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Tournament Time

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Know When to Fold 'Em, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

My poker face at rest, early in my most recent tournament at the Belle of Baton Rouge last Friday. Photo courtesy of the Mid-States Poker Tour.

My poker face at rest, early in my most recent tournament at the Belle of Baton Rouge last Friday. Photo courtesy of the Mid-States Poker Tour.

I love tournaments.

I already talked a couple months back about how I love competition for its own sake, the thrills of the rise and fall of one’s prospect and the possibility of winning something. And I’ve even meditated extensively on the early morning joy heading into a debate tournament as I did most every Friday for five years recently and four years when in college as a competitor, let alone five years in 8th-12th grade prior to that. But having just completed a grueling 19-hour tournament over the course of two days in Baton Rouge this past weekend, I’ve come to a new appreciation about how all tournaments are in some ways the same, and specifically how debate and poker tournaments correlate as environments that has made my transition from debate coach to poker player rather smooth.

I was always impressed at the universality I found in ardently pursued extracurricular activities in college between myself and friends of mine who did ostensibly different things. My friend Ariel was in an elite a cappella group at Brandeis, Alisha in band management at Harvard, Fish in the Student PIRG at UC-San Diego. In all instances and more, it was clear that high school days of doing twenty extracurriculars to pursue all possible interests (and build a college-bound resume) was infeasible. People had, generally, one thing that they did. After an early dabbling in Model UN, the Socialist club, the literary magazine, and the non-drinking club, I quickly consolidated my energies into debate … and the rest is history. But as I would discuss the intricacies of these activities with the friends pursuing them, commonalities with debate quickly became apparent, even where there was not an overtly competitive aspect.

Each group had its own vocabulary and nomenclature. Each had its individual intrigues and romantic entanglements. Each had power struggles and leadership dynamics. Every group had a “that guy,” with the possible exception of the a cappella group which selected in part on popularity, almost like a frat. And each, in its way, brought people together to accomplish great and unlikely feats as only collections of highly motivated and talented groups can consistently do.

Nowhere were these parallels more apparent than in an extensive discussion I had mid-college with Ariel about an a cappella competition her group had attended. While there was no direct clash and engagement as in debate, the similarities of group and individual dynamic in the midst of the intensity of a struggle to win a subjectively judged event were uncannily striking to both of us. There were similar personalities in each of our stories, similar interactions between individual and larger team, similar qualms with the nature of judging and reputation, and remarkably familiar highs and lows and eventual triumphs.

Poker is not a subjectively judged event, but it effectively simulates one in the chance that the better hand will lose on the flop, turn, or river. While the strict outcomes are more like a sport, and indeed a sport without umpires or referees to add some human error, the fact that a person can win a hand they were 8% to win when the chips went in the middle is notably akin to a subjective or even seemingly corrupt declaration by a fallible human judge. And it incites equally pleased and sportsmanlike reactions from the losers. The most frequent expression of frustrated disbelief is to pound on the table once, eliciting an incongruous knocking sound from what appears only to be green felt (there is a harder surface beneath that is rarely reached except in the most angered moments), but berating rants are also not uncommon. As in the debate world, losing competitors are only too happy to tell someone who has just knocked them out of the tournament how vastly inferior a competitor they are, how stupid they have demonstrated themselves to be.

There are brazen jerks in both events. Maybe there are everywhere in the world, but intensely competitive environments have been known to elicit the absolute worst behavior in many an otherwise intelligent or even possibly kind individual. I have had countless run-ins with such people in debate, often getting in preachy arguments with them about how it is possible to both compete well and respect the dignity of one’s opponents without resorting to shady tactics or condescension. And heard the defenses of and from such people that they can be nice humans but ruthless debaters and that we should view this Jekyll/Hyde hybrid as perfectly acceptable. There is an arc of this argument that includes the notion that being intimidating, ruthless, and attempting to extricate tears from one’s opposition actually makes one a better debater in some way, that mercy or even respect are weaknesses that are to be stamped out by those who wish to be the best. No matter how vehemently I disagree with this perspective, there are certainly kindreds in the poker world who craft the image of an asshole in order to induce folds or angry calls at their desired discretion. The fundamental idea being that both debate and poker rely on calm, rational judgment, and this becomes abridged when someone feels personally threatened or a righteous desire to suddenly beat their purported villain/rival all at once.

What makes poker viscerally distinct from debate, however, in these kinds of interactions, is the enforced ongoing physical proximity to those one may deeply dislike. I never had to sit next to a debate rival for eight straight hours as I recently did next to a relatively well-known pro and world-class egotist last Friday. I’ll refrain from including his name, but several articles I recently found about his participation in this tournament alone described him as a “polarizing figure,” which may be the ultimate euphemism. Among other things, the individual displayed extensive racism and sexism in brash tones, as well as bad-naturedly making fun of me repeatedly both in person and on Facebook (he commented on a video the tournament took of one of my hands). He tried to engage everyone at the table in a discussion of how Michael Brown deserved to die in Ferguson (I know I moved to the South, but … Jesus) and went on to describe a sales clerk at a store he’d encountered who he deemed “too stupid to live.” This nestled amongst stories of his extramarital affairs and other disrespectful interactions with women. Nowhere had I been so proximate to certain self-loving and unsavory people capable of such disrespect to their fellow human than in the debate world. But at least there they’d just be across GA, not literally rubbing elbows with you. Finishing off his knockout (someone else got most of his chips two hands prior) was among the most satisfying aspects of that tournament.

All these events have reputational considerations that deeply impact the results, or at least the journey toward the results. Almost any regularly meeting competitive event has the cool kids and the people who are respected as the best and then the vastly greater number of people trying to knock on the door and establish themselves. This is the nature of most every gathering of people in modern Western culture – a ladder is either built-in or implied in most every workplace, school environment, club, or pastime. It has been a satisfying journey to come in as an unknown and consistently cash in over half the big tournaments I’ve played, especially when I don’t rebuy my entry into tournaments as many pros consistently do. If I get knocked out, I’m out, partially a product of my smaller semi-pro bankroll, but also increasingly a deliberate choice to maintain a serious do-or-die mentality throughout the tournament. I’m sure this has a negative impact on my stomach’s stability and heart-rate, but also I think makes it possible to play a 5.5-hour satellite, then a 10-hour day one, then come back two days later and ride out the 3.5 additional hours to a $2k cash placement as 15th of 115 runners in a “main event” tournament, all without busting out once at any point.

It is that elimination nature of a tournament, combined with the fact that you literally have a chance of winning until the moment of being knocked out, that makes both tournament formats so excitingly engaging, so palpitation-inducing and thrilling. No one managed to get debate on TV, despite C-SPAN’s offers around the time of my graduation, but poker’s a fairly well-established, if culty and heavily edited, spectator sport. My favorite part of each event is the advanced strategics. The careful calculation of the psychological state of the opposition and what move will elicit the worst response from them, while playing to one’s own advantages. Obviously making it over the money line (called the “bubble” in poker tourneys, just as the line for breaking is known in debate) was my favorite single moment of the tournament, swinging the event from a potential $270 loss (I never would have paid the full $1,100 entry fee at this stage in my budding career, but thank goodness for satellites) to at least a $1400 profit. But close behind and by far my favorite play was a 7,000-chip river-bet against a steely calm player who reminded me greatly of my friend Russ in the third hour of the main event. It was designed to look like a frustrated bluff on a missed flush-draw, a calculated over-bet of the pot that would have left either myself or my opponent, if he called and lost, with almost no reasonable chips to play with but was still not an all-in. I actually had a set of 4’s which I was 90% sure was good, but also thought the bet could be strong enough to get him off a slightly better set since the turn had been a queen and the river an ace. I had checked the rainbow flop (including my set), then bet hard on the turn that brought a second heart and the queen. The guy “tanked” (thinking hard for a long period of time) for over five whole minutes, a veritable eternity in poker (that’s a whole PMR!) before calling with an inferior hand and the probable assumption I was bluffing. I turned over the fours and asked if he had a set (the 10% chance at that point had diminished, but he could reasonably have a set of 6’s and basically take my tournament chances with it) and he angrily mucked. I watched him bleed out his remaining stack as I secured my near-double-up, talking to himself frustratedly and busting out an hour later. Not only was that hand the turning point in setting me up to run toward the money (I’d really just tread water up to that point), but after his departure, a couple neighbors confided that he was one of the best pro cash players in Baton Rouge. I felt that little jolt of pride that comes with overcoming someone with a better reputation, so familiar from my early coaching days at Rutgers.

I’m still not sure I have what it takes to do this professionally. But it’s become increasingly clear that the shape, structure, and payouts of tournaments are vastly more to my style and liking than the hourly grind of the cash game. There’s vastly more strategy in the former environment, where the playing field is somewhat leveled (entirely so if one isolates the ability to rebuy entry) and survival is the primary object. The latter brings looser and crazier play, which can both be an advantage for the patient strategist, but leads to wilder variance in a world governed by probability rather than fixed outcomes. Of course, New Orleans has almost infinitely more opportunity to play cash than tournaments, so being a full-time tournament player would require precisely the kind of journeyman travel that Alex got me to give up by leaving the debate world in the first place. The long-term nature of the “circuit” as both traveling weekendly tours are called, with its repeat players and uneasy camaraderie punctuated by vicious eliminations, is perhaps the greatest parallel between these two similar universes.

But I have found enough consistent success, at least a few months in, to feel that my self-evaluation of my ability to hack it in this world is not overblown. That I have the general skillset to hang with even the long-term professionals. I still probably want to supplement this lifestyle with a health-insurance-offering employment of some sort, preferably one that works against the capitalist structure or at least helps people somehow. But approaching a half-year of this experiment, I feel grateful (on Thanksgiving!) to have found another competitive environment where I can find periodic success and consistent outlet for the competitive strategic parts of my brain that constantly pressure me for release. And perhaps I owe no small amount of this ability to being forged in the nerve-wracking fires of fourteen years of competitive debate in one role or another.

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Why We Love Serial… and May Eventually Hate It

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

You love them now… but will you always?

You love them now… but will you always?

Spoiler alert, kind of: I will make reference to anecdotes about this show through its current airing, which is Episode 9, but probably not say anything that actually ruins your listening experience of the show, yet. More spoiling might be admonitions about how the show can’t end in a satisfying way and thus you are setting yourself up for disappointment, which is inevitable but probably worth it.

If you consider yourself a reasonably informed denizen of the Internet, you’ve probably heard about Serial, the podcast spun off from wildly popular two-decade-running PBS radio show This American Life (TAL). The co-producers, Sarah Koenig and and Julie Snyder are pictured above, sandwiching Ira Glass, who needs no introduction. Serial bills itself as kind of the inverse of TAL – instead of each show covering one theme and itself fragmented into different lenses for that theme, Serial is one story stretched out over a whole season, however long that ends up proving to be. It’s unclear whether they pitched it as a radio show initially and no one would take it, whether they are leveraging podcast listenership to join TAL on the radio in future, or whether they believe radio is dying and are trying to just start with the future medium of audio audiences.

Whatever their motives behind the show design, there can be no mistaking the success of the model as it is currently being unrolled. Odds are that if you’ve heard of Serial, you’ve listened to it and that if you’ve listened to even one show, you’re totally hooked. Not only do I find myself in this category as of writing, but I have read an uncanny number of Facebook posts and even blog posts about people not just listening to Serial, but building an increasing portion of their mental energy around it, including looking forward to, of all days, Thursdays, when new episodes are released. It’s weird for something without a visual component to have this kind of hold on the web’s collective consciousness, perhaps weirder still that it is almost entirely about something that happened more than a decade ago.

If you prefer non-anecdotal evidence, just plug the word Serial into GoogleNews. Most recently noted, the show is breaking podcast download records and just made an appeal for donations to fuel a second season. Heck, even their one early-season sponsor ad became a viral phenomenon.

So what makes this show so great? And perhaps more pertinently, so popular, so captivating at this moment in Internet history?

Let’s start with the obvious. The show centers on a murder mystery. This nation loves a good murder mystery. The English-speaking world, since Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle opened the genre with still our best examples, really loves a good murder mystery. We have board games, movies, books, and little parties-in-a-box that regularly renew our love of the theme of the murder mystery. Murder mysteries are so ubiquitous in our culture that TAL once did a whole show in 2007 asking the question how people whose lives have been impacted by actual murders can go through their lives afterwards given the prevalence of such themes. “I can’t watch Law and Order,” notes interviewee Rachel Howard at the opening of the show, “or play Clue or, y’know, go to a murder mystery dinner theater.”

We love us some murder. But even more than that, we love us some unsolved murder. Or more pertinently, the wrongly convicted. I’m hardly in a place to critique the phenomenon, given that it is my favorite movie of all-time, but the cultural significance of The Shawshank Redemption cannot be overstated. As of now, it is currently considered the best movie of all-time on IMDB. Proving either (or perhaps both) that I have excellent taste or am extremely mainstream/unhip. (Let me know when I should note that I liked Shawshank “before it was cool”, decrying its Oscar loss, live, to Forrest Gump, which currently ranks 15th on that IMDB list. Which, along with Pulp Fiction [#5] mostly proves that 1994 was a really great year for film.) And as well all know, Shawshank centers around the incredible struggle, endurance, and ultimate redemption (spoiler alert? it’s right in the title…) of someone wrongly convicted for murder.

The first problem here might be that we don’t know Adnan Syed, co-protagonist (along with host Koenig) of Serial’s first season, has been wrongly convicted for murder. We know he’s been convicted and we know that Koenig really wants to believe he is innocent. In more recent episodes, we can hear Koenig sort of struggling against some of the best evidence for Syed’s guilt, expressing surprise that the investigation is deemed adequate to good by an independent detective, or agonizing about the question of who else could possibly have committed the crime. Through 9 episodes, and even from the outset, we get the sense that Koenig really does have a horse in this race, despite clearly wanting to be objective. And after all, her avenue to the case was the purportedly innocent convict, while those who testified most stringently against him and even the victim’s family have refused to go on the air for even one word.

But then there’s a backdoor possibility that might be even more intriguing, one that Koenig deftly sets up into a dichotomy with our favorite storyline of the long-suffering innocent convict. Which is that Syed is a psychopath or a sociopath, some sort of mastermind of manipulation and evil genius who convinced the world that he was incapable of such an act directly before and after committing said act, the one which we consider most heinous in our society. This is the case that we hear the state present, and more pertinently in the latest episode, that the judge herself admonishes Syed for being guilty of. “You used that to manipulate people,” she says after listing Syed’s many gifts and talents, including a guileless seeming charm, “and even today, I think you continue to manipulate even those that love you.”

I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this possibility especially tantalizing. Not only because this setup – namely a high school student whose friends and family are all shocked to learn what he’s been accused of and who may or may not be guilty – is the premise of the first half of my first novel, Loosely Based, but because of my own high school history which may have helped partially inspire that premise. If Adnan is guilty, I dated the closest equivalent of him that went to my high school. It was my first serious longish relationship in my life and it had an overwhelming impact on everything that followed in the development of my romantic and social existence. It was my junior year and she was a pathological liar, an effective one, someone who convinced the entire elite school that she had a forthcoming book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being published by Harvard University Press. She was not as charming or universally liked as Adnan, but she definitely had people snowed and left a trail of incredulity in her wake when the truth came leaking out at the edges. Though the only person who really got hurt by any of it in a meaningful way was me.

I’ve referred to her from time to time on my webpage, using my moniker for her of PLB, a resentful nickname from the decade-plus between her absenting herself from my life in a devastating way in 1997 to our four-hour meeting in October 2010. And I see no reason to start using her full name here now, if only because she has since reinvented herself and her life entirely, again, and I probably no longer think she should be saddled with a series of terrible decisions she made at sixteen on Google. Although, I dunno. I go back and forth on that one, as I do about her ultimate motivations. She did such a good job convincing me that she had changed and grown, but then made a series of decisions again in the year following our reunion that just seemed so explicable as part of the old her. I decided pursuing further communication was unwarranted, or at least unnecessary, if not dangerous. The problem, ultimately, is that I think she liked the mystery and the impact she had on people, even then in 2010, as much or more than she liked anything else about herself or her interactions. That for all its garbage and toxicity, maybe she was never so alive as in our junior year in high school, exacting awe and terror from so many, reveling in the pile of sleepless lies that required so much energy to seemingly effortlessly maintain.*

I do not want this post to get sidetracked into recollections from my own high school years, but I have a hunch that you have made your listening to Serial somewhat or almost entirely about that as well. This is part of the magic of this story. We Americans just about all went to high school and it remains a period of time both iconic and almost universally traumatic. The universality of high school as an experience and, more vitally as a larger-than-life cultural Experience in America makes a murder mystery set in the midst of that time both startlingly unique and overwhelmingly captivating. You have probably all identified your own Adnan, or closest facsimile, from your years between 14-18. You have recalled the key incidents or scandals of that time in your life and compared them to this. You have wondered how your friends would have reacted had you been charged with some heinous deed.

There are other tricks and quirks that make Serial amazingly gripping. Something I haven’t seen anyone else discuss is the music, which is regularly stuck in my head and could not possibly be more perfect for an ever-deepening mystery with plenty of twists. Even the name, Serial, evokes the notion of a serial killer, as well as a hard-boiled series of detective novels that people devour like the cheap filling breakfast food so many of us grew up on (cereal). These additional assets may seem trivial, but when one is just starting a show or cultural phenomenon, small things like name, logo, and music make a big impact.

And then there’s the slow time-release of the episodes. Which, to be fair, is the norm and not the exception in these kinds of things – only books, movies (though increasingly less so with the rise of sequels, trilogies, and whatever endlessness you want to attribute to comic-book franchise films), and Netflix TV are released all at once. Koenig herself in a recent interview said the tactic is as old as Dickens and certainly most every mystery that really hooks us in comes out in installments to keep our attitude in eternal suspense. But the problem here is that the periodic nature of Serial that has catapulted its success is also endemic to what I see as its very likely undoing.

Here’s the problem: we’re not going to get a satisfying conclusion to the story of Adnan Syed and the murder of Hae Min Lee. We’re not. There is an extremely scant possibility that this podcast’s delving and outrageous popularity combine to prompt the real killer to make a stunning confession, or Adnan to collapse beneath the weight of his guilt and confess, or, I guess, Hae Min Lee’s suicide note to be found. Even the slightly more realistic but still unbelievably unlikely possibility of Adnan getting a new trial or even exonerated would not exactly be a resolution unless we had an admission from or at least conviction of someone else. And the very doubt that makes the podcast so damn compelling now as it’s being released will make its conclusion equally disappointing. Because, in the end, we’ll never know.

Murder mysteries basically never end this way. The only one I can really think of that leaves so much of the ending unresolved is In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece that remains one of my favorite all-time books. I’m sure there are others – I’m actually not a huge mystery reader. But in a fictional story of murder, we can kind of revel in the uncertainty the way we revel in the entire plot, knowing that our squirming and writhing is like that in a horror-movie theater – namely, it is fake. It is concocted for our entertainment with no real-world impact on real lives. And just as putting people through a real-life horror movie scenario would be abhorrent, so I think we will wind up feeling quite cheated by having to live with the uncertainty of whether Adnan Syed is either a wrongfully convicted innocent, continuing to rot away his life in prison or a dangerous sociopathic killer who has managed to convince much of America and a plucky upstart podcast’s staff that he is innocent.

The extremity of that binary in the dichotomy is profound and part of what marks trouble for Serial and our feelings about it long-term. Adnan Syed cannot ever be just a nice-ish guy who may or may not have killed his ex-girlfriend who we then feel ambivalently about. He is either a murderer or among the wrongfully convicted. This binary is what attracts us so powerfully to stories of the exonerated, since they have had to live as the former for so long, but are actually the latter. It is the most horrific nightmare our society produces for its citizens, the social and public equivalent of being buried alive, being reviled and rejected by (almost) all as an utter degenerate, subjected to all indignities, only to be a veritable saint for suffering through the consequences of the damned with head held high. Adnan is either this heroic mystical figure in our world, or he is the diametric opposite. Not only a murderer, but one who would insidiously use all of our emotion and intellect against ourselves to convince us of his heroism. Someone whose pre-emptive betrayal of our trust puts him somewhere equivalent to the devil in terms of malice aforethought and negative impact on our faith in humanity.

But we will never know. Most of the narrative power that drives us to wait expectantly for the next installment of Serial is the idea that we will find out more next week and that this is all eventually going somewhere. That even in our own minds, we can decide if Adnan is innocent or guilty and decide what we think of it. But Serial has done such a good job riding this middle ground and building this uncertainty that few smart listeners will ever really be able to decide. And I promise you that Sarah Koenig isn’t going to make up her mind at the end either. We will be left with a story without an ending, which might be tolerable if there were not real people out there, if there were not a real Jay and a real Hae’s family and a real Adnan Syed sitting in jail.

And if there is a resolution, it’s not likely to be much better. This chance is unspeakably slim, but it could be that Serial finds the smoking gun somehow and either gets Adnan’s admission to the crime or some irrefutable piece of evidence against him. In which case, 95% of you will hate Serial thereafter. You will hate it because it fueled Adnan’s deception of the world, brought it to a high platform, broadcast his protestations of innocence to the world. You will feel betrayed, but you didn’t know or trust Syed personally. You trusted and felt you knew Koenig and the staff of Serial. And you will hold them responsible for this betrayal, for the malice and sociopathy of Syed himself. For the doubt and lack of trust this builds into your life, for the damage done to the mythos of the exonerated and the wrongfully convicted. You will hate Serial and you will stop listening and you will be mad.

If the converse happens, you will likely also hate Serial, unless it actually gets Adnan Syed sprung from prison. Because then it will just leave you with this searing, near-provable injustice that is never corrected. With this idea that we all know he’s innocent, but he’s never getting out. Which is not a satisfying end to the story. Imagine Shawshank with Andy Dufresne getting to be Red’s age, or Brooks’, never tasting freedom, growing harder and more bitter with each year as he continued to do the warden’s bidding. Then make it real, knowing Andy is a real person who is really out there.

Yes, if Serial actually unearths the evidence that gets Adnan Syed out, then you will love it forever. But I think this is beyond any realistic possibility. And in the matrix of possibilities, where total uncertainty fills up about 98% of the squares, it’s not really worth considering. I think all of the other outcomes are far more likely and all of those lead to a slow, creeping resentment of Serial for bringing us this story without an ending, or one that leaves us mad.

Then we get to the issue of season two. Given all the above and the fact that Koenig and Co. must be aware of this reality, it’s not really surprising that the big appeal to fund a second season was made today and not, say, at the end of the highly successful first season. (Yes, I guess they have to start on season two before season one is over, perhaps, but I think they have some sense that this may be peak popularity for the show.) Say I’m wrong about all the disappointment you feel coming out of the above and the show somehow pulls a rabbit out of a hat to leave you feeling both satisfied with that season and wanting more of the same. Well then, you are basically guaranteed to be disappointed.

Serial can’t pick another murder mystery, unless it just wants to be the murder mystery show, which is not what the “one story, told week by week” theme seems to aspire to. So already it will have blown perhaps the most successful formula for a weekly installment show. Indeed, they probably can’t pick much of anything that resembles a mystery without just getting typecast. But if they don’t pick some kind of mystery, then the very allure that got us listening will quickly disappear. The comparisons will inevitably ensue of how fascinated we were by season one and how drab the comparative predictability or sedateness of season two is. When combined with what I argue above is the almost guaranteed disappointment of how the first season ended, excitement about this new debut podcast is likely to plummet.

Especially when I am just skeptical that they can find a story as intricately compelling and intriguing as Adnan’s, murder mystery or no. It’s clear they don’t have a second story lined up yet, or even the idea hashed out. Koenig was clearly intrigued enough about this story that it justified the entire idea for a spin-off since it would take more than just one TAL episode to tell it. But given the stories swirling about how unprepared they were for the runaway success the podcast has had and how that, in itself, has impacted the story, I really doubt they’re ready with something that can trump or even come close to the enthrallment of this season. And thus they will go from the greatest formula of success (the unexpectedly great) to the greatest formula for disaster (the hyped disappointment).

Indeed, our expectations determine so much of whether we will like or dislike something. Nothing is ever so devastating to us as something we think will be great and winds up being less than our expectations. This is what makes betrayal perhaps the most awful thing a person can experience – it is not just the trauma of the loss, but the fact that it is so different than our expectation of trust, that makes it so painful. This is why we have sleeper hit movies and big-budget disasters – the former surprise us and exceed non-existent expectations, while the latter are probably better than we think, but fall so short of expectations that they seem almost like betrayals. This is why we have a mystique around underdog stories (arguably Koenig’s best possible hope for recapturing the magic of season one), because they are not just about victory, but victory that no one could have expected.

But the other thing that will be hard to recreate about Serial (and something that, if I’m right about the negative impact of the inevitable ending, they won’t want to try to recreate) is the liveness of it. At the time she’s been making the shows, Koenig does not know if Syed is guilty or innocent. We are living this story and its agonizing twists right alongside her. If she chose another story, say, the rise of the underdog Rutgers University Debate Union and its improbable run to National Finals, the same people who’ve created the Serial subreddit would have looked up the ending and discussed it by the time they’d heard the end of episode one.

So all Koenig has to do is successfully end Serial’s first season with the exoneration and release of Adnan Syed, then find another story that is (a) happening live or so obscure as to be un-Googleable, (b) not a mystery but has the same appeal of a mystery, (c) just as compelling, twisty, and uncertain as Syed’s story, and (d) has a resolution that is more satisfying than any alternative to Syed’s exoneration/release would be.

I don’t envy her this. Though I do envy her success as a storyteller and wish her the best, despite my predictions of Serial’s downfall in our hearts. I certainly don’t think she or her staff can be blamed for us eventually growing to dislike Serial, if I’m right about that. She found an amazing story and is telling it really well and deserves all this following. I just feel like I have to warn her that we’re all likely to turn on her by this time next year. But make no mistake, I’ll be listening every Thursday in the hopes that I’m wrong.


*I also note that, which I am footnoting so as not to further derail the narrative of the main point of this post, she was a regular reader of this blog and probably still is and I think about 45% chance I have an e-mail in the next week either protesting this characterization or, possibly, saying she happened to move to Baton Rouge eight months ago and we could reprise our coffee. To which I guess I will pre-emptively say: I don’t even know anymore. I remain quite grateful for the semblance of resolution and repair that was done in the brief series of meetings that fall, but the palpable danger and alarm I feel about that individual is still literally breathtaking. And whether that is mostly of her construction or mine is part of what makes the idea of mysteries and sociopaths so dramatically interesting in the first place. After all, when I saw the movie Gone Girl earlier this fall, I was torn between the similar reactions of “I’d find that totally farcical if I hadn’t known PLB” and “there are more of them out there!” And honestly, Gone Girl is the same runaway success that Serial is for largely using the same formula, including a possibly wrongfully accused murderer and a wanton sociopath who is very convincing. But we get to know what happens in the end, mostly.

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Why No One is Voting

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Get it?

Get it?

Turns out my Facebook feed is the exception. No one is voting in the United States. According to the New York Times, the elections earlier this month set a 72-year low for voter turnout, with 36.3% voting. (For context, Catalonia’s recent non-binding independence vote was widely disregarded as totally irrelevant because it garnered only 41.6% turnout.) The NYT excoriated this turnout in its Veteran’s Day editorial, concluding somewhat baselessly that “The reasons are apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns.”

Now I agree that the turnout is appallingly low. However, blaming negative ads is only a small part of the picture as to why voting seems utterly irrelevant to people these days. The much larger issue, which may be what they mean by “apathy [and] anger”, is that there are no real choices being offered in the elections. The two major parties are increasingly indistinguishable and care about their own careers and self-preservation far more than any sort of issue or agenda. And most people have been beaten into the belief that third-parties are irrelevant and a waste. So you know what saves you from all this frustration? Just not voting.

After all, as a Princeton study concluded earlier this year, the United States is no longer really a democracy. For all our self-aggrandizing hype about the principles this country was founded on, we no longer adhere to anything like a recognizable government of the people. So-called “special interests” are really the only interests that lawmakers find relevant and the only policies worth pursuing for all but a tiny handful are those which pave the path to further re-election.

There are manifold and complex proofs available of this reality. I already discussed last week how the referenda that passed in red states demonstrate a far more progressive electorate than is reflected in the Republican landslide. But most people are not thinking about going to the polls to support state-wide initiatives, so turnout remains low. Although, while the NYT editorial tries to draw a link between ballot access (e.g. vote-by-mail and other turnout-improving efforts) and turnout, there seems to be a stronger link between major initiatives and turnout.

Only seven states (Maine, Wisconsin, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, and Iowa) had turnout over 50%. Of them, three had huge, widely publicized statewide ballot initiatives. Oregon was voting on marijuana legalization (plus six other referenda), Colorado on a so-called personhood amendment (plus three other referenda), and Alaska on both marijuana and raising the minimum wage (plus an additional referendum). Maine had seven initiative referenda on the ballot, although six of them were standard-issue bonds and one was about (no kidding) bear hunting. Wisconsin had just one question, about creating a transportation fund. And, admittedly, the last two, Minnesota and Iowa had no referenda.

But South Dakota (10th in turnout, 44.6%) had 3 referenda, including the minimum wage question. North Dakota (12th, 44.1%) had 8 and Louisiana (13th, 43.9%) a whopping 14. Meanwhile, the seven states in turnout below 30% (Indiana, Texas, Utah, New York, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oklahoma) averaged 2.1 referenda each, below the national average of 2.9. And none of them were particularly major or significant.

There’s certainly some correlation here, but I’ll admit it’s not an open-and-shut case. After all, there’s Minnesota and Iowa near the top of the charts with no referenda, plus New Hampshire (11th, 48.8%) with 0. Major referenda will definitely bring people out to the polls, but it doesn’t seem to be the only driver of voting interest. So what’s going on in these other states?

Let’s start with Maine, because it’s at the top of the charts. And while, yes, bear hunting is a pivotal issue and bond issues are always popular, the seven referenda here are a little weak in content compared to the hefty measures passed by Alaska and Oregon. Well the additional thing that stands out about Maine is that 8.4% of its gubernatorial vote went to an Independent, third only to Alaska (3rd, 55.3%, 3 referenda) and Wyoming (27th, 39.1%, 1 referendum), who split 8.6% of the vote among two third-party candidates. Alaska elected an Independent as Governor with 48.1%; an additional 5.5% went to even fringier Independent candidates. 4.7% went Independent in Colorado’s Governor race, 5.5% in Oregon, 5.4% in Minnesota, and 3.6% in Iowa.

Among those voting for Senate as well, the numbers are high for third-parties and Independents in the high-turnout states as well. While Maine didn’t have any third-party candidates, Alaska went 5.6% third-party, Colorado 5.5%, Oregon 6.8%, Minnesota 3.9%, and Iowa 4.1%. So there seems to be a decent correlation between strong independent voting and turnout, especially where it’s combined with referenda.

The big exceptions to this that stand out are Wisconsin (2nd, 56.9%, 1 referendum) and New Hampshire. Wisconsin notched just 1.2% for two third-party candidates in the gubernatorial race and didn’t run a Senate campaign. Granted, Wisconsin’s Governor race was perhaps the most talked-about in the nation with embattled and controversial incumbent Scott Walker defending his office. And New Hampshire had 0% for third parties (do they ban them from running in the general election?) in both their Governor and Senate races. But to be fair, they had both of those races and among the closest races across the nation in both, with the margins of each election below 5%. So their turnout seems explicable, if not following reasons for high turnout in other states. After all, Indiana (50th, 28.0%) had no state-wide offices on the ballot, nor any referenda.

So people like statewide referenda on major issues, they like third parties, and they like close races that seem to matter. Which helps explain why turnout is so low when the main thing we get to vote on every two years is our local representative in the 435-seat House of Representatives. This is the body that composes half of Congress, which is running at around 11% popularity in this country. And yet 96.4% of House incumbents were re-elected.

There was even a meme about this:

The Internet captures the essence of American voting flaws.

The Internet captures the essence of American voting flaws.

Politifact fact-checked this on Veteran’s Day (apparently that was the day to do political analysis this year) and found the claims largely true, even if Congress’ approval ratings might have surged to 14% just before the election. The re-election rate in the House appears to be even higher, at 96.6%.

This points to a well-known phenomenon that everyone hates the House in general, but kind of loves their representative. Something that I just learned has been dubbed Fenno’s paradox, for the original coiner in 1978. The main reason for this, obviously, is intensely gerrymandered districts that are shaped like all manner of absurdity in order to make safe districts for the major parties. These districts destroy voter interest because it’s a foregone conclusion who will win, incidentally making it easier for corporations in those districts to give to only one candidate because they know who’ll take the race. And in the two-party-or-bust belief structure, Democratic districts still like checking the D-box and Republican districts the R-box. After all, straight-party voting is still a literal time-saving checkbox in many states.

A secondary reason well below gerrymandering probably has to do with pork-barreling, that people remember the project that their Congressperson brought home to their district, like a manufacturing contract or a military base. This of course relies on the idea that voters are paying attention to the fine print of Congressional bills which is not bloody likely. But admittedly this is probably part of a re-election flyer that some House members mail out using their free-mail privilege from DC, so it probably influences some people.

Confoundingly, this is the New York Times’ solution in the wake of all this information about disastrously low turnout:

Showing up at the polls is the best way to counter the oversized influence of wealthy special interests, who dominate politics as never before. But to encourage participation, politicians need to stop suppressing the vote, make the process of voting as easy as possible, and run campaigns that stand for something.

The first sentence is one of the most willfully unaware statements I have ever read in American print. Yes, wealthy special interests dominate politics as never before. But what on Earth is showing up going to do to combat that? Unless an army of non-voters decide to show up and all support the same third-party candidate, no amount of voting is going to overturn special interests’ chokehold on American government. Both parties have been bought and paid for. Special interests donate extensively to both parties. If you show up to the polls with the intent to beat back special interests and then pull the lever for either a Democrat or a Republican, you’re just kidding yourself.

The second sentence is more tolerable, if a bit trite. Yes, voter suppression (by definition) lowers turnout. And making voting easier is a good idea, though we’re still a long way from people making Election Day a national holiday or anything like that which would actually help. But there’s something really insidious in that last part of the sentence. “campaigns that stand for something.” This is not the problem. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign stood for all sorts of things (and, notably, drove voter turnout way up). But his Presidency has stood for the exact opposite, most notably in continuing and expanding the most draconian of Bush militarism and deportation. So I guess the NYT is kind of right, that campaigns that make claims get people in the voting booth. But that seems like less than half the battle. The issue is having politicians who make their time in office stand for something, and that something being beyond what special interests want.

I don’t really think anything can save the American “democracy” at this point, realistically, which is why I think most people aren’t voting. But if you want to make recommendations for what will help, it seems more efforts at direct democracy through ballot initiatives that bypass elected officials are good. Stronger third-party candidates that people take seriously are good (can’t stress enough that Maine and Alaska were #1 and #3 in turnout, both above 55%, and both had their gubernatorial vote swung [or won] by an Independent). And making races close and contested helps.

There’s really not much point in increasing ballot access if the only people they’re going to vote for are the same major party candidates that have already been bought by a power with much more influence than the mere voter.

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You’ll Never Believe How Bad Internet Headlines Have Become!

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Tags: ,

This is so shocking!  Just look at that face!

This is so shocking! Just look at that face!

Google “I didn’t write the headline“. Make sure you use the quotations. Or I’ll do it for you.

30,200 hits for disavowal of the headline content, almost entirely by the actual authors of the post or article that was being written. Removing the conjunction in the statement and replacing it with whole words tacks on an additional 9,240 hits.

Removing the quotations, of course, gets you like 26.4 million hits, but searches without quotations are pretty irrelevant. However, the top hit is an article in the Washington Examiner, which Wikipedia tells me is some sort of wonky weekly magazine, which boldly proclaims “Let’s stop arguing with headlines that the writer didn’t write“.

This fact alone is not new to or unique to the world of the Internet. I used to write a weekly column for the Seaside Signal when it was still an independent paper and occasionally had some serious frustrations with my primary editor’s (Shelby Case) taste in headlines for me. One that still stands out in my mind was one of my early columns about children being picky eaters (highly autobiographical, of course) which he titled Can’t Get Johnny to Eat? Maybe This Kid Can Explain. In retrospect, I can only imagine that he need to fill some column inches, since the high point-size of the font made the headline occupy nearly as much space as the entire article. But it was just so cumbersome. In further retrospect, though, I guess it had roughly the shape of the current series of Buzzfeed articles traversing the web.

And, frankly, I was probably no less guilty during the brief time I was in the position to write headlines as an editor of a paper, that being the Opinion section of the Advocate, which is Albuquerque Academy’s monthly fishwrap. (Apparently they have a Facebook page.) I definitely titled my screed on Veteran’s Day US Honors Violence and, more infamously, warped Ryan Duryea’s piece on kids being encouraged to show more emotion into Six-Year-Olds Should Kiss. So I am perhaps among the last person who should be calling out this phenomenon, realistically.

That said, someone’s got to do it. We are reaching Peak Absurd Headlines in this Internet, people. Not only does my Facebook feed clutter almost endlessly with paid advertising for these kinds of sites hoping to “go viral” like it’s “going to get milk at the store” but dozens of friends will daily post something that says, roughly, “I promise the content is good even though the headline is horrendous.” And I think it’s probably reasonable to blame Facebook, a site that I generally think has offered a lot of good things to our lives, for this trend.

See, the Internet used to be a lot more free-rangey. Now, Facebook has kind of made the Internet into one giant scrolling newspaper that we all subscribe to, though, granted, in our own individual local spheres. For users, which are increasingly everyone, Facebook is the primary stop on the Internet as a portal to everything else they’re going to read and see, at least other than their e-mail Inbox. But in the golden age of blogging and the 1.0 years of the web, people would wander more, using search engines and going from link to link and reading a few dedicated people in their sphere who weren’t mostly regurgitating content that was spewed by large conglomerate clearing-houses of information. Like everything in the last fifty years in America, the recent Internet has been a process of centralizing and consolidating power, influence, and wealth into the hands of a few.

And one of the best tools for that is these ridiculous headlines. Unlike even the attention-grabby headlines of Case c. 1991 or Clayton c. 1996, these headlines almost universally predict your emotional reaction. And I think this works for two reasons: 1. We want things to excite our emotions and 2. If we are resentful of the headline, we take an oppositional view of the emotional reaction and thus want to prove it wrong. Either of these reactions, of course, elicit the desired outcome, which is a click.

I’m not by any stretch the first person to observe this phenomenon of a “click-bait headline”, which itself clocks in at 171,000 Google hits with the quotation marks (!). But awareness is only the start. The problem is that we have to go back to promoting and desiring actually good content, not just empty traffic and empty content.

Buzzfeed is like fast food. It’s well advertised with colorful relatable stuff, it’s fast, and it’s everywhere. But longer works and more thoughtful or creative content is like a thoroughly-prepared locally-sourced well-balanced meal. It’s nutritious but it takes a while. It’s not flashy, but you feel a lot better for ingesting it. And similarly, the goals of the fast food producer are just to get money to generate more fast food to get more money in an upward spiral. Whereas the goals of a thoughtful cook are to present a good experience for those they are preparing the meal for. Virality used to be a reflection of some really intriguing content, not an end to itself.

In the days of blogging and long e-mails, content was what got people excited. Sharing was something that people did with thought and care behind it, not as an auto-click button that connected them to one of 3-5 pre-approved platforms for contacting their friends automatically. And when it’s the content that matters, headlines are just window-dressing. Somehow, even within the narrow timeframe of the Internet, the sites that have “won the web” have narrowed our attention spans and attention to detail to the point where the headline becomes most of what matters.

Unlike many things I make recommendations about in my preachier posts, this is something you probably have the wherewithal and access to do something about directly. After all, we are all citizens of the Internet and spend a bit of each day clicking, perusing, and maybe even (well definitely, if you’ve gotten this far) reading. Go back to sharing the content, or even to blogging and e-mailing! Or at the very least, block some of the most obnoxious click-baiters from your Facebook feed.

I won’t do it again, promise.

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Decayed Decade

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, Telling Stories, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , , , ,

I almost called this post “The Full View of History”. But of course ten years is hardly a full view.

A little over a decade ago, I wrote this on my blog at the time:

“Yesterday, Em & I were talking about when I got new tires for the Kia & figured it had been roughly 6-8 months ago. I guess I could’ve looked at the receipt, but instead I Googled my own site for my discussion of it at the time… & discovered it was over 17 months ago, in January 2003. Though Sears, who wants to sell me tires, says my old ones are still good for another couple months (that sentence was for you, Dad). Point is that this page, among its many other virtues, helps keep me in check & orders my perception of the strange beast that is time. So much of me wishes that I had kept something like this my whole life, even though I was once so embarrassed by entries in a diary I kept (in 2nd grade, in DC) that I covertly snuck it into a trash can & it’s now rotting in an Oregon landfill. The regret I feel for that action fuels every word I write on this site. Everyone’s life is hopelessly embarrassing, if one chooses to think of oneself as a perfect front. If one realizes that humans are a study in The Attempt, & that every fulfillment is an astounding victory, it gets a lot easier to handle the apparent loss of privacy that throwing one’s doors open to the world entails. I think my job has helped me better understand how flawed we all are & how every struggle is a worthy one as well. Patience is everything. Thanks for the patience to meander through this ramble with me. It’s all strung together in my mind, & the wave of its relief is sufficient to mitigate anything I wish I hadn’t written.”
-21 June 2004

I don’t bring this up to wallow, as I often have on this blog, about the marriage that was taken from me. Though if I were going to, it would be interesting to note that the justification for same is cooked right into that same post. Rather, I bring it up to explore the issue of blogging itself as I often do, and how having a life introspectively examined over so many years comes back to reflect upon and haunt that life itself.

I ran across this post today while looking for evidence that I was at the Counting Crows show in Saratoga, California on 29 June 2004. That seemed like about the right time and area for Fish’s and my summer concert in wine country that we attended. I was curious about this show in particular because Counting Crows has the full show in their archive and it would be kind of cool to have a recording of a show that one went to. Of course, we didn’t go to the show then. We went to the one 5 days later at Konocti Harbor. Which is a venue whose name I’ve remembered for the same reason most people who meet me once remember my name (it’s distinctive), but I was simultaneously impressed that I got within a week of the actual show and annoyed that I still hadn’t remembered it perfectly. (For what it’s worth, Saratoga isn’t in wine country despite the venue being the Mountain Winery. It’s apparently a suburb of San Jose.)

I have a tendency to pride myself on my memory, but I also have the humility to recognize that a lot of it is aided and abetted by deliberately keeping careful notes and records on living since the 21st century began. Notes made no less useful by their publicity, nor by the ability to quickly search through them for names, dates, and times. Of course, after finding the desired information that I was not, in fact, in Saratoga on the 29th of June (I had to work that day), I got lost for a few months in the summer of 2004, more than ten years ago, the world of the Big Blue House during a summer I worked at Seneca and apparently about two-thirds of my friends came to visit and stay at one point or another. It was a summer of kickball, of movies at the Grand Lake (from which we were easy walking distance), of holding the quiet room door and writing incident reports at work, of Emily slaving away torturedly at PIRG, of concerts and video games and Pandora the cat.

There are a lot of things in life that make one feel like a different person than the person they were in the past. I think the prevalence of movies, TV shows, audio programs, and just stories all contribute to a dissociative feeling that we carry about life. It’s so much easier to process life as something that happened to someone else, someone perhaps that one can empathize with very deeply, but someone who one read about or watched on the screen rather than occupied the bones and brain of every day. It’s not just how much dumber about the intervening years Past Self was than Present Self, though that doesn’t help any. It’s the fade of time, the draining of the emotional significance of the daily hopes and fears. This is a natural process and one to be grateful for as it’s pretty much the only reason we can even think about starting to heal from trauma. But it’s also something like what I’d imagine an objective view of life will someday look like, maybe just after death, when we perhaps get to view the video tape of our life without feeling so robustly biased toward the person in the first-person perspective.

But I was perhaps most surprised to realize in this little journey through that summer how much of my narrative about that period of time, the narrative I carry with me today, was almost verbatim in the text of that series of blog pages. I was fully aware, for example, how much kickball was a seemingly necessary outlet for a competitive spirit left suddenly useless after the sudden end of 9 years of debate and even longer playing pickup basketball and other sports. I remembered the real joy of a “mandatory fun” day for Seneca staff that I was dreading and turned out to be incredible fun, just what I needed at a time when my energy for that job was seriously flagging. I could recognize all the dramatic peaks and valleys of that job, a job that I was truly never great at for having picked something diametric to my comfort zone. As dissociated and distinct as I felt from some of the precise experiences for the passage of time, I could more deeply see myself and my reflections on the time right there in plain white-on-green text. Which I recognized not just as the narrative of my life, but as my life itself.

Now there’s clearly a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Does the text look like the memory because it accurately captured it? Or did it in fact help form the memory by pasting the narrative onto the events? In other words, am I who I remember myself being because it’s accurate or because I codified those memories in their immediate formation?

I’ve listened to most of the This American Life shows over the course of this last decade, working my way slowly back and skipping only a handful of subjects that I find uninteresting (though years of listening to Terry Gross interviews should tell me not to skip any shows, since those I think I won’t like may end up being my favorites). So I’m in 2003 right now and just listened yesterday to this act, in episode 243, wherein a woman resolves to scrapbook every day of her young daughter’s life. There was so much of myself I could recognize in her passionate commitment to the cause, but the breaking-point crisis is reached when she realizes that she is ignoring her daughter’s desire to play with her or be read to by her in order to complete the scrapbook entry for that day. She doesn’t miss the irony and soon we hear her husband saying how he wishes she would just live in the moment. And herein I could certainly recognize the hindrance I felt in the daily obligation that ultimately convinced me to scrap (pun intended) Introspection back in 2007, in favor of this longer and, generally, less obsessive format.

It’s a dilemma I’ve seen echoed in a lot of articles people are writing these days about parenting. How so many parents are obsessive photographers and videographers of their children’s lives. How they themselves are almost never “in the picture”, figuratively and literally, preferring to chronicle a life in intense detail that they, increasingly, are not living. The unexamined life is not worth living, but the overly examined life is perhaps not lived at all.

This tension is doubly difficult for one who fancies themselves a story-teller, one for whom the entire point of existence itself is largely in crafting narrative, forming a script that can be of use to oneself and, more vitally, others. The cause then is right there in the effect and round and round they go. If life is fundamentally about the ability to tell its own story and build on that to stories about other lives, stories that are useful or amusing or expressive of the value and experience of life itself, then who can tell the border between life and narrative thereon at all? It is not only painted with the same brush, but the brush and the painting themselves are one.

Of course, we don’t need a blog to do this. Research done into the nature of memory increasingly finds it most reliable when there is a cogent story to go with it and terribly spotty when the events are either unremarkable or don’t conform to the wider arc. As a species, we love the narrative form and are constantly trying to wedge the facts of our lives into a story that we want to hear about ourselves. The longer the time that passes, the more we believe the story even if it contravenes what really took place. This theme appears in all kinds of media, but increasingly is playing out with unpredictable and fascinating results in the new podcast Serial which, speaking of This American Life, seems to be taking a certain swath of the country by storm.

So if we are destined to tell a story about our lives anyway as the immediacy of time fades, doesn’t it help to have documentation from time when these memories were the freshest? When they were new? If only to build slightly more accurate and probably much better stories about the past? After all, Fish’s toast at Jake’s wedding was surely all the better for actually having the text of the famous 80,000! e-mail to read. As mine was improved for the realization that Fish never wrote a top ten attributes list of what he was seeking in a partner and thus I could not compare his bride against it and had to take the speech in a different direction entirely.

I recently told Alex about how much I miss acting from my old days, something that seems truly several lifetimes ago now, singing the life of orphaned loneliness into Oliver Twist on stage at the Coaster Theatre in Cannon Beach. And we agreed that I should find some outlet for something along those lines, now that I’m done with debate coaching (for at least a while, in any case), now that competitive speaking is behind me. That maybe everything’s been geared as much for live oral storytelling as much as words on the page. And thus I’ll be telling a story on stage a week from tomorrow, at an event called (I can’t really make this up) Bring Your Own Story, sponsored by the local NPR station. I’ve long admired shows like The Moth (just how many NPR shows can I name-drop in this post anyway?), long aspired to the kind of showmanship that David Sedaris (though I hate his writing, mostly) puts into delivering stories on a stage.

Maybe it will go well. Maybe it will flop. In either case, like most of life, it will be a memory. Which itself will make a good story, someday. Ten years from now, perhaps.

Storey Clayton, at the Big Blue House, summer 2004.

Storey Clayton, at the Big Blue House, summer 2004.

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It Doesn’t Really Snow Here

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Quick Updates, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , ,

A quick click of the refresh button will show you some new imagery around here.

To review, here was the old header:

Header of this blog, 1 October through 10 November 2014.

Header of this blog, 1 October through 10 November 2014.

And here is the new:

Header of this blog, today through question-marks!

Header of this blog, today through question-marks!

Of course the actual versions are much larger, trying to span the entire distance of the page as it appears on whatever of various screen resolutions you may be using. For a long time, screen resolutions were getting finer and finer, but now it seems everyone uses really small screens like tablets and phones to access the web, so I assume that trend is leveling off. I’m not really sure myself, because while I long ago acquiesced to get a cell-phone, I insist on keeping a dumb-phone instead of delving into the rabbit-hole of touch-screens. I suspect this is only the first of many many refusals which put one foot of mine solidly in middle age at the ripe old sum of 34.

It doesn’t really snow in New Orleans. Or it does like every 5 years, maybe. I’m obviously hoping this year, like any winter in which I exist, is one of those rare ones where it snows even where it normally doesn’t. Certainly I can’t complain – last winter in Jersey sent us off to a snowless land quite well with weekly storms over half a foot. That said, our alternative current landing spot was Helsinki, which would’ve finally fulfilled a lifelong ambition to live somewhere where the snow is constant and overwhelming. A place like Buffalo or Lake Tahoe or northern Canada or Minnesota where the question is not if but how much and perhaps, later, will it still be snowing in June. And yes, I felt this way even when I had to drive several hours every weekend as part of my job.

This image is one I found on the Internet of a storm in 2008. The rest of the color scheme is my traditional wintry mix of light blue and light gray, while keeping the general body text style as when I started this theme at the top of last month. Still going with this theme overall (Type-o-Graphy) – I really like everything about it except for the fact that it jump-cuts words while keeping a jagged right justification. I really still can’t figure out who thought that was a good idea. To be fair, I guess I could start doing a solid justify on both sides of the page, but then I’d have to retroactively add that to the last 1,371 posts on this page and … yeah, I don’t really feel like doing that. I just wish it wouldn’t jump-cut words assuming I have a justified page text.

The things we worry about in this life.

In case it wasn’t also obvious, I am mildly obsessed with the New Orleans streetcars, especially the St. Charles line that runs a few blocks from our apartment down the main corridor of Uptown New Orleans, one of the prettiest streets in America for my money. Whether it hosts snow this year or not, I’ve already seen it get decked out for Halloween in full regalia and I can only imagine that Christmas and then Mardi Gras will far eclipse that effort. Though it does seem like an awful lot of people show up in this city for Halloween.

I’ve been watching the new Dr. Who lately, finally, since Alex got us Netflix (I dropped it in 2011 after it had become kind of stressful for me and pressured me into watching screens when I’d rather be reading). The old one was my favorite show for a number of years – reruns were on late-night PBS in my childhood and my Dad introduced me to the show. The new one does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the original, both in significance and fun. And, like David Foster Wallace writing and most science fiction (these are two separate things – I know that DFW did not write sci-fi), Dr. Who gets me to always think deeply about the larger context of existence and exactly what is being done with our time/energy on this planet, both as an individual (me) and a species (humans). Not always, of late, with perfectly settling conclusions, but I think everyone should have influences in their life that constantly put things in a more universal (and mortal) context.

I wish more people were doing that in blogs, though. I just updated the list of blogs on the sidebar and there’s been a lot of attrition. Which reminds me that I have to figure out how to make future upcoming quizzes (I really want to get the Song Quiz out before 2015, really) more sharable on Facebook, since the “Paste this text into your webpage code!” line, while still an option, is not going to be the primary way of spreading the quiz around.

When I can hire a part-time programming assistant for this site, I’ll know I’ve really made it.

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Americans Leaving the Labor Force: Who are These People?

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

I’m not the only person talking about the people who have left the labor force in the last ten years. It’s a hard story to ignore, though most of the media is up to this challenge. But CBS and the Washington Post have actually run recent articles on this issue, though none of them go so far as to actually include these people in a real unemployment figure like I do. Many people have attributed the shift entirely or largely to the aging population in the United States, to the fact that Baby Boomers are retiring and leaving the workforce.

This is bunk.

I examined this issue very lightly in August 2012. But since that time, I’ve come to understand the BLS reports and numbers much better and explored their very cool query tools for previous reports of their monthly Current Population Survey. So I drilled down into their reports and mined the data and put Excel to work on it. Who are the people who have left the labor force? How old are they? What can we infer from their age?

These people are young, not old. Less than half of them are Baby Boomers. Less than a quarter of them are Baby Boomers. Less than a tenth of them are Baby Boomers.

Just about 9% of them are Baby Boomers. Here’s your graph:

That's a really young group of people!

That’s a really young group of people!

The graph represents about 7.5 million people who have left the labor force in the last ten years, since October 2004. Only 7.5%, or a little less than 600,000 of them, have “aged out,” crossing the magic threshold in our nation of 65 years. While 42% of them (nearly 3.2 million people) are younger than 25.

But wait, you are saying. Everything in the world is telling you that the American population is getting older, fast. Doesn’t it make more sense that all the people are just aging and thus leaving the labor force naturally, if not gracefully? How could this graph possibly be true when millions and millions of Americans are in fact aging out of the period of life in which we expect them to hold a job and earn a wage?

Yes, the American population is aging. But that growing population is increasingly staying in the workforce as it ages. The growth in the overall population of the older portions of the populous is being outpaced by the percentage of people staying in the labor force. In simpler terms, Baby Boomers are holding onto their jobs longer and preventing younger people from taking those jobs.

Here’s what this graph looks like:

Note that there are only two groups where growth is outpacing growth of those not in the labor force.  The oldest two.

Note that there are only two groups where growth is outpacing growth of those not in the labor force. The oldest two.

So even though the oldest age groups are growing steadily, most of the people who are aging are actually staying in the labor force into that age. Some of them are retiring and thus leaving the labor force, but a far smaller number than are leaving the labor force aged 16-54.

Perhaps the most amazing stat in that graph is the crash in population aged 35-44, reflecting a very small population in late Generation X. While the number of people that age has actually declined by 10% in the last 10 years, the number in that age outside of the labor force has somehow increased. This is why about a million more people of that age are now outside the labor force than would be had labor force participation rates remained constant.

So, about those labor force participation rates. Here’s what they look like:

By percentage, the oldest Americans are actually entering the labor force, not leaving it.

By percentage, the oldest Americans are actually entering the labor force, not leaving it.

Even though the differences are small, this may be the easiest graph to see where the trends are headed. Only among those aged 55+ are labor force participation rates actually increasing. Meanwhile, the younger populations are consistently fleeing the labor force at the fastest rate. Which is why 42% of the people who’ve left the labor force (or more accurately, never entered the labor force) are under 25. Now nowhere are the rates increasing so much that it makes the population immune to the overall trend of people still leaving the labor force overall, numerically, though it’s close among those aged 55-64. Most of these people are working and many of them would have retired and left the labor force in the old economy. Now, very few of them are doing this. Only a paltry 100,000 people in this age range have left the labor force of the 7.5 million who have left overall, that tiny sliver in the first graph.

So the old are keeping jobs longer, the young are not getting jobs, but everyone is having a harder time staying in the labor force across all age ranges.

This is not a picture of a normal aging and retiring population. Less than 10% of the overall story of labor force desertion is about that. Over 40% of it is about people who never got a single job and thus can’t be counted as unemployed. Sure, more of these kids are in school. But by spending money they don’t have on mountainous debt for getting a degree that does less for them in the labor force, I think we can safely count these 3.2 million people as heading for official unemployment. In the meantime, they’re just part of the Reporting Gap that makes our 11.7% unemployment pretend to be below 6%.


This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – aging assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.

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Unemployment Drops to 5-Year Low… of 11.71%

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

Unemployment in the United States dropped precipitously in October 2014 according to this morning’s report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The report shows that actual unemployment dipped by almost a quarter-percent month-over-month, declining from 11.94% in September to a five-year low of 11.71% in October. This is the lowest US unemployment rate since July 2009, when national unemployment was 11.53%.

The reported official figure declined to 5.8%, keeping actual unemployment over double the official figure for the second month in a row. The Reporting Gap declined to 5.91% from its all-time high last month of 6.04%.

Actual unemployment is measured by including workers who are not in the labor force but normally would be during a time of economic health. These include both people who have left the labor force and, increasingly, those who have never been able to enter the labor force and thus are ineligible for official unemployment classification. Labor force participation edged up to 62.8% this month, beating a 36-year low of 62.7% from September.

This graph shows unemployment rates, comparing the actual figure including those not in the labor force as opposed to the official reported figure:

Real unemployment (red) vs. reported unemployment (blue), January 2009 - October 2014.

Real unemployment (red) vs. reported unemployment (blue), January 2009 – October 2014.

And this shows the evolution of the Reporting Gap over the same period, demonstrating the distance between reality and what the media reports:

Reporting Gap, January 2009 - October 2014.

Reporting Gap, January 2009 – October 2014.

Unemployment remains noticeably above the highest figure reported during the so-called Great Recession. Reported unemployment peaked at 10.0% in October 2009 (when actual unemployment was 12.69%). Real unemployment peaked at 13.17% in June 2011 (when the reported figure was 9.1%). Since that peak, unemployment has dropped by only 1.46%, while the reported figure has declined by 3.3%.

Real unemployment has been in double-figures, which it was reported to be in only one month during the last five years, for 68 straight months.


This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – aging assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.

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American Voters Actually Progressive: The Case Against Representative Democracy

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

None of these people would ever get elected to represent the people, even if their views actually do represent the people.  That appears to be the problem.

None of these people would ever get elected to represent the people, even if their views actually do represent the people. That appears to be the problem.

There has been a ton of negativity spewing out of the wake of Tuesday’s election, especially from all my liberal Democratic friends. I get it. My posts lately have been pretty negative, talking about how fear motivates voting and how there is a lot of unnecessary doom and gloom about the Republican Senate which will, ultimately, not change much, if anything.

But is that really the whole story? Is that what the midterm elections of 2014 have to tell this country?

This cartoon has been a really popular summation of the feelings of a lot of people I know:

The Internet loved this cartoon.  It also tells me it's by John Jonik.

The Internet loved this cartoon. It also tells me it’s by John Jonik.

The assumption here is that if people really understood the Republican agenda, they’d never vote for it. I think it also broadly misses the point that the Democratic agenda is largely similar. Issues like surveillance, Internet regulation, the deregulation of literally everything else, and a pro-corporate agenda (sometimes under the guise of “helping the economy”) find no or virtually no difference between the parties that comprise nearly all of our elected representatives. No one is speaking out for the poor, for the bombed, for the people who really need help.

And yet there is another story to the midterm elections. It is not just a sweeping Republican landslide that gives them control of both houses of Congress. It is the story of cities and states, some of them as liberal as Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arkansas, who all overwhelmingly supported an increase in the minimum wage. This is not an issue that Democrats have traditionally championed or particularly endorsed, though some are coming around to it slowly. This is an issue that is to the left of both parties in the United States right now, yet enjoys overwhelming support in hard-core red conservative states.

Or then we have the legalization of marijuana passing in, again, Alaska, joining Oregon, DC, Washington, and Colorado. Yes, three of those places are extremely left-wing areas, but Colorado just turned their Democratic Senate seat red and nearly elected a Republican Governor as well. No major party nor any of its candidates are endorsing marijuana legalization – it is far to the left of even the most fringe Senator or Governor. (Okay, I guess one Oregonian Senator supports it officially. One. There’s also a Socialist in the Senate, so one is the loneliest number.) How can these red and reddish states be supporting something that is so radically leftist that no politician will touch it? Are American voters that stupid?

No, they’re just upset and don’t know what to do.

When people are upset, if they vote, they tend to go to the polls to try to protest, to vote against people as I discussed a couple days ago. This is why midterm elections in modern America always go against the sitting President, especially in their second term. This is why Hamas won the second round of parliamentary elections in Palestine. Everyone in the West freaked out and said everyone’s becoming a terrorist! Not so. There were two major parties – Fatah and Hamas – and people were upset with Fatah’s governance. So they tried the alternative. This is how two-party systems work (“work”): people see-saw back and forth between the parties when they’re unhappy with what’s going on.

And people are unhappy. They hate Obama, they really hate Congress, they feel extreme ennui with the fake recovery that’s only benefiting the corporate elites, they feel media-fueled fear of ridiculous things. Voter dissatisfaction is massive. Very few people even bothered with voting, an even larger expression of angst and disengagement. Where they did, third parties and outcasts did pretty well.

But for those who still believe in voting, the party machines have done a good job of convincing people that their only two choices are (D) and (R), no matter what the policies represented by those parties reflect. And enough people feel some loyalty to that system that they keep going out and slogging for their folks and against the others, no matter what the consequences may be. Even most of the youngest voters don’t believe third parties will ever be a credible threat to the party machines, so they go out and flip back and forth between them and wonder why they never get any happier.

The problem is the parties, sure, but it’s also the people. Not the voters, actually – what they are doing with extremely limited options truly makes sense. It’s the politicians. It’s the age-old reality that when you have people who choose to seek power and advancement, they are particularly ill-suited to wield it. And when you add corporate capitalism in the 21st century to the mix, plus Citizens United and the unbridled principles of corporate personhood and money as speech, you get a real disaster. You get a “representative” body that is completely beholden to the highest bidder, utterly for sale, and completely out of touch with the actual wishes of the average voter or real person in the society. It’s not a coincidence that most major corporations donate liberally to both sides of the aisle and have a tendency to pick winners, nor that Congress is unable to agree on any policy most of the time until it’s time for a corporate bailout or a new war, in which case everyone trips over each other to fall in line. The corporations are buying our government and the government’s policies, in both parties, have drifted far to the right of where the people actually stand.

So when you look at these results, it’s not schizophrenia or insanity that you are seeing among voters. When they have actual issues to vote on, they skew radical. When they are facing elected representatives, they usually just try to muddle through with the evil they’ve tried less recently. Or, if they like a dynamic and popular figure in their town, usually their House representative, they keep sending them back. After all, most polls show that everyone despises the House as a whole, but kinda loves their own personal representative. Not, mind you, because they actually represent their interests or views, usually, but because they’re familiar and personable and local.

It should also probably be noted (before I get angry rebuttals to my thesis) that staunchly social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are subject to fundamentalist Christian rallying for popular referenda and probably skew the other way. Even California passed Prop 8 when I lived there and the fundamentalist base has a tendency to get really fired up about making social laws look more like the Old Testament, or whatever their current reading of it is that day. Although I’m not sure these referenda against same-sex marriage would even pass in five years – the majority of the American populous now supports same-sex marriage and as soon as the Millennials fully replace the WWII generation at the polls, I think that fate will be sealed. That said, thank goodness for courts in the system of checks-and-balances for constantly correcting extreme social conservatism.

What’s the overall point, though? It’s that representative democracy has failed us. Yes, I know the founding fathers intended representative democracy and the electoral college to save us from ourselves. You know, the founding fathers who owned slaves and didn’t think of women as people and denied even white men the franchise if they didn’t own land. Yeah, those guys were kind of elitist. And by “kind of,” I mean “completely.” This system has always been designed to deny the people what they want. That denial was just a lot less pernicious when representatives felt really accountable and beholden to voters, rather than to the corporations that paid for said voters.

You don’t need to look a lot further for evidence of the American hunger for strong progressive/radical leadership than the success of the two Obama campaigns. Despite no intention whatsoever to make good on leftist policies, Obama was handily elected twice on the back of staunchly progressive rhetoric. It wasn’t just Democrats who voted for him, either – he needed plenty of Republicans and Independents to champion his cause of hard-core radical change. It’s pretty well documented that his policies have been aligned with or slightly to the right of George W. Bush, especially on foreign policy, and his one allegedly grand progressive vision (Obamacare) used a model that was originally drafted by the Heritage Foundation and first implemented by Mitt Romney. Like so many Republican solutions, it utilized the market as the only mechanism, gave all the power to corporations, and just made it illegal not to have health insurance, a privately-sold product. As progressives who originally opposed individual mandates in healthcare pointed out (before many of them were quieted by having to get in line behind the allegedly leftist President), this is like solving hunger by making it illegal to not buy food on the open market.

Or how about the fact that most people, when surveyed, want foreign aid reduced to about 10% of the budget when it is actually only 1.4% of the budget to begin with. Or that people think wealth distribution should be far more even than even the most radical restructuring would create? Hopefully we’ve all seen this video by now:

16 million people have seen that video. About 42 million Americans voted two days ago. We should run one election cycle where all campaign advertising on television is replaced by showing that video.

The problem is, nothing would change, outside of ballot referenda. Because no politicians on the corporate dole are willing to even begin to discuss wealth distribution issues. No one will touch it, just like other widely popular things like the minimum wage or legalizing pot.

People always say “work within the system” and “change from within” when I bring up issues like this. The problem is that it’s the system itself that doesn’t work. It serves the elites. It was always meant to serve the elites, but even the founding fathers couldn’t have dreamt of corporate titans that would make the wealth of their contemporary kings look like amateur entrepreneurs. The nature of power is to consolidate and snowball and at the point where regulation is handled by a government that is for sale, there is nothing to stem the tide of that momentum.

The best hope we seem to have is for direct democracy. It wouldn’t fix all of our problems – there’s the social conservatism of denying rights to gay couples, women, and immigrants that I discussed above. And direct democracy would still be highly susceptible to a fear-mongering media that convinces us that the next terrorist threat is infinitely more vicious, bloodthirsty, and irrational than the last one, no matter how much American training and weaponry they were given by our previous administration. This wouldn’t solve everything.

But as far as our socio-economic issues, the fundamental structure of a society that is rapidly becoming a kleptocratic corporate slave-state, those would be held off by taking votes straight to the people and skipping the middleman. Because the middleman is always going to look out for himself first, especially as he becomes more powerful and more acclimated to life at the top of the food chain.

I guess there are things within the system we can do in some places. Heck, San Francisco, with the strong support of my old workplace, just passed $15/hour minimum wage! If you live in a place that allows ballot referenda, get radical ones put on the ballot. Honestly, the more radical the better. If you don’t, then work to try to open up more opportunities for direct democracy.

The people are not the problem. The politicians are the problem. And making more people into politicians, with very few rare exceptions, isn’t going to fix things. Nor is just voting out whoever happens to be in at the time, as satisfying as that might feel on Election Day. We need a more radical change to overhaul the direction of the nation and its policies. Fortunately, the people are already pretty radical, at least compared to the parties that allegedly represent us.

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What am I Missing?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

My best guess at what everyone is so worried about, with rebuttals that I find to be pretty clear.

My best guess at what everyone is so worried about, with rebuttals that I find to be pretty clear.

The graphic above is going to be most of what this post is about. So go ahead and peruse that. This is my best guess at the five things that Democrats, liberals, and the other people who mostly comprise the people I have regular contact with are most worried about. My Facebook feed today has been overwhelmed by claims about people wanting to move to Canada, giving up on the country, being depressed, etc. by the Republican Senate landslide that took place yesterday in the US. But I honestly just can’t tell what is actually going to happen that upsets people.

I know that I tend to be pretty radical on the political spectrum and have a tendency to be a single-issue voter/person on the subject of war and peace, which has been pretty much a disaster since I reached the age of majority (or really, since the Carter administration and maybe forever in this nation). But even if you don’t come with me on the “there’s not much difference between the two major parties” issue, what are you worried about? What are you so scared will happen? What liberal causes will fall now that there’s a Republican Senate?

People accuse my politics and support for third parties and “fringe” causes (like not perpetrating violence on other nations with impunity) to be impractical. So let’s talk pragmatics. What’s going to happen that’s so bad? What legislation is going to get passed, or not passed, or repealed that spells a turn for the more conservative as compared to the way things have been throughout the Obama administration?

I really honestly want to know. Because I just don’t see it. Near as I can tell, either party winning a majority in the Senate would have yielded pretty much the same policies that have been implemented for the last four years. Or honestly, not been implemented, because the only thing that the Congress can agree on right now is spending money on wars.

There will be wars. Forget death and taxes, unless we’re talking about the death of Iraqis and Syrians. The only thing we can count on these days is war.

Tell me what I’m missing.

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Fear in the Box

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Artist's rendering of the typical American voter exercising the franchise.

Artist’s rendering of the typical American voter exercising the franchise.

Maybe election day is just a little too soon after Halloween.

We’ve discussed American fear, its prevalence and perniciousness, quite recently. We are afraid of terrorists, even though what they are supposed to wield as a most scary object is, well, fear. We are afraid of a disease that has killed fewer Americans than lightning. We are afraid of our own shadow, ourselves, our neighbors, our government, our absence of government, pretty much anything that humans can biologically generate cortisone in response to and a goodly number of things they can’t. And we react to this fear by lashing out, spreading the fear, voting for people to sequester the diseased, strip rights from everybody, kill the foreign others who we don’t understand and claim to be crazy. Human reactions to fear are responsible for just about all the destruction in human history and most of the worst things we’ve ever done can be explained by fear and pretty much fear alone.

But perhaps nowhere is fear more pervasive in the American culture than in the ballot box. Every couple of years, a march of recently scared voters trudge off to their local community polling center to cram the little slitted box just full of fear, loathing, and terror. Not just by voting for people who will perpetrate such ills on the rest of the planet, though there’s plenty of that. But primarily by casting votes motivated primarily by their own fear.

Despite your gut reaction or your political leanings, no one group, party, or candidate has a monopoly on this perpetration of fear. Most all advertising these days is negative, making voters terrified to vote for someone and instead allowing them to cast votes only against evil worst-case scenarios. Political ads rarely promise anything these days, certainly not even any improvements, opting instead for telling you how horrible things will get if the other option is elected. And if you don’t see the election as having only one other option, your friends and cohorts will berate you with the rhetoric of fear that voting is not some idealistic exercise in making a choice, but instead merely damage control in picking the second worst person imaginable so that the worst person imaginable stays out of office.

And then even more people will cite how your ancestors fought and killed the Vietnamese so that you could exercise this right to pick the second-most-evil person ever and if you fail to exercise such rights, you might as well be napalming those children for nothing. Because how could it possibly seem like picking between two parties completely beholden to corporate interests who donate more money to each party than you will ever earn in your life is not some sacred bond of trust, some exalted and wonderful act? We have been stuffed so full of vainglorious gusto for the act of voting that we’ve failed to notice how much of a tired act of resigned fear it has become.

I just moved to Louisiana, which is the main reason I’m not voting, since I completed my voter registration a few days after the deadline (Louisiana makes you wait a month, I guess to think about what you’ve done, which is fun because there is no waiting period in the state to buy a firearm… talk about putting fear into voting!). In Louisiana, like much of the nation, all of the Republican ads are about how Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Senator, is closely tied to President Obama. You should fear Obama and what he’s doing to America! Which, near as I can tell, mostly consists of legislation that was passed in 2010 (Obamacare).

Meanwhile, Democratic campaigners and rhetoric offer fear of the Republicans controlling the Senate! There will be – get this – gridlock in Washington! Heavens to betsy, the horror. And then the specter rises of things like Supreme Court appointments, as though a Supreme Court in America would ever repeal Roe v. Wade. Or as though nine justices appointed by Elizabeth Warren would overturn Citizens United. People like to talk a lot about how the Supreme Court is going to do scary conservative things, but fail to explain how the Supreme Courts of several notoriously conservative red states have struck down laws banning same-sex marriage.

Like the fear of ebola, the fear of voting for the other party or – worse! – a third party – is empty words. It seems to motivate people consistently as people begrudgingly tromp off to the polls and keep sending Democrats and Republicans back into places where they enjoy less popularity than Ford Pintos, though, admittedly, roughly the same propensity for causing explosions.

In trying to sum up my thoughts on this Election Day in the face of a torrential downpour of voting enthusiasm from my Facebook feed, heavily populated with first- and second-time voters in college or freshly out, I posted this:

“Most Americans (at least, among those who vote at all) vote *against* people in elections, not for people. I think that may have never been more true than in 2014. It’s easy to see why this process would become disheartening and unrewarding. Basically all of our electoral and societal norms have driven us to this point, especially advertising and a culture of fear that pervades everyone’s public life.

If you’re going to vote this year, try voting FOR someone you really believe in. If you can’t find that person, write them in. After all, it’s not supposed to be a country of the people, by the people, against the people.”

And maybe I should have just reposted that simpler, slightly more positive view on all this fear and opposition instead of going into detail as I have in this post. After all, 26 people “liked” that post and no one even wrote some snarky counter about how the Green Party and the Libertarians and everyone you could write in are all ISIS agents in disguise.

But I am continually baffled, every day, by how much palpable dripping fear is filling this country. And my best explanation harkens back to another previous examination of fear, this being one about institutions and individuals feeling they have more to lose from the future than they do to gain.

I suppose that this nation, quickly slipping from its brief stand atop the pedestal of human political affairs, is in such a fear mode because we feel that the future is spelling our doom. Despite the mandated rhetoric from all the politicians about America being the best country anyone will ever be able to imagine forever, we all seem to know that we’re not going to be the latest and greatest and biggest and baddest forever. That other nations have surpassed us in quality of life, in economic standing, in education, and nearly in power. And yes, in democratic openness as well. Voter turnout below 50% is not a sign of an engaged and thriving model democracy. And that shortfall isn’t because young millennials want to watch the world burn and would rather play video games than exercise their God-given rights. It’s because of what I posted in the quote above – it’s exhausting to feel like something that should be special and vital and important is simply an exercise in voicing support for the second-worst person in every position.

Frankly, it’s exhausting to go through life with this much fear. Fear of decline, fear of dropping standards as a society and as people within it. Fear of the other party, the people who will vote for them or vote for no one or vote for the third party and thus screw things up for your perspective. Fear of apathy, of ebola, of ISIS, of Fox News, of MSNBC.

There were people who had few choices besides fear. They lived in something roughly akin to the so-called state of nature. They ran from saber-toothed tigers and ice floes and had to subsist on giant mammoths with tusks the size of people or they would die. It was cold and they were hungry and they huddled in caves against the dark of the unknown.

These people had a reasonable right to live in fear, though they confronted it remarkably well or we wouldn’t be here.

So how is that fear governs most of our key decisions when we have, for the most part, a relatively infinite supply of food, clothing, shelter, comfort, distractions, and fulfillment? Why do we live each day like we’re wrestling mammoths and tigers and the Ice Age incarnate?

Why do we vote like that?

I would post my public ballot here as I’ve done in the past, but like I said, Louisiana law kept me out of the vote. You can look at the 2012 and 2008 editions if you want to get a sense of how I would be, more or less, casting my votes here today.

If you’re going to vote, do so fearlessly. And if you don’t feel like voting, do that fearlessly too. Yes, it’s a right. A defining characteristic of a right is the option to choose not to exercise it. And that choice beats the pants off of voting out of fear.

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The Absurd Costume Files

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Just Add Photo, Tags: , ,

It’s Halloween! Happy Halloween, everybody. This has long been my favorite holiday and one of the only ones that I enjoy which doesn’t feel tinged with something problematic (e.g. the origin story of Thanksgiving and its accompanying genocide mucking up a conceptually very nice holiday). I mean, realistically, that’s probably not even true, since a lot of people get into some pretty gory/overly dark stuff on Halloween and while I appreciate spookiness, the place a lot of people take Halloween is pretty bad. Like everything, I suppose. I think the only person I’ve ever encountered who has anything like the deep abiding love I feel for Halloween and the October season generally is Ray Bradbury, and I’ve only really encountered his testimony of same on the written page. Others come close, though.

It would take a long time and be a mite dull to list all the things I love about Halloween, plus I think I’ve already made the attempt a few times. See also that it’s the only holiday I regularly celebrate through theme-changes on both this blog and the last one. The feel of the mood, the pumpkins and ghosts, the prominence of themes around the supernatural, the spiritual, the haunted, the past, the mysterious. The candy. And, yes, the costumes.

When I was in third grade, I had the kind of exuberant fervor for life that I think I’ve sometimes (even often) manifested since, but definitely took a big hit in 1990 (and 1997, and 2010, and 2013, and yeah). But in that year, I was full of this zest and excitement, pretty much constantly. To call it the “last good year” would be melodramatic and wholly inaccurate, but I think in many ways it was the last unfettered year. I guess many people would call it the last year of my “innocence,” whatever that means – innocence is a concept that generally troubles me, but there is something to the notion that during that year, I still had an unbridled optimism for the future and for the challenges and joys of every day that was simply never constant again, even in phases where things in my life were very, very good.

A lot happened that year. We had moved to Oregon, I made a ton of new friends, I was in the Dickens Play, I had a fantastic teacher (Mrs. Mary Kerwin) who challenged and inspired me, I discovered sports, I was elected class President (after suggesting that we have an election as a civic education exercise), and I was just happy. I also, which may be endemic to third graders, just didn’t care what other people thought of me. I mean, I liked having friends and wanted to get along with people, but I was totally impervious to possible negative opinions or judgments of peers. Which is an attribute I have had more of than most people throughout my life, but was way more unfettered then than since.

Which may explain why, when I woke up early before school on March 17, 1989 and decided to craft myself a leprechaun costume made entirely of dark green construction paper and Scotch tape, there was no voice in the back of my head that contradicted with warnings that this project might not go so well. I believe I had been working on it for about 90 minutes when one of my parents awoke and blearily observed that I was making quite a bit of clutter. I definitely remember getting a little frustrated at one point shortly before school that the costume hadn’t really come together as what I was hoping, that it mostly just looked like a young boy wearing a whole mess of misshapen green construction paper. And the ensuing conversation with my father where he gently suggested that most people don’t even dress up for St. Patrick’s Day and maybe it would just be a better idea to put on a green shirt instead. To their immense credit, however, neither of my parents pressed the issue very far and both allowed me to board the bus as Green Construction Paper Monster.

No one had the slightest clue what I was trying to be, resemble, or achieve. There were definitely people who could tell that all the green must have something to do with the date, though I was also wearing a green shirt underneath, so the effort must have seemed superfluous at the very best. There are, mercifully (or perhaps tragically, depending on one’s appetite for schadenfreude) no pictures of this outfit that were ever taken, but I’m sure your imagination can suffice at this point. If not, picture a very small third grader with a bowl cut walking into a small factory producing green construction paper and Scotch tape. Then, a bomb goes off. The remaining exploded tatters of each attach themselves to all parts of the boy, hair included (I think I was going for some sort of hat), in random fashion. The boy boards the school bus.

Most reactions ranged from quizzical to speechless to an overt series of concerned questions. I was generally considered mentally stable and coming from a family that cared for me, both of which attributes came under almost immediate scrutiny upon my arrival in Mrs. Kerwin’s third grade classroom. I was offered numerous opportunities to away to the bathroom to change, remove tape, or at least perhaps “adjust” in some small way the monument to dead construction paper that I was ensconced in. Bits of poorly taped paper kept coming off at random times and, rather than see this as a blessing or even a less-than-subtle hint from the universe, I would obstinately re-tape, sometimes rummaging in my desk for my own personal roll before jamming ever more clear sticky material on the tortured green mess and adhering it to my shirt, pants, shoes, or hair.

Then we went to recess. And at recess, it rained.

It should herein be noted before we proceed that this school was in Gearhart, Oregon, which is in the middle of Clatsop County, which is the extreme northwestern-most county in the state. Most of coastal Oregon is absurdly soggy, but Clatsop County actually juts out into the Pacific Ocean where it meets the gargantuan mouth of the Columbia River, essentially trapping all the moisture from the both bodies as storms sweep in off the sea. It rained, no exaggeration, about 300 days a year in that area when I lived there, though rarely all day or torrentially. The sky was perpetually gray, the ground that was not sand was eternally muddy. Watch national weather maps for the next month and you will see that most every day, that little upper-left corner of Oregon has a patch of green on it, even when the rest of the country is bone-dry. It rained all the time. A day when it didn’t rain at all was notable.

And somehow the interaction of the inevitable rain and my paper costume had not occurred to me in advance, any more than I predicted that not everyone at school would immediately gasp “Oh, you’re a leprechaun!” upon seeing my handiwork.

It was even worse than you’re imagining. You might not be imagining my complete stubbornness, my total unwillingness to accept the obvious defeat that my drenched and ruined costume, soggy crumbling paper literally coming off in wet clumps on the playground was, in fact, drenched and/or ruined. I wildly told my friends that I would dig up some green construction paper when we came in for some “repairs.” I think it was almost the end of recess, when the perpetual heavy drizzle became a hard rain and we had to go in early, that I realized the costume (such as it was) was beyond salvaging and broke down crying.

You might think that this experience would traumatize me, would make me unwilling to dress up in future, much less to design homemade costumes. But any residual sting from this incident (which of course only grew funnier and more heartening over the years) was quickly overridden by my unflappable love of Halloween. There were homemade costumes to come through the rest of my youth, of ghosts and elephants and pirates. At Seneca Center the one Halloween I had to work, I made an impromptu fish costume with a blue net laundry bag that was nearly as laughably impressionistic and ridiculous as the third-grade leprechaun, with me having to explain to the kids how to interpret what I’d tried to do hurriedly before a 16-hour Sunday shift. When I took my love of Halloween to my office at Glide, transforming it with string lights and dimly lit pumpkins every October, I famously came to work in this home-crafted elephant costume:

Arthur "Woody" Schulze and I, dressed, respectively, as me and an elephant.

Arthur “Woody” Schulze and I, dressed, respectively, as me and an elephant.

Yes, the kindergarten teacher dressed up as … me. Which was almost as absurd as my ridiculously homemade but kinda lovable elephant.

The elephant was a big hit and I followed it up the next year with a gecko:

The gecko, hard at work.

The gecko, hard at work.

And while I really loved being a big green thing that, y’know, looked like something, a lot of the homemade charm of the elephant was missing in this online-bought and highly manufactured (though detailed) costume. There were a lot of assumptions that I was trying to be the GEICO Gecko, especially from the people on the street which, while I like the GEICO Gecko as much as I like any corporate shill… is still a corporate shill. So that was a lot of fun, but kind of a flop, even though I revived that for the UPenn tournament I helped tab in 2010.

Which brings us all the way to this year, 2014. And for once, I was not the subject of the absurd costume, but rather my school-teaching girlfriend, Alex, who had the opportunity not only to dress up at work for (the day before) Halloween, but to do so in an environment where hundreds of kids would see her and where her primary task for the day was manning the Fall Fair, a whole day of work basically just celebrating the holiday. So we had to have a great costume.

I think we did:

Alex's costume from yesterday, from the back.  It's a whale shark!

Alex’s costume from yesterday, from the back. It’s a whale shark!

Profile view!

Profile view!

I asked Alex what she’d most like to be and she said a whale shark and we just kind of ran with it. We bought towels and cut them up, we bought googly-eye attachments and an industrial stapler (dubbed, literally, as the Epic Stapler) and white duct tape for the dots that didn’t work as the dots themselves as originally planned but did a great job at adhering paper dots to the back. You may not be familiar with the whale shark, but I was a big fan when I first went to the Georgia Aquarium and Alex has been completely obsessed since we went this summer.

The costume was not nearly as awesome as I think we’d both been envisioning at first – we had trouble with the idea of where to put the head, considering have it overhang Alex’s physical head, having it kind of around her back (as we chose), or even having Alex’s head popping out of the whale shark’s mouth, as most regular shark costumes choose. But whale sharks are not dangerous to people and subsist on krill, so we thought that would kind of send the wrong message and ruin the aesthetic of whale sharks’ mouths. The tail was perhaps the most problematic, folding back in on Alex’s legs rather than bowing out away from them. Of course, we worked on the costume the night before it was necessary, with me making dots from 4-6 in the morning when I awoke early to complete them and we’d nearly given up. So we didn’t really have time for adjustments in the morning dress rehearsal and just had to go with it.

The costume wound up being really uncomfortable and a little indiscernible (even with a smaller whale shark prop, many kids were confused), so Alex actually ditched the giant piece early in the day in favor of the same elephant hat and gray adornment I took to Glide years ago (we’d prepared a backup for the heat, just in case). But I’m not totally giving up on old sharky here. With a year to plan and tweak the tail and some other small elements, the whale shark may yet swim again.

Until then, at least the real ones are in Atlanta, swimming about. With no green construction paper to get wet in the tank with them:

Whale shark in the Georgia Aquarium, reflected in the top of its tank to show the spots.

Whale shark in the Georgia Aquarium, reflected in the top of its tank to show the spots.

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Misdirection

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , ,

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

All anyone in the media can talk about anymore is ebola. Unless it’s ISIS. Or maybe, on slow days for ISIS and ebola, pretty white women going missing from college campuses. Never mind that far more people die from frat parties than any or all of these things combined, though that only makes news at Rutgers. Never mind the guns and the vehicle crashes and the medical errors and all the other dangerous things in our society. I’ve talked about this before about ebola and before that about ISIS. These things aren’t going to kill you. They’re not. Stop.

But everyone seems to continue to go on the media, be it on TV or online or in the newspapers, whatever those are anymore, and seriously discuss the idea of shutting down our society (or at the very least our bowling alleys) over the fear of a disease. I mean, I guess I thought Outbreak was a pretty good movie too, when it came out, when I was 15. I saw it on a plane to Russia. It was a pretty freaky context, I guess, and I definitely covered my mouth for a few minutes after the movie ended and looked askance to see if anyone sitting among us was actually, in fact, a rabid monkey escaped from a lab. None were. I was fine. We landed in Moscow. I moved on with one of the more interesting parts of my life.

You are not living in Outbreak. Step away from the television. Your life is not that exciting. The world is not about to end. Really. Promise.

Nor are irrational crazy ISIS commandos about to storm your farm or apartment building or place of business. Unless you possibly count a trick-or-treating teenager with a really sick sense of humor. Over-under on number of trick-or-treating teens brave/stupid/uncaring-about-spending-the-next-20-years-in-Gitmo enough to try an ISIS commando costume on their rounds in America: 3.

Just not gonna happen. Now, maybe, maybe, if you’re in the military and dispatched to a nation where ebola and/or ISIS are active, these things might impact you. Or if you voluntarily go to deal with one or the other. They may then have sufficient impact on your life that you can worry about these things. But you will not be in New York or New Jersey or Maine or anywhere else whose Governor has deigned to have a publicly spouted an analyzed opinion on these matters. You will be in, y’know, Liberia. Or Syria.

And I really really really don’t want my cavalier and frustrated attitude about American fear to be confused with American exceptionalism or a lack of concern for the people of Africa and/or the Middle East. These people matter and their lives matter, arguably more than and certainly as much as American lives. I care that ISIS, product of American foreign policy, is killing people in the Middle East. I care that ebola is ravaging Liberia and Sierra Leone. These things matter and should be discussed, though I really don’t think the American military is the answer and probably, given the histrionic nature of our nation, its media, and its leaders, American intervention of any kind is the answer. I am hard-pressed to think of an international crisis that we improved or even didn’t make worse in the last fifty years, maybe longer. Probably not American problems to put on our back and try to “solve” like we “solved” Iraq or Afghanistan or Latin American revolutions or Vietnam or malaria.

So the question becomes why (WHY) do Americans insist on being so doggone afraid of everything that doesn’t hurt them? While simultaneously being nonchalant about things that are really doing substantial damage like, say, cars. Or diabetes, the treatment of which now has whole two-aisle sections in your average neighborhood pharmacy because it is so rampant in our nation. (Though, admittedly, not directly contagious, I guess.) Or corporations that are trying to eliminate the practices of safety regulations and employment from their business models, with great success and the aid of Congress. Are we just beholden to whatever the media will give us?

And then comes the eternal conundrum which is that this, like many of the linked posts above, is basically just another ebola/ISIS post, albeit a frustrated one, so I am no better than the rest of the media in spitting out the same regurgitated nonsense that we are fed by our rather ruthless corporate-profit-fueled bird overlords. That every time I bring up one of these topics, if only to complain or vent about how frequently it’s discussed I am, in fact, merely discussing it myself and thus improving its Consciousness Rank for the rest of this terrified country. Such that it becomes almost impossible to even talk about the problems without being a part of them, which insidiously feels like it was somehow built in to the design as much as Obama announcing a new war on September 10th.

But seriously, why?

Did we just not go on enough roller coasters as children? Do we crave the fake drama and illusion of danger? Are we so complacent and in such a post-danger malaise that we feel a human need to be on the brink of losing our link to survival? Is this somehow ingrained in our animal nature that we lack such fight-or-flight experiences so as we generate a need to create them out of thin air? This last one seems really unlikely given the very real danger posed by tobacco and alcohol, or if you prefer violent and immediate death, cars and guns. But I guess we might believe our own rhetoric sufficiently so as to think that we’re so immune to danger that a sweeping danger that brings everyone down must be around the corner…? Maybe?

Or is just a fundamental profound unhappiness with our society and the basic nature of existence herein? America is notorious for being perhaps the unhappiest society of all-time, triply so when one contextualizes the material wealth and comfort enjoyed by all but the poorest in the society relative to the rest of the world and most of human history. And it’s a well-known trope that the end of the world and apocalyptic scenarios start looking appealing, exciting, even galvanizing to the chronically depressed, to those without hope. It’s a giant reset button, the chance to change your place in society or just outlive everyone else, or at least feel like your choices and decisions matter in a fundamental way that trips to the unemployment office or a dead-end job that keep you out of there don’t seem to have. That going down in a hemorrhagic fever while fighting off terrorists seems far more glorious an end than drowning in debt or having your used car break down and being unable to pay the repair bill.

Is that it? Are we just so dissatisfied that we need a dramatic and crazy broom to sweep away all our ennui?

Or are we being deliberately manipulated and misdirected? Do the powers that be, be they governments or shady entities behind the governments, or the corporations hiding in plain sight, just want us to be constantly afraid and hand-wringing and overwrought so that we can’t worry about anything else? So we don’t bring up the problems with the corporate state as it’s manifest, the problems with poverty or endless war, the things that actually pose a danger to our health and well-being? Surely the people who have manufactured the need for deodorant and toothpaste and Q-tips and dandruff shampoo (to say nothing of anorexia and bulimia!) are capable of manufacturing a little light fear to keep everyone sufficiently distracted and grease the profitable wheels of the fear industry, no?

Do we turn on the ebola coverage and the ISIS coverage because we want to feel the rush of fear and anger and go crazy and think that this might be the apocalypse? Or do we turn on whatever the coverage is and react accordingly? How culpable is the average viewer for what happens? Is the media responding to the highest bidder or the lowest denominator? Or just generating a narrative that they find exciting and then trying hard to out-outrage and out-sensationalize each other? Are we just enough of a movie culture that we all get sad if life doesn’t feel like a crisis movie, unfolding minute by minute? Or did movies and the media program us to be this way? If so, deliberately, or did it just kinda happen?

There is a contagious disease loose in our society, making us all rather sick. It’s not just fear, but totally baseless irrational fear. You could argue that we take a good look at the rates of cancer and obesity and preventable death and poverty in our nation and should get legitimately afraid, maybe even more afraid than the average American Governor now appears to be of ebola. But it’s the misdirection of these energies that is so problematic. Clearly we are capable of getting a lot done in a short period of time if we’re afraid enough. Especially if “getting a lot done” involves either killing foreign nationals or giving up civil liberties (or both!) – then we’re really top-notch. So why can’t we get comparably motivated to make an actually safer society, not just one that stops feeling paranoid about outside threats that have combined to kill 3 Americans all year?

Actually, strike that. I’d be excited about an energized movement to just stop us from being so afraid of things that aren’t a threat. That would suffice for now. We don’t need fear as a tool so long as it stops being such a self-inflicted weapon.

In the meantime, best hunker down this Halloween and not answer the door. No, not because an ISIS commando with ebola will show up. But because an American child who isn’t getting a decent education, is growing up in poverty, and is likely to be a victim of violence might be there. You know, something actually scary.

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Return of the Emu

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid News, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , ,

The Mep Report is back.

An emu, the official mascot of The Mep Report.  The podcast relaunched this week after over 3 years without an episode.

An emu, the official mascot of The Mep Report. The podcast relaunched this week after over 3 years without an episode.

We’re on Facebook. We’re on Twitter. And we have about 127 hours (5.3 days) of recorded show that you can listen to in the archives.

I wasn’t always on The Mep Report. I quit in August 2007 after 86 episodes, which was memorialized with this incredible graphic. I returned occasionally in 2009 and 2010, and then pretty regularly for the last few episodes before we hung it up in June 2011.

The Mep Report is one of the hardest things to explain that I’ve ever done. It’s mostly an hour-long podcast where we talk about anything and everything, stemming from our lives at the outset and usually commenting on politics, sports, and debate. It’s ostensibly sort of a comedy, but also a discussion/debate show, and also just three guys (and sometimes Clea) hanging out.

My partners in crime are Russ Gooberman and Greg Wilson, both of whom were on the Brandeis debate team with me, one a teammate a year ahead of me and the other our Coach. We all lived together, including Clea Wilson (Greg’s now wife), in a place called the Mep House during my senior year in college (2001-2002), known mostly for endless late-night phone-calls on the land-line and the discover of Dark Age of Camelot, which ruined several of Russ’ years and several parts of a few of mine.

Russ and I weren’t always friends. We didn’t know each other very well for the first couple years we shared on ‘Deis debate, mostly because he was partners and good friends with Brad, someone who I had a fierce rivalry with and wholly disrespected as a person (less so as a debater). Russ and I shared an interest in Philosophy and especially Professor Eli Hirsch, one of the greatest professors ever to teach at Brandeis. But we never talked that much until the National Championships in 2000, when we were both so thoroughly disappointed with our respective teams’ performances that we found ourselves in the exact same mood and sitting next to each other in the van during the infamous Van Round after Nationals, when everyone basically just ad hominemed each other to blow off the stress of the season. This lightened the mood a little, but the ice was really broken by me observing that the truck trailing along next to us in the late-night return from Bryn Mawr College was for the Fink Baking Co. and said that “Fink means good bread.”

I made the following observation: “Fink doesn’t mean good bread. Fink means scoundrel!”

And thus launched, totally unplanned, about an hour of Russ and I coming up with sentences where bread and related words for bread were replaced by the word “fink”. Each of them followed by increasing paroxysms of hysterical laughter. We only escalated in such humor while the other people in the van thought we were crazier and crazier.

By the time the van reached Waltham, we were pretty much friends for life.

Fink Baking Company later went out of business, by the way. Apparently they couldn’t convince much of the world of their new lexicon.

A year later, Russ and I moved in together when he was planning on an ill-fated matriculation into Boston University Law School. But before he graduated Brandeis, we fulfilled a semester-long commitment to each other to attend a tournament together. We went to Providence College in January 2001, a small but top-heavy tournament that was only breaking to semifinals. My regular partner, Adam Zirkin, who would win the North American Championships with me the next weekend, was hybriding with a friend of his from Yale.

Russ and I were, if I say so myself, on fire that tournament. We won the first two rounds handily and then ran “legalize all drugs” in third round and totally torched the team with what was, at the time, a controversial case. Fourth round we were 3-0 and hit the team that proved to be third TOTY (Team of the Year) by the end of the season, the famous Yale OJ, and Russ started pre-making fun of the case we were likely to hit when we were chatting with the judge before the round. We both predicted something boring and difficult was on the way despite the fact that it was early-morning Saturday’s 4th round, a classic time for more fun cases. They walked in an presented a case about technical details of insurance law and Russ and I turned and rolled our eyes at the judge and we went on to destroy the case and win the round handily. Fifth round, we hit my regular partner and his hybrid partner and expected a pretty fun round since it was a 4-0 match and we would both likely break. But Zirkin and Russ were not the best of friends and our friend from Yale was not wanting to go easy and they wound up running something that made for an annoying round. We suspected the round would be a coin-toss, but we’d still have high enough speaks to break. We headed to the banquet in great spirits.

We didn’t break. Russ punched a wall as soon as the fourth semifinalist who was not us was announced. Years later, the hole in the back of the lecture hall at PC from said punch was still there.

We had to sit through a semifinal round between our 4th and 5th round opponents (we had obviously lost 5th round and by a wider margin than we expected to miss the break), then watch Yale OJ drop to Stanford before we got the ballots to find out what had happened. And the ballots told us that while Russ had been debating that weekend, I had apparently been speaking in tongues and running screaming from the room. Russ was 4th speaker at the tournament, speaking a 132/7. But we had missed the break by a single speaker point, finishing 4-1, 260/20. Meaning I had spoken a 128/13. This put me 2 points and 4 ranks behind the 10th place speaker at the tournament and would have made me, in a year where I finished 5th SOTY (Speaker of the Year) overall as a junior, the 3rd novice speaker were I still a novice.

You can see the full results of that tournament here.

We looked incredulously at the ballots. Russ and I were pretty evenly matched and felt we’d been especially so this weekend and had complemented each other well. I looked at him beseechingly and asked if I had been terrible that weekend. He said not at all. And then I started berating myself. We gathered in a circle before leaving the tournament and I broke in to Greg’s questions about team dinner to publicly apologize to Russ for ruining his weekend.

“I’m sorry, Russ. When that emu asked you to debate with him, you clearly should have gone with him instead of me this weekend.”

He looked at me quizically.

I continued, warming to the subject. I said “At least he could have gone ‘Mep… mep…. mep.'” And then I got down into a crouch, tucked my hands under my arms in mock wings, and then stuck my tongue out periodically while making the mep sound.

Russ indignantly blamed the PC judges and not me, but I insisted on taking the blame and breaking into meps periodically at team dinner and the ride home.

The emu thing stuck. The rest of that year and the next, when Russ traveled with us frequently as a de facto Assistant Coach, Russ and I would periodically both get down in the emu crouch, quickly developing a pseudo-dance around each other in a circle that was dubbed “the emu-mating dance”. After the first spontaneous outbreak of this, we would look for a random time each tournament to break this out in GA. It never photographed especially well, but its legend still existed on the team a full APDA-generation (four years) after I graduated.

Then came Mep House (hilariously mis-heard as “meth house” by the mother of a visiting friend) and the rest was basically history. When Russ moved to LA, Greg to New York, and I to Berkeley, we periodically would regroup online to chat about life and then turned it into a podcast. We peaked in 2006 when we won the second Podcast Pickle Cast War, an event that got written up in the Brandeis University Alumni Magazine.

I have no idea what TMR 2.0 will look like in 2014, but it was fun doing a show again and I’m sure it will be fun in the future. We will definitely make fun of the world and each other. Our voices will sound even better, since we’re now using Skype instead of semi-pirated Teamspeak gaming chat rooms to talk to each other. Audio quality has really come a long way in the 3.5 years we’ve taken off.

Let the emu soar.

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Baseball Roundup

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Tags: , ,

Baseball!

Baseball!

For some reason, baseball is most of what I can think of to post about these days. I posted a lot about baseball down the stretch as the Mariners fell one game short of the playoffs, made doubly more frustrating by the fact that the AL Wild Card team (who could easily have been them had the A’s lost game 162) won 8 straight games to get to the World Series. As the Seattle Times just put it, the “Royals’ run should make Mariners fans take notice and dream”. It’s definitely doing that, as well as making me think about Kevin.

So, I feel compelled to write some loose end notes that don’t really conform to a typical streamlined post but still culminate what I’ve been considering during a season when I’ve thought about baseball far more often than my usual (which is already a lot).

You don’t have to take my word for how exciting the Mariners’ season was this year. Grantland has quantitatively measured that they had the most exciting regular season. Granted that some excitement should be reserved for the process of actually, y’know, making the playoffs, but as the article opens, “uncertainty equals excitement.” In their statistical analysis, the M’s were listed as having at least a 10% more exciting season that the next-most-exciting team, which, incidentally, also missed the playoffs (Atlanta). Kansas City was 5th, but I think they pretty clearly take #1 or #2 in terms of post-season… it’s hard to tell whether constantly coming back to win at the last minute is more exciting or just winning all of your games is. I guess, technically, KC has done both.

Speaking of the Royals, the very first box score I ever read in my life depicted a Boston-Kansas City game. We moved to Oregon in summer 1988, but I think it had to be in 1989, the year I truly discovered baseball. The box score was in the traditional format where the linescore was at the top with the city names, then the detailed information about the teams was below with the team names. I assumed, given everything I knew about Boston and Kansas City, that the teams were the Boston Royals and the Kansas City Red Sox. After all, Royals sounded just like what the Bostonians would dub themselves, while Red Sox sounded pedestrian and midwestern, especially with that spelling. This is how little I knew about baseball at the time.

That’s not even the least I ever knew about baseball. That summer, I insisted my parents take me to Little League tryouts. They were very supportive of my youth baseball career, but when I first asked, my parents gave me this kind of sidelong glance that said “Sports? Really? Did we do something wrong?” My Dad definitely prompted me more than once about whether this was something I really wanted to do. My father decided not to invest in a mitt right away, but to first see how tryouts went. They had a bucket of spare gloves for boys just like me. (Incidentally, “tryouts” at this stage was a misnomer – no one was denied their birthright to play Little League baseball.) I went up to the guy manning the bucket and asked for a glove to borrow. He asked if I was a righty or lefty. I said I was right-handed and he promptly handed me a glove. I then tried cramming it on… my right hand. It didn’t fit. I complained to my father and then to bucket-man. Bucket-man rolled his eyes, sighed, and wordlessly switched the glove’s hand. Voila! “But I’m right-handed!” I protested. He pointed out that I throw with the hand I use – admittedly I had tried at least once to throw with the gloved hand with surprisingly poor results.

I had been an A’s fan before either of the above two encounters, and would be until about the time I was leaving Oregon. As mentioned in the prior post, I had spotted a green team (favorite color) with an elephant mascot (one of five favorite animals) and that was kind of a no-brainer. This was actually during the 1988 World Series, of which I saw about two innings, in the hotel lobby on our trip to retrieve our stuff in storage from central California in October 1988. The World Series was probably on in a lot of places, but it was really on everywhere in California, given that it pitted the north against the south in a pivotal matchup. I was enthralled with the mechanics of baseball as I had been in the parks of Washington DC the year before, watching pickup and adult league softball games and plopped right down in front of the TV. The desk clerk asked me who I was rooting for. It took me about three seconds to say “the green team.” And just like that, I was an Oakland fan for the next four years.

This means that I have had a team that was my favorite win a World Series. In the very first full year in which I followed baseball (1989, the earthquake series, when they swept the Giants). That is ridiculously unfair. You could argue I became a Mariners fan as penance. But I didn’t. I became a Mariners fan because I was so obsessed with baseball that I listened to about 140 games/season on the Mariners Radio Network in 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992, that being the team that was broadcast on the north coast of Oregon. I would root for the A’s when they played the M’s, and this matchup was the first major league game I attended at the Kingdome in Seattle. (The Mariners won; I was sad.) Somewhere around ’92 or ’93, I realized that my loyalties had shifted… I knew a lot more about the Mariners, cared a lot more about their day-to-day, and felt a close kinship with Dave Niehaus, Rick Rizzs, and the team they raised their voice for in the play-by-play. Mark McGwire was still my favorite player, but Ken Griffey Jr. was just behind. I found myself being torn in the A’s/M’s showdowns. By the time I moved to Albuquerque in 1993, my allegiance had changed.

This process was further confused by the fact that my parents bought me a beautiful Baltimore Orioles jacket in 1993 from the Cooperstown collection after we essentially lived in Baltimore during summer 1993. I was attending CTY out there and we had just moved all our stuff down to Albuquerque and then flew to Hawaii and then Baltimore. My Dad spent the summer making pogs of the DC/Baltimore area and trying to bring the new fad to the east coast. I have fond memories of hawking these to people on the steps of Union Station in DC, one of the buildings depicted on his commemorative tourist discs. Like pretty much all of my Dad’s businesses, he was a little ahead of the curve and we basically broke even as I understand it and it was fun. But we also went to a game at the new palace of baseball, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and my parents, who I’d been dragging into a love of sports and especially baseball, were incredibly impressed. When I showed up to the Academy, it was in an Orioles jacket (well, I guess it wasn’t till October, since the Academy started in August and everyone is in shorts in New Mexico in August). Which made one of my homeroom teachers, Mr. “Bucky” Buck, incredibly excited, because he was an Orioles fan. It was a little hard to explain that the O’s were my second or third favorite team and that I just really liked the jacket and the ballpark from whence it came. But he was an 8th grade teacher who actually came to some of our ballgames when baseball season rolled around, so I was hardly in the mood to correct him.

I think the confusion (natural and understandable, since I wore the O’s jacket about every day of 8th grade it was cold) was part of what prompted me to wear subsequent Mariners jackets so obsessively. I’d already been doing that for some time by the summer of 1995, then the fall of 1995 when the M’s made their historic run to save their first chance at the playoffs (they’d been two games out of the division lead, despite a horrible record, when the strike hit the year before) and even to save baseball in Seattle. All the rumors were that they were strongly considering moving to Tampa Bay in 1996 or 1997, which was promptly silenced forever after the M’s made the ALCS in 1995 and reminded the city that it loved baseball. I was in a huge quandary about how I would feel about the Tampa Bay Mariners and where they would rank in my shifting hierarchy of teams, but fortunately didn’t ever have to worry about that question.

I remember daydreaming in my very early youth about being a major league ballplayer, like pretty much every Little Leaguer who loves the game does, not that I was ever close to the talent necessary to seriously pursue this dream. In more sober moments, I thought about how much I loved the A’s at the time and wondered how I would ever be in a position to regularly attend Oakland games. The irony I felt in remembering this feeling when attending lots of Oakland A’s games when I lived in Oakland and Berkeley from 2002-2009 was pretty serious. Especially in those M’s/A’s series when, once again, it was hostile environment. I think I’ve attended about 20 A’s vs. Mariners games in my life and always been rooting for the road team.

Sports, and rooting for teams, remain totally irrational, as they’ve always been. But they add a ton of vibrance and color to one’s life, not to mention fulfilling a certain competitive drive. It is kind of overwhelming to consider how much mental energy and emotional exuberance (and torment) I’ve put into baseball in my life. Some days, it’s hard not to think about that in terms of opportunity cost. But I guess, as the economists really ought to know, we can’t all be rational, self-interested utility-maximizers. Some of us have to applaud.

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KC

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Tags: , ,

The Kansas City Royals are going to the World Series.

The last time the Kansas City Royals were in the World Series (or, mind you, the playoffs) was in 1985. They won, beating the St. Louis Cardinals, who are now facing a 3-1 deficit in the National League Championship Series to try to get to this World Series for a rematch. The ’85 Series, by all accounts, was a thriller, pitting two Missouri teams against each other for seven games, with a stunning Game 7 blowout for the Royals who had been down 3-1 in the series after the first four games. They were down 1-0 in the bottom of the 9th in Game 6 and came back to win 2-1 in a walk-off, though I don’t think anyone used that term in those days.

I wasn’t a baseball fan in 1985. I lived in Visalia, California, and wouldn’t discover baseball for three more years, unless you count being vaguely enthralled by pickup softball games I would see in the parks of Washington, DC in the fall of 1987 and the spring of ’88. But my future friend, Kevin House, who lived in Wichita, Kansas at the time, was a baseball fan. We wouldn’t meet until third grade in Gearhart, Oregon, a new and foreign land for both of us. But at the time he got to be in Kansas when the City who shared that state’s name and was at least partially within the state, just a couple hours away, won it all. He was a huge fan of George Brett, hero of the Royals, who hit .370 in that series and went on to lead subsequent Royals teams, though not to the same dizzying heights as in 1985.

My recollection is that Kevin and I didn’t take an immediate liking to each other. I remember fast becoming friends with people like Tony Cox, Cisco Treharne, and John Grotz (now Hill) who rode the bus to the same general neighborhood as I did, where I was the first to get picked up in the morning and the last to get dropped off. And then I met Bowen Turetzky, when we were both getting tested for the gifted program if memory serves, and we shared some nerdy interests. Kevin rode the bus too, but was closer to school, always boarded smelling like my grandparents’ house (i.e. smoke), wearing his signature jean jacket and a slightly disgruntled look. He was a little more ornery and standoffish than the people who’d become my friends and I don’t remember exactly what broke the ice between us.

But over time, and not much at that, he proved to be like so many people who initially seem difficult or defensive – a true and loyal friend. We discovered a mutual love of baseball and video games and baseball cards and playing baseball and, well, there was a lot of baseball. He came over often and I would trade him Royals cards for A’s cards (I was admittedly an A’s fan for a few years before the constant listening to Mariners games on the radio all season wore me down and changed my heart – I had decided a team to root for during the 1988 World Series when I saw green uniforms and an elephant on the TV at a point at which I only knew of two teams in the world). We would play 1-on-1 baseball in the front yard or play on my text-based baseball computer game or talk about baseball or listen to baseball or watch baseball. We talked about other things, too, like life and hopes and dreams and all that. But mostly it came down to baseball.

At some point in our Little League careers, we had the enormous good fortune of being on the same team together, a total happenstance as our coaches selected teams in a secret closed-door draft meeting at the outset of each season. Kevin was a second baseman, mostly, but really wanted to be a third baseman like George Brett. His arm wasn’t the best, though. I had been converted to a catcher a year before by my mentor Jim Paino, who dug me out of the right field gravel and taught me how to encourage pitchers, frame a pitch, take care of a catcher’s glove, and throw off my helmet at the first sign of trouble. We never won that many games – I was perennially chosen by losing teams – but there was one doubleheader we played in Cannon Beach against the best team in the league and managed to eke out the second game in the league’s biggest upset all year. I remember Zac Gonzales pitched most, if not all, of the game, and I hadn’t yelled so loudly or exhortedly in my whole life and probably wouldn’t again till a debate tournament years later. And when we got the final out, we celebrated on Cannon Beach’s field like the ’85 Royals. Once the fervor had died down, Kevin promptly asked his mom if he could stay over at my house and we spent the night recounting the play-by-play of our dramatic win.

I only stayed over at – or even went – to Kevin’s house once. His grandparents, the smokers, were quite strict and didn’t really support the notion of sleepovers or even people playing in the house. I think they may have been on a trip when I actually came over. It was late in my time in Oregon, late in the time of our close friendship, and I remember the night vividly. We watched TV and played paper football and I finally saw every one of his George Brett cards, since many of the nicest ones never left his room and I couldn’t get to sleep for the endless ticking of a grandfather clock in the living room that my tired mind simply refused to adapt to. I recall being so surprised that such a small simple noise could wreak such havoc, but I was all too aware when it passed 2, 3, 4 in the morning and it may have been the latest I’d ever stayed up till that point.

Kevin was of course over at the house a few months later when I had my magical snowy birthday in February 1993, a few months before my family moved to Albuquerque and closed that crazy coastal chapter of our Clatsop County lives. Kevin stayed behind, went to Seaside High, graduated, and found his way back to Kansas. Where, in 2000, at twenty years old, he was killed in a car accident.

He was living in Independence, Kansas, somewhere southeast of Wichita and southwest of Kansas City, but he was rushed to the hospital in Wichita and died just four and a half miles from the house in which he’d been born.

He and his girlfriend had visited my parents earlier that year on a roadtrip across the country, I think in part to see his sister Bev, who was living in Tucson. But I hadn’t seen him since we were both 13, though we’d talked a few times and exchanged a little correspondence. A few days after the accident, his mother called the house in tears to give me the news. I debated for a week about going up for a memorial being held in Seaside, ended up not going, and have regretted my absence frequently since. You can read some of my immediate reactions in the very early months of Introspection here.

His full name, as you can see in his obituary, was Kevin Christopher House. He sometimes went by KC.

I haven’t had any friends die of ebola, or terrorism. But I have had a good friend die in that most common of fatalities among the young, the motor vehicle accident. I had always been so upset about his grandparents smoking around him constantly. I remember a medical visit after which he related to me that he had the lungs of a twenty-year smoker when he hadn’t even been alive that long. I was always so sure that this second-hand nicotine was going to contribute to an untimely death.

I think about Kevin often, as I think about many of my old friends, though I am Facebook friends with most of them. None of them are particularly close right now, but we keep in touch, comment on each other’s lives, bicker (just the other day) about the role of the military and the nature of war. I have gotten to see how they’ve grown up, all the children they’ve had, the men they’ve become.

But Kevin will forever be a young man, childless and free, so much of his life seeming to be ahead of him.

The Royals are back in the World Series, Kevin. They haven’t lost a game all playoffs. Twenty-nine years since the last time, fourteen since you left the planet. They’re going to play for the title on a cool October night under the western Missouri skies. And I’ll be watching. And wishing you were here.

KC

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Automation Nation

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

Something has taken place slowly over the past few years in the United States. And it’s basically complete.

No, the whole nation isn’t one company. Yet.

There are basically no manual appliances left in public spaces. Save for the occasional water fountain (and there are automatic ones and they basically don’t work and are completely terrifying – the process is basically walking up to a machine and having it spit at you), you are no longer expected to press buttons or flush toilets or turn cranks. Everything is automated. Faucets, toilets, urinals, hand dryers (both paper towel dispensers and hot-air blowers) all have little red motion sensors that determine when the appropriate time to work is without the overt control of the humans, well, using them.

At first blush, of course, this seems like enormous convenience. No longer do we have to actually exhaust our digits by – the horror – turning a knob! Merely wave hands in the general direction of where water is supposed to spring from and – voila – it is sprung! Weep, ye ancestors of humanity who died toiling in the men’s room of the past, furiously pulling your own paper towels from their slot.

But once we get past the idea of these machines and to their actual use, the picture of perfect ease gets murkier. For one thing, the shelf life of the motion sensors is awfully short. And what this means, functionally, is that the closer to the end of the sensor’s life we get, the more it becomes like – wait for it – a button. I think we’ve all had the experience of furiously trying to get the water to release from the spigot by waving, then contorting, then sort of just pawing our hands around the vague sink area, hoping to just make the faucet work already, something never before so challenging in the history of faucets. In most instances, if you can actually just see the blinking red light indicating the sensor’s location, you can merely press your finger to it and the thing will do its job. Unless the sensor is so old that is just broken, which is an increasingly regular occurrence. I’m not exactly certain how often sink handles had to be replaced in the old days, but I bet it was less than once a decade in all but the roughest of establishments.

Which brings us to the question of the purported environmentalism of all this automation. Certainly hand-dryer blowers are nothing new to bathrooms in America, though they used to have (gasp!) buttons along with their lecturey signage about how hot air was more sustainable and environmental than paper. Which seems sort of true in a world where we don’t question where the electricity comes from or what its creation is doing to the planet. I haven’t precisely run the numbers on paper towel count vs. how much power it takes to run a blower and I don’t know exactly how to quantify x number of trees vs. y units of coal energy in terms of what it’s doing to Earth… I’m not sure this information is exactly knowable (see also: paper or plastic, which has been punted to canvas/tote, which itself has raised a whole host of environmental questions regarding just how many tote bags humans need). But I do know how much energy and/or trees used to go into faucets or urinals. That would basically be zero.

But when we factor in the replacement costs and that impact on sustainability, not to mention the process of turning every appliance in a public restroom into a little computer, it doesn’t seem like this was a terribly environmentally motivated decision at all. If this had an environmental angle at all, it seems to have been swept up in what so many such endeavors devolve into in this country: an opportunity to spend money buying something new because it’s environmental! Never mind that the whole point of the movement hinges on reducing and reusing instead of manufacturing and buying… the best way to show support for the environment is to buy Environment-Brand Stuff! I’m not saying every or even most environmentalist actually buys in (get it?) to this mentality, but it feels like the mainstream of people feel good about themselves for buying more products than they otherwise would as long as they have a vague greeny feel about them. And, like most things, this scales up in big institutions.

I guess there’s the other environmental issue of the person in the bathroom who leaves the sink running for a week or who flushes the toilet 27 times when they actually need to maybe twice. The environmental issue here is water and the thesis is that bad/neglectful people will waste more of it than very smart machines. I’d be more of a believer in this if the machines themselves demonstrated much intelligence. I am really looking forward to being able to get a Google self-driving car, but if they run on the same general principle as these motion sensors built into public restrooms, they will alternate between stopping in the middle of nowhere, then kind of stutter-stepping for a few feet before stopping forever and smashing full-tilt into whatever they can hit. It’s an unnerving and increasingly common experience to be sitting on a public toilet when the motion sensor decides that you simply must be done already and decides to throw full suction at the bowl without warning. Similarly, I’ve had to do bizarre dances and door-swinging maneuvers to try to leave other stalls in a human condition for the future user, endlessly cajoling the stingy motion sensor to release its cleansing waters.

I’m sure the process of adding a blinky red light to every appliance in every public restroom in the country helped the economy a lot and may be credited as one of the only reasons we’re supposedly out of the Great Recession. (Of course, as I’ve discussed, we’re not.) But I suspect the real reason for all this automation wave has more to do with something I’ve discussed even more recently, which is the national obsession with the outbreak and spread of deadly diseases. Or, y’know, at least colds.

It’s become an increasingly known and documented fact that our hands, seemingly our most innocuous and extendable parts, are dirtier than the worst incarnation of the Peanuts character Pigpen, while other areas we might be more concerned about, such as our thighs, are actually remarkably clean. This fact does not deter anyone from shaking hands with others or even mean that we tear down the doors of public restrooms, but it probably is the main culprit behind removing handles from toilets, urinals, soap-dispensers, and sinks in public places. The sink one is especially important, since we’d have to touch the handles with freshly-washed hands over and over again… who knows where those freshly-washed hands have… oh.

You can probably guess by now that I think this effort as a way of stopping disease, much less serious disease like, say, ebola, is a fool’s errand. Admittedly my father did raise me to flush a public toilet with my feet rather than my hands, but I really doubt a lot of people before were getting sick from public bathrooms. More likely it was from kissing people and shaking their hands and going to hospitals and all the other really contagious things that we tend to do as a species. And maybe I’m wrong and it’s marginally aiding our health never to have to touch handles in bathrooms. But my guess is that the margin, if applicable, is really quite small and is dwarfed by the expense of constantly getting new sensors installed (to say nothing of it being erased by the sensors that just become buttons).

No, like many innovations of our modern world, my guess is this one is more about the illusion of increased health, the gentle placebo that comes from replacing something vaguely icky with something really frustrating. As long as we don’t think that the public restroom is making us sick, then it’s worth any expense to be spared the indignity of turning a knob that some other human has touched before us.

Of course, people continue to stockpile ebola suits and get them for the whole family … just in case. So maybe a time will come soon when we will all literally live in our own little bubbles and never have to touch each other at all. Just make sure you sneak your cell phone inside the suit first. It’s awfully hard to text with ebola-suit-fingers.

Dave?  What are you doing, Dave?  I believe you'll find that very difficult without your ebola suit, Dave.

Dave? What are you doing, Dave? I believe you’ll find that very difficult without your ebola suit, Dave.

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List of Things More Likely to Kill Americans than Ebola

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

EVERYBODY PANIC!

EVERYBODY PANIC!

Yesterday, all day, the “ebola outbreak” in Dallas, Texas, consisting of one sick Liberian who came to the US, was the top national news story in this rapidly deteriorating country. People almost everywhere were talking seriously about this as a threat to their health and safety.

This is not a news story. The ebola outbreak in Africa is probably a news story, though it still kills way fewer people than, say, starvation or civil war or actual seemingly intractable threats to health and safety in developing nations. But ebola in the United States is not a threat and should not be a news story. There have been three cases of people in America with ebola. Zero people have died. No one has contracted ebola in the US. The two Americans who contracted ebola abroad were cured. The Liberian in America with ebola is receiving the most intensive health care and scrutiny of any person in the history of hospitals.

Ebola in the US is not a news story. It is not an occurrence. It is a distraction and the needless generation of fear, much like, say ISIS.

But hey, at least ISIS did kill two Americans before we declared it the greatest threat to American security in world history.

So here is a non-comprehensive list of things more likely to kill Americans than ebola. It’s probably also viable for ISIS, though a couple of the more obscure ones maybe be only comparably dangerous to Americans as ISIS. That latter danger is also going to increase since we sent a bunch of Americans to try to kill every man, woman, and child in Iraq and Syria.

List of Things More Likely to Kill Americans than Ebola:

    Spiders
    Sharks
    Police Officers
    Scorpions
    Falling Off of Ladders
    Drowning in the Bathtub
    Looking at Someone Else’s Gun
    Bears
    Frat Parties
    Falling Off a Cliff while Hiking
    Snakes
    Dropping Electronics into the Sink
    Spontaneous Combustion
    Flesh-Eating Bacteria
    Lightning
    Lawn Mowers
    Autoerotic Asphyxiation
    Bees
    Peanuts
    Gluten
    Dogs
    Baseballs
    Icicles
    Jellyfish
    Vending Machines
    Roller Coasters
    Falling Out of Bed
    Pillows

And this is to say nothing of, say, actually dangerous things, like motor vehicles or smoking or alcohol or starvation or hospital mistakes, let alone things like heart disease and cancer and diabetes. So please. Please. Stop talking about ebola in the US. You might do something truly dangerous, like give yourself high blood pressure worrying about it.

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Unemployment Down to 11.94%, Now Double Official Reported Figure

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

What I predicted in April 2013 has finally happened.

The BLS released their September report on unemployment today, announcing that unemployment had dropped from 6.1% to 5.9% in the United States. Unemployment did drop between August and September, when accounting for those unemployed by virtue of not being in the labor force, but by a much more modest margin, from 11.99% to 11.94%.

11.94% is tied for the lowest unemployment rate in the US in five years, dating back to August 2009. Unemployment then was only 11.76%, but was reported as 7.9%. Things in August 2009 were slightly better than they are now, but people perceived them as being 33% worse. Although it may not be fair to say things were holistically better, because unemployment was starting to skyrocket toward its peak of 13.17%, while recently the trend is decidedly flat. Unemployment has been between 11.94% and 11.99% for four straight months, and between 11.94% and 12.17% since February.

The gap between the reported figure and the real figure hinges on this insidious quote from the BLS report out this morning:

“The civilian labor force participation rate, at 62.7 percent, changed little in September.”

The way that should be phrased is more along the lines of: The civilian labor force participation rate hit a new Great Recession low at 62.7 percent in September, reflecting that more people have now left the labor force since 2007 than are currently considered officially unemployed.

It’s easy to say that things are “little changed” when they dip 0.1%, even if that reflects a new record low. The problem is that 0.1% of the labor force-eligible population is 248,446 people. The alleged decline in unemployment of 0.2% month over month was 329,000 people. So a substantial majority (76%) of the people who allegedly stopped being unemployed actually just left the labor force. Thus the real unemployment rate was only down 0.05%, not 0.2%.

Here are your graphs for this month:

Real (red) and reported (blue) unemployment in the US, January 2009-September 2014.  Source: BLS

Real (red) and reported (blue) unemployment in the US, January 2009-September 2014. Source: BLS

The gap between real and reported unemployment in the US, January 2009-September 2014.  Source: BLS

The gap between real and reported unemployment in the US, January 2009-September 2014. Source: BLS

I decided to cut the graph to starting in January 2009 instead of January 2007 as I have in the past, mostly to emphasize the contrast and let the recent trends stand out a little more.

The Reporting Gap, or what I’ve dubbed the “Crazy Factor”, hit an all-time high last month with today’s report, and now finally stands higher than the reported figure in unemployment. The Reporting Gap is 6.04%. Unemployment is reported as being 5.9%.

Put another way, 9,262,000 Americans are currently unemployed by virtue of counting in the official statistics. An additional 9,481,787 Americans have either left or never been able to enter the labor force and are currently unemployed by that circumstance. These people have no jobs and, unlike the officially unemployed, no income.

The total number of unemployed Americans is more than double what we think it is. It is 18.75 million people, not 9.25 million.

If you’re wondering, the last time the labor force participation rate was this low, it was in February 1978. At the time, there was still a significant gender gap in terms of women being expected and/or able to work, as well as a burgeoning economic crisis. But the BLS is content to call a 36-year low in labor force participation “little changed”.

In fact, maybe the starkest graph I could show you is this one, from the BLS website itself, with no extra analysis on my part:

BLS labor force participation rate, January 1978-September 2014.  Source: BLS

BLS labor force participation rate, January 1978-September 2014. Source: BLS

Does that look like a recovery to you?


This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – aging assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.

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Getting Spooky

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, Tags: , ,

Hit refresh on this page.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Yeah, that’s pretty different. Basically since the inception of this incarnation of my blogging, which was in October 2007 (seven years ago!), I’ve used some version of the WordPress theme Mushblue. Almost immediately after installing it, I started periodically tweaking the colors and changing the header images and pretty soon, the theme was more or less unrecognizable.

This was my first post. And in skimming over it to see how far I’ve come since then, this quote jumps out:

“Change is naturally something that seems scary to most. But change is also rivetingly exciting, and gives us the opportunity to do things differently than we did them last time.”
-2 October 2007

I’ve been kind of afraid to change the theme because I’m accustomed to the versatility I get from using that theme. But I wanted to make a change and take advantage of some of the newer, more dynamic themes that are available on WordPress and have been developed in the last seven years as the web converts to a bit more of a twenty-first century reality.

That said, honestly, when examining this, it looks like I’ve landed in a theme that’s not all that much of a change after all. The header goes all the way from end-to-end at the top and I really like the fonts and some of the stylistic choices and the fact that I can still customize the colors. But there are things I’m not in love with about this format. It does a book-style truncation of words that are too long but still doesn’t justify the text at the right side, which seems like a really frustrating compromise where everyone loses. And it posts both categories and tags at the top of each post, which I’ve been conflating for seven years as the same thing since my old theme only posted categories.

So maybe this one won’t last that long, though it will probably be here for October since I’ve just taken the time to customize it for October. Yay.

It seems like a good time to dredge up all the old theme images, though, if only for posterity, since I was working in the exact same format for the last seven years with the 800×350 pixel headers at the top:

The first header, which kind of reminds me of today's header.  Change always comes in October.

The first header, which kind of reminds me of today’s header. Change always comes in October.

Winter 2007-2008.  I think this is some of the better photo editing I've done.

Winter 2007-2008. I think this is some of the better photo editing I’ve done.

Early 2008.  Actually made after my return from the trip, since I didn't have that sweatshirt or see that elephant until the trip.

Early 2008. Actually made after my return from the trip, since I didn’t have that sweatshirt or see that elephant until the trip.

October 2008.

October 2008.

Mid-2008 until mid-2009.  Made for the depression as it came on and it stayed relevant for a long time.

Mid-2008 until mid-2009. Made for the depression as it came on and it stayed relevant for a long time.

Summer 2009.  For the trip to move across country that Emily and I were making.

Summer 2009. For the trip to move across country that Emily and I were making.

October 2009.

October 2009.

Winter 2009-2010, early draft.  I'm not sure how long this stayed up, if very long at all.

Winter 2009-2010, early draft. I’m not sure how long this stayed up, if very long at all.

Winter 2009-2010, replacement.  It was a little less cheezy than the big snowflake, I guess.

Winter 2009-2010, replacement. It was a little less cheezy than the big snowflake, I guess.

Summer 2010.  Ah, optimism.

Summer 2010. Ah, optimism.

Later summer 2010, in the wake of the separation, obviously.

Later summer 2010, in the wake of the separation, obviously.

October 2010.  Self-explanatory.

October 2010. Self-explanatory.

Fall 2010.  Way more optimistic than I actually felt, but I was trying to commit to a new season at Rutgers.

Fall 2010. Way more optimistic than I actually felt, but I was trying to commit to a new season at Rutgers.

Early 2011.  I was still trying to get reinvigorated about staying in Jersey.

Early 2011. I was still trying to get reinvigorated about staying in Jersey.

Summer 2011, for my roadtrip across the country.

Summer 2011, for my roadtrip across the country.

Fall 2011.  This image is basically about not committing suicide.  There's really no way to dress that up.  It stayed up for 17 months, even as things started improving.

Fall 2011. This image is basically about not committing suicide. There’s really no way to dress that up. It stayed up for 17 months, even as things started improving.

Early 2013, finally replacing the bridge with some acknowledged optimism.

Early 2013, finally replacing the bridge with some acknowledged optimism.

Anticipating summer 2013.  Wound up staying up a lot longer during my blogging moratorium in late 2013.

Anticipating summer 2013. Wound up staying up a lot longer during my blogging moratorium in late 2013.

Summer 2014 until yesterday.

Summer 2014 until yesterday.

Wow, that all takes me back. And now it’s time to try to move forward. If any of you out there who regularly read the blog are so inclined, I would really welcome some feedback about readability and the experience of visiting this website and what you would like to see changed as I try to perfect it. As much as I like it to be a testament to my emotional reality, it’s really a form of communication that is only as effective as its conveyance. I don’t do comments here because of the nature of Internet comments, but you can always e-mail me.

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