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President Barack Obama and Jon Stewart: The reckoning (not really)

Jon Stewart interview President Barack Obama; July 21, 2015

It’s an unlikely double case of “senioritis,” Jon Stewart commented in his recent interview with President Barack Obama.

Jon is leaving The Daily Show in two and a half weeks, and some sort of national neurosis seems to have shifted Obama into his lame-duck period a bit early. I’m trying very hard to pretend that none of this is happening.

Whether speaking the truth about President George W. Bush when seemingly no one else would, or keeping Democrats from getting complacent in the Age of Obama, Jon has been, as Obama himself put it, a “gift to this country.”

He should know. Obama has been on The Daily Show numerous times both as a senator and president, and is in fact the first sitting president to appear on the program. Some may consider that a cynical ploy to win favor with the young voters that seem to listen only to Jon (and, until recently, Stephen Colbert), but regardless it’s been pretty entertaining.

Yet like most of those interview, this final installment wasn’t a love fest. Jon’s first two interviews with Obama as president were pretty awkward, and this time he started with a ribbing about the first 2012 presidential debate (where Obama’s appraised poor performance took precedence over Mitt Romney’s pigheadedness), and engaged in a more serious discussion on the VA toward the end.

Despite all of the enthusiasm of the 2008 election, it seems like criticizing Obama has become an initiation right for the liberal club over the past seven years. Maybe old Bush-era habits are hard to break, or maybe the Left has become a collection of gutless hipsters that can’t be associated with anything too popular.

Over the years, Jon Stewart has repeatedly shown how to do this right. He criticizes constructively and when he believes it is warranted, not simply attacking Obama and other leaders for not following a narrow ideological path. And his job is actually to make fun of those leaders, what’s everyone else’s excuse?

I spent most of college watching Obama make his way to the White House, and most of the time since watching him try to steer the country in the direction of progress. Things haven’t gone perfectly, but looking back I’d say it wasn’t exactly a fiasco either. All along the way, Jon Stewart has been there to help us make sense of everything, by not blowing it all out of proportion.

For what it’s worth, I’m proud that Barack Obama is my president, and no matter who is in office, I hope there will always be someone like Jon Stewart to make fun of them, although Jon himself is irreplaceable.

Because no matter who is sitting behind the desks in the Oval Office and a tiny studio in Hell’s Kitchen, meetings like this are probably good for the country.

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Canceling the snowpocalypse

Mailbox in Worcester, Massachusetts.What would Marshall Stacker Pentecost–Idris Elba’s oft-quoted character from Pacific Rim–say if he encountered not a giant monster from another dimension, but heavy snowfall?

New Englanders are supposed to dismiss each snowstorm as “just a dusting,” then go back to swigging Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and counting the minutes until opening day at Fenway.

That’s not the case though. With the snow piling on, many people are getting anxious, and the media would have you believe that the world is coming to an end. The Puritans wouldn’t be impressed.

Perhaps it has to do with the many ways we are now warned of impending precipitation.

Every time it snows, I get a weather alert on my phone, watch meteorologists discuss it with a perverse mix of dread and joy on television, and read about the aftermath in my local paper.

This might be a case of too much information. The constant bombardment of warnings may be making people more anxious than they were in the old days, when even school closings weren’t always properly broadcast.

Of course, one thing has changed in the intervening decades: the planet’s temperature.

Ask someone to trade in their car or washing machine for a more-efficient model, and all they’ll see is dollar signs. Ask them to look out their window in February, and all they’ll see is global warming.

This part of the country had a mild winter last year, which makes this one seem worse than it might actually be. Without crunching the numbers, I can say that past winters have left the landscape looking very much like it does now.

So while it’s good that people are starting to acknowledge global warming, it can also become another source of meteorological anxiety.

An easy remedy would be to just stop getting anxious about the weather. After all, things could be a lot worse. Remember the snowstorm that knocked out the region’s infrastructure in October 2011? Remember that there’s a place called Buffalo?

People may not be able to let go of it that easily, though. There may be a mass-execution of weathermen instead.

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Is Chrysler still “Imported from Detroit?”

2015 Chrysler 200SIt’s funny what advertising can do when it’s not superficial.

Three years ago, Chrysler launched a Superbowl ad titled “Imported From Detroit,” emphasizing the obvious parallels between the carmaker and the city.

While most Superbowl ads feature animals and hijinks, this one was almost inspiring, even if the car it was meant to sell–the 2011 Chrysler 200–was pretty terrible.

For a moment, it seemed like corporate America could sympathize with the rest of America, instead of just finding ways to avoid paying taxes.

However, in the car industry, things change quickly.

Chrysler has established a modicum of stability thanks to its merger with Fiat, revamping its lineup and even producing daring new models like the Dodge Dart and Jeep Cherokee.

Earlier this week, Chrysler unveiled the 2015 200 at the North American International Auto Show in–you guessed it–Detroit.

From Eminem’s purposeful stare in that 2011 ad, you’d think this would be a fulfilling moment, a sign that a city and a car company are climbing out of the pit of doom, together.

In reality, it was just another car unveiling. Journalists were impressed by the new 200’s sleek European styling and high-tech powertrain, but it’s a car divorced from its surroundings.

Detroit, on the other hand, is worse than ever. The city declared bankruptcy last year, and now everything from its art collection to its workers’ pensions seems to be up for grabs.

I wouldn’t want to take a drive through Detroit in the 2015 Chrysler 200. I’d be afraid of getting car-jacked.

Of course, the solidarity depicted in Chrysler’s 2011 Superbowl ad was just an illusion; all advertisement is illusion. Still, it’s not easy to watch corporate fortunes rebound faster than civic fortunes.

Chrysler still has a long way to go to secure its future, but only its investors will be unhappy if progress doesn’t continue.

Corporations can (and do) fluctuate. Cities can’t afford to.

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There’s no glory in hindsight

1990 Lexus LS400They say hindsight is always 20/20. It’s also not very stimulating.

The Klingons were right to believe that life isn’t much without glory, and there’s not much glory in reassessing things after the fact.

Take Thomas Friedman’s seminal globalization text The Lexus & The Olive Tree. Friedman chose a Japanese luxury car as a representative of all things modern because, when he wrote the book, it looked like Japan was going to take over the world.

Friedman was blown away by the robots that assembled each Lexus, because after installing and caulking a windshield, they would spin around to allow a well-placed knife to slice off the residue. It’s the little things, I suppose.

The Japanese car industry’s dominance went beyond its products’ well-sealed windshields. When it debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1989, the Lexus LS400 was a revelation: a car with the luxury of a Mercedes-Benz, and the durability of Keith Richards.

As a kid, I remember the adults around me being very impressed when a friend or relative drove up in a Lexus. This was the mid 1990s; Lexus had been around for less than 10 years, and it was already a byword for exclusivity.

Then there was the Acura NSX, which whipped a Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, Lotus Esprit Turbo SE, Porsche 911 Carrera 4, and Ferrari 348 in a 1991 Car and Driver comparison test, among others.

It seemed like Japan would ruin everything by being too good, but reality turned out to be a lot less dramatic.

Japanese cars are still big sellers in the United States, but they compete with reinvigorated American and European makes, as well as a couple from Korea. Plus, many of them are actually built here.

As Motor Trend editor at large angus Mackenzie noted in a recent column, Japan is now just one of many competitive nations in the automotive world.

Just look at the most recent Lexus LS 460hL: it’s a nice car, but it’s no longer a leader. While Japan continues to excel in other areas of the automotive sphere, it doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of analysts any more.

Qoros 3 sedanSo what’s past is past, right?

The media has a tendency toward sensationalism that doesn’t seem to ebb no matter how many times people are wrong.

There’s been plenty of hysteria over the past few years that China would take over the world economy because of its rapid growth, and its government’s tendency to borrow the most convenient bits from capitalism and totalitarianism.

But are things really that bad? China is already starting to show the strains of unlimited industrialization, so maybe we’re not doomed after all.

“Not doomed” doesn’t sound as exciting as an apocalypse, though. Or a car-building robot.

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Black Friday blogging

Today was Black Friday, and you know what I didn’t do? Go shopping.

I guess I’m a terrible person for not buying the people I love flatscreen televisions.

The beginning of the Christmas shopping season has become such an event that it’s overshadowing an actual holiday, Thanksgiving. While I’m sure there are many great bargains to be had, aren’t we going a little too far in pursuit of cheap goods?

The great threat to American values isn’t abortions, gay marriage, or people’s pesky desire not to get shot when they go to the mall. It’s that we’re expected to spend so much time in said mall.

You don’t have to be a curmudgeon to recognize that spending time with family and giving thanks for what one has are two things that are worth taking one day off a year for.

Yet those things seem to take a back seat to an unearthly cycle of production and consumption.

You often hear people saying that the holidays are an important time to consider the less-fortunate.

That’s an incredibly ironic statement considering that, while the Macy’s bigwigs were enjoying the Thanksgiving Day Parade yesterday, entry-level workers had to open the stores.

Of course, it’s sometimes hard to put oneself in the position of someone who is forced to choose between surviving, and celebrating a holiday that–as an American–they are supposedly entitled to enjoy.

So maybe those people should consider how much time they spend buying gifts, and compare it to how much time they actual spend celebrating the holidays.

Over a month of purchasing goes into what, for most people, is a single day of observance.

Gift giving is an integral part of the holiday season, but if it requires so much time and effort that people choose (or are forced) to cut their holidays short, what’s the point?

Consumerism can only take people so far. A holiday that is only distinguished from an ordinary day by a larger credit-card bill isn’t much of a holiday.

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The algorithms of progress

After 200 posts, I still have a love/hate relationship with the Internet.

I mean that in the most literal sense: I love the opportunities the Internet has made possible, but I hate most of what comes with using it and interacting with people through it.

Without the Internet, I wouldn’t have a job right now. I certainly wouldn’t be able to cover the car industry from a house in Connecticut.

However, the Internet has also de-valued skills.

For many jobs, remote working has opened up a pool of applicants that literally spans the nation. People with job-specific skills are much more interchangeable than they ever have been.

That’s great if, like me, you want to write about cars without moving to Detroit, but it also means that being good at something just doesn’t cut it anymore.

People are expected to bring much more than relevant skills to a job; they’re expected to bring specific training, connections, and name recognition.

Some call this the entrepreneurial spirit; I call it blurring the line between work and life.

Because when people expect less from organizations, organizations expect more from people. So much for punching out at 5:00 p.m.

Those aren’t the only terms the Internet dictates.

We work for it: we design content for it, adapt messages to suit it, alter our language so that both humans and Google will comprehend it.

Then someone invents a new “breakthrough in communications” that must be satiated on its own terms.

Earlier this year I got a Twitter account, because everyone else has one.

As far as I can tell, Twitter is just a forum for anyone who has ever been involved with Star Trek, and a gruesomely effective way to relay information during a disaster.

Every time a celebrity does something, it explodes like a healthcare exchange website on October 1, 2013. I can’t see how this leads to productive discourse.

We shouldn’t feel obligated to make room for new social media in our lives, but we do. That’s what frustrates me the most about living in the shadow of the Internet.

After several generations of continuous technological progress, people seem resigned to the Digital Age being just another part of an inexorable historical movement. Nothing stays the same forever.

When I was in first grade I learned to type on beige Macs and play with floppy disks. The teachers said computers would one day be an important part of my life. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even if we use a piece of technology, we should still be allowed to evaluate its effect on us, and tailor it to our lives–not the other way around.

The Internet has certainly changed the way people live, but whether “different ” really means “better” — and doesn’t mean “worse” is a determination we need to make. It’s easy to assume we have no agency in the face of progress, but we need to take account of how we use technology.

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Narcissistic mirages

Really America, leave the Millennials alone.

The idea that this country’s youth are shiftless and self-absorbed has become somewhat of a meme among intellectuals. One person has even made a career out of it.

It was so much fun to read about Dr. Jean M. Twenge who, according to the New York Times, “is constantly on the lookout for signs of a narcissism crisis in America.” Naturally, that crisis seems to center around young people.

Dr. Twenge believes that the prevalent culture of self-esteem, including the infamous awarding of trophies to everyone who plays Little League, including the kids that suck, has turned America’s next generation of leaders into narcissists.

It’s nothing I haven’t heard before, but that doesn’t mean it was any more pleasant to read for the ump-teenth time. However, it was nice to see a quote from Jeffrey Arnett, a professor at my alma mater, Clark University, defending my generation.

“I think she is vastly misinterpreting or over-interpreting the data, and I think it’s destructive,” Arnett told the Times, “She is inviting ridicule for a group of people about which there are already negative stereotypes.”

Indeed, not all of our generation’s problems are our fault. Between the crushing student loan debt and faltering economy, the generations that proceeded us have done a great job keeping the country in shape, just for us to ruin it with our selfishness.

As several experts pointed out in the Times article, it’s also easy to confuse self-confidence and self-advocacy with narcissism. It’s not an academic difference, either.

Anyone who has been to college knows that, aside from the staff cooking and cleaning, students are basically on their own.

Authorities say this is important, because it teaches responsibility, but it’s actually very unfair when a student is left hanging by advisors who have the knowledge necessary to plan out a major, find an internship, or navigate the school’s bureaucracy, but choose not to share it.

In addition to making life unnecessarily difficult, it makes students have to advocate for themselves. Apparently wanting to have enough credits to graduate makes you a narcissist.

It doesn’t end with graduation either: because no one seems that interested in fixing the economy, workers of this generation often have trouble finding stable employment. They have to think of themselves as freelancers or entrepreneurs, not employees of a larger organization.

So yes, Millennials seem to spend a lot more time curating their own lives than their parents. It’s just how we do what needs to be done. Don’t judge us.

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