Sports Metaphors and Politics

I don’t intend to get into a full-fledged rant against sports-themed metaphors in general; I don’t have that kind of time or space to work with here. But I would like to address, in brief, the strange propensity of politicians to use these metaphors, often in rather inappropriate ways.

Take for example the phrase “political football,” which seems to be especially favored by members of the current administration. Now, while this one is fairly understandable (the “opposition” essentially takes their idea and runs the other way with it), I’d like some clarification. After all, there are many things you can do with a football. You can run the other way with it. You can throw it down on the ground for no particular reason. You can throw it to somebody else. You can trip and fall on it, and have a guy throw a little political bean-bag flag at you.

Most of the clarity ends there. What about “The ball’s in his court”? What is he actually supposed to do with it? It’s not always clear whether he’s supposed to shoot or pass or whatever else you do in basketball. Most of the time, people with balls in their court just stand there dribbling them stupidly anyway (that was not, I repeat NOT a double-entendre).

And what about “Home run”? This term is thrown about so freely that it’s lost all semblance of meaning. In politics, sometimes it’s not a good idea to go on bashing everything out of the ballpark. “Ballpark” is another one. Have any of these politicians actually seen a ballpark? Pretty damn large, it turns out. Actually, considering the level of accuracy we’ve learned to expect from modern government, “ballpark” might be pretty apt…

CISUM

Since I was a boy, I’ve always had a fascination with things that are flipped or reversed. Eventually, I taught myself to write backwards. Rednu doog secnatsmucric I nac epyt sdrawkcab. But only lately have I discovered the joys of reversed music.

Please note, I am not some sort of satanist looking for “hidden satanic messages,” and as paranoid as I am, I am not a conspiracy nut looking for “subliminal mind-control signals” (although I should note that I probably would have done that in the past). I’m simply listening to it because I’ve discovered that reversed music is nice. It sounds strange and eerie and unconventional. It’s actually a very attractive sound. If you want to try it, rip the songs from your favorite CD, plop the audio files down in a sound-editing program (I recommend Audacity, since it’s free, easy to use, and has a lot of cool effects for when reversing loses your interest), then reverse it. I find that E.L.O. (Electric Light Orchestra) songs work especially well for this. “21st Century Man” becomes very ethereal and celestial when played this way.

English and I Don’t Get Along

I may have mentioned this before, but I have a problem with the English language. Ever since I was a child in elementary school, I’ve had in the back of my mind a list of contradictions and problems with the language. I was always harshly criticized by my friends and teachers when I attempted to fit the irregular verbs into the regular framework, and as a result, I was forcibly taught the language properly. But my discontent at its irregularities, contradictions, and problems remained, and to this day, they still annoy me.

These thoughts were forced back to the forefront when I began taking German in high school. So much of German made sense, all fitting into the established grammatical rules, that I began to see English the way non-native speakers see it: an overly complicated and contrived bundle of words and makeshift, jury-rigged rules. And having seen this in English, I began to see it in German as well. German may be much more sensible than English, but it, too, has its irregular verbs, verbs that don’t conjugate properly, for whatever reason. So my search for a less-confusing language continued.

I then learned of Esperanto, and after perusing some introductory material on the Internet, began an attempt to teach it to myself. This attempt turned into a whole series, each one punctuated by my losing interest for a few months, forgetting what I’d learned, and then going back and having to re-do the online course.

At some point during all this, I learned of Lojban. Lojban is now, in my mind, the best artificial language on the planet. It may be the best overall. It is, from the material I’ve read and from what little experience I’ve had with it, completely unambiguous, logical, and sensible. The only downside is that, after many years of English, my brain is apparently quite averse to a language that makes perfect sense. I simply have trouble wrapping my head around it. That (coupled, probably, with my utter impatience) has made Lojban the most difficult language I’ve yet tried to learn. But, if nothing distracts me, perhaps I’ll be able to give it another go.

I have just one more thing to say. To the English language: Curse you English, curse you.

Our State

Now, when most Americans think about corrupt states, I doubt that North Carolina would be the first one to come to their minds. I, however, beg to differ. This, it has always seemed to me, is one of the most socially and economically backwards states in the union. Let me explain why.

This state houses the city of Charlotte, where I was born, and where I currently take up residence. Charlotte has been a rat’s nest of problems for at least the last decade, and possibly longer (since I wasn’t paying attention to all of it until about a decade ago). First, there’s the ongoing, painfully slow road construction. It never seems to finish, making an already-congested city clog up even worse. And what’s more, they do all the road construction on the best roads. It seems to me that they should do something about the roads where the pavement has had to be replaced so many times that the asphalt has become three-colored. Or the roads that have had all their lane markings worn off. Or the ones that are so warped that driving on them is reminiscent of being in a small boat in a hurricane.

Next comes the arena scandal. Many years ago, a select group of high-powered executives decided that they wanted a basketball arena. The only problem was, the people voted it down. So the city council lumped the arena into a package with Discovery Place, a cool childrens’ science museum (trips to which were the highlights of my youth), so that we couldn’t vote down the arena without voting down funding for Discovery Place. So, in a nutshell, this is what happened. They wanted an arena. The citizens didn’t want it. So they built an arena…

And finally, in ascending order of severity, comes the current scandal. It seems that some of North Carolina’s corruption has leaked across the border into South Carolina. There, Duke Power (the Haliburton or Blackwater of the North Carolina power industry), asked for funding to build a new nuclear power plant. That’s all well and good; I’m not terribly fond of nuclear power, but at least they didn’t get the coal power stations they wanted. But then comes the corruption. Apparently, in order to “protect their financial interests”, they’d like to be able to recover $125,000,000 in planning money if the project doesn’t go forward. Where is that recovery money going to come from? They want to take it out of the taxpayers’ hides! They actually want the people to pay them for something they didn’t build. The main problem (one of many, of course): the government funds the plant, but the people pay for not building it. It’s been called “An open-ended nuclear spending account.” How stupid does Duke Power really think we are?

And to my fellow North Carolinians who may be reading this: move now! Save yourself while you still can!

Contractually Obligated

Ever since 2001, the United States has been spoiling for a fight. Granted, back then, we had a perfectly good reason. But now, six years later, our reasoning is beginning to fall into question. We’ve got a war going in the Middle East that has outlasted almost every other modern war (including World War Two), and several other wars threatening to take hold in Korea and Iran. In light of all this conflict, the phrase “military contractors” has become something of a buzzword among American political pundits. This did not seem, at the beginning of the war, to be much of a problem. It was actually quite nice that there were civilians willing to help out the war effort. But that was then. Now, trouble is brewing.

Let’s go first to New Orleans, which was smashed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina (a name that anybody who listens to the news even occasionally will be tired of hearing). Since the government relief efforts were, shall we say “lackluster,” there was a desperate need for aid, any kind of aid. The military contractor known as Blackwater stepped up and sent people to New Orleans to help in the repair and recovery operations. This was all well and good, until they billed the government for several hundred million dollars. Still, for a great humanitarian effort like the rescue of New Orleans, they certainly deserved some pay. But problems arise when you look at just how the money was broken down. Blackwater billed the government for $950 per person per day. The problem is, the actual contractors who went into New Orleans only reported being paid $650 per person per day. Somewhere along the way, almost a third of the money is unaccounted for. It is not difficult to go from the missing money to foul play on Blackwater’s part.

The problems do not end there, by any stretch of the imagination. The contractors often refuse to release documents to Congress, claiming that they are classified. But aren’t they working as employees of the government? And aren’t most employees obliged to disclose information on the request of the employer? It gets worse still: there have been several reported cases of privatized military forces disobeying congress’s orders. This is a very dangerous situation, exacerbated by the fact that, when they cause or get caught up in a problem, they refuse to abide by, or find legal loopholes in the contracts they have with their employees.

By now, I’m sure, the little alarm bells will be ringing madly in some of my readers’ heads. They ring in mine, too, and here’s why: we have private armies entering war zones and disaster areas, where they have a tendency to get killed, or perhaps to exacerbate an already-serious situation. They then refuse to release the documents concerning these affairs, even to Congress. This has all the makings of an embryonic coup.

Now, perhaps I’m being dismal and paranoid. I’m sure my more conservative readers will agree with this, but I see a truly frightening scenario:

The military contractors refuse to withhold from the government vital documents concerning incidents in which they are involved, thus creating a sphere of deniability. They use some of the money that they report to have spent on their employees in order to buy equipment and train more employees. Before long, the number of members of the United States military is overtaken by the number of soldiers employed by military contractors. We have, at this point, a force capable of overtaking the military forces of the U.S. government. This would make a coup, should the idea cross their minds, relatively easy to execute. Now, I’m sure there are some radical individuals who would like to see the government overthrown, and in any other case, I might agree with them; the only problem in this case is that the contractors are already known for lying, denying, and abusing their power. Were they to get control over the government (that is, assuming they don’t already have it), what kind of totalitarian state could they build?

Just something to think about…

Governments are Doomed to Fall

Ever since I read 1984, I’ve been thinking about the permanence of governments. And I’ve noticed that most seem doomed to fall over time, often very soon after their inception. And that led to a whole train of thought about governments in general.

You see, all governments are doomed to eventual failure. Either they change until they have become something entirely different from what they were when they began; or they succumb to strife between their different internal parties; or corruption alienates the governed from their government, and the governed rebel; or the government is attacked and demolished by a much more powerful one, which then consumes it.  But are there any sorts of government which are immune to these forces?

History teaches us that totalitarian nations have perhaps the shortest lifespan, falling to internal rebellion in short order; and if they don’t succumb to rebellion, they will, in all likelihood, be paralyzed by their own stringent organization, until the people begin to starve and die, which often fragments the nation, or causes it to collapse altogether.

Communist governments rarely fare much better, no matter how good the idea may seem on paper. But in practice, people will not be separated easily from their money and possessions, and the officials in government will rarely be able to resist the ease with which such governments can grant them more power. Thus, if they do not collapse into famine and confusion, as the USSR did in the 1990’s, they will almost certainly become a strained totalitarian state, as China — to some peoples’ reckoning — has.

Democratic governments have been in existence for such a relatively short time (only a few centuries, at the most) that it is difficult to project how (and notice that I did not use the word if) they will fall. But from examples such as Ghana, it can be seen that there are two types of democracies in the world: the type (as in Ghana) which is in turmoil from the beginning, with wild elements within the government continually overthrowing one another and changing the government from democratic to totalitarian and back again; and the type (as, one might argue, America was in the nineteenth century) which remains stable, but seems to move towards more and more government corruption and public mistrust. So perhaps this is the doom of democracies: a slow decay into corrupt bureaucracy, which can easily be usurped and controlled by totalitarian regimes; or simply a continual oscillation that demolishes the nation bit by bit.

In view of all these, it may seem impossible for any government to last which maintains the individual freedoms of its subjects. I would tend to agree with this, but I have a proposition for maintaining such freedoms indefinitely: managed Anarchy.

Managed Anarchy is not the wild chaos and confusion that plagues countries whose governments have suddenly disappeared, or abandoned ship. Managed Anarchy, as oxymoronic as it may seem, is more a type of government than the lack of a government. MA is a grassroots government in which all power is handled by the people, and all power passes from the people,  to the people, without any governing middlemen. I believe that people are capable of self-managing, without the artificial constraint of a government. Now, I do not claim that even Managed Anarchy is an immortal form of government, but I believe that it could be maintained for quite a long time, by following a few guiding principles, the Principles of Managed Anarchy:

  • The people who subscribe to MA must learn to resist all forms of imposed governance, and they must teach their children and grandchildren such resistance.
  • Centralization should be minimized, or eliminated entirely. Centralization gives one individual or group more power than those who depend on the centralized organization. And, in the spirit of this:
  • Hierarchies should be eliminated. The only way true equality can be accomplished is if all people are truly on the same organizational level. This is why centralization must be eliminated.
  • The people should produce the commodities. As above, those who depend for their food, their water, et cetera, on a centralized producer can easily be subjected to the control of that producer.
  • Desire to rise politically should be seen as a very bad trait, and it should be curtailed wherever possible.
  • Violence must be severely controlled or limited. Those who are violent may enlist other violent people to bring their violence on a peaceful group, conquering it, and therefore forming what is, for all intents and purposes, a totalitarian state.

Daylight “Savings” Time

Since I was a little kid, I’ve always been mystified by the practice of Daylight Savings Time. It’s always struck me as one of humanity’s most illogical practices, and considering what humanity is like, that’s saying a lot.

The very idea of Daylight Savings Time annoys me to no end.

Mister Government: Okay, remember to set your clocks ahead so that your internal clock will be confused all day!

Humanity: But why? It doesn’t help anybody!

Mister Government: It’s so the farmers can have an extra hour to work in the fields!

Humanity: But most farming these days is done by machines, many of which are computerized, and many farms are becoming part of large corporations.

Mister Government: Do it because I say so!

Humanity: Okay…

Mister Government: You didn’t say “Simon Says.”

But the final insult: the government has decided this year to arbitrarily move this already-arbitrary event a couple of months earlier than usual! And the justification for this idiotic move? To save energy. Now, perhaps in other circumstances, perhaps with different people in government, this might not seem like such an insane decision. But we’re talking about the administration that gives tax breaks for people buying gas-guzzling Hummers. The same administration that actively discouraged almost every type of energy-efficient vehicle that ever came down the line.

Can you tell that I’m pissed about this?

A Quick Note

As I usually do around once a day, I logged into my blog yesterday to check my stats. Obviously this is something less than the most prestigious blog in the world, and I’m usually fairly pleased when my number of views reaches my all-time world record of…14 views. So, it was much to my surprise when I logged in yesterday and found a whopping (and yes, it is whopping. Hey, I don’t try to dictate your reality, don’t dictate mine) 38 views. So I enjoyed my little fifteen seconds of minuscule fame, until I scrolled down the stats page to see just what those 38 people had Googled in order to find me. The answer was a bit of a letdown.

It turns out that people were searching for information about the Toyota Yaris, the car which I wrote about as a candidate to replace my old one. And while many people in my position would simply be happy to get this many views, I have some problems with this:

  1. With this blog, I’ve always tried to be a throwback to that bring back the sixties, fight the system, the Man is keeping us down, the corporate machine is ruining the world sort of information-dispersal-campaign rebellion. And what did I do? I managed to inadvertently associate myself with a massive, wealthy corporate venture. And not only that, I’ve now also become associated with a name under the umbrella of the ALMIGHTY ©.
  2. Out of all the posts I’ve written, the puny little one about the new car I was considering hardly merits a thorough reading. And yet that lousy post has now gotten more publicity than all of my good posts combined. (I mean, look at the post. It’s hardly a stunning treatise. I guess people really go for pictures…)
  3. Now, I do understand somebody Googling the Yaris, especially if they were considering buying one. What I don’t understand is why somebody would read a blog post of all things about it, and what’s more, a post in a blog called “The Life of a Math Major.” Do math majors really have that much social authority? I mean, I know we have a sexy celebrity air about us (shut up, you know it’s true…), I just didn’t realize just how much people sought our opinions (I can hear you giggling. Stop it!)

The Standardized Brain

What are the most important things for our children to learn? Most parents will say things like “Life skills,” “Math and science,” “How to succeed in the world,” and other such mighty philosophical goals.

Then, I have a question for these parents: “If you want your children to think, then why are you programming them to become complete drones???

This heated rant was triggered by a segment on the standardized-test-producing No Child Left Behind Act, that I heard on NPR. But, it’s been bubbling in my mind since some time in third grade.

You see, in third grade, for the first time in my life, I took a standardized test. I had no idea what the whole thing was about. Before me, I saw a whole grid of little bubbles. I had been taught extensively the proper technique for filling in these bubbles, and I complied to it. After I answered the questions for a while according to the correct answers. Then, I got bored. I stopped caring whether or not my answers were correct. So what did I do? I filled in the bubbles so that they formed an aesthetically-pleasing zigzag pattern. That may well have been the last twitch of my high-level creative muscles before the horror that followed caused them to atrophy almost out of existence.

What followed was a Ministry-of Love-style inquisition, never-ending, never-relenting, and intellectually paralyzing. No longer did my classes challenge or entertain me. No longer was I expected to think up my own solutions to problems. From that moment forward, I was instructed, directly or indirectly, to do my best to come up with the answers the test-maker was looking for. How, exactly, is this good for developing minds? Well, it’s not. But it’s very good for the newly-minted American Totalitarian State, which has finally cracked the age-old secret of how to create the perfect race of conformist drones who do not question government and don’t dare think outside the box: test them into submission.

As the grades went by, I didn’t notice the subtle change in my own psyche. I didn’t feel my sense of wonder at the world slipping away; I didn’t notice it when my drive to succeed academically began to falter; I didn’t take note when I began to become more and more resentful of school and everything it symbolized. But these things happened, and they brought me to where I am today. And that is not necessarily such a good place. I have, no matter how hard I tried to fight, part drone myself. Every now and then, I’ll catch myself watching television, even when the program in question is a wretched, sex-obsessed, moronic wad of drivel, with which I wouldn’t wipe my own rectum. I find myself surfing the internet without reason, even when I don’t have any information in particular to look for.

Why did this happen? Why did a kid who adored science more than anything else in the world, who loved his teachers, who enjoyed going to school (most of the time), become a struggling, flailing student in an undistinguished university, living the American nightmare? School. It’s always been school that got me down, school that broke me, school that got me to stand up on the podium, in front of millions of followers loyal to the system, and, in an Orwellian fashion, denounce myself for my crimes against the Party. Were this 1984, I might have said something like this: “I am a traitor. An enemy of the party. I have failed tests. I have attempted to think differently. I have resisted the beneficient forces of monotonization and conformization. I have attempted to break the mold. I deserve no mercy. I deserve death.” My true crimes, though, go in the opposite direction: I have allowed tests to depress me. I have obsessed about their results. I have allowed myself to partake in the continuous review so that we can get better and better grades on them. I deserve no mercy. I deserve death.

This only got worse with the enactment of No Child Left Behind. This horrendous act, which created a set of benchmarks, to which all schools must comply or face death, is solely responsible for killing the American soul. No Child Left Behind is, by itself, a good reason to despise the current Administration. Even if you ignore American errors, mistakes, horrors, and deceptions, No Child Left Behind stands as a beacon of insanity, a ray of darkness in a sea of light.

I’m sure some of my readers will not be clear on what this Act actually does, especially those fortunate enough to be in Europe, Asia, or one of the other Americas. The meat of the act is simple: it requires a near-constant battery of tests with which it judges the performance of schools. On paper, like Marxism, it may seem like a good idea: it’s (supposedly) a way to see which schools are doing so dismally that they might be hurting the children. (Of course, this assumes that NCLB has no dark ulterior motives, which I doubt) In practice, it does no such thing. Having experienced its effects throughout high school, here’s what it does:

  • Provides accountability. Translation: requires students to take test after test, so many, in fact, that teachers begin teaching mostly material that will be covered on the test, to the exclusion of all other facts. The focus of education shifts from understanding to rote memorization, and curiosity is ultimately stifled.
  • Judges schools based on their performance. Translation: attacks poor and minority students, despite pretending to help them, by closing down their neighborhood schools and filling them with self-doubt about their own academic prowess.
  • Helps academically-troubled students catch up. Translation: Pulls academically gifted students down to the “normal” level. Gone are the special programs for children who think differently. In their places, the gifted ones get the same crap as the non-gifted ones. It’s like taking the people who are fortunate enough to eat full, healthy meals, and then feeding them the same things as the poor, starving indigents lurking on the street.
  • Prepares students to become competitive in the global arena. Translation: seeks out and destroys creativity, turns unorthodoxy into “deviance,” and warps the minds of its victims, making sure that not a single one of their thoughts strays out of the assigned box, making certain that they live according to rules, schedules, and prescribed plans.

Having finally written all of this down, and finally given it some thought, I’m beginning to feel quite robbed. I don’t have the same analytical mind as a mathematician would have had years ago. I don’t have the curiosity I used to have. I feel as though my soul has been hollowed out with some sort of spiritual melon-baller. The most I can do now is hope to save as many of the younger generation as I can.

So here’s a message for all you young people who are reading this: never, never, NEVER, NEVER let the system get to you. Disobey. Argue with your teachers when you know they’re wrong. Bend the rules. Think differently. Act differently. The moment you start thinking it’s a good idea to be more like everybody else, smack yourself in the face and do something outrageously individual. Don’t learn to the test: seek out more information about things that interest you. Think about your future, because life has no multiple-choice questions. Stop thinking about studying and memorizing and facts. Start working with ideas, and start understanding. Don’t try to save me; I’m pretty sure I’m too far gone. But save yourself while there’s still time! Hurry!

Spring Break, at Last

Now, before you pass judgment, you should know that I don’t do the typical young-person thing and, as Bill Amend once said “buy into the media fantasy sold to me by MTV.” I don’t go to the beach. I don’t run around naked, drinking until my liver cries out for mercy. The only real reason I’m looking forward to spring break is that I need a rest. If I even go where, I’m just going to go to central North Carolina, and hang around in the rural countryside for a while.

I can already sense the reader’s questions: why do I need a break? Well, I’ve been on a crappy emotional rollercoaster for the past two or three weeks. First, I crashed my car. Then, I got hit with the problems in Linear Algebra and my Computer course. Then I started feeling much better. And now, I find myself, once again, rollercoasting (?) down the hill. There seems to be a problem with the submission of my laborious Group Lab, which has been tormenting me for two weeks now. Hopefully, it’s only temporary.

And, to answer the question “Why the hell are you driving to the middle of nowhere?”: I just want to see a place that has some horizons. Where I live, there are trees, trees as far as the eye can see. You see no hills. You see no mountains in the blue distance. All you see is a never-ending carpet of trees, surrounded by a wasteland of strip-malls and subdivisions. I think it would do me good to see some real trees and some real hills again.

**LOUD SIGH**