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Pancakes Make Me Hungrier

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , ,

I know they look like food.  But in my experience, they are a pill to make you want more food.

I know they look like food. But in my experience, they are a pill to make you want more food.

That term: “pancakes make me hungrier” appears nowhere on the Internet as a phrase. Until now.

I had pancakes for breakfast yesterday, the second time in about a week, at a place that New Orleanians seem to adore called the Ruby Slipper. It’s a brunch place, but doing brunch all the time, and breakfast is normally my thing. It’s also the closest breakfast place to my work, which is convenient on mornings when Alex has to drop me off at 6:55 AM because she needs the car that day. I’ve been regularly opening my office at around 7:45 after having breakfast – going in at 7:00 foodless would be doubly problematic. So it’s the Ruby Slipper for me, so named to honor those who returned to NOLA post-Katrina because (you guessed it) there’s no place like home! It’s a neat place.

The problem is that I’ve been rolling around the menu, a very rare habit for me (I’m the find one thing I like to eat and stick with it type) in the quest for my one thing at Ruby. The quest is made difficult by the fact that most things come with breakfast meats and the only reasonable substitution is usually potatoes and the potatoes at Ruby are just not my thing. Which is crazy for two reasons – 1. potatoes are always my thing and 2. the potatoes are too burnt. Two wouldn’t be a crazy thing for anything else, but “too burnt” isn’t really in my vocabulary as an eater. I always want things crispy and overdone and burnt, especially bread and potatoes. Honestly, if they were hashbrowns, they’d be perfect, but instead they are these charred little nuggets of homefries that honestly seem like someone took day-old homefries and stuck them in the fryer for an hour. They just taste like char. I dunno, maybe it’s a Southern thing.

Well last Thursday, I landed on my one thing at Ruby. The full stack of pancakes with fresh fruit. They’re filling and delicious and fresh and sweet and everything you want from a pancake. Even crispy on the edges! And they’re cheaper than a lot of the menu and the fruit-for-meat substitution is already a given option (I often get tired of always asking for exceptions) and there are no little burnt nuggets of potato to have to push around the plate. And I only let a tiny bit of me worry about what would happen to my stomach long-term with that much pancake in it.

I should have been more concerned. Right on cue, around noon, the bottom fell out of my stomach and I started getting ravenously hungry. There is a type of hungry I get occasionally, and got much more often when I was younger, that makes me feel like I’ve become a diabetic overnight. I call it “panic hunger” and it involves a cold sweat, an immediate need to eat, a craving for bread products specifically, and extremely sudden onset of the hunger. I’ve experienced it enough (say, 50ish times) in my life to be able to identify its taxonomy and traits so that its sudden hitting doesn’t actually make me panic anymore. The protocol in my late youth and early adulthood for this was to go to the kitchen (it disproportionately hits late at night), eat two slices of bread, put two more in the toaster, eat the toast, and then eat two more slices of bread. As fast as I physically could consume all that. Only by slice #6 does the panic start to subside and then I just wait for all the other bread to hit my stomach like the filler it’s designed to be.

But I was on a work call on Thursday when this started happening and I was quickly losing the ability to functionally respond or be a person. And I had to walk a mile to get to a purveyor of bread, Panera. By the time I got there, I ate a grilled cheese sandwich, asiago cheese bagel, cinnamon roll, and tomato soup in minutes.

Pancakes are one of two foods I’ve identified in my life that usually, and definitely increasingly, cause this or a similar level of sudden hunger relatively shortly after their consumption. The other food, which behaves almost exactly the same way, is injera, the spongy bread that is served with Ethiopian food. If you think about it, pancakes and injera are pretty similar foods, with lot of air-holes in the middle and that same general fluffy texture. For some reason the heavier utthapam, the South Indian savory discs often described as pancakes, don’t seem to elicit the same reaction.

This is problematic because 1. I love pancakes and injera and 2. I can’t seem to find anyone else who has this issue to be able to relate to it. For years, every meal of pancakes or Ethiopian shared with someone has prompted me to discuss how these foods make me hungrier afterwards and I only get blank looks in return. Injera specifically is noted on the Internet and personal testimony for its filling nature. Injera works so quickly on my stomach that I have joked that I could literally eat infinite injera for the rest of my life because Ethiopian meals are usually leisurely enough that I’ve started to get hungry again by the time we’re wrapping up the meal – I’m the guy who orders another small entree and another plate full of injera in hour two, or used to until I realized it could be an infinite loop.

A quick Google search for “pancakes make me hungry” yields 14,600 results, but almost all of them are people writing salivating comments on foodies’ Instagrams about how their fresh-made hotcakes are making them yearn to eat. And, as mentioned up top, changing that last word to hungrier yields a phrase that, until Google indexes this post, doesn’t exist on the Internet. Am I the only person in the world that feels this way about pancakes and injera??

It would feel less isolating if it were just a feeling, although part of that is a testament to how we belittle feelings in our society while making the body of paramount concern. But it’s a physical reaction that I can’t control. Granted, my behavior around food is typically unique – no one else agrees with me that food can never be “too dry”, for example – but this is actually just a type of food affecting my physiology in the opposite way it affects everyone else’s. It seems troubling. There should be at least one other person out there who experiences this!

The best explanation I can come up with for this physical reality (remember that I’m not much of a sciencey guy, so if this is laughably wrong, go easy on me) is that these spongy breads are designed to absorb water. Just look at how quickly pancakes drink up any syrup you add to them. And at any given time, because I’m a constant water-drinker, a ton of my stomach’s contents are water. And that water, as water does, gives me an artificially inflated sense of being full. In comes the pancakes/injera and it sops up all the water very quickly, draining my stomach of its normal contents. Enter the panic-hunger.

This process seems to make sense physically and certainly works with the given timelines – it’s not like I’m hungry 5 minutes after eating pancakes. The average time for pancakes is probably about 3 hours or so and injera closer to 2. Which seems like a reasonable time for the given food to travel to the stomach and start soaking up all the water it can find. I’m not sure that explains why the hunger, once the requisite time has passed, is so sudden and so extreme, but it’s the start of a theory. And I guess it explains my uniqueness with this phenomenon – I probably drink more water than most others.

That said, the main impetus for writing this post was to find the other person(s) who feel this way. It is just crazy that no one has imprinted our web with the words “pancakes make me hungrier” until now. Or “injera makes me hungrier” (also unprecedented). Where are you, people? Have you figured out this phenomenon for yourselves? What’s your work-around? Or have you just given up on those foods unless you’re trying to jump wrestling weight-classes?

Inquiring stomachs want to know.

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Moment of Reflection

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

The face of equal opportunity in America.  Courtesy a website apparently doing a documentary of my old workplace, Glide.

The face of equal opportunity in America. Courtesy a website apparently doing a documentary of my old workplace, Glide.

Last night, I had a disquieting and somewhat absurd realization that most people think it’s fine for some people to be rich and other people to be poor. I was struck anew by how difficult I actually find that to believe.

I’m a debater at heart and can defend any proposition if I really need to for the sake of argument. And I know all the arguments and have been through them with people. I’ve been called naive and I’ve dealt with incentive arguments until the cows come home. I’m not sure I really want this post to be about that. Because I think, sometimes, we get lost in the analytical and it takes us away from the profound wrongness of the assumptions so often underlying our society.

It hit me when Alex was talking about a cruise she went on in childhood during a particular time in her upbringing when her family had more access than other times. And I just thought “gee, not everyone gets to go on a cruise when they’re young.” And it seemed obviously, fundamentally unfair. Not necessarily because cruises are the yardstick by which we ought measure a life, but because it’s just one of those things, like getting to go to Disneyland or having enough to eat at home or not being beaten, that is extremely unequally distributed among children. And even you hard-core right-wingers out there will have a hard time arguing that children truly deserve the fate they are born into. That the children of tycoons deserve hundreds of times the upbringing that the children of the homeless do, just for winning the lottery of birth or sharing genetic material with the already successful.

I’m not really trying to elicit an analytical reaction here, because I think that it gets in the way in this instance. Which brings up an interesting paradox, because the longer this post gets, the more our analytical brain takes over and starts opposing the initial thesis and coming up with justifications. Maybe I should just end it now and leave you with the image of a refugee fleeing their home in contrast to an heir lounging by the pool. But somehow even refugees miss the point, because as hard as their lives are, no one builds refugees into the plan. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that we should help refugees and try to prevent their need to flee. But it seems not so with poor kids. We’ve deliberately designed our society to generate poor kids.

It’s very popular these days to say “no excuses!” and to trot out examples of the few poor kids who overcome their hardships and make it to the top of the food chain as a demonstration that anyone can overcome any circumstance. But it’s rarer to ask why we have a food chain at all when designing a society. Animals have a food chain, but they lack flush toilets and libraries and the ability, perhaps, to ponder their place in the cosmos and to try to alter it profoundly. Aspiring to a system of incentives based on animal behavior seems too close to being able to justify slavery or endless war or eating one’s fellow person, literally or figuratively, if nature appears to call for it.

Which I think gets to the critique I most often am asked to wrestle with, which is just how radical or “out there” my arguments sound to the average person. The naturalistic fallacy, that what is innately is what ought to be, is still the predominant justification for war, torture, poverty, vast incarceration, and all the other ills plaguing our species. It’s actually a defter and more advanced rendition of the naturalistic fallacy, which is that what is is awfully close to what must be. It actually tends to leave “ought” out of the equation altogether. This is where I get into gradualism vs. radicalism debates with people, because the underlying assumption of most folks seems to be that radicalism is infeasible, so gradualism is just the best we can hope to do.

I find this unsettling because the only things keeping gradualism afloat are the boundaries of these underlying assumptions in the first place. It’s very circular. If one believes that we cannot quickly overhaul our systems to ditch things that reward abhorrent behavior because things will always be that way, then we cement the very mentality that makes it so. People have actually made this argument to fight the abolition of slavery, the equalization of rights for women and minority races, and gay marriage. None of which were achieved by gradualism and all of which represent sea-changes in the order of society for those who were oldest when they were enacted. And yet no one standing in 2015 can really comprehend the depravity of 1850s America and its treatment of all these oppressed groups or could imagine traveling there and putting up with it.

So why is contemplating that same level of change in the next century or so so difficult?

There is a certain hubris to being in the present. We assume that we are the terminal point in human understanding and achievement because we feel so much better than all those who came before us. We revel in the progress we’ve made since 1850, or 1550, and assume that we must be reaching a vanishing point of accomplishment. Because we’ve learned about radical change in history books, we assume those are the only radical changes that were necessary. And, more damningly, because they already happened, those changes feel inevitable. Because they happened, we lose sight of how radical and scary those changes were at the time and we assume they would have always conspired to take place. We feel pride in our institutions, our upbringing, our whereabouts, because this is a natural human bias. And everything in our society inculcates and reinforces this pride, not least of which is the endless stream of politicians telling us that contemporary America is the best that ever has been, that ever will be.

But some people still get to live their whole lives rich and others live their whole lives poor. Some people will suffer and struggle and face every possible obstacle, while others have advantages at every level of access and freedom. And all of this simply because of the design of our society, because we have chosen to structure the rules this way. How is this possibly a thing?

If you’re arguing against me right now, with something about natural order or the need for incentives, or the way things have been done or life being cold and cruel and unfair, that’s fine. But ask yourself if the same argument(s) could be used to justify slavery in 1850. Ask yourself if the same argument(s) could be used to justify feudalism, or divine-right monarchy, or the practice of pillaging and enslaving a conquered society. Ask yourself if the underlying assumptions you apply to 2015 were applied to generate imperialism. Because I have a funny feeling you will have a very hard time indeed making an argument that doesn’t apply to those past situations. And I bet you find those past states of being to be unthinkably abhorrent.

The only thing keeping us from a world of fairness, equality, and reasonability is ourselves. We imprison our own futures with the walls of “possibility”. We rule out what is morally necessary with the presumption of what is physically doable, not realizing that it is only those assumptive limits that set the parameters of what we can do. If we all decided tomorrow that being poor was simply an unacceptable burden to place on a child, we could implement the steps in society to make it so.

We have made this radical change time and again on so many other policies that seemed like they’d long been obvious as soon as they were finally implemented. Think about what 2150 humans will look back on with disgust and start believing that we can change that in 2016, not 2149.

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In the Ballpark

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

New Orleans has brought me my first-ever NFL game and second- and third-ever NBA games in quick succession (and I have a feeling that, at those ticket prices, we’re going to become Pelicans semi-regulars). But it sadly lacks an MLB team or stadium, though I am excited to check out the AAA team when spring finally arrives in earnest.

But it is March and I just had a mini-debate on Facebook about whether Dodger Stadium is great or just meh (spoiler alert: it’s just meh) and it got me thinking about what the all-time great ballparks are. It also reminded me that I’ve long been meaning to, in one cogent place, compile the list of ballparks I’ve been to for a baseball game, in part to construct the to-do list for the next few years (while I’m taking breaks from training to reprise Rim to Rim to Rim). Though I think I somehow managed to never see one in San Diego despite all the visits to see Fish during his college days, and I overtly skipped my planned trip to Busch in St. Louis to play a poker tournament instead, back in 2011 on the verge of my personal poker revival. It’s hard to be interested in so many things.

I’ve also decided to leave AAA stadiums (and lower) out for now because I think it muddies the waters and makes comparisons more difficult.

BAL1. Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Baltimore Orioles – Baltimore, Maryland
It’s not my favorite team, though it’s up there, but I don’t think anyone’s quite been able to top the original revival of retro-style ballparks. The Warehouse is just magnificent. The skyline is awesome and every seat in the place is great.

SF2. AT&T Park
San Francisco Giants – San Francisco, California
This is a very close second, with the scales possibly tipped by how many times I nearly froze to death in these stands in the early 2000s. The view of the water and the possibility of splash-downs are the highlight here, along with the retro architecture that will dominate the top spots in my list.

SEA3. Safeco Field
Seattle Mariners – Seattle, Washington
Well I wasn’t going to put the home of my favorite team down too far! A classic example of retro style, all the amenities of a top modern ballpark, and the Mariners! Plus the retractable roof is just plain cool, even if you never saw the Kingdome’s falling tiles.

PIT4. PNC Park
Pittsburgh Pirates – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I know this one will surprise a lot of people, but I’m a sucker for skylines. Pittsburgh as a whole is an impressive and surprising city and the Pirates’ gem of a stadium stands out among the reasons. Plus, tickets were amazingly cheap during their endless losing years.

BOS5. Fenway Park
Boston Red Sox – Boston, Massachusetts
Some classic stadiums will not do well on this list, but Fenway, despite its creaks and quirks, really is magical. It’s hard to argue with the Green Monster or the obstruction poles and it just feels like the 1920s in there as soon as you set foot. Fond memories don’t hurt the ranking here either.

DET6. Comerica Park
Detroit Tigers – Detroit, Michigan
Another surprise to many, but so many cool unique features like the huge scoreboard and the old-school runway between the mound and the plate.

PHL7. Citizens Bank Park
Philadelphia Phillies – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Solid retro feel and cool field shape with great scoreboard and light features. Points off, a bit, for being too far from the Philly skyline to really appreciate it. But good use of brick inside and out.

HOU8. Minute Maid Park
Houston Astros – Houston, Texas
It doesn’t hurt that they’ve gone from repping Enron to repping orange juice, but I was really pleasantly surprised by this park and not just because we had 3rd row seats late in the season. Unique feel, the left field wall is awesome, and I personally like the hill in center field – perhaps because I don’t have to play there.

CHC9. Wrigley Field
Chicago Cubs – Chicago, Illinois
I can hear the purists screaming at me, but there’s something to be said for the feel of a park and this one was a little bit off-putting. Maybe it was all the day-drinking Chicagoans. Chicago and I have always had a rocky relationship at best. Points for Ivy and history, of course.

COL10. Coors Field
Colorado Rockies – Denver, Colorado
A very solid middle-of-the-pack entry, with good amenities and a nice overall feel. It’s huge and usually packed, which adds excitement, but there’s no special standout features other than lots of seats.

TEX11. Globe Life Park
Texas Rangers – Arlington, Texas
When I visited, it wasn’t under that name, but I was really impressed by the retro feel of the park and all the classic brickwork outside the stadium (these pictures fail to capture the beauty of the external buildings). But a little overbuilt in center field.

WSH12. Nationals Park
Washington Nationals – Washington, DC
This one may be getting put a bit lower than it should because a lot of its cool features are patriotic and that leaves me a little cold. The Presidents race is awfully fun, but all the stars and stripes are a little much for me at times. Really, Colorado, Texas, and Washington are very similar and interchangeable. Points for metro access, points off for humid heat.

CHW13. US Cellular Field
Chicago White Sox – Chicago, Illinois
I probably would like this stadium more if it weren’t in Chicago and weren’t named after a cellphone company. We’re allowed our biases in lists like this. I do like the lights a lot.

ANA14. Angel Stadium of Anaheim
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – Anaheim, California
Now we start to turn the corner into subpar parks, and not just because they insist on superfluously adding “of Anaheim” to everything like some weird civic brochure. The random rock structure in left-center just doesn’t do it for me. There’s no skyline because suburban LA. And the years of rivalry with the Angels don’t help anything for me either.

LAD15. Dodger Stadium
Los Angeles Dodgers – Los Angeles, California
Ah, the park that started the whole debate. Samburg’s friend said it felt like stepping into the sixties to visit and that’s exactly why it’s so low on my list. The 60s were the era when America took a hacksaw to architecture and stadium aesthetics. It’s a monument to concrete. There’s nothing actively offensive about this stadium, but nothing particularly good either. Plus, the Dodgers.

FLA16. Pro Player Stadium (defunct)
Florida Marlins – Miami, Florida
This square stadium had really cool ramps on the corners to walk up and down and a bunch of empty red seats to stare at while watching the game. There was really nothing to write home about from debate camp when I went, other than it being kind of amazing that actual Major Leaguers would play in this stadium.

OAK17. O.co Coliseum
Oakland Athletics – Oakland, California
Everything that could be wrong with a baseball stadium. Appalling names that change every other year, concrete on top of concrete, too many seats that obstruct any possible view (and aren’t used anyway). Multi-purpose. Ick.

NYY18. Yankee Stadium
New York Yankees – New York, New York
Is it probably technically a little better than Oakland’s stadium? Yes. Do I care? No. The Yankees play here. And it is in every way the most overrated stadium in baseball history. There is nothing aesthetic or cool about this park and it was modeled on a park that was in no way aesthetic or cool. Why? Just, why? Babe Ruth was good at hitting homers, but not so much at building houses.

MIN19. Metrodome (defunct)
Minnesota Twins – Minneapolis, Minnesota
I love the Twins and hate the Yankees, but even I recognize that a dome belongs on the bottom of any sane list of ballparks. Just look at that turf. Look at it! And the weird blue folded-up seats in right field that haunted home-run highlights of early days of ESPN watching? It’s like they weren’t even trying. The roof was soft and had kind of a billowy effect. That was cool, I guess.

SEAKing20. Kingdome (defunct)
Seattle Mariners – Seattle, Washington
This is hard, because my first-ever Major League game was here, and my second and third, and the team that I adore saved baseball in Seattle in playoff games in this place. But it is, objectively, the worst building to ever host a baseball game in the history of humanity. My Little League field with an all-gravel right field and no fence was a better shrine to baseball.

I’m not quite sure I’d realized I’d been to so many parks, though I need to loop back to the replacement fields in Miami and Minneapolis. I’ve seen 17 of the 30 actives, though, which is a pretty cool fact, and really San Diego and Arizona should be easy to pick up to complete the West. And Atlanta while I’m living in the South, and maybe even Tampa Bay, if only to complete the 20s in this list. I think the one I may most want at this point is Milwaukee, which I toured around when last there, but it wasn’t a game day, so I didn’t really get to see it.

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401(k)’s and IRAs are a Pyramid Scheme

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

Bernie Madoff, after being arrested in 2009.  If only he had called it "saving for retirement!"

Bernie Madoff, after being arrested in 2009. If only he had called it “saving for retirement!”

The stock market is booming! On Wednesday, February 25th, 2015, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at an all-time record-high of 18,224.57 points. This is getting awfully close to triple the March 2009 lows and is, according to all the experts, a sign that the economy is officially Back (TM). It’s also a sign that everyone should always invest all expendable capital in the market because it has a unidirectional future: up!

Right?

Well, as long as people keep buying into the pyramid. Your investment will definitely pay off as long as you can convince five more people behind you to make the same investment. So far, this has been a pretty effective strategy for keeping the empty engine of stock market growth churning and covering up for gaping holes in the economy, like the fact that unemployment is actually over 11%.

But you don’t need to convince anyone to buy into the pyramid! That work is already being handled by the private equity firms that manage your 401(k) and IRA funds, your replacement for savings accounts in the New Economy. They keep using the recent past performance of skyrocketing market growth to convince more and more employers and individuals to ditch silly things like interest in favor of the big-money roller-coaster of US corporate equities. The percentage of individually held assets in these funds is becoming dizzying, especially when measured as a percentage of the total market capitalization of the stock market as a whole. And it can only go up, as long as regularly forced increments of investment continue to be drawn from every working man, woman, and child in the United States.

According to the World Federation of Exchanges (WFE), the total market capitalization of the two major US markets is a little over $26 trillion, a number that no one alive is possibly capable of understanding. The world’s market capitalization is approaching $64 trillion, which, ditto. We can at least pretend to understand the relationship between a number like 26 and a number like 64, so maybe just forget the trillion? I dunno.

Meanwhile, according to the Commerce Department, US asset managers are running about $19 trillion worth of US pension assets, mostly through 401(k)’s and IRAs, though I’m sure there are a smattering of larger pension funds in there as well. Though that number is from the end of 2012, so I’m sure the last two years have seen vast growth in that category. After all, something called the Investment Company Institute put the 2012 figure at $19.9 trillion and the 2013 figure at $23 trillion, a 15.5% increase in one year. So it’s probably much higher by the end of 2014, which is where the $26 trillion market capitalization figure comes from.

Now, granted, not all of that money is invested directly into the US stock market. Some of it goes into the global markets, though a pretty small percentage. Some of it is managed by stodgy old conservatives who put it into negative-savings-rate fixed income funds or the like. We’re not actually to the point of craziness where the entire market is held by pension and retirement funds of one kind or another (at which point the pyramid will be looking mighty unstable indeed). But let’s try to get an estimate of what the percentage really is, a number that no one seems to want to report and has to be extrapolated from various reports.

Here, I made you a chart:

Based on data from the ICI and a couple extrapolations.

Based on data from the ICI and a couple extrapolations.

Please note that the 50% figure for other institutions was just a super-conservative figure I threw together that by all accounts is probably much higher. It’s too hard to scrape together data from individual investments and national, state, and local pension funds and all that extra jazz. It’s also worth noting that the 61% figure is extrapolated from the average between investors in their 60’s (~50%) and investors in their 20’s (~72%) as far as equity holdings, so that number may actually be a bit aggressive. So let’s round this chart down to $15 trillion to be extra-extra conservative.

What was that total US market cap again? $26 trillion?

Again, I know that not all of these equities are US stocks. Some people are buying UK companies or investing in China and Russia. So it’s not actually 58% of the US stock market that’s held by these kinds of funds. Maybe it’s 50%. Maybe it’s 45%. But whatever it is, it’s an unbelievable and unprecedented percentage of total investment in the market that’s been generated by a few wealth managing companies auto-investing into the stock market.

It should be noted that they don’t invest in the stock market because it will have a good return or because stocks are safe or something. They just invest in the stock market because you’re supposed to invest in the market. Which is kind of the definition how pyramid-scheme buying works. You buy something because other people buy it and, as long as everyone unthinkingly follows this mantra, the returns will increase.

The problems here should be obvious. All this investment is not being made by shrewdly calculating people hoping to garner safe and viable investments for their clients, whatever the rhetoric is. At best, it’s blind pyramid-scheme buying and at worst, it’s directly manipulated. There are countless articles all over the Internet about the fact that most hedge funds and money management companies are directly using their clients’ money to serve the interests of the company’s direct investments instead, often ensuring that they profit off the decline of the held accounts. The moral hazard of managing other people’s money is well documented. And then there’s the more common and popular critique of 401k’s as discussed in this Salon article, demonstrating the enormous fees levied for the privilege of dumping your money in the market. At best, they are skimming massive percentages off the top that consume your return; at worst, they are making these charges for the courtesy of squandering and mismanaging your retirement.

One of the only reasons this massive wealth transfer and propping-up of the stock market has been able to be perpetrated is the obsession with destroying interest rates. If interest rates were close to their traditional rate of 5%, stock market returns and their commensurate volatility would not look so attractive. But when most retail banks straight-facedly offer “savings” accounts with interest rates that you need several decimal places to see a number that is not zero and the highest-return online savings are capped at 1%, the desperation of those trying to save becomes quite high. Especially when the inflation number was manipulated to exclude fuel and food costs, or what most people spend most of their money on, as they skyrocketed through most of this decade (admittedly, this trend is now substantially altered with $2/gallon gas, but we don’t know for how long).

And then, of course, you have all the lobbying to move the behemoth government-run pension funds into equities while further deregulating the behavior of the investment bankers running them. This is pretty well chronicled in this Intercept article, further fueling the campaign to prop up the entire market.

Maybe 45%-50% of investment doesn’t sound like a lot. But without it, the Dow Jones would be at 9,000 or 10,000 points right now instead of 18,000. You know, a figure that’s a little bit off the lows, but still nothing like a recovery. Or, in other words, exactly where employment actually is, or where the economy feels like it is to everyone except the top echelons of society. And I know defenders of these practices would point out that all those investors with all this money in the market have made huge sums for their retirement investment in the last few years, as proof of this working. But you know who made tons of money in returns before they suddenly didn’t? Bernie Madoff’s clients.

You may say this is an oversimplification, but I challenge anyone to come up with something that’s behind the rally other than just a vast over-investment of forced stock buys for retirement accounts on the fundamental assumption that The Market Always Goes Up. Yes, some of the balance sheets of these companies have improved by laying off workers, paying workers vastly less, draining more work and hours out of workers, and keeping the supply chain extra-lean. But that’s not why 401(k)’s and IRAs are pouring money into these companies. They’re pouring money into these companies because it’s the theory of how these investments are designed and we have several recent years of inflated return percentages to justify it.

Even if we weren’t comparing things to the 2008 lows, do you really believe that the landscape of the US economy is the best it’s ever been? Do you really believe that corporations are fiscally healthier than ever before? Because that’s what the market is trying to sell you on, conceptually. Even the biggest bulls in the world don’t actually believe that this is true. The pre-crash high of the stock market was 13,895 points, reached in late September of 2007. This figure, as we all now know, was vastly inflated by the housing bubble and irrational exuberance. But the market now tells us that things are 31% better than in 2007. Just stop and think about that for a minute. Admittedly the economy was doing pretty well in the 90s and maybe even part of the 00s, but we all know that the 2007 number was fakely generated by phony investments, mortgage-backed securities, and blind faith in the boom. And stocks are ONE-THIRD HIGHER than they were then?!

People made fun of people for not realizing that there was nothing behind Bernie Madoff’s get-rich-quick investment scheme. And I know, deep down, that there is actually nothing behind money of any kind, that currency (fiat or otherwise) is all a fake belief system that we generate for ourselves. But there are still levels of fabrication. And this one, my friends, is a real whopper.

Bernie Madoff had 162 pages worth of clients, whose losses totaled $65 billion. That’s a lot of money, but it’s $0.065 trillion. The exposure to retirement investment accounts in the US alone is $26 trillion (exactly 400 times the Madoff investments) and covers pretty much everybody. I don’t think many of you reading this out there fail to have one of these accounts in some form or another.

After all, the people will more easily fall for a big lie than a small one.

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Rim to Rim to Rim Revisited

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

With all the pictures I've taken of the Grand Canyon over my many visits, it's kind of criminal that I had to borrow one for this post.  But they're all on the other computer and I have to get to work soon.  Thanks Mike Buchheit and the Grand Canyon Association!

With all the pictures I’ve taken of the Grand Canyon over my many visits, it’s kind of criminal that I had to borrow one for this post. But they’re all on the other computer and I have to get to work soon. Thanks Mike Buchheit and the Grand Canyon Association!

When I was in college, one of my closest college friends, Stina, spent the summer of 2000 working at a cafeteria in the Grand Canyon. It’s one of those quirky little facts of American life that you might not think about that college students from all over the country (and beyond!) migrate to the National Parks each summer for low paying service jobs in beautiful settings. Attendance at the NPs explodes over the summer and the cafeterias, restaurants, and lodges need all the help they can get keeping up. And the big perk is getting to live and play in the midst of what have been designated as the country’s best natural wonders.

The living part was a big fascination for me when she first announced this plan, since I’d long grown up with the notion that no one was allowed to live in National Parks. It’s one of those slight oversimplifications of childhood that really sticks in one’s mind – there were a few particular facts my parents told me in very early childhood that had a powerful impact on my thought processes. I remember that they explained the Soviet Union to me by saying that the government didn’t allow people to move if they wanted to. It’s funny that our family was so itinerant that this struck me as a draconian regulation, the disallowance of someone moving across the country. They did say move both within the country and to leave it, and this was most of what they said about the USSR. That and to point out that Communists were not nearly the “enemy” that Reagan made them out to be.

I think the National Park living fact, like this other fact about where you can move, stuck in my head because I so desperately wanted to move to a National Park after first visiting one. The first was probably Sequoia National Park, or King’s Canyon (the two share a long border and function as the same park, even more than the proximate Yellowstone and Grand Tetons), when I was a young child in nearby Visalia, California. Indeed, I may have even forgotten that I somehow prompted the fact of not being able to live in a National Park by asking my parents point-blank if we could move there. Thus began a childhood obsession with hiking and camping, the latter of which became a bit of a white whale for my upbringing – my parents were just not into camping. But we did go hiking a bunch, and in a National Park whenever possible.

You can imagine my fixation, though, when Stina told me she was going to live in a National Park, if only for a couple months and only in a dorm that made Brandeisian accommodations look spacious (that was the rumor; the dorms in the Grand Canyon turned out to be much nicer than ‘Deis). I think I argued with her that this wasn’t possible and she would have to live just outside of it and it wasn’t until she pointed out that her parents had done the same thing with one of their summers that I deferred to her understanding of the situation and realized that information gleaned when I was five years old may have been slightly oversimplified. Given that I was spending the summer in Albuquerque and (as it turned out) without a consistent summer job, the opportunity to visit and stay in the Grand Canyon for periodic stretches opened up before me.

The Grand Canyon is a roughly 8-hour drive from Albuquerque – or exactly the kind of distance that feels like a reasonable jaunt to a Westerner and something you might as well fly for instead to an Easterner (by and large – I know there are exceptions to these regional archetypes). The first time I went to visit, I did have perhaps my closest near-death experience in a vehicle, wherein I fell asleep in hour 6 (not dozed, but just full-on lost consciousness) and startled awake 30-60 seconds later squarely placed in the opposite fast lane. I think someone’s honking woke me up. I have rarely been so terrified, but I immediately realized that I couldn’t just swerve back into the neighboring lane and I actually put on my turn signal and checked my blindspot before crossing back over the double-yellow to return to the appropriate fast lane for my direction of travel. But then I was there, harrowed a bit, but present in one of the most glorious landmarks known to Earth, and then in its possibly most run-down cafeteria, where Stina was dishing out portions of standard-issue food to fascinated tourists from all over the globe.

I took either two or three trips out there that season, but the big one was to join Stina and several of her co-worker friends on a trip through the heart of the Canyon and back again, going Rim to Rim to Rim. If you haven’t spent a lot of time in the Grand Canyon, and especially if you’ve never been, you may not realize the exact size and scope of the place. It’s 271 miles long, end to end, and 18 miles wide in some places. There’s roughly a mile of elevation difference between the top of the Canyon and the bottom; 1,000 feet more if you’re counting from the North Rim. The South Rim and North Rim are so disparate as to have almost entirely separate climates. The South is high desert; the North feels almost Alpine, covered with evergreens and, in winter, a thick blanket of snow. The bottom of the Canyon is a convection oven, especially in summer, relieved only by the refreshing ribbon of the Colorado river that snakes through the chasm and continues to shape it after millions of years of work.

I could write about the Canyon forever, as I could probably describe the play-by-play of that trip forever. Going Rim to Rim to Rim entails starting at the top of the South Rim, hiking into the Canyon and all the way to the bottom, riverside, then crossing the river and starting up the side of the North Rim, hitting the top of that, and then making the return journey. It’s even crazier than it sounds. The total mileage covered is about 50 overland, but you’re also covering four miles of elevation change and almost none of the journey is flat land. I think all seven of us who made this particular trip together had serious misgivings about our own physical fitness for such an adventure. My knee started having problems on the second day and I made the rest of the journey with a jerry-rigged ace bandage, often described by the rest of the party as looking like a wounded veteran. I had opted out of the communal food plan the other six were sharing, partially because I’m a vegetarian but mostly because I’m me and don’t like most food. I had unwisely opted to bring a block of cheese in my backpack, among other edibles, which had the seriously nasty habit of melting during the day and reforming at night, giving it that leftover-quesadilla consistency at all times. It was, after all, late July, probably the hottest time of the year.

Did I not mention the weather yet? It was 120 degrees in the base of the Canyon. You couldn’t really hike during the day at all and we scheduled most all the hiking for overnight or the first few hours of daylight before the sun got too hot. The trip started at the literal crack of dawn, not counting the 45-minute pre-dawn bus ride to the jumping-off point. The only time in my life I’ve ever been too hot to sleep was during that fist day in the base of the Canyon, hanging around Phantom Ranch when it was about 121 out, and half of us decided to go nap half-submerged in a nearby creek. Our only real daytime hiking was the last leg, trekking back up the South Rim, when we were too exhausted and done with the trip to care and would stop at every mile-house on the way up to remove our shirts, soak them in water, and throw them back on wet. They’d evaporate to bone dry in about 10 minutes.

You can read my first-hand accounting of the trip here, but it doesn’t really do it justice. I was four months into blogging and the lens I used for everything was my tumultuous emotional state (I know, what’s changed, right?). Though the mood swings then were perhaps slightly more justified by the incredible power of the journey. The camaraderie and brief conflicts of sharing a Hobbit-like adventure across a gorgeous landscape, the way the Canyon changes every five minutes and every twenty feet, offering a new perspective from every angle and depth and time of day. The stress of putting one’s body through its hardest paces, not really knowing if you will have to be airlifted out of there on an embarrassing helicopter because you bit off more than you could chew. The scorpions. I got over my fear of scorpions there, because you had to, because they were all over, especially at night, and sometimes you just had to go to sleep on the trail, with a 500 foot drop on one side and scorps on the other and you just couldn’t care anymore.

In the full light of memory, this trip has become legendary. But I kind of think it was legendary in a lot of ways. I have consistently described it as the hardest physical thing I have ever done, and one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, and I stand by those statements. As a general rule, I don’t put a lot of stock in the physical or the athletic, baseball fandom aside, but this was a place where my body and I really converged on the same goals. I was in the best shape of my life for that trip. It was breathtaking and amazing and unforgettable.

I want to do it again.

No, I’m serious.

I heard on the radio yesterday that it was the 96th anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park. Set aside only in 1919 for preservation (I guess it was a National Monument 11 years prior), GCNP is looking forward to its 100th birthday in four short years. And the year after that, it’ll be the 20th anniversary of my own Rim to Rim to Rim journey.

Sometime in that window, between February 26, 2019 and July 2020, I want to go back and do the trip over. I am throwing down. I want to be someone who is capable of doing that at 40 and does it and lives to tell the tale.

You can keep your marathons and your running for running’s sake. Those are great. Whatever goal you want to set for yourself is awesome. I just want my fitness goal to be in the most beautiful place yet discovered by human beings.

This goal is about a lot of things for me. It’s about acceptance of being someone who is going to be around for a while (more on this in another post). It’s about the holy stature of the Grand Canyon in my world. It’s about being 160 pounds at age 35, up 33% from where I was at age 30 (though, granted, 120 was unhealthy too for all kinds of reasons at the time). It’s about needing a specific, measurable goal for efforts to combat aging and weight-gain and all the things that hit Americans in their 30s.

And it’s about recruiting. I want you to join me. I’m setting this goal way way way in the future so we can plan together, if you’re interested. So we can get the vacation time and you can train too and we can all go together when we go. For most of you who might consider this, it’ll be the first time and I promise it will be one of the best things you’ll ever do. But I’m more than open to a reunion tour with anyone who went with me the first time, or anyone who went on their own.

Who’s with me?!

My unbelievably grainy scan of the mid-trip photo of our Rim to Rim to Rim journey in 2000.  Taken atop the North Kaibab Trail.  Left to right: Stina, Andrea, myself, Sarah, Patricia, Chris, and Marketa.

My unbelievably grainy scan of the mid-trip photo of our Rim to Rim to Rim journey in 2000. Taken atop the North Kaibab Trail. Left to right: Stina, Andrea, myself, Sarah, Patricia, Chris, and Marketa.

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For the Love of the Train

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , , ,

The St. Charles line at night.

The St. Charles line at night.

I took the streetcar home yesterday. I don’t always take the streetcar to and from work, like I did with BART when I worked at Glide in San Francisco. I often take the car, dropping Alex off on the way, so I can use the car at work as I attend trainings and workshops and will eventually have more donor meetings and school visits. The car that badly needs a wheel alignment from its brutal encounters with the streets of New Orleans, streets that I’ve compared to San Francisco after consecutive 7.0+ earthquakes. The wheels of the streetcar are permanently, perfectly aligned.

The streetcar rolls down the neutral ground of St. Charles Avenue, the big broad host to many of the Mardi Gras parades, a street adorned with gaslamp-lit hotel entrances and stately homes that could be hotels and libraries that used to be stately homes. Neutral ground is what we call “medians” here in New Orleans, a special designation indicating both the substantial size of most of our medians and their particular Commonsy role in the social order here. People hang out on the neutral ground, especially during parade season, where lawn chairs and boxtop ladders and every height of seat in between litter the St. Charles midsection, making streetcar progress, like most progress in the city during that time, impossible. Why take the streetcar when you have a float?

But it’s post-Mardi Gras in New Orleans this week, time for reflecting and taking stock, cleaning up and bundling up. It was about 40 degrees last night, and awfully windy, when I stepped off the red Canal Street line that cruises down from my work and into the heart of the city, crossing the intersection to Canal and Carondelet to wait for the outbound green St. Charles line to take me home.

It is my home, for what it’s worth, at this point in my life. People at poker tables or work or wherever always ask me where I’m from and Alex makes fun of me for giving a complicated answer. I don’t always run people through the rigmarole of each sequential city off the bat, but I often end up there when people can’t reconcile being “from the West” but having “just moved from New Jersey”. I inevitably end up at stats like having visited 48 states or the substantial time (4+ years) in five of them and the incredulity isn’t aided by the fact that many people assume I’m a bit younger than I am when they look at me (it has to be the hair… and maybe the genetics from my parents, wherein no one could believe my mother was retirement age when she retired, or my father getting carded for a drink at dinner about a decade ago). Alex thinks it’s too much information. But I’m also the guy who gives a real and sometimes quite extensive answer to “How are you?” so somehow just picking one of the last 3.5 decades worth of places doesn’t seem to cut it.

In part because of moments like last night at the train. Because I stood there, shivering, acknowledging the likewise chilled people who approached the little yellow CAR STOP sign on the corner, and just looking around. Trying to center myself, trying to bank this moment for the memories and internalize what it feels like to be newly 35 in a new city again, anticipating a ride on my current favorite mode of transportation. And I glanced across the road, over the four lanes and two neutral-grounded sets of streetcar tracks of Canal, and realized again I was standing at the magical transformation point where Carondelet discards its inhibitions and becomes Bourbon Street, officially entering the French Quarter. And I felt the rumbling echo of early mornings emerging from Powell Street Station in San Francisco, quick-stepping past the iconic cable car turnaround as two directions of Rice-a-Roni vehicles floated on the hill-climbing tracks in the half-sun light. The echo was resonant, powerful. I have had the good fortune to log serious time in some of the Great Places of this country, perhaps of the world. Meaningful, significant places, pilgrimage destinations, and the epicenters of perhaps the only two remaining streetcar systems of significance within these fifty states. And while the Powell Street trek up to the Wharf was never part of my commute and I only rode it maybe five times in seven years in the Bay Area, the crowds of revelers snapping iPhone photos as the turntable spun their car around never got old.

I may get old at this point. More and more, I face that somewhat surprising possibility. All I can ask for are trains to ride to take me to the next stop, the next landmark destination, the next beautiful and historical Place. For now, it’s on the neutral ground, and that’s way better than neutral.

The Powell Street turntable.

The Powell Street turntable.

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The Unexpected Virtue of Mardi Gras

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: ,

Who is that masked man?

Who is that masked man?

I’ve been trying to explain to people all week what I loved so much about Mardi Gras. For those who were here, or have been here, the explanation works a little better. I am here attempting to distill an explanation, obviously, that works better for a wider audience, that can convey to you – since you probably were not here and quite possibly have never been here – what made Mardi Gras so unexpectedly special. It’s a bit like trying to explain to Alex (who is here and was here) what I like so much about New Orleans. It defies the easy and effable assumptions.

It should be clarified that when I say “Mardi Gras”, I don’t mean that Tuesday that falls before Ash Wednesday, marking the last joyous day before forty long days of Lent. I mean the entire season that culminates in that day in the city of New Orleans and its surrounding environs. It was one of my many flawed assumptions, commonly held misconceptions even, that Mardi Gras is basically just one big glorious blowout day before Lent settles in. It’s really a mini-season running from Twelfth Night (that number of days after Christmas) to Mardi Gras day itself, an age littered with parades, beads, king cake, and revelry of all sorts. I have never seen, with the possible exception of my parents’ neighborhood on Christmas Eve for luminarias in Albuquerque, a city get so decked out and so fully embrace a holiday as New Orleans does for the Mardi Gras season. There are flags, lights, bunting, banners, signs, and the participation rate in this decor is extremely high. It put Christmas to shame, and Christmas was well-embraced for a city that functionally (my header graphic aside) never sees snow.

And dinosaurs!

And dinosaurs!

The next flawed assumption about Mardi Gras is that the receipt of beads is some sort of exchange for lascivious behavior. There are places where this transaction still takes place, or place really, namely Bourbon street, where affection-starved men will fling beads off their overpriced balcony to briefly bare-breasted women below. And it’s possible that the roots of all bead-throwing rituals are in this kind of overtly chauvinistic power-structure. But much as we can have gay marriage and equal marriages in today’s society despite the heritage of quasi-chattel slavery marriages, bead-throwing at Mardi Gras is quite equal-opportunity, with the scales slightly tilted in favor of children. Especially those who are trundled up to these ladder contraptions with makeshift wooden car-seat boxes atop, a wooden pole belting them in to assure that they don’t spill out and over as they reach ten young digits for the next strand of airborne color. Usually these are backed by increasingly exhausted parents, disproportionately mothers, who do most of the actual catching, as well as the bagging of various beads, stuffed animals, glowy ornaments, sports equipment, and plastic-but-metal-sounding coins that stream through the air.

There is a lot I could conceivably object to about this practice, to take care of the counter-arguments up front. There is certainly a materialistic core to the event that made me uncomfortable at times. It is possible to step back from the event and see a metaphor for the nation itself – thousands of adoring supplicants charging the gilded chariots of those with all the power/money/prestige, begging for worthless trinkets with perceived value. There are sometimes even echoes of the concentration camp guard flinging bread to prisoners when a particularly taunting float-rider will stingily toss one or two strands into a scrum. None of this is aided by the fact that it is common practice for those in a “krewe” (yes, note the replacement of a traditional C with a K already) to hide their identity, making many of the outfits and especially headgear a little too reminiscent of the Klan, especially when the chosen color is white. And it is hard to ignore the environmental impact of literally millions of strands of plastic beads being manufactured for the sole purpose of this ode to trinketry. Especially when the remains of any given parade literally litter the streets as crowds disperse, mixed with spilled alcohol, peanut shells, plastic cups, and broken glass. Hundreds of glittering strands of broken beads await the cleanup crew to sweep them into the trash so the next march can commence.

There had to be a better way they could design this outfit, no?

There had to be a better way they could design this outfit, no?

I’ve made quite a case for it, huh?

But the event of Mardi Gras itself, both within an individual parade and across the entire duration of the collective festivities, a real sense of innocence, wonder, and joy pervade. There is a lingering ostensible justification of the Lenten restraint to follow, but this inspiration has empirically diminished or possibly crumbled. In its wake, the sheer revelry for the sake of revelry reigns supreme, as best embodied by children who have no need to question or analyze a celebration. It’s also worth noting that many of these children are growing up in substandard socioeconomic circumstances and a vast quantity of the throws from various floats are toys or stuffed animals of one kind or another. I witnessed some kids receiving a modest Christmas’ worth of playthings at a single parade … and there are about forty parades. As much as we can cast a materialistic lens on this happening, there was also a fair sense of Robin Hood in the air, but a more Scroogeian Robin Hood or even better, the kind of taking from the rich that is, indeed, the rich’s own idea.

Secret societies afloat aside, there was also an incredible sense of community camaraderie on the sidelines of each of these parades. Granted that there was some drunken insanity closer to Canal Street, but posting up nearer our apartment around Napoleon & St. Charles or even down by Poydras and St. Charles in the downtown district, a family atmosphere dominated. Class distinctions of all kinds evaporated as tourists and locals mingled across all ages and sects to vie for the multitude flying off each float. There were a couple overly competitive people, mostly hailing from the Northeast, who grabbed and snatched and ripped things from one’s hands, but almost everyone was smiling, laughing, and quick to let go a strand that garnered mutual attachment. When the average person seemed to get about 25 strands of beads, plus assorted cups and goodies, from each individual parade (and there were often 2-3 in a row), there was more than enough to go around.

I also learned recently that the roots of much of the Mardi Gras regalia are Russian in nature, only increasing my visceral positive associations with the ongoing event. While the Catholic traditions brought by the French and Spanish started Mardi Gras celebrations in the 18th century in New Orleans, it wasn’t until the 1872 arrival of a Romanov Grand Duke that Mardi Gras had a “Rex” – the presiding king of Carnival, who also bestowed the Russian royal family’s crowning colors of purple, gold, and green on the event.

All of these seem like minor, technical reasons for falling in love with the holiday so robust that most everyone gets 3-5 days off work and the entire city shuts down. And, like snow days and a few other holidays or events, shutting a city down itself is a cause to enjoy a phenomenon, taking everyone outside their workaday perspectives and into the streets to bond and unite and see the world anew. There is something deeper than all this, something beyond the primal competitiveness that is stoked by vying for colorful beads and even beyond the simple joy of watching people dance with fire, dance in costume, dance along to the drum twice their size that they beat in tempo.

I think it has to do with magic.

Panorama pictures just end up small when you put them on the web.

Panorama pictures just end up small when you put them on the web.

New Orleans is one of the few places in America that carries a deep, spiritual sense with it. It is perhaps the only major city to have this distinction. When I visited India, the entire country and even more of bordering Nepal seemed utterly drenched with symbolism, spirituality, deeper meaning, and even magic. I’m sure I’m losing some readers with this rhetoric, but I can only say that some places feel like there is something deeper going on and some don’t. If you’ve seen Eddie Izzard, his discussion of Stonehenge’s location speaks to this a bit – he illustrates how Stonehenge is built on an eerie windswept plain, whereas Manhattan could never host something like that. Well, here, from the transcript of “Dress to Kill”:

“But they built Stonehenge, and it’s built in an area called Salisbury Plain in the South of England. The area of Salisbury Plain where they built it is very ( eerie chanting ), ’cause that’s good, you know. It’s a mystical thing; build it in a mystical area. You don’t want to build it in an area that’s ( singing upbeat jazzy tune ). No, there you build Trump Tower.”

If you’re not an Izzard fan or you’re just not going to use a comedian as evidence for the variable nature of physical locations’ spiritual properties, perhaps you can imagine yourself in a graveyard or at the Wailing Wall. I’ve never been, but it seems obvious to me that most of the Arabian Peninsula and especially its western portions are similar to India, just embedded with a sense of Purpose and Depth. It’s hard to imagine people fighting so hard over the city of Jerusalem without this reinforcing sense of its importance beyond just reading the books that say so. And domestically, it’s pretty much just New Mexico and New Orleans that achieve that for me, that trips my radar in the same way. And some National Parks, I guess, notably the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. My contention is that there just are some innately holy places in the world, charged with significance of a more ethereal nature. And New Orleans is one of them.

So when you take a holy place, dress it up in a unique combination of colors, stream color across every tree and branch and spare bit of fence, dress everyone up, and shut the city down, you get an alchemy that is greater than the whole of its analyzable parts. Yes, you get some craziness and drunkenness and people who take it too far or in an obnoxious direction. But you also get the unbridled wonder of children and tourists and first-timers reveling in the sheer scale and size of the alligators lumbering down the city streets, the poles aflame with live fire, the largess bestowed upon the joyous crowd.

See the person jumping in the lower-right for scale.

See the person jumping in the lower-right for scale.

There’s probably a bit of the costumery, mysticism, decoration, and kindness of strangers of Halloween thrown in there too. Indeed, much of my strong gut favoritism to Mardi Gras may just be that it’s all a repackaging of Halloween in slightly fancier dress. And in February. When it’s alternately 35 and 75 out, as it was at the beginning of different parades this month. A little testament to the instability of a haunted land that could be washed away in an instant, with a spirit that lives forever.

Yeah, it's a little like Halloween.

Yeah, it’s a little like Halloween.

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The Sound of Silence

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: ,

The cemetery kitty-corner from our house in New Orleans, in the fog, two days ago.

The cemetery kitty-corner from our house in New Orleans, in the fog, two days ago.

One of the great challenges of the modern age is finding sufficient solitude.

By “modern age”, of course, I don’t mean the 1950s, which I guess took hold of that term a while back and didn’t let go. I mean now, a time I sometimes call “contemporary” as pretty much the only word that I can use to rigidly refer to this one. And by “solitude”, I don’t necessarily really even mean being alone, even though that’s what the word means. I mean a deeper, more peaceful quiet, the ability to be alone with one’s thoughts, even in the midst of a variety of other humans. What I mean to say, I suppose, is that it’s hard to be bored these days. Or at least find a place to be quiet.

Boredom and quiet are not typical byproducts of the current Western societies which pride themselves on their smartphone technology, infinite navigability, and instant gratification. Boredom and quiet are the obvious enemies, to be paved over with walls of distraction and sound at every opportunity. Listening to nothing is missing the opportunity to be listening to the latest hit single by your new favorite band. Not having anything to do is unthinkable on face, but if it can be imagined, is to be replaced by getting the updates on what millions of people you care about, whether you know them or not, are doing at this very moment. Lord knows they aren’t bored, and if they are, they are certainly feigning otherwise on a social media outlet of choice.

I’m not above this fray entirely, of course, though I adamantly swear by my decision to avoid smartphones and, given the way a recent NPR piece on their use sounded, would probably choose to give up cell-phones altogether if smartphones somehow became my only option. Even now, you may be reading this blog post on a smartphone and have come here via a link thereon that I posted to social media in the hopes that you would catch it right there, now, in real time. To which I can only offer my opposition to the whole circumstance as a defense, that the technology sometimes must be used as its only effective undoing, perhaps. After all, Republicans still seek government office to undermine the power of government. One would imagine that an anti-literacy campaign might still use written words to spread the message of their initial organization. Or that those who seek to undermine the role of money must still spend it until then.

But I often find myself wishing I could be more bored than I am, and certainly in an environment more quiet. It’s not that I long for the 8-hour wait at Harry Potter World, exactly – while I found that experience instructive, it was well more than too much of a good thing to regularly seek. But I basically have found that NPR’s conclusions about the benefits of boredom come true. As I noted in June 2013, “Boredom is essential to the writing process… You need to force yourself to be bored enough to be truly creative.” As the piece describes, the mind will only be pushed to real creativity, really interesting stuff, if it has to amuse itself beyond the readily available and accessible amusements. If there is sufficient distraction, then why rise above it? If there is no distraction, we will create it, and it may be the most interesting idea, concept, or whimsy yet.

I think this is why I have done some of my best thinking, from creative development to more concrete problem-solving, in the shower. There is something to be said for being in a place that’s comfortable and for the soothing de-stressing nature of warm water. But most of it is just that this is one of the most rote and dull processes of the day, while also managing to not be distractingly unpleasant. Many things can be extra-distracting even if boring and thus undermine the value that boredom can offer, much like the extra bloodflow of a migraine loses any beneficial effects by triggering painful nerves with the swollen veins: the pain overrides the added blood, neutralizing and even negating it. But the shower is not particularly chore-like or unpleasant, thus creating that perfect blend of boredom and thoughtlessness that creates real, interesting thoughts.

The other ingredient necessary for this kind of insight, at least for me, is silence. Or at least the absence of specific, comprehensible noise, which is actually not the same thing at all. There are many dins that create the functional equivalent of silence in terms of lacking any discernible sound that creates a linguistic or musical experience that distracts the mind from wandering, be it into a book, a piece of writing, or mere reverie toward creative groundwork. A coffee shop may offer a sufficient balance of neighboring conversations such that they create an overall hubbub that sounds more like white noise than like language and this is nearly as good as real quiet. A train station’s crowded echoes, at least in a really authentic glorious station (think Philadelphia’s 30th Street, LA’s Union, NY’s Grand Central, that kind of thing) will offer the same effect. But outside these rare exceptional circumstances, and perhaps libraries, this silence or mix of noise that cancels to simulate it is confoundingly hard to come by.

Music is a huge culprit. There are almost no public buildings that fail to play some kind of music and, increasingly, it is both loud and has words. A remarkable number of otherwise abandoned coffee shops are inhospitable to reading and writing for their unending chorus of worded music which competes for and, for me, overrides any attention being offered to rival words. There are many decent reasons for playing music in such venues, I suppose, like making the day go faster for the employees or offering patrons an environment that reminds them of high school or their hipster friend, but it seems like someone could make a fortune by being “the quiet coffee shop” as a place conducive both to quiet conversation and the reading and writing that people, in one era, most closely associated with the establishments.

Indeed, even bookstores, such as they still exist, are increasingly being invaded by music. To say nothing of restaurants, cafes, and other establishments even less traditionally associated with quiet than coffee shops and bookstores. Libraries remain a rare bastion of silence, though their inhospitability to other things, like food and drink, makes them limited candidates for long reading, writing, and/or thinking sessions. I guess I must be an outlier in my wishes, since everyone seems to be adopting music as a universal soundtrack to indoor existence, but is it possible that we’re just not thinking that deeply about this invasion? Or is no one else so impacted as I am?

After all, most of my generation has supposedly grown up doing homework with the television and radio (or other music device) on simultaneously and competing for attention. I have witnessed peers be able to hold conversations or focus on work of various kinds while so much audible and discernible dialogue distracts me to the point of, well, distraction. So perhaps I’m just a particularly bad auditory multi-tasker, something akin to my generally slow reading (at least for an avid reader), someone for whom words are such a centerpiece that there can only be one viable set of them at a time. But, like the NPR piece on boredom suggests, maybe it’s not that I’m the only one who wants silence. Maybe no one is really thinking about the loss of silence as something we should be guarding against in the first place.

The only place where I can really see (or hear of, more accurately for a couple reasons) this battle being fought is in transportation, where the much-discussed Quiet Car has been created on various Amtrak routes and imitated by other train lines, at least in the northeast. This is a key feature of many trains that aims for the purest form of silence, since, after all, it’s pretty hard to enforce the mixed hubbub that would result from just the right number of conversations. The main target of the Quiet Car seems to be cell-phone conversations, but loud music is surely also shunted away from this purported ambassador of peace. No wonder I often deeply miss my train commute in the Bay Area on BART or even excitedly anticipate a possible streetcar commute in my newest city. While I spent and would spend most of that time reading, it’s at least a refuge from the unending assault of music and other noise on my concentration.

It is hard to read that above sentence without feeling like a bit of a curmudgeon. There is a bit of “get off my lawn” about calling for silence in any venue, perhaps more so if I irritably claim it is “for your own good”. And yet I fear for a generation raised without silence at all, where quiet and its cousin boredom are stamped out like the last of a nasty virus whose loss no one will mourn. Yes, I suppose, we can always create these things in our own homes, filling it with as much noise or as little as we wish. But I think there is something about the collective environments and surprises of the realms outside the home that make silence and even boredom there far more salient than that cultivated in the house.

At least in New Orleans, there is no shortage of such places outdoors. The cemeteries with their various decaying dead keeping watch above ground, the duck-strewn parks of trees and green, the resting neighborhoods with their tales of history, water, success, and woe. Even the ghosts in these places sometimes respect the silence, content to haunt one’s thoughts peacefully, despite stirring the mind within.

Now if only I can convince some of the coffee shops to follow suit.

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Labor Force Participation Rates Falling Twice as Fast as Predicted

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

Contrary to what you might imagine about the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and its record-keeping on the purported unemployment situation, they are fairly aware of the impact of the crashing labor force participation rate on the overall employment picture. And contrary to the joyous daze caused in most of the media by pronouncements that the unemployment rate is at a 6.5-year low of 5.6%, BLS even seems to realize that the labor force participation rate is going to continue to fall. More and more media outlets are picking up sour notes about the absurdly low-seeming unemployment rate and how it mostly reflects workers fleeing (or never entering) the labor force, rather than actually, y’know, getting jobs. Indeed, they have done reports on this very issue.

To channel Condoleezza Rice at a hearing here, I believe the report was titled Labor force projections to 2022: the labor force participation rate continues to fall.

Written in December 2013, the report makes the dire prediction that the labor force will plummet to 61.6% by the end of 2022. This number, of course, would be an over 2% drop from the attributed end of 2012 rate of 63.7% and continue to distort the unemployment figure drastically. Because not only are those 2% of the overall population people who would normally be counted toward unemployment, but unemployment uses the labor force as its denominator, meaning that the percentage of people with jobs looks higher because it is a percentage of the labor force, not the overall population. And if we keep excluding more and more jobless individuals from the labor force to begin with, the proportion of those with jobs in the remaining smaller section of the population will rise. When really those 2% of the populous should be counted as being in both the numerator and denominator, swelling the rolls of the unemployed drastically.

How drastically? By 108% last month alone, as I’ve reported. At least if we count all the people who’ve left or failed to enter the labor force since the advent of the so-called Great Recession.

61.6% certainly sounds bad, but similarly, 2022 sounds like a long time from now. A really long time from now. So how accurate is that prediction?

Well, we’re already halfway there. It’s been two years since the predicted starting point for that decade-long trajectory and labor force participation stands at a 36-year-low of 62.7%. We’ve dropped 1.0 points out of a total of 2.1 points in the predicted 10-year fall, in just a fifth of the time.

So I ran some numbers and graphs to see what kind of pace we’re on:

Labor Force Participation, 2013-2014.

Labor Force Participation, 2013-2014.

Looks bad, but a little up-and-down. Let’s put a trend-line on that:

Labor Force Participation, 2013-2014, with trend-line.

Labor Force Participation, 2013-2014, with trend-line.

Now we can clearly see through the noise that there’s a steady pace of decline, that the general direction is down and what that rate is likely to be. So when do we hit 61.6%?

Labor Force Participation, with projected trend-line through June 2017.

Labor Force Participation, with projected trend-line through June 2017.

Roughly June 2017. Which is, uh, five and a half years before December 2022. Or a bit over twice as fast as predicted. 2.22 times as fast, if we’re being technical about it. But hey, give them the extra 0.22 times as margin of error, just in case my prediction is somehow too speedy.

Now, yes, their prediction algorithm is certainly more statistically sophisticated than my little trend-line. As they note at the end of their report, “In order to carry out its projections, BLS analyzes and projects the labor force participation rates of 136 different groups, including the two genders, 17 age groups, and four race and ethnicity categories.” I just used the overall population and ran with it, even though I probably have the tools to do a decently robust age analysis after what I put together a couple months ago.

But here’s the thing – I really don’t think they would have predicted it would take just two years to get to 62.7% and then another eight to get down to 61.6%. Or if they did, it feels like that decision was driven by irrationally exuberant optimism. The fact is that the employment picture has stymied every optimistic prediction, save for those of people unsophisticated enough to not look beyond the headline-published number and its allegedly precipitous decline. Unemployment is actually over 11.5%, not below 6%. We’ve just conveniently sidestepped reality by benefiting from a number that encourages people to be discouraged and leave the labor force entirely. And when BLS itself recognizes that this trend will continue, but seems too cautious in their ten-year projection, it feels like we should just stop talking about a recovery already. Or at least one that helps those below the very top shelf of our self-imposed economic structures.


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):
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age 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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Fire in a Crowded Theater

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

This, I predict, will be an unpopular post.

Yelling "fire!" into this microphone:  not free speech.

Yelling “fire!” into this microphone: not free speech.

Few events in recent memory have brought such universal calls of immediate condemnation as Wednesday’s massacre of cartoonists and staff from the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. As a pacifist, I join the world in condemning these horrible acts of violence and murder.

It is worth noting that the fact that people feel the need to open their articles and reflections on this event with such condemnation despite its universal obviousness speaks to a certain widely felt paranoia in the realm of journalism, blogging, and writing of all sorts. The presumption seems to be that anyone who would offer any perspective in addition to endless outrage or sadness about these events – offering up any nuance, lessons, or further reflections on the massacre and its origins – is a stone’s throw away from being lambasted as a closet terrorist. And indeed, our society is structured to be “with us or against us” in the post-9/11 rabbit hole, a deliberate tactic to stifle dissent or even critical thinking about an increasingly draconian state at war with its own shadow. I’m sure I will feel impelled several times throughout this post to remind everyone that I find the murders abhorrent, that I am not justifying the murder, that I do not believe in the death penalty for cartooning (or indeed, for anything, including murder and treason).

What I find discouraging about the response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo is how quick everyone has been to defend the magazine’s actions, even to stand with them to the point of saying that they are, literally, Charlie Hebdo. I know murder is galvanizing, even canonizing, to the victims, but it is a small vocal minority that points out that Hebdo and its cartooning staff in particular were crass and offensive, if not overtly racist. There certainly was a double-standard between criticizing Islam and criticizing Judaism, wherein people were fired for alleged anti-Semitism but allowed to flout the most holy standards surrounding the holiest person in Islam, using a blasphemous image to decry everyone in that religion. It’s hard to even imagine what the reaction would be were a similar level of insult levied at a Western-World-approved religion, especially Judaism. And say what you will about the history of anti-Semitism that France has to be guarded against – isn’t that kind of exactly the cultural context and sensitivity to offense that the proponents of so-called free speech are trying to guard against?

I say so-called free speech because the argument that has been lost in all of this, the argument that will be the central thesis of this post, is that Charlie Hebdo‘s offensive cartoons were not protected as free speech and should not be considered within the bounds of that most sacred of Western liberal democracy values. I feel like I may need to repeat this since nothing has been more universal than the repeated utterance of the idea that this magazine’s publication and the slaughter of its staff are free speech issues. They’re not. The cartoons went beyond the realm of free speech.

You see, free speech is not, and never has been, and really shouldn’t be, say whatever you want. Traditionally, that standard was called license, something reviled in traditional liberal democratic theory as something wanton, anarchic, and for those who don’t think about their principles very much. There are countless exceptions to free speech standards and statutes everywhere. The most famously touted, though possibly least significant in terms of actual practical exact application, is yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater. Free speech does not protect your ability to yell fire in a crowded theater because doing so is harmful to the society as a whole, likely to cause a stampede of theater patrons that results in unnecessary death. It is dishonest speech, manipulative speech, speech that predictably ends in violence and bitter resentment. I think you can see where I’m going with this argument. Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons were deliberately and wantonly inflammatory. They served no social good, no valid political message (unless hate-speech, something banned in many quarters of liberal democracies, is now considered valid political speech), and were intended to push the envelope for the pure sake of enraging a portion of the population.

Critical, vital reminder: people do not deserve to die for violating or overstepping free speech standards. They should not have been killed. The killings were abhorrent.

There are other myriad exceptions to free speech as well, speech that, when shouted from the rooftops, is not protected and is highly illegal. One can not advocate the violent overthrow of the standing government. One cannot make specific threats of violence against any person or group of people. One cannot publicly, with a wide audience, lie about the actions or behaviors of another person. One cannot willfully defame another person through the use of falsehoods or misleading statements. These are all universal or nearly universal exceptions to free speech that instead go by names like treason, threats, slander, and fraud. No one would stand up and defend people committing these acts and create the hashtag #IAmTheDeathThreatener or #IAmSlanderer. Even if they were killed, presumably. And yet defamation of a whole class of people through something misleading is pretty much exactly the standard upheld by Charlie Hebdo. The only reason that people are uniting with and defending this message, other than the rush to sanctify the recently murdered, is because it is seen as “okay” to bash Islam and its adherents in modern Western culture.

Which brings me to the other grossly misapplied use of the Free Speech Flag in recent Western culture and social media, so recently trotted out before this as to make the whole scene appear to have a surrealy orchestrated quality. Which, of course, is the film The Interview, a movie advocating the assassination of a sitting leader of a foreign country. Oh yes, sure, it’s an entertainment too, and a farce perhaps, and a vehicle for bad jokes and racism against all of North Korea and its people to boot. But none of this erases the fact that an actual current leader is depicted, by name and resemblance, as being assassinated and that much of the point of the movie is to get the audience to spend the whole movie rooting for and anticipating his eventual killing. These kinds of depictions are exactly why authors, disingenuously or not, put those little disclaimers at the beginning of books depicting horrible events to fictional characters, stating that no resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is intended. Why? Because it is not free speech to advocate the killing of other living human beings. That is outside the bounds of protected speech. That is punishable speech in all free societies.

And yet, when North Korean agents or bored teenage hackers or irate former employees, whichever it was, infiltrated Sony and hacked the daylights out of them, eventually threatening to bomb theaters if The Interview was released, Facebook’s masses and the media that influence them clamored to call this a free speech issue. The cancelling of The Interview was labeled the biggest calamity to befall free speech in the history of everything, at least until events less than a month later overshadowed them. I was a lone voice in the wilderness pointing out that the intent of the film was clearly to push the envelope as far as it would go and that sometimes, when you try to see exactly how much you can get away with, you don’t. You don’t get away with it. Because it actually tramples free speech and barges headlong into the territory of license, of saying wanton and destructive things just for the sake of that wanton destructiveness, just because you can. And that has never been included in anyone’s definition of free speech, beyond the most ardent libertarians and anarchists.

There are two key rebuttals to this set of arguments that I anticipate: one about satire and the other about making the difficult judgment on the nature of this speech. I really think the latter is super-weak, so let’s start with the one about satire.

It could be argued that both The Interview and Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons are satire and that satire’s business, by its very nature, is to go way beyond normally accepted bounds of speech, to delve into the absurd and outlandish and offensive in order to prove its point. And that, as such, the rules for satire should be bent way beyond those of normal, serious speech.

I have several arguments against this idea, but the first is by analogy. In working with students at Rutgers, I ran into a frequent phenomenon of people making racist remarks in the context of satire, supposedly making fun of those remarks by trotting out the exact same remarks in a sarcastic voice. An actual example was someone (fakely) rebutting an argument that a particular African-American was good at debate by saying “but all Black people are dumb,” voice dripping with sarcasm. I spent some time going on a mission to stamp out this kind of behavior, leading to some extensive and impassioned discussions and even arguments against what I’ve seen in some areas labeled as “hipster racism”. My argument is that no matter how sarcastic or allegedly satirical the speaker is when making that statement, no matter how absurd they think they’re being, they’re still uttering a racist remark that shouldn’t be part of the environment of that team (or, frankly, anywhere in society, but I couldn’t really police that). And that hearing those words, even ironically, does damage to people who have heard those same words not in jest. And that putting that out into society helps perpetuate the negative stereotypes, even if the alleged intent is to make fun of those same stereotypes.

Thus, I think a tremendous amount of supposed satire actually backfires, actually just perpetuates the myths and bigotry laden in whatever mythology or bigotry is allegedly being made fun of. We would be better off without that speech entirely, either through carefully rebutting it or simply disregarding it and making powerful counter-speech that does not attempt to carefully skewer the original speech. Yes, satire is sometimes, even often, an effective weapon against hypocrites and damaging forces in our society. But I think it also often misses the mark, sometimes horribly, and does damage to its original intent, and thus cannot be placed on a pedestal as speech more worthy of protection or immune to critique and censure than any other kind of speech. To be clear, my argument is not that satire should be banned, limited, or uniquely targeted – merely that it should not be deified into a separate, higher class than all other forms of speech.

Additionally, I would argue that The Interview is simply not a work of satire. Granted that I haven’t seen it, so my basis for judgment is somewhat limited, but I would argue that it’s a propaganda piece against North Korea and its leader. While it may not technically be an advocacy piece in favor of the assassination of its leader, I think it’s at least pretty close, and I doubt it does anything to make people sad about a world where Kim Jong-Un has been killed. It’s the kind of movie that, were it released in a Muslim country with the US President named and depicted as the target, would be the instant justification for drone-strikes and possibly full-scale invasion of the society that failed to ban it, with all the collateral deaths of children and innocents that come with it.

Which brings us back to the intent of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Were they mere satire with the aim of lampooning? Or was the intent slightly stronger, more sinister, more aggressive? It certainly seems like the point was to get people to view Muslims negatively, to see them all as hypocrites, to simultaneously blaspheme against their religion and inspire disrespect of followers. Where is the line between satire and hate-speech? And even if you don’t believe in laws against hate-speech, doesn’t it at least seem unwise to sponsor and uphold the vitriolic criticism of a religion when the nation where this stuff is published is bombing Syria and could easily already be considered to be in a culture war against Islam? I know France’s standards of freedom of religion are less robust than those in the United States, as exemplified by their banning of burqas in public, but it’s hard to imagine this being deemed acceptable in targeting any other religious group, cultural group, or race. (Yes, I know a lot has been made about Charlie Hebdo also skewering pedophile priests. That is making fun of specific criminals and their criminal acts, not all priests or all Catholics. It’s categorically different.) And if there’s only one group that’s “okay” to target, that’s not free speech, or at least not a form of it that seems right. It’s just bigotry. And arguably incitement to violence.

Which brings us to the second argument, about who makes the judgment. If there is a line between free speech and license, how do we guard it, how do we call it, who is responsible for putting things on one side of the line or the other? I will grant that this can be tricky, but it’s also interesting that no one seems to bring up this question when the accusation is of treason, slander, defamation, or anti-Semitism. And as much as people will accuse my advocacy in this piece of being illiberal in failing to defend unpleasant or even abhorrent speech, I would choose to turn the tables. I think that by decrying anti-Semitism but defending these Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it is you who is being illiberal in refusing to defend all groups equally. You are conveniently ignoring the power structures present in your society and that it willingly oppresses some groups while championing and defending others. It’s just racism and bias dressed up in the sheep’s clothing of free speech and erring on the side of caution. The history of oppression of the Jewish people in the past in Europe has combined with a handful of so-called terrorist incidents attributed to radical Muslims to make saying anything you want about one group be deemed free speech, while saying much of anything about another group is over the line.

Call me crazy, call me illiberal, but I don’t think the proper response to this is to have open season on Judaism as well. Rather, I think it’s to take a big step back and examine our norms and standards around how people speak about Islam and its adherents. Unfortunately, now that the massacre has happened, any efforts to rule out inflammatory speech against Muslims will be deemed “giving in” and “letting the terrorists win”. It is of paramount importance in contemporary Western societies that we refuse to change anything about our behavior after an attack other than increasing bombing and violence in response to it. This is hand-in-hand with the continual refusal to recognize that other people have reasons for their violence, while it is taken as given that Western societies have a monopoly on reason for using violence. I have gone over this particular argument so many times in my recent writing that it barely bears repeating, but I still am flummoxed by how often serious media outlets insist on saying that one cannot attempt to explain the reasons behind an attack by others or that any attempt to do so should be considered justification.

This is like saying there can never be a motive for a murder. Generally speaking, unless the person committing the crime is legally insane, motive is a key part of any case against any murderer. We all just spent three months of our lives obsessed with the Serial podcast, largely for its examination of motive and its apparent absence in a murder case. And yet, as soon as the murder is committed by someone we label as a “terrorist”, logic and motive flee the scene as though by divine mandate. Those who attempt to unpack the motive are brandished as “with the terrorists”, an act that would be precisely akin to someone in the jury standing up and accusing the prosecutor at a murder trial of being an accomplice for attempting to attribute a motive to the accused.

It’s totally nuts. But not only is it nuts, it’s extremely counter-productive. Because just as motive is necessary to understand a murder and even prevent future murders, so is understanding the intent behind “terrorism” and other killings or attacks essential to actually preventing them in the future. This is neither justification for the acts nor is it blaming the victims of the attacks. It is merely recognizing that those committing the acts are also human beings (something actually argued against in a frightening number of pieces attempting to dehumanize the “enemy”) and thus have reasons for their actions as well.

The dichotomy between France, the US, and other Western powers saying it is committing drone strikes for reasons, or keeping Gitmo open for reasons, while refusing to even engage discussion on the reasons of those opposing these actions and fighting back, is the single biggest impediment to the West making progress against those who would commit terrorism. As long as you think you’re just fighting animals, you will be a victim of your own propaganda and will never be able to engage in the changes necessary to actually bridge the divide of misunderstanding that ends in death.

But the West continues to dehumanize Islam and its adherents, continues to uphold Charlie Hebdo‘s grossly offensive cartoons as the gold standard of free speech and liberalism. It is thus terribly unsurprising that there would be ardent defenders of Islam who would react extremely negatively and violently to this. Not justified that they would do so, but unsurprising.

As societies, we need to choose free speech over license. We need to remember that minority rights are a key pillar of liberal democracies, in addition to the strong loud voice of majority rule. We need to rebuild a society where all people feel free, not just those with the traditional power. And we need to have the humility to recognize that changing how we act and choosing to respect others is not being intimidated, but is sometimes the ultimate act of courage.

Maybe if there had been voices in France decrying Charlie Hebdo as crossing a line, even censuring some of their cartoons as beyond the realm of free speech, then fewer adherents of Islam would believe the entire nation of France is unified in a culture war against their religion. And maybe that, in turn, would have saved the lives of those cartoonists. Which is not to blame France for what happened – the killings were abhorrent and were the fault of the murderers alone. But we still try to figure out how to prevent murders, even if our failure to do so beforehand does not make it our fault. I don’t see why this set of murders should be treated any differently just because the killers were Muslims.

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No, Unemployment Didn’t Just Decline

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

It went up.

Unemployment in the United States actually rose in December 2014 from the previous month, from 11.56% to 11.66%. This is largely the result of a revision to November numbers declaring the unemployment rate during that month to be 11.56% instead of the previously released figure of 11.71%. The Reporting Gap, or the gap between the BLS’ official headline published figure and the actual figure that accounts for departures from the labor force, rose to a record high 6.06%. This is now 108% of the reported figure for unemployment, also a record high. The previous high for the Reporting Gap was set in September 2014, when the Gap stood at 6.04% over a reported figure of 5.9%.

Without the revision of November’s numbers, unemployment would actually have dropped by 0.05%. Of course, the reported figure plunged by a full 0.2% to 5.6%, the first time the figure has been that low since June 2008, when actual unemployment was a mere 6.87%. The last time unemployment was actually below 5.7% was in March 2007, when real unemployment was 5.54% and was reported to be at 4.4%.

Most importantly, the actual rate of unemployment, counting people who have left the labor force, remains 1.66 percentage points above the highest reported figure of the millennium.

While the American media has made much of a so-called “recovery” from the Great Recession that began in 2008, befuddlement continues to be reported on the nature of this recovery, how it is slow, protracted, and does not seem to be impacting those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Constant confusion has been expressed as to why it doesn’t “feel” like a recovery and why so many people seem to be unable to get work when the unemployment rate has purportedly plunged to almost economically desirable levels from a supposed peak at 10%. The Reporting Gap, which directly measures the number of hidden unemployed who have left the labor force, can be seen as a barometer of this otherwise inexplicable feeling. Not only have wages continued to stagnate, but the actual employment situation remains dire, despite much-vaunted reports that say otherwise.

Awareness of the issue of people leaving the labor force has been increasing over the past few months and years as people scramble to figure out why happy days appear to not be here again. Given that labor force participation hit a 36-year low in December 2014, it seems unbelievable that more people are not aware of the impacts of this loophole in how unemployment is reported by the BLS.

Real unemployment has been in double-digits since March 2009, marking almost six straight years where the actual number of unemployed has been larger than the reported peak of the unemployment crisis.

Here are your charts:

Real unemployment (red) and reported unemployment (blue), 2009-2014.

Real unemployment (red) and reported unemployment (blue), 2009-2014.

The Reporting Gap between real and reported rates, 2009-2014.

The Reporting Gap between real and reported rates, 2009-2014.

NB: The graphs above were edited on 10 January 2015 after I realized that I’d accidentally pulled October’s graphs instead. I normally don’t edit things on this page, but this seems to be a sufficiently trivial mistake and something a little misleading, so it warrants a quick change. The above graphs are now accurate, circa December 2014.


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):
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age 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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Children of the Future

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

This young individual is probably better at using a computer than you are.  If not, they will be soon.

This young individual is probably better at using a computer than you are. If not, they will be soon.

They will grow up. And they will log in.

The ages will vary and often be the result of a fair amount of debate. For the more liberal parents, it may be five or six, or eight at the latest. More cautious and conservative ones will aim for sixteen, knowing that it will really fall at thirteen or maybe twelve. There’s only so far you can push these things without causing catastrophic backlash. Holding a hard-line for sixteen will work for a handful, but will force the issue at eight or nine for far more. They will head to the social media outlets and they will enter their e-mail address and devise a password and they will see the world.

What they will look for, first, will not be external. Sure, there will be a couple of friends here and there. But the closest friends will mirror those they have in real life, Mom and Dad, Mom and Mom, Dad and Dad, Mom alone, Dad alone, Grandma, what have you. And they will be looking, primarily, not for others, but for themselves. And lo, what they will find.

It is one thing to have a shoebox of baby pictures in the closet, trotted out in embarrassing fashion when close out-of-state family friends come to visit or even the new boy- or girlfriend shows up at the door for the dance. Or even a home video or seven that depict moments that can’t help but be halcyon for the shy squeaky voice they convey across the years, the distorted mirror of one’s past self coming through the lens and onto the screen. But none of this can compare to the daily grinding chronicle of life, replete with commentary and varying levels of approval, that will greet these children of the future when they log in.

There is the birth and there is the next day and there is the stark nakedness of the tub or the first night across the the threshold, the brazen publicity of it all, no matter who this was shared with at the time. This is not Aunt Marge coming over and saying how she saw you when or held you how. This is Aunt Marge and 27 other friends actively seeing you – you – in the bathtub, in damn-near-realtime, liking the experience and asking for more! This is you having lived a life that you know you remember less than others but being painfully aware of just how many strangers were intimately involved in parts of your upbringing that you will never recall beyond this cribbed rebuilt chronicle of scrolling pictures.

But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. For it is not just pictures. It is the daily progress of exactly what your family was thinking at the time, during the hardest days of your earliest time on the planet. Maybe your mother doubted the decision to have you when colic claimed the ninth straight night of sleep from her addled brain. Maybe your father jestingly offered to trade you for magic beans or two months of Netflix, garnering twelve comments of sympathy and two counter-offers from his online acquaintances. Maybe grandpa posted a video comparing your movements to the family iguana’s, speculating that the latter was displaying a greater intelligence.

Sure, some of this is harmless, explicable. Or it will be moreso to you at twenty, or thirty, or when you have your own kids, the way that reaching a certain age makes you understand the people who were that age more. Temporal existence is such a fickle trick. But now, at five or six or eight or nine or even fourteen or sixteen, you will be bewildered. Did they not love me, that they could so callously discuss my existence this way? Was I that bad? Is this warm blanket of unconditional love I’ve come to expect an interpersonal ruse belied by the daily steam-blowing of a semi-public forum?

There will, in most instances, be an insatiable quality to the experience. After being locked out of this world by familial agreement or merely lack of awareness, suddenly the Complete History of You, adorned by countless opinions on same, will be available for endless perusal. Some will be waylaid, becoming obsessive, reliving a childhood remembered and not to the point of becoming an export in their previously forgotten selves. Some may be overwhelmed and give up, but continually be drawn back to this tempting world of an identity that predates self-awareness with an expansive thoroughness their present selves could not possibly hope to match. Others may become dissociative, unable to reconcile the barrage of imagery and commentary of their past being with a person who grew, unaware of this endless documentation and display.

There will be exceptions, of course. Those who anticipate this kind of shocking revelation for their offspring and try to head it off at the pass, attempting to ban the social media proliferation of images and commentary about their child, or limit it to a small, private group. And while these aspirations may be admirable and easily enforced before school matriculation, they will become wholly unwieldy and challenging once the child begins interacting outside the home. What of group photos at birthday parties, or the inevitable phone-snaps at a playdate? How exhausting it might become to trail after every digital camera and cellphone, diligently asking its user not to post it online lest images of their child become publicly available. There will be inevitable leaks, it being impossible to even see every phone at work in a public or semi-public sphere. There will be pictures, recordings that leak out. And when that child discovers that nothing of them exists when their peers are discovering same, they will hunt all the more diligently for those few leaked clues to their earliest aspects of existence.

As the child ages, the notion of an inextricable and continual identity, an ongoing narrative that predates and surrounds them, will only grow. Sure, there can be some sleight of hand with privacy settings and a few other options, but most of the content will be owned or controlled by such a disparate range of people so as to become wild, untameable. Some will try and fail to corral their online identity, from birth, when they move to a new school or matriculate to university. The past will no longer be a shadow in mere memory, but in painfully full-color and clickable expression. You can untag yourself, you can block your mother, but this does not prevent others from seeing you more clearly, vividly, and rememberedly than you want to even see yourself. Surely we see evidence of this sort of navigation already, social media having been embedded sufficiently in culture such that naked or other compromising photos have been disseminated and ruined people, or the unending imagery of a failed relationship haunts their future impossibly. But for the children of the future, this goes all the way back to the beginning.

And indeed, not just the beginning. It will be possible also for the child to watch the development of the relationship that led to their creation, the speculation on the process leading to their birth, every pain and inconvenience of the pregnancy. Not in all cases, surely, for this will be more tied to the social media presence of their parents alone and even how much scrubbing of that history said parents wish to do vis a vis their child. Though it will no doubt occur to many how exhausting it would be to selectively set privacy settings for the prior ten to twenty years for only their child, and even then moreso how odd it will be that the high school classmate they barely spoke to at the time got to see the evolution of this phase of their life, but their own child is banned from same.

A great challenge of social media for my generation has been how much we wanted our parents to see. Soon, it will also be how much we want our children to see.

But it will probably be out of our control anyway. Each generation has grown into their native technology sufficiently to outstrip the knowledge, understanding, and speed of use of their priors by leaps and bounds. Privacy settings will be hacked, blocks will be cast aside, dummy accounts will be made to look like Uncle Bobby finally got on Facebook after all, and the histories, for the curious, will be unearthed. Never before have we lived so publicly and in such a real, minute-to-minute way. And it may be of some comfort to consider that those who come after us may display a real, pressing interest in what it was like to be alive now at this minute, now at this one, now at this one. But are we really considering what it will be like to have been born into a world where that reality has already transpired and is there for the rewatching?

Like all decisions of the twenty-first century, technology and advancement must reign. Any consideration of the philosophical or social impact is just for the luddites on the sidelines. They can contemplate and soothsay all they want, but this era belongs to headlong, heedless “progress”, come what may, damn the torpedoes. The lesson of asbestos is that there are no lessons of asbestos. We just better hope some future technology saves us from our current technology.

This is me on the sidelines, squinting, holding my breath, and fiddling with a mirror. I’m not trying to stop the whole race, but occasionally there might be just enough of a glint of light to catch someone’s eye.

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Symmetrical Surveillance: Serial, the Panopticon, and Why Murder Rates Really Have Crashed

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

The Panopticon!  Now in handy pocket size.

The Panopticon! Now in handy pocket size.

Two things seem to be really trendy these days, if you don’t count bashing Muslims (I’ll talk about that one and why it’s so wrong in a different post). Serial the podcast (which I discussed at length in November) and speculation on why murder rates have crashed all over urban America. Malcolm Gladwell discussed the latter in his latest pop-stats book, David and Goliath, which I read last year, it’s the front page story in one of the surviving New Orleans papers today, and I’m sure NYPD thinks they’re single-handedly going to reverse the trend by refusing to shoot any unarmed people for a whole week.

These things all seem pretty related to me, in a fairly intuitive way. And no, it’s not that people are not murdering people because they fear being analyzed in a 12-week podcast and having all their friends interviewed. If anything, that’s probably going to create a slight uptick in the interest in domestic murder.

People thought a lot of things while listening to Serial. Indeed, the fact that it prompted speculation of all kinds and thus inspired countless unending discussions and debates in homes all across America was a key ingredient of its immense popularity. I almost laughed aloud when Koenig dismissed her wildest thoughts and speculations in the waning minutes of the final episode by saying “So who are we to put this theory forward? This is the very obvious problem with speculation, especially of the emotional variety. You can’t prove it, so you have to drop it.” It’s like Facebook dismissing the opportunity for someone’s link to go viral on their site as not very important to their site. Are you kidding, Koenig? Speculation is everything that Serial was about and that made it great.

But one of the things I think people thought most about Serial is what it would have been like in their high school. For most of the people I know, that’s a time roughly contemporary to the murder depicted in Serial, and I think that made Serial really interesting to a lot of my friends and to me. I can’t imagine loaning my car to anyone, certainly not someone who wasn’t a close friend, so the idea that Jay and Adnan barely knew each other seems ridiculous. For some Serial listeners, an era of cell phones at school is incomprehensible, because cell phones came later. And for some Serial listeners, many who I know, they can’t imagine using a cell phone so little as Jay/Adnan used Adnan’s cell that fateful day in January 1999. There were only, what, 29 calls? Today, there may be no calls at all, or a couple, but there would be about 110 texts, plus Google searches, Angry Birds games, and other unending streams of data pinging away at those cell towers like a GPS tracker of the phone’s movements.

Which gets us to the reality of the panopticon that seems to exist in modern society. I don’t have a smartphone, but I acquiesced to get a cellphone in late 2010. And while I don’t interrupt live conversations to use it and I don’t play games on it or surf the web on it, I sure do text a lot and have it on me most all of the time. And I am considered one of the most luddite, anti-cell people anyone knows. My fellow hold-outs, Russ and Gris, now carry cells, and Russ’ at least is a smartphone too. Sure, my parents and a lot of other people in their generation still lack the cell trackers, but I think we can safely say we’re a couple decades from everyone in society having a perpetual GPS tracker in their pocket. And functionally, we’re just about there already.

Despite what some aspects of Serial may seem to imply, it’s hard to get away with murder. But it’s really hard to get away with if you have a device in your pocket constantly telling the world where you are. And it’s really hard to get away with when everyone has such a device in their pocket, a device they’re expected to use regularly to tell a wider swath of the world where they are specifically, to discuss their feelings, to respond to texts, and to dial 911 at the first sign of danger.

This is the biggest single reason why murder rates are falling everywhere in the country, regardless of whether they have a “three strikes” law or not, regardless of whether their police force is slaughtering innocents who brandish sticks and toy guns or not, regardless of whether there’s broken-windows enforcement in the district or virtually no enforcement. It’s because the technology let loose in the society is creating a community that is sufficiently integrated to police itself, or at least do so against the most dramatic of crimes. It’s made the task of abducting or killing someone vastly harder. And that’s a really good thing.

What it hasn’t prevented, however, is the kind of murder that has experienced a huge uptick during this time of generally crashing murder rates. Which are mass-murder sprees that end in the suicide of the person perpetrating them. Now there are a whole bunch of other reasons for that uptick that I’ve discussed previously in the wake of some of these mass-shootings, but I think it’s telling that basically no one, except I guess the Aurora shooter, even tries to get away with them. Mass-shootings almost universally end in suicide because the idea of getting away with it is totally ludicrous. (And also, notably, that a lot of these are committed by people who have given up on life for one or another reason already.) And it’s not just because a mass-shooting leaves a particularly large trail of evidence, though it does. It’s because any murder leaves behind enough instant evidence that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone getting away with it, so why bother?

This is part of what has fueled so much outrage at the police officers who the state has failed to hold accountable for their murders of unarmed individuals. Because the same kind of evidence, of recording, of instant awareness of these murders has existed for police-committed crimes as well. But instead of being used by law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice, it is ignored in favor of solidarity among those in authority. I discussed this at length a month ago, so no need to review. But the particular outrage is so high because it contrasts so fully with what happens to other murder cases. The mountain of technological evidence is used to throw the book at regular citizens, but to protect and obfuscate when the perpetrators are the police.

Which brings us to the only real danger of the death of privacy: asymmetry. This is hackneyed territory for me at this point, but it bears repeating when people cite the panopticon as an agent of oppression rather than protection. The problem with publicity of information, whereabouts, etc. is when they are wielded asymmetrically. When wielded symmetrically, when there is a similar expectation of publicity among all citizens, whatever their status or rank, and all corporations, governments, and other operating entities in our society, then publicity and a lack of privacy is freeing. When it is wielded asymmetrically, it can easily be a tool of oppression, domination, and disaster.

We’re somewhere in the middle right now with a lot of this. Facebook, Twitter, phone records, and the constant-communication society are functionally pretty symmetrical. Sure, the companies running the systems have a bit more knowledge/power, but not grossly more so, perhaps not even meaningfully more so. And while there are certainly drawbacks and problems with the constant-communication world, it has knitted together a fabric of society that seems so interconnected that it is very hard to be very bad therein, at least if you care about what happens to you afterwards. I truly think this is a wonderful development that is saving tons of lives.

However, there are areas of asymmetry still lurking, bolstered by draconian punishments of whistleblowers levied by both governments and corporations. The police remain utterly immune, as do high-ranking government officials (except when Chelsea Manning or Wikileaks or Edward Snowden can occasionally sneak something out, and then those people have to not care what happens to them as well). And this is problematic and needs correcting. But the correction should not be to push us all back into the shadows where murderers can hide and no one knows where we went. The solution, rather, is to push everyone out into the sunlight where we can evaluate the quality of everyone’s actions. Those in power ought most closely be scrutinized. If we push for this rather than hand-wringing about a “privacy” that we couldn’t currently retrieve if we wanted to (without an irreversible knockout EMP, at least), then everyone might stop murdering people, even the police.

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Follow Me Down to the Rose Parade

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

A New Year’s Day dialogue:

Storey: “Do you ever watch the Rose Parade?”
Alex: “What’s the Rose Parade?”
Storey: “Only the biggest or second-biggest parade in the country annually.”
Alex: “Where is it?”
Storey: “Pasadena, California.”
Alex: “Maybe it’s just a West Coast thing.”
Storey: …
Alex: “Seriously. Pasadena?”
Storey: “Are the Oscars just a West Coast thing too?”

This prompted me to extremely unscientifically poll my Facebook friends with the following four options, asking them to describe their closest understanding of the Rose Parade:
1. I am aware of it and have watched it or watch it.
2. I am aware of it but never watch it.
3. I am unaware of it.
4. I am only aware of the Elliott Smith song and have no idea what he’s singing about.

In honor of the two people who actually chose option 4, as well as the others who cited that as a great song, here you go:

Here were the (again, very unscientific) results:
Option 1: 49% (23 respondents)
Option 2: 19% (9 respondents)
Option 3: 28% (13 respondents)
Option 4: 4% (2 respondents)

For a simpler split of
68% have heard of the Rose Parade, 32% have not.

I was expecting to garner some sort of regional and/or age splits on this number that would make it make sense, but this attempted analysis has proven woefully impossible.

For example, there are people who attended high school with me in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who have answered 1 and others who have answered 3. This defies regionality, unless New Mexico is on some sort of West Coast/East Coast faultline of viewership.

Yet many people who responded 1 are lifetime East Coasters, including several who have never lived outside New York and New Jersey. Most of those who responded to 3 were also in this category, however, with several having earlier roots outside the country. Although an Albanian-born New Jerseyan voted 1. Many people who live in Southern California unsurprisingly voted 1, with many adding that they’ve attended the parade as well. No one from California seemed to vote 3, which at least gives me one regionally boundary.

And the two people voting 4 were a lifetime East Coaster and someone from my high school. Proving… nothing. Other than that both of them are at least somewhat hipsters.

Of course, it comes to mind that the greater factor may involve sports viewership, and/or some combination between that and parade viewership, whatever that demographic is specifically comprised of. (Clearly, it excludes Elliott Smith himself, at least if he’s thinking about his decisions, or was.) I’ve never much thought of the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl as being terribly intricately linked, which is obviously not an opinion shared by East Coasters, including Alex’s mother, who responded to the same question with a discussion of the Bowl. I have no doubt that more people have heard of the Bowl, but I wouldn’t have thought till this month that more people watch the Bowl than the Parade. Which I guess is mostly the fault of parade broadcasters who very much sound like they have a broadcast reach of the Oscars or possibly the SuperBowl when they’re doing the announcing, at least to me.

The moral of the story is, mostly, that it’s great fun to use social media to poll your friends, even if Facebook doesn’t support traditional poll formatting outside of groups. And maybe there’s something about the diversity of Millennial experience as we veer off the course from universal TV stations and radio songs to our own carefully cultivated, mostly online experiences.

In any event, 2015 is looking up so far. I’m sure Elliott Smith could find a way to be concerned about it, and maybe I should be, but my interest was always greater than his. I think you can expect a lot more content this year on this page, as indicated by the flurry of the last few months. And some of it may even be slightly more serious than this post.

The A in this parade is hardly type-A.

The A in this parade is hardly type-A.

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One Day More: Photos on the Eve of Christmas Eve

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, Tags: ,

Tomorrow is perhaps my favorite day of the year, when all the work of a week’s worth of preparation comes to fruition for one magical night. Not a lot of time for a long, contemplative writing piece after a somewhat frustrating day battling the wind on the roof and ultimately falling a bit behind in the layout process which now takes the better part of two days. That said, I’ll have full-time help for the big push tomorrow, so I’m confident that the full display of a record 1,000+ will be up and lit in time. In any case, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the images that have symbolized this Christmas Eve season in the days leading up to the big one, just one sleep away.

But perhaps I should start with the video from local news on Sunday night, when KRQE’s Cole Miller came back and did a piece on the preparation of luminarias as a follow-up to last year’s broadcast on Christmas Eve

Here’s how things have looked the last few days, in a more still form:

Nesbitt likes unwrapping ornaments.

Nesbitt likes unwrapping ornaments.

The stegosaurus ornament in the set discussed on the 20th.

The stegosaurus ornament in the set discussed on the 20th.

The brontosaurus ornament, from back when brontosaurus was a dinosaur.

The brontosaurus ornament, from back when brontosaurus was a dinosaur.

The t-rex from the set.

The t-rex from the set.

A new ornament that Alex's aunt got for us.

A new ornament that Alex’s aunt got for us.

The carrot ornament that is Alex's favorite, part of a set of fruits and veggies.

The carrot ornament that is Alex’s favorite, part of a set of fruits and veggies.

The fire and the tree in the living room.

The fire and the tree in the living room.

The tree all aglow.

The tree all aglow.

Luminaria staging area, in progress.

Luminaria staging area, in progress.

Another view of the luminaria staging area.

Another view of the luminaria staging area.

1,132 luminarias ready to go!

1,132 luminarias ready to go!

A broader view of the 1,132.

A broader view of the 1,132.

Alex and I with all our handiwork.

Alex and I with all our handiwork.

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The Dinosaur Ornament

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

The triceratops from the ceramic set of dinosaur ornaments my family got for Christmas 1987.

The triceratops from the ceramic set of dinosaur ornaments my family got for Christmas 1987.

When I was seven, in 1987, we moved to Washington DC. We had lived in California as long as I could remember before that, though I was born in Nevada and lived in Oregon for a while as well. We had lived in San Jose till I was about two (no memories from SJ either) and then moved to Visalia, where all of my earliest memories were made. Shortly before we moved to DC, my grandfather (Dad’s dad) had passed away, my father’s fax machine distribution/network company had closed, and it seemed like it was time to move on. We put a little bit of stuff in storage, packed the rest into the family’s light blue Saab, and started eastward across the country.

By Christmas, it was apparent that things were not necessarily going so well. After years of relative affluence in the heyday of my Dad’s business, it was clear even to 7-year-old me that the family was struggling financially. We didn’t have a television, though we would later pick up a small black and white one. Our apartment floor had a giant field of splinters in the living room that I one late night jumped into when trying to cross it barefoot to get water from the kitchen. (Yes, this was expressly against the often-discussed admonitions of my parents to always wear shoes in that part of the house no matter what. This is why I tried to leap over it instead of just walking gingerly across it. Which led to pretty disastrous results which involved my foot in a bowl of warm water for hours after I stopped screaming and my parents came down to investigate who was kidnapping me. I actually always wore shoes after that. Sometimes, we can only learn lessons from pain.)

It was clearly important to my parents that, even with our new circumstances, Christmas would still be special. Indeed, arguably some of the scrimping and minimalism in the fall and early winter was directly enacted so that we could have enough money for Christmas to still involve some nice gifts. I was in the choir at the beautiful Christ Church in Georgetown and this involved some Christmas performing as well as a great night of caroling shortly before Christmas itself. My main gifts would consist of some nice tin soldiers that would be tied for my favorite toys until I became a pacifist and remain, despite my pacifism, among the things that I really treasure from my childhood. In part, perhaps, because of the incredible upheaval of that one year we lived in DC, how precarious some of our circumstances were (there were also conflicts with the landlord that ultimately led to our departure – for another post, perhaps, or maybe not), and how vibrant everything seemed in that new and very different place. I forget if I had left the second school of three that I would attend that one second-grade year yet or if I was still enrolled – I would spend a couple months being homeschooled between schools #2 and #3. The reasons for this and the whole situation are probably the subject for another post as well, but it added to the sense that every day in DC was worth a couple weeks in my prior life in terms of daily change and uncertainty.

But the primary gift for the family, the items that were clearly selected with me in mind as a primary appreciator/recipient, but were beloved by all three of us, were the dinosaur ornaments. We got these decently before Christmas to go on the modest tree we’d gotten for the season. I had never been through a cold winter before (Visalia is often in the 110s in the summer and only gets to about 55 in the winter, with abundant fog as the main winter weather) and there was a massive snowstorm (my first in memory) on Veteran’s Day that shut the city for a day or so afterwards. I have a vivid visual of the bitterly chilly air, frost visible before our exhaling mouths, as we ducked in a little shop off the street and discovered these brightly colored ceramic decorations. My dinosaur obsession was still in full bloom, though patriotism/history was coming up to fill the void left by outer space after how watching the Challenger disaster had impacted my astronomical aspirations. Each dinosaur was the perfect mix of whimsy and seriousness, personality and color, delicate fragility and solid presence. We were in love, but I was especially. I think my parents were leaning toward getting them anyway, though they were a bit of a stretch for our budget, but I’m sure I wheedled quite a bit as well.

When we brought them home, I couldn’t wait to get them on the tree. My parents, as always, urged patience, but such is rarely a trait of those under 10. The ornaments were remarkably heavy and I was neither a tall nor a strong child. I asked if I could hang a couple of them up. My parents looked at each other and then at me and failed to reject my brimming enthusiasm. I was exhorted to hang them gently, to hang them cautiously, to take my time and hold my hand under them. To make sure they were firmly attached to the given branch.

I took this task seriously, despite my exuberance. I cradled each dino as it went up, hanging it by its golden fabric loop, gently resting it on a branch. Now the green triceratops, now the yellow T-rex. And then I set the orange pterodactyl on the highest branch I could reach. After all, they could fly. I was on my tiptoes and set it on the branch and stepped back to admire its perch.

You probably knew where this was going. It wasn’t deep enough on the branch and the branch probably wasn’t substantial enough for the weighty ceramic object in the first place. I had become complacent after the success of the first couple of hangings, gaining confidence after successfully attaching gleaming dinosaurs to the well-lit tree. The pterodactyl’s loop slid quickly down the branch, it briefly took to the air like its depicted inspiration, then clattered to the hardwood floor, smashing in two.

I cried. I wept. I was inconsolable. My parents were in a frequent position for them in my childhood, where any critique they might leverage of my behavior was already dwarfed by the extreme guilt I felt. I was good at being able to discipline myself, to make myself feel far worse than any typical parental punishment. I think one of the first things my Mom asked me to do was to stop beating myself up about it, a request that was destined to echo down the long halls of subsequent decades of our parent-child relationship. But I refused. I didn’t know how.

I knew what those ornaments meant to us, what sacrifice my parents had made to get them (several exchanged looks and hushed discussion in the store before we gleefully stepped out with the dinos in tow), how many years I had already planned to make them the centerpiece of tree-decorating to come. And here it was, one of my favorite dinosaurs of all-time, wing rent from wing and little bits of ceramic powder spilling out from the cracks. These were the days before SuperGlue was a household item and I’m not sure we even had glue of any sort. It was irreparable. The pieces of pterodactyl spent the night in the trashcan and I spent the night softly sobbing to myself.

In those anticipated subsequent years, I would feel a washing mix of emotion every time we hauled out the ornaments for tree-decorating. Nothing would bring me more joy than seeing the beautiful dinosaurs in their polished splendor, but this would instantaneously be punctuated by the pangs of guilt at the missing pterodactyl. For some reason, I would feel compelled to apologize to my parents, sometimes repeatedly, every year. I cannot sufficiently emphasize that my parents never did anything to make me feel bad about the broken dino and certainly never raised the issue themselves after that DC Christmas. But, like my perverse annual desire to read “The Little Fir Tree” aloud, Hans Christen Andersen’s Kafkaesque and heartbreaking tale of an anthropomorphized evergreen, the dinosaur-ornament guilt would become an unfortunate hallmark of most every Christmas to come. My hands would tremble every time I grabbed for one of the beloved surviving dinosaurs, making overly sure to hang it furthest back on the most substantial branch every time. There was at least one year, when I was 10 or 11, when I refused to hang any of the dinos myself for fear of a repeat and could barely watch, one eye half-closed, as my parents attempted the feat themselves.

To this day, 27 years after the first fateful Christmas of the lost pterodactyl, I have been unable to look at the dinos without seeing a vision of the shattered ornament, without feeling the same regretful reverberations I feel in my heart when I contemplate other transgressions of my youth. The day in first grade when I punched David A. in the arm for cutting in line. The time I was held in from recess that same year for saying a test was too easy, loudly, when we were supposed to be working silently. The shameful things a classmate convinced me to say on a dare. For whatever reason, whatever part of my conscience controls these memories, I simply cannot let these things go.

Suffice it to say that when we first got the ornaments out yesterday and Noir the cat started batting at the triceratops pictured above, I almost lost it. But maybe I should learn a lesson from the cat’s relaxed attitude toward possessions that are, after all, just things. But then, Christmas is a time for traditions, for memories, for family fables of both joy and pathos. They all are time-honored and all, perhaps, tell us more about ourselves than we normally know.

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5 Days Out: A Brief Photo Retrospective from Albuquerque

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, Quick Updates, Tags: , ,

It is five days before perhaps my favorite night of the year and worth putting a little visual element to the experience of preparing for putting up one of the largest luminaria displays in the city where they are most prevalent. My excitement has not waned since four days ago. But maybe I’m just excited to have had use of a camera that functions, since my camera died shortly before I left New Orleans. It was a top-of-the-line camera when purchased sometime in the early-mid ’00s, the one that chronicled my trip to India and Nepal in 2008, as well as other things in my absence that I’d rather not think about. The camera is stuck with the lens half-open and half-closed and makes a grinding sound when turned on or off that can only mean, in this era of disposable gadgets, that it is irreparable. It was getting obsolete anyway, as my parents claim their camera is becoming. But their camera works:

Happiness is 8 gross of candles.

Happiness is 8 gross of candles.

8 gross. That’s 1,152 candles for those of you scoring at home. Not that the plan is to use all of those as individuals in the display, since there need to be some reserves for replacing duds and flame-outs. Plus, I need to increase the record by little enough so as to be able to shoot for a bigger record in subsequent years.

Noir, my parents' less Facebook-famous cat, wonders why he can't play Pac-Man with me.

Noir, my parents’ less Facebook-famous cat, wonders why he can’t play Pac-Man with me.

Noir, partner in crime to the more photo-shy Nesbitt L’Orange, made a real effort to attract the camera’s attention in the last couple days. Here he was expressing consternation with the cover on the Pac-Man machine in the anteroom that my father is finishing before the events of Christmas Eve.

Put the cat in the sink.  I have a sinking feeling.  Supply your own caption.  This is my gift to you, Internet.  Not that it's really feasible to imagine a cat photo would go viral.

Put the cat in the sink. I have a sinking feeling. Supply your own caption. This is my gift to you, Internet. Not that it’s really feasible to imagine a cat photo would go viral.

Submitted without comment. Except, you know, all the comments I made.

550 bags folded, at least 500 to go.  Each full grocery bag contains 250 folded bags.  I think I'm right on pace so far.

550 bags folded, at least 500 to go. Each full grocery bag contains 250 folded bags. I think I’m right on pace so far.

There’s nothing quite like the waxy feel of one’s fingertips after a couple hours folding bags, the loud crinkle of each new one’s initial fold, the cadence of opening and closing bags to be able to properly fold the lip of each. The bags wouldn’t stay open if the lip weren’t folded over. But I think even if someone devised a way to make a regular sandwich bag to stay squarely open without the fold, folding would still be necessary. This process is what transforms a mere sandwich bag into a luminaria-in-waiting, the unspoken promise of light and hope to come.

It’s good to be home.

by

Airport Morning

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Pre-Trip Posts, Tags: , ,

The DHS dog comes by amiably, tugging his black-jacketed attendant along as he moves from person to person like he’s seeking a treat. He pauses at a small red bag in the genre of the modern over-sized carry-on, sniffing it up and down. Its owner, who profiles like a border-guard volunteer, doesn’t bother to look up and the attendant simultaneously tugs the leash as if to say “not the droids we are looking for.” The neighboring man, a near carbon-copy in build and appearance, though younger, does an exaggerated askance glance, rotating the eyes fully up and then down as he seeks the first man’s face for clues of felonious intent. The first man makes a phone call, irritated, as the dog wanders off in search of other milkbones; the neighbor is visibly more nervous in his extra-comfy leather seat with the three-pronged charging outlets and fake-marble-topped side table. He is tapping his feet and trying to stare straight ahead as though willing himself into a trance.

We are all thinking the same thing, at times like that if not at other times. The moment just before take-off, the acceleration into the lift that never quite feels like it could possibly be enough to lift even the assembled visible human mass off the ground, let alone the encasing steel and baggage. The moment of removing our shoes, patting down our own pockets for the trace coin or piece of wadded paper we will be berated for later if it remains. The lining up of sockfeet on the yellow gumshoe outlines, arms akimbo and upright, hands up, don’t shoot, but an even more surrendering position than that, as though we are about to be cuffed, or lifted straight off the ground. It has been ingrained in us at every turn: the trip we are about to take is dangerous. Maybe it was the image of the second plane going into the second tower over and over and over again, every angle, every speed, every shrill cry in the background. Two minutes hate, two minutes fear. Maybe it’s just the guards, everywhere. Maybe it’s a primal human terror at leaving the ground, at having nothing below but the clear blue sky.

Very few people read anymore. They play with their phones, their tablets, their computers. If they are reading, it’s often on one of these devices, especially if they are under 40. I’m always the only one under 40 with an actual paper book. Some idle picture-laden magazines do appear on laps, maybe even a sketchbook employed by the especially artsy type, the one with at least three colors of hair and pink socks poking above low-ankled black canvas shoes. There are an uncanny number of glasses and sunglasses up on foreheads, nestled in hair or perching on bald domes, reflecting back the sunny tarmac and its noisy sleek denizens. The padded, armrested comfy chairs are extremely popular, full long before any other section of the standard-issue adjoined seat rows without armrests. There is, mercifully, no blaring TV with some toned-down airport version of CNN alternating overly happy news with the specter of news that can only serve as a small reminder of what we all know we are all trying not to think about.

In a far corner by the window, a wheelchaired man is in a hushed but animated conversation with a cohort, possibly his younger brother. The Saints clothing per capita in this discussion is 1.5. Gestures and laughter punctuate their talk with such frequency that one wants to sidle over and join them, whatever the topic, knowing intuitively that it could only be enjoyed like that by people who’ve shared at least forty years of history together, and probably sixty-plus. I’m pretty certain I’ve played poker with the guy five seats down on my left and he keeps eying me cross-wise like he knows he recognizes me but isn’t sure from where and if he figures out from where, he’s definitely of the type that doesn’t admit outside of casinos how much time he spends in them. The girl in the purple shirt across the way looks like she’s too young to be flying alone but she’s probably at least 16 and it reminds me that age is entirely a relativistic experience. I can still remember how sixth graders seemed older than my parents when I was in first. I can still remember my grandparents calling my parents “you kids” when the latter were in their fifties. I frequently see someone I think I recognize from some past era in my life until I realize that the person I’m thinking of was 18 or 22 when I last saw them and that the person I currently see is 18 or 22, but the person I’m thinking of is actually now in their 30s.

Cell phones are picked up frequently, but never for long. Such seems to be their purpose, to shorten talks down to their distilled minimum. And maybe that’s how people always used the phone, mostly, but it wasn’t so visible, public, accessible, constant. People answer questions about their upcoming flight, layovers, weather here and weather there. Pickup arrangements are made, flight numbers relayed for the checking of delays. There is an intense, glazed, television-thrall type look to those who are only fingering their phones and not talking, be it an absorbing game or the unending scroll of the web and its diversions. There is frequent and profound sighing everywhere, as people are reminded that they are waiting. Or perhaps that they are trying not to think that this could be their last morning on Earth and that everyone is thinking about that just a little. We rarely come face-to-face with mortality in a mundane way. It is either the drama of immediate trauma to ourselves or loved ones, or a long slow sad decay. But there is something about the everyday fluorescent over-brightness of this gate area, its stainless steel numbered pillars glowing in the morning sun, that makes the end seem both near and absurd. One can’t think about it too long or it will become too much. We all hear stories about the person who ran off the plane that crashed at the last possible minute, have all contemplated, at least once, freaking ourselves out to the point of being that person. But we tap the right side of the door twice as we enter (or whatever your little superstition happens to be, if applicable), and board all the same.

I cannot help but thinking back to the 5-year-old girl in the line with the harried stressed father and the over-calm older sister and the meek mother, the one who appeared to have deep set scars under each eye. She was about three groups ahead of me in the bag-check line and an even shorter distance up in the security queue. They looked like gashes, red with the remnants of exposed blood, then tear tracks, then gashes again, as she turned nervously in the line like someone in need of the bathroom. I kept looking at her father, picturing him hitting her or attacking her, then the mother, because it could be her too or instead, after all, then berating myself for such harsh suspicions when children fall all the time or run too quickly. The particular shape and placement of what really did ultimately look like cuts, though, were hard to conjure an appropriate explanation for and I wondered if this is how profiling works or if this is more frequent for me as a would-be creative writer, or if there’s something about this slightly paranoid environment that makes one dread their fellow traveler. The family was white, very Southern looking, the father ruddy and one who seemed quick to anger, but perhaps I just wanted to see that. Serial has taught us how quickly we can explain the shocking, how much we can fill in what we want to see if someone tells us that’s the explanation, or if we suspect something enough. We did it that September morning, now already so long ago. We do it every day.

Should I have reported what I saw? If you see something, say something. It is, statistically speaking, far more dangerous these days to be a schoolchild than a plane-rider. And that’s even not accounting for yesterday’s tragic events in Peshawar. Peshawar, another city of stories from my father’s youth, turned again to a synonym for blood. It is, of course, statistically speaking, more dangerous to be almost anything than a plane-rider. Despite the thoughts we all are harboring and hiding, what we are about to do is safer than whatever we did to get us here. It is safer than whatever our step is after we leave the airport we’re headed to. It is safer than most everything else we fill our days with, even if cell phones don’t cause cancer.

A rack of vapid, over-makeupped faces stare at me from behind and above the real faces I see. It occurs to me to wonder whether the magazine industry would still exist were it not for plane travel. And how much longer, even here, it can compete with the small rectangular screens that even now I myself am partaking in to bring you these observations. It is not all useless, what we do on these screens, it is communication and contact and the desperate sense that we are not where we are. That we are closer with the ones we love and miss. That we are not, in fact, waiting in an airport for a metal tube that we really hope does not lead us to our doom, that we hope will comfortably and safely teleport us to one of a hundred other worlds. And now I bring you the irony of trying to will you into this space, to give you enough vignettes and insights such that you too feel transported to a place that, by all accounts, no one really sees as a place to be, a destination, a location they would choose.

The seats are filling in now, more closely, and at least two people have glanced over to see surreptitiously what I was working on so intently. One actually moved two seats further away thereafter, perhaps getting enough of a gist to realize that I was publicly talking about everyone here. There are now four people in wheelchairs here. None who appear to have lost their limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan. The friend in the animated conversation before surprised me by running off to a different gate with fond goodbyes five minutes ago, being replaced by what can only be the first wheelchaired man’s wife, also adorned in Saints paraphernalia. The attendant behind the Southwest desk wears a purple sequined Santa hat that is something I cannot honestly say I have ever seen.

Our plane lands behind me and the disoriented-looking, recalibrating new teleportees to New Orleans turn the corner single-file. Most are rolling bags behind them. Many are clutching their small reflective rectangles. All look a little like they have just survived something – exhausted relief. Maybe I am making too much of this or looking for it, but maybe it’s always there just in that moment atop the jetway. The planting of shoe on solid ground once more, the connection with the earth that our species has loved since the first of us grew tired of swimming and crawled out of the tide.

Soon, they will call our number and we will, as one, rise to take our preordained place beside the numbered pillars. We will carry those slight little dejected looks of boredom, punctuated only by the occasional excited child or particularly gregarious personality. I will think of the little girl again, of the plane in the tower, of all the other safe landings, of Albuquerque and my family and the destination that we all must be singularly focused on. I will tap the right side of the door, outside the plane twice, as I have since my early teens. I will settle into a seat, row 17 by the window if I can, stuff my backpack under the seat before me and remove my book. I will look out the window, sigh, read, and wonder how long I will be able to stay awake. The people who do this daily, for a living, who surely must have got better control of their worse thoughts than I do yet, will talk to us about things we have known since we were five. Five. Damn.

And soon, after a short little drive and that sudden loud acceleration, we will make for the sky.

Portrait of the blogger (sort of) as a pre-boarded man.  But mostly of a plane and all that tarmac.

Portrait of the blogger (sort of) as a pre-boarded man. But mostly of a plane and all that tarmac.

by

It’s Lumi Time!

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

Rumor has it that it’s the most wonderful time of the year. I couldn’t agree more.

You can keep your ornate displays of high-watt outdoor bulbs, your blow-up santas and penguins, your animatronic lowing cattle and rooftop reindeer a-tromping. Save your LEDs, your candy canes, even your wreaths. Late December means just one thing to me: luminarias.

Look, they've got memes for everything these days!

Look, they’ve got memes for everything these days!

It’s hard to put into words just what exactly is so magical about luminarias for me, since it’s really a combination of things. And every year or two, I’ve made another pass at trying to really explain it. If you want the best visual chronicle of the finished results of the display, you can refer to my 2010 post on the then-record 772-lumi display I did that year. My elation at setting a then-record previously, in 2008, is discussed here, which is mostly just a testament to the combination of exhaustion and triumph that comes with putting one of these displays together. And I did some of my most elegant, if briefest writing on the phenomenon in 2012, before the worst year in the last four, when wind pretty much wiped out the neighborhood’s display and destroyed my roof efforts and most of the rest.

But perhaps the greatest accomplishment I’ve notched as a luminarian (luminaire? lumineer?) was getting on KRQE 13 (local news) last year, in this story:

That was my new all-time record of 850. And I’m really considering making good on my wild proposal of over 1,000 this year. After all, part of the point of keeping track of all these records is to give myself something to beat the next season. And for the first time in many years, my parents aren’t protesting, aren’t worried I’m overdoing it, aren’t asking me to scale down a little bit or take it easy. They’re all in for a record-setting display.

So I’ve gotten ready. I’ve officially picked up the first 100 bags of the season with nine days to go.

This is the start of something beautiful.

This is the start of something beautiful.

What is a luminaria? At its simplest, most basic level, it is a lit votive candle inside a sandwich bag, with a little bit of sand at the bottom. That’s it, that’s all there is. And indeed, that itself is one of the most cherished and lovable things about luminarias: their basic simplicity. This is fundamentally a democratic tradition, a poor person’s tradition, as it started in one of the consistently poorest parts of the country. It uses simple materials, each humble in their origins, but combines to make something bright and magical and uniting. Kind of like the best spirit of Christmas itself.

They’re widely accessible. In many neighborhoods of Albuquerque and, I hear, increasingly other cities of the southwest, they are almost universal on paths and walkways, creating an overall communal display that is generally consistent, in theme if not in quantity or quality. And in an era where everything is electric and electronic and bigger and brighter, the simplicity of the subtle flicker of muted candlelight, ‘neath extinguished streetlights and darkened car traffic, makes Christmas Eve a night where people are removed from their own time and transported back to a quieter, darker, slower age. They are best viewed by walking for just this reason, though hordes of buses are toured through the most ardently participatory neighborhoods of Albuquerque, as well as car traffic after a certain hour, with parking lights or less on. There are also all manner of conveyances, as people come through on bikes, horses, horse-drawn carts, and multi-wheeled person-powered contraptions, most of them adorned with small little Christmas lights or other decorations. People greet each other and pause at their favorite displays and warm up by firepits sometimes placed outside.

Last year, we debuted a firepit to go with the massive display that adorned not only the sidewalk and front-yard paths, but fences, gates, rooftops, inner courtyard, and even trees. I have always loved sitting back in the shadows of the front porch and hearing breathy appreciations come across the frosty night air when people see my displays, but nothing prepared me for the thanks my family and I would get when we actually stood outside to tend a firepit and meet many of the visitors. It’s the west, so people just come up and say hi and warm themselves, all but the very shyest who have to be cajoled. And it’s the west on Christmas, so conversations were frequent and often lengthy, always punctuated with encouragement and wonder. I’ve certainly never done these displays for the thanks of the people, though they are, like any public decoration or display, predominantly for the enjoyment of others. And in a deep and dark December when my family desperately needed some acknowledgement and hope, last year’s Christmas Eve shone like a lighthouse beacon across the roiling sea.

Hopefully, the firepit will be back this year. Alex will be there for Christmas Eve itself… she’s helped a lot with bags in the past, but never has been there for layout or actually doing the display, let alone seeing the entire neighborhood. And as I’ve told her, as I tell you now, like so many jewels of the southwest (the Grand Canyon springs to mind), luminarias really need to be seen live to be truly understood. Still or even moving pictures capture a hint of their glory, but only a small hint. The scale, the flicker, the spirit that haunts the candlelit streets and bag-lined lanes really requires a human presence. No amount of bombardment of images, direct or conjured through words, is going to do the real magic justice.

KRQE will be back too, doing an earlier story on creating the luminarias and setting up the display. I’ve long wanted to do a kind of how-to or even some kind of timelapse video of me constructing the whole display. Maybe I’ll attempt that this year, if I have the energy and pace myself properly. Exhaustion is always a factor in these things, though the years have made me more adept at timing, when to take breaks, how to cut down on lighting time, when to start lighting, and a hundred other little subtleties of the practice. Doing the display in the same place year after year helps too, though my Dad’s constant tweaks and improvements on the house he’s made a 15-year masterpiece always keep me guessing.

The project is several parts obsession, a handful of tradition, a dash of pride, a spot of creativity, and a whole boatload of excitement. Even now, just contemplating the hours of work ahead on carefully folding the lip of the bags, scooping sand into each one, plopping a candle therein, and then laying them out with exact spacing and precision, lighting them all, and seeing the display, I am giddy. Few things in this life get me so elated, so heart-racey with anticipation. And unlike so many highly-anticipated things, the end result is even better than the looking forward.

Nine days of magic, starting tomorrow. I can’t wait.

by

Facebook Tires of Dominance, Success, Decides to Start Self-Destruction

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: ,

You know what's cooler than a billion dollars?  Throwing it all away!

You know what’s cooler than a billion dollars? Throwing it all away!

Remember MySpace? Or Friendster? No one talks much about Friendster anymore, because it was basically exactly Facebook. I remember the first time someone told me about Facebook, which I had just missed by graduating a little too early and not going to Harvard, my quizzical reaction was “Oh, you mean, like Friendster?” Everyone was on MySpace and Friendster. They were going to take over the world. And then they didn’t.

Look, Facebook has gotten way further along than those sites did. It’s more in the same company as Google these days. And even though people look at me kind of strangely when I say Google “no longer works”, I do think the main searching function of that site is on its way out the door, the algorithm hopelessly cluttered by paid rank improvements of all kind, both with the money going to Google and the cash going to rank-beating services. But regardless. Google has infiltrated our lives sufficiently with its GMail product (though rumor has it they’re trying to ruin that somehow, too) that they will be around for a while.

But Facebook has apparently recently announced that they’re done. Not interested in being the top web company, or co-top, any longer. According to this Wall Street Journal article, they’re going to require people with Facebook pages about something other than themselves (i.e. businesses, artists, teams, websites, etc.) to more or less pay to play.

Here’s how they put it:

“Businesses that post free marketing pitches or reuse content from existing ads will suffer ‘a significant decrease in distribution,’ Facebook warned in a post earlier this month announcing the coming change.

The upshot for Ms. Bossie is that ‘if I do not pay to promote the post or boost it, it’s hardly reaching anyone,’ she says. Now, more than half her sales come via her Facebook posts, she estimates.”

-WSJ article, 27 November 2014

Now I don’t know how far this reaches or how deep the rabbit hole goes. My dramatic post title and condemnation of the move is based on the assumption that Facebook is basically doing this to all pages of all sorts, be they for individual budding artists or writers, companies large and small, candidates for office, activism groups, sports teams, debate teams, you name it. It could be that they’re only overtly targeting for-profit businesses of some establishment with this change, in which case, I’m not so worried about it. But in any case, I see doom on the horizon.

I think the best analogy is not MySpace or Friendster, but Netflix. Remember when everyone in America had a Netflix subscription? It wasn’t that long ago. Yes, I know Netflix has bounced back a little and a lot of people share the password to someone’s account who actually pays for Netflix now, so it kind of feels like most people have Netflix. But remember when they had just one Netflix service and everyone got discs in the mail? Yeah, you recall now. Cool.

And then they made this dramatic announcement, in September 2011, that they would be splitting their DVD-by-mail service from their streaming service. And, more insultingly, that the service everyone liked less (streaming, which had far fewer movies and vastly fewer good movies) would be considered the “default” Netflix, while they were calling the by-mail model that had built the Netflix empire “Qwikster”. They cancelled the official split in businesses a month later after they lost millions of subscriptions and there was huge public outcry, but this was just window-dressing as they basically persisted with the split of services, separate charges for each, and pretending that streaming was the default and mainline service. By the end of that year, their stock value had lost over 75% of its value and Netflix went from being a household necessity to something that was desperately pestering people to come back and try it again free for a month. Admittedly, Netflix has rebounded a little by reinventing itself as a TV station, adding tons of popular shows (Gilmore Girls, anyone?) to its streaming lineup and even creating new shows. But their popularity and reach is nothing compared to where they’d be if they’d just kept mailing DVDs to people in perpetuity while doing the same build of their streaming library.

This is the precipice that I feel Facebook is on with this new change at the top of 2015, assuming it applies to everyone with followed pages. Because here’s the problem: people don’t like paid-advertising content. They don’t like sponsored links. People like what they like. For goodness sakes, Facebook reinvented what it means to like something; they should know this better than anyone! What makes Facebook so palatable for people is that you can like exactly what you like, friend exactly who you like, and basically make Facebook a little portal into only and exactly the things that you feel good about.

Facebook has always had ads, of course. Everyone has ads, except PostSecret, who commendably has built an empire out of books and having one of the simplest and most brilliant ideas ever to grace the web. Good on PostSecret. But everyone else is trying to subsist on ads. And part of the deal with ads is that basically no one younger than 35 can even really see them unless they voluntarily choose to. People raised with the Internet at some point in their high school or college days or younger have trained their eyes where to look for content and where to look for advertising and to mentally block out the imagery and text of advertising. Maybe I’m somewhat unique in this, but I really don’t think so, because in the last year or so, everyone started putting ads in new places, right in the middle of the content. Self-declared authorities of the web like Salon and Huffington Post have started having ads either disrupt your viewing experience entirely by plastering across the screen like a cumbersome pop-up or putting them in the text box every third paragraph so you seemingly have to see it. And Facebook has put sponsored content right there in the news feed like it’s something you want to see.

Here’s the problem: no one wants to see this stuff. When I started getting sponsored ads in my Facebook feed, my reaction was resentful. “I didn’t like ViralNova,” I would grumble to myself. “Why is ViralNova stuff in my feed?” Facebook conveniently does offer the option of blocking future content from any given perpetrator of this advertising, I guess to prevent a riot or maintain the illusion of controlling one’s own content, but it’s still kind of an embittering process when you’re expecting Facebook to give you only stuff that you have voluntarily chosen (or begrudgingly accepted, I guess, from that borderline friend). But at least Facebook still gives me updates from the Blazers and the Mariners, goofy stuff from Chipotle, sales from Southwest Airlines. Because I actually want to see that stuff in my feed.

Now it looks like unless those companies pony up some money, I won’t see their content at all! Which is the most distressing and I think self-destructing part of this for Facebook. I want to know about those big companies, yes, but also to get updates about the budding craft and pottery businesses from old friends in California, my ex-colleague in the Bay Area who is an aspiring artist, my friend in North Carolina’s photography business, and my rising star artist friend in New York City. These all have Facebook pages I have liked and I love being able to use Facebook to follow their progress and cheer them on. Seeing updates from Glide always brightens my day. I suspect I have a few friends who even follow this very website this way, which I diligently update every time there’s a new post and someday will again whenever I finally finish the Song Quiz and get going on other quizzes.

The point is that these fledgling little pages are a huge part of what works about Facebook, its magic, if you will. Like getting little DVDs in the mail and reigniting the joy of mail for people was about Netflix, the little feeling of receiving a present a couple times a week, plus the thrill of anticipation of knowing it’s coming. Netflix totally failed to understand how much of its brand and magic and hold on people was about that simple little process and felt it could kill it in the name of revenue. But that was the revenue! And some group in a boardroom decided that Netflix didn’t need the magic anymore, a whole country felt betrayed, and people dropped it like it was hot.

The people with these pages want to get their news, content, and updates to those people who like them. And the people who have liked them want that content. They voluntarily signed up for it. It is crazy to try to extort a few extra bucks from these people trying to disseminate content to people who want it. And it is even crazier, because most of what is being paid for is getting that content to other people who don’t want it! When you “boost” a post as a page, you can target the audience somewhat, but the point is that most of the people it’s delivered to are not people who’ve ever expressed interest in your company/art/content. Now yes, the empire-building capitalist theory of everyone is that you’re supposed to believe that everyone will someday like me, but they just haven’t heard of me yet. Just like we will all someday be billionaires in this country, we’re just going through our poor-but-humble phase now. But the reality is that this is not how liking things works. You grow resentful of people who barrage you with cheap paid content, especially if you’ve never heard of them before. Things go viral when friends share them and you hear of something from the people you trust. And Facebook is the best and easiest place to “go viral”. What does Facebook think of this other aspect of its magic that gets tens of millions logging in every day?

“Dan Levy, Facebook’s vice president of small business, says that Facebook’s paid-advertising options have become more effective recently and that companies should view Facebook as a tool to ‘help them grow their businesses, not a niche social solution to getting more reach or to make a post go viral.'”

What are you thinking, Dan Levy? Trying to organically improve reach and get things to go viral is what Facebook is all about. Take that away and it’s just another superhighway riddled with billboards for stuff you don’t care about. There’s a reason that no serious site uses pop-up ads anymore: people despise being bombarded with content they didn’t choose from people who paid to put it there. People love content that they did choose or was recommended to them. When you undermine Facebook’s ability to provide the latter in favor of the former, yes, you make a little more revenue upfront. But you also strangle the golden goose that made you so popular and ubiquitous in the first place.

It’s almost like there’s a brick-and-mortar model for this. Catalogs and magazines. People love catalogs and magazines that they signed up for, that they chose. They hate catalogs and magazines they didn’t want or didn’t choose, seeing it as annoying junk. I got a free Rolling Stone subscription with some tickets to a concert I bought last year and not only did it long outlast the six-month “trial” that started it, but it followed me to New Orleans against my will. They keep sending me threatening e-mails and letters saying the subscription I never chose and never paid a cent for is going to run out and needs renewal. I can’t wait! Whenever I see that they’ve sent me another Rolling Stone, I get angry at the waste. And it’s not like it’s such a bad magazine – I’m just not into magazines. But I am upset instead of neutral because I didn’t choose it. This experience has actually made me like Rolling Stone less.

I guess I’d be a little less confident that this change was going to signal Facebook’s decline if I hadn’t seen something similar happen to so many other websites. Websites are new technology, still, and everyone running them is a tech geek. I think this is why they all believe in perpetual innovation and change and all seem to believe so fundamentally that it is never enough to leave well enough alone. Unless you’re growing, evolving, and have fifty ideas in beta, then you’re looking over your shoulder at someone else who is going to knock you out of the marketplace.

I think this is backwards. I think that most of these sites knock themselves out of the marketplace by overheating and trying too many new things. If your website is dominating the market and audience attention with a certain model, maybe keep on doing what you’re doing. People like that content, feel good about how you’re delivering it. Why stop? Any other business or venture would find it insane to say that things are working really well and you’re on top of the food chain, so radically revamp how things are done. And yet Google keeps tweaking the algorithm and is looking to overhaul the most popular e-mail platform in the world. Facebook wants to stop people from seeing it as a way to go viral or spread unpaid content. Maybe Fandango will soon stop selling movie tickets are start selling bus tickets instead. Or Priceline can start charging each user $2 to see their listings. After all, more upfront revenue, right?! What could possibly go wrong?

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