SLOW – Red Light Ahead!

Or maybe yellow light.

I’ve noticed NBC has really clawed its way back to the top of prime time network comedy after its post-Seinfeld, post-Friends collapse.  30 Rock and the Office have stood out, but they’re not quite enough.  NBC reached out this year with a new show called Perfect Couples‘ and since it’s Hollywood we shouldn’t be surprised that a rival network has a show that touches on the same theme: Traffic Light.

Both shows are about the wacky trials and travails of the 30-something crowd.  Whether you’re 30, 60, or 15 you can understand the painfulness of becoming an adult: leaving behind the near-limitless potential that defines childhood.  Or at least, that’s what the shows are hoping for.  It’s interesting that this “growing up is comically hard” theme used to be the domain of Friends, Scrubs, and even the Office.  You know, shows about 20-somethings?  Here of course goes the obligatory line about how this generation seems to hit milestones later and later.

Still, PC and TL have their moments, mainly pushed by the more outlandish of the characters.  Unfortunately, this means that TL is doomed for mid-season replacement as its lone wildcard is the commitment-phobe Ethan, played cheekily by Brit Kris Marshall.  While funny and providing room for a conveyor belt of eye-candy guest stars, there’s only so much of the goofy bachelor routine we’ll handle.  And tonight showed that the other two couples are lacking both the comic plots and acting chops to really carry the show.  PC on the other hand has two “crazy” couples (the ultra-devoted, and the ultra-impulsive) that are written and acted well, and even lets the straight-man couple Dave & Julia have their moments of insanity.

But these early-30s relationship shows are like bite-sized candy bars: the initial kick feels good but there’s no lasting satisfaction.  After you enter a social scene that doesn’t involve a keg and flirting banter about midterms, we all can relate to the sacrifice of some individuality for security, the unrealized dreams we had for careers, and the distance of friends who’ve succumbed to careers or family.  These are all comic things that we can laugh about it, but in the end a 30-minute sitcom needs to make us escape our lives a little.  It can’t be like a stand-up routine, just exaggerated observational humor.  Shows like Arrested Development, Community, Seinfeld, and Futurama were amazing because they took characters that were simply unreal and let them play in situations that the audience knew didn’t exist!  What’s more, these shows appealed to anyone not just those reflected by the white, middle-class cast and situation.

I think it’s at this point that I point out it’s a crime that both shows basically stole their theme from the League.  FX’s solid late-night comedy about a group of guys who socialize over fantasy football does a much less lame version of showing men reverting to inner boy and carving out some irresponsibility from their lives.  And not a single character can claim to be the straight man in this comedic group.  Also, unlike its network counters, the League manages to show the women as full characters, not just nags or emotional wrecks; surprising for a network that exclusively targets men.

 

Media type: Television
From: Traffic Light
Title:  Credit Balance
Watch it at: http://www.hulu.com/watch/218199/traffic-light-credit-balance#s-p1-so-i0

Back in my day, we knew how to party

With Washington’s Warnings wandering within my wits whilst working (so close!), I stumbled upon the latest Intelligence Squared podcast: “Is the Two-Party System Making U.S. Ungovernable?”  The Oxford-style debate featured the media-darling Arianna Huffington and NY Times columnist David Brooks arguing the motion against the charming PJ O’Rourke and the Zev Chafets who by far had the more quotable lines.

Having grown up in America the words “Oxford” and “debate” immediately give my mind free-license to roam; but these podcasts are almost always entertaining if not informative and this one in particular delivered the goods on both accounts.

Over the past four or so years, my opinions on US politics have matured and developed but my interest in longer-term trends have come to the forefront.  I’ve noticed that there is never a shortage of people claiming we live in an extraordinary time, or that in this age things are really different.  Yet no matter what revolutionary new tool or system is set up there is invariably something in our past to compare it to.  For instance, the tech and finance bubbles are hardly new as railroad speculation and savings & loans brought about similar market enthusiasm in “new business models” that saw a subsequent crash.  And for anyone who really thinks Obama’s victory was groundbreaking and unique I beg you to read Ted White’s The Making of the President 1960, which is built off his notes following around the candidates of that election.  The young, minority senator struggled to make connections to the middle class and blue-collar workers, while his more experienced opponent abandoned the center to appeal to his ‘core supporters.’

In my opinion, and well articulated by the ‘nays’, it is a similar story with our current “deadlock.”  We seem to forget that barely ten years ago, government effectively stopped to delve into the insignificance of marital fidelity in the White House.  A few years prior government literally shut down over partisan politics.  For those who think though, that our current situation is far worse we have only to look back to that inconvenient period of history called the Civil War, when political battles traded rhetoric for bullets.

This debate initially seemed in the hands of Huffington and Woods, who effectively argue that America has lost some of its luster: social mobility has diminished, real wages have dropped, and the wealth gap has continued to expand.  But somewhere around the midpoint of the debate O’Rourke manages to make the fatal point that it is asinine to blame these things solely on a two-party system and that the ‘yeas’ have no alternative to offer.  A brief mention of one-party rule by Arianna sent a noticeable chill on the forum.  And while Huffington argues that government only finds “sub-optimal solutions,” all pundits find any compromise “sub-optimal,” a compromise by definition is not getting all that you wanted!

The idea of instantaneous runoff was floated by the audience (whereby if your first choice candidate is not in the top two, your vote goes to your second preference), which in general I think is a good idea.  The city of Oakland recently elected its mayor in this fashion, and interestingly the winner was a good 10+% behind based off just first-choice ballots.

But really, do we need more parties?  As I reflected yesterday, Washington had a clairvoyant’s gift on predicting the discord sewn with parties.  By fracturing the vote into ever more tribes who hold the primacy of different ideas, we risk becoming a populous disconnected from other’s ideas.  As a fiscal conservative, I am forced to confront my political allies’ views on social and global governing.  Were we in a system where I could vote only on the issues I cared most about, I would wash my hands of all others. I may vote for my candidate on my issue and let him decide how all other issues should play out.  Instead in the two party system I’m forced to weigh all the issues.  Of course, in Washington’s utopia I would still have this luxury/responsibility, but the mashup of political agendas would change every election and be more varied.

Media type: Podcast
From: Intelligence Squared
Title: “The two-party system is making America ungovernable”
Hear it at: http://intelligencesquaredus.org/index.php/past-debates/america-divided-us-politics/

Rambunctious youth never listen

I’ve been shopping around a number of podcasts lately due to an uptick in labwork.  Some, like Skeptics Guide to the Universe, help keep my scientific processes in gear while others, like Great Speeches in History, tap into a deeper, visceral interest.  During today’s session I was privileged to hear both Malcolm X appeal for black nationalism and George Washington’s farewell address.

For the record, I’m not black, nor was I raised in an environment were race was an uncomfortable, confrontational issue.  So what was surprising about today wasn’t the outright revolution Malcolm X was striving for, nor the possible ethnic conflict that could’ve resulted, possibly mirroring some of the unrest we see in Sri Lanka, Iraq, or Xinjiang.  Instead, what I found more disrupting was the message that Washington gave as he declined running for a third term as our nation’s first executive.

I confess to long being an admirer of GW.  First hooked in high school, I’ve since read James Flexner’s superb one-volume biography, McCullough’s chronicle’s of that pivotal year 1776, and even the somewhat dull analysis of the constitutional convention: The Summer of 1787.  And while I was as familiar as any student of politics with the immortal warnings against political parties and “entangling alliances” I found myself pausing in my work to listen and contemplate on the advice from an astute actor in both realpolitik and high theory.

Barely over half an hour, the president touches on so many timeless issues: party politics, war, national spending, even the nature of taxes.  By far, his most powerful piece is on parties.  Washington saw the inevitable harm from political parties on accomplishing the real goals of any nation.  That bickering would so obsess the leaders, that national priorities would place second to one-upsmanship.  That region would be turned against region; false, exaggerated stereotypes would isolate us within our own country.  Finally, by luck one party would gain the upper hand and that domination “sharpened by the spirit of revenge” would lead to a new despotism resulting in  “miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”  Indeed, history is full of men who’ve played party politics for personal gain: Caesar and Pompey played their factions off each other so well it led to first one and then the other being declared Dictator, Napoleon rode the fighting factions of the revolution.  We complain of bureaucratic and rusted government in Washington and Madison, where petty political tricks and maneuvering have been used more to capture headlines and the next election; as such more power has been ceded to the executive branch in an unheralded number of cabinet-level departments.  In light of the current recession, many in the press have drawn attention to China’s ability to get things done quickly, the underlying tone suggesting our pesky, self-erected impediments could be swept away if we were willing.

Washington continues with prudent talk on government finances.  Regarding public credit he admonishes “use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace .”  But he admits timely spending to prevent danger would ultimately be far cheaper than repelling such danger.  But debt was too be immediately repaid so that we would be “not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”

It is interesting that in terms of finance, he seems to think only in terms of spending on the military.  There’s nary a mention of a bureaucracy to pay, entitlements to hand out, infrastructure to ‘invest’ in.  And for such a dominated budget, despite being a soldier Washington seems to have fervently detested a standing army, thinking if it existed it would be misused.

Instead of armed conflict, we are told to maintain friendships with all nations, make no new alliances, but not to besmirch our name by removing ourselves from those that presently exist.  Commerce would be our strongest foreign policy move.  It is a message that modern-day globalization supporters would trip over themselves to agree with.

Being Washington, the speech is peppered with remarks praising his audience and peers for so well-designing a government, and that he is but an inept player called to serve his country.  His humility rings genuine and in the end we are left with words which at least touch us.  But it is fitting that much like so many adolescents, we have listened but not heard to what our greatest Founding Father considered his greatest advice.

 

Media type: Podcast
From: Greatest Speeches in History
Title: Washington’s Farewell Address
Hear it at: http://www.learnoutloud.com/Catalog/History/Speeches/Great-Speeches-in-History-Podcast/21306#
(scroll down to nearly the bottom)
Read it at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

The agony of choice

What to start this blog with?

I’m an OCD type: after skimming the current week’s Economist, I put it in a pile of magazines (stacked chronologically) to revisit in my spare time.  Which means I’m finally getting to the double-edition put out at year’s end.  As one would expect, there are a number of gems in this issue.  One of the highlights was a much-forwarded article on the futility of going for a PhD (popular in the academic circles).  Of course the issue also had an article on the history of the modern suit…

Still, I was struck by the insight of ‘You Choose’.  In it the authors examine how the increasing amount of choice has come to paralyze our decision-making abilities, decreasing sales, increasing frustration, and fueling a whole new branch of self-help.

On first glance, more choice seems like more money: diminishing returns, but always better.  Try finding a vegetarian-friendly restaurant in a small town or watching a good sitcom during the summer.  Indeed, in an age where inequality seems a product of limited options available to the disadvantaged we are indoctrinated with the power of choice.

But it’s not always so.  ‘You Choose’ makes good use of available marketing studies as cautionary tales.  A California grocery chain found that customers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam after a taste test if there were only six flavors as opposed to 24.  This despite the fact that more shoppers stopped by with more flavors.  Head & Shoulders saw a 10% uptick in sales when it downsized from 26 to 15 varieties of shampoo.

The article quotes very-informed sounding individuals who point out that greater choice means a greater chance of finding the perfect choice, and our frustration at failing to find said perfect choice rises as we waste more time searching.  As an undergrad I experienced this same feeling searching through an exhaustive course directory looking for an elective; and then again when it came time to purchase my first car (Scion tC, no regrets on that front).

When reading this argument I was struck by a particular predicament I find myself in.  As a graduating doctoral student I am faced with a plethora of choices right now: which companies to apply for a job, which city do I want to live in, is my girlfriend ‘the one’?

This last point may sound unrelated, but recently I heard the analysis that when to marry is at its basic an economics question: is my mate better than what I’m likely to find if I continue to look, discounting the time?  In other words, consider finding a spouse like picking a dollar bill from a hat.  The denomination of bills in that hat ranges from $1 to $100, and the proportion of each bill is inverse to its value.  If you pull a $20 are you likely to throw it back and keep picking?  Of course you are if you know there’s only a few more $20s than $50s.  But what if you know that for every five $20s there’s but a single $50 but 100 $1s?

Thus, in a world where we are connected to an ever-wider group of people of ever-more diverse backgrounds and personalities, our choice for spouse is almost exponentially greater than the previous generation (and mind-boggling greater than their parents’).  Similarly, the author hypothesizes that modern women have greater choice on when to have children and feel ever more stressed about having a family.

Am I arguing against choice because of my own indecisiveness (and stereotypical fear of lost youth)?  No.  More choice means a wider availability of niches, supporting more individualized tastes.  Amazon makes more money off all the books in its “long tail” then on the few blockbusters that Dan Brown produces.  More choice means more competition from businesses, driving down prices and increasing the pressure for innovation.  Of course, being a newly minted PhD, the current plethora of choice in the labor market means fewer offers and lower pay!

 

Media type: Magazine Article
From: The Economist – Dec 16 2010
Title: ‘You Choose’
See it at: http://tinyurl.com/6bwcx9e