Archive for November, 2009

Fresh Propaganda from the Washington Post

November 29, 2009

The front page of the Post today featured a cloying human interest piece on Marine training at Quantico. Here’s my response, a short passage from the classic novel of meaningless warfare All Quiet on The Western Front:

“We were trained in the army for ten weeks and in this time more profoundly influenced than by ten years at school…At first astonished, then embittered, and finally indifferent, we recognized that what matters is not the mind but the boot, not intelligence but the system, not freedom but drill…With our young, awakened eyes we saw that the classical conception of the Fatherland held by our teachers resolved itself here into a renunciation of personality such as one would not ask for of the meanest servant…We had fancied our task would be different only to find we were being trained for heroism as though we were circus ponies. But we soon accustomed ourselves to it.”

So, in sum, I’ll thank the editors of the Post not to bombard me with nonsense, or at least to kindly relegate such nonsense to the Sports section.

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Sheet Music, DRM, Musicianship

November 25, 2009

On my way into campus today there was a dude with a keyboard serenading us Metro patrons with the Peanuts theme! Amazing.

I’ve been playing piano (to some degree) for almost 20(!) years now and I’ve never gotten around to figuring that song out. So I gave the guy some change, struck up a conversation with him, and he showed me the basic fingerings. “Yeah this is one of those magic tunes,” he said, “people love it!” But then he encouraged me to buy the sheet music…

Like, he was quite emphatic about it. “Don’t just go online and get it! Don’t even buy the PDF for a dollar! Go to the real website and buy it for full price!”

Now even though I have experienced a strong desire to learn this song in the past, I never once considered actually buying the music. Clearly one reason for this is that I’m cheap, but another is that it’s just patently unreasonable to pay full price — even more so given this dude’s situation: here’s an unkempt guy who may or may not be homeless, carrying around an old keyboard and a scruffy backpack of random other stuff, and he is apparently willing to pay more than necessary to some music publisher?

Perhaps he was a sheet music salesman in a clever disguise. Homeless or not, it just seems crazy that anyone would buy the music, let alone buy it for full price, online, with all of the intrusive DRM stuff built in.

But talking to this dude made me realize that I was also opposed to buying the sheet music on a personal level even. When I was a kid I would pore over sheet music and then memorize what I was playing, which was boring…and not a good way to learn to read music. Now that I am an adult (an assertion which calls for another parenthetical !) I take a certain amount of pride in being able to play jazz rather than classical, and to play by ear or with a lead sheet (a sheet that provides you with just the chords and basic melody of a song, allowing you to improvise and play the song however you like). For a jazzy song like this, sheet music just feels like sacrilege to me.

That said, I think I’m going to swallow my pride on this one. It is a tricky song. I’m going to take this guy’s suggestion and actually get the sheet music — since I’m sure I’ll forget how to play it by the time I get back home to the piano.

On the other hand, if anyone out there happens to be looking for gift ideas…

Supermodels were annoying enough *before* I saw this video

November 20, 2009

Once again I’m baffled by a youtube video and I don’t know what to do except post it here; this time it’s a promo for 350.org featuring models disrobing in support of climate change legislation (??)

What the hell? It’s asinine and annoying. And you could argue that it reinforces the patriarchy’s preoccupation with gazing at female flesh, and that the women involved could pass for young girls and should probably eat something — but those are baseline critiques for the fashion industry in general.

In this case I’m more annoyed because this is actually a serious issue re-cast in the trivial language of sexy advertising. Why do you see this for climate change but not for health care reform or, like, foreign policy objectives?

But I’m MOST annoyed at myself because I actually clicked on it and watched the thing! (Dejected sigh)

Google Wizards strike again

November 18, 2009

Faced with Google’s awesomeness, I usually assume a stance of quiet wonder. But at the moment I can’t restrain my enthusiasm about the fact that Google Translate provides standard romanization (pinyin) for Chinese characters now. Yay!

I just discovered this; I wonder how long has this been the case?

Of course realistically this doesn’t effect my life much at all, but, that said, it does make things slightly easier! See, like all online translation tools, Google Translate is great at translating individual words but falls short when you plug in entire phrases; often you will end up with words that make sense by themselves but become gibberish when GT places them next to each other. To verify Google’s potentially nonsense translations, you used to have to either a) go through the laborious process of looking up the character by itself in a print dictionary, or b) paste whatever translation Google gave you into some other, lesser online dictionary — with often questionable results. Now that we have the romanization, it’s easier (for us no-iPhone luddites) to use a print dictionary to look up characters because we can do so via the roman alphabet, which always elicits a sigh of relief.

The Discreet Charm of “This American Life”

November 15, 2009

Back in September the folks from This American Life did a financial crisis recap episode (which I’m just now getting around to, since I’ve been listening to my podcasts via Google Reader, which seems to rub TAL the wrong way for some reason?)

Anyway, here’s a snippet of dialogue between Adam “Planet Money” Davidson and a guy called Glen, a “mortgage company sales manager” i.e. one of the people who used to package risky mortgages together and make oodles of money selling them. Glen has since lost most all of his money and undergone something of a transformation:

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Glen: I’m driving a car now that has no paint on it…you know, it’s a piece of junk. And…I used to think that it mattered, you know? But, it doesn’t.

Adam: I’m picturing an alternative Glen — the Glen from the world where there was no bubble bursting, the Glen who’s still making $100,000 a month, who still has that lifestyle…and I’m picturing meeting that Glen today. And I feel like I like this Glen a lot more!

Glen: Yeah, without a doubt. Well, because…how do I explain this? Other than…that Glen was about Glen. And this Glen, is about what I can bring to — trying not to sound cliche — society. What I can bring to my family. What I can do to make sure that we don’t keep creating that Glen. You know?

—————————

It is very emotional stuff. The jarring change in Glen’s life forced him to essentially create a new Glen. This allowed him to look critically at his old identity — particularly as he had performed it through wildly conspicuous consumption.

There’s an old sociological conundrum here: how much of our identity is unequivocally our own? How much is produced as a “role” by the social institutions and ideological structures around around us? Further, what powers benefit from enforcing those institutions? I mean, my liberal arts alarm bells really went off when I heard that sentence in bold, because it was Glen acknowledging that society had something to do with creating “Glen.”

But…I also suspect that TAL as a text wants me to have this reaction. If you listen to the whole podcast, the hosts are very careful to shift blame away from Glen or any of the other individuals profiled in the show and towards “society” or “culture.” I do think this is appropriate in this instance since the financial crisis was clearly an institutional crisis — but I also think that this bemused, albeit well informed, detachment is part of the TAL brand. Like, they are clearly not going for outrage and righteous indignation, the bread and butter of Rush Limbaugh and legions of other ultra conservative talk radio hosts. Instead, the antidote to that — there is really no discussion of politics at all!

We are supposed to identify Glen as having fallen victim to American “rugged individualism” gone haywire, or the craven “corporate culture” of Wall Street financial firms — views which, incidentally, I agree with. But of course I’m the ideal white middle class listener!

Also note that we’re not really supposed to bridge our analysis into any kind of action, nor are we supposed to hold Glen (ourselves) accountable. No, the corruption and redemption of Glen is a narrative arc that fits neatly into the TAL genre which, largely by masquerading as realism, gives us listeners pleasure.

I will go even further out on this limb and claim that we’re supposed to internalize Glen’s plight as we work towards a greener, more diverse and democratic (community-friendly) capitalism — the supreme symbol of which is Barack Obama! Yay America! etc.

Super Wholesome Video

November 12, 2009

A dog and an orangutan fall in love. It’s your classic animal bondage bonding story:

So obviously the video is heartwarming. But it’s also engrossing in a weird way — some combination of the twangy music, campy fades-to-white, a mini life preserver, and the emphatic use of the words “monkey biscuits”…it’s just weird. Ultimately, I don’t know what to do with this video except inflict it upon others.

Japanese Postal System Reform — Significant?

November 11, 2009

Once again I’m using this blog as a quasi-academic tool…not a whole lot of other (blog-able) material on my mind these days!

So I’ve spent the last day or so trying to cobble together a passable, brief paper on the following question: Does the highly publicized (and politicized) issue of Postal system privatization in Japan have anything to tell us about the evolution of Japan’s political institutions?

First, the Postal system in Japan is way more important than you’d think — about half of the Japanese population put all of their savings in it, which is a lot. That supposedly makes it one of the biggest financial institutions in the world. The cabinet then uses all this money as a sort of ‘second budget’ not subject to legislative review, which they generally pump into infrastructure projects. This is how you get Japan spending way more than the US on construction without having a comparable land mass or population — clearly inefficient. More generally, huge infrastructure spending and industrial policy are great for developing countries, you could argue, and they propelled Japan’s “take off” post WWII — but they are really no longer a benefit to Japanese society.

Calls for postal reform came in the 90’s after the bursting of the bubble (see below) when the word ‘reform’, the cutting of government waste, and especially the deregulation of the banking sector, entered the vogue. But actually the public was quite happy with the postal system, since it was convenient and offered cushy government subsidized interest rates, and no political actors really wanted to change it either — besides which the Ministry of Finance needed control over the postal system more than ever, since commercial banks were already saddled with bad debt in the financial turmoil…

So what’s the deal? First a word about “institutions,” since they are the contemporary buzz word, apparently. There is certainly a lot of theory floating around there about them. According to Doug North, every society has certain formal or informal rules that shape the behaviors of individual actors. If you view behavior in terms of exchange relationships (which economics tends to) then institutions are like the ossified patterns of exchange that accumulated over time because, essentially, they were (thought to be) beneficial for the actors involved.

North uses the metaphor of a football game: actors or organizations are the players, and institutions are the rules of the game. Note that a lot of these rules are not codified or formalized, but remain unspoken or informal — as in, “No Dogs” or “No Nudity.”

Now there are plenty of cases where ossified patterns of exchange encourage behavior that turns out not to be beneficial over all anymore — don’t get me started about pollution, for example, and/or don’t get economists started on trade protectionism. This is where you get into the nebulous territory of institutional change. How do rules of the game get changed over time? In the world of Japanese politics this is a particularly salient question — in 50 years of one party dominance we’ve seen that under the table money-for-votes exchanges exist in very rigid “iron triangle” structures (politician to bureaucrat to industry). How do you change them?

My argument is that Postal reform became an extraordinarily polarizing ideological issue with very little actual political merit one way or the other — like abortion in the US. The ethics of abortion are hard to parse out — and the economics of postal privatization are also quite nebulous (particularly because the private banking sector would really have no way to compete with a privatized postal system). So it became the case that you were either ‘for it’ or ‘against it.’ This certainly benefited the political career of former Prime Minister Koizumi, who made it his signature issue and managed to pass a privatization bill past a befuddled Diet.

This enlivened politics in a certain way. It sounds crazy for me to advocate for more debate about polarizing issues, but in the case of Japan, where the real decisions are usually made behind closed doors, and the voting public is increasingly disinterested, it might be just the thing to push “institutional change.” Koizumi, like mavericks everywhere, pissed a lot of people off and bought factional rifts among rulers out into the open. Maybe this ultimately helped bring the Democratic Party of Japan (which was only founded in 1996!) into its current position of power — and maybe it nudged the whole system along towards the two party state. Of course its all very ambivalent…but such is the study of institutional change.

The Japanese Bubble — some causes and effects?

November 3, 2009

A couple weeks ago a classmate of mine clarified the whole Japanese bubble thing with a couple simple diagrams. This is my attempt to replicate them before I forget what his reasoning was. OK:

diagram-1a
Diagram 1

The classic model of the Japanese economy (Diagram 1) was a tight-knit, government enforced structure with a number of interesting features: first, individuals couldn’t buy corporate stocks, so they had to save their wages in banks. Banks basically had to loan money to corporations regardless of those corporations’ profitability — part of this was policy, part of it was the tradition of corporate groupings or “keiretsu.” Not pictured in the diagram: corporations made money via foreign trade, which was pretty easy to do through much of the “high growth period,” partly because the Yen was pegged to the dollar at an artificially high rate.

Now in 1971 Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard and floated it on the market, which ended the Occupation-era policy of having the Yen pegged to the dollar. So the exchange rate (which had been 360 yen to the dollar from 1950 – 1971) went down to 290 yen to the dollar by 1972

This meant that export producing industries in Japan started to suffer, since foreign folks paying foreign currency now had to pay more of it per yen.
So the government decided to introduce capital market liberalization, allowing corporations to get the capital they needed from non-traditional sources, like foreign investment and stock markets. They ditched domestic banks, which then found themselves without lenders — they should have shrunk at this point, but they were unable to do so because of strict “too-big-to-fail” type rules. So instead the banks started lending money to whomever would take it, esp. in the real estate sector. Corporations also started pumping their extra cash into real estate (Diagram 2)

diagram-2a
Diagram 2

This elevated prices, and wages, across the board — the Bubble — which made everybody happy! Until the Bank of Japan raised interest rates, making loans more expensive, which sent artificially high prices tumbling and triggered a contraction that is still plaguing Japan.

The silver lining is that this chaos may have created the political momentum to clean up Japan’s notoriously corrupt bureaucracy and dominant political party — which make our system look like Scandanavia (or, you know, some other utopian metaphor). In 1993 the dominant party lost power for the first time since the 50’s, which everyone said was significant, but they regained it soon after. BUT this July they lost it again! And tomorrow I’m planning to go to a lecture/panel discussion that will hopefully clarify whether this is significant. We shall see.

On Hand Sanitizers

November 2, 2009

I’m currently sitting in the library, as is my wont, noticing that there has been a proliferation of alcohol-based hand sanitizers in this and every building on campus, thanks to H1N1.

But it stands to reason that anti-bacterial alcohol-based hand sanitizers, while useful in the course of every day germphobia, will have no effect on the virus!

I’m no public health professional, but I have friends/family members who are — and they agree with me. Done and done.