The Parable About Tigers

Male Tiger Ranthambhore Long ago, before humans had civilization, even before last Tuesday, humans spent most of their time trying to run away from tigers and–very often–becoming tiger food. But then a few legendary heroes who could, among other things, consistently outrun tigers joined together and said to each other, “Come, we should build a wall to shelter us from tigers so we don’t have to run away from them nearly so much!” And this was a thing accomplished: they built a great tiger-proof wall and invited all of the other humans to join them in the safety of their wall. And with the other humans safely inside the wall, a city arose and civilization was born.

With the rise of civilization, people spent more time tending to their elders and their infants, and some to agriculture and others to architecture, inclusive of maintaining the tiger-proof wall, for which they praised the names of their legendary heroes, now the masters of the city. And they all remembered where they came from and continued to run as a recreation of their legendary heroes’ defining quality. And humanity flourished.

But then one day the legendary heroes joined together and said, “Come we are bored of the peons jogging about. Running for recreation is not the same as running for survival. Let us unleash tigers in the city so that we will all run like we really mean it again.” And this was a thing accomplished: the legendary heroes went out and captured a dozen tigers and turned them loose in the city. And lo, all the people really could run faster and longer when pursued by tigers. But in so doing, they neglected their elders and their infants–who were quickly devoured–and sustained neither their crops nor their tiger-proof wall.

The people ran and ran from the tigers that their great city was supposed to protect them from because the masters of the city couldn’t let go of the one behavior to which they credited their success. And the city fell to ruin and decay, and the names of the legendary heroes were lost to the ages.


Related reading: Hochschild, The Commercialization of Intimate Life.

Where Were the Replicants Radicalized?

Blade Runner 2049 is thick with ideas that don’t actually stack well together because the foundation is that of parable rather than science fiction as descended from Brave New World. But it does work harder than the original, and not just because Robin Wright shows up and is amazing.

There will be spoilers, of course, but this goes on for 3100 words so you’re likely to get bored before you get to the spoilers if you’re not following what I’m talking about. Anyway, let’s start with a direct look at the structural flaw. Continue reading “Where Were the Replicants Radicalized?”

I’ve THAAD it with North Korea

I’m going to do something that I shouldn’t be doing and that’s briefly talking about THAAD in South Korea because the current Public Forum topic is “Resolved: Deployment of anti-missile systems is in South Korea’s best interest.

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation reports that:

THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system] is designed to defend against short, medium, and intermediate-range missiles by intercepting them as they fall towards their targets. A radar system tracks incoming missiles and a control unit coordinates the launch of interceptor missiles from truck-based launchers. The interceptor missiles then slam into incoming missiles, destroying them without explosives in what is called a hit-to-kill intercept. According to a Department of Defense release, THAAD is being deployed on the Korean Peninsula, “to ensure the security of South Korea and protect alliance forces from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats.”

More concerning is the basic math:

Currently, only one THAAD battery, composed of six launchers carrying eight interceptor missiles each, is approved for deployment in South Korea. North Korea is estimated to possess 1,000 ballistic missiles. THAAD would only be a viable defense in the case of a limited attack by North Korea with missiles that fall within THAAD’s range.

So the status quo anti-missile system is inadequate, and we’re wondering if it’s in South Korea’s intereste to expand it. And at a glance it seems like it probably is, since it’s what the South Korean President wants. Yonhap news agency reports that

The United States and South Korea are “moving forward” on the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in the Asian ally as tensions soar over North Korea’s missile programs, the Pentagon said Monday. … President Moon Jae-in called for installing four additional launchers for the missile shield, despite earlier reluctance, after North Korea tested its second intercontinental ballistic missile in July.

So that’s great, except we’re not done because missiles aren’t the real problem: As Mark Bowden reports in The Atlantic:

For years North Korea has had extensive batteries of conventional artillery—an estimated 8,000 big guns—just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is less than 40 miles from Seoul, South Korea’s capital, a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people. One high-ranking U.S. military officer who commanded forces in the Korean theater, now retired, told me he’d heard estimates that if a grid were laid across Seoul dividing it into three-square-foot blocks, these guns could, within hours, “pepper every single one.” … the threat of Seoul’s destruction by North Korean artillery “really constrains people, and it’s really hard to combat,” says John Plumb, a Navy submarine officer who served as a director of defense policy and strategy for the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

So contrary to an easy affirmative position, THAAD absolutely fails to save tens of millions of South Koreans if North Korea starts shooting. This is not surprising or disappointing because we know that Gadgetry is not Strategy. But the question is about “best interest” so it’s very important to pitch a clear definition of best interest that works. I might define it–and the weighing mechanism for the round–as “South Korea’s best interest is avoiding war with North Korea, and if having defenses like THAAD in place does that, then deploying anti-missile defenses is in South Korea’s best interest.”

For the affirmative, in Why Nations Go to War Stoessinger observes that a failure to faithfully signal intentions to defend allies from aggressors is functionally an invitation for aggression, even citing Korea:

Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a speech before the National Press Club in Washington on January 12, 1950, had outlined the “military defense perimeter” of the United States. There was one notable omission: Korea. It is reasonable to assume that Stalin, thus encouraged, ordered the North Koreans to attack the South. (p 63)

This is later echoed with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait:

U.S. Ambassasdor April Glaspie, an Arabist scholar, met with Saddam and, according to the Iraqi transcript of the meeting, told him that the United States had “no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” … Could it be that Saddam was emboldened or even misled by this apparent passivity the way Kim Il Sung of North Korea might have been emboldened forty years earlier to invade South Korea? After all, the United States had neglected to include South Korea in its defense perimeter in 1950. (p 303-4)

And when we consider this history in context of current headlines like

… we can see that the value of THAAD isn’t just shooting down missiles, but rather being a token to re-affirm the United States’ military alliance in a time of turmoil.

The question is whether this token is a good token or will merely be seen as additional provocation from a president who wishes he were in an 80’s action flick. Yonhap (previously cited) reports that:

North Korea denounces the [US/South Korea joint military] drills as a rehearsal for war, sparking concerns tensions will escalate further following a week of harsh rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang.

and we continue a policy of brinksmanship by ratcheting up those drills’ aggressiveness:

Four US F-35B fighter jets joined two US B-1B bombers and four South Korean F-15 fighter jets in the joint US-South Korean flyover of the Korean Peninsula, an official with the South Korean air force told CNN. The exercise was designed to “strongly counter North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile tests and development of nuclear weapons,” the official said.


North Korea has long lamented these U.S. flights, which are seen by Washington as a way to assure its allies in Seoul and Tokyo of its resolve against North Korea. Pyongyang, however, sees the flights as a highly threatening gesture. It claims that the B-1B Lancer continues to serve a nuclear delivery mission, even thought the United States has physically disabled these aircraft from delivering nuclear weapons under its bilateral arms control commitments with Russia.

Let’s go on a tangent with the B1-B and Russia. The B1-B shouldn’t be able to carry nuclear payloads because of a treaty with Russia, but it is still quite big and Russia is withdrawing from those treaties lately and is now far more supportive of North Korea than China is, another worrying echo of how the Korean War started. Now, if we want to get speculative, we might point out that Russia physically verifies the state of our bombers in accordance with the treaty and if North Korea is asserting, despite their relationship with Russia, that our B1-Bs are nuclear-capable, it may well be because Russia is not interested in dissuading them from this dangerous delusion or perhaps has gone so far as to feed lies to North Korea to increase their paranoia. Mother. Fucker.

But here’s the flip side: we don’t actually have to keep tensions high. If Trump would just STFU, everything might quiet down for the winter. After all,

aggressive rhetoric is pretty standard for North Korea. Issuing threats to get the West’s attention and signal strength has been Pyongyang’s approach for years; it did not indicate any major change in North Korea’s policy toward the United States. … When things really got scary, though, is when President Trump responded. During a public appearance on August 8, he warned that “North Korea had best not make any threats against the United States” or “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” … While threats like this are normal coming from Pyongyang, they are not how the United States usually talks to North Korea. Trump’s belligerent statement raised the risk of the conflict by sending a signal to the North that its fairly normal behavior could be met with an abnormal American response — potentially including military force. … “His words could … lead Pyongyang to miscalculate or believe it needs to act preemptively if it believes a US attack is imminent,” Rosenberger told me at the time. “Those consequences could be catastrophic.” … It was a dangerous cycle: North Korea, Trump, and breathless media coverage all egged each other on, creating a situation where each side believed the risk of war — though still low — was growing. … in a climate where the president was constantly making threats, it was harder for the North to step back from the brink without looking like Trump badgered them into submission. … This doesn’t mean that North Korea has put off its threat against Guam solely because Trump’s eye is focused elsewhere. It’s more than likely they would have done it anyway. It’s just that the president’s refocus on Charlottesville helped create a climate where it was easier for the North to deescalate without losing face. … It’s a strange world where the US president being pulled away from a crisis with a foreign power actually makes the US safer — but that’s the nature of America under … Donald Trump.

And that’s how it breaks down: we have to signal our resolve to defend our allies and the rules-based world order to keep North Korea from thinking it’s a good time to attack South Korea, but Trump is also the absolute worst at signaling anything, and that raises the likelihood of war breaking out by miscalculated brinksmanship.

“We were only trying to bloviate; we meant no bravado!” would be a shitty epitath for our civilization.

But this is where the negative has the upper hand: while an expanded THAAD deployment is probably not the worst thing for South Korea to be doing in this current situation, South Korea’s best interest is nowhere near this situation. South Korea’s best interest is having actual diplomats–level-headed and mature–maintaining a status quo that keeps North Korea’s ambitions in check without sharpening North Korea’s wrath. And in the status quo, that’s not an option. So they may as well deploy THAAD while B1-Bs are buzzing North Korea, but don’t mistake it for being in their best interest.

LD Value Debate Framework Primer

“…fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words; they are perspectives.” —V for Vendetta

So I was chatting with a student who was new to value at practice and she reported that the debate camp had decreed that framework arguments in value debates are dead. This is unfortunate, since the framework is literally what the debate is really about. So why do they think the framework debate is dead? Because high schoolers don’t know how to do it, and then they get a couple of years older and become debate camp coaches that still don’t know how to do it, so they tell their students to not bother.

The irony of the position is that value debate is all about drawing on the deep abstract motivations that can compel people to bother. To “not bother” is to miss the whole point.

So let’s step back and take a quick primer on the cognitive style of value-based argumentation.

These resources explain and demonstrate the rhetorical practice more extensively:



Project Management is People Management

I’m taking a class on project management for grad school. Our textbook is Project Management: The Managerial Process (7th edition, Larson & Gray, 2018) and while it is structurally laid out in a sensible-looking fashion, its actual content includes surprising claims like:

“one could eliminate the risk of choosing the wrong software by developing web applications using both ASAP.NET [sic] and PHP” (p. 217)

Continue reading “Project Management is People Management”

Spidey Come Home

Spider-Man was introduced into the Avengers lineup to sell the Marvel Cinematic Universe to kids. It is necessary because the youngest Avenger they’ve got is the guy playing Thor who is in his mid-30s. Half of the team–Iron Man and Hulk–are edging over 50. This point was brought home to me, pun intended, when my students first saw the Spider Man trailer and perked up to see that it was at least partially set in a high school, and then saw Jeremy Renner–relatively young at 46–and whispered “Oh my God, he looks so old!” So Spider-Man, with its only-21-year-old-star, living in a world filled with Avengers and Star Wars merchandise, is specifically trying to be relate-able for the teenage demographic.

So I went to see it and I wish I’d had my students with me–the ones who scoffed at the algebra quiz reference in Captain America–to judge the validity of the school sequences. I got the impression that the half-dozen folks with screenplay writing credits (not joking!) were totally bullshitting their way through that part: Liz would have just asked Peter to the dance rather than prodding clueless boy to ask her, the senior girl from rich family would have her own car to get to the dance or they’d call a ride-share service rather than get a one-way ride from the dad on his way out of town, and the older girl wouldn’t be gushing on the younger boy’s intellect to the extent that she does. And while Spanish and Shop might have been common fare for the writers, it doesn’t appear that they’re common fare at a STEM charter school. But the movie does introduce the school well enough, flawlessly showing Peter’s tracking the time until he’s out of it and developing his adult role of Spider-Man.

I can’t say whether or not the film bothers to pass the Bechdel test; I remember one scene where girls are actually interacting with each other, but only to talk about boys–or, more specifically, which of the Avengers they’re crushing on, which is ironic because they’re supposed to be portraying the teenagers that look at Tony Stark and think “dang, he’s older than my dad.” There are several girls and women (with lines and in no unique form of peril), but this is fundamentally a Boy Story following a pretty typical Spider-Man arc. If you remember the 15-year old Maguire Spider-Man movie, you’ll see the well-executed plot twist coming in this one, and that’s your spoiler warning.

Tangent: Marvel introduces MJ, a Hermione-Granger-esque character who is in every way better than The Chosen Boy excepting that she’s not The Chosen Boy, because this is a Spider-Man movie. That said, this film knows that it is a Spider-Man film and makes direct reference to the old Maguire film. But the powerful scene from that movie that it glossed was when Norman Osborn turns his favor to Peter early in the film, working to align the children to their aptitudes. So the idea is this: what if the writers graft Riri Williams’s concept onto MJ’s character? Peter can introduce her to Tony, from whom she takes exactly no bullshit, thus promptly earning his respect and access to his workshop. Tah-dah, I just extended the longevity of the Iron Man franchise by a decade while negotiating Downey’s salary down a notch, you’re welcome. (Call me?)

This Spider-Man film’s biggest flaw is that it’s just Iron Man 3 again, except that it’s easy to sympathize with Michael Keaton’s character while Guy Pearce’s character really is a villain that takes too long to get killed. And there’s a worrisome element in there where the goodness of a character is tied to their being Tony Stark and the badness of the character is proportional to their wanting to be Tony Stark. So what we see seeping through is a cultural Calvinism, where the goodness of the character is baked into the character rather than related to their actions or intentions, and their heroism is signified by the material blessings they are endowed with. I’m going to have to come back to this point and a separate entry because it’s huge: neoliberal capitalism has a wobbly line back to John Calvin through Adam Smith’s cultural attachment to the Church of Scotland. Neoliberalism didn’t turn competitiveness into a virtue, it turned it into the signal of virtue at a metaphysical level, and when we watch heroes vanquish the bad guys over and over again at perpetual detriment to social infrastructure we buy into the heroic narrative even when we can plainly see that the super-heroes are actually super-dangerous.

But that’s the article I’m going to write later. This article is about why adults are always worried about you, because showing this point is what Spider-Man did particularly well.

After Peter wrecks an FBI investigation and the Stanton Island Ferry (miraculously killing nobody), they have the single best scene in the film: Sad Peter tells Tony that he wanted to be like him. Disappointed Tony tells Peter that he wanted Peter to be better than him.

See, Peter knows he can’t let Aunt Tomei know about his (poorly defined and context-defying powers) because she’d freak out. She would freak out because she is functionally his mother. And (all decent) parents are interested in the survival of their children first and in their thriving second. This isn’t to say that they don’t want to see you thrive; rather that they know that your survival comes first in that sequence and–if they’re taking their role seriously–they’re ensuring your survival first and foremost and will still love and cherish you as their offspring no matter what.

But Tony is in the role of mentor, which places thriving first and surviving as optional. The first thing he does after meeting Peter is put him in a fight with a bunch of other superheroes, inclusive of a reformed supervillain, not all of whom were properly introduced to each other and none of whom know that he’s just a kid. That is super reckless endangerment, but then Tony lets the clever kid keep the suit which actually is racked up with powers if he just thinks to plug it into a USB port, which isn’t helping.

This isn’t to say that mentors don’t want you to survive. Mentors do want you to survive. Rather, we expect you to survive because your parents are looking after that aspect of your development so we don’t have to. Instead, we interject when your survival is (almost) guaranteed to give you the breathing room you need to thrive. Remember Tony meeting Peter in Civil War? On a tight timeline, Tony takes a trans-Atlantic flight specifically so he can interject between the worrying Aunt Tomei and Peter, to be a wedge between parent and child so that the child can thrive.

For Peter, thriving comes to mean vandalizing a lot of property as a sloppy vigilante, breaking into and then out of a top-secret warehouse, almost killing everybody on the Staten Island Ferry on accident, almost killing all of his friends on accident, almost killing goodness knows how many people with a plane crash… really, he’s got a lot of extracurricular activities that college admissions will find super-impressive. But this is why adults are worried about you: Spider-Man used to have this saying that “with great power comes great responsibility,” only now we’ve increased our capacity for power to such an extent that we’d be surprised to find anybody who was wholly responsible for their power.

Now I know–or at least I hope–you’re not wrecking national monuments, so you Good Kids may not yet grasp how easy it is for a Good Kid like you to get into trouble. But consider your cell phone. If you sext your boyfriend or girlfriend, you are creating and then distributing child pornography and since it’s likely to cross a state line (what data center did it route through?) that’s getting into “federal felony sex offender” territory. Are you starting to realize how much trouble you can cause with just a couple of moments of naive behavior? This is why your parents are always worrying about you and, increasingly, are afraid of you growing up.

Not your mentors though. Tony doesn’t offer to hire Peter a good lawyer to defend him from criminal liability. He just takes the Spider-Man suit back and walks away. And this is a vital lesson: if you fuck up badly enough, your mentors will abandon you and look for kids they still have hope for. Your parents, your teachers, anybody who is substantially obligated to you, will stick by you.

But if you fuck up badly enough, your mentors will go look for better students.

Parents generally don’t understand this risk because parents don’t generally understand mentors. To be fair, there is some subterfuge here: we keep long lists of former students who are Totally Not Dead to persuade your parents that you will also survive, and they mistakenly think we prioritize your survival as they do. We do not.

But we’re also–usually–not giving you super-powered suits without training and hoping that your copious amounts of curiosity and spare time don’t turn them into a colossal liability for us. This is a key spot where Tony screwed up as a mentor, but it also made the film feel more real: from the lack of transition between training wheels and falling off a bike to the lack of transition between “under 18” and “18 and over” that shows up again at “under 21” and “21 and over” a surprising lack of advice on what’s about to happen or be allowed, acceptable, or even expected is normal.

It is entirely possible that a shortage of functional rituals accompanies this. Our culture has lost them. You can read about older cultures’ rituals–particularly tribal rituals–in Joseph Campbell’s work, or Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. It used to be that in order to gain entry to adulthood and the responsibilities and rights that were attached to it, the tribal elders would take kids off test them against a set of cultural expectations. This sort of practice still shows up sometimes–like in fraternity hazing–but is usually more expressive of a small-scale and petty power rather than indicative of the roles people are expected to play in a close-knit society.

Please refrain from objecting that you’re going to graduate from high school. A ritual gives you formal power in a society, but academic graduations are pageants designed to make everybody involved feel good about what they’ve done to get there. It is a formal reminder to your parents that they’ve successfully kept you alive this long.

Mentors don’t get invited to graduations because they don’t show us that you’re thriving. Yet.

And that’s very similar to the little charade that was put on for the Homecoming dance in Spider-Man, but more noticeably there was a particular ritual in Spider-Man: the naming of the suit’s AI, an AI apparently aware of the other Spider-Man movies and able to call out optional situations that could be treated as ritualistic between them–but an AI that’s not very good at preparing Peter to use his suit, in exactly the same way that the things adults create for teenagers almost accidentally echo the state of adulthood but then fail to adequately prepare the child for the transition into it. And that sounds bad; it sounds like we’re not doing our job.

But one thing I can’t fault my parents for was not knowing that my career would be on this newfangled “internet” thing my brother told them about from college. And I hope my students don’t fault me for spending more time writing to them about Spider-Man than about how AI machines are going to deform and reshape the economy they’re on the cusp of inheriting.

So that’s the final point: even if you’re a good kid and also not a federal felony sex offender, adults will worry about you. They’ll worry that they can’t possibly prepare you for the world that is just around the corner.