Saturday, January 30, 2010

Avatar: The Lowest Common Denominator

There's been a lot of attention in the media recently about the movie Avatar, especially about the fact that it has broken the U.S. and international box office records (not adjusted for inflation, of course). This being the case, one imagines that it must be pretty good. When talking about it with others who've seen it, I hear the same thing a lot: the story is standard Hollywood formula with so-so writing, while the visuals are beautiful, the best they've ever seen.

But if the story is only so-so, why is it so successful? Basically, I believe the answer is that the great majority of movie-goers don't mind a formulaic story; it's like different frosting on the same cake, one that they like and are comfortable with. They don't think deeply about the structure of the story, like a critic would; they just want to sit down and be entertained for two hours. Stories that are adventurous and different have a hard time getting made, because they don't make much money. Critics sometimes complain that Hollywood films aim for the lowest common denominator.

So, is that a bad thing? Some will say no, that if you like formula movies and I like art-house movies, it's just a matter of taste, nothing anyone should be criticized for. Some say yes, that there is such a thing as artistic merit, and that those who ignore this (and refer to those who value artistic merit as 'pretentious') are only trying to defend their poor taste and lack of discernment. I think I tend to fall in the middle of this. I do think there is such a thing as artistic merit, that many works of art, music, literature, and movies have subtle touches of skill that escape those who lack the knowledge and insight to appreciate them. But I definitely don't want to condemn those whose taste in film runs to action movies with lots of explosions and little story, or comedies that rely heavily on slapstick humor and fart jokes. Maybe that's not my taste, but if it's yours, what's wrong with that?

What's wrong, the sophisticate will sniff, is that our culture will then be overrun with such dreck, which will crowd out the 'good' movies that otherwise would have been made. I would say, maybe so, but that's the world we live in; the taste of the masses is what composes our culture. (I'm a lot less sanguine about this notion when it comes to politics, but with good reason: it affects me not at all if the taste of the masses makes Transformers 2 a huge hit, as I don't have to see it. But when the selfishness and ignorance of the masses causes improvements in health care to run aground, that may affect me, and it definitely affects the poor and uninsured, probably costing lives in the long run.) Especially now that technology is making films easier to make (home filming and computer software) and show (the internet), I think we're never going to run out of good movies.

While recognizing its limitations, I enjoyed Avatar. I had read reviews, and knew what I was getting into. I do tend to avoid formula movies; I dislike watching a movie and knowing what's going to happen. Avatar contained no surprises. But while I experienced twinges of annoyance, for the most part I was able to forget that and lose myself in the movie. It may be a formula movie, but it's a really good formula movie. Just because a person is capable of fully appreciating a meal prepared by a great French chef doesn't mean that he can't also enjoy some well-prepared fried chicken and mashed potatoes. (I don't mean that the diner in this analogy is me; I'm not quite such a high-level movie buff. I'm just speaking generally. And as for me, I'd probably rather have fried chicken and mashed potatoes than the great French meal. I suppose I'm lowbrow when it comes to food.)

What I really dislike in this whole discussion is the literate, intelligent 'lover of fine things' who ostentatiously turns up his nose at things that the masses enjoy, and he turns it up more the more they enjoy it. More than a few times, I've had to listen to snobbish people say things like 'well, I like x and y,' with the clear implication that it's self-evident that they are superior to those dolts who like a and b. 'Everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on,' goes a lyric from Kris Kristofferson's first album, and the simple truth of that is especially apparent at such times. I try, however, not to look down on the people who look down on people. I have mixed success. I am human, after all.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hot Lesbian Amateurs

The standard joke here would be something along the lines of "now that I have your attention..." This post is obviously not about hot lesbian amateurs (or should it be, hot amateur lesbians? I guess not, as that suggests there must be professional lesbians, which sounds strange, but anyway...), but the post's topic does have some connection to the headline. I should say now, though, that there are no pictures, no links to pictures, or pornography of any kind on this page. I wouldn't want someone who found this page by searching for 'hot lesbian amateurs' to actually read the post, only to not find what he was looking for, and leave nasty comments.

If you have been using the internet at all to look at English-language pages–and if you're looking at this page, it seems likely that you have–then you will have seen ads for the online game called Evony. Evony is apparently (I haven't played it) a game in which one builds one's own city, then empire. Evony is a lot less well-known for its gameplay, of course, than it is for its ads, which usually include an attractive underwear-and-bra-clad young woman whose ample cleavage is highly emphasized. The ads are ubiquitous, appearing on a substantial percentage of the websites I tend to frequent (which generally have nothing to do with either online games or porn).

At first, I wondered what the young woman had to do with the gameplay, then I realized that I was being naive. Nothing, of course; apparently, women (much less scantily clad ones) have no connection whatsoever to the game. Then again, bikini-clad women have nothing to do with cars or sports, but one sees them in car commercials and in one very popular issue of Sports Illustrated. The well-known site The Huffington Post started as a political blog, but it gets a lot of traffic through celebrity skin and nipple-slip photos. Whatever brings in the eyeballs.

I was moved to write this post while looking at a movie review website called Reelviews, written by a guy named James Berardinelli, who I think writes far-above-average reviews that I like to read whether I plan to see the movies or not. He writes reviews as a labor of love, and unfortunately can't make a living from the income from internet ads on his site. His most recent column was accompanied by two Evony ads, which much to my surprise did not include any breast-related photos. Each had a few short, pithy phrases, and while reading them, it occurred to me that advertising attempts to tap into and exploit fundamental human desires. Some ads do it subtly, while others are far more blunt. Even without female flesh, Evony ads run much more towards the latter than the former. Here are the phrases in the ads:

Be A Lord. Appeals to the desire to have high status and to rule over others.

Conquer Your World. Appeals to the desire to feel powerful. Humans have been trying to do that since the dawn of time. Since it's difficult and dangerous to try to do it for real, maybe a virtual world is the best we can do.

Our City Is Under Attack, Come And Save Us! Appeals to the desire to be a hero, the white knight who rides in to save the day. And maybe if you save them, they let you have the underwear-clad woman in gratitude?

Build Your Kingdom. A combination of the desires to build something lasting and rule over others.

Make New Friends. Appeals to the desire to be popular, to have many friends. Maybe you can make alliances in this game, or maybe the phrase is trying to tap into the fact that some people do make friends online, and making friends in the game has as little to do with the game as the busty babes. I don't know.

10 Million Gamers. This is along the lines of '50 Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong.' (I believe that is an actual album title I saw once.) If so many people are doing it, it must be good. Get in on the trend, another strong human tendency.

As I mentioned, there were no women in these ads, but another page I happened to be looking at did have one. It included the phrases:

Play the New Game Everyone's Talking About. Similar to the 10 Million Gamers one, it tries to tap into the herd mentality of the human psyche: if everyone's talking about it except us, we should know what it is. (And yes, everyone is talking about it. They're saying, did you see those ads?)

It's Obvious Why They Are. As the words move back and forth over the cleavage, I guess that's hard to dispute. They have poor impulse control, and couldn't stop themselves from clicking on the ads!

It Makes You Feel Like A King! A more blatant appeal to the ego and/or low self-esteem would be hard to find. Like I said, these ads are not subtle, to put it mildly.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that the game isn't actually that good, or at least one gets that impression by reading its Wikipedia entry, which suggests that it's quite derivative of the popular empire-building game called Civilization. Apparently, while it is a free game, in order to really succeed in the game, one must use real money to buy game-related progress and enhancements. I'd wondered at first how they could afford all those ads, but now I understand: people, especially men who clicked on the breasts, get competitive once they get into the game. Once hooked in, they try to advance over others by buying the enhancements. So, the ads use psychology to get you to play, and once you play, they use psychology to try to get you to spend money on an allegedly free game. Really, it's almost diabolical. Not that there aren't a lot of other things like it on the Web, but this one is so ubiquitous that it's interesting to analyze. And if they really have 10 million players, it seems to be working.

So, morally speaking, how bad are the ads? The ads don't lie outright, it seems: I imagine that no one expects to click on the link and suddenly 'be a Lord' in any realistic sense. They are somewhat deceptive, as the babes have absolutely nothing to do with the game, but a lot of advertising would fall into this category. I suspect that a lot of big companies do things worse than this. Anyway, I titled the post as I did partly in humor, and partly as a demonstration of a tactic similar to what the Evony people do: babes have nothing to do with their game, but are just an attention-getting tactic. In my case, part of the humor is that I'm not really trying to get more readers by shameless deception, but rather to make it appear as though I am. (Or, I could be lying...)

Even the oldest of us have been exposed to advertising all our lives, and I suppose it's like any other aspect of life: some will see things for what they are and some won't, with many in between. All except the most stupid or naive know that ads mislead or even lie, but I suspect that many don't know or don't consider the part that understanding the way the human mind works plays in creating advertising. I'm pretty sure that in most universities there are classes on advertising that explain this, but those classes are about how to make advertising. I'd like to see classes as early as elementary school that deconstruct advertising, and explain how to resist its appeal. But I'm pretty sure there's no chance of that happening. Ours is a consumer society, and the companies that run it would fiercely fight any attempt to teach children to resist their sales pitches.

Friday, January 22, 2010

climate change: who pays?

It is largely agreed that the international conference in Copenhagen last month to address climate change was a failure, as no legally binding targets were agreed to, and there was too great a disagreement between what Europe wanted (stronger targets for all countries) and what less industrialized countries wanted (especially China, which is rapidly industrializing and wants as few constraints on its behavior as possible). An article I read in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian squarely blames China for the poor outcome.

Let's imagine that I'm the Chinese leader. What if I said the following to America and Europe:

"The climate crisis is the responsibility of those countries that caused it by putting large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere for the past 60+ years. When you ask us to cut down our emissions, you are asking us to help clean up the mess you made. So, the following is our position. Let's go back 60 years, and calculate the total GNP for all countries. Let's assume that a country's contribution to the CO2 problem is proportional to its GNP. For the next 15 years, there will be a global target each year for reducing emissions. Each country will have a share of that target assigned to it. Each country's share of the target will be the same percentage as was its contribution to global warming over the past 60 years. For example, America has over the past 60 years accounted for 25% of global GNP, and was therefore responsible for 25% of global warming. America must therefore cut its emissions enough to account for 25% of the global target. After 15 years, we'll agree to renegotiate based on GNP over the past twenty years."

So, what would be wrong with that?

To a fair-minded person, it seems eminently reasonable: is there anyone, especially who grew up with siblings, who as a child didn't protest against being made to clean up a mess someone else made? I think it can be very reasonably argued that to the extent that China, India, and other developing countries are asked to clean up more than they polluted, that is essentially what is being asked of them. Should it surprise us that they strongly resist it?

The opposing argument is, of course, obvious: we're all in this together, so unless we want the planet to go to hell, we'd all better get on board no matter who caused it. (I can't help but recall my favorite Monty Python movie: "This (wedding) is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let's not argue and bicker over who killed who...") This argument, of course, generally tends to be made by those who caused the problem. It's not utterly wrong, but it ignores the concept of fairness, and most people take that very seriously. Some psychology lectures I watched on the web gave the example of an experiment in which two volunteers were put together. One was given ten dollars, and he could give as much or as little to the other as he wanted, but for both to get the money, both had to approve of the final outcome. In many cases, the one with the ten dollars gave the other person five, which both approved. But in most cases in which the one with ten dollars gave the other only one dollar, the other disapproved–even though this meant neither got any money. It was clearly in the self-interest of the one who got one dollar to agree–after all, one dollar is better than none–but anger at the unfairness and greed overrode self-interest. It seems to me that on a much larger scale, that's what's happening here: the less-developed countries are angered at the obvious unfairness of the developed countries, and so don't cooperate.

As for the developed countries, many of them have majorities that want to do more, but the business interests (especially in America), in short-term self-interest, do everything they can to block progress, in willful disregard for the likely long-term consequences. (I love how they often say, when presented any legislation that will increase their costs, that the legislation is bad because it'll just force them to pass the costs along to the consumer. Clearly not, since if that was the case, they shouldn't care. Their profits might suffer, and that's all they care about.) The conservative politicians use China's intransigence as an excuse for inaction, but if there wasn't that, they'd find another. Those who want to start cleaning up the planet are going to have to do it regardless of whether anyone else does or not, and some are. Will it be enough to avert catastrophe? I'm 47; will I be around long enough to find out? All I can say is that there's more than enough evidence that we're in great danger, so no one can say we weren't warned. If we don't get it done in time... it would be very human.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Way We Think

There are about 40,000 traffic fatalities per year in the U.S., the equivalent of about one jumbo jet crash every two or three days. Can you imagine the level of panic if planes started crashing at that rate? Or the extreme panic if these planes were being brought down by terrorists rather than mechanical problems?

A person making 50K a year whose salary is suddenly cut to 40K will bemoan his fate, while a person making 30K suddenly making 40 will party it up. Shouldn't they feel the same, since they make the same amount of money?

An earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Southeast Asia, each taking thousands of lives, prompt non-stop news coverage and donations of millions of dollars. A genocide in Rwanda that kills nearly a million, or a government-assisted North Korean famine killing millions, get modest coverage and no telethons. Why?

An article a student brought in the other day mentioned the concept of anchoring, which is apparently a word psychologists use to describe the fact that we sometimes rely too heavily on one piece of information (of questionable relevance) when making judgments. It was mentioned in the context of buying stock: many stockholders sell or don't sell based on what they paid for it, which in fact has no relevance at a later time: the only consideration for selling or holding should be expectations of the stock's future value, not its past value. Yet many people consider this fact. While not the same thing, this brings to mind the fact that there are many people who think that if a flipped coin comes up heads ten times in a row, the eleventh is bound to be tails. The irrelevant past events color our judgment of the future event.

The first question above is one I've always thought was interesting. We freak out when a plane crashes, but the same number of people dying on the roads in a single day would be so ordinary it wouldn't even be reported in the national media. Granted, more people are on the roads every day than are in planes (I assume), so absolute numbers may not be a fair comparison, but the point is valid, I think. We have gotten used to the carnage on the streets and highways. It's the price we pay to drive, the cost of doing business. I guess part of the situation here is that traffic fatalities happen every day, at a fairly predictable rate, and only one or two tend to die at a time. Plane crashes are unpredictable, happen irregularly, and have death tolls in the hundreds; this seems to make crashes more attention-getting. I'd bet that if three planes crashed in a week it would be a crisis; many questions would be asked. But few note the toll on the roads. Could this number be reduced? If we put more cop cars on the roads and cut speed limits by a third, would it save lives? It would almost have to, though I can't know how many. If experts agreed that it would save 10,000 lives a year, would people agree to it? Not a chance in hell. 40 mph on the freeway? Yeah, right. My feelings about this may be colored by the fact that a very close friend (best man at each other's weddings) was killed in a traffic accident 15 years ago. Our experiences cause us to look at the same events or ideas in different ways.

The second sentence at the top of the post, about the salary, is a good example of anchoring. Is 40K a good salary, or not? If so, but we got a cut from 50, shouldn't we just say, 'well, 40 is still good, so I'm not going to sweat it'? Our idea of what is a good salary tends to depend on what our salary is right now. (I haven't seen any research, but I'd bet money that people who make 100K have a very different idea of what a 'good salary' is than those who make 30K.) It seems very natural to see things this way, but I wonder why we do, or rather, why we can't 'not sweat' a drop from 50K to 40K. Does someone who made 200K last year moan and whine about this year's 150K? I'm sure he does, even though he knows perfectly well that 95% of Americans would love to have his salary; 200K is simply his anchor. Similarly, a cut from 50K to 40K would feel devastating, even though plenty in Africa, India, China, etc. would feel rich if they had 40K. Thinking like that doesn't seem to help.

The third sentence is inspired by recent events. Of course, the Haiti earthquake is terrible and has caused enormous human suffering, as did the tsunami a few years ago. People saw the images, read the stories, and opened their wallets both times. But there's always great suffering in the world, usually preventable, at the hands of corrupt and despotic governments that prioritize gold-fixtured mansions for the rich over basic services for the desperately poor. Why are we not moved by this, why do we not insist that our government do something? Because it's due to a government's actions rather than nature? Why is the suffering of a tsunami victim more worthy of help than one of the many Zimbabwean citizens scrounging through garbage for food? I guess, because we've gotten used to that, as we've gotten used to the 40,000 traffic deaths per year. Tsunamis and earthquakes, like airplane crashes, are exceptional and startling events. It's true, also, that due to national sovereignty, the million who died in Rwanda or the million-plus who preventably starved in North Korea are widely seen as things we can do nothing about. But even if we could...

Bill Clinton has said that the biggest regret of his presidency is that he didn't send U.S. troops to Rwanda to prevent what happened, and it's easy to see why he regrets that. But the reason he didn't do it was that it was politically dangerous; U.S. citizens wouldn't have stood for our soldiers dying to prevent Rwandan deaths. 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq, and we stood for that because Bush 43 persuaded Americans that our interests were at stake. Probably he should have gambled his second term and sent the troops anyway, but more importantly, ordinary Americans should have read articles about what was going on, realized that our troops could save many lives, and urged Clinton to send them. But hey, there's always some African war going on somewhere, and we can't get involved in all of them, right? Even as the slaughter happened, public opinion about sending troops didn't change. The Rwandans who died would have gotten a lot more sympathy and help if they'd died in a tsunami instead of being macheted to death.

I don't mean that people shouldn't send money to the Haiti relief charities. But it would be nice if we looked around the world to see what was going on all the time, not only when something big happens, and made it easier for our leaders to do the right thing when they have a chance.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Racial Profiling

I was going to write a response to Brad's comment on the 'Why Do They Hate Us?' post, but I decided that the topic was worth a post of its own. In that post, I wrote in passing that I hoped racial profiling wouldn't be necessary to stop terrorism. In his comment, Brad suggested that we should do racial profiling if it works. So, I wondered, does it?

To all outward appearances, it certainly seems as though it should. To take the reductio ad absurdum argument, let's say a flight has two passengers, and we're going to search one. One is Betty Lundgren, a 75-year-old grandmother of six from Indiana. The other is Abdul Mohammad Hussein, a 22-year-old student from Saudi Arabia. Hmmm, who should we search?

Part of the problem, of course, is that over 99.9% of all men with Abdul, Mohammad, or Hussein in their names are not terrorists, so to have a decent chance of catching those who are by racial/ethnic profiling, we'd have to search a very large percentage of them, which isn't practical. So, we can search Abdul, but we're very likely not to find anything. I do, absolutely, think it's stupid to search Betty. Doing that, I think, is pointlessly P.C., just to show that we're not profiling, we're searching everyone. Speaking as a man, I'm perfectly content if 95% of their random searches are performed on men.

After thinking about this question, it seems to me that there are two types of situations in which racial profiling might be used: to catch terrorists on international flights, and to catch criminals domestically. I find that domestically speaking, I'm absolutely opposed to it, even if it does catch more criminals than would be caught if it wasn't used. One reason is that profiling isn't going to catch violent criminals; if it catches anyone, it'll be drug users or dealers (since arrest-able evidence must be found on the suspect for profiling to work), and I don't view drug use as all that serious. The main reason I oppose it domestically is that the major 'suspect group' is young black men, followed by young Latino men. I belong to neither group, but I've talked to blacks who've been pulled over for DWB (Driving While Black), and I can imagine how it would affect them. Being searched just for belonging to a certain demographic group quickly creates resentment within the group searched, 95% of whom are perfectly innocent. I don't want any ethnic group feeling persecuted just for the sake of catching a few drug dealers.

Internationally, however, my feelings are less clear. I'll admit that I'm not as worried about making Arabs or Muslims feel less persecuted, as 1) terrorists tend to overwhelmingly be from their ethnic group, and 2) the crime, when it happens, can cause hundreds of deaths. Here, if profiling works, I'm all for it. The main question is, does it work? Not being an expert, I can't know. I believe that even the experts aren't in total agreement. My guess is that if you're going to search people, profiling works better than totally random searches, but statistically, the improvement in the success rate is going to be tiny. Millions of people travel by air each year, and on average, less than a dozen try to blow up a plane. To find one of those by a random search, even one assisted by profiling, would be a wild stroke of luck.

So, what to do? A few days ago, I was pointed by Andrew Sullivan's very good blog to an article about airport terror prevention that focused on how the Israelis do it. The Israelis, of course, have a large percentage of Arabs in their own population, and are the world's number one terrorism target. (Lest they seem too much like victims, let's remember that this is because they've been an occupying power against over a million Palestinians for the last four decades.) How do they handle it? The article explains it, and it's very interesting. You should read the article, but the very short answer is that they focus on looking into people's eyes rather than searching bags. Does it work? The record speaks for itself; Israel hasn't suffered from air terrorism for over three decades. Why don't we do this? I sure as hell don't know. I suppose the answer is that change is always difficult, that even for airport security, there's resistance to changing the way things are.

One of the important things I took away from that article was that we need to be flexible, to do what works rather than what we've always done. And most importantly, not to do stupid stuff just for the sake of appearing to be doing something. After the most recent terror attempt by this Nigerian guy Abdulmutallab, the airlines decreed that people wouldn't be allowed to walk around for the last hour of the flight. Oh, good idea! Now the terrorists will only be able to try to blow up the plane at 30,000 feet, rather than on approach! That'll help so much! I was stunned that this notion wasn't laughed out of whatever meeting it was brought up in. This kind of dumbass idea just shows that we're not serious about stopping terrorists. The Israelis are, so they do what works. Will we ever get serious about it? Hard to say. As I said, I don't know whether profiling works. If it does, let's use it, even if it's not P.C. If it doesn't, let's not use it just so we appear to be doing something. Ideology aside, let's do what works.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A New Decade

I begin to write this in the morning of January 1, 2010: the first day of a new year and a new decade. The media tends to ascribe great significance to this, largely because (I believe) they need things to write about. I view it as being not a whole lot different from a car's odometer changing from 99,999.9 to 100,000. The numbers line up and change at once, but that's about it. The significance is strictly numerical.

That may seem like a slightly cynical point of view ("hey, why not just get into the spirit of it?"), and it occurs to me that the tone of this blog itself might be seen as cynical. I try to analyze social and political problems, and more often than not I end up deciding that the ultimate blame/responsibility lies not with politicians or public officials, but with ordinary citizens, whose apathy, passivity, and ignorance enables those in high positions to act in their own interests rather than in ours. We are stirred only when the leaders' pursuit of personal goals and personal enrichment at the public's expense becomes too great to ignore.

I still believe this is true, but just for a change, I'll try to look at it from a different perspective. What positive things can I find from the collective actions and attitudes of ordinary people?

The first one was inspired by the first paragraph of this post. If I cannot find 1/1/10 a significant day, then what day would I find significant? November 4, 2008 was the one that leapt to mind: the day that 63 percent of American adults went to the polls and chose Barack Obama as president. I was proud and optimistic not just because America became the first democracy to elect as its leader someone belonging to a racial minority group, though that was very significant. It was more because we elected someone who speaks in complete sentences, in coherent, logical, well-thought-out responses to what are often vapid media questions. He speaks to us as if we are adults, as if we are not the idiots that most politicians speak to us as though we are. Is that the reason we voted for him? For the most part, probably not, I must concede. After eight years of Bush, people just wanted a change. I suspect that Hillary Clinton, who practiced a far more conventional and cynical brand of politics, would also have beaten McCain if she had faced him in the general election. Still, the fact that Obama's thoughtfulness didn't doom him is reason enough for optimism. (How's that for low expectations?)

Another collective action/attitude which causes optimism is the progress made for gay rights, particularly marriage, over the past twenty-five years. It was not all that long ago that homosexuality was widely reviled, its practitioners thought to be just one small step away from child abusers. That attitudes have changed as much as they have is due not to policies or court rulings, but rather, ordinary people, one by one, coming to the realization that while they themselves do not wish to be in love or have sex with someone of the same gender, it does not hurt them if someone else does, and in fact it is very important to that other person, an integral part of their identity.

I tend to see the gay rights struggles of the '90s and the '00s as similar to the civil rights struggles of the '50s and '60s. There are, of course, many differences. One is a matter of race; the other, orientation. One can be hidden; the other cannot. For many years, many people maintained that one was a choice, while the other was not. More and more people are realizing that being gay is not a choice, and that even if it was, there is nothing morally wrong with that choice. An important way in which civil rights for blacks and gay rights are similar is that attitudes change over time, demographically. Resistance to gay equality is strongest among the elderly, who were brought up to believe that gays are perverts. Today's youth, on the other hand, increasingly believe that being gay or straight is of no more consequence than being left-handed or right-handed. So, I am confident that the time will come in my lifetime (I'm 47) when people will say, "Did you know that back in 2010, gays couldn't even get married? I mean, can you believe that?", much as we might say the same thing with regard to the fact that the 1961 Hawaii marriage of Barack Obama's parents would have been illegal in the majority of American states at that time.

Another thing that causes me optimism is the extent to which the social safety net has become embedded in the political culture in many Western democracies. Most have socialized medicine, and many provide welfare in a way that attempts to guarantee that there will be no one without a roof over his head and without enough to eat. We have more than enough money to ensure this; it's just a matter of having the political will. America doesn't, but Europe does. Will America change? A health care bill that will greatly expand the poor's access to medical care seems to be on its way to passage. It's far from perfect, but it is progress. Too slow, but moving in the right direction. Enough, perhaps, for optimism.

Lastly, the march of progress of human civilization is heartening. If we look only at Western countries, we see that it wasn't so long ago in historical terms that there was slavery, indentured servitude, open genocide, medical care that did more harm than good, colonialism as a good thing ("the white man's burden"), royalty with real power, religion as a means of power and social control, monopolies and union-busting, women as second-class citizens, all manner of discrimination openly practiced, outlandish political corruption, and a host of other social ills that will go unmentioned here if only because I feel the list is long enough already to make my point. Things have been much worse, and in non-Western countries, in some ways still are. Is it only financial progress that brings social progress? I'm not sure. But however you want to measure it, things have improved, and one can hope they will continue to do so. So while I continue to criticize the people for what they don't do that I wish they would, I must note that there is, over the long term, reason for optimism.