Saturday, October 28, 2006

Dropping a thousand eggs out of an airplane onto a field with a frying pan in it.

When I was in junior high I was really into drawing. I've always enjoyed drawing but that was the period in which I considered pursuing art as a career. I filled notebooks with pictures of the things I thought I could draw well and studiously avoided drawing anything that challenged me. To this day when I sit down in front of a piece of blank paper the same things I've been drawing for most of my life come out: rib cages, animals with haunches, wall-eyed people with lolling tongues; in essence, the things that a slightly more creative than average junior high boy would draw. nonetheless, I was under the impression that I had a talent that could somehow support me financially and make the world a better place.
Somewhere along the line I stopped drawing and focused on academics. When I was in junior high and drawing my father would peek over the tops of my notebooks and check out what I was doing, maybe throw in a little gentle ribbing. Over the years since, my father would occasionally bring up drawing out of the blue. "You remember you wanted to be an artist, whatever happened with that? You still drawing?" and other similar comments, which I typically answered by promising him that, no I have no interest in becoming an artist, so don't worry about my future.
But about two weeks ago I was riding on the bus doodling when I had a revelation. My father wasn't teasing me about wanting to be an artist. Having developed a little perspective on the matter, I've discovered that he was perhaps trying to foster my interest in art again, or at least gauge whether it's there. I can imagine having a son of my own who has some artistic dream, and it would do my heart good to come home and see him busy practicing it, whether he had any talent or not.
Having gone to high school in New York state, most of my classmates who thought about going to college naturally gravitated towards New York schools. A lot of my fellow Rocky Point high grads wanted to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. My sister also considered going there for a time. Because she liked fashion. That's a good reason to pursue a career, perhaps. Just do whatever you like and you'll eventually become good at it, that is true if you have a steely-eyed determination and the keenly honed mind of a scholar, but do you think most of these fashion-loving middle class public school students had the eye of the tiger?
The unfortunate thing about it all is that nobody stopped these kids from pursuing the dream. In fact, many people down the line encouraged their dreams, no matter how poorly founded. If you dream big, you'll change the world, and everything will turn out well if you follow those dreams.
So now it's quite a few years since my classmates made their decisions to pursue their taffeta dreams, and I would reckon that a good number of them dropped out (as did a fair percentage of all my graduating class), and that those that eventually did go into the fashion business created a fairly wide distribution on the scale of success and failure.
Now what if someone, maybe a guidance counsellor or even a parent, had sat down with those kids and said "What are you good at? Maybe fashion isn't your thing, what kind of career would be right for you?"
Well, it probably would've been too late. After 17 years in a permissive culture such as ours, any rationalism of that caliber is simply unheard, invisible to normals.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

American TV: a million times better than jazz

I always hear the old saw that jazz is America's only native art form. That doesn't sit well with me. I believe the Simpsons count animation as another one, and I'll back that. Edith Hamilton, the classicist, wrote a book, the title of which made my mom question my sexuality, The Greek Way. Hamilton was a great lover of the ancient Greeks, who she felt were high minded lovers of pure ideas and art. In a less famous companion-piece called The Roman Way, Hamilton basically performs a massive smear job on the Romans, who she sees as somewhat soulless, heartless engineery types who thought themselves into world conquest and then tried to buy themselves a high culture with their dirty dirty money. This argument strikes me as something that a modern American would come up with, with our painfully polarized, Jocks versus Nerds society. It was Hamilton's position that when we look at ancient cultures we should judge them mainly on their artistic and cultural production, and that all the rest is just filler. This is of course nonsense.
But it has a certain elegance to it, which is the thing that really gives ideas sticking power. It's a very college freshmanny, emo-y way of looking at the world, and I must confess to frequently turning to it in times of trapped-in-a-foreign-country frustration. There is no one realm in which I claim American cultural supremacy more sincerely and enthusiastically than in the domain of television. American television of late has been absolutely fantastic, to the point where I would much rather watch an episode of a good show than see a movie. I think there may be many reasons for this, but I think the two most important ones both stem from the internet. The first is the level of information available to television fans that enriches the experience, and the other, much more important one is competition from the internet for viewers.
My proof is irrefutable. In America, television has become better and better over the last several years while movies have arguably become worse and worse. In Korea, the movie industry has become one of Korea's greatest success stories (on the strength of a few excellent movies) while television is stuck in the American fifties, stylistically, recycling the same toothless soap opera melodrama endlessly with little concern for repetition and little improvement over time. Why, pray tell, would this be? The answer is simple and elegant. In The U.S., TV is primarily watched by young people, and American movies are primarily watched by the general population and, increasingly, foreigners abroad. Thus American TV faces direct competition from the internet, driving it to improve or die, while the movies face most of its competition from other forms of "going out" style entertainment such as restaurants. In Korea, the average young person has zero free time, watches a couple hours of TV with the family every weekend and isn't holding the remote control. Young people must go out to the movies just to get a few hours away from their houses, which are never empty, or else lock themselves in the computer room and play World of Warcraft until their eyes bleed. Thus Korean TV stagnates while movies are pushed by competition to improve.
So enough about that. What American TV shows are great and why? Here's a short list:

  • The Wire: No show does a better job of showing how human flaws and ideals slap up against each other, how the chthonic and the technotronic intersect and influence each other. The show follows a revolving door team of Baltimore city police officers who go after a different big, intricate criminal endeavor each season. The first season paints a layered portrait of both the police running the case and an up-and-coming drug dealing empire and the inner workings of each groups. The second season takes a personal grudge between a police commander and a stevedore union boss and uses it as a jumping off point for a case including white slavery, drugs, a blue collar half black/half Polish dock culture and swarthy Greek international bad stuff traffickers. The highlight of the show is the way that police laziness and ass-covering just barely gets the job done while criminal ambition and the high stakes nature of the business makes them efficient.
  • Battlestar Galactica: The epic battle between humans and the Cylon robots that they created goes to the next level when the Cylons almost annihilate the human race, leaving only 50,000 humans running through space on a ragtag convoy. This show has several similarities with The Wire, now that I think about it: lots of poorly thought out sex and bad decisions, almost too-flawed characters, the whole rag-tag angle, and so on. The third season just started and it leaves mankind living in an occupied refugee camp full of terrorism by humans against Cylons. This show will change your life. Whenever I call home my father spends the entire call talking about the Cylons.
  • Deadwood: touches on similar themes with the aforementioned: like the Wire it is to a great extent about the innate limits placed on people by society, also deals with the development of networks and personal relationships in a similar way with Battlestar. The story revolves around the last and greatest gold rush in mid 1870s Dakota territory. The most infamous and colorful character is saloon-keeper and whoremonger Al Swearingen, and his foil is town sheriff Seth Bullock. The two develop a sort of adversarial equilibrium: they form a complex relationship, sometimes enemies, but increasingly on the same side. The most interesting arc in the show is the increasing level of civilization in the camp. In the first season, a good throat-cutting takes care of any problem, but by the end of the third season, violence seems less and less of an option, and politics gains more and more of a role. The other main theme that shares with both the above shows is the same one that the producers of the Simpsons claim on their DVDs all the time: people never change. Yet on Deadwood, they do. And they don't it's complicated. I mean, it should be, right?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Staffan Linder and the Harried Leisure Class

Staffan Linder is a Swedish Economist. His book, "The Harried Leisure Class", has the power to change the way you view the world in the same way as "The Selfish Gene". It's one of those life-altering premises, not a major earth-shattering new theory like evolution, but a new way of looking at it. As the selfish gene is to biology, The Harried Leisure class is to economics.
The premise is simple. As we all should know, one of the key inputs in any economic input is labor. Labor itself consists of the time one spends on a job, the expertise that goes into the work, and several other factors. Linder says that as one's wage and productivity rises, the value of one's time consequently rises. This leads one to expect to get more value from all of one's time, including one's free time. The result, according to Linder, is that people spend their leisure time in more and more intense, hurried, "efficient" leisure activities. This explains the decline in popularity of baseball, whittling on the porch, and anything involving hours of practice (i.e. almost anything worth doing). Thus leisure becomes less about relaxing and more about getting relaxing stuff done.
But it doesn't stop there. It answers a question I've long wondered about. Why do people like to buy things that look worn and old? What's so wonderful about jeans with holes in them? Linder's idea explains it all. People are too busy to put the holes in the jeans themselves through good honest mucking about under a car or out in a field, so they buy the jeans pre-worn:

But the concept just goes rolling everywhere, like the selfish gene, it's got legs. Why do so many people (like my sister-in-law) spend so much money on educational toys for infants when research shows that spending quality time with your child is more effective than all the fancy knickknacks in the world? Because the expensive toys (and my sister-in-law has spent at least $1000 on them and her son isn't 2 yet) are actually cheaper than her time. Sick world, huh? And why do so many housewives here in Korea send their kids to cram schools all day and still spend every waking hour fretting and kvetching over their children's educations? Because all that time, otherwise spent warming the couch, is almost worthless (relative to any other activity that those woman could do instead, short of actually getting a job).
And here's where it hits me personally. I work in the burgeoning English as a Never-to-be-learned Language (ENL) sector in Korea, teaching people who are going about it ass backwards, throwing money (on me)and time (on memorizing lists of things) at a problem (learning English) that can really only be solved by technique (actually exposing oneself to English in a meaningful way) and time (spent constructively). Although I have a steady job, I chose it for it's smack-in-themiddle-of-the-day schedule, which allows me to work much more lucrative private lessons in the morning and night. Right now my schedule every day is either 6:30am -9pm or 8:15am-10pm. I spend 3 hours a day riding the bus all over the place. All my time is for sale. Every moment of it. For the last 4 months every Monday morning I had a 2 hour break when I would go to Starbucks between jobs and drink the world's most expensive Starbucks (in Korea, a grande latte is $5). Well someone bought that. If you have the money and the inkling, you can buy the two remaining holes in my schedule, Wednesday and Friday Mornings, 10-12. If someone goes and buys them up them I have no idea when I will go to the gym. But needless to say, that being my gym time, I will expect an extra $5/hour to compensate for the loss.
So last week when I heard about this person who wanted to buy my coffee break, I was faced with a question I presume is very common to geishas, massueses and psychiatrists: How much is that hour of my life every week worth? Unfortunately, I know for a fact that anyone willing to buy my time is willing to pay way more than it's worth to me. So every time I get a new job, it's like losing an auction for my life. Should I push for $45, or stick with a standard $40? In fact, I got $50, quite a steal. That's another thing that you can learn from Adam Smith: You are most likely to make a big profit in an industry in which the product is scarce and the actual price is not well-known to non-experts.
Anyway, it's not all roses: the class is a one on one with a girl who speaks almost no English and, I would say, has almost no chance of benefitting from the class. In other words, she won't be learning English any time soon. I could see it in her eyes, she doesn't have the drive, the heart or the head for it. And, back to Linder, I could also see in her eyes that she was the type that was more willing to throw money than time at such a pursuit. I mean, a $50/hour English tutor would have to be a lot better than a $40/hour one, right?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Disappointed Ancestors

I just saw the first episode of the third season of Battlestar Galactica and it got me thinking about the way the world changes. The series starts with an apocalyptic attack by the Cylons (robots created by humans) that cuts the human race down to 50,000 people on the run in a ragtag fleet of spaceships. The second season opened up the world of the Cylons a little bit to show them to be an idealistic young race that destroyed the humans on orders from their god (they're both monotheistic and very evangelical) and have had a change of heart and now want to bring the light of god to the human race, which is polytheistic and extremely close to the godless urban/coastal America that I grew up in. Anyway, the humans camped out on a planet, built a little squatter's camp, and one year later were found and occupied by the Cylons.
So as the third season begins, the Cylons are obviously the in over their heads optimistic Americans and the downtrodden, now extremely radicalized humans are any number of peoples not American. Thus, a setup for brilliant drama, in which you have an American (and I presume international) audience rooting for an insurgent group built on the ruins of a dismantled military who use killings, bombs, and similar terror to convince the Cylons to leave them alone in their wretched new city and stop helping them into the future.
So, that got me thinking about all the historical figures who would look at the country of which they are either a hero or a founding father and shake their heads in shame. This could be for any number of reasons. Surely William Wallace would consider his own life to have been a failure, in that Scotland is now completely subsumed into the United Kingdom. The rugged individualists who built our big-ass country would no doubt cringe if taken to a strip mall (that goes for every country that's had a sweet Amerrrican fairy dust kiss). Certainly the people who wrote the constitution had another thing in mind when they made up all that stuff about "rights". The mighty Samurai of Japan would no doubt be disgusted at the leveling of Japanese culture, as would the Yangban of Korea.
The case of the Yangban is a particularly sad one, in my opinion. The Yangbans, literally "the two halves", were the noblemen of Korea, so named because they were lined up on the two sides of the King's court. They were typically Asian nobles, in that they praised refinement and learning as paramount. Unfortunately, refinement and culture have not survived into the modern world, and in fact, are probably antithetical to Democracy. If the history of Korea were a Rodney Dangerfield movie, then the snobs would have been essentially obliterated by the Japanese occupation and, when that period ended, the entire country essentially left to the slobs. This is shocking to me because I am American and we never really had much more than aristocratic aspirants, but I'm sure those in European countries with formerly rich high culture would report a similar phenomenon. The really sad thing is that the Yangban are remembered in Korean popular culture as a bunch of snobby assholes. For example, the Yangban disdained physical movement and exercise, preferring quiet contemplation. One common claim is that the Yangban were such uppity pricks that they wouldn't even run if their house was on fire.
Every time I hear this story I'm reminded of the book 1984, in which the capitalists are recalled as an extinct creature who lived off the sweat of others and always wore ridiculous top hats. That's the paintroller version of capitalism in a socialist dystopian future.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The last mammal

Discovery Channel did a show a few years ago called The Future is Wild, and the premise is that humans "leave" the earth, and then millions of years later some kind of probe comes to the earth and makes a nature show about all the new animals that have evolved. Anyway, besides the fact that humans "left", what got to me was the animal they called the poggle, which was, according to the show, the last mammal. The thing about the poggle that is so depressing is that the poggle, the last in a long line of mammals including majestic creatures like whales, bats and horses, is a little hamster-like creature that is raised for food by giant spiders. So that's how it ends, Discovery Channel? All those warm-blooded hijinks for that, to feed spiders in the deep future? Quite sad.

Or not. I mean, maybe mammals weren't meant to live in the warped, twisted future that the staff of futurologists and futuronomists at DC have created. Maybe 100million years in the future is better off without mammals.

Anyway, I was thinking about evolution today, in particular social evolution. The thing that spurned it all was the fact that Bill Clinton has convinced junk food companies to stop selling so much junk food in schools, and there's apparently some kind of trans-fat restriction bill on the docket somewhere. And that would be totally anti freedom of choice, right? How can it be America when you can't even choose your lunch? So that got me thinking about good old fashioned freedom. The kind of good old fashioned frrreedom where you hit the R really hard like a rreal Amerrrican. Anyway, it all started with the founding fathers, those bootlegging tax-evaders, who wanted Americans to be as free as they could possibly be, like old Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death." Right? So, given 230 years of evolution, where did that freedom wind up?
I posit that it ended up going something like this: as an American, you are exposed to every possible opportunity to fuck up your life without the government getting in your way. You are totally free to do anything that is likely to ruin your future. And even the people in a position to tell you not to, who know better, may not intervene because they're Amerrricans too. And then after the damage has been done and you know better and you see it coming for the next generation, you bite your tongue in the name of frrreedom.
When I moved to Korea I initially noticed the same thing that most foreign men do: The women are so beautiful. You hear it all the time among Americans abroad, I'm sure they say it in most any foreign country that they go to. Why? Is it because immigration to America has somehow detrimentally mutated the DNA of our nation's ancestors? Of course the answer is that such a huge proportion of our men women and children are fat that half of our beautiful women are trapped inside fat bodies. In my high school there was a girl from China who came to the U.S. not speaking a word of English and, a few years later got an astronomical SAT verbal score. What does that mean? Americans are dumb? Yes, but not because they do poorly on standardized tests. Because they don't push the importance of education in anyway near the way they do in some other cultures. So what you find in the U.S. is a nation of underachievers with lots of rich life experience. I'm serious, not being fascetious about the rich life lessons bit, it's true. The question is, is it good or bad to live way below your potential, making mistakes left and right with little guidance in order to get this life experience?

What is Paintroller?

A paint roller is a device used for putting a lot of paint on something at one time. as opposed to a paintbrush, whose user can create nuanced, intricate images, a paintroller is typically used to spread one simple color of paint as far and as uniformly as possible.

History is written with a paintroller. People can only know so much about each bit and piece of history. Take George Washington: Wooden teeth, crossed the Delaware, couldn't tell a lie, chopped down a cherry tree, wife named Martha, first president of the U.S., on the quarter and dollar, obelisk shaped monument to him in Washington D.C., which is named after him, as is Washington state. The end.

Maybe a harder one, like Charles Darwin. He travelled on the Beagle, went to the Galapagos, studied finches, discovered evolution, and called it survival of the fittest. I know the last one's not true but it sounds true. That's how history works. If everything fits together and sounds good, it will become the truth as far as most people are concerned.

I heard so much about truthiness this year as if it had recently been invented by George Bush. As if most historical events weren't similarly manipulated. Well it's nothing new. Is it wrong? to be honest, I can't decide, but being that this blog is called Paintroller and dedicated to the above premise, I will say unequivocally that the fact that history is created for mass consumption by image makers is bad. And later if I say it's good that's true too.

So that's what Paintroller is. Big generalizations, with no caveats or warnings except the following: Everything I write here is a generalization. When I say "Americans are dumb", I mean that the majority of Americans are dumb. I am American and I know this to be true. The majority of everyone is dumb. Half the people on earth are below average intelligence, and a large portion of those above have dulled their senses and faculties into a stupor with sloppy thinking and intellectual laziness, so there you go, the majority of people are dumb. How many times have you heard someone counter an argument or statement with something like "Well that's a generalization, not all cats are hairy, what about . . ." Just remember that that, in itself, is not a rebuttal or answer, it's a request for clarification. And once clarification is given, the argument can continue, but seldom does, because the argument has been sidelined. So what I'm saying is, when I'm wrong, you're wrong for noticing.

Oh, and one rule: Don't comment on grammatical or spelling errors. The root of the word 'glamor' is 'grammar'. The reason? When education was first coming into vogue with the English aristocracy, the study of grammar or proper speech and writing was considered a mark of good breeding and education. Think about it, they weren't studying math and economics, they were studying musical instruments and poetry and rhetoric. Thus to have good grammar was glamorous or fashionable, and a reliable sign of intelligence when everyone's job was the intellect light 'landlord'. In this modern age, when education is essentially geared towards creating good workers for massive companies, that thin veneer of respectability that still remains associated with good education is most evident on the internet in people's obsession with spelling and especially grammar. People on the internet usually attack each other's spelling and punctuation as a way to say "I am more or better educated than you and my opinion matters". Well we're all friends here and I'll come out and say it now: if you went to an American public school, all the "its versus it's" talk in the world will not make you an intellectual, so just drop the spelling and punctuation bashing.