Board Game Indoctrination

Of course, I played Monopoly as a kid.  What American kid didn’t?  And Life, and Chutes and Ladders, and Risk.  They were fun games that everybody had, and a great way to pass the time on a cold and rainy weekend afternoon.  And, as I was moving my little tin race car or cannon around the board, trying to purchase selected properties, work out trades to establish my monopolies, build hotels before everyone else did, and then hope that other players would land on my properties and pay me lots of that colorful Monopoly money — especially those rich gold $500 bills — I wasn’t thinking that basic cultural and social training was being drilled into me with every move.

img_5823But, of course, it was.  Part of the training was just the idea of a game that had rules that you and every other player had to follow, or else the game wouldn’t work.  Monopoly players, for example, couldn’t just move their pieces to whichever spot they chose or freely take money from the bank; they had to roll the dice and count out the spaces and pay for houses and hotels to make their properties more valuable and take their medicine if they landed on Boardwalk and accept getting knocked out of the game if their money was gone.

But while kids moving their pieces around the board might not realize it, there was deeper social and cultural training, too, in the sense of what you needed to do to win the game.  If you played Monopoly, you wanted to buy property, make the most advantageous trades imaginable even if it meant ruthlessly taking advantage of your kid sister while doing so, accumulate every monopoly, drive other people out of business and into bankruptcy, and have the biggest bank account ever.  What better introduction to the American capitalist model of the world than Monopoly?  And you learned about the desired behavioral norms in other games, too.  In Life, you wanted to get that college degree and land on those pay days.  In Chutes and Ladders, you saw that if you landed on a space that showed good behavior, you could climb up the ladder to the top, but if you landed on a space where the kid had broken a window with a baseball, it was down the chute to the bottom.  And in Risk, you wanted to build armies in your corner of the world and then have them sweep across other territories until you conquered and dominated the entire globe.

I thought about the social and cultural aspects of board games when I saw this article about board games sold during the Nazi era in Germany.  When you think about it, it’s no surprise that some Nazi board games would reflect core concepts of the Nazi system.  The games feature swastikas, goose-stepping and Seig Heiling soldiers, and heroic defense of the Fatherland, and encouraged players to plot attacks on the English coast, shoot down Allied planes, or defeat troublesome Jews.  What kid growing up in Germany playing these games wouldn’t be subconsciously channeled into specific, officially sanctioned ways of looking at the world?  And the same is true of the early Soviet Union, which featured games like Electrification, Revolution, Reds vs. Whites, and Maneuvers:  A Game for Young Pioneers, all of which tackled pressing issues that the country was confronting in the ’20s and ’30s and indoctrinated the players in the accepted, official view of those issues along the way.  (Presumably people didn’t have to pay for the communist games.)

It makes you wonder what the board games in North Korea, Iran, or ISIS-controlled territories look like.  I’m guessing that, in North Korea these days, they play a lot of their version of Risk.

Death By Overwork

Here’s an amazing fact:  Japan is, only now, looking to limit how much overtime employers can ask employees to work.  And, even more amazing, the first-ever proposal to limit overtime would set a cap at 100 hours per month.

p1010928Japan has long had a curious tradition of a slavish work ethic, with some employers measuring employee hours not by productivity — where Japanese workers trail Americans and others — but by raw hours worked, which the employers associate with qualities like loyalty and dedication.  So even though Japanese law has instituted a 40-hour work week, it is commonplace for workers to spend far more time than that at the office and on the job, with no governmental limit on how much “overtime” employees can be expected to put in.  The social pressure to commit to working crushing hours has even caused the Japanese to coin a word — karoshi — to refer to death from overwork.  Every year, hundreds of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and suicides are attributed to karoshi, and a recent government survey determined that one in five Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at risk.

It was a recent suicide, of a young employee of an advertising firm, that caused the Japanese government to propose the first-ever limitation on overtime.  But those who advocate true reform of the Japanese work culture scoff at a 100-hour-a-month limit as almost as outlandish as having no limit at all, because it means employers could routinely require employees to work more than 60 hours a week.  That’s ten hours a day, six days a week — not exactly the kind of restriction that is going to prevent people from suffering the mental and physical health effects of constant overwork.

The Japanese problem with karoshi is an example of how cultures can develop in radically different ways, imposing expectations that would be unimaginable elsewhere. How many countries and cultures have a problem with people routinely working themselves to an early grave?  And part of the problem is that there remain thousands of Japanese workers who accept the culture imperative to work like a dog and try to satisfy its demands, rather than just rejecting the unreasonable expectations and going somewhere where the work-life balance is a happier and healthier one.  You can impose government regulations, but at a certain level individuals have to stand up for themselves and act in their own best interests — cultural imperatives or not.

Looking “Presidential”?

Last week President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian base that was implicated in a toxic chemical attack by the Syrian government against Syrian citizens.  This week we’ve got an array of U.S. Navy ships heading into the western Pacific regions, apparently as a show of force against North Korea, which has been engaged in repeated missile tests and is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.

2017-04-08t082322z_1_lynxmped3705y_rtroptp_2_usa-china-cfCouple the military maneuvers with a few presidential summits with foreign leaders like the Chinese head of state and the president of Egypt, and you’ve also got a lot of people talking about Donald Trump looking “presidential.”  Of course, Presidents always are said to look “presidential” when they are dealing with foreign policy or ordering military action; that’s because those are areas where the President can act unilaterally, without having to try to convince balky Congresses to take one action or another.  It’s been a time-honored technique of the residents of the Oval Office for decades — if you’ve had a rough time on your domestic agenda, have a foreign leader over for a visit or try to shift the focus to the actions of a “rogue state” or “terrorist threat.”  So, whether through careful planning or happenstance, Donald Trump is following a well-thumbed presidential playbook.

It’s interesting that we frequently associate ordering military action and foreign policy positioning with looking “presidential,” because in doing so we’re really encouraging Presidents to spend their time on those areas rather than focusing on the domestic issues  that never seem to get addressed and actually trying to convince Congress to do something about those nagging problems.  How many Presidents, deep in their heart of hearts, have been tempted to engage in a little sabre-rattling or to lob a few missiles at a terrorist encampment or an air base to shift the focus of national attention and raise their approval ratings a few points?

Donald Trump isn’t the first President to receive the “looking presidential” kudos, and he probably won’t be the last, either.  But the association of military action and photo ops with foreign leaders with “looking presidential” troubles me.  Wouldn’t we rather incentivize our Presidents to focus on fixing what’s gone wrong in this country, and reserve the highest, gushing “looking presidential” praise for when the President does what the Constitution contemplates, and signs domestic legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress into law?

All About The Wall

You may have missed it, but Tuesday was the deadline for companies to submit bids for the design of “the wall” that President Trump proposes to build along at least some parts of our southern border with Mexico.

Customs and Border Protection is supposed to review the bids and announce finalists in June, and then some of the finalists are expected to build prototypes of their designs on government-owned land in San Diego.  The AP reports that the government is expected to select four to ten finalists to build 30-foot-long prototypes at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 each.  Customs and Border Protection has indicated that it is looking for solid barriers, made of materials like concrete, rather than “walls” that rely on technology.

a0af3a441932abf668a4b1a868ee7b0aWe don’t know exactly how many companies submitted proposals, although apparently about 200 companies expressed interest in the border wall project.   I’m guessing that there were lots of bids.  What construction companies could resist bidding on a project that potentially involves pouring enormous amounts of concrete to build a barricade that extends for hundreds of miles?  The “wall” would make your standard highway construction project seem like a minor matter.

And although all of the bids haven’t been made public, we know what some companies are proposing because they have voluntarily disclosed their bids.  One bidder thinks the wall will become a kind of tourist attraction, and proposes a 56-foot-high wall designed with a walkway at the top to allow visitors to enjoy the desert vistas.  (“Hey kids!  Where should we go on our summer trip this year?  Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, or the border wall?”)  A different proposal suggests that nuclear waste be buried in trenches along the wall — which presumably would quash any meaningful tourist activity, by the way.  Another company wants to erect solar panels on parts of the wall, to generate electricity that can be sold to communities in both the U.S. and Mexico to help pay for the wall’s cost, which would allow President Trump to say that he had met, at least in part, his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Will a wall actually be built, given the significant opposition to it?  We don’t know at this point, but we do know one thing:  the bids that have been made public so far indicate the this effort at large-scale wall building could be a very quixotic exercise.

The Car As Terrorist Weapon

Yesterday’s brutal terrorist attack in London, England — in which a terrorist drove a car into innocent people walking on the Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament, then jumped out of the car armed with knives and stabbed and killed a police officer before being shot by police — is just the latest terrorist attack in which the principal deadly weapon has been an automobile.

terror-attack-london-876957Not a car filled with explosives and fitted out to be a bomb — just an everyday car that becomes weaponized because it is driven by a fanatic who thinks that plowing into random people, leaving some dead and others grievously injured, somehow advances their twisted agenda.  Yesterday the everyday car that was turned into an instrument of evil was a grey Hyundai sedan.  How many grey Hyundai sedans do you see every day in your town?

Security experts call it “low-tech terror,” in which terrorists use common devices like cars and turn them into weapons capable of mass murder.  Terrorist attacks involving vehicles have happened elsewhere in Europe, but don’t think you can protect yourself simply by avoiding places like London, Berlin, Milan, or Nice, where those attacks have occurred — the terrorist attack on the Ohio State University campus, here in our heartland town of Columbus, Ohio, involved a car intentionally driven into a crowd that was created by the driver pulling a fire alarm that caused people to leave a building and congregate outside, where they became an inviting target.

So how do you protect yourself from an attack when any car that you see during your day conceivably could have become weaponized by a nut behind the wheel?  Security experts say you should exercise extra caution when you do anything that brings you into close proximity to lots of other people, like going to a baseball game or a concert or a busy shopping area.  Of course, the Ohio State attack did not involve any of those things — so perhaps we all need to keep our eyes open during the next fire drill, or when noon rolls around and workers leave their buildings to go somewhere for lunch, or family members gather for a high school graduation ceremony, or any of the other countless occasions that cause Americans to gather together.

It’s a new frontier in terror, and we’re just going to have to pay more attention when we’re out and about.  But I’m not going to avoid football games or musical performances or other events where people congregate just because some disturbed lunatic might drive a car into the people who are there, any more than I avoided such events because there was a chance that a nut in an explosive vest might be there, too.  The terrorists aren’t going to beat us or cow us into submission that easily.

Gardening As A Gateway

Russell’s friend Emily Staugaitis is one of those people who seems to be a kind of natural difference-maker.  Where other people see challenges she can identify opportunities, and she’s not afraid to tackle a big project — like trying to set up an urban apple orchard in a depressed part of the Detroit area.

https3a2f2fcdn-evbuc-com2fimages2f223578392f1807581212702f12foriginalOne of Emily’s projects is Bandhu Gardens.  It’s a collective effort that uses gardening to help Bangladeshi immigrants in the Detroit area use the green thumbs they developed while growing up in south Asia to connect with each other, and with local restaurants that are interested in fresh, locally grown foods.  It’s also a way for Bangladeshi women to make some extra money, achieve more autonomy in their households, and get a taste of the business world in our capitalistic society.

Last year, the Bandhu Gardens group collectively sold 120 pounds of greens, beans and peppers and 25 pounds of squash to restaurant accounts.  They’ve also hosted “pop-up” dinners, including some at local restaurants owned or operated by women, have begun to offer cooking classes, and this year will be selling their produce at a large public farmers market in Detroit.

It’s a classic American immigrant story, of how people come to our country and begin to make their way forward, drawing on their traditional experiences and know-how and applying them to realize opportunities in their new home.  Sometimes, though, it helps to have someone who can help to point out the openings and make the potential opportunities into realities.  Congratulations to Emily for helping to serving in that important role for some of the new arrivals to our land of immigrants!

Cart Culture

Ambergris Caye, where we’ve spent the last week, is an island.  It is home to a few  large trucks, a handful of minivans that serve as taxicabs, and lots of bikes and motor scooters — but by far the primary mode of transportation is golf carts.  They’re everywhere, and in San Pedro, the big town on the Caye, the carts are lined up and carefully locked with all kinds of mechanisms — chains, padlocks, and variations of The Club — as people go about their daily business.

One thing about golf carts:  although they seem puttery and slow and therefore safe, they remain motor vehicles, as capable of a fender bender as any car.  And, with no seat belts or other forms of passenger restraints, they can be dangerous in a collision.  We saw a rear-ender where a little girl in the trailing cart went flying into the windshield and came up stunned and crying.

For the most part, Kish and I stuck to bikes and our feet.