Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The upside of being fired from a bad job....

Sometimes an employment situation ends because of economic factors beyond anyone's control; but sometimes an employment situation ends because the job you hate also hates you back. 

This piece is not about getting laid off or "downsized"--but about getting fired.

I was fired from a miserable job twenty-two years ago next month, on April 2, 1993. It turned out to be the best career move I ever made. 

(As I've mentioned before, the workplace in my novel Termination Man is partially based on this long-ago job from hell.)

Key points:

1.) Being fired from a bad job can be a good thing. If you react positively and proactively, you can turn a firing into an opportunity to find a much more satisfying employment situation. (This is what happened to me in 1993.)

2.) A lot more people are fired than you might think. This is especially true in certain professions (like sales, for instance).

3.)  Don't think of the employment situation in paternalistic terms. You are an independent economic entity--just like your employer. The employment relationship is a business relationship, nothing more, nothing less. Your employer is not your spouse, government, parent, or religion. 

Sometimes business relationships end. Employees often choose to end employment relationships when they are dissatisfied with their employer. When an employee rejects an organization by quitting, very few companies regard this as a deep existential crisis. They find a replacement employee and move on. Simple as that.

In the same way, you need not be ashamed if an employer ditches you because the organization (or one particular boss) decides that you are not a "good fit." Politely tell them to go pound salt; and move on. 

Two exceptions are worth noting: 

- To be fired by one employer can be a fluke, nothing more than a case of a "bad fit;" and the problem may indeed be a toxic organization. On the other hand, if you seem to be fired by every employer---the problem is likely you

-  A firing for unethical conduct (ex: stealing) is rightly a source of shame---and not something for which you should blame the organization that fired you.

4.) If you have been fired, you need not broadcast this fact during job interviews. This is your business. Is a prospective employer going to spill the dirt about every ex-employee that rejected them by getting another job? Are they going to air their dirty laundry in an interview? I think not.... Remember: A job interview is a sales presentation--not a confession, in which you must feel obligated to bare your soul.

To close out this topic, let me leave you with a quote from Craig Walker, hero of the novel Termination Man:

"I’ve always believed that a firing isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Sometimes it prevents an individual who is stuck in a dead-end job from spending the next ten or twenty years in a situation that is counterproductive for everyone involved. When a person is fired, a third party makes the decision that the fired person should have made for himself." 

Microeconomics and price theory

Question from a reader:

"Dear Ed: What is the difference between microeconomics and price theory?"

Price theory is an integral part of microeconomics. In fact, price theory is sometimes used as an alternative name for microeconomics.

This is not immediately intuitive for most people, until you look more closely at what microeconomics actually is.

The word microeconomics is derived from the Greek word mikros, which means “small”.

Microeconomics is the branch of economics that deals with individual economic units. This means not only individual consumers, but also savers, workers, firms, specific industries, and even markets. 

Don’t get too hung up on the idea of microeconomics referring to “small” things. Many of the outcomes that it examines are, in fact, quite large and significant. Microeconomics, though, looks at these large factors from “the ground up”—at how these factors are determined and influenced by the decisions of individual economic entities.

In most cases, economic outcomes are the result of many decisions by many economic entities—be those entities firms, consumers, or the holders of bank accounts. (Again, the term micro- should not be misunderstood.)

Almost every economic outcome is heavily influenced by prices. If gasoline is cheaper, more will be consumed. When the government limits the price of a good, firms produce less of it, and shortages result.

The centrality of prices to microeconomic decision-making (and larger microeconomic outcomes) is the reason for the term price theory.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Are all wars ideological?

One of the prevailing myths about globalization is that free trade automatically prevents hostilities between nations.

Most of the major conflicts in living memory support this view. World War II was largely a conflict between fascism and liberal democracy. (The USSR sided with the liberal democracies almost at the last moment and as an act of desperation. A nonaggression pact was in place between the USSR and Nazi Germany until Hitler invaded Soviet Russia in June 1941.)

During the Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR nearly came to blows over conflicting ideologies. Readers will also be aware of the ideological differences between Western liberalism and political Islam.

Because of the history of the past 75 years, we are understandably obsessed with ideological differences as the primary source of conflict between nations.

However, 75 years is a short segment in the larger story of human history.

As recently as the early twentieth century, there were many who (mistakenly) believed that commercial ties between ideologically compatible, basically capitalist nations would make wars between them unthinkable. These free trade utopians were proven wrong in the summer of 1914.

In 1910, shortly before World War I, Norman Angell argued in his influential book, The Grand Illusion, that the globalization of credit markets had already made major wars between nations all but impossible.

In 1914, the same year in which World War I would begin, The New York Times declared, “no modern war has been conducted to which the business world as a whole was unalterably opposed, for war must draw its sinews from the money chests of business.”

For more historical examples, we might look to Alexander Hamilton. As Hamilton stated in The Federalist, No. 6:
Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory? Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned by the cupidity of territory or dominion? Has not the spirit of commerce, in many instances, administered new incentives to the appetite, both for the one and for the other? Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.  
Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a well-regulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.  
Carthage, though a commercial republic, was the aggressor in the very war that ended in her destruction. Hannibal had carried her arms into the heart of Italy and to the gates of Rome, before Scipio, in turn, gave him an overthrow in the territories of Carthage, and made a conquest of the commonwealth.  
Venice, in later times, figured more than once in wars of ambition, till, becoming an object to the other Italian states, Pope Julius II. found means to accomplish that formidable league,9 which gave a deadly blow to the power and pride of this haughty republic.  
The provinces of Holland, till they were overwhelmed in debts and taxes, took a leading and conspicuous part in the wars of Europe. They had furious contests with England for the dominion of the sea, and were among the most persevering and most implacable of the opponents of Louis XIV.

The takeaway? Globalization and free trade have many consequences—some positive, some negative. It is simplistic and even counterfactual, however, to assert that globalization and free trade necessarily prevent wars. History does not support this argument.

The strange case of Hussein Kamel al-Majid

Four years after the end of the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, the U.S. government continued to hope that someone in Iraq would implement regime change from within.

The U.S. seldom did more than encourage these efforts from afar—a disappointment which both the Shia and the Iraqi Kurds discovered to their peril in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War.

Perhaps, then, regime change might come from someone within the Ba’athist establishment.

In the summer of 1995, many people believed that this hope was embodied in the person of Hussein Kamel al-Majid, a senior Ba’ath official. Kamel harbored this belief as well—a misapprehension that would lead to his death within less than a year of his ill-fated coup attempt.

Hussein Kamel was a son-in-law and second cousin of Saddam Hussein. Membership in Hussein’s family did have its privileges. Kamel had swiftly climbed the ranks of the Ba’ath ladder. While Kamel was still in his twenties, Saddam made him a general, no less. Then he became the supervisor of Saddam’s elite Republican Guards.

After that, Kamel filled several senior government slots, including that of Oil Minister and Minister of Industries.

By 1995, Kamel was responsible for overseeing the development of Iraq’s unconditional weapons: in other words: chemical and biological weapons. Possibly even nukes.

But Kamel was not happy with the status quo in Iraq. In the summer of 1995 he decided to take action. On August 7, Kamel and his brother (who was also married to one of Saddam’s daughters) set off across the desert in a motorcade toward the Jordanian border. Once at the border, Kamel announced that he was defecting, and asked for political asylum. This request was immediately granted—not only to Kamel, but to all who had arrived with him.

In the politics of the Middle East, there are always ulterior motives. For King Hussein of Jordan, the asylum granted to the Kamel entourage was largely an act of diplomatic damage control. King Hussein had sided with Saddam Hussein after the latter invaded Kuwait in 1990, and by 1995 it was abundantly clear to everyone (including King Hussein) that the Jordanian monarch had backed the wrong horse.

Saddam pressured the Jordanian government to extradite the Iraqi fugitives, but the Jordanian government refused. This was intended as a clear sign (to the West) that Jordan had broken with the Iraqi dictator.

King Hussein even used the occasion to hint that the time was ripe for a change of power in Baghdad. This occasioned nods of approval from the Clinton administration, and assurances that the American military would protect Jordan should Saddam attempt any overt acts of retaliation.

Saddam had plenty of reasons for seeking retaliation. The brazen act of betrayal enraged Saddam for personal reasons. But Kamel also used his time in exile to inform United Nations inspectors of Iraqi advances in chemical and biological weapons. Thanks to Kamel, the UN unearthed a secret archive that detailed Iraq’s WMD ambitions in incriminating detail.

But Kamel wasn't content to accept a passive exile. His ultimate ambition was to return to Baghdad with Western backing, where we would hopefully overthrow his cousin Saddam and form a regime of his own.

This was, of course, never on the agenda of the Clinton administration. No one knows for sure if Kamel (with U.S. and allied support) would have been capable of unseating Saddam. However, his subsequent actions revealed him to be a poor judge of both his cousin and circumstances in Iraq.

Somehow Saddam managed to convince Kamel that if he returned to Iraq and made an appropriate display of contrition, then everything would go back to normal. Seeing that the West had no plan for making him the next leader of Iraq, Kamel decided to accept Saddam’s offer of return and amnesty. Nothing much was happening for him Jordan.

Kamel, his brother, and their wives returned to Iraq in February 1996. Saddam’s double-cross became immediately apparent, but it was too late. The Kamels were met at the border by Saddam’s homicidal son, Uday. The Kamel brothers’ wives were taken into custody and forced to denounce their husbands as traitors.

Kamel and his brother fled, and were eventually cornered at their sister’s home by several dozen agents of Saddam’s security forces. The resultant gun battle was one-sided: the Kamel brothers, their father, sister, and children died in the shootout.

Thus ended the brief coup that might have been. Kamel would have done better to have remained in Jordan—or maybe even to have never left Iraq in the first place.

Some basics of WWI

Ruth Ben-Ghiat's CNN guest piece on WWI from last year is necessarily short, but it does provide some basics for those who are new to the topic.

Even among the reasonably historically literate, there tends to be a lack of real knowledge about WWI. 

This is mostly because the twentieth century produced more history than any century should, including World War II and the Cold War--which overshadow World War I in most high school and college history survey courses. 

But WWI is important, as the conflict that set future conflicts in motion. WWI resulted in:

  • The end of the Ottoman Empire, and the involvement of the Western powers in modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
  • The downfall of czarist Russia and the formation of the USSR.
  • The creation of Yugoslavia.
  • And, most significantly of all--the vengeful peace that would lead to Nazi Germany.

The above is an incomplete list (a note to those of you who enjoy Wikipedia-inspired oneupmanship). The point here is that WWI, in many ways, created the troubled world of our grandparents, parents, and ourselves. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Must-read classical literature

One of you asked me to name the “10 greatest books ever”.

But I’m afraid that I can’t give you a neat “top 10” list.

It’s the apples and oranges thing. The criteria used to evaluate a work of crime fiction, for example, is considerably distinct from the criteria used to evaluate a work of science fiction, or a mainstream literary novel. (Genre fiction, in particular, is often evaluated by standards unique to that particular genre.)

Michael Connelly’s The Closers is a great book; but it’s nothing at all like The Count of Monte Cristo, which is great in an entirely different way. Which one is “better”? Well, that depends: The Closers is a compact, gritty crime novel set in twenty-first century Los Angeles. The Count of Monte Cristo is a vast, sweeping panorama of a tale set in post-Napoleonic France.

These two books are apples and oranges, quite literally. More like apples and cucumbers, in fact.

And then there is the vast world of nonfiction—which requires yet another set of criteria.

So we’re going to stick with examining books by category. For today, I’m going to give you the greatest works of classical literature. These are the books that—in the Dictatorship of Ed—every high school student would be required to read prior to being issued a diploma.

And really, I think that the list below could be fit into a four-year high school curricula plan. But that’s another topic for another day. If you’re currently a freshman in high school, you can breathe easy for now; the Dictatorship of Ed doesn't seem imminent.

This is my personal list. Though there is substantial overlap between my list and the list that an academic would compile, I didn't include anything below that I haven’t actually read, at one time or another. This is why I didn't even consider Middlemarch, Emma, or The Brothers Karamazov for inclusion.

I’ve also omitted a handful of works that I thought—for one reason or another—to be overrated. So you won’t find James Joyce’s Ulysses or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 below. I didn't like either of these books, so I can’t honestly recommend them to you.

I’ve gone beyond books to include short stories, plays, and poetry. The categories should be self-explanatory.

Modern novels (published after 1800)

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck
Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Dracula, Bram Stoker
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
1984, George Orwell
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
A Separate Peace, John Knowles
The Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
A New Life, Bernard Malamud
Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy
Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
The Pearl, John Steinbeck
White Fang Jack London
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper

Short Fiction:

F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“Winter Dreams”
“Bernice Bobs Her Hair”
“The Ice Palace”
“A Diamond as Big as the Ritz”
“Babylon Revisited”
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Ernest Hemingway:
“Hills Like White Elephants”
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"
“Big Two-Hearted River”
“My Old Man”
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

Edgar Allan Poe:
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
“The Black Cat”
“The Masque of Red Death”
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

“To Build a Fire” Jack London
“The Monkey’s Paw” WW Jacobs
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Washington Irving
“Bartleby the Scrivener” Herman Melville
“The Minister's Black Veil” Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Veldt” Ray Bradbury
“Young Goodman Brown” Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Sorrows of Gin” John Cheever


William Shakespeare:
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Romeo and Juliet
Henry V
The Taming of the Shrew
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
The Taming of the Shrew

Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand
Arms and the Man, George Bernard Shaw
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
Our Town, Thornton Wilder
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller


“Kubla Khan” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Annabel Lee” Edgar Allan Poe
“The Raven” Edgar Allan Poe
“I Hear America Singing” Walt Whitman
“If” Rudyard Kipling
“The Tyger” William Blake
“Death Be Not Proud” John Donne
“Sonnet 18” William Shakespeare
"Because I Could Not Stop for Death" Emily Dickinson
"Musée des Beaux Arts" WH Auden
“The Road Not Taken” Robert Frost
“Advice to a Prophet” Richard Wilbur

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Architecture, decoration, and florid speech


ruh-KOH-koh, or roh-kuh-KOH

This word was originally used to describe a style of architecture and decoration in eighteenth-century France. The rococo style evolved from the Baroque. Rococo decorations and adornments involved shells, depictions of foliage, and other elaborate designs.

The word is still used to specifically indicate the rococo style. However, you are much more likely to come across in its in more general usage: an adjective with means, “excessively ornate and intricate.”

The implication here being, then, that the intricacy is somewhat unnecessary, and may even be a hindrance to clarity or functionality.

As the following two sentences suggest, furthermore, this hindrance to clarity or functionality may have an ulterior motive:

“It is not your job to correct misused apostrophes or other errors in signage. Resist the temptation. You may, however, continue to ridicule rococo language and faux French in menus and food and fashion writing, since pretension is always a fair target.” 
--John E. McIntyre,The Baltimore Sun

The effect of holding off the trackside bookies for 25 minutes, with a rococo yarn about reaching a dying aunt in an invented hospital, was to short-circuit their prices. 
–The Economist

The English verb of the Thirty Years War

The verb plunder means “to rob or take by force”. Plunder is often used in the context of warfare: The enemy troops plundered the town.

Plunder comes from the Middle High German word plunderen, which means, “to take away household furniture”.

English mercenaries became familiar with the word plunderen during the Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648, the Catholic vs. Protestant conflict that produced approximately 8 million civilian and military casualties. (The Thirty Years War reduced the civilian population of the German states by some 25% to 40%.)

The anglicized plunder entered common usage in England during the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651. This conflict was not as deadly (probably about 190,000 dead), but it was nonetheless crucial in the development of British parliamentary democracy.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Reading as “social justice”

When you’re a self-appointed social justice warrior, conundrums and outrages lurk everywhere. KT Bradford, a contributor to the website XOJane, informs us that she “faced a conundrum” back in 2012. This conundrum soon led to outrage.

It seems that Bradford became outraged while reading short stories, of all things. While making a conscious effort to read more short fiction, she reports that she,

“…would come across stories that I didn't enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.”

You’ll notice that KT Bradford is strategically vague about the exact cause of her outrage. Did the stories contain racist epithets? Calls for the subjugation of women? Denunciations of gays?

We can guess that the answer to all these question is no. If a short story writer had made the case for the inferiority of racial minorities or the subjugation of women, KT Bradford would surely have reported these to us. No, what “offended” KT Bradford was the “identity” of many of the short story writers. It seems that the mere fact that many of them were white, male, and presumably heterosexual was sufficient to trigger her finely cultivated sense of outrage.

But what to do about it? Well, that becomes clear soon enough:

“Then I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males….Cutting that one demographic out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories.”

I will remind the reader once again that Bradford has yet to charge the white, male, cisgendered short story writers with any specific crime against diversity—other than simply being who they are. Rational people require specific reasons to be outraged, but welcome to the brave new world of grievance mongering and micro-identity politics. Among this crowd, one does not need actual reasons. All claims of outrage in the name of diversity are regarded as self-evident and unchallengeable in and of themselves.

KT Bradford’s game plan for avoiding her undefined outrage was therefore published on XOJane.com under the title, “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year”. This very outraged article is adorned with a photo of the outraged Bradford, frowning and holding up an admonitory finger. In her other hand she holds a copy of Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods.

Gaiman is a cisgendered white male, so a red prohibition symbol is superimposed over his book. If only Joseph Goebbels had lived long enough to master Photoshop.

In the arts and humanities, it is presently considered the height of sensitivity to lecture haughtily and in general terms about “marginalized identities” and “privileged groups”. Bradford’s verbiage provides a more or less serviceable example of the basic arguments. She hits all of the buzzwords of the racial and gender-based “privilege” meme, while being careful to avoid much specificity regarding where said “privilege” derives from, or who enforces it. (This is not a crowd that likes to bog down its frothy arguments with facts and details.)

Nevertheless, Bradford’s overwrought lecture relies on several assumptions: The first of these might be called the “grand conspiracy” assumption.

This is the assumption that somewhere there is a cabal of evil white males who are engaged in a conspiracy. (In keeping with the trendiness of the times, we’ll also note that the evil white males are heterosexual, and identify with their gender of birth.) These evil, white, scheming cisgendered males are deliberately maneuvering to prevent the publication of books by anyone who is nonwhite, nonmale, and/or belonging to any of the various boutique sexual niches.

Well, let’s put that assumption to the test: Take a gander at the New York Times bestseller list for March 1, 2015.

Coming in at #1 is The Girl on the Train, by Paul Hawkins. As far as I am able to determine, Paula Hawkins is female. I do not know if she is an original, from-the-womb cisgendered female. (But that’s really none of our business, is it?)

Five of the top 15 books were written by women. Granted, the female author number would have to be 7.5 to be exactly half. But this is only one week, chosen completely at random—and five women certainly disqualifies the “all male” charge.

But what about LGBT representation? I can’t claim to have checked the sexual orientations and gender identities of all 15 authors. However, Jonathan Kellerman’s latest novel, Motive, features Milo Sturgis, a tough-talking, popular series detective who happens to be…gay.

Now how the heck did that happen? How did any of this happen? How did the male cisgendered conspiracy fail to prevent a NYT bestseller list that is comprised of nearly 50% books by female authors, and one book about a gay detective, for goodness sake? Isn’t it true that the cisgendered conspiracy of evil white males doesn't like gays and women?

The answer, of course, is that there is no such conspiracy. This conspiracy belongs to the realm of unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.

But in the crowded attention marketplace of today, nothing gains one attention more quickly and more predictably than shouting the buzzwords of privilege and marginalized identity. (This little routine got Ms. Bradford a platform on XOJane, didn't it?)

KT Bradford’s lecture relies on another assumption: That readers consciously choose books by authors of a particular gender, race, or sexual identity. (Funny, but that seems to be exactly what Bradford herself is suggesting!)

I’m about as white, male, and cisgendered as they get. One of my favorite paranormal authors is Clive Barker, who happens to be an openly gay man. I’m also a big fan of the aforementioned Milo Sturgis series.

So I read gay books by gay authors. Wait! I thought that we white, cisgendered, heterosexual males simply didn't do things like that, because we want to oppress everyone who isn’t exactly like us.

I don’t stop with Clive Barker and Milo Sturgis. Some of my favorite books of late include: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, The Last Days of California, by Mary Miller, and Sparta, by Roxana Robinson. In case you didn't recognize the last two names, all three of these authors are female—and very good at what they do.

But for KT Bradford, it isn’t enough that I like books by women and gay men…and a detective series with a gay protagonist. I still haven’t atoned for my white cisgendered privilege, so…

“… the next challenge would be to seek out books about or with characters that represent a marginalized identity or experience by any author. In addition to the identities listed above, I suggest: non-Christian religions or faiths, working class or poor, and asexual (as a start).”

How about Khaled Hosseini? I loved The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

I’m pretty sure that I pass muster as a “diverse reader”. But not out of any conscious effort to say, “Hey! Look how diverse I am!” That would make me an opportunistic poseur of the John Scalzi school of ostentatious white guilt-mongering. For the record, I also read books by Michael Connelly, Clive Cussler, Brad Thor, and John Sandford—evil and exploitive cisgendered white males all.

Here is the point: When I select a book, I don’t ask myself how many white male points this author has, or how many gay points that author has. Most of the time, I don’t even know what the author looks like the first time I read one of his/her books. And I have no idea of which gender he or she chooses to sleep with. (There is seldom room for all of that demographic minutiae on the backs of book covers).

Which makes the next piece of finger-wagging advice from KT Bradford all the more absurd:

“Or you could choose a different axis to focus on: books by trans men and women...”

Well, yes, I suppose I could. But what would this accomplish, really? And even more to the point—how would I go about such a task?

Now—don’t get me wrong. If a trans man or woman writes the next great crime novel, I’ll probably be purchasing it from Amazon. But according to government statistics, there are only about 700,000 transgendered people in the U.S. I don’t know how many of them have written crime novels; but I promise KT Bradford that I will keep my eyes open. Because she has her eyes on my privilege, apparently.

KT Bradford happens to be an African-American female, and she’s claiming to be outraged. For much of the Internet, those facts alone are enough to induce bobble-headed assertions of agreement. (After all, the mere act of drawing attention to the numerous holes in Bradford’s argument is probably proof that one is a racist and sexist, and probably homophobic, too!) 

You will note, once again, though, that Bradford has never specified the source of her outrage—other than the fact that cisgendered white males have the temerity to write books and release them to the marketplace of potential readers. Could it be that Bradford’s outrage is an affectation, rather than a genuine response to a genuine offense?

I’ll let the reader weigh the evidence for him/herself, regardless of the reader’s race, creed, or gender identification. Reason should not be the slave of identity politics.

Cisgendered, white, male, and heterosexual though I am, I have never had a desire to oppress or repress the voices of those who are otherwise. And I didn't need KT Bradford’s sanctimonious, posturing lecture to tell me that plenty of good books have been written by people who don’t share my particular demographic profile.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

English inferiority complexes and the case for Esperanto

There is one huge, universal inferiority complex in the world, and it doesn't have anything to do with race, ethnicity, or religion. It has to do with English.

There are, of course, countries where the ability to speak English receives relatively low priority. The French-speaking countries lead the pack in this regard, with their language committees that regulate out Anglicisms like le weekend. The Spanish-speaking countries are not quite as obstreperous; but they aren’t far behind. If you try addressing random passersby in Mexico in English, you might get directions to the airport, but you might also get told to speak Spanish, en español, por favor.

The Asian countries are different. As recently as the 1950s, many of them were desperately impoverished, and they tend to view the study of the English language in quasi-religious terms.

Is this an exaggeration? Not really, I don’t think. In South Korea, parents have been known to subject their children to frenectomies. A frenectomy is an operation that involves moving part of the tongue.

The reason? Many South Korean parents believe that the procedure will help their children speak more flawless English—just like the Yanks, the Brits, and the Aussies do.

I would submit to you that the South Korean parents who order this operation aren’t stupid, nor are they trying to torture their children. But they have become convinced that English equals modernization.

Similar attitudes prevail elsewhere in Asia. The People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and Japan don’t agree on much these days—but all three of them are equally obsessed with learning English. I’ve been studying the Japanese English obsession since the 1980s. Every five or ten years in Japan there is a new initiative, a new government program that promises to finally put the Japanese over the hump where English is concerned.

Nevertheless, the results have been unimpressive. Or—to put it another way—the results haven’t been proportionate to the tremendous outlay of time, effort, and money involved in the teaching of English.

In an article entitled, “The mute leading the mute: Why are countries failing so badly at teaching English?” The Economist casts the situation in somewhat stark terms:

“….[in much of the non-Anglophone world] common problems include bad teachers hired via written tests rather than oral ones, and an outmoded approach that sees English as a foreign language to be taught about, rather than a lingua franca to be taught in. Teachers’ lack of fluency means too little English conversation in the classroom…so pupils do not get used to using the language. It is as if they were being taught to swim without ever getting into the water.”

The Economist wasn't trying to be unkind. But should we really be surprised? Think about how many Americans study Spanish for four or five years, and then fumble around when trying to ask for an extra glass of water when visiting Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta.

The simple reason is that the true mastery of a foreign language is an undertaking that requires long hours of study, and ongoing, consistent effort. (Once one learns a language, must practice it in order to maintain a level of proficiency.)

In the English-speaking world, foreign language skills are regarded as specializations. An American who speaks two foreign languages with reasonable proficiency may be referred to as a “linguist” in casual conversation. At any rate, he will be asked how he learned to speak Spanish/French/Farsi/Japanese so well. Does he work for the Foreign Service? Is he maybe a CIA agent?

These questions reflect the fact that achieving true fluency in a foreign language is such a challenge. So much of a challenge that it produces amazement when a native English-speaker can get past simple greetings in a foreign tongue.

Yet every Chinese, Korean, and Japanese is expected to do what only the rare American does. This is not Yankee imperialism, by the way—because Asians, at least, largely impose this burden on themselves. Nevertheless, we Americans don’t object. When was the last time you met an American (whose relatives didn't hail from China) who could speak passable Mandarin?

The Economist closes the above-mentioned article with the following advice for non-English-speaking countries:

“Ultimately, the goal should be to teach other subjects in English, as Canada is helping China to do, rather than just teaching English. But no one should expect miracles. Even if the most promising innovations are widely copied, fluency will come only gradually; today’s pupils must first learn enough English to become tomorrow’s competent teachers.”

Well, just imagine what it would be like to try to teach American kids algebra or geography using the medium of French or Spanish (let alone Mandarin—heaven help us!). Then you’ll have a fair idea of what The Economist is proposing.

Yes—The Economist is expecting “miracles”. And to what end? So that Chinese kids can understand all the subtle nuances in the dialogue of the latest Will Smith movie? So that Japanese kids won’t miss a single video on YouTube?

The world does need a universal medium of communication for routine transactions. Right now that medium is bad English. Bad English is the result for the same reason that bad Mandarin would be the result if Mandarin were imposed on every shop clerk, customs agent, and airplane pilot. Once again, proficiency in a foreign language takes time.

Here we see again the case for Esperanto. Esperanto wouldn't prevent anyone from studying English if they really want to learn English in order to read Shakespeare. English would become another language—albeit still a major one. English would cease to be the status symbol of the world’s climbers, the bastardized tool for inarticulate communications in airports and offices around the globe.

I love languages, and I want people to continue studying them—including English. Even in a world that used Esperanto for routine transactions, there would still be Chinese people who master English, just as there are currently Americans who have a special interest in learning Mandarin.

What would change would be the imposition of English as an assumption, a requirement. There would be no more frenectomies in South Korea, one hopes. Most of all, the adoption of Esperanto would enable countries like China, Korea, and Japan to redirect the disproportionate resources currently being spent on English into more productive ends.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

New posting schedule: Effective 2/26/15

One thing I’ve always struggled with is the fact that this is a multi-topic blog.

This creates problems for readers, I know. A reader who might be very interested, for example, in a post about Ernest Hemingway, might have zero interest in one of my Japanese language tutorials. A reader who is interested in a Japanese language tutorial might have little interest in a discussion about great works of English literature.

So I’m implementing a solution: No, I’m not going to blog about only one topic. However, I am going to implement a schedule—so that readers will be able to anticipate what will be here from one day to the next.

I created the following schedule based on the topics I’ve blogged about in the past:

Literary Sunday: Topics from the fields of writing and literature: book reviews, writing advice, and discussions of great works of literature.

History Monday: From ancient times through modern times, we’ll be talking about history on Mondays.

Economics Tuesday: Although the main topic on Tuesdays will be economics, we’ll also explore related topics like marketing, accounting, and sales.

Fiction Wednesday: Short stories, novel excerpts, and notes about my own writing process.

Foreign language Thursday: My first published book was a book about foreign language learning. Thursday will be a day for foreign language tutorials, and topics of general interest to language learners.  

Editorial Friday: This will be my day for opinion pieces—mostly about current cultural and political topics.

English vocabulary Saturday: I’ve made a lifelong habit out of collecting words. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to use some interesting new words in a sentence, you’ll like Saturdays.

What else? Well—the above schedule should pretty much make room for everything. And yes, I’ll still be throwing in the occasional plug for one of my books. But other than that, I expect to stick to this schedule for the most part.

What about comment threads?

I will be opening up the comment threads at some point in the future. For the short term, though, I am going to leave them closed—because I want to focus on building up content rather than comment moderation.

If, however, you have feedback, you are more than welcome to contact me via the email address on the contact page.

Thanks for tuning in!