Go with a smile!

Saturday, March 23, 2019


Apparently addictions are being blamed for the rise in unhappiness amongst Americans.

There may be 3 things which are related to each other and are relevant in this day and age. One of them is the opioid crisis in America. Another one of them is the fragmentation of the American society, first discussed by Robert Putnam in his classic, “Bowling Alone” and still relevant today. How are these two related to each other? In the famous psychological experiment (go look up “rat park”), addiction is related to not having an active social life. The breakdown of society and addiction are twin scourges that feed on each other.

The third spoke on the triad is related to both the fragmentation of society and addiction. It is “social media”. (quotations because social media ain’t that social). it is related to both addiction and breakdowns in real human relationships. It is related to addiction because it's designed to be addictive. And also in breakdowns in relations because it's a surrogate for real human interaction.


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

College admissions Scandal

I used not to wonder about this, but some of the things are getting less and less important. When I was in my younger adulthood maybe I was too concerned about things that maybe didn’t matter. Maybe I was just having a scattershot approach to all sorts of random knowledge. Maybe I was just following sports to kill time. Maybe I was just watching too many movies and not caring. Maybe I was just blogging. It’s surprising how many things you do and at the end of the day the rewards are just fleeting.

There was an admissions scandal going on. People were bribing their way to get their kids into good colleges.

I got into Snowy Hill relatively easily. OK, it’s never easy to get into Snowy Hill and I had to do a few things and prove to people that I’m remarkable. But it wasn’t as hard - I almost got in by accident. All our school lives, we were told that we had to excel. That we had to have a good ECA record. This got me half the way up the hill. Then I remember being told that JC2 was one of the most crucial years of your life. Which was really good advice. Getting good grades for my “A”s, and then applying to college in the States. Getting into some, not getting into some. And then somehow bundling up my experience and my ECAs and managing to convince at least one scholarship committee that I was worth the hassle.

Perhaps there was a more level playing field then. Of course there are important things like hard work and talent. Those two things have always been indispensable to get ahead. But these days, it seems as though you’d need a little something extra.

You needed to have somebody to tell you how to be more focused. There was quite a bit of a gap in this regard. At times I could tell my parents were really focused on my getting good grades, and pushing me towards a few of the ECAs that they had selected for me: music, swimming, etc. At other times - and this is something that I can say with the benefit of hindsight - they really were blind to some of the things that my school had to offer. Like there wasn’t any co-ordination between the two parts. Especially given that I didn’t handle becoming a teenager very well, and they didn’t either.

After getting into college, it seemed to me that somebody had switched the rules. But actually it was more like I hadn’t really mastered a few rules that I really really needed. No matter, it seemed good enough to show that I had done well in my first 20 years in life, it opened a few doors for me.

These days, though it seems impossible that I’d have gotten into Snowy Hill that easily. There was some luck involved. My involvement in music - that was because my parents sent me to music classes, and I discovered that I had some aptitude. I had some ability in mathematics. Then my involvement in the literary arts was my own thing. By the time my college applications came around, I had checked quite a few boxes, although, to be honest, there was that bit more of promising potential than actual fleshed out possibilities.

I am really grateful that when I was younger, I could just follow my passion and it would lead somewhere. That I mostly did what I wanted to do by “doing well” and it led to good things - Snowy Hill, mostly. But I was probably fortunate or not fortunate. Of the 3 universities I really wanted, maybe I had a less than 50% chance of getting into them - I got into exactly one of them, Snowy Hill. Maybe these were the ways the odds worked out. I hadn’t really given much thought into what lay beyond my “A” levels, was never coached in essay applications. The one thing that went well for me was that I was in a JC that was successful in sending kids to good universities, and that I had impressed my teachers enough that they were willing to write letters for me. Considering what a hassle it was to get my letters during my second college application, I can imagine what a wonderful thing it was.

It was therefore very humbling to arrive in Snowy Hill and find that it was full of people who had worked all their lives to get there. I had spent all my focus on my own grades and exams and college applications were literally an afterthought, and for some reason, it just ended up that one of the biggest problems in my life was solved for me like that.

That brings me to the college admissions cheating scandal. It’s just terrible that college has become such a racket. Admission rates are going down. Tuition is going up. It’s getting tougher and tougher to get into a reasonably good college. There have been admissions fraud cases in the past. They may not have been prosecuted, and some overseas students may have sought to get into the door via the sneaky way. This is one of the first times we’ve had Americans caught red handed inflating their kids’ CVs to get involved in this stuff.

You can go read the news and get all the gory details about how they cheated and how they had all their CVs inflated, but when it comes down to it, it’s really that things have gotten so crazy in this arena of late that you’ve had to resort to this. It’s really sad that this is America, and if nothing else, it still could say with some pride that the universities were the best in the world, and people are doing this.


Saturday, March 09, 2019

The end of the end of history.

The big epochs of our history took place in 1989. We saw a transformation of the post cold war order. We thought that the US had won the cold war. As with World War 2, the end of the cold war in 1989 had 2 theatres. One epochal event took place in Berlin, where the wall was breached and opened up. Moscow signalled that it would no longer be enforcing the Berlin wall. In rapid succession, there were revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Basically for the countries nearest to the West, the Eastern Bloc collapsed. It seemed for a long while that the western way of life would triumph.

In 1991, the Soviet Union fell and split up, and by then people saw this as being inevitable. There were probably at least 3 dimensions to the whole thing. First was the defeat of the communist bloc, that was the most obvious. Second, and this had been happening throughout the 80s, was the defeat of socialism and the denationalization of public assets during the Reagan and Thatcher eras. There was the dismantling of “big government”. And the implication of a world that was both opened up and turning hypercapitalistic was that people turned away from giving a damn about environmentalism.

Then right at the beginning of the cold war, something else happened: that was the Gulf War. It was a victory that briefly sent the popularity of George Bush into the stratosphere. After the disappointments of Korea, Vietnam, and the various military misadventures in Latin America and the Middle East during the Reagan eras, the US finally had something they could call a victory. But the first gulf war planted 2 bad seeds: first was the seed for the second Iraq war that would be widely seen as a self-inflicted wound, and second, because of the US airbases in Saudi Arabia, that would give rise to Al-Qaeda, and then ISIS.

2001 was a rollback of the triumph of the West. By itself it wasn’t as big a deal as how some conservatives saw it. Tightening up security and making sure that this stuff no longer happened was an OK outcome. The real disasters were that in response, Dubya started 2 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were ill advised, not good for the US or Central Asia or the Middle East. The timing was tragic because somehow that didn’t stop Dubya from having a second term. You have to say, though, that he wasn’t quite as destructive during his second term. But that was when all his weaknesses became apparent: his cavalier regulation of the financial bubble, the botched handling of Hurricane Katrina, and the wars going badly. He was one of the least popular presidents by the time is terms were over, and deservedly so. His narrow election over Al Gore should have been seen as one of the most consequential moments in American history, a sliding doors moment when you’d have to say that things could have gone one way or the other.

I’ve been talking about the big events that marked the sliding back from America’s shining hour of having “won” the Cold War. But it’s equally important to mention a few big trends that have taken place as well.

First is the widening income equality. Since the 1970s, America has stopped caring about sharing the economic progress between people of different economic classes.

Second is the expansion of the US police state, the rising number of people, disproportionally black, who end up in prisons. The prison state is the third racist system against black people, after slavery and Jim Crow.

Third is the first past the post electoral system that favours people who live on less populated areas, at the expense of people who live in the cities. That means the more urban Democrats always have a disadvantage against the Republicans when it comes to the elections.

Fourth is the cutting back of funding against policies that really matter, like education and social welfare.

Fifth is the rise of Asia. Not just China, but Asia as a whole poses a huge challenge to the notion that this is a world dominated by the West.

2008 was also a big epoch. A few things happened that year. First was the unfolding of the great financial crisis. Then there was the election of Obama which was supposed to be a good thing, but this gave rise to conspiracy theories and resentment against “elites” and the “birther” conspiracy theories. And most interestingly, there was the rise of smartphones, driven by the iphone, which fundamentally changed the nature of the internet.

Between 2008 and 2016, there were large social changes that took place with great frequency. I don’t know if I’m saying this because I’m growing old, but it seems that the changes are more frequent and less earth shattering. Maybe less earth shattering because I’ve already given up on things always staying the same.

During this period, there was the Tea Party, which raged and howled against the Democrats winning back the White House. There was Occupy Wall Street, a protest that went on for a long time against income inequality. There were protest movements that are receiving a lot more attention now than previously. There was the “Black Lives Matter” movement which at least addresses the inequities where cops who kill black people are exonerated by internal investigations. There was the MeToo movement. A lot of light was shed on sexual abuse that used to be covered up.

There was the legalization of Marijuana, which ironically came around the same time as Opioid abuse. And the movement for gay equality, as well as gay weddings.

There was the rise of cloud computing, of alternative energy and solar panels. Then there was the rise of fake news, aided a little (but not much) by Russian involvement. There were the Snowden revelations and the sudden realisation that we’re all living in a world where our data is collected, crunched and used to benefit the rich and powerful.

On the other side of the Pacific, Xi Jinping became the President of China, and this led to a China that seemed to the rest of Asia to be more imperialistic and aggressive. Probably does not have that much of an impact on the Americans. China doesn’t do much other than steal low skill jobs. And finally, at the end of 2016, it culminated in the election of Donald Trump and the rise of right wing populism worldwide. Previously, people like Netenyahu and Berlusconi would count as right wing populists, but now we have Turkey under Erdogan, Hungary under Orban, Philippines under Duterte, USA under Trump, Brazil under Bolsonaro, Russia under Putin.

Governance in the USA has been weaker, and whether you think the US has stalled or gone backwards, the rise of Asia and other countries has fostered the impression that the USA is no longer a superpower and has to contend with “merely” being a great power. The success of China is putting a big question mark over whether liberal democracy is the best way to run your country. The foibles of capitalism are apparent for all to see. In many ways, the last 30 years represent a rolling back of the optimism of the post cold war years.