29 June 2009
This view won't win me any friends among the soccer-mom crowd but I firmly believe that this catastrophic recession (unemployment as high as 14.5% in Michigan and pushing 9% nationwide counts as "catastrophic") will finally be the swift kick in the ass America needs to wean itself off of devil-may-care consumerism and living beyond our means. We can't all be that stupid, can we? People are losing their houses, losing their jobs, having their marriages fall apart because those marriages were built on shallow materialism rather than mutual respect (q.v. the latter: my wife supporting my poor broke ass through college and my having supported her through the immigration headache)...a lot of people are left with nothing, their job prospects shattered, their previous sense of self-worth totally shot to hell.
I have been saying for years that the only way we're ever going to get anything better is to have the pre-existing system fail so completely and decisively that even a fool can see we need something else. Mind you, I don't have that much faith in people (especially Americans) and I wouldn't be surprised if as soon as the economy took a turn for the better we were all guzzling gas and maxing out the credit cards at the mall, but some of us---maybe not all, but a fair few---will be more responsible, more likely to live within our means and strive to better ourselves, and will form a larger political bloc to express outrage at bailouts and handouts the next time the government tries to play Marx with our tax dollars to bail out the feckless and the foolish. With any luck we'll have enough votes to demand our politicians devote our resources to intelligence and responsibility because we're close enough to a majority to do so.
Now if you'll excuse me, this nice man in the white coat wants a word with me...something about "delusional crazy talk".
25 June 2009
As an aside, I've gained 75 (of 75) points thus far in Core Humanities, meaning I need 18/25 (or at least a C-minus) on my final paper for an A in the class.
I've gained 62 (out of 60, and that's not a typo---I got a couple of points of extra credit on one of the tests) in Music Appreciation, meaning I need at least 31 out of 40 (a C-plus or better) on that final paper for the A.
Marketing's a bit more nebulous because of the weird grading scheme, but assuming that papers not yet graded from last week reflect my existing score on all the other stuff (97.5%), that gives me 1413 out of a possible 1450 with 250 points left at stake (for a total of 1700 possible points.) 93% of 1700 is 1581, meaning I'd need 168 out of the remaining 250, or 67%...at least a D. 150 of that 250 is the paper I just wrote, and I'd be stunned if I didn't get at least 120 of those points (80%). That means that on the takehome exam (which I submit online tomorrow) I need at least 48%...in other words, don't get a gigantic, colossal F on the test and the A is mine for the whole class (again, not counting the up to 170 points the teacher can use as fudge-factor simply for showing up and participating).
So yeah. I feel pretty damn accomplished for the effort I've put in over the last five weeks and truthfully I'm impatiently looking forward to August 24, when fall semester starts and I get to have another go at some subject material. It's hard not to feel like king of the world after such a decisive victory.
What the professor said to me as a final thought was tremendously telling and is the single most educational thing I've learned thus far in my new college endeavor: "Not to disparage anyone else in the class, but on a lot of the papers I thought, 'I've read this paper a thousand times before'. With your papers I sat up and thought, 'I'm going to see my class materials in a whole new original way.' Thank you for that."
About a month ago someone on an Internet forum said to me, "You're either the most clever ironist I've ever seen or you're just an asshole, and you're clever enough that I'll never divine it from your writing." Said I: "Half my writing is played straight. Half my writing is me playing with the subject. I leave it to the reader's own prejudices to decide which is which."
24 June 2009
23 June 2009
22 June 2009
Nicomachean Ethics as Argument Against Democracy
Winston Churchill once said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute chat with the average voter.” Democracy itself relies heavily upon a moral discipline and sense of reasonable expectation from government that the average voter simply does not possess. For this to come as a revelation in the twenty-first century CE is to belie an ignorance of Aristotle making, if unintentionally, the same point in his discourse of ideal life in Nicomachean Ethics.
Aristotelian morality has at its very core the idea that the happy life is found not through individual actions that make one happy in the short term but in a virtuous life which in turn relies on a constant vigilance against the temptations down the road of gluttony, idleness, and evil. Millennia before there were such ideas as beatniks and organizations like Adbusters, Aristotle himself made the point that one must not be led astray down the path of least resistance.
Sadly this stands at odds with human nature. The landscape of human history is littered with fallen civilizations who fell victim to avarice. Said Thomas Jefferson, “Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.” We cannot rely on human nature to carry the vote of a majority to act in the best interest of society as a whole or even the Adam Smith-like interests of the invisible hand of the market. Sooner or later there will be those willing to promise the world to those who cannot see through the ruse.
Once again Aristotle predicted as much. Indeed, as a product of his Athenian milieu, Aristotle saw with his own eyes that civic virtue and duty which was regarded as the free birthright and solemn responsibility of every man who participated in his governance. None but a fool would risk the wrath of his comrades by arriving at a debate ill-prepared to defend his positions not only in his own interest but in the interest of all those around him. Once again as we in modern society look to the ancients for a shining example of that which we seek to emulate, we have warped and twisted the very nature of those civic institutions to turn democracy into nothing more than the distribution of stolen goods to different owners using the trickery of convincing the foolish that these benefices are conjured productively from raw materials rather than merely crudely recycled through theft.
Such idiocy does not come from a more limited form of government. Aristotle would be appalled and horrified at the monster that democracy has become in the eyes of a society that commands equality without equal merit. Even our attempts at meritocracy are twisted through the funhouse mirrors of “you are all special” and “it's all who you know”. One would almost think such a pair of seemingly mutually exclusive ideas would collapse unto themselves utterly but what it brings in reality is a world where nobody possesses any merit at all and where trying to identify the path to a better life is an exercise in Schrödinger's Cat writ large across the landscape.
All this is to say that a hard examination of Nicomachean Ethics as societal virtue must be revisited. Diversity has created anarchy and chaos as it did in the Roman Empire when the state lost its monopolistic hold on the religious and philosophical ideas of the common people. Unity is essential in holding a society together long-term, keeping that society stable, and ensuring that, freed of the crippling effects of role confusion, the people can strive for their own excellence while unquestioningly belonging to a sense of something greater than themselves.
As a polytheist myself, I must take a moment to interject a touch of neo-classical religious philosophy into the discussion at this point. Polytheism holds as a major advantage over monotheism the guarantee of greater diversity in theological viewpoints when compared against a dogmatic, centralized religion based on commandment and nitpicks over ritual. For the Romans, the freedom of choice left to individuals to choose their house gods (Lares in Latin) meant that while all adherents practiced the same basic religion, one could greatly tailor one's sense of honor to the gods to their personal taste without being accused of heresy or atheism. Meanwhile, the Romans themselves were accepting of most other religious views throughout their empire because the notion of true faith was antithetical to their particular brand of paganism. As a result, the people were freed to direct their natural inclinations toward enforced orthodoxy not towards honoring God (or gods) but toward the true religion of a Roman, which was being a Roman. During the Republic and even during the early Imperium, the Roman citizens and leaders alike practiced a strong sense of civic duty and people would judge each other's worth not by material wealth or by individual expression but by how Roman (in that moral sense of the term) one comported oneself in public affairs.
Contrast this with the politics of modern society. Besides the stark and obvious division of Democrat and Republican, every group, subgroup, subculture, social class, and other means of identification under the sun take precedence over being an American. Furthermore, even with Christianity as what would in theory be our guiding hand as a people were we to decide to dispense with the First Amendment and make the de facto religion of the nation one of de jure, the different brands of Christianity as practiced by Southern Baptists or the Catholics of South Boston or by the Latter-Day Saints of Utah and Nevada are at loggerheads, seen more as divisions than as aspects of a true faith. The wide division in education and intellectual merit between people who are regarded as equal as citizens similarly serves to ensure that our politics creates a sense where all must be satisfied far in excess of the available means of government. If we are truly to salvage our nation we would be wise to look backward into the past, where Aristotelian ethics and the refined practice thereof in Rome worked for several centuries.
If indeed happiness is ensured by the practice of excellence in all aspects of life, we must as a society decide to create a means by which only those who practice the Aristotelian ideal of excellence are granted a voice in the creation of law for all. As that excellence filters down to the greater mass of society, no tolerance for ideas inconsistent with those practices must be tolerated lest discord and bankruptcy both moral and economic be the result. Hollow promises of change and “accountability” are insufficient to keep the nation off the road to perdition, again as Aristotle predicted in his account of the ideal state and ideal mass of humanity.
Some would argue that human nature cannot be subverted in such a manner, that corruption and avarice will soon enough conspire to ensure that society descends into entropy and failure only to be stirred either by barbarian invasion or by internal revolution. Indeed this may be the case. Consider the amount of upheaval required to implement this Aristotelian ideal in the first place; vast swaths of men and women will be disenfranchised, entire segments of the mass media will have to be suppressed, and vast financial resources will have to be redirected in order to build the educational and public infrastructures required that people may properly discourse on the road to excellence. The consumer product market is likely to collapse as materialism gives way to personal striving for enlightenment, entire industries will cease to exist and jobs will need to be redirected into these new industries created in the pursuit of these ideals, and quite a few discussions will have to be held determining the public priorities. Not for nothing did Plato's attempts at republic fall asunder due to logistical issues.
Far from a manifesto, however, Nicomachean ethics and Aristotelian ideals can be used to alter human nature one human at a time. We may never achieve utopia. We can, however, one man, woman, and child at a time, strive to reach in our own endeavors the happy life of excellence. We can read books, study the humanities, impose expectations on the company we keep, and find our gods and our moral compass without dictates from above, build our shrines to honor those gods, and embrace the twin pillars of nicomachean ethics and eudaimonia.
Tying the thesis together, it is perhaps a commentary on the true nature of humanity that given half the chance, the vast bulk of the idiot masses are content to grow fat on shallow creature comforts, discourse on mindless celebrity worship rather than intellectual endeavor, gape at television rather than practice agape, and plow through eros as if it were an endlessly renewable resource rather than finding mutualism in eudaimonic happiness shared with another. Said P.J. O'Rourke in the final sentence of Parliament of Whores: “In a democracy, the whores are us.” We may deserve no better than the broken, indebted, vulgar society in which we live, but I for one hold out hope that we can learn something from the man who imparted wisdom to two of the greatest civilizations ever to occupy the Earth.
Said the professor: "It seems what you desire is less political or religious than the deeper issue of 'virtue', the very idea of which is lost on most citizens of this grand nation. Not many strive for nobility or Greek arete, through the cultivation of humor, mercy, dignity, tenacity, spiritual authority, frugalness, gravity, respectability, humanity, industriousness, dutifulness, prudence, wholesomeness, sterness, truthfulness (the Stoic Marcus Aurelius). Seneca thought all that was needed was prudence. I can't imagine suggesting to an average 19-year-old that she should cultivate prudence, and not be taken as an idiot."
Indeed, that was the crux of my argument, that participatory society fails miserably when those who participate do not practice the required virtue. I aim for (and usually miss, but I keep aiming) Aristotelian virtue in my own life. The nice thing about life is that you don't have to get it right the first time, as long as you get it right before you die.
18 June 2009
Today in marketing class half the class looked like they were ready to fall asleep, to the point where the teacher pointed this fact out and gave us a 15-minute break and told everyone to get some coffee.
Said I, at the end of the break: "Look. I'm sick, I've been on this campus since 8:00 this morning, and I'm alive and alert. You all got NO excuse." I think I got an equal measure of laughs and dirty looks.
17 June 2009
My 4.0 remains intact...for now. I don't expect to keep it going, but every day it survives bolsters my confidence and lets me bank a few points for later.
16 June 2009
15 June 2009
I've had a fair bit of time in my life to think about what kind of parent I want to be someday (or even, for that matter, whether or not I even want to be a parent at all). My dad was 35 when I was born and at the rate I'm going I'll be at least 35 or 36 myself considering I'm likely to wait until I'm out of college before starting a family. Still, the older I get the more it occurs to me that I ought not to go to the grave without passing on my knowledge, wisdom, and possible accumulated wealth to an heir---if nothing else, the unhittable screwball I threw in my younger days deserves to find a new home in the capable hands of a son who, granted the benefit of a hands-on father, could avoid the fate that befell me at age fourteen on that spring day in 1992 when my throwing arm disintegrated on me, stopping in its tracks any hope I had of pitching competitively on anything greater than the high school freshman level.
Beyond that, it seems to me that the world could be made far more fundamentally interesting by what my wife and I would have to contribute via our respective legacies carried forth in any children we may have. My relentless idealism even in the face of some destructive events coupled with my wife's moral certitude and tendency to brook no evil from those who find themselves in her sphere of influence would doubtless produce someone who carried with them a set of traits that would serve them well in the world.
I'm also determined not to make the mistakes my mother made when she completely screwed the pooch on my upbringing. Besides the fact that she is a manipulative, emotionally abusive, coldhearted person (everything I am not, or at least everything I strive not to be even if I sometimes fall short of my own ideals), she tried to shoehorn me into a traditional education, a traditional socialization, and a "normal over individualistic" set of values. She at least had the decency to apologize for some of her failings; she decided not to put me in a private school for gifted and talented children, and she failed to heed the recommendation of the public school testing people that I start in the fourth grade rather than in kindergarten. The thought that I could have been solidly challenged from the word go rather than languishing in classes that did not challenge me at all is one of the great what-ifs of my childhood; had I been pushed to achieve I might have set the world on fire at fourteen rather than coming in fits and starts as I approached thirty.
All of this speaks mostly to my hopes that I am a better judge of my future children's needs. If I have a son who inherits the mathematical wizardry of his father and that I inherited from my own father, I hope to lead by example and show the boy what can come of the passionate pursuit of a natural-born skill coupled with a determination not to let side requirements erode the sense of self-worth and develop a persecution complex like the one I carried with me after my initial failing my first time through college. I want to encourage rather than stifle my child's intellect and passion. Even if the kids turn out to be of meager intellectual worth, there are a fair number of traits that are not born but learned, and whatever drives my offspring will become as much my passion on their behalf as it is theirs in their own psychological makeup.
I often think to myself that sooner or later the idle love of personal pursuits can only carry one so far; eventually either all the possible roads that are viable have been traveled or else one must think of something greater than oneself. I've become quite religious over the past couple of years (as a polytheist, mind you, not a Christian or other traditional organized religious practice) and the more I reflect on honor to the gods the more I think that to truly honor my own creation, I must pass that gift from the gods forward so that my choices in life do not simply exist in a hollow vacuum. I have settled down, I have married, I have chosen a path in life, but all this simply drives toward what is likely an inevitable conclusion.
It speaks volumes that every time I have been in a position where I could, at least in theory, support children financially (even if in this particular case I'm waiting three years for the wheels to be set in motion), my mind has drifted to the trials and rewards of fatherhood. There's also the fact that my own father died at forty-four; since I hit thirty I've had that spectre haunting my own thoughts. The more I realize I'm not going to live forever, the stronger those procreative urges hit me. What that means to me I'm still not completely sure, but I've got three good years at least to figure it out.
11 June 2009
What really jumps out at me, though, is that the level of discourse is always civil and dialectic (the professor's influence by Socrates is quite obvious). There are about five people in the class (counting myself) who carry the bulk of the discussion and it never ceases to amaze me just how intellectually stimulating the diversity of voices can be. I'm the only business major among the vocal group---there are a couple of liberal arts majors, another person who is getting basic courses out of the way before planning to get a degree in divinity and become a minister of an unstated Protestant denomination (likely a liberal one since he's also a gamer and a level head), and an engineering major.
I contrast this with the level of discussion that comes from pure business classes, where it seems like everyone's only capable of talking about money, corporatism, and ambition---subjects I find utterly dull and subjects about which I couldn't care less outside of that time I give over to making enough money to serve as a means to an end once I get out of work and go home to my wife and my hobbies. In plain point of fact, my personality (somewhere between Type B and borderline-autism) and my skill set are at odds with one another. It's taken me a long time (31 years, apparently) to find a way to reconcile them.
Speaking of means to an end, that's all work should ever be. I work hard so I can get a good job, which in turn allows me to bring home enough money that my wife is free to do what she wants to do with her life---and if/when we have kids, those material circumstances will allow them to have parents who can be invested in their lives---I find "latchkey kids" to be pitied. Those poor kids have to pretty much figure out life by themselves while exposed to all manner of the worst sorts of influences through modern mass-media. I want to be the kind of dad who plays catch with his son, who takes the kids to museums or baseball games and the like. I want to be a hands-on parent someday, but not one of those crazy hover parents. I'll save the bulk of "the ideal family" essay for Monday, however. You can spend the weekend turning it over in your head and waiting for it.
10 June 2009
The anthropology class, on the other hand, was a pure exercise in stuff I'm a complete retard when it comes to doing. 1600 words about love and tragedy and deep thoughts about a Greek play. If I get anything better than a C+, I'll consider it a moral victory. For the first time it's occurring to me that some of this stuff is most definitely not going to be easy---quite the contrary. On the bright side, my GPA will have nowhere to go but up once I get to the point where I can take classes in stuff I don't suck at---stuff like accounting and economics and statistics. I should be able to breeze through at least a 3.7 and quite possibly a 4.0 on those classes. I just need to not totally honk the liberal-arts core stuff that's required. I can live with "an A for effort and a C for execution" if that's how the cookie crumbles.
But hey---I'm kicking all kinds of ass in marketing, at least. My current grade average in that class in 97.73, a very solid A.
09 June 2009
Still, I have no great interest in classical music and minimal interest in anthropology but I'm doing just fine (enjoying myself, even) in my other two classes. So why the bug up my ass about marketing? Glad you asked.
Yesterday we had a group activity (if you're familiar with the "Apples and Oranges" game as it relates to international business, you know exactly what I'm talking about---if not, I won't bore you with the details). It was supposed to represent cross-cultural communication, but it was basically a lot of REALLY uncomfortable violating of my personal space to the point where I'm not so sure TMCC's policies on inappropriate contact and possibly sexual harassment weren't violated in the process. I expressed my reservations with and disapproval of the task I was asked to do but I was ultimately coerced (and there is no other word for it) into participating---in hindsight I should've said "ding me a few points for class participation if you must, but if you do I will file a grievance with the school about it." I don't know if the business faculty gets any kind of "sensitivity training", but for a student who is extremely introverted (to the point where I suspect there's an undiagnosed autism-spectrum disorder in my brain somewhere---even my wife gets sick of me because I need so much personal space and I'm so mercurial)...let's just say (and I did say during the exercise, out loud, and got a hearty laugh from the group) "waterboarding would be over quicker and probably do less lasting damage."
It just became a LOT harder for me to adequately participate in that class to the degree expected of me by the course requirements because once my trust and sense of safety with my personal space is violated like that, my brain tends to develop a powerful aversion to further contact with the source of the stress. Thankfully I'm high-functioning enough not to, say, drop the class (goal accomplishment trumps emotional needs, at least in the short-term, and "two and a half weeks left" is pretty short term), but I am very angry and uncomfortable with the whole experience and if forced socialization comes up again I'm standing my ground and if it means I get a B instead of an A, it's not like I have a scholarship to defend. Leave it to a business-department dolt to be completely unfamiliar with the concept of "introversion"---the fact that I'm not a money-grubbing weasel makes me one of a kind as a student of business. I just want to play with arithmetic. I couldn't care less about chasing the big salaries...I'll be happy if I can support myself, my wife, and possibly a couple of kids.
In other news: My wireless mouse just died (battery needs replacing), it's humid as hell because of 12 straight rainy days (and the fact that the sun came out after the rain this morning means it's hot besides---when did I move back to Boston?), and a woman just walked by wearing a low-cut top, a push-up bra, and she had a pair of the most blatantly fake boobs I've seen in quite awhile---she looked to be in her late forties (possibly over fifty) but they were perkier than an eighth-grader's (You say your name's Chris Hansen? I should have a seat over there?) I don't make a habit of staring at women's chests, but when something like that crosses my path at eye level (since I'm sitting down writing this), I'm gonna notice. Consider me squicked out.
08 June 2009
In other news, my polymath's knowledge of topics about the world, history, and random useless information has garnered me a wholly undeserved reputation as a smart guy here on campus---one classmate even turned during a discussion, pointed at me, and said "Ask Fox, he knows everything." Laughter ensued, followed by me saying "I'm the dumbest guy in this room, I've just got the biggest hard drive." I'm not that smart---no smarter than anyone else, at least. I'm just a guy in his thirties trying his damnedest to make the most of a second chance in life. No time to let my ego think it's hot stuff. That attitude will only get me in trouble down the road when things get more challenging.
Update Monday night: Spoke too soon about the nice weather. It rained cats and dogs for over an hour at around seven. That's eleven days in a row where it's rained for at least part of the day. Also, I hate group activities---more on this tomorrow.
04 June 2009
Next week won't be this easy, I'm pretty sure; I have one paper due on Tuesday and another two due on Thursday. I've also got my share of a group project to do, so I fully intend to enjoy not only these next two hours before class but also my weekend playing games, spending time with my wife over sushi or pizza (hopefully it doesn't rain), and catching up on sleep. I'm going to need the reduced base stress level once the sun comes up on Monday morning.
03 June 2009
With that in mind, I've set up a long-range plan, a goal toward which everything else is merely a means to an end. I can sum it up simply as "I want to provide big-business accounting and financial management services to small-business owners at small-business prices." There are a lot of blue-collar people out there running truck repair shops and restaurants and plumbing businesses, and they didn't get into business to juggle numbers all day. They got into business to fix trucks and cook food and fix pipes. If I'm able to offer them a way out of having to do the dreary stuff with the finances, if I'm able to offer them a chance to grow their business's cash base through smart management they wouldn't otherwise be able to do, and if I'm able to do all of this at a price they can afford (and which beats any competitors in my marketplace), I think that kind of business can be tremendously successful.
I have the advantage of going local; in a perfect world, I set up in the suburbs. Maybe the town square/downtown in a New England town like the one I grew up in. My kids will be friends with their kids; my kids will play sports with their kids in the park and on the Little League fields (maybe even wearing jerseys that say the name of my firm which sponsors the team); my wife will get to know their wives. If I'm part of a community like that I figure it'll be not only easier to raise a client list, but it will also help to satisfy that part of my personality that wants to see real impact from my work. It'll keep me motivated; as the old folk wisdom goes, "Do something you love and you'll never work a day in your life."
The fact that I could possibly gain a whole lot of money and possibly a fair bit of influence (running for city council/mayor/state assembly, for example) out of it is just a really nice perk. I can't ignore those capitalistic impulses, but they're not what drive me. Nobody ever stayed motivated for long just by chasing a paycheck. I know this from experience.
02 June 2009
- The University of Nevada-Reno (hereafter referred to as "UNR") offers a graduate-level program in accounting, and with a master's degree in hand I'll be able to sit the CPA exam directly out of grad school, which could give me the certification as early as the fall of 2013 (at age 36).
- If I find work after getting my undergrad degree in 2012, I'll be able to make money while accumulating the experience required to sit the CPA exam via the undergrad-through-intern/apprentice route, which will take a bit longer since there's no way to accelerate a work-study program the way there would be to accelerate grad school (by taking more classes in less time).
- I learned this from a longtime Bank of America employee who was a co-worker of mine at an earlier job. Getting stuck in to Corporate America too soon is a good way to end up getting sidetracked from the ultimate goal, as the needs of the company can stick in the way of the needs required to get that valuable CPA certification. The coworker I had told me that getting into bank management, while lucrative, cost him money in the long run, but when his employer said "here's your job responsibility" he wasn't in a position to quit and go back to school.
Besides my dislike for corporate grunt jobs that I've already discussed, I haven't really gone into my grand, crazy delusion about my dream job. I have an idea percolating in my head, but I'll save that one for tomorrow.
01 June 2009
One thing that IS always a thrill and hasn't changed in a decade is that feeling of "dude, kick ass!" I get when I get a paper back with a good grade on it. Getting an A on my first paper in Core Humanities and nailing the first three quizzes in Marketing (where I pulled a 97 average)...it is REAL nice to have some early success. I'd be happy just pulling a B average and not looking like an idiot around people younger and more immersed in the material than I am. All three of my classes during this summer session are core requirements, not stuff I'd otherwise have a great deal of interest in, so to do well at them (at least in the first week) is a great boost to my self-confidence. It makes me feel a little less like an old geezer to beat some of these whippersnappers at their own game.
As a side note, I've learned that sitting in the back of the room and wearing a baseball cap pulled down like Beetle Bailey apparently makes me look quite a bit younger---two people (and by "people" I mean "girls my wife's age or younger") have already said "Really? You're over 30?", which warms my very heart and soul. Then again, if I took my cap off, they'd see that I'm losing my hair and look every one of my nearly 32 years. As they say in advertising, "perception is reality".