Tag Archives: A Day in the Life


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.


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.


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.


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?


Revisionist History

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Call and Response, Know When to Fold 'Em, Metablogging, Primary Sources, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Think of the past as a mirror...

Think of the past as a mirror…

From time to time during the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve added new categories for indexing the various kinds of posts one sees on this page. I’ve long eschewed the notion of a specialized blogging pursuit, such as focusing only on the Mariners or on my statistical analyses of the flaws of the stock market or on periodic stints of writing a weekdaily webcomic. It’s likely that choosing any one of these as a singular path would yield greater readership, or at least more strangers reading since they could come to that page specifically for one pursuit or interest. Instead, StoreyTelling ends up being about all of these things and a lot more and really only offers the category/tag clicks as a way of sorting out the kind of content a given reader might be most interested in.

The problem with that, of course, is that the nature of my interests and their specificity can change over time and these categories can then fail to be fully representative of their content. I think the best example of this phenomenon is in the Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading category, which has come to include everything from actual voting in American political campaigns to any major story covered by the news to individual myopia to the plight of others to any matter of international concern. This broad brush isn’t all that surprising given that I probably think every one of my posts is political in some way (small-p political) and I have been known to say that all art is political. What exactly politics means is contextual and thus that category is my third most-used, behind Duck and Cover (740 posts, almost all of which are just blog-displays of the comic) and A Day in the Life (621 posts, as my default for just about any written post). But it also means that the category starts to lose its meaning when it discusses such a wide range of topics.

The solution to this would seem to be to subdivide the categories, to try to divide international relations from American politics from commentaries on more tangentially political issues. I guess this is why categories and tags exist as separate entities, though I’ve only used them interchangeably herein. The problem is that any effort to recategorize past posts interferes with one of the cardinal rules of this whole project for me: namely, to not revise or edit past posts. Now, it’s certainly debatable to what extent adding or dropping or specifying categories/tags is really changing the context of a post, and it’s a question I struggle with. Categories like Strangers on a Train or It’s the Stupid Economy were created after a few posts in those directions made it clear that such a unique category was necessary, or at least a good idea. But then the question immediately arises of whether to back-categorize other posts that fall into the genre but predate the actual creation of that category. Does this somehow interfere with the nature of this blog as a time capsule of the person I was in the past, of my perspective, or the authenticity of those observations? Or does it just make it easier for people to find posts they might like?

I think, as is so often the case, the purposes of this blog for myself and for others wind up at a bit of cross-purposes. If this blog were primarily/only for readers, it would likely be trivial to just go back and try to recategorize. Granted that scouring 1,384 posts (though half are just D&Cs, so maybe we can exclude those) for possible re-examination of content through the lens of later-created categories is a big project. But it might be fun to go through everything and re-examine, as I periodically attempt to do anyway. This, after all, gives me the opportunity to use this blog as one of the tools that I prefer it to be, as an educator about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and hopefully how I can screw things up less in the future. But once I’ve altered those categories, I’m saying something just a little bit different from what I said at the time. And then it seems an easy addition to fix typos. And then it’s all too easy to start trying to justify taking out that particularly immature statement, or that awkward phrase, and soon we’ve lost the document’s integrity altogether.

Now, look, I know the slippery slope is a logical fallacy. That said, I also know that almost every road to evil or mistakes is paved in sequential tiny jumps that each make sense in the micro-view and end up becoming a horrible leap downward in the macro-view. I’ve periodically discussed this under the ungainly appellation of the A to B, B to C, C to D Problem. No one would ever go from A to D directly and to consider D from the vantage of A would be absurd. But A to B is just enough of a little compromise/sacrifice/change/jump. And then from the new vantage of B, once adjusted, C doesn’t look nearly so far away as it did before – it’s just as far as A! And so on.

I honestly think it’s hard to explain anything we find regrettable in human history that was caused by sentient thought that doesn’t conform to some version of this progression. This is part of why I don’t really believe that there are evil people. There are a whole bunch of fallible, possibly selfish, but largely well-intentioned people who get caught on these roads and make little hops all the way to really disastrous decisions.

In any case, I care a lot about the integrity of this body of work, combined with the previous blog and even the Waltham Weeklies and other saved documents before that. Because as long as I leave them untouched, they aren’t subject to the kind of revisionist history that our memory naturally is. I have a pretty darn good memory as these things go, with multiple distinct and powerful memories from before my fourth birthday, which I’m told is relatively rare.* But as debates like those sparked in my family about whether I saw E.T. or Tron first prove, my memory is imperfect, or my parent’s memories are. I firmly remember a certain order of events and my parents recall another. And these memories are important for us in shaping our view of the past on which we base our notion of both the present and the future. But there is a truth of the matter. The memory is serving a different purpose than the absolute truth about what happened. And I have a bit of a bias toward the truth as I think it’s a little more stable and informative.

That said, there’s really no way to make memories conform wholly to the truth, or at least not to be damaged by the end results. Obvious example: my marriage. How I felt about my marriage before Emily cheated on me and left me is wholly different than how I felt about it afterwards. But the fact of the experience at the time remains unchanged. In memory, there is no possible way to recall a particular anniversary dinner or a shared moment or some sacrifice she made for me outside of the context of her ultimate betrayal. There is no possible way for me to just envision that pure memory without the tarnish that time and subsequent events put on it. And yet, the actual event was the pure version, without the eventual damage of future events. As a temporal extant being who must constantly remember the past through the new lens of the ever-changing present, that event is fundamentally lost to me, its context forever altered. But with this blog, I can at least read my actual reporting on the event from the precise time it happened and get the most accurate possible rendition of how I truly felt about it at the time, unspoiled by the knowledge of the future.

I think, for what it’s worth, this is what makes betrayal, especially romantic betrayal, so fundamentally devastating. Because it takes all your good memories, all the little buoys of confidence and hope that get us through the tough days, and spoils them. No matter what the actual content of their validity was at the time, they are not only lost, but actively ruined, turned against you to now be little taunts of what you didn’t have. Even if you, in a sense did have them, at the time. This is why I was able to seriously say things like maybe it would have been better had I died in the October 2009 car accident (scroll down to the italicized postscript in that post) after Emily left me – because then I would have died with all those good times intact and unspoiled in perpetuity. As the Smiths put it, “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” This is not just about the joy of a particular moment; it is about the knowledge that this moment will never be so great in the long-term future as it feels right now. The course of events will destroy it.

Now, there is no illusion that this blog, merely by existing here as unaltered testament to the daily updates of a temporally changing being, can actually capture and preserve that magic wholly in a way that is meaningfully useful to combat the damage of, say, betrayal or loss. Because even in reading about the past, no matter how pure or unadulterated the past’s testimony is, the overly introspective ruminative person (that’s me!) will find clues that were never there.

Prime, recent example: in looking for a particular nugget of past testimony in my blog sometime last week, I started reading various posts from the past, as I often do. It’s like getting to hang out with my past self, a close but sometimes annoying friend. And then I discovered, to my absolute horror, that my post about my plans for the summer of 2010 was entitled, by my own choosing, April Come She Will. In the context of my choice at the time, it was innocuous. The post was dated 6 April and I talked about the inevitability of April and how the month often troubles me. But in the context of how that summer unfolded, well, here are the lyrics to the Simon & Garfunkel song which shares a title with that post:

April, come she will
when streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May, she will stay
resting in my arms again
June, she’ll change her tune
in restless walks, she’ll prowl the night
July, she will fly
and give no warning to her flight
August, die she must
the autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September, I remember
a love once new has now grown old

Now, I don’t need to go through a full blow-by-blow of the events of those months in 2010 to demonstrate just how chilling this discovery was to me. After all, you can go read the archives of those months on this page! Isn’t that the whole point? Suffice it to say that this could be a chronicle of the critical months that ended my marriage, down to July being the time of betrayal after an unhappy and searching June for Emily in Liberia, yielding to her cruel indifference in August and everything being over in September. I mean, this could’ve been a poem I wrote about the experience. And I know that this is about a trivial love affair that starts in that same April and is over by summer’s end and I know that I’ve been listening to this song since I was thirteen, but this is exactly the kind of experience that prompted me to spend a fevered day in senior year running around telling all of my friends that we have the key but we just don’t know how to use it. And when they asked me what the hell I was talking about, I just said, in hushed reverent and slightly goggle-eyed tones, that it was “the key“.

What I was talking about, then, was that PLB had told me a story in the midst of our relationship about her father’s first marriage and how his first wife had gone crazy on their wedding night and had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t handle the commitment or the situation and basically disappeared and that it broke her father’s heart and made him kind of a sad, distant person. We were doing a close reading of either Conrad or Kafka in AP English and something in the work triggered the memory of this story and I came to see it as a parable, a warning she was giving me, that had about as much truth-content as her average statement. (Full disclosure: I have no idea whatsoever if this story was entirely true, entirely made up, or some mixture.) At that moment, I felt that this was the one glaring clue she had given me that she was in over her head, was crazy, and that our relationship was doomed.

Now, talk about your revisionist history! It’s probably just as nuts to believe that this was her deliberate warning as it is to believe that I knew the next six months of my life would mirror a Simon & Garfunkel song on 6 April 2010. But doggone it, this stuff gives me the shivers. You can call it irrational pattern-seeking if you want, you can call it confirmation bias, you can call it the deliberate and willful search for something that isn’t there. But I will never be able to see these things without the feeling that there is a deeper code to be cracked in all of this, that things are more embedded that we can imagine. Or, to quote the Doctor Who episode I saw last night:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”
-The Doctor, Doctor Who, Season 3 of the new reboot, “Blink” episode

How else to explain that I actively try to send my past self psychic messages about the outcome of certain hands at the poker table to be received by my previous self? Or that I sometimes feel I receive those messages? I rarely trust these messages, especially when they are about subpar hands, but the messages of certain strong feelings have a scarily remarkable track-record of being right. And this practice definitely predates poker and probably goes back to a deeply embedded series of beliefs that most people would consider “magical thinking” to be polite and “crazy” to be realistic. And, mind you, no one has been less successfully psychic than me. I still dated PLB, still married Emily, still hired Baia. No wonder I’m obsessed with trying to beat the future.

No, this isn’t all just about having some perfect script of the past to serve as a blueprint for some mosaic of the future, though that’s not none of it either. But the preservation of the perfections, oddities, insights, and tribulations of the unadorned past still feels like the single most meaningful aspect of the project of blogging. And why it will probably be just a little bit harder for you to navigate to the type of content you personally most want to see. As though I didn’t make it hard enough by calling a category that most would label simply Music as “All the Poets Became Rock Stars”. Or by choosing, it would appear, nine categories for this post. Maybe, future self, I just want you to read it. (But not “Read it and Weep”. That’s the Books category.)

*Which reminds me, as a total sidenote, that it just occurred to me how crazy it is that I remember seeing both E.T. and Tron in theaters at a little younger than 2.5 years old. These may even predate my near-drowning experience in swim class that I have always classified as my earliest memory. I’m sure my Dad can weigh in, especially after he rebutted my Ms. Pac Man-post‘s discussion of those two movies with the following:

“The first point about Tron was that it was a DISNEY movie. I grew up loving the Walt Disney movies, the color (not black & white), the animation (though not all were animated). My first drive-in movie (in Carson City) was to see a re-release of Dumbo. I saw Bambi (alone in a matinee) on a big screen one block away from the White House in 1957 in Washington. I loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in Carson), Another film at the drive-in was Old Yeller, about when I got my dog “Jamie”. Pinnochio and Cinderella were seen several times, my mother loved Fantasia, so I endured that movie (once), but I found the Bald Mountain sequence very scary (like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz).

The 70’s and early 80’s were a bad time for movies. Bigger theaters were broken up to create small rooms with small screens (for small audiences). Then they started building “multi-screen” places (not really real theaters), like where ET was shown, out on south Mooney (in Visalia). I generally hated the “small room” mall type movie experience. I loved (best) the movie “Palaces”, like the Grand Lake in Oakland, or the older (depression, WPA mural, type theaters, like the Kimo in Albuquerque and the old original movie house in downtown Visalia. [Note: In many cities in the US West the only place the WPA Arts Project was visible was in the murals painted on the walls (for free) by WPA artists. Often, this WPA art was both the biggest art (and the best) anywhere in town. In time, most WPA movie murals were painted over. Now, most WPA era movie theaters are torn down, converted, or closed. There seem to be NO articles about the movie murals on the web, just modern day full wall posters that date (in concept) from the WPA Art period that still was very alive in the 1950’s.]

Anyway, Mom and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, in San Jose (actually in a theater in Sunnyvale or Mountain View) the first time you were “babysat” while living in San Jose. Raiders (July 1981) was not as scary as Star Wars (Darth Vader), but still had a few scary (for children) scenes. I can’t recall any other movie that your mother and I saw until I took you to Tron (Mom, then as now, was not interested and didn’t go). I worked for cable (afternoons, evenings and nights). We bought the RCA discs, mostly Disney movies (Mary Poppins, Dumbo) and Seseme Street and Muppets. Had the (new) Disney Channel on TV.

So, Tron was a DISNEY MOVIE, playing at an old WPA real theater downtown, that had a balcony (just to be safe).

I re-saw Fantasia in an old WPA theater in Berkeley (California Theater, about 1971, before it was broken up), because “everyone else” in the group wanted to see it. It was crowded, so we ended up in the balcony seating. The Night on Bald Mountain scene wasn’t nearly as scary sitting ABOVE Bald Mountain.

We sat in the balcony, in Visalia (at the Visalia Fox Theater), when we went and saw Tron. It was the furthest left re-screen configuration, based on the left side entrance to the balcony seating. The theater was old and fairly shabby then, not impressive. I don’t think I ever went back. Also, for a “cherished” Disney film experience I found Tron very boring and I was very worried you didn’t (wouldn’t) like it, and might not ever want to go to another “real movie” again. I guess I was wrong.

Anyway, Mom had heard good things about ET from other parents. She thought it might be a better movie “for kids”, maybe you, more exciting, better plot. I was more concerned about the “alien” (sci-fi), Star Wars angle. I almost said, after the failure of Tron, “let’s not go.” But “Disney had failed me,” so why not try something new, out in a new theater on Mooney. On Mooney, we sat on the floor (floor level seating), the theater was crowded, unlike an almost empty Tron theater experience. The whole thing WAS scary, even for me.”

-E-Mail from Donald Clayton, 8 December 2014

I love my Dad. You can see I come by this obsession with the past, memory, and context pretty honestly.


Password Protection and Self-Defeating Security

Categories: A Day in the Life, Know When to Fold 'Em, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

This country has a bit of a problem with a false sense of security.

This just in!  The US has been torturing people!

This just in! The US has been torturing people!

So-called revelations have been abounding this week over the extent and nature of some specific acts of torture enacted by the CIA during the Bush administration on behalf of the United States. The torture ranged from breaking limbs to making people pass out to threatening sexual violence against them and their families to threatening death to actually killing them. The country appears to be taking this as news, which itself is kind of news to me, but I guess when I can be chattily accosted by a fellow tournament player about how we “finally got some of those Democrats out” and “it’s crazy how many Socialists are still in government,” it’s pretty clear I have no fingers at all on the pulse of America. His unironic earnestness about what he assumed would be my shared opinion that Mary Landrieu, champion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Big Energy, and all-around moderate conservative is a Socialist convinced me that I would actually give him a heart attack (he was of a certain vulnerable age) if I declared, honestly, that I am an actual Socialist the likes of which would make Bernie Sanders blush.

No one is really making much of a connection today between the CIA torture stories and the other news that I can only imagine they are trying to displace, namely the matter of the police slaughtering the unarmed (usually Black men) in our society. The connection seems obvious to me, but then the links between various instances of institutional violence always seem pretty clear and traceable from my vantage. We are a people become so obsessed with danger and threats that we have come to see everything as a threat. Or, far more to the point, everyone as a threat. With the increasingly vague excuse of PTSD from 9/11, we trot out our fear like some sort of endless warrant for the abuse and summary execution of anyone we find remotely disconcerting. So quickly forgetting that this is a narrative as old as nations themselves, that fear of the damage from the last war or major attack brought popular support to Hitler’s expansion, Stalin’s purges, Napoleon’s conquests, Robespierre’s terror, and probably every other significant abrogation of rights and life in history. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and dehumanization are not the products of a society that feels comfortable or stable in itself. They are the products of a society desperate to establish a sense of security through any, preferably rabid, means necessary.

This is an already rutted road in my writing, the discussion of how fear can galvanize evil and how absurd our fears truly are. Even how a different kind of fear motivates our binary lose-lose party system. It’s hard to say how much is a product of American exceptionalism specifically as I have come to believe that no one nation has ever been so good at convincing people of its nobility while spreading iniquity. Or how much of it is just the innate exceptionalism that comes with being a temporal being stuck in a single place in the world, adopting the loyalties and perspectives so tightly bound to the country of one’s origin and rearing. Maybe German exceptionalism and Soviet exceptionalism and French exceptionalism and even Mongol exceptionalism or Hunnic exceptionalism (and certainly Roman exceptionalism) fueled all the atrocities of days gone by. Maybe we aren’t special at all, even in our ability to make ourselves feel more special than the rules of history and power.

But there is perhaps a lighter-hearted metaphor to be found mired in the literal torture and killing our country’s authorities daily enact on the alleged behalf of our safety. One that has also graced the news lately, with head-shaking denotations of the obvious incompetence it implies. Namely, the failure of several institutions to keep passwords in any way safe from hacking, often in the hilarious form of passwords being stored in easy-to-find files named “password”.

You can read all about the story, which was everywhere last week, here, for example.

The problem made most people immediately hit their heads into walls and rush to take part in the bashing of Sony, its IT department, and other gleeful pilings-on so common in our tear-down culture. But no one seemed to raise the issue that seemed more obvious to me, which itself is an issue I’ve been meaning to blog about already anyway. Which is that our current system of Internet security and its attendant passwords are completely unusable by people. They are decently well designed, I suppose, for computers, but as I learn a little bit more each day in the poker world, humans are not computers.

To do most anything on the Internet these days, you need a login for the specific site on which you will be doing that thing. Every site has a different requirement for username protocols, including especially the fact that each login must be unique for that site. And most every site has a different set of requirements for the length, diversity, and criteria of passwords which are handed out. For a clear example, some sites require that a symbol (any key other than a recognizable letter or number) be used at least once in the password, while many others disallow any use of such symbols in passwords. Many sites cap the password length at 12 characters while others require 12 characters as a minimum.

It's not quite this bad yet, but it's close.

It’s not quite this bad yet, but it’s close.

The result is something any even rudimentary Internet user is familiar with – the accumulation of a wide range of relatively diverse passwords. While one could get away with having a few variations on one basic theme as a default password, many stipulations make this practice of streamlining the variance in password requirements impossible. Many sites, especially academic e-mail addresses and an increasing number of more trivial sites, require periodic changing of one’s password and, more perniciously, the banishment of any past precise password after change. Rutgers required this every 3-6 months. Additionally, routine hacks at various retailers and larger threats like the Heartbleed virus render whole swaths of traditionally used username/password combinations void, or at least vulnerable. And thus end-users are constantly barraged by requests or requirements that they change their passwords at various sites while leaving the login screen and username unchanged.

This last bit is important because, in my experience, the only prayer a human actually has of remembering all the various username/password combinations for all their various sites is to have some sort of visual cue or trigger that one associates with that particular page. If I see the logo of a particular bank every time I’m typing some combination, I’m more likely to remember that when logging in as opposed to looking at my GMail login screen. But if I have to change these passwords, then my memory is actually working against me because I have multiple memories of multiple username/password combinations for the same site, meaning that chaos ensues and I end up not remembering my password.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t the additional “safety” feature of locking the account to most anything one is attempting to log in to after 3-5 failed attempts at memory. Something that I have triggered at almost every password-change-mandatory site ever, often multiple times. Which then requires the creation of a (wait for it) even newer unique never-before-at-that site password after one has copy/pasted the string of ridiculous alphanumerics generated by the corrective e-mail prompted by the little “Forgot Password” clicky.

There are basically three ways around this conundrum of modern living that do not involve avoiding the creation of Internet logins:
(1) Store a list of passwords somewhere.
(2) Have your browser memorize your passwords and keep them for you.
(3) Never log out.

The problems with all of these should be obvious. (1) is exactly what Sony did, the problem being that the computer was the easiest place to store the passwords since paper is a dying medium. And paper is vulnerable to loss, oversight, destruction, and theft, making a computer seem theoretically more secure, even if it is hackable. Is it more absurd to travel with one’s little piece of paper or to e-mail or text oneself information? All of these are vulnerable. Only one’s memory is truly secure, but that’s faulty, and I guess isn’t secure either if someone is willing to torture the few passwords you remember out of you.

(3) is impractical, though many people try this for a period of time. But both (2) and (3) have the fatal flaw that anyone successfully hacking your machine can not only steal your password, but could immediately change it and log you out, basically locking you out of that account forever. Which may seem far-fetched until you realize that the entire point of having a password system in the first place is to prevent just that outcome. So either they’re hacking you or they aren’t. Either you have to fear your password getting taken over and this leading to some level of identity theft via login, or it’s all overblown, in which case 1234 or password should suffice.

Granted, some sophisticated systems do prompt you via text or some other more direct means than the Internet if you suddenly change your password and your confirmation e-mail address, which is good. But there’s still a lot of damage that can be done pretty quickly there, especially if the account is for your bank holdings or a particularly high-profile Twitter feed. Thus, the entire process of having Internet passwords becomes a quixotic paradox much like voting. The only time it really matters, it can’t possibly matter. Unless you have the most sophisticated memory for passwords ever.

But then I got a password for CounterWallet so I could hold MepCoin, as discussed in my weekly podcast‘s 131st episode. And that was just a string of random, unmemorizable consecutive words that I was told would never be retrievable ever again if lost, stolen, damaged, or forgotten. Which required that I write it down somewhere, which pretty much had to be somewhere electronic to be really permanent in any way, which makes it perfectly vulnerable to hacking. And while I may have a mere one million MepCoin attached to it (real world value: $0 at the moment), people use this to store things like BitCoin and DogeCoin and things that are theoretically supposed to supplant the mighty dollar someday. Which just mandated that I fall into a basic security trap that proves the totally illusory nature of security.

I am tempted here to pivot to a rant against privacy, but passwords may be the last bastion where privacy actually seems to serve a reasonable purpose. In that, without privacy of passwords at a minimum, all bank information for everyone would become public, and we can’t exactly just trust each other. This is the rare instance where a total symmetry of information rewards the worst actors, not the best, and that seems problematic. Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t have private property unequally held at all (told you I’d make Bernie Sanders blush), but we should probably at least have the right to correctly identify our electronic correspondence with others as actually being from us.

In the meantime, it’s pretty clear that our false sense of security is the biggest thing keeping us unsafe. It’s bad enough to torture our alleged enemies into hating us all the more (or for the first time). But to truly believe our own lies about this stuff is as bad as posting our eponymous file called passwords publicly for all to see. We’re just making total fools of ourselves, as anyone outside the self-delusional exceptionalism we embrace can plainly see.


My Life with (Ms.) Pac-Man (or 84,400 Points Can’t Be Wrong)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , ,

My record-high Ms. Pac-Man score, set earlier this week.

My record-high Ms. Pac-Man score, set earlier this week.

Ms. Pac-Man has played a major role in my existence.

I think I first played the arcade classic in the early-mid 1980s, probably just after it had come out. My father was a big fan of the early Pac-Man tables that came to the world about the same time I did and he would often bring me along for long lunches and early dinners with his sales associates in his various cable-selling and/or entrepreneurial efforts of those heady Reagan years. Often these meals were at establishments that had a couple video games making a trial appearance at the front entrance, competing with the cigarette vending machines, the dirty old bubblegum-dispensers, and occasionally the clucking chicken prize machines that I absolutely adored.

(Given Alex’s incredulity at seeing her first cigarette vending machine at Harrah’s New Orleans a few months back, I expect similar puzzlement about the last kind of machine from those not around in the early ’80s, though it may also have been a localized thing. In which case, behold:)

These things were everywhere.  And they were AWESOME.

These things were everywhere. And they were AWESOME.

I don’t know exactly when my father first hoisted me up to a proper height to be able to reach the controls of Ms. Pac-Man’s hectic voyage through her haunted maze of dots, but it may have been at one of those bar-style tables that would have been decidedly more accessible to my short childhood frame (not a redundancy – I was really short for my age until I shot up to my current height around ages 12-13). It was sometime after we’d seen Tron in theaters as my first or second movie-going experience* and I almost immediately remember connecting the experience of the character I was remotely controlling with the lives of those mono-suited and harrowed drivers in the film. It was thrilling. I’m sure I died quickly and had no idea why, but I also carefully watched my Dad and his associates play over time and soon Ms. Pac-Man would join Halloween and Watership Down as inextricably magical portals in my consciousness.

Thereafter, Ms. Pac-Man would always be my go-to game at arcades and pizza parlors in my youth. I didn’t frequent these places often, but birthday parties or other outings in Seaside, Oregon made them a common location to test out the skills of evading ghosts and eating fruit. I played a safe survival strategy, eschewing the big points to be gained from eating lots of ghosts and preferring usually to gobble the unguarded dots while they went through their mollified blue phase. NBA Jam certainly made a run at my heart for the top spot in the world of video gaming outside the computer, but nothing could knock the hungry yellow circle off her perch.

Then the obsession really kicked into high gear and got some reasonable attempts at practice when we moved to New Mexico and I fell into the habit of bowling with my friends on an at-least weekly basis. Holiday Bowl on Lomas at ~Louisiana remains there and became our third or fourth home and had a big Ms. Pac-Man machine right in the front of the various video games adorning the entrance. Jake and I were the biggest fans, but most everyone took a turn or two at the big yellow-and-blue box, with the crowded semicircle of onlookers cheering or groaning at every turn. It was here that I honed more risky strategies, emerging as I was from a highly risk-averse youth into a still disproportionately risk-averse teenage-dom. I went for the full 1600 (3000 total) points of eating all four ghosts. I went for the fruit from time to time, learning the valuable lesson that it’s there, especially in the early levels (up to peach) mostly to distract you and get you eaten. I learned to hate Red, or Blinky as it is named in the game, for its cunning and speed, especially in sometimes trying to get eaten early so it could fly back out of the gate when no longer vulnerable.

I remember a particular national debate trip in high school where we ate somewhere that had a Ms. Pac-Man machine (or maybe it was in an airport?) and I dropped everything to get out some quarters and give it a spin. My debate teammates had never seen me transformed by the effects of the twists, turns, triumphs, and tragedies, and were thus mostly amused. Jess Hass told me she had never seen me that animated and that it was like another person had come out of my shell. It’s probably somewhat like what people who’ve never seen me dance think when they first see me at a party or wedding.

Then there was a bit of a lull. Brandeis lacked a Ms. Pac-Man machine on campus and Pelta-Heller taught me to play pinball instead. That and laundry scooped up my extra quarters and my skills lapsed a bit. I’d still jump at the chance to gobble some dots and ghosts when presented with the opportunity, but the chances became less frequent as aging machines were taken out. A brief renaissance ensued when Gris and I discovered a table Ms. Pac-Man sublimely sitting in the middle of an Ethiopian bar and grill in Oakland, though. I distinctly remember playing after his birthday party there to console him upon having his car stolen that day (it was recovered two days later not much worse for the already heavy wear).

And then my Dad called and said he’d found an affordably priced Pac-Man table machine on the Internet and did I think it would be cool if he bought it and put it in the basement? This is a bit like a lifetime soccer fan being called on a casual Tuesday night by a relative who is weighing in on whether he or she should choose to buy Manchester United. I got done with my gleeful incredulity about four minutes later and could only calm down enough to make my approval truly clear another four minutes after that.

This elation was only mildly dampened when I came home the first time to discover that he had not just short-handed the game’s title by calling it “Pac-Man” but that it was, in fact, an original, not the Ms. Pac-Man that had stolen my heart over the last two-point-five decades. But I quickly grew to love the simpler and less prolific original, though the cut scenes were not something I’d memorized the tune to ages before. The ghosts were a bit more plodding and logical, but the overall game ran slower and had less variation with the lack of different boards. That said, it was very hard to argue with being able to fish the quarters back out of the till unspent, nor the camaraderie of playing against my father.

The Pac-Man machine has been dormant and is being considered for re-sale, but my Dad and I got it up out of the basement and plugged it in upstairs last visit, when Alex and I went out for Balloon Fiesta in October. And she went from very new to pretty darn good quite quickly, an echo of her childhood playing Super-Mario (I always had a computer for games instead of a Nintendo). And shortly upon our return, we discovered that the arcade at our favored local movie theater, the Elmwood 20 in Harahan (same parking lot as the only NOLA-area Chipotle!) has a back room. We’d been playing air-hockey and occasionally gambling away dollars in the claw machine (curse you, Kurt Falk!) when especially early for films, but guess what was sitting in the back the whole time (I mean, all of four months, but we see a lot of movies…)? Yup, Ms. Pac-Man.

With our honed practice on the arguably harder original game in Albuquerque, we suddenly started tearing up the field on this machine. To the point that it was only a couple weeks of two-a-movie-each play before we were each setting individual records. After nearly 30 years of play, an individual record! I was pretty sure that about 60-65,000 was my personal best prior to discovering this machine, and soon I was over 70k. I made the fourth board design, the dark blue one, for only the second time in my life, edging past the “Junior” cut-scene. And then I was consistently getting deep into the prior dark-brown boards, or getting through the first four levels without losing a life. The picture up top is from our last session, when we each played three games, and two (2!) of mine were personal bests, back-to-back. Alex also set a personal best with 44,560 points.

It has only been after the last two sessions that I connected my most lamented fact about this particular Ms. Pac-Man machine with my favorite. You see, the sound basically doesn’t work on this machine. Once in a while, there’s a scratchy murmur of a sound trying to escape the otherwise broken speakers, but that’s it. I have actually sung the music for the first two cut scenes most every time we reach them as I miss dancing to it so much. I have missed (or thought I missed) the satisfying power-up bloops of consuming ghosts or the anguished disintegration noise that so poetically echoes the frustration of the reverse.

But what if I’m setting records… because there’s no sound?

What if I’m not better at all at this point in my life, but just less distracted than usual? It certainly follows that, like the early-level fruit, the sound proves to be as much an impediment to success as it does a boost. There’s already a ton of mental multi-tasking required for stellar Pac-Man play. One must develop a planned route, re-route the route continually when it is blocked or dangerous, line up ghosts for quick eats after eating a big dot, and constantly strain peripheral vision to be aware of all four enemies on the board while also processing blind tunnels and, in the later levels, game-making 2,000-point pears and 5,000-point bananas. All that and try to anticipate when the ghosts will randomly reverse and throw the whole thing off. Could sound be the fourth dimension that keeps concentration impossible? And its absence indicate an opportunity to master the game as never before?

I won’t know, of course, till I can test my newly honed skills on a fully-operational machine somewhere else. Though I’m nervous to play anywhere but this dingy back-room in Harahan after getting remarkably close to the fabled six-digit threshold. Until then, I’ll have to wonder, like with so many pursuits these days and always, how much of my success is the unadulterated improvement that so often follows practice and how much is the sheer luck of unpredictable circumstance.

As, no doubt, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man must wonder as they traverse those three vaunted and normally musical cut-scenes. Was it destiny that prompted them to meet? Or were they the only two Pac-(wo)M(e)n in the world and lucky enough to bump into each other? How much credit can they claim for the little family they forge?

*Much debate persists in my family about whether I saw Tron or E.T. first in theaters. I loved the experience of the first and was terrorized for years by recollections of images of the protagonist in the latter. E.T. was released on June 11, 1982 and Tron was released a month later, on July 9, 1982. But admittedly E.T. was a blockbuster that stuck around in theaters for months after Tron‘s debut. That said, the earlier release seems to correlate better with my theory that E.T. was actually my first movie and that part of what scared me was the strange new experience of being in a really dark yet crowded room. If you think about it, going to a movie theater is intensely bizarre and disconcerting for a new human.


My Public Ballot, 2014 Louisiana Run-Off Edition

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

One of many reasons not to vote for Mary Landrieu.

One of many reasons not to vote for Mary Landrieu.

This is probably the most inconsequential election I’ve ever taken part in, especially given that my primary act was to abstain from the headline race because (a) it literally forced me to vote for a Democrat or a Republican and (b) Mary Landrieu is even more pathetic and right-wing than the average Democrat, which is saying something. I actually solicited advice from my Facebook friends this morning to see if they could come up with a reason I would find compelling to not abstain from the Senate run-off, but I was pretty skeptical to begin with and most advocates invoked the ever-trotted-out “lesser of two evils”. Bleh.

In any case, I had missed the initial election this cycle (with its 14 ballot referenda!) because Louisiana puts a 30-day waiting period on voting (but no waiting period at all on firearm purchases) after one has established residence. And I bothered to vote because there were still two down-ticket local run-offs and a bond issue for whatever is left of the public school system in New Orleans. So after a little online research (way easier than in New Jersey, a state that seems to do its best to suppress any possible voter knowledge whatsoever), I devised the following votes:

U.S. Senator: abstain
Judge Civil District Court, Domestic Section 2 For Reg. and Unexp. Term : Janet Ahern
Judge Juvenile Court, Section E: Desiree Cook-Calvin
PW School Board – 4.97 Mills – SB – 10 Yrs.: Yes

Honestly, all of the candidates for judge seemed really reasonable, but the opponent of the person I voted for in juvenile court talked a lot about spending less money on the system, which in Section E mostly concerns wards of the state, orphans, and the abused and neglected. Not exactly something I support skimping on. And Ahern just seemed like she had more of a coherent plan for her approach to divorce court than her opponent. Meanwhile, bond issues for schools are pretty much no-brainers, even though 4.97 mills is a whopping half a hundredth of a cent. (Yes, I know this gets multiplied by the value of the house to determine the property tax.)

When we have a referendum on an overhaul of police procedures, then I’ll really feel like voting matters.

Past Public Ballots:


321,000 Jobs Fail to Change Unemployment Data

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

Nothing changed in November. At least as far as the jobs numbers go.

The BLS announced in today’s report that unemployment and labor force participation were unchanged at 5.8% and 62.8%, respectively. This means we have precisely mirrored last month’s 11.71% actual unemployment with a Reporting Gap also matching last month, at 5.91%. It’s the third straight month the Reporting Gap exceeded reported unemployment figures, representing that more than double the number of people the BLS claims are unemployed are actually unemployed.

The Reporting Gap is plenty disturbing, but nothing much else is new or interesting or distressing about this jobs report. Save one thing. The headline that the BLS wants you to remember about this month’s report is that “nonfarm payroll employment increased by 321,000”. The economy added 321,000 new jobs! This must be good news, right?

But if we added 321,000 new jobs and nothing changed, then what happened? How can we have such massive job growth and still have the exact same reported unemployment, labor force participation, and real unemployment?

Because 321,000 “new” jobs are just what it takes to maintain the status quo. This many added jobs is only keeping us at stagnant levels of job growth in terms of the percentage of the population actually employed. The much vaunted job growth, evidence of the recovery and incoming days of elation, simply represents stagnancy and maintenance of a situation where nearly 12% of America finds itself jobless.

Yet we find extremely misleading statements like this in the report:

In November, job growth was widespread, led by gains in professional and business services, retail trade, health care, and manufacturing.

The next eight (8!) paragraphs go on to detail the supposedly strong across-the-board growth, numerically, by industry.

Of course, this is like arguing that you have made a bunch of money because your gross receipts went up by 5% during a year in which inflation rose by 5%. There’s nothing actually there. The only changes are simply what is required to keep up with the growth and shift in population. It’s like saying “Yay, income tax revenues increased 10%!” in a year in which income levels also rose 10%. Except you actually get to keep that money if you’re the IRS. Whereas here, there’s nothing to actually show for all the allegedly huge job growth.

This is a really important lesson for processing job data in future. 321,000 sounds like a big number. It’s just the maintenance level, what’s necessary to keep up with the nation’s growth as a whole. Anything less than that is the situation actually getting worse for people. The BLS told it to you right there in the report. They just hope that you don’t think about the data for more than five seconds and then go uncork some champagne. Some champagne that you wouldn’t have bought otherwise, which might actually stimulate some fake economic growth they can crow about next year.

Here are your charts:

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

Real unemployment (red) and reported unemployment (blue), January 2009 – November 2014.

Reporting Gap showing the distance between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 - November 2014.

Reporting Gap showing the distance between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 – November 2014.

Stock market closing levels (blue) with line demonstrating Reporting Gap (red), January 2009 - November 2014.  The correlation between our self-delusion about the state of unemployment and the market's meteoric rise in the last six years is startling.

Stock market closing levels (blue) with line demonstrating Reporting Gap (red), January 2009 – November 2014. The correlation between our self-delusion about the state of unemployment and the market’s meteoric rise in the last six years is startling.

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

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
October 2014 – 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.


Cop Immunity

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

Your law enforcement officials at work!

Your law enforcement officials at work!

When I was in high school, I devised a thought experiment that I discussed extensively with my friends. It was called “Cop Immunity”. My question was whether someone would take the deal of having total immunity to all interactions of all kinds with the police in the rest of their individual lives. Police as a general force would still exist in society and change the incentives of others, but if one took the Cop Immunity deal, then they would have no further positive or negative interaction with oneself. One could no longer call 911 or be arrested. This would be a one-shot, one-instance deal, just for the person being asked the question and would have zero impact on anyone else.

The results were roughly split. Even at my elite private high school which I attended on financial aid, a good number of people were willing to accept the trade-off. And it wasn’t so they could go on a spree of committing crimes, though certainly the ability to exceed the speed limit with impunity was discussed at length. We boiled the question down to whether a given individual had more to fear or dislike from police interactions than they did to gain from them, or to feel protected by them. I always said I would take Cop Immunity in a heartbeat.

This, of course, was years before Albuquerque became a shooting range for the local police. It was before the killings of Oscar Grant and Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It was before we had a consciousness that police were regularly doling out the death penalty for all manner of crimes or the mere suspicion of same. I can only imagine that re-running the Cop Immunity survey now would poll around 70% at the Academy and upwards of 95% in most racially diverse and/or non-white communities around the country. We, as a nation, are losing faith in the very notion of law enforcement officials as anything other than belligerents.

The reasons should be obvious, but the largest single factor completes the double-entrendre of this post’s title. If you Google the phrase cop immunity, you’ll turn up countless descriptions of the police themselves being immune to any sort of punishment or sanction which they feel obliged to regularly dole out. The police are not only the law, but they are above it, prompting the age-old query of “who guards the guardians?” The entire notion of police forces, especially armed and dangerous ones, is that the threat of accountability and enforcement will inspire better behavior than people relying on their own judgment. Yet this principle is immediately abandoned when it comes to police actions themselves. Those who decide the fate of police officers accused of wrongdoing are almost always on the same police force as those accused, or part of the same system which views itself as unified on the same team with the same goal. Decades of politicians styling themselves as “tough on crime” have corroded the checks and oversights necessary to create a sense of accountability within the police forces of America’s cities. And the cumulative result is that it is harder to be indicted for police actions than it is to get out of Gitmo. When the police take action, there is no external disincentive lingering in their mind about what might befall them if they cross the line of excessive force.

Now, yes, sure, there are probably good cops out there. My father always raised me with an awareness that those who became cops and those who became criminals were often cut from similar cloth and that it could sometimes be arbitrary which side of the line they wound up on. There are similar temptations of both positions – the hunger for freedom and power over others, the tendency toward violence, the comfort with tense situations and intimidation. Nonetheless, tons of cops are probably sincere and trying their best. But tons of people are too. The underlying assumption of a society with a police force is that this is not enough. We must also have hard and violent disincentives to bad behavior to convince everyone to abide by the principles we find acceptable in a just society, so our assumptions go. Yet the bias has gotten so extreme toward those enforcing this standard that no one (until this year’s eruption of protest and dissent) seems to care to apply that standard to those doing the enforcement. The point is that it is not an innate criticism of the police to say that they require the same disincentives to bad action that we burden the rest of society with. It is just an application of the same basic principle that got us to create a law enforcement infrastructure in the first place.

Indeed, though, given the power imbalances between police and normal citizens, it is easily arguable and possibly obvious that the police require greater disincentives to bad action and abuse than do the general public. Power corrupts, after all, and the feeling of imposing one’s will on mere lay people day after day seems to have the cumulative effect of encouraging abuses. Rather than the status quo of extreme protections and perpetual benefit-of-the-doubt being afforded police officers, it seems much more sensible that they should be subject to much stricter scrutiny and examination than those they are trying to police. After all, they enjoy every structural advantage. Unlike a scared suspect, they can call for backup. They have bulletproof vests and, often, tanks and armored vehicles. They will get the bias of the general public (possibly until now) in the retelling of the story. They are seen as representing the state, representing the “good guys”, having the legal and moral authority. Any system hoping to make these people capable of doing actual good in the world would consistently hold them to an incredibly high standard.

The counter-arguments I see to this most frequently, either among my few conservative friends on Facebook or in horrifically described terms by some Southern poker players, are about the rule of law. The assumption underlying all of these arguments is that if police are charged with enforcing the law, they are automatically right and that anyone who has run afoul of their enforcement must be a criminal. Like so many tough-on-crime politicians, they present the perspective that we have nothing to fear from those who are merely trying to keep society safe and orderly. And everything to fear from those hell-bent on disrupting this order.

There are numerous problems with this line of argumentation, but the biggest one is that it is a non sequitir for justifying the kinds of actions being defended by cop-supporters in 2014. I can grant every part of that argument – that everyone who gets shot or injured by the police is a willful active dangerous criminal (of course this is absurd, but go with me for a second) – and still find the police to be unforgivably corrupt and overly violent. Because to make this argument valid, you have to believe in the death penalty for shoplifting. You have to believe in the death penalty for selling individual cigarettes tax-free. You have to believe in applying the death penalty, or an extreme amount of physical pain and torment (something that actually isn’t a sanctioned punishment for anything in the theory of our society), to every single crime. And, of course, to meting out the death penalty on the grounds of suspicion of that crime, with the responding officer as judge, jury, executioner, and pardoner of the executioner.

Not only the mainstream media and rabid conservatives, but several moderate friends of mine (on Facebook) have offered discussions of Michael Brown that mitigate the death penalty enforced on him. He was “bad news” or a “thug” or “did wrong” or “wasn’t perfect”. I don’t know if we know enough about him to say any of that, but even if he was a serial robber at gunpoint and was raging around the neighborhood, show me where we justify an immediate and singly decided death penalty for that. Let’s assume he was a terrible criminal who had harmed thousands. Still not something any state in the union would exact the death penalty for. And having a publicly known standard that police have the right (through lack of criticism or formal sanction) to enforce the death penalty on suspects at will for any crime at all is to create and codify a police state.

The truth is, though, that we can’t even grant the basic arguments that still lead up to this shocking discovery that America is simply a police state. Because most of these people who run afoul of murderous police officers are not even criminals. And those who are tend to be criminals in the trivial way in which we are all criminals. The fact is that the United States of America has an utterly infinite and unknowable legal code, one that includes ignorance of the law being no defense. At any given moment, all of us, every single one of us, are violating countless statutes and aspects of these standards. Notable ones are obvious, like speeding and jaywalking, which are much more about protecting the safety and health of our community than, say, the prohibition on selling cigarettes without charging sales tax. But the house or apartment in which you live violates many aspects of code for which you have not reported it. Maybe you use the technically illegal drugs that everyone you know seems to use. Or you are aware of such use and have failed to report it. You are aware of illegal immigrants to the country and have failed to turn them in. You have given some change to the homeless panhandler on the street or fed the meter for someone who is about to get ticketed. You have let your own meter expire, or failed to pay it for five minutes. You have failed to report your Internet and out-of-state purchases in itemized detail on your state tax return.

These are all crimes. We are all criminals.

All of us. I defy one of you to search the last year of your life in America and declare it entirely free of criminal acts.

This is why so many people see this as a racial issue, in whole or in part, and why the African American community in particular is rightfully outraged. The fact that we are all criminals is trivial and should be obvious. There is no we/they dichotomy between those who uphold and skirt the law. That argument is the propaganda levied by those wishing to justify the actions of a police state. And the fact is that while whites and those in affluent neighborhoods tend to get a free pass for their criminality, minorities and those in poorer neighborhoods tend to get a rigid and thorough enforcement. Immunity to law enforcement is an extension of white privilege and wealth privilege, where people in the favored categories enjoy less scrutiny and far fewer instant death penalties if they do come under suspicion.

The reasons for this are manifold and complex, stemming from a variety of influences in our nation and its history. There is a lot of individual and institutional racism. There are heavily promoted narratives which the media and politicians extoll daily, narratives about who is dangerous and who is the “criminal element” and what parts of town are unsafe and the desperation of the poor and the underclass. There is just the tiniest bit of truth in the reality that property crimes are more likely to be committed by those without property and those who society has continually oppressed remain without property and little kernels of this reality create a massively inflated fuel for self-justification of the principle that informs bias and profiling. But this is also just one part of the story in the world in which we are all criminals. Minorities are imprisoned vastly more than others and a massive number of these incarcerations are due to drug crimes. Drug crimes are not disproportionately committed by minorities, but they are vastly disproportionately enforced on them. This suits a narrative that society likes to tell itself about justice and safety and danger, but it’s just the delusion of an unjust and biased system trying to get itself to sleep at night.

It’s not a coincidence that most of these cases of police murder with impunity have African American victims, any more than it is that such a vastly disproportionate portion of the prison population are African American men. We have a seemingly inexhaustible source of narratives for the “Scary Black Man” in American society, an endless appetite for this concept in the news, campus police reports, trials, courtroom dramas, movies, and nearly every other cultural influence that exists. Police exist in this world too and react accordingly. And even if a cop or his police department are not overtly racist (most of them do overtly profile and are overtly racist), when the standard that society gives that cop is “act with impunity, trust your fear, you will never face punishment for enforcing the death penalty on a suspect”, then the consequences are all too predictable.

I cannot sufficiently emphasize that it does not matter whether or not these people are criminals. We are all criminals. The extent to which we are subject to the whims of the police state depends on whether the police are trained to fear us as particular individuals. Every one of us could be arrested tomorrow for something and then face the rabbit hole of the state’s overwhelming bias and support of the enforcers.

Your legal standards do not matter. They need to be changed and rewritten. Just as law has been shifted to facilitate corporate greed and impunity to dominate individual citizens, it has similarly been written to codify a police state that will never hold cops accountable. That needs to be thrown out and revamped. And until it is, every single instance of a cop getting away with murder only emboldens the confidence of every other scared or malignant cop to enforce the instant death penalty at his or her will. For a democracy to function, it cannot be a police state. There must be police accountability. Until a high profile murderous police officer is not only charged, but actually punished, this will only escalate.

As will the justified outrage of the society falling under the police state’s bootheel. It is the consequence not only of this ongoing series of injustices, but also of creating a legal standard which criminalizes everyone and then selectively enforces the law based on fear and bias. If this doesn’t bother you, it’s only because you are lucky enough to somehow enjoy your own version of Cop Immunity. And you are too unfeeling to care for those who don’t.


Fear Factor

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Know When to Fold 'Em, Telling Stories, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , ,

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season.  To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time.  It's mostly just here to symbolize fear.  And because I had an excuse to use it.

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season. To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time. It’s mostly just here to symbolize fear. And because I had an excuse to use it.

I am continually discovering how much of my life is fueled by fear.

I’ve ridiculed fear a lot in this blog lately, most especially in criticizing what motivates voters and pointing out how silly it is for Americans to fear ebola and/or terrorism. This is not the kind of fear that I will be talking about in this post, though I suppose I’m using the same word because it’s in some ways the same concept and all fear is related. Fear may not even be the right word for what this post will attempt to address, as some may favor “anxiety” or even “trepidation” for what I plan to illustrate. But I’m going with fear because it’s visceral and, I think, more honest.

The problem goes a little like this. Early on in my educational career, somewhere between grade-skipping and re-aligning with my “age-appropriate” grade level, I started getting disillusioned (again) with schooling. And so I started to test limits and see how long I could put things off and still get excellent grades. I had a lot of stellar and challenging teachers in my high school, but I also had a few who I noted seemed to be doing it “for the money” on their teacher evaluations and who just seemed to be priming themselves for limit-testing. I got in the habit of starting papers the night before they were due, then sometimes during a free period earlier in the day in the computer lab. In college, these habits only accelerated. Many people were studying and buying books and refusing to start new Risk games with me at 2 AM the day before major assignment deadlines, but I had already planned to start that work at 5 AM, which seemed like enough time for another Risk session. And then there were the world-class slackers around me who’d already gotten an extension on the assignment for two weeks and wouldn’t even begin to plan to make that deadline.

I knew these slackers. They were friends of mine, many of my closest. But I knew that I could not be like them, for down that path would lie utter ruin. As tenuous as my relationship with deadlines and my respect for assignments was, it was governed by an absolute an inalienable rule: meet the deadline. No extensions, no lateness, no excuses. Because I knew that as soon as I breached this rule even once, I would open a Pandora’s box of new rules to flout and test, new games to play with professors, and ultimately the whole unstable mass of unstarted papers would get the best of me. I was good at toeing the line right up to the deadline, but I couldn’t imagine keeping track of an entire semester’s worth of work that would have to be done in that nebbish period between the conclusion of classes and the advent of finals. And I did have to keep my scholarship to stay at Brandeis.

Enter fear, stage right. The only way I could convince myself of the ironclad power of the deadline, the thing that forced me to put the Risk box away and stop playing my thirtieth straight warmup game of Tetris, was fear of failing. And this was mostly, if not entirely an exercise of powerful self-delusion. I knew, I knew deep down that my professors would happily grant me extensions should I simply fall asleep while trying to construct a paper, would fail to mark me down a bit for an assignment handed in 36 hours late. But I convinced myself, come hell or high water, that even a minute’s lateness in the paper’s submission would bring failure. Not just of the assignment, mind you, or even the class, but of my entire life. I would lose my scholarship, my admission to college, possibly even retroactively lose my high school diploma simply because one assignment came in a few minutes late. I had myself completely certain that this was true.

And it was only once that terror had really sunk in, sometimes less than two hours prior to a deadline, only once I really feared the failure and felt it was a real and foreseeable possibility, that I could begin working.

This worked great for late high school in securing the scholarship. It worked remarkably well for keeping the scholarship throughout Brandeis and graduating college with solid marks. But I have increasingly come to believe that it may not actually be a great lesson to inculcate in life, especially early on. It’s probably not a healthy way to exist.

I can line up a lot of pros and cons, though, for a fair hearing of this approach. Solidly on the pro side are three completed novels of 90,000 words or more, all written in a period of four months each or less (if we don’t count the pre-deadline few chapters of American Dream On written in the six years before I got serious about the project). While these novels haven’t really gone anywhere yet and some would argue they need substantial revision (ever my nemesis, conceptually), the mere fact of being able to write that diligently and profusely is a singular testament to my fear of the mighty Deadline. I stuck a dart in the calendar (stuck, not threw, mind you) for each of the projects and beat the self-imposed D-Day every time. This probably shouldn’t have been possible, but after completing two full-scale term-length research paper assignments in excess of twenty pages when starting each of them the night before during my last two years of college, the novels were easy. I had so many days to work on them!

The con side, however, is littered with remnants of my non-deadlined motivation. It’s not that I haven’t been a good worker during my various day jobs, nor that I’m unable to motivate myself to do various projects and other things when the fancy arises. But I have trained myself to require a state of fear in order to feel really ready to do things. If I can’t conjure a sufficiently dire consequence, real or imagined, I find it extremely hard to get together the necessary energy to complete a task. And while this mostly or often applies to major tasks, it probably realistically has bled into even the most mundane of assignments. Chores are already damnably difficult for me since I find daily maintenance of existence (including and especially eating) to be saddeningly distracting from the greater concerns of the life of the mind. But without fear of some sort of backlash or feeling of failure, they get even more distant from my desire. Same goes for even menial daily chores, even when I don’t have a day job. I start each day with a to-do list, but then find I have to gin up some fear in myself to really get much traction.

I wonder often how universal this kind of sensation is. Putting it into print like this, it looks kind of horrifying. It doesn’t feel that awful, not nearly as much as I’m making it sound. It is often quite routine. I really want to sweep the kitchen. It’s a simple task that I really don’t mind that much. It needs to be done. I just have to start thinking about people who will be upset with me if I don’t, then exaggerate their reaction and try to truly picture something farcically awful that will ensue from my failing to sweep the kitchen. If I can do it without seeing through the ruse, then the kitchen gets swept, quickly and quite well. If not, then I have to wrestle with the guilt of not being able to generate enough faked fear to make it happen.

The only hint I have that this kind of anxiety might be underwriting a lot of our daily actions as humans is the ubiquity of a certain kind of dream. A recent discussion of this prompted some disambiguation about the word “nightmare”, which I never use to refer to the state of a bad dream, having always used that two-word phrase instead. Whereas “nightmare” for me usually conveys a real-life scenario that went appallingly poorly, such as “When cops started seeing people as target practice rather than those in need of protection, it was a nightmare.”

Whatever word you use, you’ve had this dream or one of its variants. I promise.

The setting is a school that is familiar to you or a school-like setting. You either find yourself unable to find the classroom or recall even basic details about the class. You may, if lucky, be seated at a desk in the proper classroom. But you are about to be served with a final exam or assignment. And you have no earthly idea what the content covered is or will be. You are almost always pretty sure that you dropped the class, or possibly that you never signed up for it at all. But it is clear from the situation that there will be no mercy. Your entire semester/year/life depends on this situation and you are utterly doomed to fail.

Not only has every American I have ever discussed this with had this dream, but it is the most universal dream people older than 18 seem to have and is shockingly diverse in its manifestations. It tends to stick with people for decades after they have left their last academic setting, though encounters with an academic-type environment can reinvigorate its duration or frequency. And it often has additional cousin dreams in various similar forms and settings, such as having to give a speech in a debate round on which one does not know the topic or can’t find the room (for former debaters – I’ve had this one at least monthly for years), having missed an assignment to photograph someone’s wedding (recently discussed with a professional photographer friend), or forgetting to invite people to a major event which one has been planning (for, naturally, event planners). So diverse and common and frequent is this dream that it is a trope. And so gripping is its nightmarish hold on the imagination that it can make a ridiculous peril all too real. It is always an enormous relief to remember that I had a college diploma in hand after waking from one of these dreams about, say, my junior year in high school. But it usually takes far too many minutes of consciousness for me to even remember such facts in the face of how certain I was that I was about to fail out of the step prior to college.

Is there something about our educational system that naturally engenders this kind of terror? Surely my generation and everyone after were raised on a steady mantra of the necessity of education in securing a future. And thus probably the converse became just as true for us, that failure in any educational pursuit would spell futurelessness. But I feel like this dream transcends generational barriers. And is it really about academics and that world, per se? Or is it about a larger wider fear that lurks behind the judgment found preeminently, but by no means uniquely, in classroom settings?

Whatever its source, it actually seems to be an incredibly valuable asset in playing poker. Not in motivating me to register for a tournament by a deadline or even get to the tournament at the start (I was actually the last person to register in the tournament I won in Mississippi in August, starting two full hours after the tourney began, as well as being about that late to my first major-tourney cash at Foxwoods last October). But in keeping me afraid of the consequences of losing the tournament, of not making money. I have found that a major question separating the tournaments where I really succeed from those where I fail to cash or do kinda meh is whether or not I feel truly afraid of failing. If the consequences of not cashing seem dire, whether or not they truly are (after all, you should never risk a dime that you can’t afford to lose or even spend recreationally), then it seems to motivate the very best and most patient play.

This actually contravenes a known and popular poker adage, namely that “scared money never wins”. But I think there’s a difference between fear of risk and fear of failure. Fear of risk would have also prevented me from buying into the tournament in the first place, and especially from delaying the start of a 20-page paper till less than 24 hours prior to its deadline. If I flop a set, I know that all my chips are going to be at risk that hand, pretty much regardless. If I were playing risk-averse or scared-money, then this probably wouldn’t be my perspective. But fearing failure, fearing having to come back with no money to show for my initial outlay, that is supremely motivating. I have never been so scared of failing a tournament as I was of the satellite and especially the main event in Baton Rouge. And I don’t think I’ve ever played a longer stretch of continuously excellent poker.

Which is not to ignore the factor that luck has, of course, in all of this. I only really got lucky once in the satellite and once (actually after the cash line) in the main event. Other than winning one coin-flip, which is the kind of minimum luck necessary to place in a tournament’s ranks. But luck probably has a bigger role than we’d like to admit in grading and education too. Indeed, a longer meditation on how pretty much all of modern life amounts to some kind of gambling is stewing in the back of my mind.

So I can harness the incredible power of fake fear (the fear has to almost immediately evaporate after I actually don’t cash in a tournament; otherwise I would be tormented for days by guilt and self-loathing… which rarely happens) to make myself do incredible things. But this seems to be a problematic source of renewable energy. It’s hard to muster for the small stuff. It’s exhausting to endure (I can’t imagine I’d love a heart-rate printout of my collegiate papers, let alone my deeper tournament runs). And there’s probably a good question to be asked about just whether it’s a reasonably good way to motivate oneself in principle. Is all this self-inflicted anxiety shortening my lifespan? Making me a generally less agreeable person? Just going to devolve so that I can’t even make myself eat without truly fearing starvation?

More importantly, is it too late to reverse course? When I’ve mostly done things for fear of my life collapsing, isn’t it awfully hard to regularly get going for the sake of, y’know, just because? Have I already trapped myself in this game? It almost seems the greatest thing I truly have to fear is a lack of fake fear itself.


Tournament Time

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

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

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

I love tournaments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why We Love Serial… and May Eventually Hate It

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

You love them now… but will you always?

You love them now… but will you always?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why No One is Voting

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

Get it?

Get it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was even a meme about this:

The Internet captures the essence of American voting flaws.

The Internet captures the essence of American voting flaws.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

This is so shocking!  Just look at that face!

This is so shocking! Just look at that face!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I won’t do it again, promise.


Decayed Decade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It Doesn’t Really Snow Here

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

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

To review, here was the old header:

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

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

And here is the new:

Header of this blog, today through question-marks!

Header of this blog, today through question-marks!

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

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

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

The things we worry about in this life.

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

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

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

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


Americans Leaving the Labor Force: Who are These People?

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

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

This is bunk.

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

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

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

That's a really young group of people!

That’s a really young group of people!

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

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

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

Here’s what this graph looks like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Unemployment Drops to 5-Year Low… of 11.71%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reporting Gap, January 2009 - October 2014.

Reporting Gap, January 2009 – October 2014.

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

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

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

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

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


American Voters Actually Progressive: The Case Against Representative Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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