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Wed., July 6th, 2016. "Independent or Alternative? A Mincing of Words to Describe Artistic Tastes"

In China for the first time in fall 2001, my friends and I happened upon a Chinese “rock music lecture and concert” curated by Tang Dynasty (more recently, Spring & Autumn) guitarist and historian Kaiser Kuo at a “Cowboy Bar” which almost certainly no longer exists (a lesser loss to Beijing than its hutongs, doubtlessly). I foolishly waited until the Q&A session was ending and the concert was beginning to ask my question, which Kuo unfortunately and understandably misunderstood. I was a flustered, insecure college student addressing a rock god, after all. My question went something vaguely like this, “How does Chinese rock music 'get along' with other Western 'alternative' kinds of music like hip-hop and electronica? Do they unite against a common enemy in 'Cantopop', or are they competing for the same, small audience that doesn't like Chinese pop music?” The question seemed particularly appropriate in China, where the Communist Party government not only governs but also Djs, deciding not only what vanishingly small number of Chinese songs becomes popular but also which Western music is safe for Chinese ears.

Eager to let the band have the stage and being a technically skilled musician who'd just compared solo guitar speed to “today's kung-fu” in terms of honor and prestige, Kuo managed only a half-answer. The substance of his response lingers less than an unsolicited, condescending remark that he thought “hip-hop and electronic music should probably be considered music” (implying that they were clearly inferior to hard rock and metal). My point, which should not escape anyone familiar with the music business, is that success is capricious and unfair, and all styles really do have an enemy in TOP40 Billboard “Now That's What I Call...” processed, sugary pop music. While few would argue that art in China is anything but censored, with the increasing amount of music being made and the collapsing business model of distribution, we in the West are far more sheltered than Beijing was in 2001. All music not made by a physically attractive, teenage heartthrob is now in the same boat and in need of organizing against the insidiously insipid.

But does it matter more how the music is made or how it sounds—to be independent or alternative? This is a distinction bound to divide us like social “wedge issues” in American politics. While I do occasionally call songs “overproduced,” I'm by no means drawn exclusively to DIY or “lo-fi” sounds just because the recording sounds grainy (or even necessarily because the artist is an individual, down-to-earth “real person” who deserves my financial support). Quite simply, the dominance of pop music, which itself remains dominated by teenage consumers since at least the 1950s, prevents the majority of the population from hearing music which speaks to them as individuals. The decline of radio as a medium is illustrative.

I grew up listening to “alternative rock” radio on Madison's “New Rock Alternative” 92.1FM, WMAD, which thankfully reached my small town consistently. Had independent (i.e. non-profit, non-commercial) college radio stations on either side of my town in Madison or Whitewater had a stronger signal (for clear reception), I would have gravitated towards them instead and possibly had radically different, broader tastes. As it happened, by the time I attended college at Oberlin, I had barely a clue what the far more acceptable “indie rock” was or sounded like, and my long-cultivated tastes in alt.-rock were almost universally disparaged by my classmates. This especially included, and I now acknowedge as correct, Oberlin's venerable college station, WOBC (which, along with college radio in general, still willfully continues to refer to rock music as "pop"). But times have changed—in China and worldwide today I firmly believe that everyone who listens, watches, or otherwise appreciates art which is not “commercially successful/viable” and thereby caught in a vicious circle of non-accessibility needs to form a united front to ensure that what is popular is not all that is available. I've always used "Alternative Chinese Music" to describe my tastes in the PRC, but I think today it makes just as much sense to talk about "alternative music" (not just Alt-Rock) in the West. An open-minded music fan should appreciate some songs in most genres, and IMHO, independent artists are by necessity the most creative and worthy of appreciation (certainly most in need of monetary compensation for this). In short, if the distinction favoring independently produced music (i.e. released by the artists/bands themselves or by one of a handful of approved indie record labels) over music that sought to provide an alternative “pop” for grown-ups ever held water, it is no longer worth making.

And, yes, this includes the phenomenon of independently produced pop music. Advances in recording technology mean that, with great skill and effort I'm sure, you too can produce your own pop music in your own bedroom recording studio. Even if it is engineered to sound just like actual pop music (and thereby not my cup of tea), I support your right to have your music heard as an ALTERNATIVE to what is popular (most commonly listened to) now. If we don't unite in independent spirit to promote paying for independently produced music, though, no one will hear what you made or what I like, and the situation will only keep getting worse.

Think the internet has leveled the playing field, and things are actually getting better? Maybe in terms of gross accessibility, in that if you already know what you're looking for, you're more likely to be able to find it with a few clicks or swipes. But for 99.9% of music (at least a majority of which you WOULD like), you have no idea it exists. That goes for every single person on the planet, no matter how much we think we know about music, what music is being made, or who's touring at the moment. All the internet does is let us “drink from the firehose,” and right now the music industry is working very hard to supply all the pressure, to drown out with pop pageantry and good-old-fashioned sexiness all but the most commercially viable .1% of songs. As I've said at length previously, streaming music online also makes being an independent musician less viable as a career, even for those who've received great critical acclaim. Outlined more below, I'll take something nonconformist over “talent” 9 times out of 10.

Extended further, I'll even go to the extreme of avoiding critical darlings on the principle that if they're getting hype in the legacy media (Rolling Stone, Spin, etc.) and online gatekeepers (Pitchfork), they're probably doing OK. Similarly, I'm fairly sure I'd love the last few Radiohead albums, but I haven't bothered to seek them out. They'll be there when I'm “retired” and no longer able to bend down to sort through Amoeba's clearance sections. What's most urgent to hear is that which has the most precarious existence. And if you think that means creaky home tapes and outsider musicians exclusively, you haven't heard your local college radio station lately!

A clever cynic might infer some elitist, hipster-y self-interest here—that l get off on being “in the know” or feeling special and superior by listening exclusively to obscure music. I'll own up to feeling special and self-righteous. I absolutely feel, and will one day blog accordingly, that our identities are at least evenly split between “who we are” and “what we like”--and liking the same stuff as everyone else makes one conformist and boring, IMO. But as for lording my vastly superior tastes over the unwashed, I think that would only be the case if I weren't ACTIVELY TRYING TO PROMOTE MY FAVORITE MUSIC. As given by a quasi-scientific study on what it means to be a music hipster, I think it's only bad if you deliberately withhold certain critically acclaimed art to within an elite like a secret to be kept rather than something to be shared. Shame on me if I ever make someone feel bad for not having heard/heard of something obscure that I adore; 'twould betray my very roots!

(Incidentally, 92.1FM ceased to broadcast music some time while I was in college; growing up today I'd better have had the internet and guidance, or I could have been one of THEM!)

To conclude, I'm not interested in debating whether “Arcade Fire's” win for “Best Album” made them no longer “indie rock” or whether Beck's infamous clash with Kanye West on stage exemplified the artificial rift between pop and alternative music. As far as I'm concerned, those are all entertaining distractions, pageantry on a larger scale. Being “independent” or “alternative” music should not be opposed conceptually and in fact should share a unified artistic, economic agenda.

A bit more mincing to do...

Other highly useful but far from absolute musical dichotomies which are more explicity antagonistic: “Classical (Serious) Vs. Popular” I think is worth keeping but not taking very seriously. The important distinction to make, methinks, is between music that is so technical that study in a conservatory is required to be able to compose, play, or appreciate it. Just leaving it at Classical Vs. Popular badly neglects jazz and other kinds of “serious” music.

“Artistic Vs. Commercial” was one I heard bandied about at WOBC and Oberlin generally, where I'm glad to say a wider range of music was considered “serious” (synonymous with artistic?), but I'm both shocked and embarrassed that musicians and their work could be dismissed out of hand simply because they need to try to sell it to eat and support themselves. I have to believe, fundamentally, that eventually anyone who is a truly creative artist could, if given an opportunity, attract enough of an audience who'd demand a mass-produced music product to be purchasable. Too often, as with underappreciated painters or authors, recognition in the form of critical acclaim or commercial interest comes posthumously, and that's bound to become truer of music in a 21st century in which entire generations have heard almost nothing new since classic rock. And that infernal “Old Time Rock'n'Roll” song still played several times a day on IN rock stations even celebrates the fact! Instead, I think the existence of subgenres like "art-rock" and "art-metal" show there's a need to distinguish artistic statements from consumer commodities. Clearly pop music is the most commercial of all, but I'm not ready to say it has no artistic merit. Certainly most people don't dismiss Warhol's pop art, do they? And my dearest Hannah is unabashed in admiring how pop music tends to be quite technically “good” (i.e. singers are rarely out of key, even if aided by the bane of indie-artistic supremacists, Auto-Tune). Personally, I think leashing vocals especially to a match a key note for note is a surefire way to end up with formulaic, sing-songy (there's a reason this is a disparaging term for the same meaning) stuff befitting a South Park musical, but that's beside the point.

It's possible that I'm projecting an elitist stereotype onto my fellow Obies at WOBC-FM, and they weren't so much concerned with commercialism at all but rather with the distinction between “Art Vs. Entertainment.” I like this one much better, because it highlights the proliferation of TV pageantry, mostly for vocal competitions which threaten to make us, again, just like China! I admit to watching Star Search in the 1980s because there wasn't much else on, and its comedians sometimes connected with my 2nd-grade career ambitions. Giving up TV entirely coincided with “boy bands” and singing shows becoming a pandemic, and I'm quite proud to say I've never seen a single episode of American Idol. One can see, however, that such shows are not really about the art of music but about keeping people glued to the tube, in suspense about whether their favorite singer will win (or their favorite character will survive or die). This is entertainment at its most titillating and manipulative. Lawrence Welk may have done similarly for past generations and be just as afoul of my tastes, but at least Welk was sunny and harmless rather than snarky. These shows may have tricked audiences into thinking this was a good way to reward talented artists with recording contracts, but as the years went on, do people still go out and buy the winners' albums? Do you return to past winners' works because their original songs are really creative, and (far more numerous) their interpretations of standards and classics really improve upon the originals? More sinister are the instant reactions of the panel of judges, enforcing their narrow aesthetics upon the performers and artists alike. Heaping praise upon people for being “the best” at singing other people's old songs also perpetuates a myth of national creative denouement, the always false nostalgia that our best years are behind us artistically. This is how brainwashing works, folks! Get everyone to like the same things so that they'll buy the same things, talk about the same things at work, and think the same things when it comes time to vote. The sensationalist model of marketing music needs to end, for the sake of art itself.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, art doesn't exist for our diversion, to provide easy, consensus answers to leading questions of “Who's the best?.” Indeed, it often functions to mock our encroaching if not yet all-encompassing expectation to be entertained. We can appreciate the beauty, ugliness, or general creativity of something without being diverted from what's important in life. Art questions assumptions; entertainment reinforces them. I'm no art theorist, obviously, but I think the distinction stands at its most stark when comparing those who dedicate themselves to art with those who only wish to entertain or be entertained and “have fun.” Pop music, I'm accusing YOU of the latter. I'm reminded of the reflexive Spanish verb for “having fun,” divertirse, whose deeper meaning should be obvious even to the monolingual. Plenty of people don't think of music as anything but entertainment, a “happy pill,” something to dance or kick back (, forget your troubles) and have a beer to. I hope they're not the majority, but they might be. There's nothing wrong with fun and entertainment, of course, but I hope we can all find more meaningful things in life. Good art forces us think about important ideas and what is meaningful to us as unique individuals, groups, and societies; entertainment only works when it can safely assume that everyone likes and finds meaning in the same things. I, for one, find most mindless entertainment to be highly offensive. Surprise! Surprise!

“Attitude Vs. Artistry (& Technical Skill)” is one I've long failed to articulate well, and trying here will probably paint me as true poseur, either apologizing for slackers and hacks or trying to intellectualize the punk rock aesthetic. Truth be told, I've never really liked punk rock and rarely listen to it. But I am blood-bound to defend music for the feelings it evokes, the (often political) messages it conveys, even when the musicians “can't play their instruments.” Western classical music is obviously the height of human cultural achievement (blah, blah, blah), but there's a reason only a segment of the population listens to it regularly—it's just not very cool or “edgy.” Decomposing composers—to a man, all fuddy duddy and funny-looking white guys even when they were alive—just aren't as sexy as a shirtless, athletic 20-something yelling at a crowd. “Call and response” is real. Audience participation sometimes makes or breaks the performance. In the right venue, music “with attitude” can be appreciated worldwide.

Furthermore, if you want to express anger, indignity, or any other range of impulsive emotions, you're not going to sit down with your quill and pen a baroque, orchestral symphony (Or maybe the great composers did just that—someone please give an example of a concerto Bach or Beethoven wrote because he was just really pissed off). No! You're going to be direct, even wreckless or profane, and there's absolutely musical value in that. People with limited technical training will often hit upon the perfect melody or chorus that drills the message into one's ears more efficiently, more musically, than anything else ever could. Punk isn't my preferred vehicle for this, but I love sound collagists like Negativland and From Monument to Masses to bits!!!

Yet for some, even adding lyrics to music is corruption of the form, like the difference between arthouse or high-concept, experimental film and agit-prop. My first NYC roommate in 2009 was a Berklee-trained experimental saxophonist who bit the hand that fed him—playing his multi-hour compositions at John Zorn's “The Stone” while simultaneously dissing the man for having “shat out another album” and “not being in control of his instrument.” I tried in vain to talk him into seeing Animal Collective in Prospect Park (while I said they were experimental, that's when he made the anti-lyrics comment) and moved out before getting his expert opinion of angry rap music. Similarly, I've met several people who like what they like, Muse was one example, because they make technically accomplished music that “no one else could.” Appreciation of virtuosity exclusively returns us full-circle to Kaiser Kuo's “kung-fu” but also to the world of guitar solo noodlers and pretentious saxophonists whose music appeals almost solely to those who have tried to play a particular instrument themselves for many years. I don't think appreciating great music requires being trained to play every instrument involved in a particular song or being able to transcribe every note on those clef thingies. I'll take a rowdy punk anthem over that any day.

Sat., Jun.18th, 2016. "Blaming Nader for W. & Asking Bernie Not to Contest Are Un-American Activities"

I've been meaning for a long time to type up a one-stop emporium to refute or at least righteously redirect the increasingly canonized narrative that Ralph Nader's 2000 Green Party presidential campaign was responsible for Dubya's ascendance to our nation's highest office. Slightly expanded and more extremist, I still do not believe that George W. Bush was ever elected. These goals and ideas clearly intersect. For some, the extremely crass idea that Nader himself put Bush in office is beyond axiomatic, an unshakeable truth that was the main "lesson" of the 2000 election. But focusing on Nader as a "spoiler" whitewashes all the myriad other wacky, illegal, and frankly nationally embarrassing things that happened in the lead-up to W's inauguration(s). While the gross, criminally neglectful oversimplification in itself makes it sound like W. wasn't elected in 2000, I own that contesting the 2004 results on the basis of irregularities in OH is something of a fringe contention. I nonetheless hope it is more empirically grounded than those on the opposite end of the political spectrum which make similar claims about Obama.

Bernie's soldiering on after losing the CA primary by a wider margin than I expected seems to be drudging up the Nader-->W Narrative (henceforth "NWN") more often lately, so this might be an opportune time to check the compilation off an old to-do list. The drudgers include friends and political commentators I respect, asking us all to unite around a candidacy which is less flawed but little more liked and trusted than Trump's celebrity insult circus. Invoking the NWN, they aim to prevent principled ideologues (and others who just like any given third-party candidate better) from "spoiling another election" for the Democratic nominee and, ultimately, to shore up and preserve a duopolistic system which now faces serious internal challenges in both parties. If I've directed you here, it was probably preceded by a sincere entreaty to please, please STOP with the hackneyed, probably false and certainly misdirected NWN already!!! I can't explain all the reasons off the top of my head, but I can spell them out if you've got some time to read. There are lots of crummy reasons W became president twice, and the vast majority are at once more powerful, patriotic, and productive than the NWN. In other words, even if you don't think the NWN is a myth, please direct your vitriol and other political energy elsewhere! Recycle something useful, and our country will be a better place for it!

A quick sidenote first: American Politics is far from my forte, and an MA in political science has gotta be the least authoritative higher degree in any field. Can you name another where either A] people nearby are having a conversation about your Master's Degree field and you're EMBARRASSED to butt-in and say that you've got an MA and might be able to help OR B] people nearby who know you have said degree are having a long conversation about your field but don't even bother to ask for your input? Political science has gotta be near the top for both phenomena. But onto the main topic, a compilation of reasons why not to use the NWN to dissuade left-leaning, "Bernie or Bust" folks from supporting Bernie Sanders's contestation of the Democratic Convention or a third-party candidate later on.

First and foremost, it's just un-American and morally wrong to chastize voters for exercising their democratic rights to vote for the candidate on the ballot they want to win the election. Regardless of how good a chance a candidate is supposed to have of winning (and let's remember how Bernie's campaign began, with little or no national name, let alone policy platform, recognition or legacy/"mainstream" media attention)--whether according to horse-race-reducing polls or the good-ol' conventional wisdom of the Status Quo--telling voters that voting for who they want to win means somebody else BAD will win undermines the democratic process, intelligent political discourse, and ultimately breeds the kind of cynicism and feelings of powerlessness that pernicious Rational Choice Theory assumes individual voters (should) have anyway. It looks like 2016 will have the two least-liked "major party" nominees in the history of modern polling, and telling people they can't vote for someone they genuinely like and passionately support with little or no reservation will only amplify the "vote safe--or else!" threats and breed less and less inspiring candidates.

Neither side relishes being "The Party of 'No'," but voting against someone you despise rather than for a platform of policy proposals you love turns us all into mindless obstructionists without hope, ideals, or even ideas other than "S/he must be stopped at all costs!" The big dig in 2016 is yet to come, but I for one hope that fear of the other candidate makes for a pretty poor motivator, stirring real passion only among those well-read enough to have a reasonable understanding of both "major" candidates (i.e. an elite minority). If there's any hope for intelligent discourse, we need to encourage analysis of varied, opposing political platforms on their own terms, rather than the caricatures the two "major" parties paint of one another to play up their often minor differences in a narrow set of of wedge issues. Despite obvious usefulness, you may think it sounds too strange to have "eyes in the back of your head," but this kind of function--seeing what the two in front fail to--is precisely what third-parties (Sanders in particular, it has been noted) offer on era-defining issues from the 2003 Iraq War to the global financial crisis. Such vision and analysis need to be encouraged even or especially if it's not even close to how most people actually choose their favored candidate, or if all people really want from mass media is "horse-race" polling coverage. We can have spectacle without sensationalism, but for the fireworks to be meaningful we need to maintain a minimum level of substantive discourse that 2016 breached all too often. Being primed/brainwashed to fear one other person for a few months is not a lasting passion! It is not a sound basis for popular political participation in the democratic processs--a process which can be both very serious and entertaining at the same time. The boredom of the Canadian banking system may have spared it the worst of the global financial crisis of 2008, but imagine how low voter turnout would drop if there were no spectacle or passion at all! If election campaigns cease to be entertaining, the unentertained will cease to vote.

Judging by comments on the internet, admittedly not a great sample of political discourse, we are less entertained than frustrated by the Democratic and Republican Parties, and the success of "outsider" candidates like Sanders and Trump seems to be better accepted as evidence of this frustration. "Small-d" democrats agree that third-party and even extremist voices are a welcome part of pluralist, democratic discourse, injecting sparkling new ideas which slowly but surely become part of Democrat and Republican platforms. Indeed, this is even the official role of the PRC's other "parties." Most in traditional media for older generations would rather limit the contributions of radical candidates to this alone, only slightly more influential than in China, to make the establishment representatives mention or consider other ideas but definitely stop short of actually experimenting or trying out something different to see how it might work. Telling third-party candidates not to run at all or to quit the instant a pundit declares it obvious that victory has eluded one's grasp becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, one and the same thing. That Bernie Sanders has made a positive contribution to the 2016 presidential campaign is at least one thing that virtually everyone agrees on, but the NWN does not allow us to draw the same conclusion about any of Nader's, despite very similar ideas. Several targets of righteous culpability and hatred follow, in contrast to people who are at least trying to make a positive, democratic difference.

My social media associates connected to those having what is casually referred to by today's youth as "street cred" inform me that, for every existing problem, people must find someone to blame, and "haters gonna hate." Instead of blaming people for having hopes, dreams, and positive feelings, why not blame something that really is a problem, something that, if changed, would be an improvement? The holy grail of reforms is, of course, The Electoral College, which made us the laughingstock of the democratic and non-democratic worlds when Gore won the popular vote but not the presidency, except in an alternate universe. If there was ever any doubt about the EC being an non- or even anti-democratic institution, going against the fundamental principle of majority rule should have replaced it. That elections like 2000 are rare (though it also happened to Tilden VS. Hayes) will probably prevent the necessary momentum from forming, but that doesn't excuse the institution from harsh criticism. Others rail against the EC at great length and in far more detail than I can. I'd just add briefly that the EC itself makes such an outcome possible and designates the 2000 election as "the system working." Every year it depresses turnout in states which are not "battlegrounds," a further erosion of the 1-person, 1-vote principle whereby only in states whose EC bounty is in question does one's vote really matter. Until a consciousness arises that primary, down-ticket, midterm, state, and local elections are important, would-be voters in "red states & blue states" really don't need to bother. When comparing political positions and campaigns, only the president really matters or is entertaining enough to coax people into the voting booths.

Why is it OK to say to us passionate, third-party supporters that we're "throwing our votes away" but less common to criticize non-voters for free-riding, not caring, or abstaining? Assigning responsibility to non-voters, especially those who don't vote because they don't think their votes (or those of several dozen, hundred, or thousand like theirs) would make a difference and be another, more productive blame-game. Guilt-tripping people into doing anything might not be the most noble of strategies, but it sure makes a lot more moral sense to use guilt to make people do something they SHOULD do but don't care enough about than to tell passionate people deeply engaged in our democracy/republic NOT to do something they think is patriotic and right. Were there 537 Floridians who would have voted for Gore if they knew it would get him elected over W, sparing us the popular-vote-overriding black eye as a bonus? Immediately after the debacle, I daresay there were that number, severalfold. I don't know if all or most of them are over their guilt for not voting in that pivotal state's election, but in our country's paper of record, intellectuals I respect repeatedly try to remind or persuade me and other Nader voters to feel guilty for voting our conscience.

If Bernie Sanders and his supporters are being accused of being "sore losers", it stands to reason that Democratic nominees of past elections could also be held more accountable for not being sore enough, or even--GASP!--not running great campaigns against W, who was clearly one of our least intellectually qualified presidents. If Hillary Clinton somehow manages to lose to Trump, it would be a tremendous and surprising failure, but as my favorite political columnist points out, The Donald is more racist but not as dumb and rhetorically inept as W. Both Gore and Kerry have gone on record about what they wish they would have done differently in their presidential campaigns, and had they done so, it's fair to assume they could have turned their (rather surprisingly close) elections into near-landslides in their favor. This self-responsibility line of argument I find particularly useful in response to those who perhaps do not blame Nader's supporters for voting for their favorite candidate but only Ralph Nader himself for running. Once an individual candidate's campaign can be called a "mistake" for its own existence, expecting an eminently well-funded and qualified-to-be-the-leader-of-the-free-world Democratic or Republican nominee to run a smarter or otherwise better campaign seems like a less extreme complement. Suck it up, y'all!

If there are any conservatives reading, I can muster a few, brief sentences suggesting that W became president on his own merits, including sincerity as a "true believer" and the ability to assemble a skillful team which was able to maximize those merits and mask or "rebrand" deficiencies. Bush may simply have been more appealing to well-meaning, patriotic citizens than either Gore or Kerry. Downplaying numbers which at face value may suggest otherwise, if Nader's effects in 2004 & 2008 were insignificant, there's a good chance his influence on 2000's results have also been greatly overstated. I cannot, however, bring myself to say that the will of the people was reflected in the crucial state elections of FL in 2000 and OH in 2004.

The culprit most damning and nit-picky that I've come across is probably well beyond anyone who was too young to vote in 2000, but it's really the most convincing that Bush didn't win FL, where "voter intent" is the legal principle of counting votes in elections. A fairly recent CNN article goes into detail of "undervotes" and "overvotes," finding evidence for both sides depending on how one counts, but its conclusions leave a lot of room for interpretation, as mass media with goals of non-partisan objectivitity should strive to do. There seems to me little room for interpretation, however, of the infamous "butterfly ballot " of Palm Beach County, a district with a large Jewish population which out of nowhere had a spike of thousands of voters mysteriously voting for Pat Buchanan on a poorly designed ballot which fairly certainly caused a lot of elderly and other voters who thought they'd voted for Gore to vote for Buchanan. A slew of academics published an article about it. The local paper largely wants to deflect responsibility and move on from the county's debacle, calling it an oversimplified explanation. But everyone should demand and be looking for clear, simple examples of electoral malpractice (if not always malfeasance) which are beyond vagaries of interpretation, precisely because they are on the same level of obviousness as the counterproductive (at best) NWN. It is far more important and morally upstanding to prevent errors in the process of American democracy than to prevent candidates and voters from participating in the process!!! Obviously, my point is not that a 3rd-party candidate's campaign (Buchanan's, not Nader's!) is still responsible for W's first term, but in the face of obvious malfunction (if not outright deception--the ballot designer was apparently a Democrat), our political system should have remedial measures and recourse for clear distortion of voters' expressed preferences. Less verbosely: Gore got more votes than W, even in FL. And once more: more people in FL wanted Gore to be president than Bush, but they were systematically denied the ability to express this preference.

As a sort of transition between 2000 and 2004, see the 2006 documentary "Hacking Democracy" for yet another FL county voting anomaly account linked to Cuyahoga County in OH and a scene suggesting that Kerry knew about voting machine irregularities when he made his concession. Systematic manipulation of access to & results of (not preferences for) voting, is of course patently fraudulent and illegal but devilishly difficult to prove. Leaving a "paper trail" from voting is one of very few exceptions to my reflexive deferral to the environmentally friendly choice in almost all situations, but after watching that documentary I'll leave it to others to devise a secure voting method.

Until 2000 and mostly since (excepting the advent of Fox News), when something out of sorts happened at an election, our TVs could be counted on to tell folks to "go home," as there was "nothing to see here." In today's media landscape, this is just code for the fact that electoral misconduct isn't so forthcoming with compelling visuals. I am not so crass as to hope for terrorism at our nation's polling places or even the occasional exploding or murderous voting machine that might provide more vivid video feed than the standard footage of old people standing in lines. Fortunately, print and other media sources have stepped up their investigative efforts, and one can still find articles deeper than a few soundbites with a little effort. And this is not to say there's no value in "sound & vision"--quite the contrary!

I freely admit to being susceptible to propaganda, and like many people, I find film to be more immediately persuasive than text for its ability to connect apparent, visual evidence with our emotions. I do also think it's worth differentiating between historical fiction, dramatizations, documentaries, and pure propaganda films. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is scattershot, controversial, and well known for considering the 2000 election, among many other things, in a work that may be most valuable as a hit piece on W and an example for non-pluralistic regimes of just how free speech works in a liberal democracy (i.e. in our ability to criticize our top national leaders). Several more obscure documentaries which are rather more focused on Ohio in 2004 were released, and I'm not sure if their greater number is a result of increasing accessibility of digital filmmaking equipment, that the subject is more likely evidence of fraud, and worst of all, fraud which has been swept under the carpet, unnoticed, or willfully ignored. Rolling Stone's sum of all OH irregularity article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is gone from the original site, I hope less out of recanting than of archival constraints, leaving mostly rebuttals to be found online. That Kerry might have won in 2004 the same way Bush did in 2000 (while losing the popular vote) would've probably been a little too poetic and against my criticism of the Electoral College, but I do believe the sum of accusations might well have made the popular vote count a whole lot closer. As mentioned in the introduction, though, these tactics seem to be one of few examples of something truly bipartisan, and most certainly done by both parties in cahoots with mass media to ensure that the candidate favored by Party elites wins the nomination.

Curious, nonetheless, is that the well-funded right-wing has yet to produce a full-length documentary about Obama's supposed electoral malfeasance to match the collection on the left. Granted, if film is an art, left-wing films have always held a clear numerical and arguable cinematic advantage, but there is certainly no shortage of right-wing documentaries. And once the topic is politics itself, it's pretty much impossible to avoid becoming what my film hero George Gittoes calls a "superdoc" (i.e. documentary plus director's opinion/commentary). Either these films are onto something real, or the American Left is just unreasonably obsessed with this topic, not only in film but in blogs such as this. A conservative reader is almost certain to come to the latter conclusion, likely with a "sore loser" ad hominem thrown in for good measure. But what are blogs for if not to rehash battles of the past which most people have gotten over and forgotten? More likely, I think most Americans aren't aware of any problem at all.

So while my Americanist colleagues trained in quantitative methodologies have been dismissive of recent articles suggesting that Bernie was a victim of a rigged system, such "coincidences" either have a long history or share a pronounced pedigree of "sore losers" who simply won't accept that their favored candidate did not get as many votes as the establishment-favored rival. And we can't make too much of exit polls, either, apparently. All the evidence in the world won't convince a bigot, but at the same time, the more education we get, the more sophisticated our evidence supporting our beliefs is supposed to be. Many of us never reach TMBG's elementary school jingle mode, though. Not being completely ignorant of positivist methodologies in the social sciences, I tend to conclude that we're chasing a receding horizon. What today's experts call convincing evidence of "the truth" is likely to be refuted by future generations with better tests and more refined powers of observation, and in the mean time I do hope that a little conventional, even folksy wisdom of "if it looks like, smells like..." should not be dismissed out of hand but rather be challenged by contradictory evidence to the best extent possible. That we should accept official vote tallies as more valid than conspiracy theories (or more neutrally, alternative explanations) and in need of no further tests even when results show one party or candidate consistently benefitting from arrays of anomalies tries one's credulity. We should be cognizant of fallacies conflating correlation and causation, reject anecdotal evidence (even or perhaps especially our own observed experiences), and be wary of confirmation bias among any number of epistemological pitfalls, but after a while (say, multiple election cycles) a cynical fatigue sets in from suspending belief. It is very unsatisfying for one to profess uncertainty up to and often beyond the point where one's curiosity about a given topic is sufficient to motivate advanced graduate study in social science methodology. A thinking person should enjoy being disillusioned!

Admittedly, I wouldn't mind if the crazy 2016 primaries throw a big monkey wrench into established, political wisdom (including the American subfield of political science) and what we think we know about American presidential politics. One thing I think Bernie's campaign really showed, compared to Nader (who's been only quietly supportive, no doubt out of some envy for Bernie's greater exposure and electoral success), is that political parties still matter greatly in America. Bernie Sanders joining the Democrats for 2016 gave a radical message a far more accessible platform than anything in my lifetime so far, and I really got my hopes up that the message might even reach across the aisle when it looked like Trump might debate him. Ross Perot's largesse of campaign spending gave a brief flicker of hope that Duverger's Law might yet be overcome by the 21st century, but alas, our big goal in 2000--4% or greater in polls to get into TV debates (a fine Catch-22 as any IRL) was not met. I doubt Trump's media ratings boosts from celebrity status would matter much if he weren't running (and debating on stage with others) for the Republican nomination rather than as an Independent. I'd like, also, to point out that during both his Green Party and Independent campaigns many claimed Nader's Third-Party ambitions were evidence of nothing more than an inflated ego, exercises in vanity and self-promotion. To end another digression with a question, would anyone say that Nader's egotism and narcissism even come close to the presumptive 2016 Republican nominee's?

So to conclude, I'm not "an Americanist" in my field, so I don't have the expertise or scholarly interest to do nitty gritty or personal research into this issue. Such folks are the ones who dig deepest into the finer points of U.S., FL, and OH law, the actual statements of the Supreme Court justices in the 2000 election. However, being an American teaching politics in a Chinese university, I have been thrust, not unwillingly, into "foreign expertise" and to lecture on the U.S. electoral process in class. I hope that I haven't grievously misinformed my students. I also hope this post has done a small part to convince you that the process and procedures of a given election are more consequential to the results and therefore deserving of deeper scrutiny, critique, and reform than the sometimes more apparent, longstanding, but less-justified animosity toward individual, third-party candidates and the voters who passionately support them. As a first step to remedying this insidious injustice, please delete from memory the narrative that Nader gave us W and replace it with something that enriches our political discourse and may lead to positive changes in our democratic political process and institutions. And after we're done blaming other things scarcely able to articulate any good intentions (the Electoral College, non-voters, Democratic nominees themselves, the Butterfly Ballot, outright fraud & manipulation), please help act to prevent and change them. Trying to scare me out of my moral convictions is not appreciated.

 

Sat., May 14th, 2016. "Finding the Misanthropic Sweet Spot"

Becoming an uncle and having just watched the movie about D.F. Wallace, an iconic/iconoclastic author I've never read but who's portrayed a year younger than my 35 years in the film, has me in a reflective mood on a Sat. morning, so let's reflect. Clearly, now's the time to start behaving curmudgeonly, nostalgic for bygones that never existed and insistent that everything's getting worse. But at the same time, too much pessimism is never healthy—you'll waste your life and get depressed if you think nothing's hopeful or changing for the better. How should we strive to strike a balance between hard-nosed but depressing reality and life-affirming but naïve optimism?

Starting with the negative, I'm ready to conclude with Hugo Weaving's Agent character in The Matrix that humanity is a plague upon the earth, though mainly due to an anthropocentrism that we have the power to change. When I tell my students that China used to have elephants or that there used to be a CUTE animal called the Baiji in the Yangtze, but sedentary agriculture and economic development itself drove them out, after their disbelief wears off I can sometimes see glimmers of recognition that maybe lifting China's One-Child Policy—despite being an undeniably brutal trampling of human rights—might help China in the medium-term but will be another contribution to our long-term, collective screwedness. Going to a train or bus station here any day of the week has the same effect for me: why would any thinking person look at the world and conclude that what it needs is MORE of us?

In my first year of Ph.D. studies, I led discussion for a tome still over a hundred pages shorter than Wallace's “Infinite Jest” by the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor. Called “A Secular Age,” it lamentingly documents social evolution away from religion at the center of life, away from worship of a deity as a central purpose of “the good life” toward something he only minimally disparaginly calls “human flourishing.” Apparently this is something found in both Aristotelian and Confucian texts. This basically means that the world has evolved to make “the secular” possible, whereas it was once punishable by death as sacrilege or otherwise impossible (one could only be anti-religious, not irreligious), but it's perhaps less desirable and, in his view, likely morally inferior. Less from a religious basis, I generally agree with Mr. Linkola that the flourishing of humanity across the planet is, if not killing Earth entirely, making it a whole lot harder for other species to survive. I wonder whether the dinosaur-riding humans in Kentucky view the terrible lizards' extinction the same way that some scientists have been explaining that of woolly mammoths and other ice-age, big mammals.

But it's nothing to worry about. I don't plan to sign onto the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, get a vasectomy, or least of all contemplate suicide. As an atheist, life's almost certainly the best thing we've got, and it'd be a shame to waste it. And that informs a preference not to waste little things like napkins in restaurants, to opt against single-use chopsticks, and to buy recycled paper products on the order of dogma. Though my failed-Ph.D. genes could earn me some easy money at certain banks, I keep my moral integrity intact mainly by keeping my nasty chromosomes to myself. No matter how smart and good you think you are, you and your offspring are no better for the planet than a honeybee or an oak tree! In all likelihood we're all probably much, much worse than valuable.

It's a shame that NYC had to monetize the value of every single tree in the city at over $200 a year, but if persuasive in this case I say, “by all means necessary!” These are issues that make me want to drop society and join an Earth First collective on some particularly contemplative days like today. Even if these examples of thinking globally, acting locally are just the equivalent of “walking northward on a southbound train” or “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” sticking to moral principles is still worthwhile to have a sense of decency, to be able to go to sleep at night knowing you're trying to balance the challenges and contradidctions in life. It can also, unfortunately, lead to an elitist self-importance that births overly reflective blog posts, but that's another issue.

Too much hatred of humanity is obviously unhealthy to the ego, but not having a little of it, in recognition of what we've done in the name of righteous or thoughtless anthropocentrism, is simply irresponsible. Nothing short of a full reversal of the first-born's moral imperative to “carry on the line” will do. That should be enough to keep me from having kids, whether in or out of marriage, but even in a post-industrial culture where it's absolutely a choice, I do feel the pressure of expectations that “a successful life” means settling down and starting a family.

Mr. Pan, the septugenarian who sits in a 4x6' cubby seven days a week watching TV and selling me candied ginger and sunflower seeds tells me I need to GET TO IT ALREADY, though he also says neither of my nuptual prospects is exactly the right height for me. I tell my Chinese lady friend of 12 years that the youngest and probably least-financially-able of us three brothers is the first and only one to have kids because he's the most innocent, the most traditional, but she says she plans to keep waiting for me to change my mind. She seems to be channeling traditional Chinese feminine virtue of loyalty in refusing to choose one of the hundreds of millions of traditional Chinese (or foreign!) men who want the same traditional life that she does. Worse than mourning the deaths of our unconceived would certainly be throwing herself on their pyre, but taken to the extreme, that's just what a virtuous Confucian misanthropette ought to do. Or maybe that was just Hinduism; poor Orientalism on my part, in either case!

Though she says I'm heartless for not caring whether she “lives in the world” or not, she should NOT do anything more extreme than what until modernity was the norm for most cultures—marry not for love but for the birth of another patriotic soldier or soldier's wife! I warn her that she'll be forty and childless, that she should take smarter actions to avoid that unhappy scenario, but to no avail. People do so many stupid things for traditional (i.e. monogamous) love, whether by foregoing the happier lives they could have or making more hungry people as the result of it.

My views on “the more, the merrier” veer dangerously close to Malthusian detachment, colored heavily by a PBS special on rat population swings I must've seen in elementary school. Only our technological advances have made us immune to similar population booms and crashes, and indeed, Malthus actually does rule too many households and entire countries. Alas, on days when I feel less than chipper despite my ideal job, I sometimes find myself contemplating the suffixial linguistic coincidence between students and rodents. How can there be so many? Where do they all come from? Perusing ESL job boards, we foreign teachers look favorably on job security in Mainland China but fear Taiwanese trends toward school closure, but in the big picture we'll all be rats abandoning the sinking ships when the high-paying, enjoyable jobs dry up. As well-meaning sustainability people have bleated earnestly in the wilderness for generations, the rodents will outlive us all without a Planet B. Pity the pets who need us, not ourselves who control our own destinies but choose selfishly and short-sightedly.

It's really unfair that the only animals and plants that get to survive are those that are of specific use to us, or like rats and ants, thrive on what we discard and waste. And as the baiji showed, in defiance of the infantilizing world of internet home videos, even being cute is not directly useful enough to save oneself. In my past, I've been a doting pet owner, but alone (i.e. without a wife or kids) I don't think I'd even adopt an abused animal from a shelter on grounds that their chow is proliferating industrial meat production and global warming.

The same logic about pets can be extended to my thoughts on adding kids to the global population. Fundamentally utilitarian, I suppose, is that people shouldn't have kids until the ones that the world already has are well taken care of, which is unlikely to happen any time soon. My brother made me an uncle before he had a full time job or a stable place to live, so many might say that the number of pets, kids, or dependent wives he could afford to care for is precisely zero. Traditional culture and biological clocks overruled this common sense. On the opposite extreme of wealth in “The Queen of Versailles” documentary, the Timeshare dynasty could afford an infinite number of kids and pets, but their declining value in number meant gross neglect of the several their household had. The kids were merely spoiled; the neglected pets died after a tortured existence. In the crass terms of Freakonomics, if safe, legal abortion raises the value of an individual life by making a higher percentage of existing children “chosen” or “wanted,” the world's current population boom will continue to lower it until the libertarian nightmare of no individual rights is realized, and certainly faster than giving up guns might. Viewed economically from a Global North which already struggles to employ its own population, every additional child in developing countries is not value added but a greater and greater burden on limited resources. Isn't that romantic?

But surely the above comparison of humans' and animals' lives is overstated. After all, even the value of another poor person (and remember, I include myself in this, having grown up in poverty) who'll make at least a few more rights-bearing babies must be greater than the last rhino or the last tiger precisely because every human life has inherent value by virtue of being human, right? Human rights for all humans! There's no way to say that and sound nice, but a little healthy misanthropy will help us all recognize the pernicious effects of unchecked anthropocentrism. Instead of telling poor people not to have kids, can first-worlders just not procreate and get over our racism by treating other people's kids the way we'd treat our own? Plants and animals would appreciate it, but I'm afraid the percentage of us who care about plants and animals, even as we eat them to extinction, is but a vocal minority.

My colleague at Marquette once asked me seriously why an “arch predator” like the tiger should be allowed to survive in the world if it was no longer “the fittest,” and my intitial response was a weak platitude about biodiversity and the maintenance of ecosystems. But what I wanted to convey with the cold, sciencey answer quickly expanded into pagan spiritual overtones I feared would offend his Christian sensibilities. “Go forth and multiply” is not a license to crowd every other species into The Simpsonsfood chain”. Every living thing has spiritual value, but when populations get out of balance, economic values get drastically skewed and dominance ensues. Certain plants and animals which are valued become commodified, while others are at best amusing targets for our children's ice cream cones at the zoo. Why are all the animals just lying around sleeping? Why aren't they entertaining me and my child?! The entitlement of college students, the bane of life in academia, pales in comparison with Christian capitalists, whose rightful dominion knows no bounds. Why are so many American Christians, whether practicing or not, so oblivious to the suffering that our “human flourishing” is causing, and which may eventually lose us our own habitat? Strike “eventually”; the Maldives, Bangladesh, possibly Yemen (running out of water), and the Louisiana coast are already reaping what modernity has sown. I don't presume to know the answer, but I'd guess there's a traditional/modern divide in most cultures in which pre-monotheistic animism, paganism, etc. had spiritual connections with the environment and the earth, not just a big guy upstairs who looked like our grandpas and was all perfect, omnipotent, and stuff.

But I don't want to go overboard and be the kind of person who wishes ill on procreators or watches a movie like “Children of Men” rooting for the "bad guys." I should probably watch the Mad Max quadrilogy as an adult and reference it here, too. But the point is, as conservatives eagerly point out, playing a blame game is often more likely to make everyone feel bad than to solve the problem. Where I strongly disagree is that it's better to pretend there isn't a problem, to perpetuate ignorance deliberately in oneself and others, or to rebrand obviously immoral human tendencies as virtues. Plenty of us perpetrators are innocents, never having thought twice about having kids or recycling their beer cans. Blaming innocents is a losing proposition, though only slightly worse than informing and disillusioning them. And that again leads to forking dead ends of either being a self-important crusader or hopeless about humanity's prospects for saving ourselves and a significant enough portion of the remaining complex species so as to avoid a pyrrhic survival. If even the conservatives are ready for drastic measures to save biodiversity, you know our global situation must be getting dire. And as a side note to logicians, here's a good example where those who agree with the misanthropic logic here should decidedly still NOT go on a genocidal killing spree or root for a pandemic to decimate the human population. Just saying things are far out of balance doesn't require violent rebalancing action at the cost of lives and our human dignity, though I WOULD like to see the UN try to enact and enforce a GLOBAL One-Child Policy. Broad strokes. Always best. Of course.

While these conclusions help me deal with contemplations of mortality, on the whole, I really do hope that science and/or The Singularity extend my life (and those of non-white people in developing countries—I'm really trying not to be selfish here) indefinitely or basically forever. Or at the very least, and this actually seems likely in my assessment, to the length necessary for us to live to see the consequences of our consumerist high lives on coastal areas and climates generally. Climate-change deniers reading this far have probably been rolling in the aisles for paragraphs now, but I can offer another knee-slapper that whenever I hear about another bleached coral reef, I think “better go to Australia for some scuba diving while there's still something to see” but then am overruled by the commitment not to fly for recreation or for periods shorter than a month because airplanes are the worst CO2 emitters. And economic development in the Global South is a bad thing. Try thinking that a few times a day and still feeling good about yourself and your first-world problems. But I don't plan to do myself in or take a “screw you, I'm taking what I can” attitude towards the world. Mean people suck more than ever.

To end with one more bumper-sticker slogan, “Humans aren't the only species; we just act like we are.” There are still hypocritical elements to my own life in this regard, but I'm working to change them without being obnoxious about elevating my own morality and self-importance. Hoping you'll find your “sweet spot” short of Oil!'s campfire scene and do similarly!

 

Friday, April 1st, 2016.To Re-NENU or not to Re-NENU?

At the end of my delightful month back in the U.S., I committed to try living with a special someone again and not to “run off to Asia” without her approval. Long story short, she's telling me to renew my contract because she won't consider my commitment unless I'm willing to break my current contract and return to CA ASAP. I've said in no uncertain terms that isn't going to happen. Quitting immediately is the only piece of evidence she'd find convincing that I'm truly committed, which one might consider reasonable, given that I've moved to China temporarily twice now, at least once against her will. Barring a radical change in this situation, I need to consider the possibility that we're through for good. While I'm glad it's her decision, and I would fulfill whatever she decides, I do need to consider what the next steps would be if I don't return to CA on July 30th, as currently ticketed.

Judging by my previous post on job satisfaction, the option to renew my contract with NENU should be obvious. The Foreign Affairs Office says I've got until the end of April to decide, and then they'd start looking for a replacement if I don't say “yes”. But there are reasons not to say “yes” other than the awkwardness that'd be telling them in mid-July that I'm going back to CA after all.

If I'm going to take IR and polisci teaching seriously, I should probably apply to teach in a more reputable college, whether in China (i.e. Beijing) or not. Part of me thinks I should only renew here if I can get some family or friends to join up for the next year, which seems unlikely, though I'd be happy to make a personal or impersonal pitch if you, dear reader, would consider it! The students are generally bright and attentive and all, but no matter what the official subject matter is (IR Theory for graduate students, Public Administration, IR Reading, IR Writing are my four courses this semester) I get a strong impression that most students would rather I just teach an apolitical oral English class full of games. And that feeling could get old over the course of another year.

Throw in concerns about health from the air, lack of entertainment options, and a middling salary, and I start to fantasize about other lives elsewhere again. Often.

In my free time, instead of updating the website, reading, or doing something else productive, I find myself regularly checking Craigslist for rooms in NYC and trying to settle on an amount I'd need to have saved up to attempt a move back (and the definite possibility of not finding a job for months). I've written a pro & con evaluation for long-term living in most major CA cities, returning to WI or even Oberlin, and I honestly wish I could try every option for a year or more at a time. I think about going to a tech school to get a marketable skill that would allow me to do precisely that.

Over the winter, I stocked my shelf with old Lonely Planet guidebooks for India, Russia, Mexico, Nepal, Mongolia, and more to plan out “wild, alternative life trajectories” in developing countries where I could stretch this contract's savings to a full year of travel (pending visa extensions). I feel like I should learn another, far more obscure language that would give me a real leg up in the U.S. job market on my inevitable return. Chinese and Spanish, while obviously useful, are so widely spoken that jobs using them are more likely to be filled by native speakers in the cities where I'd like to live. I get to thinking that a more unusual language would set me for life in an immigrant resettlement organization or other humanitarian/non-profit thingy. I get the altruistic urge often, thinking I haven't really volunteered abroad since 2008, in NYC since 2010, or in a radio station since 2013. (Adopting Ren Hoek's voice w/ the Happy Helmet... “I ...MUST...GO...DO...NICE THIIIIINGS!!!”)

My Chinese residence permit (work visa) is good until Oct., so if I don't return to domestic bliss in CA or re-NENU, I should probably change my flight to Oct. and teach some summer camps and/or travel to make sure I've satisfied either the itch for adventure or the need for as much money as possible to transition. Then again, I have to think about how much summer camp salary would be worth it to offset the hundreds of dollars it'll cost to change the ticket.

And whenever the topic of money comes up, I need to think about whether I should stick with the bird in hand for at least another year. Barring a war or other international emergency, I could probably last several years here at NENU before getting tired of it or wearing out my welcome in the department. Having a three-day weekend, free afternoons, saving money, and enjoying the job has got to be a very rare combination. I just wish it were enough to overlook the obvious downsides of isolation, bad air, and lack of health insurance. Maybe I should wear PM2.5 masks everywhere and suck it up. With so many people struggling in the world, why should I abandon my lucky life at NENU to join their ranks in NYC? Because it'd be fun, of course!

 

Friday, February 5th, 2016. “Why Does Money Trump Job Satisfaction?”

Any number of blogs will trot out the clichés that we need to “seize the day” because we only have “one life to live,” but I want to explore a specific instance where this, quite importantly, doesn't seem to apply. Very few people I know actually like their jobs, and they are pressured by perception or reality to pursue their passions only in spare time that is fleeting, with energy that is sapped by said crappy jobs. The two main culprits I see in causing this unhappy scenario for the majority of my generation are either student loan (or other) debt and/or the financial burdens of “settling down” and starting a family. Which of these two is a choice is subject to debate.

In a society of supposed post-materialist values, in which individualized self-expression and fulfillment are life's primary goals, virtually everything we do is a choice. We should have neither inescapable pressure to feed and shelter ourselves nor to get obscenely rich, and we should be relatively free from traditional pressures to have kids to “carry on the line” or to conform to other social expectations. Unlike my Korean grandfather who survived the war and became a model of self-discipline, I believe that people who are capable of graduating high school SHOULD go to college to learn more about what intrerests them in life, NOT for the sole purpose of finding a job that will provide financial wealth or financial security. Thus, I believe that going into debt for college, even if it doesn't lead clearly (or smoothly) to “a good job” (i.e. one which allows for a “normal, middle class lifestyle” or getting rich) is not a choice but an imperative. Getting married and having kids, by contrast, is a lifestyle choice, and one which clearly hasn't fit me thus far.

Too many people feel the need to get rich either to support their families or to increase the quantity and quality of their life choices. Still others, probably the majority of the world, will never transcend materialist values which lead to a samsara-like loop of pursuing money to buy more and better worldly possessions in the delusion that MORE STUFF = MORE HAPPINESS or MORE/BETTER STUFF THAN OTHER PEOPLE = BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE.

I prefer to think of wealth, instead, as one of about five values which can be ranked and pursued with greatly varying fervor: Wealth, Experience, Knowledge, Happiness, and Virtue. A minimum level of wealth is probably necessary to pursue whichever of those five values is most important. Wealth for its own sake, however, must be ultimately empty, a result of the encroachment of neoliberal economics and capitalism on our daily lives, perverting what should be an optional choice into an imperative. I'm of the opinion that the pursuit of wealth above all else is mainly responsible for the world's sad state of affairs, and on the individual level it most often requires sacrificing the other values. I also feel like abandoning morality or happiness for money is a well-worn rhetorical path (i.e. Don't do the former but DO do the latter!), but less is written about how the good job that you need to make good money is killing your passion and ability to have good experiences.

For myself and presumably others taken by the Adbusters line of propaganda, the “minimal level” of wealth to be able to pursue the values I find more important is frighteningly low. I have often and recently come close to having no money in the bank with debts to pay. Other than my time at UCI and the Peace Corps (admittedly a large chunk of my adult life), I have rarely had health insurance, a risk that I'd certainly rather not take but in the U.S. is inextricably tied to the risk of not having a “good job.” I have no car, no credit cards, and like to think of my material possessions as spartan with the MAJOR exceptions of what I'm passionate about. To go much further into detail would be a self-aggrandizing exercise in poverty pride, but suffice it to say that never having made more than about $20,000 a year by age 35 has not prevented me from pursuing passions for international travel, concert-going and music in general, film, art, politics, China, E. and SE Asia, and more recently sampling global vegetarian cuisines. My “failure” to specialize narrowly to focus on a single passion that will enable a lucrative career, I would argue, has made for a life so far that is much more interesting than average and much more in line with my main value of experience (both good and bad ones → interesting) above all others.

I've had financial help from family, and I fully understand that I'm going to need to save for retirement and get better and more stable health insurance as I age. I count myself lucky and try to appreciate my good fortune and ability to be happy without financial wealth. I also largely accept premises analogous to the likelihood that 3/5ths of Germans can't all be artists like they want to be if Germany is to continue being an economic powerhouse. My main point, however, is that people I care about (and presumably people I don't know but are just as decent) are toiling their lives away as slaves to crappy jobs. Waiting until retirement, which may never come, to pursue one's REAL interests will only result, over time, in dulling one's passion and abililty (both mental and physical) to pursue them. I get the impression that many outside America also see us in this way, as paradoxically lazy in terms of seeking personal fulfillment (or doing anything difficult or that would require self-sacrifice) in life's growing channels for instant gratification but also workaholics as a whole.

The specific instance I hinted at in the beginning is, of course, personal and between myself and my on-again-off-again partner of several years. She has the best job of almost anyone I know, the kind that provides an OK salary, benefits including health insurance and retirement savings, some degree of satisfaction (i.e. liking the job most of the time, a feeling of making a positive difference, etc.), and even the possibility of becoming one of those increasingly elusive “career” thingies people used to have. My problem of late is that I really like my job, but it pales in comparison to her financial and other benefits and happens to be in another country which I happen to have studied passionately for the better part of my adult life. I'm not willing to give up a job that I like but which provides little more than financial subsistence, and she's not willing to give up a good job to move to Asia to pursue what she often claims is her main passion in life: Asian food and food writing (which one day might be a near-perfect but financially iffy job for her like mine is for me).

Romantics and financial responsibility people pile on and say that obviously I'm being both selfish and financially irresponisble. Obviously I should get a similar, acceptable job that should be available with two MA degrees and being trilingual in Chinese and Spanish. Money trumps job satisfaction because of course saving for retirement is the most important reason to work. Loving one's partner entails practical sacrifices like taking a crappy job at first and trying to get ones that are less and less crappy. In three months over the summer of 2015 I was unable to get a job in Long Beach, but I got several job offers in China which were EITHER financially or using-MA-degree-y GOOD but not BOTH. Is it any surprise that I took the one that is financially the worst, unacceptable to my partner, but most fulfilling personally in terms of interests and passions for experience?

Both of my brothers are smart college graduates compelled by financial need to accept crappy jobs, and IMHO they are struggling to balance finances and have any semblance of passionate, interesting lives. Indeed, all three of us have in the past few years been in the desperate situation of needing to accept ANY job that would take us, ASAP. That's a situation worth avoiding, but as my 1-yr. contract enters its second half, I am again faced with the serious question of whether to go right back into the same situation. I have told my partner that I am unlikely to renew my contract in a job I love in a place I've studied passionately because her financially responsible job is virtually unquittable—even in pursuit of her professed passions—and mine will never result in financial wealth.

The financial responsibility people chime in for me to confirm that being poor is a choice. I make these observations as someone who took almost every single math and science class my high school offered. I tried the pre-med track in college but decided on my less employable but (I believe) more interesting and important East Asian Studies with a focus on Chinese because I passed college biology and chemistry with the lowest possible grades of C- and C, respectively. I'm not going to put more effort into something I'm less interested in and have lower aptitude for just to have societal approval and more, nicer stuff. While I wonder what might have been had I been an MD, I don't regret the decision.

I always come back to a question at my second Americorps orientation in NYC, where everyone went around in a circle explaining their opinion about whether one's job is an important part of one's identity, the most important part of one's life, even “who you are” OR just something one does for money and “just a job.” I was in the minority who said that even something obviously noble like volunteering was still just a job, even if one has passion for it. Who I AM is NOT what I do to pay rent.

Most people I see today don't have the privilege of working somewhere important enough to them for it to encompass their being as their contribution to humanity. This is a failure of markets in a global capitalist economy, a side note that might seem strange here but I hope to rant about in the future, but even in such cases I do believe that over time even the crappiest of jobs shape our identities fundamentally. It's just that we no longer have a CHOICE in who we are. Financial need turns us into drones, laboring automatons pigeonholed into passion-crushing routines. Inured or not, aware or not, we all risk becoming regrettably though only sometimes regretfully the same. Working a crappy job (i.e. anything we are doing “only for the money”) for anything more than a year robs us of the memories we are entitled to as human beings. Or, in the economic terms I'm railing against, “opportunity costs” should NOT be thought of in financial or economic terms at all!!!

I'm aware of and sensitive to the possibility that we are all ego-centric, bigoted beings who'll rationalize anything they believe they're right about with rambling feats of sophistry like this. That said, I would like to believe that I'm willing to be convinced both that finances are ultimately the most important criterion by which we should evaluate our occupations and that I've chosen wrong. Try me with a response, and I apologize if I don't reply with the time and consideration your thoughts deserve. Since grad school I've become notoriously bad about maintaining friendships and being prompt with correspondence (while noting that these two go hand-in-hand).

 

Friday, August 28th, 2015. "How to Fail Out of a Ph.D. Program in Five Years without Starting a Dissertation Pt. 3: What Went Wrong? "

It seems to be the case that Ph.D. students don’t fail out so much as they lose the means or desire to continue in their programs. We can pin it on interpersonal problems or, with higher-sounding integrity, irreconcilable methodological and philosophical differences. Attrition of 50% or more doesn’t seem to be rare, but in my cohort at least, those who left (all with an MA degree, to my knowledge) did so on their own terms. I’d love to continue and at least start a dissertation, but I will probably never get a chance. I don’t know if I’m heartened by the possibility that the department’s tightening of deadlines for making measurable progress in the program might be partially due to the experience of laggards like myself and others who stayed in for lack of a better alternative.

Why did others leave, and what “went wrong” for them? I know one who decided, at the stage of starting a dissertation that I never reached, that the field wasn’t worth his time, wasn’t making much difference. Others felt that the department or specifically their subfield within it was too dysfunctional, that they were admitted into the program on the assumption that it would be something that it wasn’t. Still another got transferable job skills from classes and then did just that, transfer to a job.

The remainder gets a bit more personal than Pt. 2 in enumerating different factors which led to my demise. Was it my own work and lack of methodological commitment, time management, failure to meld with my advisors, departmental disarray, or some other factor which led to this ignoble exit?

My Own Work?

The first suspect, especially in a personal blog, should always be Number One. To hear my first advisor tell it, my papers were “dreadful” because I am a poor academic writer, need to read a lot more, not leave campus during summer, and revise my papers exactly as specified. (That was just an example of bad writing, because the verbs in the clauses separated by commas were inconsistent.) In a sense, I’d rather be told that my work sucks so that the decision on whether to continue pouring all my effort into the pursuit of a Ph.D. wouldn’t have been so agonized. My advisor at Marquette was very good at being frank where others might offer vague and withering praise to avoid awkwardness and preserve rapport. Professors at UCI gave as much positive as negative feedback, and I never made the transition from what were interesting or good term papers written for classes to what’s tightly focused and persuasive enough to be “publishable.”

I really expected more guidance on which papers to revise to that level of quality. Feedback on papers was generally good, but no one EVER came out and said they wanted to work with me on one as a qualifying paper, let alone the golden trophy of co-authorship. Maybe the whole process is supposed to be guided primarily by one’s own interests, as on one occasion I approached a professor to revise a paper presented at a conference that he’d called “excellent work” only to be told that QPs need to be in one’s primary or secondary subfield. I know I put a lot of work into this, and I should probably (have) just read as many others’ QPs to get a better feel for what professors would sign.

I’ve always prided myself on writing and being creative, trying to find other ways to make a point and defending unpopular or neglected positions. I think that’s more what got me into grad school than any proficiencies or knowledge. Again, my advisor at Marquette aptly noted that I’m not a very good reader compared to my peers. Never learning how to skim effectively meant spending days on books which should take hours and hours on articles which should be intro-conclusion skimmers in a matter of minutes. And retention of details to recapitulate arguments has never been a strength, which seems to be the bread and butter of political scientists. Teaching discussion sections for undergrads as a TA helped me to cultivate at least a serviceable ability to do this, but I’ll never be as logical or argumentative as my girlfriend Hannah or most of those who go into this field. If not convinced, I’m certainly more engaged by colorful anecdotes than regression tables and other rigorous hypothesis testing, and I guess I’ve never really looked at a journal article and thought, “Wow! Someday I want to write and publish something this awesome!” This was a problem I knew I had going into the program, and maybe lacking that ambition in my work proved to be fatal.

That’s not to say I didn’t try to conform. The CSD paper and the last drones paper are sincere attempts to be methodologically clear, to consider and test falsifiable hypotheses like granddaddy Popper prefers. I’ve been rightly dismissed for editorializing in most of my papers, but I really don’t think it’s possible not to. The post-positivist in me still wants there to be a social science which is more than just well argued opinions, but the things which can be proved by the methodologies being taught in political science programs interest me far less than the larger, normative questions of justice, what things mean, and how we can make the world a better place. I have a much greater affinity for interpretive, non-positivist methodologies after taking classes in the program, but training to crave “facts” is too deeply ingrained to shrug off. Dodging methodological/epistemological commitment did not serve my work well, and trying to explain where I stood more often led to rambling than comprehension for readers.

Time Management?

Other students, Hannah has repeatedly pointed out, still find time to do things with their partners while in grad school. The photographic record on my Facebook albums while in UCI paints a prettier picture of extracurricular life than was perceived by those close to me. If there’s always more to read and write, why bother doing anything else? Professors at Marquette warned me to be wary of starting a family while in a Ph.D. program--not a problem, don’t want kids--but said that normally when giving advice on whether to apply for one, they have to say that it’ll involve a lot of time alone in a deep, dark 8’ by 8’ room. This was followed by the observation that “this doesn’t sound like a problem for you.” I’ve fallen out of touch with almost all my friends from college and high school to pursue this, and the subject material itself actually encourages insularity. If nobody wants to hear about your new dataset on Sub-Saharan African countries, and a shrinking number of academics bother to be “public intellectuals” publishing in lowly rags like the New York Times, why bother engaging the outside world? This should’ve been a perfect scenario for a teetotaler who doesn’t mind solitude.

Unfortunately, I’m also a bit of a sleep Nazi. I need 8 hours every night and would prefer 9. I’ve never drunk a cup of coffee, don’t like tea or soda, and so generally avoid caffeine entirely. Can’t even remember the last time I had any. My family all have trouble falling and getting to sleep, and I think this leads to other problems in life. If I only get 7 hours, which it seems most in grad school would call a great night’s sleep, I’ll need a nap at some point in the day. Again, not a point I’m proud of, and I’m pretty inflexible about this.

Deadlines played not a small part in my failure, to be sure, but there’s almost always some flexibility with these. The program rules changed to require only two qualifying papers instead of three at some point, but in requiring two the deadline also jumped earlier, to the end of the second year, whereas I was trying to get the last two done by the end of my fourth year. I was extremely fortunate that written deadlines from my progress report were not strictly held, or I wouldn’t have been funded for the spring quarter. Deadlines almost have to be flexible to take into account the difficulty of getting a professor to read one’s work and the potentially crippling wait time for a response and instructions on how to proceed. I really failed on both the timeline and the content, so no excuses here. That I was never able to come close to getting my former advisor’s signature on any paper is something that will confound me for the rest of my academic career.

That neither professors nor friends and family were satisfied with me suggests to me that I was keeping the best balance I could, compromising on both ends of work and leisure. Living with Dad for a couple years around the poverty line in one of America's richest cities, Newport Beach, helped my finances but did nothing for academic productivity. For a while in grad school we were playing racquetball for two hours three times a week, and I was in the best shape of my life but clearly not getting qualifying papers written on the expected pace. I tried to go to all the academic talks I could that didn’t conflict with classes. I took far more classes than were necessary, took history classes in search of an interdisciplinary enlightenment that never really bore fruit, audited classes of professors who allowed it. I really enjoyed the lifestyle, and the enjoyment may have cost me the privilege of continuing to live it.

But it seems like the success stories from the program go out drinking, manage families, and have a far more active Facebook posting regimen than I ever did. I don’t think its monocausal misuse of time that sank my academic ship, but maybe that combined with being less productive with work time was too much to overcome. Or maybe people problems contributed too.

Interpersonal Problems?

I’m a pretty antisocial, occasionally misanthropic, and difficult person to get to know deeply. I’ve often heard said that one’s relationship with the advisor is the most important factor to succeeding in a Ph.D. program because they not only guide your intellectual development but also help navigate labyrinthine program requirements. There are obviously different kinds of advisors ranging from micromanagers to absentees, but what good ones seem to have in common is the willingness to stick their neck out and advocate for the advisee, to “go to bat” for you. I never hit it off with my advisor, and I may never understand exactly why.

As with other professors, we maintained a professional distance that never came close to friendship or an “I’d hang out with you outside of work” kinda thing. I’m sure I asked some inappropriate questions, like whether I could park a van in her driveway if I decided to live in one to save money on rent ($917/month for my first year, nearly twice what I’d been paying in NYC, made me seriously consider the Matt Foley lifestyle). In the end of my second year, classmates suggested I find a new advisor because it wasn’t working out. But the problems they were having with professors not responding to e-mails or paper drafts in a timely fashion were not at all something I wanted to trade for. It’s also not just a matter of choosing someone else with whom I got along better; the professor has to be willing to take on a heavier advising load and most importantly study what I’m interested in, that being China.

Getting dumped by my advisor in the summer of 2013 was a fine chance to test my peers beliefs that I could do better under another’s tutelage. Advisorless and basically adrift for over a year, I felt like a ronin trying to get back into the program, pitching papers to any professor that would listen. It was very lucky that some encouraged me, had time to help, and eventually signed a qualifying paper to get me back into the program. But going to the conference at USC and seeing the support network everyone apparently enjoyed there made me feel like I’ve been missing something. I enjoyed taking classes, but when it came time to discuss what we were studying with my peers, due largely to time availability and different interests, nothing ever really took hold. In early 2015 I was grateful that an East Asian reading group was formed, as I never really talked with the other China scholars in the program. By spring, though, it was increasingly clear that I didn’t communicate on the same level even with scholars who study the same area.

And forget about networking. I tried showing interest in other people’s papers at the three conferences I presented at, but there has never been any follow-up. Maybe if my presentations were better I’d feel more confident reaching out to others, but each time I really felt like my work was coming out of left field, like it (and thereby I) didn’t really belong. Do people wake up in the morning and feel pride in being political scientists and want to hang out with other political scientists geeking out on data? I didn’t see much of that and certainly didn’t feel like joining in very often. And most people have really mainstream tastes in music and movies, pretty much instant friendship disqualifications in my book.

Departmental Disarray?

This is the part where I get to sound irresponsible. Others in the program are more knowledgeable about problems in the department by merit of being more connected socially to peers and their advisors, but the gist of this angle is that UCI’s Dept. of Political Science has been locked in a factional rift and/or dysfunctional transition for quite some time. We lost a lot of professors to private schools as UC funding was cut, administrative assistants treat the department like a stepping stone to bigger and better things and rarely stayed more than a year. TA positions (I.e. funding for those in good standing) are under pressure of declining enrollment in undergrad classes. Subfields of American Politics and Political Theory seemed like the stable ones, while mine of Comparative Politics and International Relations were in flux, and I should just count my lucky stars that I didn’t try Political Psychology, which was unceremoniously discontinued in recent years.

Methodological training was available, but not in any required sequence. I took basic stats, qualitative, and interpretive methods classes while also auditing a general methodology class, but I doubt these would’ve added up to the required “advanced qualification” required to advance to candidacy. Classes which would’ve counted as an advanced qualification were all taught in other departments, and my interests did not generally align with quantitative, positivist work in my own field. I would’ve had to cram very hard over the summer to bring my Chinese up to the level needed to pass the alternative language test, but problems with getting signatures preceded this possibility.

The last two quarters were when I really got a feel for the problems of the department. I asked three different professors to read my work and got a commitment from one which has to date not been responded to while the other two said they were too busy. These were all professors who’d expressed appreciation of my work in the past in their classes and who shared an interest in China and Asia generally, so failing to get their support effectively closed off any chance of success. I probably should’ve asked the professors in the history department to help me, but they seemed just as busy. Eventually I came crawling back to my old advisor, and while I appreciate the prompt feedback and the effort of reading in the first place, the results were no different than with the democracy papers two years ago.

What’s really sad is that the survivors in my cohort are the ones who are being punished the most for doing everything that was asked of them. This past year the school of social sciences declared in the middle of the school year that students would no longer be funded after the fifth year, regardless of good status in the program. Claiming financial reasons and declining enrollment in political science, the policy was changed from a guarantee of five years of funding (of which I used four) and a good likelihood of being funded in the sixth year and beyond to something like a piecemeal contribution to tuition and a policy that sixth and seventh year students are no longer eligible to be TAs. In solidarity with the Sociology Dept. and some in Anthropology, our union has filed a grievance with UCI’s labor representative, stating that the policy change was made without consulting us, thereby a violation of our contract. Although the policy of being funded in the sixth year was an informal one, not guaranteed, it was well understood by the students and in some cases well documented. The deans of the social sciences are claiming that there is no policy change, while hanging my cohort, now entering its sixth year, out to dry. Had I not fallen behind and taken a year on leave of absence--if I had proceeded smoothly through the program to candidacy--I would have had funding yanked unexpectedly away anyway. I wish the best to the survivors as they enter the crucial stage of dissertation writing with the possibility of having to take an outside job or tens of thousands of dollars in loans to continue in the program while paying rent and eating.

In short, I feel like I fell through the cracks of a program that makes geniuses struggle, though it could be just as well that I was promoted to the level of my incompetence. I can say one thing for certain, though: my dissertation would’ve been one hot mess! It’s just a good thing that China won’t be important enough in the 21st century to have another person dissertate about it.

Friday, August 28th, 2015. "How to Fail Out of a Ph.D. Program in Five Years without Starting a Dissertation Pt. 2: What Went Right? "

Obviously this is nothing to boast about, but I do think it’s unusual. Usually when someone leaves a Ph.D. program after five years without getting the degree, I gather, one is “ABD” by that time, meaning they're at some stage of the dissertation. This is when students are beyond the dangerous point of no return, having come too far to leave but also balking at taking out loans to go into a sixth, seventh, or eighth year of studies which are less and less likely to be funded by the school. The school, for its part, will presumably cut funding after a guaranteed number of years, followed by years of limbo and expectations of funding from outside the school or the student’s own pockets. The refrain of one of the program’s most successful graduates has been that a Ph.D. program that you have to pay for yourself is not worth your time or money, because unlike law school or medical school, the average academic will never make the six-figure salary after landing a job.

A young go-getter at UCI’s political science Ph.D. program, and I can only assume elsewhere as well, can and sometimes does get out in five years. They seem to work with a few specific professors and study American politics, the subfield which was the most cohesive during my time there. I’m jealous of the relatively straightforward methodology, paradigmatic theoretical clarity, and apparently easy access to data that can only be my projection onto the subfield for lack of familiarity. Interviewing Congressmen can’t be particularly easy, but it’s gotta be less trouble than going to China and trying to get access to elites there or “internal reference” material that others take for granted as transparent data.

I might’ve liked to do everything right in terms of fulfilling requirements to start the dissertation early or on time, but the ambition to get out and into the job market quickly was largely absent. I like learning, and I like to read slowly. I don’t like clear, persuasive arguments and theses because they are inevitably contrived, oversimplified, and often rely on analytical sleight of hand.

To stay in the program for four or five years, depending on how you’re counting, required some things to go right. I did fine in classes, writing term papers which professors led me to believe were a cut above average quality. I didn’t feel that I knew less than my peers in class, as at Marquette, and this made participation in class discussions less of a high-pressure obligation and more of a real contribution. Most often this took the form of offering a non-Western perspective on a topic, I.e. from China, but by now this is a role I’m comfortable playing, even if it means the occasional opinionated ramble. While I can understand the off-handed critique, I do believe that Critical Theory can offer more than calling canonical works problematic or Eurocentric.

I was genuinely interested in the class topics and my own research. Graduate school is supposed to be a place to wallow contentedly in the obscurely important precisely because you’ve chosen to be there, and the faculty have chosen you from among a pool of qualified applicants. Even when the reading gets dry, one can rely on very smart and well-read professors to make the discussion interesting. What I’ll miss most of all is the environment of being around a lot of smart people who are more than willing to share their obscure obsession passionately. I maintain that politics is one field where research is really needed to address major world problems, and just like any field where the main points of the big debates can seem like esoteric minutiae, the arguments can make a big difference in the real world. I firmly believe that the main problems of the world today are political, by which I mean driven by interpersonal and interstate negotiation. If political science pretends to be an empirical discipline above the fray of opinions--existing mainly to support the opinions of others with objective evidence--it’s vital and relevant. I believe these things differentiate politics from, say, economics, where the consequences of being unorthodox more often mean exclusion and even the best mainstream work is fairly certain to be ignored, misunderstood, or abused.

Staying in the program meant completing coursework and working on research papers of “a publishable quality,” which everyone seemed to interpret differently. I wrote papers I thought were interesting, which pointed out things other analyses didn’t consider. I think there are very constrictive limits on how politics can be studied scientifically, and as much of my research focused on concepts, I think the main limit is on what can be accomplished in the world when countries don’t agree on what basic concepts mean. This is the “traveling problem” or assumption of functional equivalence, that democracy, elites, the informal economy, immigration, or any other concept will work and be understood the same way across cultures and other geographic locations. I’m not convinced that we can do much better than Geertz’s “thick descriptions” of what things mean in a given context. Context-independent knowledge through theory seems interesting and useful to the extent that it can eschew causative force in real-world outcomes, which many see as the very reason for theory’s development and existence.

Some professors had nice things to say about my academic ramblings, and I definitely did a lot of reading to back them up. I saw a humorous chart posted outside someone’s office suggesting that postdocs view graduate students as kids sticking forks in electrical sockets (and undergrads as fresh meat for ogling, etc.), and I think I got stimulation out of the research which wasn’t unlike an electric shock.

Midway through this last year, I confided in a colleague who was bearish on academic job prospects in the U.S. that my goal after getting the degree wasn’t necessarily to get a tenure-track job in an American university. I’d be content to teach in a developed Asian country less affected by trends in higher education here. Even with a massive retirement wave, adjunctification looks like the way of the future, as driven by increasing neo-liberal pressure to run universities like for-profit businesses. Or worse, as the governor of my former state of residence has drastically cut funding for tertiary public education, any field of study which doesn’t directly translate into a job at a for-profit business should be scaled back or phased out entirely. Nevermind that fields in the humanities and social sciences provide fundamental questions and answers about the meaning of life. Reforming to become vocational schools should be the goal of every college, because that’s the only way we’ll grow the economy!

If I hadn’t gotten back into the program in the fall of 2014, I’d have spent four more years in school with nothing to show for it but useless, useless knowledge and self-fulfillment. Now at least I’ll have (another) job-snagging Masters degree in a lucrative field. And for the coming year I can tell myself that teaching international politics in China wouldn’t have been possible without this additional MA, and a provincial Chinese capital isn’t far off from my goal of teaching something other than EFL in a developed part of Asia. I still have hope for a real career!

Thursday, August 27th, 2015. "How to Fail Out of a Ph.D. Program in Five Years without Starting a Dissertation Pt. 1: Timeline"

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015. "Post-UCI Crossroads"

Just the Facts edition more for adding a pulse to this page than being revelatory...
I'll be officially leaving UCI at the end of summer with an MA in political science as a consolation prize.
Job prospects tear me in three directions. I can go teach in China at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, the capital of Jilin Province (despite the fact that Jilin is also a city). I have a job interview at Long Beach City College in a week to be an "instructional assistant" in the computer labs. My friend from high school who's been in prison for the past ten years wants me to join him in a business venture in Northern California.

Clear advantagesof the China university job are burnishing language skills and putting the MA to immediate use, as I'd be teaching international politics, not EFL. LBCC, while likely a highly repetitive job looking at a screen for most of the day, pays well, offers benefits, may one day allow me to teach a politics class, and would not disrupt or end my relationship with Hannah. My friend in prison wants to throw money at me, but the details of his plan are necessarily secretive. I've also had two offers to teach high school in Beijing and make a salary comparable to the LBCC job, but I still don't think I want to teach high school.

I hope to have my CA criminal background check in the mail and scanned to the Chinese university today. They're applying for an invitation letter so I can apply for a work visa, and taking the LBCC job would mean voiding a contract at this point.Tomorrow I'll fly to WI for a week of moving stuff in and out of storage with the intention of liquidating the non-essential. Immediately on return I'll have the LBCC interview to see whether I've really got a choice to make about where to work. After that, I hope to get a ride with bro Aaron up to my grandparents' house, where a neighbor has expressed interest in buying other bro Nathan's old '97 Ford Taurus.

Whatever happens, the last week of August is likely to be very busy as I scramble to empty my office at UCI and generally get stuff in order before starting work. A future entry is sure to be a soul-searching summary of academic life at UCI and where my quest for a Ph.D. went astray.

Sunday, July 6th, 2014. "Changzhi University Semester Ends"

Work's been officially over for a week, and it's time to either make money, go on wild travels, or do research, preferably combining these.

 

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014. "Relaunch"

An extended trip to the dear old PRC has prompted a relaunch of my blog. I used to be able to update Facebook from MyYahoo! there, but the new MyYahoo doesn't allow it. As no Western blogging sites are accessible there, I need a back-up plan for disseminating my own personal propaganda in case I either can't afford or don't want to shell out for the VPN services. For historical reference, the blog title comes from the days when Friendster ruled the world of social networking, circa 2004. I updated it sporadically up through the days in the Peace Corps, but since the site became a gamers' promotion and ceased to have profiles (or blogs), most of that content has been lost. If I find any old posts from the archive, they'll end up here eventually. In the mean time, I'm pretty sick of losing content whenever a site goes under (Friendster) or decides that only pre-existing/sponsored subjects can be entered in particular fields (Facebook), so surely this will be far closer to eternal! Apologies for lacking any technical ability to make this more user-friendly (i.e. organized & searchable). It's here on the old "Movie" page b/c it was the shortest both in terms of the link on the home page and amount of content.

 

In order to mitigate the impending disaster of being unable to post things, I need to add a recent photo. Also, a link to the top of the page should follow every post. New posts should be at the top.

 

Monday, January 27th, 2014. "Plans for 2014 up to Sept."

 

Here's a clearing house edition of my plans until Sept.

My goals for 2014 in general, or resolutions if you prefer, are to be financially independent again and replenish my bank accounts, which have been depleted to almost nothing since returning from Asia last summer. Getting everything ready to be legally employed in China has itself cost close to $1,000, but I'm confident that I'll be back in the black by summer. I hope to do this with my position at Changzhi University, by tutoring on the side, and by teaching at summer camps after my contract ends in July. I've been told that I'll be teaching English majors (for the first time, this is exciting!), that class hours will total 18/week, that classes can be concentrated on only two days per week to allow for the rest of the week to be used for research, tutoring, or recreation. We'll see if that actually pans out.

Changzhi University is located in Shanxi Province, closest to large cities in this order: Xi'an, Beijing, Shanghai. For readers of Chinese, its website is here . Here are details about the city. School officials tell me the air is not as bad as the rest of the province (which is coal country), and it's also the richest prefecture in Shanxi. Oh, and it's got half a million more people than Chicago. I've been in close contact with an employment agent and school officials there since Oct., and they seem competent, well-connected, and fairly friendly. Online descriptions of the school are not impressive, but it appears the people in the foreign affairs office people didn't like are not the ones I'll be dealing with.

This Fri. we've got one more karaoke party in the Newport Beach apt. Hannah will be staying there with us until then, and Aaron is soon to move in permanently, out of his place in North Hollywood. On Sat. I'll fly out of LAX at 8:17am via SFO to Shanghai, arriving at 6:45pm on Sun. the 2nd. I'll need to figure out how to get internet and cel phone service there on my own, as Nathan & Sharon will be at Sharon's parents' place in Xuzhou, Jiangsu. I'm expected to join them there after a day or two in Shanghai to get over the time change.

The earliest I can get into the housing provided by Changzhi University is Feb. 15th, rather close to my first day of class on the 17th. I expect to stay in or around Shanghai until then.

This week I need to visit as many UCI professors as possible, to see where I stand on required papers to re-enter the program after my leave of absence ends in fall. I currently have a draft of a qualifying paper submitted to a professor who taught a class on Just War Theory. If he and another professor sign off on it (probably after more revisions), I will have fulfilled the requirements of UCI's political science program to get another Master's degree. To get back into the program in good standing and continue toward a Ph.D., I will have to have a second paper signed by two professors by Sept. For this, I can either revise the one I presented for UCI's Center for the Study of Democracy conference last year, which has been through seven or eight editions and found little or no approval from my advisor or anyone else, or I can write the paper for which I received funding last summer. The latter path would probably be more difficult, as I won't have access to an academic library in China, but I do not relish the task of revisiting the Chinese democracy paper, which has also been rejected by at least two other professors in sociology and political theory.

While in China, and especially if I continue on to a Ph.D., I will work on getting my Chinese up to a level where I can read the newspaper and possibly academic articles. Learning to navigate Chinese cyberspace (esp. online discussion boards) is another academic/personal/social goal. I also hope to be very comfortable interviewing people in Chinese (almost there already) and (re-)establish contacts there with whom I'll stay in touch from the U.S. Too often on these shorter summer trips, I've not maintained contact afterwards with anyone but Lena.

By the end of June, Grandma and Harabugi will have decided whether to renew the Newport Beach apartment. Aaron, Nathan, and I have proposed a few alternatives for caring for Dad, and we await their response. In any case, my state of residence and address depend largely on whether I'm back in UCI or moving on. I'll be leaving most of my valuables in my office on campus, but if everyone moves out of the apartment or out of SoCal, I apologize in advance to Aaron for having to move my stuff while I'm away.

I will attend Nathan & Sharon's wedding in Jiangsu on Sept. 6th. We are working on how to get Aaron and Mom to attend; money is the major impediment to this right now. By summer, there could also be job conflicts.

My return flight is scheduled to leave Shanghai directly to LAX on Tues., Sept. 9th, at 8:10pm, arriving three hours before I left, at 5:05pm. Soon after arrival, I will either need to move most things out of my campus office in preparation for classmates moving in with me (no other students currently use my office, but on average there are five per office...everyone either doesn't use mine, has recently graduated or has dropped out) or clear out entirely if I'm not back in the program. I should know whether or not I'm back in well before my return to the States, and if I'm not I'm sure I'll have several prospects lined up for where to move, while again having enough money saved to do so.

Please let me know if you've got a harebrained scheme or other master plan. If I'm not going back to UCI in the fall, I'd love to collaborate on something.  Lots to do.

 

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