Moral Decay

The family is writing about politics again. Reacting to David Brooks’ new book The Second Mountain. He writes mostly about moral decay. Here is what I added to the mix.

It does seem odd, from a perspective far away, across a big ocean, that the richest country in the history of the world, with a matching military budget, with no significant opposition, feels so bad. 

Do note that overall happiness here in Japan is much lower than in the US. (Japan at 58th/156 just beats out Honduras and Khazakstan, the US is 19th and trails countries like Israel and Costa Rica.) They don’t advertise it, though. You might think the US is all about “buck it up”, but they (we) look like a bunch of whiny kids from outside the US. 


We are squandering huge social and technological advances. Let’s hope the pendulum swings back before it is too late. 


I was talking yesterday to a programmer from South Africa and a Trump supporter in the park. I walk there to get my 10,000 steps, and to read*. He started out our conversation by saying he liked to talk about politics. He had some unusual perspectives but we agreed on the fact that we (he and I) lived in a country only Trump could dream about. Voter apathy here, control by one party over almost all of the last 60 years, common white-collar graft that is overlooked, absolutely locked-down immigration (30 Syrian refugees were thought to be too many), rampant discrimination, with objectification and exploitation of foreigners (the new guest worker program) all are on the conservative list. The only real difference here is that individuality has a much lower place in the hierarchy of values. 


It is all relative. (We here in Japan do have a lot less income disparity, an administration that takes care of its people, and national health care, so there is that.)


*Reading Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. Talk about a real downer! New kind of capitalism that uses society as a resource for building income. Just finished Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff who proposes ways to fight it. 


Happy Sunday and a happy 4/20, y’all.

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Podcast Updates

I have been walking a lot lately, in competition with my friends to get as many steps per week. I now do about double what I averaged last year, now with 10,000 steps a day, plus the bike riding into work and back.

During these walks, I listen to podcasts, or music. Spotify lets me listen to Rosalía, a woman who mixes Flamenco and R&B. She grew up in the poor area of Barcelona where I had my first real job teaching English, in Llobregat. Good street music from the Andaluces who migrated north like the blacks in America, and were and are still treated similarly, but not quite as badly. But I digress.

I listen to podcasts more and more, as more channels pop up. So here is a list of my favorites. Top two: Political Gabfest on Slate with Emily Baselon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz. They all used to work together at Slate, but Emily is at the NYTimes Magazine, John Dickerson is hosting one of those morning shows, and David Plotz runs Atlas Obscura. But they get together each week to talk politics for an hour or so. Three topics. Emily has a screechy voice, but brings legal knowledge to the table, David is more conservative and promotes debate, John is the historian. They have a great rapport. Similar is the Culture Gabfest, with great conversation about things like Roma the movie, good music, reading and other reviews.

Rounding out news, the PBS Newshour with Brooks and Shields (10 mins) comes out on Saturdays (here) which is good because I can’t get the TV version. The Atlantic has a nice podcast, and I am just starting with The Argument at the NYTimes where liberals and conservatives debate issues.

I am terribly behind on music in the US, so Sound Opinions (like Siskel and Ebert) has two Chicago critics discussing the newest albums and tracks with an amazing depth of knowledge. For movies, a trio of young critics is both entertaining and informative on the Rewatchables. Great stuff.

Dan Carlin has slowed down a lot but what he comes out with in history is well worth listening to. Recently the Japanese part of WW2, in an installment about 4.5 hours long. Malcolm Gladwell and his Revisionist History bring new perspectives to events, challenging our assumptions. Did you know Brown did not want to integrate and didn’t want to fight the Board of Education, and that ultimately it was counter-productive?

Single-topic podcasts are really interesting too. Serial has 3 seasons now, the 1st and 3rd are great, the 2nd good. Each about 10 episodes of an hour. Shit-town is another great one. And of course, listen to the one that got all this started, This American Life.

So what you want to do is to go to a place where you can get these podcasts. Most people go to iTunes, but I prefer a standalone pod-catcher on my phone. But you can get podcasts on Spotify too.

Attention! is important

The first of the 5 Digital Literacies in Howard Rheingold‘s book Net Smart is Attention. At first, I thought this was just a warm-up to the other literacies, one to get things going to study Critical Consumption (crap detection), Participation, Collaboration, and Net Structure. Then I started teaching with the book. Then I started doing research, and have come to the conclusion that Attention is the most important of the five.

I have noticed in my classes that there are more kinds of attention. I have noticed myself managing different levels of attention. Managing your own attention is key to all of the others. Indeed, meditation shows both how and why.

I have been able to focus more as a result of monitoring my own (lack of) attention. Here are 20 Ways to Win the War Against Seeing by Rob Walker (Medium). They are great ways to practice Attention, and will help you manage your own. Here is part of a newsletter (called Noticing) by Jason Kottke about, well, noticing things.

So here’s the skinny. The book is called The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday, will be out in May 2019, and can be preordered from Amazon right now. Walker describes it as a practical guide to becoming a better observer, “a series of exercises and prompts and games and things you can actually do (or reflect upon) to build attention muscles or just get off your phone and enjoy noticing stuff that everyone else missed”.

Pilot V fountain pen

I went through a list of the top 100 pens last month, and found this one, the Pilot V fountain pen rated highly. The ink flows nicely, no scratchiness, as smooth as my rollerballs, but more…sensual. What can I say? Costs about $3 (¥300). I may go back to longhand.

Best movie of the decade

Roma, by Alfonso Cuaron. I just finished. A masterpiece. The best movie of the year (2018). Maybe of the decade. And in black and white, better than color. In Spanish (with a lot of Oaxacan as well). Cuaron’s story of growing up in a tony area of Mexico City, the Roma neighborhood in 1970. It follows Cleo, the maid as the family, the city, her friends and the times swirl around her in a dizzying rhythm. The noise, the world, all impinge on her quiet soul. And the actress. The only word I can think of is beatific.

I am 6 years older than Cuaron. My family traveled in Mexico the summer of 67, just 3 years before this movie was set, so I was the age of the oldest brother in this film. There were 4 kids in the family, much like mine. I remember vividly visiting my mother’s friend and her family in Cuernavaca. A similar situation. All of those details resonated with me. Cuaron, as a kid, was a superlative observer.

The detail in the movie is astounding. Watching dozens of art-house flicks when I was in Barcelona helped me understand the graphic language of black and white movies, the subtle connections beween worlds. The airplane, the dog shit, the car, the “poza” (pond) and the water, and a half dozen other things. It had me on the edge of my seat through all 2 and a quarter hours, even though it was a relatively normal family for that time. 

Roger Ebert’s website gives it 4/4 stars.

With some of the most striking imagery of the year, “Roma” often blends the surreal and the relatable into one memorable image.

Read Kristopher Tapley in Variety getting the backstory from Cuaron.

Wow. I will have to watch this one again. A work of art.