point, but because the front office that hired him is no longer around and Team President Mike Holmgren and G.M. Tom Heckert might well look to bring in their own guy as soon as they have a reasonable pretext for doing so.

Runner-up: Wade Phillips, Dallas. No matter how often Jerry Jones expresses his confidence in Phillips, I can't see him keeping the coach if his beloved Cowboys fail to live up to expectations.

Assistant Most Likely To Be A Hot Head Coach Candidate For The 2011 Season: Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati. He turned the Bengals into a pretty good defensive team last year. He's been successful in previous stops as a defensive coordinator as well. If Cincy returns to the playoffs this year I expect he'll be a top candidate.

Runner-up: Gregg Williams, New Orleans. He failed in his first gig as a head coach in Buffalo, but then most coaches seem to fail in Buffalo. If he can keep the Saints' defense effective enough to complement their explosive offense, he should get some calls.

Strategic Wrinkle Most Likely To Take The League By Storm This Year: I think the Wildcat package is starting to get played out - defensive coordinators seem better equipped to deal with it at this point and its effectiveness has started to decline. So I'm going to go with passing game gimmicks along the lines of what the Saints did last year - running lots of odd spread formations with bunched receivers, unbalanced alignments, and such to try to create mismatches.

Runner-up: Who knows - probably something on defense designed to counteract the spread.

The One Prediction I Will Make With A High Degree Of Confidence: Most, if not all, of my other predictions will turn out to be incorrect.

As for my team, the Eagles - they are talented, but also very young, so I am expecting a season with some ups and downs along the way. I'd guess they finish something like 9-7, with a shot at the playoffs if things break right, but as long as guys like Kolb, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Graham, and Nate Allen show improvement by the end of the year, I'll be happy. This team is being built to make a run at it all from 2012 on, not this year.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why Don't Democrats Run On Soaking The Rich?

Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wonders. Andrew Sullivan offers the typical conservative viewpoint on why this approach doesn't resonate with voters - that "it's just not American to bash the successful". There may be something to this - the American political culture does appear to me more hostile to redistributive schemes than those of, say, Europe - but I doubt that it's the only reason, or even the most important one. Rather, I think that the seeming contradiction here - polls showing high support for taxing the rich more heavily, with actual voter behavior not reflecting that preference - arises from 1.)a misreading of what the polling results mean, 2.)a failure to account for the difference between stated preferences (poll responses) and revealed ones (actual voting), and 3.)a failure to attend to the fact that many polls (and particularly those which pose questions on general policy preferences such as these) do not use samples that are representative of the portion of the population that actually votes.

Firstly, I think it's likely that a very large number of voters do not interpret the phrase "tax the rich" the same way the Democrats do. To the Democrats, "the rich" has a statistical definition - it means "people in the top 20% of earners" or "people who make more than $250,000 a year" or whatever. I suspect, however, that to the majority of voters, even well-off voters, "the rich" means "people who make more money than I do". It's a well-known fact that a most Americans - even those who by any objective socioeconomic measure would have to be considered rich - consider themselves some variety of "middle class". Ask white-collar professionals making $200,000 a year (particularly those living in an expensive city like New York) whom they think of as "rich", and they'll probably name someone like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. They're unlikely to think of themselves. So when they hear the question "should we tax the rich more heavily?", they are very likely to interpret it as "should we raise Warren Buffett's taxes?", and unsurprisingly, many are in favor. I expect, however, that if you phrased the question differently, more along the lines of specific proposals of the sort Democrats like to make - say, "should we raise taxes on households that make more than $250,000 a year?" - you'd get much less enthusiastic support.

Even if we grant that voters are not interpreting the question differently, and that the type of voters I mentioned in the previous paragraph realize that the tax hikes in question will apply to them as well as to Warren Buffett, we have to consider the possibility that many of them may be more willing to support tax hikes in theory than they are in practice. It's not exactly news that people frequently say one thing and do another, particularly when there is social pressure to appear a certain way involved. Respondees who want to appear conscientious and socially responsible might very well say yes, I would pay higher taxes if it meant better government services for those less well-off than I am, or what have you. Whether such people are still willing to say that when the taxman is actually at the door is a test of conviction that I suspect not all of them will pass. Anyone who wants to can pay higher taxes doesn't need an act of Congress to do so - the fact that few people choose to pay more than they have to makes me thinks there's more than a bit of empty self-administered back-patting going on among these poll respondents.

Finally, there's the fact that poll results on a question like this may not and quite likely do not represent the opinions of the people that actually show up on election day. General preference polling like this often samples registered voters, who as a group are distinctly more liberal than likely voters, i.e., the people who generally turn up on election day to vote. There is also a strong positive correlation between personal wealth and regular voting, and as such the wealthy are likely to comprise a disproportionately heavy portion of any given electorate compared to their numbers in the population as a whole. As a result, politicians who run on raising taxes on the rich do not garner as many votes because of that position as polling might lead one to believe.

This is essentially the same conundrum that the Democrats faced on healthcare. Why, they wondered, was the Affordable Care Act so unpopular, given that the more ambiguous notion of "health care reform" polled well? It's because, as is always the case with public policy, the devil is in the details. Any policy is going to poll better when described vaguely and abstractly than it will when it's described in detail, because when you get into detail it becomes clear whose ox is being gored and opposition starts to coalesce. This is why politicians are so fond of campaigning in airy generalities and so averse to substance, and it's why adopting policy positions based solely on what the public tells pollsters (something Democrats are all too prone to do) is a stupid idea.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Say It, Comrade

For once, I agree with Fidel Castro on something - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an anti-Semite. I couldn't agree less with the neocons on the Middle East - I've been extremely critical of Israel in recent years, and I think that resorting to any kind of military action against Iran in an attempt to derail their putative nuclear weapons program would be extremely stupid. But they are correct in describing the Iranian President as a fascist thug. Whatever way forward we puruse, we should not lose sight of that.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Daily Geekout, Theoretical Physics Edition

Journalist Robert Wright conducts a fascinating interview with Nobel Prize-winning M.I.T. physicist Frank Wilczek at It's probably not an exaggeration to say that Wilczek is one of the smartest people alive, but unlike many geniuses, he has a gift for describing complicated ideas in ways that ordinary people can understand - his is the first explanation of string theory I've ever heard that left me a little closer to understanding it rather than even more baffled afterward - and Wright asks all the questions an intelligent layman should. It's well worth an hour of any science geek's time.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hear, Hear

I have to agree with this Conor Friedersdorf post on the question of choosing one's employment - the word sacrifice is entirely inappropriate when discussing what is entirely a free and voluntary decision. A fat paycheck and the ability to afford lots of shiny status symbols it affords are not the only reason people work, and we should not assume that any rational person, when choosing a career to pursue, will automatically opt for A over B just because A pays more. Public service jobs may not pay what those in the private sector do, but they offer a number of other compensatory benefits, not least of which is the psychological reward of feeling one is serving the public rather than merely one's own interests in going to work.

It's fair to say that in choosing to be a teacher, I have not pursued the most monetarily remunerative career I could have when I graduated from college. Many of my peers chose typical career paths for Ivy League graduates - law or medical school, or work in lucrative fields like finance. They make a lot more than I do, and I'm fine with that. The thing is, I'm perfectly happy doing what I do. My job offers many things I value - the chance to work with people in a personal and meaningful way, the ability to go home at 5 p.m. every day, the freedom to not have to think about work seven days a week, plenty of time off. It does not offer me a particularly high level of social prestige, a corner office, or the ability to afford a Lexus or a five bedroom house with a pool and a home theater. The fact of the matter is, I don't particularly value those things. As such, giving them up is not that difficult, and to speak of it as making a sacrifice, just because other people might value them, seems absurd to me.

I suspect that would-be economic elites who choose public service instead talk about it as a "sacrifice" partly as a way of making themselves feel better about what they do. In my experience, it does make work much more enjoyable if I feel I am undertaking it with a purpose, and no doubt the idea that they are giving up some portion of their own potential happiness to improve society is part of what motivates such people to do their jobs. That's fine, I suppose, but if happiness is what at's issue, they're not really making a sacrifice - they're just accepting one compensation package (lower salary + altruistic sense of purpose) in lieu of a different one (high salary + high social capital) because the former leaves them more satisfied.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Atheism And Dickishness

Leading science blogger/outspoken atheist/self-aggrandizing prick P.Z. Myers, responding to critics who point out that he's kind of a dick, mounts a defense of dickishness. Being a dick, he claims, saved his life:
You know I've had this recent scary cardiac episode, and as it turns out, I think my own dickish personality probably (not certainly, since we're dealing with odds here) helped me. There was one moment when I literally had two paths to take, and I chose what I think was the best and most rational one.
He goes on to tell a story about a heart attack scare, and how his inclinations to rationality and skepticism led him to take it seriously enough to get himself to the hospital, and then concludes that this somehow proves that being an asshole is the best way to respond to the threat of religious extremism. This argument is, to be charitable, rather unpersuasive.

For one, the equation of dickishness with rationality is rather far-fetched. While not an atheist, I am a proud skeptic and secularist, and I suspect Myers and I would agree on 75% or more of the issues when it comes to religion and science, the problems of fundamentalism, and so on. But while I do not subscribe to any sort of dogmatic supernatural belief myself, nor feel an emotional need to do so, I do not feel compelled or entitled to be dismissive of those who do. The universe is too vast, and my own perspective on it too limited, even when informed by science, to warrant such a sense of satisfaction with my own enlightenment. The beliefs of the faithful may be delusions - I don't know. But if they are, the fact that I do not share them does not mean I don't have delusions of my own. It is the nature of delusions that those who labor under them do not realize they are deluded. If there is one thing that science has taught us about ourselves, it is that we are prone to all manner of blindness, confabulation, and self-deception. The human brain is not an instrument of perfect reason - it's a mass of electrified protein goo that evolved to help us survive and, perhaps as a byproduct, allows us to distantly and hazily glimpse a state of pure reason through the fog of emotion and flawed perception. Every human being alive believes things for which there is no rational basis to believe - we have to. If we didn't, we could not survive. Given that, I am certain that I do not perceive reality as it actually is, and am inclined to a little humility whenever I feel the urge to tell others that they are deluded.

Secondly, Myers rather disastefully (and dubiously) equates religion as a social pathology to heart disease as a physiological pathology. For the umpteen-millionth time, one is compelled to point out that religion is a complex social phenomenon, that it has brought joy, inspiration, and righteous conviction as well as sorrow and violence to humanity, and that there are many different forms of it, some much less antagonistic to the science and rationality that Myers prizes than others. And for the umpteen-million-and-first time, if human beings did not have holy books or ancient rituals or what have you, they would find some other tribal talisman to fight over instead. No one has ever persuasively argued to me that religious belief is uniquely pernicious in its ability to inspire violence and mayhem, and the historical evidence - the mountains of historical evidence, strewn across a twentieth century awash in blood shed by ideologies that were secular or even outright atheistic in character - pretty much proves that point. The Communists adopted as one of their basic assumptions the idea that religion was an outdated irrational delusion and something that humanity would be better off without. It did not make them more moral or more perfectly rational people. The fact that Myers essentially equates secularists like myself who prefer to accommodate the (reasonable, tolerant, non-violent) religious beliefs of our fellow citizens rather than confronting them at every possible turn with people who refuse to seek treatment for illness is not only offensive, it's stupid and ill-reasoned as well.

But even if we grant Myers, arguendo, that a.)he is more enlightened than those of his fellow human beings that are religious, and b.)religiosity is a dangerous thing which atheists are justified in trying to stamp out, the question of what approach to adopt toward that achieving that goal remains. Luckily, this question can be answered. Myers thinks being a dick to those with whom he disagrees is just peachy. But this isn't a matter of his opinion. Being a dick to people either helps to sway them to your position, or it doesn't. As such, I submit the following questions to Myers:

1.)How many religious believers has being a smug, self-righteous asshole helped you to convert to atheism over the years?

2.)Conversely, how many moderate religious people, who'd like to make common cause with you against fundamentalism, anti-scientific sentiment, and the like, have you alienated by being a smug, self-righteous asshole?

3.)Is being a smug, self-righteous asshole toward a religious person more likely to a.)convince them that you're correct and lead them to abandon long-held and deeply cherished beliefs, or b.)offend them and perpetuate the unfortunate stereotype that exists in American society of atheists as arrogant, antisocial people who despise their fellow citizens?

Being empirical questions, these should all be right up P.Z. Myers' scientifically-minded alley. Perhaps he should get to work gathering data in order to settle the dickishness question once and for all.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Three Thoughts On The Skilled Labor Shortage

In a time of 10% unemployment, it's mystifying that any sector of the economy could face a critical labor shortage, but such a shortage among skilled trade workers is exactly the problem facing the U.S. and many other advanced economies. Many argue that the culprits behind this shortage are the social stigma of blue collar work and, conversely, the cache of a university degree and the access to traditionally middle-class white collar professions it provides, but this problem poses a number of interesting questions for me:

1.)Don't we need to consider the role of education in this situation? When my father went to high school, he attended a technical school, and while he went on to study engineering at Cornell, many of his classmates proceeded instead to what were then presumably perfectly respectable careers as tradesmen of various sorts - welders, electricians, and the like. It seems to me that in the U.S. technical education has largely been disfavored at the high school level in favor of curricula aimed more at college prep, and I don't know why that ought to be so. A university is a wonderful thing to have, but unless you need it it is an expensive indulgence, and I don't think it makes the best use of students' talents to funnel them all in that direction. University educations and white collar jobs are not for everyone, and I don't see why it need be an elitist thing to say that. A student who in the hope of becoming a lawyer or doctor spends the years between fifteen and eighteen learning calculus, evolutionary biology, and European history badly, rather than learning the rudiments of plumbing or welding well, is not making the most of either his or her talents or earning potential, given that competition for the best jobs is extremely fierce and entry into both university and white collar professional schools is extremely costly in terms of both time and money. I'm all for some sort of universal standard of basic liberal education, but we need an educational philosophy that also recognizes the varying talents of students and encourages them to develop those at which they show the most promise.

2.)Given that many of those who have lost their jobs in the current downturn are factory workers and other blue-collar types, and that there has been much hand-wringing about the death of American manufacturing and the dire economic prospects for the American working class that it portends, it seems like we have the raw human resources available to plug this gap. Don't we need to think about this shortage as part of the long term solution to the problem of the future employability for non-college graduates? Obviously working on an assembly line at a GM plant and working as an electrician require different skills, training, and professional credentials, but I don't see any reason why someone with the technical mindset to do the former well couldn't, with a few years of schooling, learn to do the latter.

3.)Is this a failure of classical economic theory? Most economists would insist that any rational actor seeks to maximize their own benefit in any given situation, and "benefit" is usually taken to indicate either money or something that can readily be equated to money. But that framework doesn't seem adequate to explain this situation. Let's say high school graduate X has two options. He can A.)undergo a plumbing apprenticeship, during which he can earn money while learning a trade that could eventually net him a very comfortable middle class living. Or he can B.)attain a college degree that will provide him entry into the white-collar labor market at a low-paying level when he's finished it, but means forgoing four years of income and likely saddling himself with a high amount of debt when he finally does graduate. It seems to me that (A) is pretty clearly the more attractive option for a rational actor, i.e., someone seeking to maximize his gains and minimize his losses. The reason so many people in this situation choose (B) can only be attributable, in my opinion, to the fact that people are not in fact rational actors in the classical economic sense and that their decision making is influenced by a number of factors beyond brute tabulation of the pluses and minuses of a given decision. In this case, I'd say the student who chooses (B) is probably influenced by 1.)the fact that plumbing is seen by many in our society as a "dumber" profession than office work, and 2.)a (likely irrational) hope that he will "make it" and achieve a career track that ends not as an office drone or middle manager, but as C.E.O. of the company. There's a lot of exciting new work in the emerging field of behavioral economics exploring what is actuality the oddness and irrationality of human decision-making, but much of the larger field still relies on what appear to me to be clearly flawed assumptions about human nature.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The "Ground Zero Mosque" And Conservative Hypocrisy

I am having trouble seeing what the big deal is with regards to the ongoing controversy about the plan to build a mosque/Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. The center is being built on private property, using private funds, and has been approved by all the relevant zoning and building code authorities, so on what grounds do people like Tea Party wingnut/Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle say it must be stopped? You can assert that the proposed location is insensitive to the victims of 9/11 and that the interests of interfaith comity would be better served by relocating it if you like. Personally, I think this argument is rather dubious, given that there is already a strip club located even closer to Ground Zero than the proposed cultural center. I also think the logic behind it betrays a rather simplistic prejudice against Islam – the fact that the people who want to open this community center are Muslims does not mean they endorse the philosophy of the perpetrators of 9/11 any more than the fact that both are Christians means that the Pope approves of abortion clinic bombers. But there is no justification whatsoever, at least not any consonant with limited government philosophy, for arguing that the government should interfere with individual rights in the name of sensitivity to peoples’ feelings. Last I checked, that was a far left position. Conservatives that oppose campus speech codes, hate speech laws, and the like frequently argue (rightly) that nobody has a constitutional right to not be offended. Well, this is a chance for chance to put their money where their mouth is, by respecting the right of their fellow citizens to do something that many among their number may find offensive. To be fair, some conservatives have done so. But some have not, and they need to be called on that hypocrisy.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Scoping Out The Situation

In the spirit of Juvenal, the first century A.D. Roman poet and satirist whose Tenth Satire provided the name for my blog, I can't help but let news as momentous as the announcement that Jersey Shore resident musclehead Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino will make upwards of $5 million this year pass unremarked upon. You've got to hand it to the guy - whether by luck, persistence, or some pea-brained form of self-promotional genius, the man has managed to turn great abs, an excessive fondness for hair gel, and a personality that effortlessly marries malignant narcissism and mild mental retardation into a marketing force worth seven figures annually. It's not true that America is a uniquely shallow, materialistic, and intellectually bankrupt society - other countries pay pop singers, actors, and sports stars far more money and attention than they deserve as well, and likewise undervalue teachers, engineers, doctors, and scientists. But we're still ahead of the game, because only in America is it possible for someone to become famous for being famous. Europe, Asia, Latin America - until you can start turning knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing troglodytes like The Situation and vapid, painted-up sluts like Paris Hilton into cultural icons, and not just people who actually have some talent (no matter how overvalued), you've still got a long way to go to catch up in the race to the bottom. Get cracking.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It's Oh So Much Nicer To Come Home

After a long (and I do mean long) train journey, I finally arrived back in Sendai last night at about 7 p.m., after almost three weeks of travel around southern Japan. It was a fantastically enlightening and enjoyable (if sweltering) trip, and I return feeling I have learned something new about the country I've now lived in for almost five years, particularly from the time I spent in Nagasaki, a city of fascinating cultural and historical depths whose fame ought not to rest solely on its status as the target of the second atomic bomb dropped at the end of World War II. Now that the trip is over, however, I find myself humming the refrain of the eponymous Sinatra tune. Nothing replenishes enthusiasm for sleeping in one's own bed like three weeks of, in T.S. Eliot's words, "restless nights in one-night cheap hotels". I will begin posting the photos to my Flickr account as soon as I have a chance to sort through them, and will perhaps write a few more in-depth posts about my experiences of the trip once I've had a chance to reflect on them. Stay tuned, if you are interested.

Monday, August 16, 2010

China: We're Number Two!

As has long been forecast to happen, China appears set to overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy by overall GDP. This was no surprise. As the article halfway acknowledges, however, overall GDP is a rather crude measure of overall economic health - by other measures, such as per capita income, China still lags well behind the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and most of Europe, not to mention its erstwhile province of Taiwan, and certain factors make it unlikely to catch up in those metrics anytime soon. The population is huge, and a massive portion of it is still impoverished, as anyone who's visited the rural Chinese interior can tell you. Furthermore, with most of its growth built on export-oriented manufacturing and "catching up" infrastructure improvements within the country, there are natural limits to the amount of growth the Chinese economy can produce, and that's without even considering the drag created by the widespread corruption and governmental incompetence it suffers as a one-party state. With the U.S. in the throes of its worst recession, and Japan and several of its other target export markets being aging societies likely to decline in overall consumption in the future, foreign markets for Chinese goods are unlikely to remain as robust as they are now in decades to come, and while there is a growing domestic consumer class in China, it's still far too small in terms of numbers and purchasing power to make up the difference if exports decline precipitously. Furthermore, there are only so many train lines, highways, power grids, and skyscrapers China itself needs, and it's unclear to me that the Chinese people will willingly continue to pay the massive human and environmental costs they have endured to this point in exchange for continued growth. After all, the evidence of history indicates that safe, easy working conditions, clean air and water, and good health tend to come in fairly short order after owning cars and televisions on the priority list for a burgeoning middle class in any country. Solving those problems has economic costs, which may be exacerbated in China's case by its lack of an apparatus for doing so smoothly via democratic action. China is well along on the road towards becoming a developed economy, no doubt, but I would be surprised if doesn't hit a few more potholes along the way.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Three Cheers For Kan

It surely won't win him many fans among right-of-center Japanese voters, but Prime Minister Naoto Kan's decision to issue a formal apology for the suffering inflicted by the Japanese military during World War II on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in lieu of visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine as have his predecessors is a step in the right direction towards improving relations between the country and its Asian neighbors. It's not exactly fair to say that the shrine glorifies the actions of the war criminals among the 2.4 million war dead to whom it is dedicated - in Shinto cosmology, death absolves a person of his or her sins, so honor is paid to the spirits of the dead regardless of their actions in life, and in my experience even moreso than in other cultures it is considered taboo to continue to nurse grudges against those who have left this world. (Incidentally, this seems to apply to foreigners as well - while the Japanese continue to commerorate August 6th and 9th, the dates of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings respectively, as days of national tragedy, I have met very few people in my time who blame Americans for dropping the bombs). But the fact that the shrine makes no distinction between the honorable and the dishonorable dead is a major sore spot for Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, and others who suffered under the rule of militarist Japan during the war years, and understandably so. They neither understand nor share the Shinto preference for letting bygones be bygones and view each visit made to the shrine by a Japanese leader as an added insult given that they have already so vociferously voiced their displeasure with the custom. Continuing to visit it is therefore a needless international provocation for a Japanese leader. It is an act of allegiance more-or-less demanded by the nationalist right, who have been a key component of what has been Japan's ruling coalition over most of the past sixty years, but it is foolish. There are other ways to honor the heroic among Japan's war dead, and as the years go by and Japan becomes ever more connected politically and economically to its neighbors, strained relations with them become a luxury it can less and less afford. Kan's party, the Democratic Party of Japan, realizes this and has made it a major plank of their platform, and hopefully the fact that they have managed to elect a Prime Minister willing to refrain from using internationally antagonistic appeals to nationalism to buy votes will make it easier for Japan's leaders to do the smart and sensitive thing in the future.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ted Stevens Killed In Plane Crash

As a non-Alaskan, I was not the biggest fan of Ted Stevens as a Senator, but from the perspective of his constituents he did serve his state's interests well and the fact that he and three others, including former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, have been killed in a plane crash is of course a tragic thing. Condolences to their families and to the people of Alaska.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Is America Ready For High-Speed Rail?

That's the question posed by this piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and while it is an important one for the future of American transportation, even if it's answered in the affirmative the debate should not end. The vital follow-up questions - where it would be worthwhile, how we'd go about building and paying for it, and so on - are just as important.

Living in Japan and Korea and traveling quite a bit in Europe, I've had lots of experience with high-speed rail, and it's a fantastic way to travel mid-range distances - faster and less stressful than driving, and cheaper and less hassle than flying. In Sendai, where I live, I can simply turn up at the train station, buy a ticket, and be in downtown Tokyo, more than 200 miles away, two hours later, no questions asked. There are no traffic jams, tolls, demands for focus and attention, or worries about accidents or breakdowns as with driving, and no security or baggage lines, last-minute delays and cancelations, or need to plan weeks in advance if you don't want to have to pay top dollar for a ticket as with flying. I can spend the majority of the trip sleeping, doing crossword puzzles, or stretching out in what compared to a typical coach seat or car interior is grand comfort. It's an incredibly enjoyable way to travel, and I don't for a second buy the argument that some rail opponents in the U.S. make that Americans will never warm up to trains. The reason Americans don't use our existing rail system is not because they don't like trains. It's because our existing rail system, for lack of a better word, sucks. I have ridden on trains in third world countries that were better than Amtrak. If we had an efficient, economical, and well-run high-speed rail system in the U.S., people would use it.

But that's not to say that opponents of President Obama's proposal for building high-speed lines along certain highly trafficked corridors don't have some valid points. There is no question that building the infrastructure required is expensive and time-consuming, so any system we do build needs to be well-planned. Only certain areas of the U.S. - namely, the northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, the California coast between San Diego and San Francisco, and perhaps the Great Lakes band between Minneapolis and Pittsburgh - have the kind of population density and transport demands to make high-speed rail worthwhile. Only certain routes within those corridors make economic and engineering sense. President Obama's on-paper proposal for a high-speed rail system fully acknowledges these realities, but the problem is that no proposal that's a good idea on paper ever looks nearly so appealing once it's ready to be implemented in reality after making its way through the legislative sausage grinder. Japan offers a good object lesson on this. Like the U.S., the country has a political system in which politicians from rural constituencies wield a disproportionate amount of power. As in the U.S., getting things like large-scale transportation projects done entails placating a lot of interested parties on both national and local levels. Japanese public works projects, like their American counterparts, almost inevitably involve no-bid contracts, sweetheart deals, kickbacks, and other funny business between government officials and their connected friends in the private sector. And like Congresspeople, Japanese legislators love them some pork. When it comes to opportunities to serve up pork, high-speed rail, as an expensive, large scale project that involves long-term construction projects in multiple jurisdictions, is the public works equivalent of a weeklong thousand-guest Polynesian nuptial pig roast.

The Japanese shinkansen system, wonder of engineering and social planning though it may be, is proof positive of this. Look at a map of the system, and you'll note that the main lines - the Tohoku, Tokaido, and Sanyo lines - run through the heart of the so-called "Pacific Belt", the portion of the main island of Honshu that faces the Pacific Ocean and contains nearly all of the country's major cities and most of its population, and accounts for the vast majority of its wealth, educational and cultural capital, and economic productivity. That makes sense - you'd expect such a densely populated and productive region to require an extensive, high-capacity transportation network, and it does. The bullet trains that run between, say, Tokyo and Osaka, are nearly always packed. But you'll also a number of spur lines that run off into the hinterlands, terminating in small, economically unremarkable cities on the coast of the Sea of Japan - the region many urban Japanese derisively refer to as "the backside of Japan". What explains the existence of these spur lines, which appear to serve no real consumer demand and along which trains are often half-empty at best? Pork, of course. By building these lines, politicians from Japan's economically depressed rural regions bought jobs for their constituents, and hence continued voter support for themselves, on the dime of taxpayers in places like Tokyo. The Joetsu Shinkansen Line between Tokyo and the city of Niigata is perhaps the most infamous example. Initiated in 1971 by Niigata-born Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and finished in 1982, the line weaves 300 km from Tokyo through the mountainous and sparsely populated region of central Honshu to Niigata, a city of only 800,000 people and marginal economic importance on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The line cost $6.3 billion when it was constructed (something close to $25 billion in today's dollars), and has never come close to being profitable. When it was announced, the vague goal of "promoting regional development" was the ostensible justification, but the region the line serves has continued to lose population and economic clout in the decades since its completion. At best, its made the journey south to the bright lights of Tokyo much faster for the area's best and brightest.

It's the possibility of this kind of boondoggle that makes me extremely wary of high-speed rail in the U.S. I have a vision, in which no sooner is a high-speed line between Washington and Boston announced than politicians from Harrisburg, Atlantic City, Syracuse, Springfield, and every other marginal, small or mid-sized city within 200 miles of the proposed route begin clamoring for a spur line connecting their district to the overall network in exchange for their votes. Even Japan at the height of its so-called "economic miracle" couldn't afford such profligacy, and the U.S., with a massive entitlement crisis just over the horizon, certainly can't now.

As such, I'm only willing to support high-speed rail projects on a limited basis for now. It is an idea we need to consider - our current transportation infrastructure is overstressed and crumbling, and would be wasteful even if it weren't. In certain areas of the country building better trains may well be a better way to deal with that problem than building more highways. But we should start small - first build a line connecting, say, New York and Washington via Philadelphia - before we worry about more grandiose plans for a comprehensive network. We have limited resources, and we cannot afford to fritter them away to waste and abuse.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Dragon Roars

Obviously it's still a ways from being proven effective, but the development of a Chinese anti-carrier missile is still troubling news. China of course has a right to defend itself, but in my view a credible American capability to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression has long been important to stable peace in the Pacific region and any development that threatens that capability has to be viewed as increasing the odds of a confrontation, if only slightly. I don't doubt that there are elements within the Chinese government that would invade Taiwan tomorrow if they thought they could get away with it, and while it's entirely possible that the Chinese government's economic and geopolitical interests in avoiding war with the United States would trump the nationalist dream of reabsorbing the erstwhile island province, a weapon that could effectively interfere with America's ability to intervene in the event of an invasion is unquestionably an ace in the hand of Taiwan hawks in Beijing. Let's hope the U.S. Navy has an effective counter-strategy in mind.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Prop 8 Goes Down (For Now)

I am as happy as anyone that a federal district court judge has overturned proposition 8, the 2008 California referendum that banned same sex marriage in the state. Like most people of my generation, I am in favor of marriage rights for gays and opposed the law on the merits, but I also found the legal reasoning behind it deeply offensive, depending as it did on the troublesome notions that legal rights are privileges conferred according to the whim of the government rather than legally unassailable constitutional guarantees and that it is legitimate for legal institutions like marriage to discriminate against a minority on the basis of arbitrary characteristics like sexual orientation. I agree almost entirely with Judge Walker's argument in striking the law down, and view it not just as a victory for advocates for gay marriage but those who oppose granting the state the power to discriminate against certain citizens as well.

But though this decision is a step in the right direction, it's far from the final legal word on the subject - the case is almost certainly bound for the U.S. Supreme Court, where it is quite possible it could be reversed. In the meantime, debate on the underlying issue will rage on. Allahpundit of HotAir, one of the few mainstream conservative commentators who openly favors gay marriage, is concerned about a popular backlash against Walker's ruling:

That said, while it's no secret that I support gay marriage too, I think they've
made a needless mistake in pushing this in the courts instead of doing it
legislatively state-by-state. The optics are uniquely bad - a federal
judge imperiously tossing out a public referendum enacted by citizens of one of
the bluest states in America on the shoulders of a multi-racial coalition.
If the goal of gay-rights activists is to make same-sex marriage palatable to
the public, then embittering opponents by torpedoing a hard-fought democratic
victory seems like ... an odd way to go about it.
Color me unconvinced. As Allahpundit himself acknowledges, the anti-marriage types are doomed to lose this argument eventually. The coalition that voted to ban gay marriage in California is going to shrink, not grow, because the demographics that chiefly compose it - namely older people and Christian conservatives - are declining as an overall percentage of the electorate. The idea has been slowly but steadily gaining acceptance ever since the Massachusetts Supreme Court's landmark 2004 ruling requiring that state to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Proposition 8 barely passed in 2008 despite massive and expensive campaigns against it on the part of conservative activist groups and both the Catholic and Mormon churches, and that margin shrinks every time an elderly "yea" voter dies and is replaced in the electorate by his or her pro-gay marriage millenial grandchild. Opponents of gay marriage may not like this ruling, but before too long, it's not going to matter - they'll no longer have the means to ban it, democratically or otherwise. Politically, they'll become an electorally insignificant rump movement, and eventually, they'll be culturally marginalized as well, and someday be viewed as reactionary bigots the same way people who oppose interracial marriage are today. Bitter or not, they won't matter - they will become, to paraphrase the popular liberal analogy, stragglers fighting a hopeless rearguard action against the inexorable advance of history. And at that point, if not long before, the controversial manner in which the question was decided will be forgotten.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Window Into Modern Japan

Currently I'm in Kobe, the capital of Hyogo prefecture and one of Japan's busiest ports. Because I had a friend living here, it was one of the first cities I visited when I arrived in Japan, and at the time I was struck by the energy and worldliness of the place, an impression which remains undiminished on a second visit. Kobe was one of the first Japanese ports opened to foreign ships by the new Meiji government, in 1868, and that legacy is visible all over the city, in its numerous western-style houses, sleek international hotels, and tree-lined, Europeanesque hillside neighborhoods. Kobe's international character is visible in more than just its architecture, however; the city has a large foreign population, including one of the biggest Chinese communities in Japan, English signage is much more common here than in other Japanese cities, and people not only study foreign languages, but actually use them - last night a Japanese woman sitting next to me on the train apologized to me in English when she needed to squeeze past me to put her bag on the luggage rack, something which would rarely if ever happen in Tohoku, the more inward-looking, traditionally Japanese region in which I live. Even the city's culinary calling card - its world-renowned eponymous beef - reflects its cosmopolitan heritage, the raising, slaughtering, and eating of cows not being a traditional part of Japanese culture. It's one of Japan's friendliest cities, and one of the first places I'd suggest any foreigner without much knowledge of the culture or language visit if they wish to experience a soft landing in the country.

Beneath the bustling cosmopolitan surface, however, there's a bit of a darker resonance to Kobe. Like many of Japan's cities it was pretty well-leveled by repeated bombing raids during World War II, but whereas other Japanese communities have somewhat lost their sense of the fragility of civilization in the largely prosperous decades since the war, in Kobe it remains palpable. This is because of the devastation the city suffered due to what in Japan is referred to as the Great Hanshin earthquake, and elsewhere as the Kobe earthquake, which struck the city at 5:46 AM on the morning of January 17th, 1995. The quake was one of the most powerful to hit Japan in recorded history, and its epicenter was only 20 kilometers from downtown Kobe. The quake killed more than 6,000 people, damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 buildings, and caused more than $100 billion in damage. At the time, this amount was equal to 2.5% of Japan's annual GDP, making it, according to the Guinness book of world records, the costliest natural disaster in human history. The city has never fully recovered - even today it has not regained its status as Japan's busiest port, and wrecked buildings, their owners killed or otherwise unaccounted for in the aftermath of the disaster, remain strewn like forgotten grave sites throughout the rebuilt city. Part of a collapsed pier in the port district, which suffered particularly heavy damage, was left unreconstructed as a memorial to the disaster:

But worse even than the economic and human costs was the psychological toll inflicted on the country by the earthquake and in particular, by its aftermath. The Japanese government, which initially refused offers of humanitarian aid from foreign nations on the grounds that the language barrier and lack of Japanese medical licensing would prevent foreign volunteers from assisting, was widely criticized for incompetence, mismanagement, and bureaucratic lethargy in the wake of its slow, confused response, and political disillusionment grew worse than ever. Even worse, people began to doubt one of the very underpinnings of modern Japanese society. Ever since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan had put its faith in technological progress, and that faith had been rewarded by unprecedented growth and unchallenged status as Asia's premier economic power, both before and eventually after World War II. People believed in technology's power to make life predictable, secure, and safe. In the case of something like an earthquake, they expected technology to give them early warnings, to minimize the damage, and to make recovery quick and easy. None of those things happened. The early warning systems failed. Buildings, highways, and bridges that had supposedly been built to be "earthquake-proof" collapsed. Artificial islands in Kobe harbor, once a symbol of humanity's ability to bend nature to its will, sunk into the sea when the soil beneath them liquefied. And the government's short-term and long-term safety nets failed after all this happened. Hundreds of people were left homeless and without access to food or medicine in the immediate aftermath, and municipal and national authorities proved overmatched by the task of rebuilding the shattered city (only 3% of the real estate of which was insured prior to the earthquake). For a people who felt like they had "made it" - had achieved the material security that wealth and technology can provide - it was a painful and unsettling lesson that the world can never be made completely safe.

Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Japan's most popular contemporary novelist, explored this theme in his short story collection after the quake, published in 1997. In each of the stories, the earthquake and the devastation it caused serve as a recurring symbol of the gnawing dread and anxiety that remain beneath the seemingly placid surface of modern Japanese life, and for each of the major characters, some aspect of the disaster connects to some difficult, painful, or insecure aspect of their own lives. Walking around the Kobe earthquake Memorial Park, you can see what he's getting at.

Kobe was not a city particularly rich in historical sights even before the widespread destruction it suffered during World War II. But as perhaps the city most emblematic of modern Japan, with the visceral evocation of all the society's fears and aspirations it provides, it is still worth visiting. If you don't leave it thinking a bit more deeply about what concepts like progress and civilization mean, you haven't paid full attention while you were there.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Cause For (Minor) Celebration

One might quibble with categorizing a 208 point rally as "huge", but news that the stock market has gone up is always welcome. The problem is that an improvement in the economic outlook for investors doesn't necessarily translate to an improvement in the outlook for American workers. Job creation numbers remain anemic, and with all the manufacturing and technical capacity that has been permanently lost to offshoring and the summer - and the seasonal labor market it creates in construction, agriculture, and other outdoor-oriented businesses - coming to an end, that seems unlikely to change in the near future. The economy is still almost certain to be the dominant issue in the midterm elections, and is still likely to be an electoral albatross for incumbents - one that will be transferred to the replacements of those who lose shortly after they're sworn in as members of the next Congress. There are still a lot of long-term economic changes to which the country must adjust, so I don't see any reason to celebrate overenthusiastically. A warm day in the dead of winter is pleasant enough, but it shouldn't be mistaken for the arrival of spring.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Away I Go

For the next few weeks, I'll be off galivanting about Japan trying to see some parts of the country I've not yet been to. I'll try to post updates on where I am and what I'm doing (if it's anything interesting), as well as some photos, but I'll probably be online less frequently. I'll resume posting more regularly when I get back at the end of August.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A (Partial) Defense Of Summer Vacation

My school has just finished for the summer, which has me thinking about the topic of summer vacation, and its place in educational culture. The American tradition of lengthy summer vacations for school-aged children has come under a lot of fire from educators and developmental psychologists in recent years, and for legitimate reason - there is plenty of evidence that too much time away from the classroom results in academic lost ground (the so-called "summer slide"), for low-income and otherwise at-risk kids in particular, and the fact that youth crime and other juvenile problems tend to spike upwards during the summer months cannot be a coincidence. I am all for reforming the American school calendar to reduce the length of the summer vacation period significantly.

I do think, however, that summer vacation affords some real opportunities that we should take care not to lose. Here in Japan, kids get a de facto five week summer vacation, but in reality this involves relatively little time away from school, or from studies more generally. From junior high school on, most kids go to school quite a bit during the summer break to participate in clubs or other activities, and students with real academic aspirations continue to attend cram schools throughout the summer. One of the last things the principal of any school in Japan will say to the students when they convene for their final pre-vacation assembly is that they must continue to study hard over the break. This focus on academics no doubt does contribute to the excellent performance of the nation's students on standardized tests, to the high level of education among the workforce, and to overall prosperity - but it does come at a price. I've met few Japanese kids who have had the experiences of attending an American-style summer camp, of going on a long family vacation to another part of the country, or of spending weeks at a time with grandparents or other relatives, and one can see that they miss out on something by lacking those experiences. I go a lot from my childhood summer vacations, some of it practical knowledge of the sort that you can't learn from a textbook, some of it invaluable life experience, some of it immersion in the tangible realities of things that during the school year were only academic abstractions. The first time I ever visited Independence Hall was during a childhood summer vacation, as was the first time I laid eyes on the Grand Canyon, the first time I went river rafting, the first time I earned money by doing a job (mowing our lawn), the first time I visited a foreign country. Furthermore, many of my fondest memories of friends and family date from summer vacations - fishing with my dad, camping trips with my mom, visits to the beach, the amusement park, the ballpark. These experiences may not have availed me as much in my working life as my classroom studies did, but they have hardly been useless - they made me, I like to think, a more complete human being. I'd like to see every kid get the chance to have experiences of this sort.

Differences in lifestyle and technology which have changed what summer vacation entails for kids need to be taken into account. My childhood happened well before the advent of the internet, when video games were in their infancy, and while we did have cable t.v., there was never anything worth watching from a kid's perspective on during the day, so it wasn't capable of totally dissuading us from going outside to play. That's obviously not the case these days, and I doubt that kids get that much benefit out of sitting on the couch playing XBox for ten hours a day. I sometimes wonder if summer vacation hasn't become more problematic as the options for legitimately wasting it have proliferated; in any case I don't doubt that as a society we need to consider the question of what kids will get out of the time away from school if we're going to give it to them. They need opportunities to do things like attend summer camps, participate in summer sports leagues, and the like when they're not in school.

I don't think, however, that abolishing summer vacation - or going to a Japanese style vacation-in-name-only - is necessarily the way to go. Education is a complicated process that entails more than just making sure kids do as much book-learning as possible. I'd like to see American schools go to a shorter summer vacation - maybe six or seven weeks, instead of eleven. And I'd like to see that time structured better, so that kids actually get something from it. But I don't want to see it disappear entirely.