Month: February 2013

Podcasts I Listen to: Point of Inquiry

This should actually be- podcasts I sometimes listen to.   I downloaded a single episode a few months back with someone I wanted to hear and then somehow the most recent episode ended up on my I-Pod.  It happened to be with Steven Pinker, a guy whose books I have been meaning to read- one of them is sitting on my wife’s shelf right now- so I decided to listen.

I really enjoyed his thoughts on “outsourcing” of violence by citizens in a democratic nation to the government.  Without the need to commit violence on our own behalf, we don’t need to project a constant state of macho aggression.  Which results in a society with an overall lower level of violence.

He also speculates that mass communication has helped people to understand each other.  We can put faces to people around the world.  We see the results of violence and we empathize.

He also talks a bit about guns.  His feeling is that some degree of regulation may help curb some of the violence.  Which I agree with.  But that the biggest problem is psychological.  Which I… also agree with.  Gun rights advocates argue that other countries have similar rates of gun ownership without the problems that we have.  They’re right.  Those countries do exist.

Steven said outsourcing violence reduces our need to commit violence ourselves.  The problem is that people who own guns may not be so eager to outsource violence to the government.  Like this guy:

Standing on the patio at Starbucks, he tells a story. A while back, he was right in this spot when the alarm went off across the street at the Bank of America branch office. Amazingly, people ignored it. They kept walking up to the bank to use the ATM. They didn’t seem to register the alarm at all.

Farago reckoned that, if a gunman emerged from the bank, he’d take cover inside the Starbucks, putting a brick wall between himself and the shooter.

“If I have incoming fire, I’ve got a plan ready to go,” he says.

There was no gunman. Just a false alarm.

But that’s not the point. The point is that Farago was alert to the potential danger in the world. He was prepared to defend himself, if absolutely necessary, with his Glock. Even though, so far in his incarnation as a gun guy, he’s never had any reason.

It’s a Catch-22.  If we could convince everyone there’s not so great a need for guns, guns wouldn’t be a issue.  Faith in the government is going to be a hard thing to cultivate as well.  So as usual, I got some answers, and I got some more questions.


No Shame in My Game continued

Part II of my review of Katherine S Newman’s No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City

I mentioned this briefly in my previous post on this book, but I had a couple of years of being working poor.  I had a full time job that paid so little I could barely feed my family.  We had junk health insurance.  Every crisis like an extra doctor visit or a repair to our car meant more money coming out of our savings until our savings were gone.

Poverty is a trap.  Once our savings was gone, I was stuck in my job.  I had little time off to do interviews, and since I had no money saved up even if I did get new job, having a break in paychecks was a frightening thought.

Eventually I did escape that job by using my ability to read and write Japanese to find a part-time job so I could save some money.  Then a friend of mine helped me get a good job with benefits and I have, hopefully, left poverty behind for good.

I learned a few things from this.  Poverty is not fun, and not romantic.  It sucks.  I have a skill that I was privileged to learn (Japanese) because my parents paid for me to go to college and I could then move to Japan and get a job that required a college degree, and a college degree only. And, finally:

Connections are a huge factor in how well we do in life.

The book stresses how much working people rely on friends and family to get them jobs, just like I did.  Most businesses don’t even put out want ads, because they get plenty of applications already.  And because they rely on recommendations from employees.  Having a working friend or relative can make all the difference in a poor person’s employment prospects.

The problem for poor people is that most don’t have connections with anyone doing anything better.  Whether people want to admit it or not, fast food jobs teach the things that actually matter most- show up on time, do your job.  I know some middle class jobs require special skills, but there are plenty that require not much more than the modest ability to accept training and to use a computer.  Plenty of the working poor could handle office jobs if they had the chance to.  The book touches on some of the cultural barriers to the working poor finding better employment, but I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment on this.

Katherine Newman has published several books since this one and I’m going to start reading them.  One thing that seems to have happened since this book was published is that the hollowing out of our major cities has been reversed in all but a few of them.  The inner city is now the place to be.  This has pushed the poor into older suburbs.  I wonder how this has affected their lives.  Also, no matter how much the TV tells you otherwise, crime has been dropping steadily for decades, especially since the peak of the crack epidemic (though I wonder if meth has similarly peaked, or if it will continue to grow).  Unemployment, however, is up.  The working poor and the lower middle class were some of the hardest hit by the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

But to sum it up, great read, looking forward to some of the author’s more recent books.

Black Keys

No Shame in My Game gave me too much to think about and I’m going to finish my post on poverty and the working poor later this week. In the meantime- man, I love this new Black Keys song.

I really like the break they do  DA DA!  WEEEE!   DADA WEEEE!  So tight, with some great energy and their guitars sound perfect.  What I wouldn’t give to have played that.

Beyond just the break I like that they don’t overstay their welcome.  I also love the backing vocals- at first it’s just someone singing harmony to the singers melody, but then the band adds a woooooo on top of that.   His guitar leads are really well placed, and not too showy.  I might have mentioned before that I loved Rubber Factory and have been fairly lukewarm on the band since then, but this is a great song.

Book Review: No Shame in My Game

By Katherine S Newman

My wife is a sociology major so a lot of her books get passed down to me.  The sub-heading on this one is The Working Poor in the Inner City.  Published in 1999, the book follows the lives of several workers at an unnamed burger chain, bringing their stories together with economic data and interviews with management and their peers.  The author is a professor at Columbia and has a team of grad students doing research for her.  I was really impressed at how well she puts the data together and dispels some of the more common misconceptions people have.  Among her findings:

Poor people want to work

The idea that the poor are just lazy is one that is hard to kill.  And it’s funny, in a tragic sort of way to me, because it’s based on people’s sense of fairness.  If you work hard, you should be rewarded.  If you’re not being rewarded, then you must not be working hard.  I hate this line of thinking.  Life’s not fucking fair people.  Some people are working hard and not getting rewarded.  It sucks to be them, and it’s no excuse for the better-off to be smug.

Newman highlights dozens of interviews with workers to show that they’re proud of the fact that they have a job.  Having a job means having money, having a social life with other workers, having self respect.  There’s a lot of commentators who would like you to believe that poor don’t have a job because they lack the same work ethic that overpaid newspaper columnists have.  I suspect it’s due to the fact that:

Poor people live in places that have high unemployment

Have you ever seen Help Wanted signs in the ghetto?  I don’t know, I’m not in the ghetto that often, but since this book pointed it out, the answer, for me at least is- actually no, and now that you mention it that is pretty weird.  According to Newman, most burger joints don’t even advertise, because they’re flooded with applications.  Hundreds of applications for every opening.  This sounds like the rest of the USA around 2009, except that in poor neighborhoods, this is every year, forever.

People on welfare aren’t actually doing nothing

Sure, some are.  But a lot of the time they’re acting as a support network for people who are working by providing childcare for children whose mothers and fathers are working.  This seems like a reasonably good alternative to providing every working parent with daycare, but opinions may differ.

Poor people hate drug users and the lazy as much, or more, than the rest of us

Because poor people are tired of getting stereotyped as drug users and/or lazy, and they’re tired of dealing with these people.  I suspect the author is right- middle class liberals are probably way more forgiving of drug abusers than the poor because middle class liberals don’t have to deal with their shit every day.  One time I gave a homeless kid $50.  I later realized that the kid was a junkie.  Back in my working poor days, I would have been devastated.  If I were still poor and that kid had lived down the street, I might have been tempted to beat him up.   But I wasn’t hurting for money anymore so I laughed it off.  It made for a good story.

As for the lazy- shit, I can’t stand the lazy people I know.  I’m not talking about the people who have messy houses.  I’m talking about the handful of people I know who have made it to adulthood but manage to go years without having a job because they just don’t feel like it and their parents and/or funemployment supports them.  I’m not one to stereotype, but these people are sociopaths.  There’s no way someone with human emotions could stand the kind of societal stigma attached to being an able-bodied adult without a job.  Thankfully, the people are rare.  Much rarer than the TV would have you believe.

I’m starting to sound cranky, so I’ll pause right here.  There’s a lot more I want to say about this book, I’ll try to continue tomorrow.

How to Make a Cactus Costume, with Tales of Drunkeness and Random Heroism

So one of the things I didn’t know when we started this blog is that you can see the searches that led people to the blog.  One of the funnier ones that’s come up, a few times,  is “how to make a cactus costume.”  I wrote a post a few weeks back about doing a Halloween punk rock show in Japan dressed as a cactus but obviously I didn’t explain how and where I got said costume.  Since I aim to please, I’ll try to explain how I made it.

I’m not a big Halloween person, but every now and then I get the urge to go all out.  This was one of those years.  I made the costume entirely by scratch, over a period of about a month.  I also didn’t have access to a sewing machine, so this took way longer than it should have.

First, I bought several meters of green fabric.  I chose a slightly shiny fabric because I wanted to be a bit of a glam cactus.  I laid it out on the floor, then took a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and laid them on top of the fabric, drew an outline with a marker (leaving about an inch margin all the way around) and then cut it out.  I made it a sleeveless cactus because I had to play a show and I needed free movement with my arms.  I used some of the rest of the fabric to make a matching hat, roughly in the shape of an old-time football helmet.  I can’t remember how I made the template for that.

Making the needles was the tough part.  I didn’t want them to actually be spiky, so I bought some thick white felt and cut it in inch and a half, very acute triangles.  I cut small holes in the fat part of the triangle and strung yarn through them.  Then I arranged them on the inside of the green fabric cutout, then sewed the yarn in place.  Then I cut tiny holes into the outside of the fabric, and pulled the triangles most of the way through so that they stuck out.  I did the same with the hat.

Then I sewed the green fabric together so that it made a suit.  I also sewed a zipper in the back so that I could get in and out.

The finishing touch was green makeup on my face and bright red makeup around my mouth like one of those cactus cartoons.

One thing I hadn’t thought of was the fact that there aren’t any cacti in Japan.  So I spent all evening explaining what I was wearing, with most people thinking I was a dinosaur.  If I were to make this costume again (NOT LIKELY), I would have created  some foam wedges to make the suit crinkled like an actual cactus.

I actually played two shows wearing this suit, the one I already wrote about, and another the previous night.  It was a somewhat special show because it was the only time my brother and I have played before an audience in our adult lives.  And we got heckled.  I can laugh about it now, but that kinda sucked.

I got pretty drunk that night and tried to ride my bike home.  I was almost home when I hit a bicycle sobriety checkpoint.  I swear this exists in Japan.  I also realized I had lost my cactus cap.  Somehow I managed to talk my way out of getting a ticket by acting very confused (not hard because  I was drunk) and saying I had lost my hat.  I chalk it up to either American privilege or just confusion on the part of the policeman as to what I was that he let me turn around and go back to the bar.

On the way back to the bar I saw two men LITERALLY* getting stomped on by two other men.  One man was slamming another man into one of those metal roll-up shopfronts.  Right in front of them is a young man, small even by Japanese standards, asking the man doing the slamming to chill out.  The man responds with “YOU WANT SOME TOO!?!’

Because I was drunk, and feeling emboldened by my costume**, I roll up on my bike behind the small, brave man, thinking I can back him up.   Now I’m not particularly big in America, but in Japan I’m above average height.  And I’m dressed like a dinosaur***.  The man doing the slamming looks at the small man, looks at me, looks back at the small man, looks at his buddy (head stomper guy) a few yards away and they both bolt.  Head-stompee gets up and says, I shit you not, “WHERE ARE THOSE GUYS!?!  I’M GONNA GET EM!”  Some passerby managed to dissuade him from chasing after them.

I didn’t find my cap at the bar, and spent the next day making a new one for the other parties I had to attend.  But I recommend making yourself a costume like this because I’m firmly convinced it had borderline magical powers.  That suit got me out of some tight spots.


*For real.  One guy was stomping on the other guy’s head.  Most brutal thing I’ve ever seen happen in front of me.  Wait, that was only one man, so I guess I didn’t use LITERALLY right.  Shit.

**I’m not normally a brave person.  In fact, I am downright chicken when it comes to risking my beautiful face
***Or Godzilla?  (Is this a tasteless, insensitive and/or obvious joke?  I suppose)

Things that are awesome about being in a band: Singing with other people

Probably some of you have been at a party, around a campfire or at some other sort of gathering where people are singing together.  Maybe you joined in.  Maybe you didn’t.  Maybe you don’t get it- why do people like singing together?

I don’t know either.  Maybe it’s sharing the experience of liking the same music.  Maybe it’s the physicality of it.  I love singing.  I’m not good at it, but I love it.  Really opening up my throat and singing is a beautiful thing.  Doing it with others is even better.

I’ve never been much of a “jammer.”  In most of the bands that I’ve played in, practice is just a matter of showing up, going through the songs we play and maybe adding a new one if there’s time, or if someone has a new song to play.  It’s been years since I brought in a riff and started playing and then tried to build a song from that.  I find it frustrating, and being busy adults we rarely have the time to do this.

But every now and then we’ll play through a song we all know.  Lately it’s been Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin.  Sometimes we’ll play some Misfits or Dead Kennedys.  Or some Ramones.  It’s a joy to share songs with a band.

I’ve also never been a fan of Karaoke.  You might say “well duh, you’re in a band, why bother?”  And that’s part of it.  But also it’s just not that fun to be in a crowd, by myself with everyone staring at me.  I’m just not that rock star.  But with a group, we’re a team, working together to make sure the audience has a good time.

Some of you may have been around a campfire and someone will bring out a guitar and start singing.  Some of you probably groan.  Most of you won’t sing along.  Try it!  Trust me, I’m not a good singer.  But when you’re in a crowd, no one can tell.  It feels good.  Do it.

The Internet Can Be a Nasty Place

This story

The Princess and the Trolls: The Heartrending Legend of Adalia Rose, the Most Reviled Six-Year-Old Girl on the Internet

at Gawker today really was a great read.  That site and its sister sites can be full of some dumb link-bait stories, but they also can really knock one out of the park at times.

I suggest you read the whole thing, but basically it tells the story of Adalia, a girl with progeria, a disease which causes her to age prematurely.  Her mother posted some videos of her dancing on the internet.  The trolls attacked.  Her mother confronted some of the trolls.  One apologized.  The other, a young man who made Youtube videos insulting Adalia and her family, sort of apologized, and then sold ads on the Youtube video he posted as an apology.

Gawker appears to be on a crusade against trolls, only a few months back outing Violentacrez, an infamous troll who was posting creepshots of underage girls on Reddit.

In both stories Gawker introduced us to the men behind mask.  They’re both pretty pathetic individuals.  But their stories don’t excuse them because there is no excuse for this kind of behavior.

I have a lot of thoughts about this story, but it’s a little tough for me to put them into words today.  I hate it that the internet has given a place for these idiots to get together and gang up on the most helpless people.  That it’s such transparently sad people doing it to people weaker than them makes it that much worse.

I am also sick of people complaining about people “profiting” from the bad shit that happened to them. One of the excuses the Youtube video maker used was that a man had set up a fund for Adalia’s family and that Adalia’s family was just trying to make money.  I see this shit all the time- read any Yahoo story about something bad happening to someone, then scroll down the comments.  Some asshole will be saying “here come the lawyers!” “he just wants to get his payday” or something to that effect.

NO ONE but a sociopath would volunteer their children for a disease with a life expectancy of under 20 just to make a few bucks.  Nor would they want to be in a car wreck, get raped, have their house burn down, etc. on the off chance that they’ll win a lawsuit later.  If you hear someone suggesting that someone is lucky because X happened to them, tell them to volunteer for it themselves.  Anyone who has had anything remotely bad happen to them, had any serious disease diagnosed will tell you this- they’d rather have not had it happen in the first place.