Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Monday, October 17, 2011

Season of Dread

Well, it's been a crappy summer, hasn't it?

I'm not talking weather-wise, for once. I'm talking politically. Socially. Economically. The last three or four months of American life has been one depressing prospect after another, and frankly I'm a little scared of what's to come. What it all means. If it means anything at all.

The greatest problem is, of course, America's economic woes. We've seen the economic crisis deepen to the point where our country's credit was actually downgraded. Wow. I didn't even think a thing like that was possible. Countries have credit scores? And I may actually have a better credit score than my country right now? That's disturbing. It's alarming to find out just how little power nation-states have in a capitalist economy, that some independent financial institution can dictate to a country whether it is to prosper or die. And it's alarming to see just how thin the veneer is. The United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, supposedly. And yet, this is how fragile our economy is. This is how over-extended our budget is. This is all that is needed to cut us down to size.

But what's even more disturbing was that all this could have been prevented. If Congress could have gotten its act together and passed a decent budget amendment, we could have kept our precious Triple-A rating. And it's disturbing to ponder just how politically-charged this whole mess is. Trenches have been dug and there is no shifting anyone. And Barack Obama is taking the blame, as always. It's disappointing, really. Obama was trying to be another JFK in a time when what we really need is another FDR...and he will probably end up being another Jimmy Carter. He's the President we want, the one we wish we could afford to have, but not the one we need. To be fair, a lot of what's going on isn't his fault, but he doesn't seem to be able to fix it.

It's sad that we are witnessing the death throes of American Liberalism, which has pretty much been dying a slow death since about 1970. We're coming to terms with the fact that maybe Liberalism just doesn't work in America. That the vaunted American Dream, the cornerstone of our society, is incompatible with that whole "we're in this together" spirit. I've seen it too often: lefties forsaking societal progress in favor of their own pet causes. Everyone has their own ideas about the best direction to take the country, and nobody is willing to compromise - and in the spirit of Liberalism, nobody wants to de-value the opinion of one over another. This is one of the reasons the Democrats have often fallen apart, and seem to be falling apart once again. The greatest enemy of Liberalism has always been itself, its tendency to break into factions that war with each other even more than they war with the forces of Conservatism and Reaction. Every Liberal leader sees themselves as a visionary, a revolutionary leading the people to a brighter tomorrow. That vision often doesn't last longer than the next political cycle, when it becomes too hard and they take their ball and go home.

Of course if history does repeat itself, and poor Obama ends up being a one-term President, who will play the Reagan to his Carter? There aren't a lot of charismatic Conservatives out there right now. We may get stuck with another redneck. Or Mitt Romney. Gah. He made a mess of Massachusetts; I don't want him making a mess of the country. Although, really, how much more damage could he do?

...yeah yeah, famous last words. But there you have it. We may need a new leader, but who? Who looks like they could conceivably fix all this? No one, really. So it's another choice between the lesser of two evils...or rather, the least likely to kill us all.

And of course, a consequence of this economic downturn meant the end of NASA's Space Shuttle program...and, in essence, the end of space exploration. That's particularly disheartening for a child of the 1980's like me. Sure, I understand it - we've got to cut something from the budget - but it does really feel like the end of an age. NASA, and in particular, the Apollo Program, was such a cool thing, kindling the dreams of many children. We landed on the Moon. We went to another planet. And we went about it in such a distinctly American fashion. When you think about it, the Apollo Program embodied the American spirit more than any other endeavor in the history of the nation: screw common sense, we're gonna do this thing! Spacecraft powered by hydraulics and liquid oxygen, powered by computers with less computing power than a modern cell phone, backed up by engineers with SLIDE RULES...and somehow we got to the Moon. It's such an American thing: if we put our minds to it, we will succeed. It doesn't matter if it's never been done. It doesn't matter if it CAN'T be done. We will find a way, because that's what we do. And now, it's over. We may never go back to the Moon. We may never build another spacecraft, launch another rocket. The brave men of the Apollo Program will be the stuff of legend - knights in white armor, riding chariots of fire between worlds - and we may forget why.

All in all, it's a terrible feeling of dread. That an age is coming to an end. A book is closing. And dark times are coming. I look to history for a precedent. Did any one in the great civilizations of the past possess the prescience to see their end coming? How did the average Roman feel when he stood on Capitoline Hill and watched the Visigoths stream down the valley? What went through the average Byzantine's mind when he heard Turkish cannonballs pounding away at the city walls? When did the average Briton realize that the empire was about to crumble? Because that is how I'm starting to feel. Like I'm witnessing the beginning of the end, like Augustine of Hippo, watching his world collapse and being powerless to do anything but pen a plaintive lament.

Maybe I am being over-dramatic. And maybe things will pull out. The United States has weathered worse, after all, and it's possible we will weather this storm and come out the other side stronger than before. Or maybe this is just the way of things, the beginning of our final bow off the world stage. If that's the case, maybe it's best to be philosophical. Life will go on, after all, in some form. And seasons change. Spring will always follow winter, for those who can endure.

I pray we will endure.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Quo Post Libris?

I finally retrieved my books from storage a few weeks ago. Following the massive renovation of my apartment building last year, which forced me to relocate for a few months, I had to put nearly all of my worldly possessions in storage. The books were the hardest things for me to go without. Call it a product of my misspent youth. I love books. I grew up in a house full of books, of every variety and description. Reading had always been my favorite pastime, my greatest passion. And I prided myself on my personal library, which reflected my interests so closely.

And I have to say, unpacking those boxes and looking at my precious tomes again after so long, I never realized how odd my tastes in literature were. I've got plenty of the classics - Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tolstoy - but I've also got some very obscure ones too. Not exactly rare, but...different. Marcel Proust? I read it just to say I did. Nobody remembers who he was. The complete Leatherstocking Tales? Does anyone realize that Last of the Mohicans was part of a series? And of course my collection of world history and philosophy books. I wonder if anyone cares to know the complete history of the Freemasons, or the life and times of Bartholomew Roberts? And why do I have a copy of Stephen Hawking's book? I read it once and I felt very very dumb...

I guess I like being lost in a book, reading a deep engrossing story. There's a thrill to that, I suppose. A thrill as old as storytelling itself. When the first human stood up at the fireside and told the first story, they kindled a spark that still glows. We just like to hear a good story, for whatever reason.

And now I ponder. Is that spark going to go out soon?

My Father just recently got himself a Kindle. If you can believe that. My Father, the career educator and grumpy Luddite in his old age, got himself a Kindle. Of course for him there were also practical concerns: his personal library has gotten so big that he's simply running out of room. All three of us kids gave him Amazon gift cards, $200 worth...and he burned through it in a month. That's how much this man loves to read. And I must admit the Kindle is a very pretty piece of hardware. It's light, it's easy to use, and it's got a great storage capacity. So pretty is it that my Mother wound up getting one for herself too. And I've been pondering getting one as well. There is the practical concern for me as well - I can't keep buying books forever, after all - and I certainly don't consider myself a Luddite. This does seem to be the way things are heading, and it would be foolish to be left behind.

And yet...

It occurred to me the other day, that we are rapidly moving toward a paperless society, and a consequence of that is that we will one day have a BOOKLESS society. It's probably going to happen in my lifetime. I will live to see the last physical book get published. My God. What a thing to ponder. A world without books. It feels something like staring into an abyss. Such a fundamental change to human society. For nearly two thousand years we have had books. The book is the ultimate symbol of human culture: it is the written word, preserved. It is the idea frozen in time, the story forever told, the only real means we mortals have to achieve a measure of immortality. For so long as an author's work exists, the author lives on in its pages. And of course, the book is the great equalizer. Anyone who can read has the wisdom of the ages at their very fingertips. And now, that's going to end.

Of course I try to both caution and comfort myself, that the end of BOOKS does not mean the end of LITERATURE. The phasing out of physical books will not bring about the end of writing and reading any more than books themselves did when they replaced scrolls or papyrus. It's just the progress of time, a medium taking a new form. There will still be The Written Word, writers to write it and readers to read it.

But what will they write? And what will we read? That's a thing that concerns me. As the medium for delivering The Written Word changes, so does the subject matter it can embrace. Books replaced scrolls for many reasons, not the least of which was durability. Sheets bound together with a hard cover travel better and last longer than a bunch of loose rolled papers. And with that durability came a degree of artistic freedom: writers could write longer books now, secure in the knowledge that the pages would stay together and would last a good while. They could tell more complex stories, knowing they would have their readers' attention longer. The only limit was physical: just how big a book they could bind...and how heavy a book readers were willing to lug around.

In this new medium, in this world of e-books, that physical limit is gone. There is no limit to how long a book a writer can write, or a reader can carry, since an e-reader is just so light. And since there is no physical book for a publishing company to produce, the costs are negligible. The only limits are the writer's imagination, and the reader's attention span...and well, that's kind of a persistent problem in the modern world, isn't it? When the time comes that stories are being written exclusively for the virtual, what form will they take? What will their subject matter be? How many pages long (assuming the primitive concept of "pages" is still even considered)? Will a reader still be able to lose themselves in an engrossing tale of fantastic adventures and well-drawn characters? Or will literature de-volve into just another App for your smart phone?

There's also the economic model to ponder. I've spoken before about my dismay with how music and video is being marketed in this virtual age, and I worry that the same fate will befall books. I know I said earlier that I don't consider myself a Luddite, but maybe that's more of a situational than general statement. Because I've discovered that I am a Luddite when it comes to books. A book is a physical object. I buy it at a bookstore, I own it. It sits on my shelf. I take it down, I read it, I put it back up. I lend it to a friend. I get funny stares from my girlfriend...but that's not important right now. I fear, with books transforming from physical objects to virtual ones, that the same fate will await them. The loss of the sense of "owning" a book. I find alarming the idea that I can buy a book, but I don't own it. That it doesn't even exist as a file on my computer; it's somewhere in the ether, on some corporation-managed database that I can access for a price. Were I more conspiracy-minded, I would point out the inherent potential for abuse in that system. I would note that a consumer is not purchasing an item under this system - not even a virtual item - but rather the privilege of viewing said item at will. A privilege, I would further note, that could be revoked by the corporation that owned it at any time (such a thing HAS happened in the history of the Kindle, actually). I would then go on to point out that a corporation doing business this way could conceivably hold a book for ransom, never making it available to the viewing public. Could conceivably, in broad Orwellian strokes, control what material readers are allowed to read, banning books on a scale and with an efficiency that would make a prissy small-town schoolmarm's head spin. Could conceivably even corner the market on LITERACY ITSELF.

I would say such things were I more conspiracy-minded, of course. As it is, I do worry about the potential commoditization of literacy. After all, you need to have an e-reader of some kind to read e-books. Even if the e-books themselves are cheap, or even free, you need something to read them on. And not everyone has the $150 or so to plunk down on a device. And if you don't have the money, what then? In this future world where there are no physical books, what do you do if you want to read? In the days of books, you could go to a library and borrow one. What model could replace that? There needs to be one, after all; it's one of the pillars of a free society that everyone has access to information.

And what does this mean for the books that already exist? For hundreds of years, owning a personal library was more than just a hobby. It was a point of pride. It was symbolic, a physical declaration of a love of literature. Owning books said to the world: "I am an intelligent and cultured person." That will all change when the last book is published. Owning a personal library may instead mean: "I am too poor and/or stupid to get an e-reader." I really hope that doesn't happen. But then, I hope for a lot of things in this new age that is dawning around me.

In the meantime, I will read my books. Until someone tells me I can't.

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Victory, But Few Spoils

Well, it's over.

The War on Terror finally achieved it's main goal last night. Osama bin Laden, international terrorist, orchestrator of the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil, and international face of evil, is dead. Killed by US Special Forces in Pakistan last night. It's a strange feeling. He's dead. He's gone. The dragon is slain. The bogeyman banished. The mission is finally accomplished.

So...now what?

In a weird way, I almost wish he were captured alive. I'm not sorry he's dead, by any means. An enemy of my country has been dealt with, and that is satisfying. But part of me wishes he'd been caught instead. Brought before an international court to answer for his crimes. That is the way civilized countries deal with their enemies, after all. But perhaps his crimes made him beyond redemption. Or perhaps the risk of making him a martyr, proselytizing from a prison cell, was too great. But that argument is moot now. What remains now is to ponder what this means, and where to go from here.

I remember where I was when the Twin Towers fell. I was working at property management office in Watertown. We'd just opened for business, and then down came the word. There was so much confusion; no one was quite sure what had happened. Was this an accident? Was this an attack? An attack from whom? And would there be more to come? It was a scary time, not feeling quite real. In a way, ten years later, it still doesn't feel quite real. Maybe because I was fortunate enough to not have lost any loved ones; I was able to distance myself emotionally from the tragedy. Maybe it was just too BIG to get my head around. The World Trade Center of New York City. Very much a symbol of America's wealth and power. Three thousand people. All gone in a matter of minutes. It was hard to accept. Why did this happen? Who could hate us so much?

Of course that was what the 1990s were all about: dealing with the aftermath of the Cold War. Coming to realize that the world had just gotten a lot more complicated. Instead of one great evil empire to haunt the American imagination, now we had dozens of small, unfriendly states, about which we frankly knew little. That had always been America's greatest weakness: our self-importance. Our willful ignorance about the outside world. We had been a fortunate nation, after all. We had a long history of isolationism, and we could afford it too. North America is a continent, in large part, divided up among nations that are geographically large, politically stable, and relatively friendly toward one another. There hasn't been a major conflict in North America since the Civil War, really (unless you count the Spanish-American War, which was largely fought on the sea). We were spared the horrors of war that Europe and Asia saw for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. We were permitted to grow, culturally and economically, largely unmolested, only being dragged into World Wars as a last resort. We could afford to choose NOT to fight, because we were geographically isolated from the rest of the world. In a way 9/11 was a wake-up call. This wasn't the 20th Century any more. The United States could no longer be an island unto itself. It shook us out of our complacency.

And now, ten years and a few drastic missteps later, that act of terror has been avenged. Again, it's hard to know how to feel. To be honest, I had given up hope that he would ever be found. He would probably die in a cave in the mountains and no one would ever know. That he could be found, and killed, had never crossed my mind in the slightest. Again, maybe it's because I was never affected personally by the attacks. Or maybe I just don't feel right taking pleasure in the death of another human being, no matter how evil. I don't feel joy, or even relief. Just a cold satisfaction, knowing he will never hurt another soul on this earth. And I cannot denigrate that. But I can ponder what comes next.

It's naive to think, of course, that now the war is over. That the snake will die with its head cut off. There are many snakes, and they have many heads. The fact that bin Ladin managed to remain hidden for so long - and the fact that he was found, not in a cave, but in a nice house in a Pakistani suburb - is proof enough that the job is not done. So many people admired him. So many people hate America. And the death of this symbolic leader will not change that. The consequences of this act remain to be seen. Will there be a resurgence of terrorism in revenge? Or will the Al-Qaeda network finally fall apart without its leader? It's too soon to know.

But what is known now, is that a victory has been won in the War on Terror. It may only be a symbolic one, but it is a victory nonetheless. And I shall not denigrate it.

God Bless the Troops. God Bless America.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Because I Must

Well, another year has begun. Another snowy, miserable winter, where I am housebound and introspective. My thoughts turn, disturbingly enough, toward my own mortality. It must be a sign of getting old; you wonder what's at the end of this road. And I begin to ponder just what it is I believe in.

I was raised Catholic, but I don't really consider myself practicing anymore. There's a lot I don't agree with about the Church, even though there is a lot I do like about it. Enough to make me occasionally reach for the Catechism and brush up on my Latin. I guess being Catholic is a little like being a Marine: you never stop being one, on one level or another. And it's pretty much just as tough on you, too. I think if I were were to define my belief system, I would probably call myself a Deist. The idea of the universe as an artifact, constructed by some great craftsman and then set in motion, has some appeal to me. I don't really believe God interferes in our everyday lives; he's GOD; he doesn't need to. Some people I've talked to find Deism a little cold, what with there being no personal connection with God, with God being some distant, detached being who set the cosmos in motion and then just sit back and let it run. But I actually find it oddly comforting. The thought that there IS a cosmic plan, and that every single person, place, or thing in the universe plays a part in it, no matter how large or small, is pleasant. That the universe is unfolding as it should, because it must. That we are all doing God's Will in our own way, because we were created to do just that and can do nothing else. That no matter how chaotic or random the ways of the world seem to us, on some level, from some distant vantage point, it all makes sense. I like that. It gives me comfort in dark times.

I don't consider myself an Atheist. I'm hardly devout anything, but I don't ascribe to Atheist thought. There are a lot of reasons, and I guess most of them are petty. Many self-declared Atheists I've known personally have just not been fun to be around. Smug bastards with chips on their shoulders. Or sympathetic people who've turned from God out of very legitimate feelings anger or grief. CS Lewis once said something to the effect that there is no more devout believer than an Atheist: someone with a personal issue with God, raging effectively at the Heavens they deny even exists. And I do sympathize with people like that. I really do. I wish I knew how to respond to them. And it often makes me wonder if faith is really so fragile. If all it takes is one personal tragedy, one incomprehensible act, one senseless death, to shatter our belief in the Divine. If I'm just an Atheist that hasn't had his faith betrayed yet.

I do have great respect for scientists who declare themselves Atheists, though. Theirs is the world of facts, of things quantifiable, and they accept it is not their place to acknowledge unquantifiables like faith and religion. I respect Richard Dawkins' assertion that, like any scientist, he will change his position on God if presented with proof (though I'm skeptical that he really would if it ever did happen; he seems to like controversy a little too much). And I respect the position of Sir David Attenborough, who simply has seen too many of life's small cruelties in his long career as a naturalist to ever believe there is some benign intelligence behind it all. I respect them, but I don't know how to respond to them. And perhaps it's better that I don't; faith is a personal thing, after all.

I consider morality, then. At its core, morality is simply a set of rules of behavior, of things we should and shouldn't do. Ethics. Values. Traditions. Established and enforced by societies, to maintain order. But is that really all it is? That was where I could never get a satisfying answer in all my debates with my Atheist friends. In the absence of the divine, what is the point of moral behavior? Let's be honest for a moment here: the qualities that we consider virtues - honesty, kindness, diligence - are not often rewarded in this life. In fact they're often punished. We've all been in these situations before. Your reward for being a hard worker is to be given more work. Your reward for being dependable is to be depended upon. It makes us wonder why we bother. Of course, the Atheist side of the debate says that any moral system based solely on fear of punishment is invalid. But we don't do the right thing out of fear of punishment; we do it out of hope of reward. It's not fear of Hell that motivates the Saints; it's desire for Heaven. Or even, in some cases, we do the right thing BECAUSE it's the right thing.

But there's the thing, isn't it? The validity of any moral code depends on there actually being a "right thing." So how do we determine what the "right thing" is? Philosophers have been puzzling over this for untold ages. And no one's really been able to come up with an answer, at least not one that stands the test of time. In the absence of God, in the absence of the Divine, where there is no Heaven or Hell, no reward or punishment beyond this life, then what is "right"? That's a depressing prospect if you ask me. Because then morality is fluid. "Right" and "Wrong" are simply values determined by those in power, to be simply dismissed and replaced when a regime changes or an election occurs. There is no Good; there is only Consensus. There is no Truth; there is only Public Opinion. There is no Justice; there is only Law. And whenever we have a nagging feeling that some law is unjust and should be changed, we're wrong. Actually, we're worse than wrong. We're IRRELEVANT. We're not morally superior, or even morally inferior; we simply hold a minority opinion. In a moral state such as this, the only valid ethical standpoint is a sort of functional sociopathy: we follow the rules to get what we want. That's a dark place to be, and I'd rather not believe that.

Maybe I'm deluding myself. Maybe I'm just clinging to a pie-in-the-sky hope that there must be something better out there. That there must be more to the Human Condition than just a bunch of bald chimps with delusions of grandeur. That there must be some reason why we're here, on this rock adrift in space, and that if we're winked out of existence by any of a thousand cosmic disasters, someone somewhere will remember we were here.

I believe that because I must. I cannot do otherwise.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Slapped by the Invisible Hand

Being someone who's read a lot of history and philosophy, I always find it equal parts amusing and frustrating to look back at what someone wrote in a past age about something that's become much more important since then, and seeing just how wrong they could be about it. Nowhere is this phenomenon more obvious than in economics, and no one is perhaps more guilty of this than the great 18th-century economist/philosopher Adam Smith.

Ah, Adam Smith. Product of the Enlightenment. Advocate of personal freedom. And one of the world's first economists. It must be why, looking back on his work, the concepts he put forth about a free market economy seem so frustratingly naive.

In particular, Adam Smith is remembered for a famous abstract concept, "The Invisible Hand," a phrase he coined in his seminal work The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In economics, this refers to a curious, seemingly unintentional tendency for free markets to just naturally benefit everyone involved. Smith's reasoning runs something like this: a baker produces a loaf of bread, which a customer buys. Both parties get what they want: the baker gets money, and the customer gets to make a sandwich. But what if there's more than one baker in town? Well then, the baker who makes the best bread gets the most customers. So the baker strives to make the best loaf of bread he possibly can, benefiting both himself and the customer, who gets to enjoy a damned fine sandwich. The baker's need to make a better loaf of bread, in turn, affects all the other industries connected to him. He looks for the best raw ingredients he can find, so the farmers who grow the wheat, millers who make the flour, blacksmiths who build the ovens...all do their best to provide the best product they can so that the baker will buy it from them. Meanwhile the end customer, who buys the finished product from the baker, makes out best of all, since their getting the best loaf of bread their money can buy.

Economics 101, really. And it makes a whole lot of sense from one perspective. You can still see it at work today in certain industries, most notably in Information Technology. As technology grows more powerful and more complex, so grows the need for talented IT personnel to maintain it. It's a natural progression: a need arises, and an industry appears to fill that need.

But from a larger perspective, the whole Invisible Hand concept just doesn't seem to work. It's based on the assumption that a free market economy is a naturalistic, self-correcting system. And to be fair, at the time Adam Smith was writing, it probably was. Economics as a concept didn't even exist in 1759. Markets were smaller, more dependent on local resources and local populations. If our hypothetical baker couldn't sell his bread, if he couldn't get the raw materials to make his bread because some other industry somewhere failed or left the area, he too would lose his business. And it all seemed perfectly natural, a readily observable and logical chain of events that led to fewer sandwiches in town.

Two and a half centuries later, capitalism and the free market economy is the driving force behind the modern world. And Smith's concept of an Invisible Hand just seems, like so many other Enlightenment-era ideas, quaint and dangerously naive.

Because so many other factors have arisen since 1759, factors that Smith simply did not - COULD not -anticipate. He never anticipated the rise of marketing and advertising, for example. Sure, advertising has been around as long as writing has, but the DEGREE to which industries depend on it nowadays would boggle Smith's mind. The economies he described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments operate on a simple cause-and-effect principle. Customers have a need, businesses respond to meet a need. Smith never seemed to anticipate a business using advertising to ARTIFICIALLY CREATE a need. How many of us had even heard of "body soil" before laundry detergent companies introduced the concept? Slowly turning us into a nation of obsessive-compulsive germophobes in the process. How many of us have bought a product based on the creativity of their marketing campaign (aw, that cute little gecko wouldn't lie to me about decent auto insurance, would he)? The folk wisdom is, of course, that competing products are all basically the same. All soaps get you clean. All breads make sandwiches. All computers get you on the Internet to read this long-overdue blog post. It's really all a matter of personal preference, and which product catches your eye. That's what advertising is for. The hook, the catchy jingle, the flashy package, that gets you to buy that particular brand of soap, that particular model of cell phone. It's no longer a natural, logical choice of buying whichever product is BETTER.  Because really, if all products are basically the same, then "better" and "worse" are no longer relevant concepts. It's all about customer preference, and it's marketing that drives that.

Marketing DRIVES it. That's the key concept. Traditionally, marketing was just a tool for a business, a way to determine customer wants and needs, and finding the best way to fill them. Nowadays, it's almost as if it's backwards. It's not about what the customer wants; it's about what the customer SHOULD want, according to the company producing the product. Advertising tells us what we need, what we're supposed to have, how we're supposed to look. Look at any TV spot for any Apple product, and tell me you don't automatically want it, no matter what it is. Never mind how it actually works. Hell, do those ads even TELL you how it works? Does ANY advertising tell you that any more? Of course not; they're just showing you how cool it looks. Then you get it home, and find out the RAM isn't nested properly, and you have to...

...I'm distracting myself. Sorry.

Granted, advertising has come a long way from the 19th Century, when there were no truth-in-advertising regulations in place and merchants could just tell outright LIES to their customers about how great their products were and how horrible their competitors' were. But the concept remains the same: it's no longer about the product. It's about selling the product. It's no longer about the customer. It's about getting the customer to buy the product. It's strange how, very unlike Adam Smith ever conceived of, capitalism seems to be the ENEMY of freedom and progress. Progress means change, means spending money, investing in something new that might not pay off as much as the tried and true old stuff; why not just leave well enough alone? And freedom? Well, technically we consumers are free to buy whatever product we want. So long as we agree to the producer's terms. You can buy any item, purchase any service, so long as you pay the price or sign the contract. If you don't want to, fine. Good luck finding something else.

This is why I find myself gravitating politically to socialism, at least in some industries. And this why I find Adam Smith so fretfully naive. His philosophies - and their bastard offspring, Libertarianism and Objectivism - were so well-intentioned when they started out, and have just become painfully irrelevant in the modern world. There is no Invisible Hand guiding the market. If there ever was, it's long since been replaced by very visible hands, who are more interested in making money than making something great. And the large part of us just go along with it, because we cling vainly to Adam Smith's assertions that this the best possible system, that it ensures our economic and political freedom, that we really DO have freedom of choice in a vast global marketplace. Because yeah, corporations have our best interests at heart, right? Clearly they're the best ones to trust with our health and safety. Certainly not the popularly elected government that's been trying to fix this mess.

You would think that the recent economic meltdown would change a few minds about that. You would think we would see the rise of a new era of corporate and government responsibility. But alas, that hasn't happened yet. Maybe we're too far gone. Maybe we'll only see change when it's much too late to save the system. If there is ever to be change, we must, as a people, put aside these ideals we cling to that no longer matter, and see the world for what it really is. Only then can we see what can be done.

In the meantime, I'm going to get a pair of invisible handcuffs.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

What I'm Watching Now

Ah, the summer season. I realized something about my television viewing habits: I don't watch a lot of sitcoms, or network TV. I watch a lot of basic cable. And summer time is when the new season starts for cable programming. So some of my favorite shows have returned, and a few new shows I've discovered have started. So I thought I might share my thoughts on what I'm watching now:

Adventure Time
Cartoon Network

This is one really weird cartoon. I mean, even by Cartoon Network standards, this is weird. And that's why I love it so. Characterized by strange animation, strange characters, and a warped sense of internal logic, show creator Pendleton Ward managed to create a funny, disturbing, and often poignant experience, an adventure show which is ultimately simply a story of a boy and his dog.

The boy being Finn (Jeremy Shada), a hyperactive but good-hearted 12-year-old adventurer, and the dog being Jake (John DiMaggio) a magical shape-shifting mutt who acts as Finn's voice of reason. Sort of. Sometimes. They dwell in the "Land of Ooo," a surreal magical world where they hunt treasure, defeat monsters, and rescue princesses of all shapes and sizes. That's pretty much the whole premise, but the genius is how their adventures play out. The Land of Ooo is a very, VERY strange place, and the adventures Finn and Jake go on are almost Freudian in their unfolding. The denizens of Land of Ooo consist of sentient candies, rocker girl vampires, and random mishmashes of mythological beasts. Finn and Jake live in an overbuilt treehouse and spend their free time cobbling together pieces of old junk into toys and weapons. In short, the Land of Ooo just the kind of fantasy land that a hyperactive 12-year-old boy would dream up. It's like something out of those halcyon days of childhood, when the couch cushions were a fort, and the field behind the house was where you fought monsters. The weird, sometimes frightening animation style works unbelievably well with this theme: the utter random craziness seems to fit right in.

Also adding to the uniqueness of the show is the casting. Apart from a few renowned names in voice acting, Adventure Time doesn't feature that many voices you'll recognize. So not only does it not LOOK like any other cartoon, it doesn't SOUND like any other cartoon either. And that just adds to the disorientation. Characters too are drawn with a certain self-awareness. One of the recurring antagonists of our heroes is the Ice King (Tom "Spongebob" Kenny), a strangely sympathetic psychotic villain. Despite his magical powers and his tendency to kidnap princesses, the Ice King largely comes across as a lonely nerd, who wants so desperately to be liked but just doesn't know how...so he ends up threatening to kill people instead. Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch), ruler of the Candy Kingdom, is a super-smart scientist who Tampers in God's Domain pretty much once a month, and remains seemingly oblivious to Finn's massive crush on her (it's a bit of a running gag that pretty much every other princess in the Land of Ooo has a thing for Finn...except the one HE has a thing for). And it's a nice touch to see Finn as a genuinely earnest heroic character. He's 12 years old, so he's prone to fits of stupidity, but his heart is pure and he always strives to do the right thing (and he's no slouch at adventuring either). So many other cartoons feature protagonists who are just bumbling idiots, so it's nice to see a protagonist who's halfway competent...while still being slightly stupid in that teenage boy kind of way.

Generator Rex
Cartoon Network

The second cartoon created by the production team known as "Man of Action," Generator Rex is, I think, a vast improvement over the previous Ben 10. Much more mature in theme, and much less painfully trying to be hip, it manages to be a homage to time-honored comic book conventions while creating its own mythology (and I'm sure there is some comic book nerd out there somewhere having a fit right now, pointing out that the basic premise of Generator Rex is actually based on an obscure comic book from ten years ago that nobody remembers...but...I think I just won my own argument there).

If Ben 10 could be seen as something of a riff on Green Lantern, then Generator Rex is a riff on X-Men. The story takes place sometime in the not-so-distant future, five years after "The Event." The Event was a catastrophic accident at a nanotechnology lab, a global fallout of nanites which embedded themselves in pretty much EVERYTHING on Earth. Since then, things have been...different. While most of these nanites are dormant, every so often they will randomly activate, and cause horrific mutations in whatever living creature they happen to be in at the time. These mutants, dubbed "EVOs" by the authorities, are dangerous things, causing random destruction, and normally must be neutralized. A shadowy high-tech organization known as "Providence" has arisen to combat the EVO threat, and they have a secret weapon: a teenage boy named Rex (Daryl Sabara). Though technically an EVO himself, Rex has a unique ability: he can consciously control the nanites inside him. This means he can alter his body at will, making him a living weapon. This also means he can "cure" other EVOs, by shutting down their active nanites and absorbing them into himself. Providence sends Rex wherever there is an EVO incident as their first line of defense, accompanied by the standard team of comic-book characters: Bobo (John DiMaggio...man this guy gets himself around), a trigger-happy wiseguy chimpanzee (presumably he's an EVO, but the show never flat-out says it); Agent Six (Wally Kurth), taciturn MIB who's lethal at hand-to-hand combat; and Doctor Holiday (Grey DeLisle), babe scientist and emotional rock of the team. Opposing Providence is an enigmatic figure known as Van Kleiss (Troy Baker), an immensely powerful EVO who dwells in Abysus, the crater formed by The Event, and who has drawn a small army of EVOs to his cause...which isn't really quite clear yet.

A vast improvement over Ben 10, Generator Rex is a pretty cool show. It's got that same sleek animation style that Man of Action is famous for, and it actually has the courage to follow its serious premise to its conclusion. The world of Generator Rex is basically a post-apocalyptic one, and the show does not shy away from the horrors of living in such a world. Mutated monsters roam the wilderness outside civilization, and military shows of force are commonplace - quite understandable in a world where ANYONE could change into a monster at ANY TIME. EVO design is appropriately creepy, nudging as close to Cronenbergian as is possible for a cartoon. Your average rampaging EVO is a random amalgam of overgrown flesh and teeth, and the more focused EVOs that follow Van Kleiss are no less creepy. One of his followers, Breach, is a four-armed freak with J-Horror hair and a Catholic School girl uniform, and the episode focusing on her mental state was one of the more disturbing half-hours of animation I've ever seen. It's also a nice touch that the show subtly hints at darker events happened behind the scenes. Despite being the nominal "good guys," Providence is clearly not to be trusted; Rex is little more than an expendable asset to anyone outside of our team of heroes. Van Kleiss, the Magneto of this world, has some agenda in mind that includes Rex, but he hasn't yet tipped his hand. Also important is Rex's amnesia: he has no memory of his life before The Event, though Van Kleiss and some other characters have hinted that he was involved in it somehow. All fascinating plot points, that hopefully will be developed more fully as the show goes on. 

River Monsters
Animal Planet

Where did this show go? The second season only lasted about four episodes, then it vanished from the schedule. This is unfortunate, because I love River Monsters. As a general rule I don't care for "extreme nature" shows; gung-ho Australian naturalists taunting dangerous animals for the sake of ratings is NOT science to me. That's why River Monsters is so refreshing. Hosted by naturalist and angler Jeremy Wade, it follows him on his explorations of isolated lakes and rivers throughout the world, hunting down creatures of legends and folklore. Giant stingrays in Malaysia. Bull sharks in South Africa. Some unknown aquatic monster in an Alaskan lake. It's fascinating show: eye-opening, alarming, and strangely comforting. Because Jeremy Wade is a naturalist in old-school vein of Sir David Attenborough: he has great respect for the creatures he's showing off, and he never once doesn't look like he knows what he's doing.

I never thought a show about freshwater fishing could be EXCITING. That was before I saw Jeremy Wade wrestle a 12-foot catfish from some muddy river in Nepal. It's frankly mind-blowing that creatures like that still exist, and it's oddly comforting to know that there's a grizzled old Englishman out there keeping us safe from them. I think that's what makes Jeremy so awesome: his grizzled Englishness. He's like a Great White Hunter from some bygone age, tough and quietly competent, asserting his mastery over the natural world by rod and reel. Granted, Jeremy is more of a "tag and release" guy; for him, it's about the thrill of the catch, and the enlightenment of his viewing public to the existence of these creatures. That kind of nature show host is rare these days. That's why I hope the show is coming back. I really hope the absence of new episodes doesn't mean that Jeremy finally got himself eaten, though...

Deadliest Warrior

I'm not sure how I got addicted to this show. I guess I'm a sucker for scientific re-enactment programming. Granted, on Deadliest Warrior you have to use the world "scientific" very loosely; compared to these guys the Mythbusters are quantum physicists.

The whole premise of the show is to take warriors from past cultures or armed forces, analyze the effectiveness of their weapons and techniques, then simulate a battle between them to find out who would win. Like say, who would win between a Viking and a Samurai? Or a Shaolin Monk versus a Maori Warrior? Or a Roman Centurion versus an Indian Rajput (wait, WHO?) It's kind of like someone taking the whole "Pirate versus Ninja" debate to a ridiculous, over-analyzed extreme (oddly enough, both pirates and ninjas have been featured, but for some reason they didn't have them fighting each other).

That's not to say the show isn't fun to watch at times. The three hosts of the show - computer programmer Max Geiger, trauma doctor Armand Dorian, and scientist Jeff Desmoulin - are really enthusiastic about their work. Their nerdgasms on seeing explosions or scenes of simulated carnage are endearing in an odd kind of way. And the scenes of simulated carnage as they test ancient weaponry are viscerally satisfying, I must admit. To see the damage some of these weapons can do to ballistics gel dummies or pig carcasses is to feed a guilty pleasure of bloodlust (man, these guys go through a lot of pig carcasses. Is this why the price of bacon has skyrocketed lately?). Although, the nerdly enthusiasm of our hosts can make for some unintentionally-uncomfortable moments, especially with the weaponry and cultural experts who come in to demonstrate the hardware. Some of these guys are just really, REALLY into what they do, and our hosts' reactions to them can come across as a bit disrespectful, or at least clueless (case in point: a recent episode involving the Somali pirates, where a native talks about Somalia being a dumping ground for Cold War Soviet weaponry. "If it goes 'boom,' it winds up in Somalia," he says. Our host's response? "We need to get over to Somalia." Unh...hunh). Occasionally, the rivalry between the two teams of experts seems genuinely tense; makes me wonder just how much is staged and how much is testosterone-fueled posturing.

As much fun as the actual simulations are to watch, the match-ups often seem a little contrived. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the actual weapons the hosts choose to compare, and giving an edge to one or the other seems equally arbitrary. It makes the results of the simulations somewhat suspect; as a student of military history, I find it hard to believe that a Comanche could even hold his own against a Mongol, let alone decisively beat him. And when they move up to more modern cultures and armies, performing five-on-five squad battles, the discomfort level rachets up a little more. The episode pitting the Green Berets versus the Spetsnaz was particularly tense; both experts freely admit that they were trained to kill the other. One especially discomfiting episode for me was the IRA versus the Taliban. Frankly, the only episode where I didn't care who won. To hell with them both; let them kill each other.

But I guess I have no room to complain. I'm expecting serious, respectful, scientific analysis from a show on SPIKE?

Warehouse 13

This show is kind of a guilty pleasure, and I'm glad it's back for a second season. SyFy has a surprisingly good track record with original TV series, and Warehouse 13 is one of the better ones. It's got a great sense of humor and a great cast, and fortunately they decided not to mess with the formula in the new season. Which is both good and bad, I suppose. Agents Bering and Lattimer (Joanne Kelly and Eddie McClintock) once again scour the world for dangerous magical artifacts, bickering like siblings all the while. The two actors have great chemistry, reminiscent of Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd from Moonlighting, and it's refreshing that the writers are resisting the temptation to put them in a romantic coupling, instead keeping a brother-sister dynamic. Saul Rubinek is back as Artie, despite a fakeout in the first season finale, and Alison Scagliotti joins the cast full-time as Claudia, every nerd's fantasy girl. I loved Claudia in the first season - you gotta love a girl who listens to The Cure while doing housework - and I'm glad they brought her back full-time. The two of them have a great chemistry too, a weird father-daughter relationship full of manic nerd energy. And of course, it doesn't hurt that Alison Scagliotti is easy on the eyes. In fact, all the girls on this show are easy on on the eyes. What is it about Canadian actresses? Is there something in the water up there or something?

Of course, there is a down side to not fixing what isn't broke. There are no surprises in this second season. Even the central story arc of the first season - the rise and fall of rogue Warehouse agent James MacPherson - was wrapped up a little too neatly in the season premiere. You'd think that there would be some lasting fallout to the wringer MacPherson put our heroes through in the first season, but if there was it hasn't yet surfaced. The revelation of a new supervillian - a female evil genius who was apparently the inspiration behind HG Weels - has not yet made any impact on our heroes' adventures. Maybe something is waiting down the road. But for now, it's good for a laugh.

Royal Pains

Another show back for a second season, and another one I have some mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it's a fun show. On the other, it's not a GREAT show. It's certainly not as great as Burn Notice, the show that leads up to it (but then again, Burn Notice is such a good show that it's really not a fair comparison). Like many USA Network TV shows, it's more character-driven than it is story-driven. The problem is that the characters are not as strong as they should be, and I keep waiting for the show to get really good...and it hasn't happened yet.

Our brothers and business partners, Hank and Evan Lawson (Mark Feurstein and Paulo Costanzo) are back, peddling their concierge medical service to the extremely eccentric denizens of the Hamptons. Also back are Divya (Reshma Shetty), their Physician Assistant, and Jill (Jill Flint) administrator of the local hospital, and off-again on-again love interest for Hank. Once again, the formula remains the same, but here the formula seems to be stretched a little thin. There are only so many times a patient can refuse conventional medical care before it starts to get ridiculous. And there are only so many times a conventional medical person can be cast as an absolute bastard before it gets old. Seriously. Every doctor we've seen besides our heroes is cast as smug and unpleasant and uncaring for their patients. The medical profession does not get off easy on this show. And it's well past the point of "Okay, we get it!" Almost to the point of parody. The "patient of the week" scenario also has the unfortunate tendency toward "House Syndrome." That is, our heroes spend the entire episode chasing mysterious symptoms that could have been explained very easily had the patient just mentioned one tiny thing beforehand...

But then, as a USA Network show, the focus is more on the characters...but even they seem a little one-dimensional. Hank and Evan are pretty one-note, a classic double-act of straight man and comic relief. Divya is a stereotypical overachieving Indian woman, struggling to break free of her equally stereotypical domineering Indian parents (it's made even more distracting by the fact that the actor who plays her father is the same guy from the Fiber One commercials; "Stereotypes, no. Delicious, yes!"). It's also a little distracting that the writers seem to trying to artificially create conflict to drive the plot along. The absolutely cute and perfectly logical relationship between Hank and Jill was derailed throughout the first season for no readily apparent reason. And the introduction of rival concierge doctor Emily Peck this season seems to be the same thing: she's evil for no real reason, other than as a counterpoint to the too-good-to-be-true Hank Lawson. The recurring appearance of Henry Winkler as Hank and Evan's absentee father also seems to be for no other reason than to create artificial conflict (their father is the Fonz; that explains so much...). I'm entertained by the show, but that's really all. I keep waiting for it to get really good...and maybe I'm expecting too much from a summer season show about laid-back doctors treating the rich and famous in the Hamptons.

Comedy Central

Hoo boy. I wish I didn't have to write this. I was a huge fan of Futurama during its original run, and I loved the DVD movies. I had high hopes for it to come back....hopes which unfortunately have so far been disappointed.

I can't quite put my finger on why I can't get into the show. Maybe it's because the show was able to wrap itself up so neatly beforehand. Or maybe the world of adult-oriented animation has moved on so much since the first run of Futurama. Something just doesn't feel right about this new season. Like it's trying to recapture lightning in a bottle, and just not able to. Maybe the premise has been stretched too thin.

One of the things I always liked about Futurama was that it was sincere. That's the thing that tended to separate Matt Groening from the likes of Seth MacFarlane or the South Park guys. Futurama was funny and satirical, but it was never MEAN. That's what I liked about it. And I fear that this new incarnation of Futurama is heading down that road. The last few episodes have embraced some of the old spirit of the show, but for the most part it's becoming a bit mean-spirited (one particular recent episode, a satire of the iPhone, was a little TOO real to be truly funny). For the most part it feels like it's going over the same old ground again...and it was funnier the first time around.

Well, I still have faith in Matt Groening, and I hope against hope that things will get better. They HAVE to, right?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Open Letter to Clay Jenkinson

I'm disappointed, Mister Jenkinson. Very disappointed. Your two most recent episodes of The Thomas Jefferson Hour have left me disheartened, and frankly unwilling to continue listening. Because you have shown your true colors, and they are not the colors I wish to paint my intellectual canvass with any longer.

Your June 27th episode was particularly disheartening, in your criticism of President Obama's reaction to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill. You speculated that his reaction would cost him his Presidency, for the simple reason he wasn't "feeling their pain." Granted, the President is not down there, rubbing elbows with the victims of the ecological disaster, assuring them in person that he is doing everything he can. You speculated that this lack of personal connection will distance him from voters come poll time. As if the American voting public are a bunch of attention span-challenged fools who won't believe in an elected official unless they're two feet in front of them.

First of all, you forget that when Barack Obama was elected President, he inherited quite possibly the biggest cultural, political, and economic mess the United States has seen since the Great Depression.  He's kind of busy right now. Frankly, I would rather see him in his office trying to fix things than down in the Gulf empathizing like a bandit. That's where these problems are solved. I'm not naive about Obama: I don't see him as the one who is going to save us all from our own idiocy. In fact I appreciated his honesty when he first got elected. This is not going to to be an easy road. There are a lot of problems to fix, and a lot of enemies chomping at the bit, waiting for him to make the big mistake they can pounce on. And the last thing he needs is to be second-guessed by some fair-weather Liberal.

That's the problem with the political Left. We are divided. Not diverse. Divided. We embrace variety, individualism, diversity, and we tell ourselves that that is where our strength lies. But in reality, that's why the Left keeps shooting itself in the foot. Because among a coalition of diverse individuals, there is rarely common ground. Obama's worst enemies are not on the political Right. They are on the Left, with special interests as special as the most corrupt Lobbyist. Gay and Lesbian groups who criticize Obama's religious stance. Civil Liberties groups who express their discomfort with his union ties. African-American groups who just don't think Barack Obama is BLACK ENOUGH. Those waiting with sharpened knives for the moment when their fragile alliance looks like it's just going to fall apart, so they can bemoan the state of the country and threaten to move to Canada. Assuming Canada wants them, but that's a whole 'nother essay. These are fair-weather Liberals, who will readily turn on each other in defense of their pet causes and congratulate themselves on their refusal to compromise while the monolithic Right grows all the stronger. These are the people that really block progress in America, and I fear I must count you among them now.

As for your July 4th show, well, I fear I must point out the obvious to you. You bemoan how Americans would rather trust a corporation than a government. As a Jeffersonian scholar, you don't make the connection? THIS is Thomas Jefferson's legacy, sir. A nation of petty, paranoid malcontents is EXACTLY what you'd get if we all followed Jefferson's example. Jefferson believed in the virtues of small government and private industry. That's what the opposition is endorsing, granted in a bastardized, extreme form. Can you honestly say, having studied and portrayed Thomas Jefferson for so long, that you don't see it? Can you honestly say that thing would be better if we all just lived by Jefferson's example? Not to confront problems, not to offer solutions, but to withdraw to a private fortress and surround oneself with creature comforts. That's what Jefferson did, in both his personal and political life, and that's what society is moving towards. You can bemoan it all you like, you can predict the fall of the United States like Rome before it, but you must acknowledge WHY it is falling. And what line of thought is to blame.

You have famously said on your Podcast that your co-hosts inevitably turn into "Adamsites." That is, proponents of John Adams, the philosophical opposite of Thomas Jefferson. The same is true, I think, of your listeners. It certainly is true of this listener. And I can no longer listen.