Friday, June 29, 2012

Our Dental System Sucks. Let's Fix It.

Our dental system sucks. Frankly, though, I think the bigger issue is the whole of the medical system in this country being hosed. It is an interesting point, and one that is expandable to the whole of the medical industry, that dentists are doing very well for themselves and are actively averse to any changes that may make dental care cheaper and more accessible. I think that this sense of entitlement is something that we will have to address before we go forward with broader changes.

Watch Dollars and Dentists on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Internet In 1969 Was Amazing!

This video shows a demo of what they thought the Internet would be like in the future. Considering that they were still looking at things from a primarily analog perspective, this isn't a terribly bad piece of futurizing.

I love the healthy dose of sexism that was thrown in for... the hell of it?

Predicting the future is the kind of endeavor into which there will always be prejudices injected. Predictions from the hyper-conservative post-war era always have technology being used almost exclusively to support extant social norms. For all intents and purposes, life is exactly the same, just with some weird gizmo doing things that people were already doing perfectly fine. Just imagine how funny it would be if their predictions were completely accurate.

"After dinner and homework are all done, the family sits down together to watch hours and hours of videos about cats. Because in the future, cats have become the predominant form of entertainment."

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Karen Klein And The Village

Karen Klein is the bus monitor who recently became a viral video sensation after video of her being horrifically berated by some kids on a bus became national news. Her fund-raiser (which had a target of $5,000) has broken $600,000 at the time of this writing. Many people are saying that this has as much to do with hatred of kids as it does support for Karen. I think that it's not simply child-hatred or a perception that children today are worse than children of yesterday. I think that it is merely a visible element of a complex social mix.

Even though conservatives responded very negatively to Hillary Clinton's book It Takes A Village, they actually agree with what it says. The only difference is that in the conservative formulation, they are allowed to be judgmental assholes since they blame the family for the failure of a child as opposed to the society in which the family lives.

What do I mean by them agreeing? Go out and talk to anyone who was of childbearing age fifty years ago, sixty years ago, and ask about the social pressure to have children. Those who didn't have kids were seen as selfish and strange — judgments that the religio-conservative right still fling around today. These ideals were still strongly felt in all social segments as little as twenty years ago. Understandably, this created a feeling of contempt among those who had no interest in having children, and the lingering judgments create further contempt now.

No, it's not as explicitly stated as it once was, but the act of marriage and children is still seen as the badge of adulthood by a large hunk of the population. And for the young people of today, this pressure comes from those who were raised in decades past where these expectations were explicitly stated: their parents, grandparents, and extended family. My own family (and the family of my partner) are not-so-quietly hoping that we will reproduce.

That is, I think, at least one of the primary roots of this amazing outpouring of support for this woman. Many of us hate children not just because children are pricks, which they sometimes are, but because we are seeing children as a symbol of social pressure that is stressful.

Oddly, I also argue that the wellspring of the behavior on the children's part is also of the same sort. We have the aforementioned renouncers of parenthood, but on the other end of the spectrum, we have those who happily engage in child-bearing. They are doing so in a society that today has two large, conflicting pressures: the pressure to be an individual and reject social expectations, and the pressure to be a "good person." This gives an opening for those to inject an enormous amount of self-importance and self-rigteousness into the act of having children. They still see themselves as part of the individualists, but enjoy a sensation of being traditional as well. They try to raise themselves above the individualist din by appealing to conservative values. This sort of activity was hilariously lampooned in the song Pregnant Women Are Smug.

In this rejection/acceptance of parenthood, we run the risk of highly entitled children being produced. People have injected such an enormous amount of importance into the child, because they are living vicariously through that child, that any assaults on the child are seen as unjust, even if the child is a complete jerk. This is because assaults on the child are interpreted as assaults on the parent.

This is not new behavior, obviously. Parents have lived vicariously through their kids for generations. I suspect that the problem is growing because of the loss of reverence of authority.

I think here we are seeing a pendulum swing. Sixty years ago, authority was automatically assumed to be correct in any conflict with a child. Look at the unprecedented child abuse cases from decades past that are only being revealed now. How many of these cases could have been uncovered if children had been listened to. For further evidence, look the trope in television and movies of the child who knows the truth, but is ignored as a liar, fabricator, or storyteller. Sixty years ago, teachers were allowed to hit children, today, teachers can't even hug children.

Compounding the problem is Internet access. Kids today can more easily learn than ever before that adults are just as stupid, immature, and dickish as other kids are. The separation of "child" and "adult" is becoming harder to maintain. And even if kids aren't thinking too deeply about the concept, they can use the Internet to simply enact experimental actions against authority. The AP covered this in only slightly-alarmist tones here.
In Maryland, students posed as their vice principal's twin 9-year-old daughters on pedophile websites, saying they had been having sex with their father and were looking for a new partner. Elsewhere, students have logged on to neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites claiming to be a Jewish or minority teacher and inciting the groups' anger. Others have stolen photographs from teachers' cellphones and posted them online.
These are the kinds of behaviors that we should be regulating. Instead, we try to take cell phones away, expel kids for legitimate criticism of teachers, and have inane zero-tolerance policies that causes kids to be expelled for bringing plastic flatware into school. The pendulum has not only swung too far, it is downright broken.

Obviously, in any discussion like this, alarmism must be carefully avoided. Kids today are not fundamentally worse than kids from a generation ago. I think that observable behavior is increasing because the environment is both allowing or amplifying the behavior. Likewise, since the generation isn't fundamentally worse, they will likely turn out just the same as previous generations — afflicted by the same problems and resulting in the same demographic groups.

This is a long way from my original subject, Karen Klein. I think that the support shown her is a historical fluke. The event of her exposure happened at the right place, in the right time, to the right population. The remnants of an old social order are in their death throes, and are mixing with the emerging social order to create specific psychosocial anxieties and issues. Once the old way dies, so goes our contemporary specific problems with children; so goes the wellspring of our reaction to this event; and so goes the wellspring of the event itself. In another time, no element of this series of events would have ever happened.

But for now, for all of the incidental elements of the process, it did happen. So send the women a couple bucks. Because, man, kids suck.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dan Rather Reports: The Dalits of India and Forced Marriage

Along with Frontline, Dan Rather Reports is the best news show in TV. You should watch it.

The most recent Dan Rather Reports that's been posted to YouTube is included. It covers further updates on India's "Untouchables," the Dalit Women. Also covered is forced marriage in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

In Memory of Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury died yesterday. As far as I know, he was the last surviving member of the "old sci-fi" club: the writers who came from the same wellspring of wonder that birthed Wells and Verne. I don't know what resulted in the eventual... corruption? No. Corruption isn't quite the correct word. Cynicizing. Is that word? I just made it one.

I don't know what resulted in the eventual cynicizing of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Perhaps it was the Vietnam War and rising social inequality. Perhaps it was increasing cynicism in politics and the rise of the conservative parties. Perhaps it was the discovery of the real world by the idealistic hippies. Whatever it was, science fiction and fantasy have, by and large, rejected wonder and hope in favor of cynical depression.

"The universe is a little emptier right now," Texas A&M Commerce English Professor Robin Ann Reid told Yahoo News. She wrote a book about Bradbury's works and sits on the board of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies.  "There's less of that sense of joy and exulation that he was writing in his works all the way to the end."

Instead of wonder, we get gritty pessimism and are told that it is adult. That old Sci-Fi was kid's stuff. You know what? Screw that. How many hard science writers do we have operating today? How many writers write with cold, exacting knowledge of the science that is in their work? Damn few.

That's not to say that there aren't any out there. They continue to bubble underneath the churn. One can only hope that we will look back upon this has an era in sci-fi and fantasy, and that we will eventually move on to another era.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Bradbury wrote about discovering science fiction stories as a child growing up in Waukegan, Illinois, and his love for his grandfather. "I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, "Take me home!" I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities," he wrote.

Where is the next generation of wide-eyed dreamers? That's what I want. I don't want Blade Runner redux. I don't want another William Gibson.

One must wonder why Sci-Fi is so pessimistic. Science Fiction was at its most optimistic during the freaking Cold War. There was very good reason to be angry and cynical, and yet some of the most hopeful works ever written were done during that time. Times are economically a bit pissy, right now, but aside from that, times are great!

We are more aware of the ethical and ecological problems of progress than ever before. Equality is rising. Women are nearing pay parity with men in the Western World. Gay marriage is just around the corner. Disregarding the American extremist movement, religion is dying. This is a great time to be alive. And yet, Sci-Fi thinks that we are one step away from global apocalypse.

Perhaps that's it. Perhaps when things are actually rather good, a book that just tells you how good things are isn't very interesting. It's not novel. Truly, the very word "novel" stems from the word for "new." Sci-Fi, perhaps more so than any other genre, must be new to be captivating.

But I don't care about that. I care about what I want. And I want the old stuff. I want wonder, and magic, and hope. Because I can't buy distopia. It's just too damned improbable. We could have blown ourselves up... and yet we didn't. That is as near a miracle as has ever happened in history. How can I not be optimistic after that?

Mike Labossiere said it well over at io9.

As a science fiction fan (and a very, very minor writer), I am somewhat inclined to agree with this. In my own case, I find myself loading my Kindle with science fiction from the early to mid twentieth century and ignoring the new novels. In part, this is pure thrift — I can, for example, get H. Beam Piper's works for free. However, part of it is because the new stuff seems to lack something possessed by the good old stuff. While I have thought about this for some time, I am beginning to suspect that my experience seems to match Stephenson's: the new stuff generally seems to lack a certain thread of optimism that ran through the good old stuff — even the old dystopian stuff.

I will miss Bradbury. He was a bit silly in some ways, but he was optimistic and idealistic. He had wonder. He had hope. He had dreams of a better world. Where is that, today?