Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Cuteness and the Nerf World

Sweet muttering Jesus it's been a long time since I've posted here. My exuse is that I've been insanely busy with work ... though that's only partially true. I've also been spending way more time than is good for me exploring mixi (the Japanese myspace clone) which is somewhat time-consuming as, well, it's all in freaking Japanese.

Anyhow, some background. I'm an English teacher in Japan, by profession if not by way of vocation, and recently a lot of my work has been doing kids classes. And I mean little kids ... we're talking like three and up. Kindergarten visits, kid's parties ... it's not really education, more like 'Look at the trained monkey dance! Dance, monkey, dance!'

Not that I'm complaining. Easy work, good money. Hit's a little in the self-respect department, but hell, after this I'll never be able to take myself seriously again, which is a definite improvement over my arrogent adolescence.

I digress. These kids, being kids and, moreover, Japanese kids, are for the most part so cute it hurts. I mean, they can really turn it on. It's impossible not to like them.

But what is this cuteness thing? Where the hell does it come from?

One thing I've realized is that it doesn't really exist outside adults' heads. Kids don't notice cute; it's something you become progressively more aware of as you get older. Kids don't see it because they don't need to see it; adults see it because they're biologically wired to see it, otherwise, they wouldn't feel the need to lavish their own kids with attention. Cuteness is basically an evolved reproductive strategy, similar to the sex drive (hoo boy, bet I caught yer attention there!)

But once you get past the whole cute thing, you realize that kids are basically little people. Like I said, kids don't see 'cute'; the really little ones are blind to it, and even teenagers are only vaguely aware of it. For little kids, other kids aren't cute; they're people. And, what's more, really evil, nasty, vile and heartless people. Anyone who spends any amount of time with kids soon realizes that, left to their own and with no adults watching them, children are some of the most vicious and savage beasts there are, at least to their own kind. They have a certain level of morality, but it's just the bare superstructure of how to comport oneself in a social group, something even apes are born with; they're not in the least civilized. They say and do things to one another that are, frankly, horrible. Bullying, taunting, humiliating ... kids do it all, and what's more, they enjoy doing it.

Lest you get the idea I'm some sort of misopedist (that would be 'hater of children'), let me assure you, I love kids (though I'm not a 'pedophile', which would be the direct translation of that into greek or latin or whatever.) Insofar as I'm a mature adult, I'm fairly helpless before the power of their cuteness. I am, however, acutely aware of their shortcomings as moral human beings; civilizing the little savages is what parents (and to a lesser extent teachers) are for.

But, you know, I'm not really sure how many other people are aware of this. Floating around in our culture is this idea that kids are innately innocent ... which they are, insofar as 'innocent' is a synonym for 'ignorant'. But innocence is often used to mean 'good' and that is just complete and utter horsetwaddle.

You hear these people all over the place. Determined to keep kids from exposure to any sort of harm, any sort of risk, any sort of 'bad influence.' It was this story, in particular, about the banning of dodge ball by some American schools (hat tip: Gates of Vienna) that really got me thinking about it. This effort to turn the entire planet into one giant brightly coloured nerf world. No smoking, anywhere (even in old Warner Bros. cartoons.) No violent video games. No bad language. No competition. No violence (not even good-natured rough-housing between friends.) No guns (not even airguns.) No ... well, I think you're starting to get the idea.

Since when did the world become one giant nursery school?

But more to the point, since when did we get the idea that kids must be so extensively coddled, even at the expense of the freedom of adults to do what they please? Do these people imagine that children can somehow be sheltered from every single aspect of the real world, until they reach the age of majority, at which point it all comes crashing in? Actually, I don't think they do; my money is that the safety nazis are counting on neotenizing the population so extensively that there is no 'adult world' to do the crashing.

But really, I think this all comes down to a misunderstanding about what childhood is, the idea that it's some sort of morally pure state that must be protected at all costs, rather than the brutish state of animal ignorance that it in fact is. Get over that, and the urge to make the world safe for the children ('won't somebody please think of the children!?') disappears.

Monday, September 25, 2006

It is to smile.

Whoo! Been a while since the last time I bothered to post anything ... I'm currently engaged in trying to use the internet through Mixi (that would by the Japanese MySpace.) It's a slow, grinding process.

Anyhow, I thought I'd mention something that I thought was really special: what may well be the birth, in Britain, of vlogging good enough to take on TV news the way blogging has eaten away at the papers. That'd be 18 Doughty Street, of course, which I'm sure you've already heard of. In case you've heard of it, you really should check it out.

I'm really waiting on the first footage to come out of the sight....

Friday, August 11, 2006

Yeah, But What About The 72 Virgins?

This (via Samizdata, via Andrew Sullivan) is fucking hilarious.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Our Own Homegrown Open Source Warriors

One of my all-time favorite novels, by one of my all-time favorite writers, is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Now I read a lot (like, a book-a-week, on average: printed words are like crack to me) but there are very few books I've given a second perusal. The list of books I've read many times (as in, I couldn't tell you how many) is so short I can count it. Only three come to mind: Starship Troopers (and if you've only seen the movie and are wondering, Dude, WHY!?, well, let's just say that the director of that movie is one of the few cases in which I'd approve of capital punishment), Neuromancer, and Snow Crash.

So you'll understand why this Arnold Kling post at TCS caught my eye:

In Neal Stephenson's 1992 science-fiction classic, the two main characters have been hired by the Mafia and other ethnic corporate franchises to deal with a fanatic religious cult whose chief warrior possesses a hydrogen bomb. In the novel, governments are too powerless to deal with this threat. It is a brutal, post-national world.

Today in reality, Islam contains a fanatical religious cult whose chief warrior seeks nuclear weapons. Iran may be leading the world toward a post-national era.

The post principally addresses the ugly possibility that the nation-state just isn't up to containing terrorism, which is something I've suspected in the back of my mind for a while now. I'm not totally convinced, though; one of the supporting datums he offers is the following:

From the collapse of international trade negotiations to the failures of international development assistance to the rejection of the EU Constitution to the nearly-perfect record of futility of the United Nations, government institutions at a world level have reached a Snow Crash ebb.

As far as the UN's worse-than-uselessness goes, we could just be witnessing the League of Nations effect: when the most dangerous players are no long much interested in talking (save as a way of buying time to get into position for what they really want to do, namely kicking the crap out of each other), talking shops tend to be become somewhat ineffective.

That said, I've been thinking for some time about this. John Robb's always-interesting (though overly pessimistic) Global Guerillas introduced me to the idea of 'open source warfar': ie, using loose networks to degrade and eventually destroy states, instead of the rigidly controlled hierachical violence we've become accustomed to since Westphalia. The Pentagon's recently been trying to neutralize the advantages of 'global guerillas' with 'network centric warfare', and while this is a promising direction I can't help but suspect it doesn't go far enough.

The question really has to be asked: what if governments just aren't up to the challenge of fighting terrorist networks? What then? Does our civilization just say, "Oh well, it was a nice run, but this whole Enlightenment experiment is done with. Might as well just kneel before our new masters and hope they get bored chopping off heads after the first few thousand?"

Naw. Not our style. If it becomes obvious that governments can't stop foreign irregulars from perpetrating atrocities on our soil, we're going to wind up with our own irregulars: after all, if they can't stop keep out the barbarians, then they can't reign their own in. The West could end up with it's own homegrown open source warriors; everything from volunteer intelligence agencies that work to penetrate and subvert enemy networks (both social and informational), to actual armed insurgents, going into foreign countries and conducting operations ranging from sabotage to assassination. It isn't necessary that these networks be particularly moral; they'll be at war, after all (or at least will perceive themselves as being so.)

Will this happen? Dunno. Like I said, I'm still not convinced that nation-states aren't up to the challenge. All I'm saying here is that, if they aren't, that doesn't mean that we've lost.

Prelude to War

This article at the New York Sun, Prelude to War by John Batchelor, is really good. In it, he asks "Why is America waiting to be attacked by Iran?" He draws a direct parallel with Pearl Harbor, noting that before that grim day, the American people appeared to sense the approaching storm, but no one wanted to come out and say that war was inevitable. Or, perhaps more accurately, no one wanted America to be the country that threw the first punch.

Me, I've got a feeling that sometime in the next couple of years, nukes will be used in war for the first time. It's not even necessary for the Iranians to finish theirs'; Pakistan's got lots, and that whole country's just one strongman away from Islamic theocracy. Then there's the legendary missing Russian nukes.

Once some Islamic nutter lets off a Bomb, the gloves will come off. Mark my words. It'll be on then, bitches. You think you've seen what happens when the Yanks really get pissed? They lost two buildings, and proceeded to take down two countries. Care to bet on what'll happen when the map has a big hole where a city's supposed to be?

If the Iranians had any sense of history they'd back down, now, before things get serious. I don't expect them too. War's a hormonal thing, which is why they're never over 'til they're over.

Security Ad Absurdum

Update: James H. Hoyner Jr., at TCS Daily, has almost exactly the same thoughts as me, expressed in a little more detail.

I'm currently watching CNN's breaking news regarding the recent arrests in London. Some government official is online trying to reassure us by telling us the threat level's up to orange, blah blah blah. Buried in his statement, though, is this gem: since the terrorists were planning on using liquid explosives disguised as beverages, haircair products, etc, all liquid items are - yep, you guessed it - banned.

This is just getting silly. Frankly I'm surprised they didn't ban footwear after Richard Rede ("If you'll just check your shoes at the line, and step into these standard issue airline flight slippers....") It was one thing when they confiscated my nail clippers, but let's face it, you can disguise explosives as anything, given sufficient time and motivation. If the US government keeps acting in this ridiculous way, a valid strategy for the Islamists will be to just make a whole bunch of fake bomb plots, each one with a different trick; if some succeed, hey, great, but that won't even be the point. The point will be to make the authorities so ridiculously paranoid that their security procedures effectively end the era of international flight.

Now, I'm not anti-security. I like to feel safe when I fly (which is rarely.) But there are limits. There are cases where security procedures really do cross that line from 'necessary' to 'letting the terrorists win'. And this, despite - in fact maybe even because - it's so trivial, is just such a case.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A Heartening Essay Out of Lebanon

If this voice from Lebanon can be trusted ... well, it's very reassuring. Here's a taste:

Like the overwhelming majority of Lebanese, I pray that no one puts an end to the Israeli attack before it finishes shattering the terrorists. I pray that the Hebrew soldiers will penetrate all the hidden recesses of southern Lebanon and will hunt out, in our stead, the vermin that has taken root there. Like the overwhelming majority of Lebanese, I have put the champagne ready in the refrigerator to celebrate the Israeli victory.

But contrary to them – and to paraphrase Michel Sardou [a French singer. Translator’s note] –, I recognize that they are also fighting for our liberty, another battle “where you were not present”! And in the name of my people, I wish to express my infinite gratitude to the relatives of the Israeli victims – civilian and military – whose loved ones have fallen so that I can live standing upright in my identity. They should know that I weep with them.

As for the pathetic clique that thrives at the head of my country, it is time for them to understand that after this war, after our natural allies have rid us of those who are hindering us from rebuilding a nation, a cease-fire or an armistice will not suffice. To ensure the future of Lebanon, it is time to make peace with those we have no reason to go to war against. In fact, only peace will ensure peace. Someone must tell them because in this country we have not learnt what a truism is.

Monday, August 07, 2006

More on Demographic Collapse

Frederick Turner at TCS Daily has just written an article in which he addresses a topic I considered not so long ago in this space: the demographic collapse of the West, and the reasons behind it. The explanation he pursues is similar to my own, though perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn't couch his in the terminology of memetics:

If we eliminate all external causes for population collapse, what is left is people's own reproductive choices. The reason people stop replacing themselves is, I would argue, cultural.

What, basically, persuades people not to have babies even when they have the political, social and economic stability to do so? Among the eras and nations where this phenomenon occurs or occurred one basic characteristic stands out: the loss of a transcendent future. What I mean by "transcendent" is some ideal or love or hope or faith that rises above the interests of the self, the practicalities of expected income, the security of predictable outcomes, and the lifetime of the individual. What I mean by "future" is that it is an ideal, love, hope, or faith that extends beyond the present and is not satisfied with an instantaneous and eternal reward in the now.

Turner looks at the issue from the perspective of religion: essentially, he proposes that every society that forsakes the faith of its fathers' in favor of a more epicurean lifestyle is demographically doomed. There's certainly quite a bit of truth to that. If you examine the various declining societies around the world, one of the first commonalities that leaps out is that they are very secular. Not only Europe, but also Japan (which has essentially abandoned its Shinto/Buddhist heritage) and China (which, in the urban territories at least, has lost its Confucian/Buddhist background) share this basic trait.

The interesting thing about the article is that he puts the problem into historical perspective:

For hundreds of years historians have wondered what happened to the Roman Empire in its last days. They agree that there was a demographic collapse in its urban Italian heartland. They noted that Romans themselves became outnumbered in their own country -- while remaining as a shrinking elite, the "domini" (the root of the "dons" of Spain and the Mafia) that became a feudal aristocracy in the middle ages.

I actually didn't know this, but it's not really all that surprising. The Romans became a very urbanized society, after all; urban environments are conducive to horizontal memetic transfer, and this tend to dampen birthrates. Still, it's very interesting that what's happening now has happened before.

Now, if you remember my previous post on scenarios by which the global demographic collapse will come to an end, you'll recall that one of them was 'triumph of the traditionalists', in which traditional religious subcultures grow and eventually form the majority of society. Note that that isn't what happened to the Romans: there weren't any pagans left, instead their old religion was replaced entirely by a foreign import, the mutated version of Judaism we call Christianity. That opens up an interesting possibility, which is that the West will become colonized by a new (or at present, small) religion. The two candidates tht come to mind are Mormonism and Scientology, though I'd put my money on Mormonism (Scientology doesn't encourage high birthrates, and tends to be a very destructive influence in people's lives; in memetic terms, it's more of a parasite than a symbiote.)

So imagine a future where Mormons are the mainstream....

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Economist: Getting the Question Completely Wrong

I remember a time, not so long ago (which goes without saying, really, given I'm only 25) when the Economist was possibly one of the best sources for analytic thought about the current state of the world. If this article is any indication, those days are gone.

This passage here tells you everything you really need to know:

Why is America so much more pro-Israeli than Europe? The most obvious answer lies in the power of two very visible political forces: the Israeli lobby (AIPAC) and the religious right.

Don't just take my word for it. Read the rest of the article. But I'll bet you could write most of it almost verbatim without reading it. As an added bonus, the writer mentions the Qana 'massacre' (nope, didn't see that coming) which looks more and more like this season's Jenin every day.

Why is America more pro-Israeli than Europe? What a silly question. They'd be better off asking, Why is Europe more anti-Israeli than America? The answers (a burgeoning ungovernable Islamic underclass, and the total dominance of cultural marxism in the political and media cultures) would be far more enlightening. But somehow it's okay to pee on the parade of some sets of religious believers (evangelicals, Jews) but doing it to others is 'racist' or 'Islamophobic' or something.