Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Pieces of Culture: Hamlet

Enjoy. While I haven't seen the whole film, this appears to be a fine adaptation of Shakespeare's play, using a 19th Century setting.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Downfall of a Politician

It appears that Kim Jong-Un of North Korea has decided to imitate Prince Hamlet of Denmark in removing his uncle, Jang Sung-taek. The significance of this event can hardly be exaggerated, for this is relevant not just to the internal politics of North Korea, but to the region and wider world. 

Jang had often served as the bridge between North Korea and its Chinese ally, often visiting the latter country which the current leader of North Korea has yet to do. This made him often advocate for the positions China wanted for North Korea such as reforming the highly centralized economy, much as the former country did in the last generation. Thus to a certain extent the blatant ouster of Jang, to the point that his arrest was carried in the middle of a meeting and photographed for all the world to see indicates Kim Jong-Un intends to continue his assertion of independence from China. This desire has already been displayed this year through the North's nuclear tests, which the Chinese opposed and which led them to respond by supporting UN Security Council sanctions. 

When Kim Jong-Un first came to power almost two years ago, there was some hope that he would be a reformist who would begin to open up the "hermit country" to the wider world. Yet this was not to be: North Korea instead has stepped up its bellicose rhetoric by constantly threatening to renew the war against the South which ceased some sixty years ago. The increasing fraying of relations with China threatens to further increase the isolation and block off what was hitherto a moderating influence.

Thus the arrest of Jang has served to but  add tension to the region of East Asia already fraught by territorial disputes between China and Japan over the Senkakus. The United States must navigate this new situation carefully, promoting what good it can by continuing efforts to denuclearize North Korea but also be prepared to meet any sudden action by the North with strength. We cannot but hope that the removal of Jang does not signify anything worse. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

A Further Explanation Part II-Reforming the Way We Vote

Last time on this blog I discussed why "something was rotten" in the current state of the Republic. One of the biggest problems noted there was the nature of how both the President and Congress was elected which often served to obscure the opinion of the citizenry then give voice to it. Thus, using examples from other countries, I will attempt to show how the way we elect our lawmakers should be changed. Now, a major criticism will be that this will be fundamental constitutional revision and go against the will of the Founding Fathers who were suspicious of a pure democracy. That is absolutely true, but the Founding Fathers were working in a context where the smaller states had to be appeased in order to sign on to the Constitution, so the nation would stay united which resulted in the Senate. Similarly, the Electoral College was based on the assumption that people's primary loyalty would be to their state and its Presidential candidates, leading to the election regularly being sent to the House of Representatives. However in reality this has occurred has only once. Finally the Founders' suspicions about democracy must be analyzed in the context of the times, considering most of them were wealthy merchants and landowners who feared a tyranny of the majority that would threaten their property. It is quite clear, with the expansion of suffrage (which many, if not most Founders favoured restricting to property owners) that such an ignorant mob has not arisen. In light of these changes, I would suggest the following changes to our way of elections.

First of all, the way we register voters and conduct elections should be changed to increase awareness and turnout, especially among demographics who have low turnout rates such as youths, minorities, and the poor. Many countries such as Germany and Israel, automatically register voters once they're eligible. Similarly, I believe all US citizens over the age of 18 and without a criminal record should be put on the voter rolls without having to sign up. This will not involve compulsory voting, however, as is the case in some countries such as Australia. I believe, in addition, that election laws should  so that the time when polling places are open, early voting opportunities, and voting by mail procedures are consistent nationally. Making Election Day a national holiday would also be a good idea by ensuing that many people who are pressed for time due to work and other commitments have the opportunity to vote. 

With regards to Presidential elections, the Electoral College needs to be abolished as soon as possible joining the powdered wig and the musket as an 18th Century invention. While the obvious replacement is to have the President be elected by the popular vote, a problem arises if we implement the system of making the candidate who receives the most votes the winner as that means a party that had split or had a significant third party leeching off ballots (as was the case with Ralph Nader in 2000) will often lose, even if among the top candidates that party is preferred. As a result, implementing a two-round election system (as France does in its presidential elections) would be a better idea. In such a system, if no candidate received 50% or higher of the vote, a run-off election would be scheduled some time later between the top two candidates to determine the final winner. Ideally this would encourage political diversity by allowing more candidates  With the President elected directly by the popular vote, candidates would have to visit and campaign in all corners of the country rather than just in a handful of swing states. While some may argue that this will lead to states that have few people being ignored due to candidates looking for the most amounts of voters, this is a nonissue as most small states are (with a few exceptions such as New Hampshire) already safely in the camp of one party such as Vermont which is overwhelmingly Democratic or Idaho which is strongly Republican. 

Avoiding the issue of reforming the distribution of powers in Congress for the moment, the structure of House of Representatives also demands change. As pointed out previously, the number of Representatives has not been increased for over a century (with a brief exception when Alaska and Hawaii were granted representatives), the number of people represented by a single Congressman has grown to an average of 710,767. To reform this system, the number of Congressional districts ought to be increased by a large amount-for example were it increased to 800, the number of people in an average district would go down to about 396,485, which still is far higher than most other countries. The 2012 elections for the US House showed another problem, as while Democratic candidates for the House received more votes, the Republicans still retained a safe majority. Part of this was caused by gerrymandering (which should be corrected by establishing a nonpartisan committee to redraw Congressional boundaries on a national level as is already the case in some states such as California) but it was also caused by the way Democratic and Republican voters are concentrated. To ameliorate this, a move towards a German system of a mixed-member proportional system which combines the current representatives elected in geographical districts along with representatives elected on a national level by party. The nationally-elected representatives should be distributed in a manner that will actually reflect the vote totals for Congressional candidates to correct for the geographically elected members. 

As stated previously, this series will continue with addressing other fundamental problems our country has along with proposing some solutions to them. 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A Further Explanation Part 1

Last's week post failed to elaborate fully on my belief that indeed "Something is rotten in the state of America". This post shall point out some of the worst faults of the American Republic to-day and perhaps what can be done to correct this.

As noted in the video below, the United States' income inequality is severe with the top one percent of Americans owning some forty percent of the wealth and roughly a quarter of its income. Yet this was not always the case in the United States-even in 1915 the top one percent earned only about 18 percent of the total income. In between, income inequality was even less, in the process known as the "Great Compression" with it being well under 10 percent from the 1950s through the 1970s. Yet since then, an opposite trend, known as the "Great Divergence" has occurred, reversing any gains made in reducing income inequality in the last century and there is little sign that anything besides recessions and slowdowns of the economy will end this. As a result, today, the United States is one of the most unequal countries in the world, exceeding that of virtually every other developed nation including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan and even developing countries in Latin America such as Venezuela. In relation to this, the United States also has one of the lowest rates of social mobility among developed countries. According to Timothy Noah's exhaustive analysis of the potential causes of income inequality, the biggest factor is that of education (especially for secondary schools) which has failed to keep up with changing times and also with other countries, making college education far more valuable to employers and inflating their wages.

In relation to this is the woeful state of our politics. One of the fundamental problems causing the current state of political deadlock is the way both Presidential and Congressional elections occur. While the Electoral College (with a few exceptions) generally follows the popular will in determining who becomes President, it is undemocratic in the sense that large areas of the country  become marginalized when electing a President. As a result the Democratic leaning academics and college students of Austin, Texas or the GOP-leaning wealthy bourgeoisie that reside in coastal Newport Beach both end up casting votes for President that are worthless. At the same time, presidential candidates will essentially focus on a handful of states such as Ohio or Florida which effectively wield disproportionate power in presidential elections. The problems regarding Congressional elections can be separated to those in the Senate and the House. While other countries such as Canada or France have upper houses that look strong on paper and which are decided in a fairly undemocratic manner (such as Canada allocating them by province much as the US does by state), they usually defer to the will of the lower house. In the United States, on the other hand, the Senate has both de jure and de facto equal powers (with some exceptions in regards to treaties, Presidential appointments, and bills of revenue), when at the same time Senate seats are allocated disproportionately by state due to inequalities in state populations. Thus California has one Senator for over 18 million people while Wyoming has one Senator for roughly quarter of a million people. This, along with procedural rules regarding the filibuster, has led to a small minority of Senators representing a small minority of Americans to block or at least delay many pieces of legislation. While the House of Representatives is supposedly more democratic in character, it suffers from having its boundary lines drawn in most cases by partisan state legislatures (with some notable exceptions such as California) who draw boundaries designed to maximize the advantage for their party. As a result, the Republicans have a 12 to 4 advantage of House seats from Ohio, a 9 to 5 advantage in Michigan, and a 12 to 5 advantage in Pennsylvania despite all of them being states which President Obama won last year in the Presidential election. This factor along with variations in the concentrations of voter populations, indeed, led to the Republicans retaining a majority in the House despite the Democratic candidates receiving more votes. Finally the number of House seats has been set at 435 for about a century now, which means that each House member represents an average of 710,767 people. By way of comparison, the United Kingdom which has only a fifth of the population of the American Republican has some 650 seats in its House of Commons.

Needless to say, these are not all of America's problems. One must also discuss the state of our health care system, the lack of advanced infrastructure in both energy and transportation (such as high speed rail or nuclear power), the phenomenon of white flight, problems with our education system, and cultural degeneration. These problems and solutions to them will be discussed in future posts of this series to be entitled "There is Something Rotten...".

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Modest Proposal-An Update

It is one of the more mysterious things about humanity, that oftentimes that two different individuals or groups of individuals arrive at the same idea independently. This occurred in the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection by both Darwin and Wallace and in the development of calculus which both Newton and Liebnitz stumbled upon.

This seems to have occurred in my case, when I was informed that my proposed system of people dropping in and picking up books for free already existed in many coffee shops including locally:

Regardless, I plan to go ahead with this project of mine, having been approved by my instructor, who has even most generously given me offers of aid. If readers have any further ideas, I ask that you comment to share them. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Book Notes: Jude the Obscure

I've started Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, which was a classic of 19th Century realism. The novel appears to be tragic going by the descriptions on the cover, but the beginning is rather similar to Dickens's Great Expectations, involving young boys in the English countryside (Jude in this case and Pip in Dickens's novel) yearning for a better opportunity. However, most fortunately, there is little of Dickens's forced humour in this book and instead opens promisingly with a melancholic departure of a beloved schoolmaster from Jude's village.  In addition I am especially eager to read this because as a work of realism, it will provide a vivid portrait of English life during Queen Victoria's reign. I hope for the best from Mr. Hardy's pen.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A Modest Proposal

As most readers will realize, this blog was set up as part of an assignment in my English class although I've always intended to get into blogging. Also as part of my English class, I have to do an innovation project which as seen in last week's post starts with asking the question "What If?'. So I intend to pose my "what-if" question to-day and elaborate on it further to encourage others to do something similar.

The "what if" question I posed for my innovation project was "what if students could obtain free used books for their classes or for general knowledge and enlightenment?". As a result I have come up with the idea of a book exchange at my school. The basic premise of such an exchange would be that used books would be donated by an individual or a library and then people could pick up the books they wish to possess either for free or for a small fee (most used library book stores I've seen charge books at no more than one or two dollars and sometimes far less). Many of the books that would be donated would be books assigned by a class or on a reading list so that students would have a copy of their own that they could write in and so forth without having to purchase it at a relatively high price at a bookstore or waiting for weeks for a shipment to arrive. But, just like the library, there'd be other books to educate or entertain students independently of a teacher's direction.

I hope others will be inspired to follow this area and set up book exchanges at their own school libraries with it being extended to textbooks in colleges. This can even be implemented in workplaces and places of worship to promote life-long learning. Perhaps this may indeed do the same for books what the health insurance exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act is doing.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Two Men Who Asked "What If?"

Asking the question "what if?" is part of what makes us human as it shows us imagining something that does exist not yet  and then use our creative powers to answer it ourselves. To-day I'd like to show two men who asked this question and thus show how fruitful the answers to this question can be.

The first of these men is Rod Serling who created the television show Twilight Zone. It asks "What if...?" and then dramatically depicts Mr. Serling's often clever answer to that question. I've begun watching the series lately (having already seen many episodes in school classes), and my favourite of the ones I've seen so far asks the question "What if one could delay death?" in the episode "One For the Angels":

The second man who asked "What if?" is Japanese anime and manga artist Leiji Matsumoto. One of his most famous series, Galaxy Express 999 about an orphaned boy named Tetsuro who travels across the Galaxy with a mysterious woman named Maetel in order to fulfill his mother's dying wish then he gain a cyborg body, asks two major "What if" questions: "What if there was a an express train that travelled through the stars of space?" and "What if humans could gain cyborg bodies that greatly lengthened their lives?". In each individual episode of the series, Matsumoto asks a "What if?" question such as "What if there was a planet where some people glowed in the dark like fireflies?" and explores its potential consequences. Incidentally the entire series can be legally watched with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.com.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

President Othello?

There are certain occasions when eerie parallels arise between literature and real life which are obvious to all. Such a similarity may be observed  between Shakespeare's Othello and the current situation in American politics. Much as the Venetians in the play had a man of African descent as a general (while clearly from some area of North Africa, it is unclear whether Othello was intended to be black or simply a darker-skinned Arab), the United States now has for the first time in its history a man of African descent as its President. In addition, much as there was a malignant man determined to bring down the noble Othello in the story, so there is an entire faction of men and women in this country determined to do the same with President Obama.  This faction in question, of course, is the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party especially in the House of Representatives, which in its latest act of fanaticism to stop or at least retard a modest and conservative healthcare reform plan has shut down countless government functions including among other things the virtual entirety of NASA and various government databases that provide all sorts of useful information. Meanwhile these Congressmen have blocked a "clean funding" bill that would resume funding for the government from coming to a vote without having to accept extortion due to the spinelessness of Speaker Boehner and the fear most House Republicans have of being primaried. On top of that, the Tea Party members of the House may even prevent a debt ceiling increase in the middle of this month in order to extort defunding of or delays in the implementation of Affordable Care Act despite the massive potential economic disaster such as an action would entail. 

Similarly to how Iago incited Brabantio and Roderigo through references to the "Barbary horse", the Tea
Party has in many (though to their credit, not most) cases appealed to racial and religious xenophobia to discredit the President in the eyes of the citizenry by stating he was born in Kenya or even a secret Muslim acting as a Manchurian candidate to subvert the country. Of course there are differences, such as the fact that while the motives behind Iago's actions are unclear and disputed by literary scholars, the motive of the Tea Party is clear: to enact the dogma of a reactionary ideology that aims to restore a laissez-faire capitalist paradise that never existed in the United States and as a result to dismantle the legislation of the New Deal and the Great Society such as Social Security and Medicare. Another difference is that while Iago's scheming was subtle and secretive, the Tea Party's actions are out in the open and obvious to the eyes of the world. Let us hope this clarity on the part of the Tea Party leads to popular backlash that will force Speaker Boehner to let democracy take its course by allowing a vote in the House for the clean funding bill and averting catastrophe by passing a debt ceiling increase (or better yet abolishing it completely). Furthermore, let us hope even beyond these immediate problems, the Tea Party members in the House along with their comrades in the Senate and state governments will be voted out in 2014 to completely remove this malign force that has poisoned political rhetoric and caused tremendous suffering to a struggling nation attempting to move out of an economic crisis. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

Featured Music-Blue Danube Waltz (Vocal Version)

The "Blue Danube Waltz" by Johann Strauss the Younger is quite a popular musical piece, but many people don't know there are actually lyrics to it. I intend to remedy this with this wonderful vocal version by the Wiener S√§ngerknaben:

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Featured Music-Battle Hymn of the Republic

Excellent rendition of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" by the Robert Shaw Chorale, a truly superb musical group.

An Introduction

First of all, I would like to welcome any and all readers to this blog known as Torchlight. In this post I hope to show to readers the inspiration behind the blog along with some information about myself and what the blog will cover in the future.

The name Torchlight was derived from a fictional political history of the future entitled Dawn of a System and posted on Alternate History.com by a man going by the handle of "Noravea". This future history (in the form of both newspaper articles and short vignettes) begins with a fictional political blog named Torchlight and its initially mysterious author growing in influence during the 2016 Presidential Election. Eventually the author reveals himself as one Nicholas Caeus who sees his career steadily rise as he forms a new political movement based on the values of bipartisanship and pragmatism. After being elected Congressman and then Governor along with restructuring the Republican Party into the National Republican Party under his control, Caeus is elected President of the United States in 2032 only to soon find himself confronting a global war...

While the future history depicted here is certainly not optimistic and not one I wish to see become our future, there were many elements in it that were inspirational. Nicholas Caeus himself is an admirable figure who overcame a difficult youth including an abusive father, to become a honest and bold political leader dedicated to the American people. Meanwhile the movement Caeus helped start with his blog and then leads is refreshing in light of actual politics as seen with the impending government shutdown and the debt ceiling battle, as it shows Republicans and Democrats working together to pass commonsense policies that move the country forwards. Especially notable was Caeus' success in pushing many people of the Millennial generation into politics and ending the apathy about politics amongst this generation which has been detected in many studies.

As a result I have named this blog Torchlight, in the hopes that it too may do some part (however minor) in improving and moving forward the political discourse of this country and in getting people of my generation into participating in politics. By way of disclaimer, I ask everyone to remember that I am not Noravea and that this blog does not represent his political views nor that of the fictional characters of his story.

Regarding this website itself, I hope to make it a blog with both a wide focus and a large amount of content. The primary focus of this site will be on the politics, and thus much of the content will be commentaries of varying lengths on current events by this author and other contributors. There will also be longer feature articles which will be explore certain issues or events in-depth with a strong focus on its background and history and the potential solutions to the plan. Other features will include "Point and Counterpoint" where two contributors will give the opposing arguments on a certain issue or matter and the "Roundtable" where several different contributors will give brief commentary on a matter.

However like periodicals such as the Atlantic or the New Yorker, I do not intend Torchlight to solely focus on political matters. Besides pure politics, it will first of all, cover materials that are strongly related to politics such as economics and demographics with a focus on analysis and connecting them to politics. In addition there will be posts covering history, science, and similar topics of general interest in the interest of enlightening readers. Torchlight also harbours some ambitions of posting matters relating to theology but this cannot be guaranteed  unless appropriate contributors are found. Finally there shall be articles relating to culture including reviews of books, films, TV shows, plays, artwork, and music.

Besides articles by Torchlight itself, there will be links to sites, articles, pictures, and videos that will be of interest to the reader including links to newspapers articles on the day's major stories.

Finally Torchlight intends to devote some of its material to the region of Southern California (as indicated in the URL of this site) where the contributors live. As a result there will be some articles and pictures here relating to the region's natural landscape, climate, history, politics, demographics, culture, architecture, and so forth.

I hope Torchlight will be of great interest to readers in the future and especially fulfill the goal stated above of getting young people thinking about and involved in politics.

Sincerely Yours,
Casey Cho