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.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hollywood CAN Make Original Movies

Last night, I went to the movies and saw Christopher Nolan's new film Inception for the second time, and while it's not a perfect movie (and its flaws are more noticeable on a second viewing), it is a great one, and proof positive that not everyone in Hollywood is out of ideas. Nolan proved with Memento and The Prestige that he can tell a cerebral, intellectually challenging story, and with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight that he can stage bravura action sequences, but this is the first film in which he's really married the two, and the combination works brilliantly most of the time. What really impressed me, however, was the way he took familiar elements from a number of well-established Hollywood genres (heist flicks, neo noir, action blockbusters, and so on) and put them together in a totally new way. Even as I recognized many of the scenes as something I had seen before, I was continually amazed at his ability to fit them into a story and give them a twist I hadn't seen before. Like many other viewers, I saw the much-discussed final shot coming, but rather than annoy me with its predictability it gave me the same sense of giddy completion you get when you complete a supremely difficult jigsaw puzzle. It was only predictable because it fit so very well with the rest of the movie, and Nolan had earned it by telling his story so well to that point.

It's the kind of movie that restores my faith in Hollywood film-making as an institution that has something unique and valuable to contribute to the life of the American mind (weakened by a hundred Transformers 2s and Clash of the Titans remakes as it is). It's the only place in which the brainy ideas of an art film can meet the grand visual imagery made attainable by multimillion dollar budgets and access to the latest in cutting edge film-making technology, and as long as there's a wizard like Nolan around to make the alchemy work, it can still produce some damn fantastic entertainment. Here's hoping another Batman sequel doesn't distract Nolan from making the next Inception.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Do Romantic Comedies Ruin Real Relationships?

That's the implication of a new survey conducted recently in Australia. According to survey respondents, the "happily ever after" endings so common in the genre have created expectations that real relationships fail to meet - such as the belief that one can or should always know what one's partner is thinking, or that they should regularly receive flowers "just because".

Though it's not stated outright, I strongly suspect that most of the respondents to this survey were female, and the survey's findings square with the theory that the typical Hollywood romcom is essentially emotional pornography for women. Just as actual pornography supposedly leads men to nurture unrealistic expectations about their partners and their sex lives, romantic comedies, with their idealized, Hallmark card vision of romantic relationships, so the argument goes, do so for women. I'm not convinced that this is true - I'm skeptical of such sweeping claims, particularly when they're based on survey results that don't appear to have been gathered under particularly scientific conditions -but the thesis is thought-provoking.

Any real human relationship is going to be affected as much by the human flaws of the people engaged in it as by their positive feelings for each other, and those flaws, and the negative emotions they engender, will occasionally manifest themselves as conflict. This is particularly true once external stressors (e.g. having children) enter the picture. So eternally Happily Ever After is a clearly a myth. Similarly, knowing your partner's every thought is not possible nor, were it possible, would it be desirable. Most people I know seem to entertain thoughts which would be hurtful to their partners were they to share them - niggling personal criticisms, resentments, fantasies about other members of the opposite sex, and so on. This is only natural - if there is anyone alive who feels 100% positively about the person they're with, they'll change their mind about that eventually. But why would anyone want to know every time their partner thought something bad about them? Love and devotion are real things, but they exist side-by-side in any human psyche with other, less admirable emotions. We express the former and censor or judiciously edit the latter because it is generally healthier for us to do so. As for roses or candy all the time, if the gesture is repeated too frequently, doesn't it lose its meaning? It's good to do special things for one's significant other occasionally, but by definition what makes them special is the fact that they're only done occasionally - I suspect that a man who gave a woman roses every week would quickly find her tiring of them. Indeed, in the few instances in which I have seen this kind of behavior in real life, it created a real unease in the woman receiving the gifts because she came to feel awkward about being idealized and obligated to her admirer for trying so hard rather than flattered or appreciated.

So no, crappy middling romantic comedies are not a good basis on which to found one's expectations of love and romance. But it seems to me that most people I know - mature adults, at least - have figured that out, and have (if through painful experience) learned that real relationships sometimes require work, sacrifice, and a very unsexy attention to practical details as well as spontaneity and passion. The best romantic comedies find a way to acknowledge this truth, even if they also try to sell us a romantic fantasy. Lesser ones don't, but that is one of the major reasons they're considered lesser. Are there really people out there who take their cues from Maid In Manhattan or The Ugly Truth? If so, ugh. Romance is in more trouble than we could have guessed.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Baseball, As Japanese As Okaa-San And Red Bean Pie

I just finished reading You Gotta Have Wa, Japan-based American journalist Robert Whiting’s 1989 non-fiction book on baseball in Japan, and for anyone interested in sociological and cultural differences between Japan and the west, it’s a fascinating read. The way the game fits into the cultural fabric of the U.S., the way it fits into the cultural fabric of Japan, and the differences therein provide a fascinating insight into deeper cultural differences even if you’re not a baseball fan.

We Americans tend to think of baseball as a quintessentially American game, not only in terms of its origins and place in popular culture, but spiritually as well. Over the decades, sportswriters have spilled gallons of ink waxing poetic about the game, about its pastoral, rural origins that supposedly hearken back to a time when America was a more innocent place, its unique nature as a timeless game that’s not over until the last man is out, its capacity to generate quintessentially American larger-than-life characters like Babe Ruth and Pete Rose. It has been thought of as a key bridge between generations of American fathers and sons – just think of Ray Kinsella and his father having a catch at the end of Field of Dreams – and our great teacher of life lessons about defeat, sportsmanship, and perseverance (cf. “Casey At The Bat”, or The Natural). More so than any other sport, it has been considered a barometer of the nation’s social condition; when the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series, it was so widely considered indicative of a moral rot at the heart of the culture that F. Scott Fitzgerald would use the incident in The Great Gatsby to symbolize the corruption of the American Dream that in his view defined the Roaring Twenties, and when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, it was viewed as one of the first great victories of the Civil Rights Movement. And it’s often been taken as a sign that newly arrived ethnic immigrant communities have truly integrated when they produce their first great ballplayer – as with Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra for the Italians, or Carl Yastrzemski for the Poles. Scandals and disappointments like the 1994 players’ strike and the Steroid Era may have tainted the game’s aura of purity, and faster, more telegenic sports may be catching up to it (or, in the case of football, have already passed it) in terms of popularity, but nevertheless, it retains a unique place in our mythology – the saying remains, after all, that something is “as American as baseball and apple pie."

What Whiting’s book does is show how the same sport has achieved a similarly mythic status in an entirely different cultural context. One Japanese writer quoted in the book states that “if Americans hadn’t invented baseball, we Japanese would have”, and after reading it, one can see why that he would have that sentiment. As a team sport, baseball of course appeals to the Japanese values of teamwork and self-sacrifice for the good of the group. But unlike other team sports, baseball is broken into a series of discrete actions rather consisting of continuous, flowing play. As such, it is neatly amenable to the philosophy of the martial arts, in which personal improvement results directly from devoting one’s self to perfecting a given technique through diligence, focus, spiritual discipline, and lots and lots of repetitive practice. The great Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh perfected his swing by slicing at a strip of paper hanging from the ceiling with a sword, trying with each stroke to shave off as narrow a piece from the bottom of the strip as he could. It’s the kind of exercise you find being written about in military training manuals and treatises on bushido written by Edo-era samurai, but the control necessary to deliver an exact, powerful sword stroke and the control necessary to hit a professional breaking pitch flush on the fat of the bat being similar skills, it was easily transferred to baseball. Other fundamentals of the game – throwing a curveball, fielding a grounder, turning a double-play – require a similar mastery of technique. To become an outstanding player in soccer, hockey, or basketball (all of which have professional profiles in Japan, albeit ones much lower than that of baseball), requires creativity and an ability to adapt to new and different situations on the fly, things which any foreigner who’s spent time in Japan (and many Japanese, for that matter) will tell you are not Japanese strengths. This, more than lack of size or ability, is the reason in my opinion the Japanese do not tend to excel at other team sports (which, with the exception of basketball, do not necessarily even require physical stature as a prerequisite for success). Go to any high school soccer or basketball game in Japan, and you’ll see some physically talented players, but precious few who have developed the instincts to play the game at full speed mentally. But baseball, rather than quick thinking, requires perfecting a set of well-defined skills, and that is something the Japanese are very good at. Thus for them baseball provides a sort of validation of their cultural values.

There's also the matter of gattsu (guts) and damashi (fighting spirit). These have always been prized qualities in the Japanese conception of masculinity, first in the codes of the country’s martial arts and later in the sports they spawned. In traditional Japanese competitions like kendo and karate, the ability to endure pain and fight through exhaustion are considered as or more important than speed or power, and the training they require as disciplines tends to reflect that – rather than focus on helping an athlete achieve his or her peak physical performance, it focuses on ensuring that he or she can continue to fight on even under very adverse conditions. Physical toughness is thought of as something that can be developed, rather than merely an inborn trait, and training methods often border on sadistic. More old-school Japanese managers adapted this approach to baseball, putting their players through grueling training regimens that push them to their physical limits. Fielders field hundreds or even thousands of grounders each day, pitchers throw hundreds of practice pitches even on days when they’re supposedly “resting”, and everyone runs and does lots of other conditioning drills. Many of the American players who’ve played in Japan interviewed for the book find this training grueling and self-defeating, since it exhausts the players and leaves them at less than their full capacity for the actual games, but for the Japanese, being at full capacity isn’t the point – being able to win when you’re at less than full capacity is.

Whiting also goes into a great deal of fascinating detail about how other cultural concepts central to the Japanese worldview, such as “wa” (group harmony) and the relationship between senpai (mentors, upperclassmen) and kohai (protégés, underclassmen) are expressed in the context of baseball, though in those cases the nature of the sport itself matters less. He discusses the modernization of Japan (and the change in Japanese values that has come with it) in the context of the game, finding in iconoclastic younger players like three time Triple Crown winner Hiromitsu Ochiai (who was referred to by the Japanese press as "the gaijin who speaks Japanese" due to his colorful, anti-authoritarian personality) avatars of the “shinjinrui”, or “new breed of humanity”, a postwar generation who supposedly represent the Japan's shift toward a more individualistic and less refined culture. He also tackles the less savory side of the sport – not just the machinations of professional teams and the big businesses that own and operate them, but the troubled institutions of Japanese amateur baseball as well. There’s a particularly fascinating chapter on Koshien, the annual high school baseball tournament that grips the nation every summer, and is something like big-time college sports in the U.S., with the same myths of purity, amateurism, and fair competition between scholar-athletes, and the same realities of big-time money making, exploitation, and academic, recruiting, and gambling scandals behind them. It’s a book that shatters myths as well as explains them, and demonstrates the bad as well as the good things that sports shows us we all have in common.

It is, in short, an excellent book, for lovers of the sport of baseball and lovers of the country of Japan equally. In my observation, some things have changed in the twenty years since the book's publication - I think the old school Japanese approach to life and baseball has been adulterated more than ever by influences from abroad - but some cultural gaps remain as wide as ever, and Whiting has a great gift for illustrating and explaining such disconnects.

Monday, July 19, 2010

In Memoriam

I can scarcely believe I have to write something like for the second time in two weeks, but life can be senselessly cruel sometimes and write it I must. I just found out via Facebook that a childhood friend of my, Alex Myers, has passed away at the age of 27. I say friend, but he was really more like a cousin, the male cousin I never had; he was the son of my father's best friend, and our families often took trips together when I was young - ski vacations, camping trips, and the like, during which he, my brother, and I got up to all sorts of trouble. I had talked to him a few times over the past year or so, and things were going very well for him - he had a serious girlfriend, and was finishing up law school in Los Angeles, and a whole life of glorious possibility open before him. That it was not to be realized was sad, but sadder still is the loss for his family. When Alex was still a child, his mother died of lupus, and as painful as the loss is to those of us who knew Alex from something of a distance, it can only be unimaginably moreso for his father, Greg Myers, a kind and decent man if I've ever met one. His stepmother Laura, and his step-siblings Michael and Kelley also loved Alex dearly, and theirs is a family that has endured more heartache than I feel I can summon words to console.

I am not inclined to orthodox religious practice, but I find it a natural instinct to pray at times like these. It is not may not be reasonable to ask for solace for people I happen to know from a vast and inscrutable universe, but this is one time in life when reason is of little use in trying to cope. No amount of introspection or rationalization can make sense of the death of one so young, no dry and abstract consolation can be found by framing the matter of a life cut short in a different way, and the pain of grief, for my own loss, but more achingly for the losses of others I am powerless to make whole, makes me disinclined to try. All we have when fate kicks us in the gut in this way is to hold on to whatever will get us through the moment, and to cry out - one of the first human experiences we have when we come into this world. Tennyson, a man who knew something of grief, said it better than I can in In Memoriam:
So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.
Farewell, friend. I will always cherish my memories of you, and though time may allow me to accept that you are gone, the sadness of knowing you will make no more of them, for me or for anyone else who knew and loved you, will always endure.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

On Skepticism, Statistics, And The Social Sciences

Though the subject matter and the glowing reviews incline me towards adding it to my summer reading list, I haven’t yet read this book, but judging from the précis that Slate presents, its argument is a timely and important one, and one that I’m inclined to credit. More so than ever before, we have come to rely on the social sciences as a tool which can aid us in making important economic, educational, and political decisions, and rightly so – individual human cognition being the flawed process that it is, models that at least attempt to assemble a coherent, methodical account of what really happens in society are a vital check against errors in reasoning. But the thought has sometimes struck me that in recent years the social sciences may have become just advanced enough to lead us seriously astray in some cases, and a healthy skepticism about statistics may be what we need to prevent that.

Data is the currency which gives any scientific hypothesis its value, but even in the so-called hard sciences, in which it is possible to create a controlled and self-contained laboratory environment, it can be difficult to gather reliably. In the social sciences, this problem is orders of magnitude worse. Human society and behavior are complex phenomena, with myriad confounding factors which make it difficult even to spot relationships with real explanatory value. Economics, sociology, anthropology and the rest have given us tools that allow us to filter out some valuable information from the vast and murky pool of data that is observable human behavior, but we get ahead of ourselves when we mistake valuable information for knowledge. More often, it is merely a clue that points toward the possibility of knowledge – a magnetic reading that may indicate the presence of something like a needle somewhere in the haystack. Even without relying on clearly suspect data, trained social scientists sometimes fall into faulty reasoning. When we consider the possibility that our metal detector can malfunction – that the data itself may be incomplete, unrepresentative, or otherwise imperfect – we must consider the corresponding implication that what we’ve found may not be anything like a needle at all.

This problem, along with the fact that scientists are not immune to the demonstrable human frailties of ideological and cognitive biases, is why I adhere to a sort of Burkean, small-c conservatism on questions of social policy. Flawed as our long-standing social institutions may be, they have served us well enough to have endured over the years, and we cannot dismiss the possibility that there is a sort of unconscious ancestral wisdom embedded in them. New findings in social science serve a vital function by forcing us to periodically re-examine our assumptions and giving us ideas with which to experiment in order to improve our institutions, but they do not represent a good argument for upending entire long-standing systems. When the data – the flawed, messy, problematic data – suggests that a certain policy change may improve things, we should try it – but not commit to it until our collective anecdotal experience has confirmed that the suggestions of the data that it will work are correct.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Good News Friday

It may not be a permanent solution, but it's still cause to celebrate to hear that BP has managed to stop oil from flowing into the Gulf. The last thing we need in dealing with the worst environmental disaster in the country's history is for it to continue to worsen even as we try to counter it. Hopefully B.P.'s ongoing efforts to disperse and/or capture the oil that's already been spilled will have more of an effect now that there's no longer a supply of fresh oil to overwhelm them, and this cap will hold out until the much-discussed relief well that is currently being drilled to permanently solve the problem can be completed in August.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Does The Internet Make Us Poorer Readers?

Apropos of this conversation, and the David Brooks column which it references, I'm pondering the question. Reflecting on my own intellectual habits and how they've developed over the past several years, I do note a change, at the very least. I've been an avid reader since elementary school, but when I was younger I was much more likely to get my daily dose of the printed word by spending an hour or two with my nose buried in one kind of written volume or another. In my pre-Internet childhood I plowed through novels, magazines, newspapers, and even my father's old, battered copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica at a prodigious rate, and even once the web came along when I was in high school, and started to really flourish when I hit college, I still did most of my reading this way.

As a result, I did spend a lot of time reading things that required large commitments of time and attention, something which I think has somewhat changed as of late. I read just as much as ever now, but I spend a much higher percentage of my time reading online than I did even five years ago, and I find that has biased me more towards shorter, less consuming forms of reading. I don't know that it's necessarily made me a poorer reader, however.

I do find that for me at least fiction and narrative non-fiction suffer in electronic form - I've tried reading novels, histories, and even short stories online, and have found the temptations and distractions of cyberspace antithetical to the kind of sustained concentration necessary to fully enjoy and profit from them. I find it harder to immerse myself in a world when I'm reading about it on a computer screen for whatever reason. The glare of the monitor starts to bother my eyes after awhile, and it's annoying to have to find my place again in a work that requires multiple sittings if I can't simply flip open to the page in which I've tucked my bookmark. I also find myself missing some of the most relaxing aspects of a lengthy read - the ability to lounge on my side or lie on my back while reading, to go to the kitchen to fix myself a cup of tea with book in hand, even to take a bathroom break without breaking the spell. For these reasons I persist in carrying old-fashioned dead tree reading with me when I go on vacation, and I still have a few bookshelves' worth of volumes around in even my current stripped-down, provisional living arrangement.

This is not so for news stories, expository essays, and other forms of short nonfiction, however. Blogs, electronic media, etc. have a vitality which greatly enhances the appeal and challenge of these sorts of writing; if I read a newspaper column opining on, say, the Affordable Patient Care Act, I'm done after a few paragraphs and regardless of whether I agree or not with the author's perspective have nowhere to go afterwards. Put the same column online, however, and it's likely to come with a comments section featuring numerous provocative responses (and a fair amount of drivel) offered up by other readers, as well as links to other perspectives on the issue, rebuttals, and all the rest. The internet, like a virtual, world-wide university seminar, creates an excellent forum for hashing out ideas with other people, and allows for a richer and more thought-provoking experience in engaging many sorts of intellectual propositions. In those respects, I think that it has the ability to make us better-informed and more engaged readers, not poorer ones.

Ultimately, it's my theory that this dichotomy between the experiences of short-form and long-term reading that explains why computers and the internet are slowly killing off newspapers and print magazines, but it seems unlikely that devices like the Kindle and the iPad will be the demise of print books. For a news article, or an encyclopedia article, a web page may well be a faster, cheaper, and more efficient way of delivering the same content than newsprint or a bound volume, but for a book-length piece of writing it seems unlikely that that will ever be the case. Perhaps rather than making us poorer or better readers, then, the Internet is making us more rounded ones.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Conservatives And The Prison Problem

David Frum, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, mulls the problem posed by the American penal system, noting that although it has helped to achieve lower crime rates over the past few decades, those gains have come at enormous social and financial costs. He wonders if there might be any way to rehabilitate some offenders so that we don't need to keep them locked up.

Not necessary, I say. We can vastly reduce our incarceration rate by making just a few simple changes to the way we punish certain crimes. First, we can end the War on Drugs, with its draconian policy of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Long prison sentences for small-time dealers don't reduce the amount of narcotics that get sold in the U.S., but they do put plenty of relatively harmless people (small-time dealers, addicts and the like) in jail for years at a time. I'm not saying we need to totally decriminalize drug use - with the exception of marijuana, I think that's a problematic proposition with most drugs - but we don't need to punish someone who's caught with a few grams of meth or crack cocaine by locking them up for 20 years at a stretch. Second, we can reduce the use of prison time as our preferred method of punishment. The primary advantage of prison is that it isolates convicted criminals from society and prevents them form perpetrating more crime. When dealing with genuine psycopaths like rapists, murderers, and armed robbers, this is a necessity, but for many non-violent offenders, the benefit gained from doing so may not be worth the costs. A more efficient probation system, better manner of house arrest, etc. may work just as well, at lower cost. UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman, who has spent much of his career studying this problem and recently wrote a well-reviewed book on the topic, has many interesting suggestions along these lines, some of which he outlines in this article.

When it comes to crime policy, I don't think "lock 'em up and throw away the key" is a sufficient philosophy for conservatives to have; it permits both of too much potential for abuse of government power and an outrageous amount of wasteful spending. Enforcing the laws of society is a necessary duty of the government under anyone's conception, but I don't see why so many on the right remain committed to a simplistic, grossly inefficient, and costly way of doing so. I hope that the fact that serious right-of-center thinkers like Frum are considering the question means that mainstream conservatism may start moving off its dogma on this issue - but the fact that the Palinites have denounced him as a pointy-headed intellectual only one step removed from a liberal makes me doubt it.

The Trouble With Childlessness

I've never been a fan of Amanda Marcotte's writing - she seems to specialize in second-wave-feminist-agitprop-by-rote and I've never seen her contribute anything to the gender debate that couldn't have been churned out by a well-programmed fem-bot - but this piece on the perception of childless women in society is particularly weak sauce. I'll happily concede that the word "selfish" is problematic, since it implies an overly simplistic value judgment about a social issue that is rather complex and can be looked at from many different perspectives, but there is no doubt in my mind that too many women (and men, for that matter) choosing to remain childless can create a problem for society, and that under certain social conditions the choice not to procreate can easily be described that way.

Marcotte, like any good progressive, is no doubt a fan of the comprehensive welfare state, but what she doesn't seem to realize is that bankrolling such an operation requires tax revenues - lots of them. A government can't raise enough money to pay out generous social welfare benefits just by taxing rich people, corporations, and other liberal bogeymen. You need lots of middle class workers to do that. Children (and more specifically the children had by the kind of yuppie women she cites in her piece) are, from a societal point of view, nothing more than the tax base of the future - if we neglect to have them now, there won't be enough of them around by the time we get old to pay for Social Security, Medicare, universal healthcare, and all the other wonderful goodies that our humane, liberal society has promised us. The reason one can call women (and men - again, I don't think this is purely a feminist issue) who decline to have children for lifestyle reasons selfish is that they are refusing to sacrifice any of their own happiness in the present to contribute to ensuring society's continued survival in the future. It's not because they are defying some sort of arbitrary patriarchal norm - there's a very real question of communitarian responsibility here. Just ask policy-makers in Japan. Or Germany. Or Italy. Or any other post-industrial country in which a graying population and catastrophically low birthrates threaten the long-term viability of society. Having children is a deeply personal choice, but it is not one without consequences for society-at-large by any means.

I do think it ought to be a woman's right to decide whether or not she wants to have children, and I don't go around telling my female friends that they need to get married and start having babies if they want to be complete human beings. But I don't think it's unreasonable to, say, make people who choose not to have kids pay taxes at a higher rate. They are, after all, consuming resources, without putting anything back into the system by doing their part to raise the next generation of providers.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Post-World Cup, Whither Soccer In America?

Now that the World Cup is over (and congratulations to Spain on their first ever championship), I’m faced with a dilemma as an American who’s come to enjoy soccer – what next? I’d like to continue following the sport somewhat regularly, but there’s no natural outlet for my budding interest. I know some American fans have taken to following a team in the English Premier League, La Liga, Seria A, or the other high-level European leagues, but for me at least, investing time and energy in a professional sports team requires an emotional bond of some sort, and it’s hard for me to really get interested in any club that’s not part of a community to which I belong. The Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and 76ers were all apart of my childhood and adolescence, and no matter where in the world I go, my fondness for them helps me to retain a connection to my hometown and to my core identity as a Philadelphian. I feel no such bond to the communities of Manchester or Rome or Barcelona (heck, I’ve never even been to the first two), and as such deciding to root for their soccer teams feels silly and arbitrary to me. Philadelphia has just this year finally gotten a professional soccer team of their own – the Union – but as Major League Soccer is a decidedly inferior quality league deciding to follow them feels to me like deciding to follow the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs or the Sioux Falls Skyforce - i.e., not worth the trouble. Plus they’re an expansion team which hasn’t even played its first full season yet, and I’m not living in Philadelphia at the moment.

As a result, I find that despite my newfound appreciation for soccer, my interest is capable of deepening only so far at the moment. I’ve become a fan on the intellectual and aesthetic levels, appreciating the strategies of the game and the beauty of a great passing game like Spain’s or the individual brilliance of a transcendent talent like Lionel Messi, but on the deepest and most important level, that of emotional identification, I remain barren. I wonder if I’m not alone, and this phenomenon on a widespread scale this isn’t one of the issues facing the sport at this moment in its growth in the United States. Americans have proven that they will watch a high quality competition like the World Cup, even if the U.S. isn’t playing, and Landon Donovan’s dramatic stoppage time goal against Algeria provided the kind of memorable moment that’s capable of galvanizing genuine interest in any sport (as well as a permanent and irrefutable piece of counterevidence to the oft-leveled “soccer is boring” critique). But aside from the U.S. national team, we have no high quality, high stakes rooting interests for whom to cheer.

Contrary to those who argue otherwise, I think there is room in the American sports calendar for soccer – baseball is the only sport actively contested during the summer here, and it’s a slow, languid game that doesn’t demand full attention from its fans, so a league that runs its season from spring through late summer like MLS could in my opinion establish itself as a fifth major team sport in this country. Assuming my theory is correct, the quality of the product needs to be improved to do so, however, and that’s going to require a few more superstar arrivals on the American professional soccer scene like that of David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy a few years back. Bringing in big name, big game players, even if they’re on downside of their careers, will give the league the cache it needs to generate more widespread fan interest, but getting them will require that MLS spend a bit more money, and a leap of faith on the part of the people who run it that their league is ready to take that financial step. To this point, they’ve been prudent in the way they’ve brought the fledgling league along, not over-expanding and taking care to make sure that the league’s underlying financial model remains sustainable. The result has been slow, steady growth, albeit with a few hiccups, and at this point it seems unlikely that the league will fail anytime soon. The question is, when will they decide that it’s time to take the risks necessary to see if it can really succeed rather than just survive and grow?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Polanski Goes Free

Well, the Swiss, paragons of justice and moral rectitude that they are, have released everybody's favorite Academy Award-winning rapist on a legal technicality rather than extradite him to the United States to serve his outstanding sentence. My only hope is that he has enough energy left in his dessicated old frame to direct one or two more decent flicks (which it will be totally morally justifiable to download illegally) before he croaks, but not enough left to drug and rape any more adolescent girls.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Prince Needs A Reality Check

So, Prince thinks the Internet is "over". Uh, dude, I hate to break it to you, but I'm pretty sure that's not up to you. Seriously, check your "Arbiter of What's Hip" card, and I think you'll find that it expired in 1989. Why are you so worried about how iTunes tries to sell your music, in any case? It's not as if anyone's bought any of it in the last twenty years.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

LeBron Makes "The Decision"

So LeBron James has made his choice, and it's to spurn his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers (and half a dozen other eager-to-please NBA franchises) to join his buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat. It seems like every sportswriter in America has already voiced his or her opinion on his choice, and pretty much every angle has been covered. Some have focused on the basketball end of things, expressing either intrigue or skepticism about the potential of a James-Wade-Bosh triumvirate. Many have accused him of taking the easy way out, electing to follow another established superstar to a championship rather than lead his own team to one. A few have expressed admiration at his willingness to take less money in order to play with his friends and give himself a chance to win. But most, it seems, have focused on his spectacularly ill-conceived decision to reveal his choice via a contrived one hour t.v. special. Whatever you think of LeBron's decision to leave Cleveland for greener pastures in Miami, it's pretty clear that packaging and marketing it as "The Decision" was an unprecedented P.R. debacle. Even LeBron's defenders concede that it was crass and egotistical, and everyone else? Pretty much anyone who wasn't busy savagely eviscerating him for his callousness and egomania was ridiculing "The Decision" as an over-the-top circus or declaring it a further sign of the decline of our culture.

My take? The haters are pretty much right on this one. James has earned his free agency and has a right to play where he likes at this point. I don't have a problem with him choosing to leave his hometown team - though the irony of the fact that the man has one tattoo that says "loyalty" and another that says "330", the area code of his home city of Akron, shouldn't go unremarked upon. Lots of people ultimately decide to leave their hometowns, and it's true that LeBron did not owe it to the people of northeast Ohio to spend the rest of his career there. But I do think he owed it to them to break the news to them with some degree of sensitivity and professionalism. Bill Simmons is pretty much 100% dead-on with his take. To repeat an analogy I've heard a lot of people make - it's fine and well for a guy to decide he wants to break up with his high school sweetheart instead of marrying her. It sucks, and it's painful, but sometimes life is sucky and painful, and a mature adult knows that and doesn't try to escape it. A grown man ends such a relationship by facing the music, being honest, direct, and respectful, not wasting his soon-to-be-ex's time, and allowing her to make a clean break. An immature one does it by stringing her along, making her think she has a chance to save the relationship when she doesn't, not allowing her to move on with her life, and then dumping her anyway. LeBron is clearly an immature man. Worse, he's a callous one. Going on the JumboTron at a sporting event (the analogy's equivalent to LeBron's t.v. special) to talk to your girlfriend is a cheesy and self-indulgent thing to do if you intend to propose to her. Doing it in order to dump her for a younger, more attractive woman? In Simmons' words, an unforgivable stab in the back. LeBron's hometown is going to hate him forever, and in my opinion they have every right to. As for the Cavaliers franchise, whatever LeBron's intentions or opinion of their managerial acumen, he owed it to them to act like a professional and inform them of his decision before anyone else, rather than dragging things out and not informing them of his decision personally. They, too, have every right to pissed at him.

Which is not to justify Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's bitter screed against LeBron. I understand Gilbert's anger, and happen to think that some of the points he makes in the letter are more-or-less accurate (the voodoo curses and Benedict Arnold rhetoric are a bit much). But a 48 year old man, who is the head of the Cavaliers organization and who will be responsible for rebuilding it in the wake of James' departure, cannot afford such childish and intemperate outbursts. Gilbert should have learned by now to keep his emotions in check, as well as how to employ the arts of subtlety and insinuation if he wants to attack someone. If you want to assasinate LeBron's character, fine - he acted like a self-absorbed shithead and pretty clearly set himself up as the villain in this whole drama, so you start with public opinion on your side and plenty of points to attack. But if you slid the knife in gently rather than going the Glenn-Close-In-Fatal-Attraction route, the result would be all the more damning. Release a statement saying that the Cavaliers' organization did everything it could to assist James in bringing a championship to his hometown, and was committed to continuing to do so in the future, but that the "Chosen One" ultimately decided he didn't wish to accept the challenge of leading the team to a title in favor of a different situation in which he could assist another proven title winner and wouldn't face the pressure of being "the man". State that you would have appreciated James telling you his decision face to face, but that you can understand that it was easier for him to do it from afar, where he wouldn't have to confront the disappointment of his hometown fans. Wish him better luck in winning that elusive ring in his new environs than he had in Cleveland, with the caveat that you're going to do everything in your power to make it as difficult as possible for him to achieve it. You imply all the same damning points about James' narcissism, his lack of professionalism, his cowardice, his record of big game failure, and his refusal to accept the mantle of leadership, without losing your dignity or sounding like a psychotic ex-girlfriend in doing so.

But as badly as LeBron James and Dan Gilbert handled themselves, no participant in this train wreck came off worse than ESPN. The network that once billed itself as the first television outlet devoted solely to serious sports journalism pretty much embraced its final transformation into a boot-licking, sycophantic lapdog in the cult of athletic celebrity, with talking heads left and right practically beating each other up in a contest to see who could sniff James' jockstrap the most enthusiastically, while once-respected sportscaster Jim Gray embarrassed himself by serving up softball after softball to LeBron for six excruciatingly drawn-out minutes and a squadron of beaming African-American children served as P.R. props in the background. Sadly, this shitshow pulled pretty good ratings, though pretty much nobody had anything good to say about it.

Now, attention shifts to the hardwood. The Heat's new big three haven't exactly been shy, declaring themselves "arguably the greatest trio in NBA history" (ummm, guys - Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West played together on one team, as did Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and Bob Cousy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy. All of those guys are in the Hall of Fame and were voted among the top 50 players of all time - you might need to brush up your NBA history). I'm not convinced they're going to be as dominant as they think, however. Wade and James are both so-so outside shooters who thrive by controlling the ball and taking it to the basket. There's a better than tiny chance their games will clash, and every team they play is going to throw one zone defense after another at them until they stop putting up bricks. As for Bosh, he's put up good numbers in Toronto, but he's yet to prove he can perform for a good team, and he's not exactly a rugged low post-defender. Given that the Heat's starting center right now is the immortal Joel Anthony, that's not a good thing. Rebounding, interior defense, and shot-blocking are pretty much necessary capabilities for a championship team and as of right now the Heat don't have any of them, which might be a bit of a problem when they come up a team with a guy like Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol. And the psychological aspect of it all? Sure, everyone's all smiles and pledges to be unselfish now. But when this team hits a bad stretch, and its shots aren't falling, and it's losing games it shouldn't to less talented teams (and it will hit such a stretch - all teams do), that camaraderie will be tested. Even when the team's winning, there could be problems - say Wade goes off for 40 in a key victory, while LeBron has a quiet performance, and come the post game every reporter in the locker room is waiting for a piece of D-Wade while ignoring King James. How is Bron-Bron's obviously planet-sized ego going to handle that? Basketball's a funny game. It's a team sport in which success requires exquisite chemistry and interplay among teammates, but unlike football or soccer, it's a sport in which one dominant player can take over a game by himself. As a result the role of star player requires an odd blend of team-first selflessness and "f-ck it, I'm not letting us lose this game" egotism. Leadership in this sport is getting that mix precisely right. It's a tricky balance, and one which I've only seen a few stars (Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird) ever get right. Not even the best player in the league right now - the detestable Kobe Bryant - gets it, as evidenced by his continuing tendency to ballhog his teams out of games when his game isn't working. I've yet to see any evidence that LeBron James or Dwyane Wade get it. To succeed, they're going to have to. As for Bosh, he was the undisputed star of his team in Toronto. Judging from his forays into the worlds of Twitter and reality television, he clearly he wants a higher profile. How will he handle being relegated to defense-and-rebounding duty, as is likely to happen at times? There are a lot of issues this team needs to work out.

And if they don't do so? If playoff wins don't come as easily as anticipated, if they crap out in the second round against a less-talented but better organized opponent, if injuries or foul trouble take out one of the three legs of the stool and the supporting cast isn't up to the picking up the slack, if LeBron's absurdly hubristic promise to deliver 7+ NBA Championships to Miami proves as difficult to fulfill as his now-abandoned vow to bring a single one to his erstwhile hometown? The ardor that Miami is showing he and his buddies right now won't last, and will be replaced with hostility, or nearly as bad (Miami being the laid-back, front-running, warm weather place that it is), indifference. LeBron more than anyone ought to realize that the adulation of an adoring fanbase can vanish in a flash. In a way, it's strangely appropriate that he chose to sign with Miami, because as several people have already pointed out, if the league's new power trio fails to live up to its billing, the heat will be hotter than ever.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sayonara, Friend...

In shock and sadness, I report that a Japanese acquaintance of mine, Miho Kanazawa, has just passed away. I can't presume to mourn her as a close friend, but she was a friend, a funny, spirited, and warm-hearted woman who never let the barriers of language or culture get in the way of the many friendships she cultivated with foreigners here in Sendai. She was also young - less than forty - and a single mother, and leaves behind a ten-year-old daughter, Ruca. We will all miss Miho, but she more than any of us. Everyone dies eventually. But those who are most loved leave behind the biggest holes when they are taken from this world, and judging from the size of the hole Miho has left she was extremely well-loved. R.I.P.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Birthday 'Merikuh

It's been a rough few years, and the future remains as ever uncertain, but we've managed for 234 years so far - I have a feeling we'll hold out a bit longer yet.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Kingdom For The King...

I haven't followed the NBA very closely of late, but this piece by Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski is an excellent bit of writing - not just sports writing, writing - on the situation faced by free agent superstar LeBron James, and how it illustrates one of life's great truths - that we're never as popular with other people as when they want something from us. Like a debutante Helen of Troy James has begun listening to suitors, and each of the teams that thinks it has a chance to sign him - New York, Miami, Chicago, and all the rest - will do everything it can to make him think that it is the team that can make him happy and successful. Money, fame, enduring greatness - all will be laid out before him in turn. As Posnanski notes, however, James may very well find the sparkle of his chosen destination fades quickly once he signs on the dotted line and pleading hope is replaced by what are sure to be demanding expectations. As we learned once again from the Tiger Woods situation, it is next-to-impossible for the public to really know any professional athlete - revealing glimpses of their inner selves is not part of their job descriptions - but James genuinely seems like a good guy, one who would make a decision like this without thinking through the implications, nor leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in the lurch without agonizing over it. But I hope he enjoys the adulation he's getting now, because for a professional athlete hell has no fury like an opposing fanbase scorned, and he's going to be a lot less popular in all but one NBA city come next season.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Narcissism Of The Small Difference

Why is it that the most vicious and protracted human conflicts - such as those between Bosnian and Serb, Hutu and Tutsi, and Indian and Pakistani - occur between groups of people who have the most in common, ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and otherwise? That's the question pondered by an uncharacteristically restrained Christopher Hitchens in his latest essay in Slate, and it's a good one. Hitchens doesn't really attempt at an answer at why this is - his closest attempt is a half-hearted stab at blaming (what else?) - religion - but he does express his hope that humanity can overcome this tendency.

Having lived now in both Japan and Korea, and observed from both ends just such a fratricidal feud (albeit one that has died down somewhat in recent years), I have developed my own theory, which is essentially that the peoples who live the closest to each other and hence are the most likely to have ethnicity, culture, language, and so on in common, are also the most likely to have come into historical conflict over land, food, and other resources. In the age of plenty in which we now live we tend to forget this, but as recently as a few hundred years ago famine was a regular occurrence in much of the world, and it was never a sure thing that in any given year there would be enough food to feed everyone. When confronted with the prospect of starvation our instinct as a species is to fight like hell for survival, first our own and then that of our immediate genetic relations. Historically speaking the group of people most likely to rival us for scant resources, and hence to present the biggest threat to our survival, would have been those close enough to contest control of territory, food and water supplies, and the like, but distant enough that they'd be unlikely to share much of our DNA and hence fall under the protected category of genetic kin. On account of geographical proximity and likely common ancestry such a rival group would almost certainly share certain attributes with us culturally, ethnographically, linguistically, etc., yet they'd have to be different enough in some regard - creed, dialect, what have you - that they would immediately be recognizable as one of the out-group. Hence our psychological tendency to zero in on and exaggerate minor differences. Combine this with the unfortunate truths that we are a species with a near-bottomless capacity for lasting animus against those we perceive as having wronged us, and a prodigious gift for feeling outrage at the transgressions of others against us while remaining ignorant of our own against them, and you arrive at a recipe for enduring tribal hatreds. Sunni and Shiite, Bosnian and Serb, Sinhalese and Tamil, Palestinian and Jew - as long as these groups remain caught up in nursing centuries-old grudges that date from different times, when life really was a Darwinian struggle and conflict rather than cooperation may well have been the best strategy for ensuring the survival and the survival of one's survival of one's kin when dealing with distant cousins, they will continue to hate and war against each other, over differences that to an unbiased outsider appear utterly petty and absurd.

Hitchens cites Sigmund Freud's formulation of our tendency to hate those with whom we have much in common as "the narcissism of the small difference", but Freud was hardly the first thinker to have taken note of this human failing over the centuries. Some, such as Homer, have observed this irony and seen it as tragic - the Iliad goes on at great length about how alike Greek and Trojan truly are, even as they slaughter each other, and of course Shakespeare used this sort of conflict as the back story of Romeo and Juliet. Others have looked at it and mined from it the bitterest of humor - Jonathan Swift, embroiled at the time himself in the battle between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, one of the ongoing conflicts Hitchens discusses, ridiculed the feuding peoples of Europe by turning them into miniscule gymnasts engaged in a desperate blood-feud over the proper way to crack a boiled egg. Given that this is a recurring theme in history, art, and literature, I think it's safe to say that it's part of human nature.

Hopefully, that does not necessarily mean that its effects are unavoidable. Psychologists have found that when groups of people, even those who dislike each other, are forced to work together to accomplish a common end, their enmity fades. Some, such as Robert Wright, who lays out his case in his book Nonzero, think that globalization and modern technology are bringing us closer to a world in which cooperation with outgroups is the optimal strategy, and we will be forced to work together. I'm not quite as sanguine about that possibility as optimists like Wright or Thomas Friedman, but I hope they're right. Reason being an imperfectly apportioned quality in mankind, I don't put much faith in Hitchens' utopian vision of a humanity which has renounced its superstitions and bigotries coming to pass, and what I think is likely to be the alternative - a future in which tribal conflicts persist, but are magnified by the destructive power of modern technology - is not a happy prospect.