Politics Can Be Ridiculous

28 05 2009

I’ve always been a political junkie, losing hours at the NYTimes.com and Slate or haranguing total strangers into having a debate, but there comes a point when even a devotee such as myself reaches a limit. Obama’s recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the land’s highest court has sent the machinery of both parties into a frenzy, churning out exaggerations and hypocrisy at an incredible pace. My maximum allowance, as it were, has been surpassed.

soto

I will destroy everything conservatives love and cherish, in a judicial sense that is.

I just find it strange (and exhausting) how every person in the news media seems to act like this is the first time such a thing has happened. It seems a feat to me that all these conservative pundits can be genuinely surprised that a democratic president would go and do something like nominate a liberal judge. Attacking her for being left of center just seems weak. Really, what did you expect?

You can make all the noise you want about babies and guns, but only some tangible, significant error or scandal can derail the nomination. Of course, I guess it makes more sense when it’s framed in the proper apocalyptic terms, like she’s a racist bigot intent on destroying the foundations of our constitution (as Anne Coulter puts it.)

It all then breaks down into this silly little dance; the party supporting the nominee waxes poetic about achievements, intelligence and judicial experience and the opposing group rallies around cries of said judge’s skewed ideological temperament. It’s supposedly a duel of ideas, but it’s all a play for time. The Dems want the nomination to go quickly and the GOP wants to protract it with vague attacks in hopes that some past scandal will emerge.

The whole back-and-forth seems so completely vapid. These people are judges, they are possibly the biggest dorks in our nation, their whole lives are consumed in reams of case studies. Trials and court proceedings are often incredibly dull (stop watching CSI right now, that show has nothing to do with reality).

Putting Sotomayor on the court isn’t going to transform it from a slow, methodical machine into a fanatic apparatus  that hacks the constitution, gun rights and babies into pieces.   Moreover, there are eight other people on the court. Sotomayor isn’t some judicial ninja (or is she!?) capable of executing solo stealth assassinations of legal precedent.

For those afraid Sotomayor is a stealth liberal judiciary time bomb, here’s a solid reason not to worry. Obama kind of has a lot to deal with at the moment, what with that economic crisis and all, so he’s not going to risk wasting time or political capital pushing through a controversial court nominee. Plus, he’s got to save some energy for other, more contentious battles later on, namely health care and environmental reforms.

The truth is, a liberal justice is being replaced by a liberal justice. Yawn. Let the press do some digging and wake me up if they find any skeletons.

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Lessons in Authoritarianism

21 05 2009
pagoda 3

Can you ever imagine listening to a guy like this? The answer for most students seemed no.

The initial response I gathered upon announcing my intention to teach English in Korea provoked some playfully derisive skepticism from friends and family. Most of this stemmed from the fact that I have a very low, gruff voice that tends toward mumbling and often renders me incomprehensible to listeners. I’m also infamous for mispronouncing certain words, namely “archive” with a soft “ch” instead of a hard one.

However, I had my own personal doubt that I thought would far exceed my sometimes garbled speech. Teachers, especially those of young kids, need to possess a presence that commands authority. Ever since I tried (and failed) being a patrol leader in Boy Scouts, I’ve known that I lack leadership qualities as such. I can’t really summon the kind of demeanor or personality that would instill terror in the heart of anyone, especially misbehaving Korean children.

I said to hell with it and flew over there anyway. Plus, I expected that upon arriving I would undergo a week or two worth of training to compensate for my complete lack of teaching knowledge. Instead, I arrived for my first day of work, was handed a stack of books and a schedule, and then shoved in front of a classroom of 12 nine-year-old children with absolutely no instruction as to what I should do with them.

Deep breath.

The kids were enthusiastic enough, gleefully shouting out the names of objects as I pointed to them in the class book. “Bee!” “Flower!” “Lizard!” Okay, fun enough, but it took all of about five minutes to knock out the first two pages in the allotted six for the entire class. I looked up at the clock, at my increasingly talkative (not in English) students and realized with dread that I had another 45 minutes to kill.

It was a rough first day.

For the next six months, I struggled for control. I tried making jokes (went over their heads), yelling fiercely (they couldn’t understand what I was saying) and giving up (class time = game time!), all to no avail. Overall, my approach’s defining characteristic remained its inconsistency. Depending on my mood, the boundaries about what constituted acceptable behavior and not shifted. This made enforcing rules difficult on the rare occasion that I had the courage and energy to enact them.

All this frustration culminated about halfway into my year-long contract with a physical altercation. There are no laws in Korea forbidding corporeal punishment, and Korean teachers often carry thick bamboo sticks with them to class. I had on occasion tapped kids on the head with a marker or folder to get their attention but never with any force behind it. On this particular day, I found myself so annoyed with an individual kid that I lost my temper, rolled up a book and swung full force at the standing boy’s head. Lucky for him (and me, in retrospect), he nimbly ducked under my brutal swing, resulting in gales of laughter from his classmates and extreme embarrassment for me.

This incident caused me to seriously rethink my general approach. I realized that I had been trying to control and corral these mischievous kids but losing control of my own self in the process. A flustered person does not inspire much respect.

Over the next few weeks, my teaching style evolved to compensate for this. However, I didn’t consider how I had changed or what I had accomplished much until after I came back. The realization occurred to me as I was dispensing tips to a friend about how to deal with authority problems at her new job. I had actual, constructive advice (which I almost never do on any subject) gleaned from my trial-by-fire in Korealand.

Thus, I present the three most important maxims for exercising brutal authority:

1) Develop an impenetrable skin. People are going to say or do things that inevitable rankle you, but remaining calms is key. Learn to yell without yelling. If your emotions start to color your scoldings, this signals victory to most misbehaving children.

2) Lay down the lines. Two parts to this, you must make it clear what isn’t allowed and then convey with your body language and tone of voice when the rules are being violated. My default mode was friendly and joking, but I would quickly lose the jovial tone if some kid started acting out and adopt a very even and serious voice. From there, I would ratchet up the anger and noise until obeyed. However, because my rage wasn’t emotional, I could just as quickly switch back to being fun and kidding again.

3) Know when you’re beat. Some kids just don’t listen, so don’t waste your time with a situation you can’t handle. For me, this meant sending a kid down the hall to one of the Korean teachers who would ream them in their native tongue. Korean mothers can be quite scary, so threatening to inform their parents worked well also.





A Worthwhile Experiment

14 05 2009

For many geeks out there, the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering was something dabbled in to some degree or another during middle school but quickly abandoned by most. It ranks up there with Dungeons and Dragons in the unsexiness department. However, it’s a hobby that I’ve always felt has never been given it’s proper due and with the relase of the CCG-RTS hybrid “Battleforge” from Electronic Arts, it might finally get some mainstream cred.

battleforge

CCGs still remain a staple at the fringes of nerdom and there’s really a great variety of different options to indulge in. However, few brands, with the exception of Magic, enjoy any long-term success. A couple of video game adaptations have been made in an effort to bring the hobby more exposure, but these too have failed. Yet, as one of the world’s biggest video game publishers, EA has recently thrown the resources and ambition to give this experimental project a chance.

The key difference between “Battleforge” and many of its predecessors is that EA has fused the gameplay with one of gaming’s most popular genres, real-time strategy, in order to make it accessible to a larger audience. Combine that with borrowed loot mechanics from “World of Warcraft” and an RPG-esque division between PvP and PvE and you get one of the most innovantive adentures in video gaming in quite a while.

It works like this. Before playing the game proper, you select 20 different cards from an initial pool of 160, split across four elements, and these form the “deck” you take into a match. The cards include creatures, spells and defensive structures. Once the game begins, your entire deck is available to you and you can play any cards for which you have the proper resources and prerequisites. There is very little in the way of traditional RTS base-building and expansion, which gives the game a fluid, fentic feel. The ability to instantly summon units onto a battlefield changes the dynamics significantly and helps the game stand out from the usual RTS.

The game also features a kind of practice arena called the Forge where you can test out newly formed decks. Here you can pit your creatures and spells against waves of AI foes or even face your cards off against each other. It’s alot of fun to mess around with and you can easily lose hours tweaking and experimenting with different combinations. Another winning attribute is that many of the available scenarios in the game are co-op, with increasing levels of difficulty and rewards (making it a kind of MMORTS). For anyone who’s seen the kind of disputes that can arise from a “friendly” match of “Starcraft,” the option to work together is a welcome addition.

In order to financially support continued patches and content for “Battleforge,” EA is relying on the tactic of tradtional CCGs. In order to acquire new cards after you initially purchase the game, you can buy booster packs of 8 random cards at $2.50 or bid on an individual card through the game’s built-in auction house. Herein lies a large part of the game’s gamble, as it remains to be seen whether or not players will be willing to pour in more money after throwing down $50 for the game.

This also creates another problem. The holy grail of all RTS games is balance, trying to give each faction a unique feel without any one objectively superior to the other. However, the fact that the composition of your army is somewhat subject to the random luck of booster packs creates an uneven playing field.

In the end, the game is certainly fun to play, the action is not very micro-intensive, but there are moments where the game feels dangerously shallow. The Forge, while great, can be frustrating lacking in features and the game in general, from the graphics to the lore, has a very raw feeling. It seems clear that EA won’t hesistate to cut the strings on the project if it doesn’t pull in any revenue.

The potential is there, but the future of “Battleforge” will depend on how many players the game can draw and, subsequently, how much effort EA will put into developing new content, cards and patches. Without a constant stream of new decks, maps and features the game will become stale and lose its chance to establish a foothold in the competitive RTS landscape. Afterall, “Starcraft 2” isn’t that far away.

Still, in an industry where the vast majority of titles are sequels and popular forumlas are endlessly cloned, it’s good to see that EA was willing to put up some money on such an expirment.





A Public Service Announcement

8 05 2009

My early endeavors in reading were largely based in the realm of epic fantasy material, a habit which I still indulge every now and then today. For some reason, I’ve always been obsessed by the idea of swords and sorcery, reading authors and books good (Tolkien) bad (anything Dragonlance ), and good at first then bad (Robert Jordan). However, there is a modern fantasy author who, I believe, stands way above his peers and completely transcends the conventions of the genre, thus accessible to a larger audience. So, I take every chance I can to try and recommend this particular series of books to anyone and everyone. I thought I would take the time in this space and explain to all what makes it the greatest fantasy produced in recent memory.

While George R.R. Martin has written horror, science fiction, short stories and edited many anthologies, his current project and most famous work is a series called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The first book is “A Game of Thrones” and GRRM has said he expects to finish the story in seven book, with four currently published.

asoiaf

The name has a familiar fantasy ring to it, but his greatest strength is the way he defies the well-worn stereotypes of the genre. There are no elves or dwarfs, no righteous hero of pure heart, no wizened old wizards or epic prophecy to be fulfilled. The setting is most similar to a medieval Britain and the story can be graphic and violent as those times in human history often were. This helps give it a great authentic, historical feel that is lacking from flighty, feel-good fantasy.

His saga is a rare thing among fantasy authors as it is character-driven, with a memorable cast filling the pages. The characters are captivating because all of them possess shades of gray and undergo profound shifts with the events of the story. Many times, it’s hard to tell exactly who is the good guy or who you should be rooting for.

Beware, if you decide to read, GRRM has no qualms killing off main characters.

Part of the reason the characters are so interesting is in the specific manner in which GRRM write his chapters. Each chapter is given the title of a character and then follows that character from their point of view in third person. This allows readers to observe the story’s conflicts from various perspectives and get to know all the characters more intimately than an overarching narrative voice would allow. The effect is something similar to that achieved by gripping TV dramas, like “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica,” which juggle several different plot threads at once and often end with cliffhangers.

Another reason to give GRRM a shot is that HBO has recognized the series’ potential and given the green light for a pilot to be produced. Casting has just gotten started for the pilot, so it still remains to be seen if HBO will actually go ahead and order a full season. I believe, like many fans, that GRRM and HBO would be a perfect fit.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a very mature saga and many sequences or characters would have to be signified altered for a PG-13 rating. Further, the writing style of the series is a natural fit for TV given its pacing and focus on character development over epic battles. Imagine “Rome” or “Deadwood” in a medieval setting. It’s an exciting possibility and I really think HBO could do the transition from book to screen proper.

Unlike this adaptation, which I’m not excited about at all.





Depends on Where You’re Standing

5 05 2009

I’ve always found it hard to be ideological in any serious matter, like politics or religion, but find no problem in being an absolute hard-liner when it comes to more trivial concerns. Is Coke a better product than Pepsi? You’re damn right it is! When it comes to more complex matters, however, I have trouble committing myself to one option and instead tend to see both positive and negative in any proposed solution.

This is amplified by my somewhat skeptical nature. I need to see some kind of hard evidence before I believe something and even when such evidence is presented, I usually convince myself that there are facts somewhere else to dispute it.

However, I sometimes get in trouble when I allow this two tendencies to mix. The result is that I take my inclination toward opinionating and merge it with my affinity for considering all sides of an argument. Yes, I am one of those annoying people who will argue with you just for the sake of argument, especially if it someone who I don’t know too well. I view it as a kind of intellectual exercise, a way for me to evolve my analytical skills by attempting to convince someone of something I don’t even necessarily believe myself. Others have given it less charitiable descriptions.

Throughout my college years, my penchant for political discussion drove to usually espouse views that would be considered extremely leftist, even beyond my already liberal nature. College students in general are reliably Democratic and so when I would engage in random political discussions, I’d sometimes shift myself further left so that I could argue instead of benignly agree.

However, this dynamic changed in a surprising way when I arrived in Korea.

The population of foreign English teachers in Korea is overwhelmingly Canadian, so most of my new-found friends hailed from our neighbor to the north. It’s common knowledge that Canada’s political center, like Europe, is much more liberal than America’s. So, when I entered into the arena of political debate with acquaintances of Canadian descent and tried my usually my move to the left, I found it politically impossible. They had already beat me to the far left and I couldn’t really outpace them without entering the lunatic fringe of the political spectrum.

So, I took the opposite approach and tacked my arguments toward the right. While this ensured that the debates stayed lively, it made me wonder about where my political center lay. With my political perspectives thus shifted, I began to realize that I had always been more of centrist (pragmatic, if you will) than I realized and felt slightly worried about my lacking liberalism compared to my Canadian compatriots.

Now, back amongst my fellow Americans, my fears have eased away. I’ve found comfort in the acerbic rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh and the ignorance of Miss California, assuring me that yes, indeed, I can still be considered a liberal whacko.