Saturday, July 31, 2021

Indie Folk and Country Music

What is the difference between Indie Folk music and Country?

Other than the classic and easily understood "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" response, it's tough to distinguish the key factor that separates a song or an artist into one of these genres. I enjoy listening to both genres, but I instinctively know what each is, which I want to hear, and where to find it. And, I guess I should really acknowledge that this is a discussion of folk vs country, as opposed to simply indie folk, which technically came about in the early 90s, I believe, with the rise of bands like Uncle Tupelo.

So, here's a question:  is it the twang?

The twang is the distinctive factor for my daughter, who is sixteen and has a broad musical interest range, but doesn't listen to country. But when I'm listening to indie folk, I hear her singing along to people like Gregory Allen Isakov or Whitley or Lord Huron. She doesn't have the same response to when I'm listening to Luke Coombs or Brett Eldridge or Scotty McCreery. And, regarding the twang, I think she is on to something with that descriptor. The twang is present not just in the lyrics, but also in how the chords of the songs are played.

I think storytelling has a lot to do with it as well, and in this regard, Luke Coombs is a great example. Country has always thrived with the art of the narrative, and there is always a literalness to the plots and characters. Indie folk and folk, from my experience, is going to be a bit more driven by imagery and metaphor with the lyrics being somewhat more poetic than they are a story.

I don't know if there is a definitive historical and stylistic distinction between the two genres, and the question is not meant to diminish either. It's just a curiosity for me, kind of like my other questions such as:  Why is Nirvana grunge as opposed to punk?

But that's for another day.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Andrew Carnegie & the Art of Giving

With all the hype and the gripe about billionaires heading into space on their own privately funded rockets, I'm thinking about Andrew Carnegie. 

Discussions about wealth, science, and philanthropy are certainly reasonable and valid topics for commentary, but oversimplification is always a problem. While I understand the comments from critics of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson spending their billions on vanity thrill rides, I don't agree that these trips and the companies that made them happen are simply a waste of money that should have been spent on any number of other causes. I've been a minor critic of the space race in the past, but I don't consider this advancement of science a waste. 

That said, the vast billions of dollars in the hands of private individuals these days bares scrutiny of these tech and finance titans. The Giving Pledge is an admirable and appropriate decision by people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, among many others, to give away the vast majority of their wealth. While I have my reasons to criticize Bill Gates and even his philanthropy, there is no doubt the Gates Foundation, and many like it, is doing great things. And I firmly believe the world could use a lot more of Mackenzie Scotts. Which leads me to Carnegie:

Arguably the richest man of his era, and by some measures one of the richest still, Andrew Carnegie used his massive wealth to build libraries and museums. By the time he died, he had given away 90% of his fortune. I'm not sure what leads some people to be so generous and others to ... well, not. So many of us, when we fantasize about winning the MegaMillions or PowerBall, talk a big game of how we would do so much good with the money. 

Let's hope a few more people who achieve such fabulous wealth start thinking the same way.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

An Elliptical for "on the go"

I'm a runner, and I loathe the treadmill. And for one of my gym workouts, I also use the elliptical machine, though I can use it for about ten minutes because going nowhere just doesn't work for me. My wife loves using the elliptical machine, but at one time tried to become a runner because she wanted to be outside in the summer. Now, we can have the best of both worlds, I think.

On my walk this morning, I happened upon a neighbor who was just taking off for a ride on one of these bad boys:

It's called an ElliptiGO, and it looks like a heckuva lot of fun, as well as a great workout. Now, I haven't used an Elliptigo yet, but I'm definitely going to check it out. My neighbor happens to be a local rep for the company, though he started out just using one for recreation and fitness. He does demos for people and offers a chance to test it out, and the company offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.

This particular model also offers a kit for an electric motor as well. And the handlebars are all tricked out to hold his phone and other accessories. From what I understand, these new road-ready ellipticals are popular with many different athletes, including Olympic triathletes. They're popular with current runners and bikers, as well former runners and bikers who can't handles the stress on their joints or time in the saddle anymore.

So, just passing on the info. I understand there is also a Facebook Group with owner feedback.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Who Knew Badminton was so Awesome?

Wait a minute. So, an Olympic badminton shuttlecock has sixteen goose feathers all from the left wing of the goose? Has anyone noticed some geese out there listing to one side?

The Olympics always brings some exciting sports moments you never knew you'd be interested in, and it also is a source of some of the most unique sports commentary you'll hear all year, or in four years for that matter. Case in point: badminton.

An old friend was commenting on social media about the Olympics and admitted that his interest always outweighs his original expectation. "I always tell myself," he wrote, "that I'm not that interested in the Olympics ... and then I find myself up at two in the morning, glued to the TV and yelling enthusiastically about badminton." 

I couldn't agree more, especially about the badminton excitement. It's a sport everyone has played (badly in the backyard), and it's also a competition we know almost nothing about. Hence, the trivia and snarky comment I opened this piece with. However, as badminton commentary goes, there is truly nothing quite like the bit from NBC's Mary Carillo at the 2004 games. It still might be the "best sports commentary of all time."

Check it out if you haven't seen it before, or even if you have. You won't be disappointed. Also, check out some badminton matches, and watch out for those lopsided geese in the neighborhood.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Leonard Cohen & Marianne Ihlen in Greece

When Leonard Cohen was living on the Greek isle Hydra in the 1960s with his lover Marianne Ihlen, he was bothered by installation of electricity, particularly the telephone pole and power line visible from the window of his little bungalow. As he told Marianne they would need to move to a more rustic place, a bird alighted on the wire. She told him, “If the bird can get used to it, Leonard, so can you.” That’s the story of his well-known song “Bird on a Wire.”

This great story comes from Judy Scott, a writer who spent many summers in Greece in the early 1960s hanging out with an eclectic community of artists which included the iconic Leonard Cohen. Scott recounted those years in a book, Leonard, Marianne, and Me.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Tom Brady Shills for Subway, but won't eat it

Most sports fans know that the most valuable piece of sports memorabilia is the T206 Honus Wagner baseball card.  Like most commodities, the card's value is a result of its scarcity. It's believed that fewer than sixty of the cards exist despite the general rule that thousands of them are made. The reason T206 is so rare is that after the cards were created and packaged, as was standard at the time, to go with cigarettes from the American Tobacco Company, Wagner refused to allow continued production and demanded the cards be recalled. His reason was that he did not want children buying cigarettes to get the card. And, of course, Honus Wagner was one of MLB's greatest and most popular players, so his card would have been a real prize for kids.

Wagner's decision, folks, is what we call integrity. 

Now, it sounds like another great athlete could take a lesson in character from ol' Honus Wagner. The news has reported that future Hall of Famer and iconic NFL quarterback Tom Brady has signed on to do commercials for Subway. Athletes taking endorsement deals is, of course, not news or a big deal. But the world has taken notice of this one because everyone knows what an all-natural, organic nutrition freak Tom Brady is. Thus, we can be fairly certain that Tom Brady does not eat Subway sandwiches, and has probably never been in one of their restaurants. Thus, it's a bit sketchy that he is endorsing and taking money from a company and product that he is personally philosophically opposed to.

It can't be about the money, right?

Come on, Tom.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Existentialism & the Itsy Bitsy Spider

A question on a text thread from a college-age former student:  "What would you say, colloquially speaking, makes a work existentialist?"

My initial response: "Working from the premise that life is inherently absurd and meaningless, and, thus, the only meaning to a man's life is that which he defines and creates for it, dealing with existence as it is, rather than some arbitrary, contrived, pre-established notions of how things are supposed to be and what they really mean."

The conversation that followed veered into distinctions from nihilism, which I feel is ultimately pessimistic in a way that existentialism isn't, or at least doesn't have to be. As the discussion veered off, I begin thinking about some of the ways I have introduced my students to the concept with the study of and references to literature and pop culture such as Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, Hemingway's Code Hero in The Old Man & the Sea, the contemporary films Groundhog Day and Stranger Than Fiction, and even the story of the Itsy Bitsy Spider.

It's a big topic, existentialism, which is also a rather simple and straightforward idea, which can often be explained through some of our most familiar stories. Amusingly it was in a short essay by Robert Fulghum and on a CD of children's songs I had for my kids in the early 2000s which talked about the existentialist nature of the story of the Itsy Bitsy Spider.

This fact is indeed the interpretative key to the whole puzzle: Camus’ Sisyphus climbs the hill because his live has no other meaning, but Jacques’ Sisyphus climbs the spout because he lives in ignorance of his life’s meaning. Spiders, after all, make webs and catch insects, and we have no reason to believe that a spider doing so will face anything like the existential emptiness of Sisyphus. A spiderweb made, for example, next to the water spout, will certainly be able to withstand the coming rain. This subtle change allows Jacques to reframe Camus’ existential dread not as the desperate cry of a man in an absurd world, but merely as the confused ramblings of a spider who has seen that he was not meant to climb water spouts and concluded that he must not be meant for anything.

Friday, July 23, 2021

It's Time for Permanent Olympic Sites

I blogged about this idea earlier, but now I have revised and developed the position for my column in The Villager. Now that the IOC has extended the problem for four more years with the announcement that Brisbane will be the site of the 2032 Summer Olympic Games, let's put an end to the bidding and instead work on a plan to establish a permanent home for the Games.

In 1972, via a statewide referendum, the people of Colorado rejected funding for the 1976 Olympic Games, becoming the only city ever awarded the games to turn down the chance to host. While that decision shocked the rest of the country, as well as many around the world, it wasn't a surprising move for anyone who knows the taxpayers of the Rocky Mountain state. In fact, knowing what we know now about the structural challenge and fiscal nightmare the Games can be for some cities and countries, it was a surprisingly prescient and prudent move.

Hosting the Olympic Games is an incredible honor and opportunity for a country to shine on the international stage, but it’s also a significant financial and structural investment saddled with huge risks. The Olympics generally cost tens of billions of dollars to stage while providing only a fraction of that in terms of revenue. Host countries must invest heavily in building a vast infrastructure of sites to hold the events, housing for the teams and guests, and transportation and security systems to manage the people. While these can certainly upgrade a city, they are rarely necessary to maintain following the games and often end up in disuse and decay.

Additionally, any benefit from the event is often overshadowed by the corrupt history of the bidding process at the International Olympic Committee and the potential for bloated budgets prior to the event followed by blight afterwards. The scandals plaguing the entire hosting process are extensive, ranging from bribes and extortion to graft and highly orchestrated doping programs which have tainted vast numbers of events and athletes. It often seems the Olympic Games, an international institution intended to honor the individual pursuit of excellence, are more trouble than they’re worth. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Instead, the international community should establish permanent locations for the Olympics, where all countries contribute to maintaining the sites as the premier athletic facilities in the world. The fields and tracks and stadiums could serve as hosts for an endless number of world championships at all levels, and they could also serve as training grounds and research locations to serve all manner of individuals and organizations committed to honoring and promoting the highest levels of athletic achievement.

Choosing permanent locations would obviously be a significant challenge, though certainly not more problematic than the current bidding process. It’s reasonable to have host cities across multiple geographic regions, and it makes sense to consider places which held successful games and maintained some of the original infrastructure. Athens is the obvious choice for one permanent summer location, while Barcelona, Seoul, and Sydney are solid choices as well. Salt Lake City and Lillehammer are good bets for the Winter Olympics, though a strong case can be made for both Vancouver and Turin. Obviously the city and host country must want the honor and responsibility and be willing to trust the rest of the world to support the plan.

This idea is not new, having been discussed for years among commentators, athletic groups, and political leaders. In fact, at the end of the 1896 Games, which launched the modern era, King George of Greece called for Athens to be the permanent “peaceful meeting place of all nations,” and many delegations signed a letter endorsing the idea. Now, news out of Tokyo indicates nearly 80% of Japanese people oppose holding the Olympics there next week, as the surge in Covid cases unsettles residents even as officials still consider allowing fans to attend. Obviously, the pandemic which delayed the Games for a year is a huge factor in the national sentiment of Japan, though it’s worth noting that in 2016 nearly two-thirds of Brazilians worried the Rio Olympics would bring more harm than good to the country.

Currently, host cities are already established through 2028 when Los Angeles will host its third Olympic Games. And perhaps that’s enough. Before any more bidding happens and planning begins, the public should discuss the idea of permanent host cities. Once the idea is floated to athletes and voters, political and business leaders should take the discussion to the IOC and make it happen. With many future games already assigned and planned, there is plenty of time to develop and implement this logical change to the Games.

The Rich & Taxes

Nothing is for sure except for death and people complaining or disagreeing about taxes. This week the Washington Post Editorial Board weighed in with some thoughts on "The Smartest Way to Make the Rich Pay ..." (and it's not a wealth tax; looking at you, Senators Warren and Sanders). 

The basic gist of it is this: "it's the capital gains, stupid."

Fortunately, legitimate goals of a wealth tax can be achieved through other means, as the OECD report indicates. This would require undoing not only some of the 2017 GOP tax cuts, but much previous tax policy as well, which has produced a top federal marginal tax rate on capital gains of 23.8 percent — far below the top rate on ordinary income, which is 37 percent. The Treasury Department has aptly summarized the effect of this differential: “Preferential tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends disproportionately benefit high-income taxpayers and provide many high-income taxpayers with a lower tax rate than many low- and middle-income taxpayers.” The disparity “also encourages economically wasteful efforts to convert labor income into capital income as a tax avoidance strategy.” A notorious example of the latter is the “carried interest” loophole that enables hedge fund managers to characterize their multimillion-dollar annual compensation as lightly taxed capital gains.

I recall years ago that on a trip with our Debate team to Cal-Berkeley, one of our PF pairs was raising a heckuva ruckus in the early rounds by arguing from the position that if the United States eliminated the tax on capital gains it would not simply go to zero, but would instead shift those earnings to income, where the "gains" would be taxed at the individual's marginal rate. It was a brilliant curveball in the tournament, which flustered a lot of teams not ready for it. But at the same time, it made perfect economic sense to many of us. Capital gains should simply be taxed as income, for that is what they are.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Glenn Beck's "Common Sense" is anything but that

So, this one is an oldie but a goodie. Back in 2009 when info-tainer (radio & television talk jock, author, and podcaster) Glenn Beck published a book called Glenn Beck's Common Sense: The Case Against an Ouf-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine. I read it with interest because I'd read several other books by Beck, and at that time he appeared not nearly as unhinged as many GOP pundits are today. However, when I read the book, I was shocked by his mis-reading (if he even did read) of the classic Age of Reason tome from one of America's greatest orators. So, I wrote up the following review for Amazon.

Well, I just finished Glenn Beck’s “Common Sense,” which, according to Beck, was “Inspired by Thomas Paine.” Beck has clearly never truly read Thomas Paine and knows very little about him, his history, or his beliefs. For many readers, pages one to seven seem to make a lot of sense. There are some general and specific criticisms about government spending and corruption in Congress I agree with. Who wouldn’t? But Beck’s attempt to connect his neo-conservative positions with Founding Father Thomas Paine is shockingly ignorant of both Paine and American history.

Beck uses this book – and Paine’s name – to criticize “Progressivism,” blaming it for much of what ails the country. Sadly, this is a complete distortion of Paine’s legacy. While the extent of most Americans’ knowledge of Paine is “he wrote Common Sense," I teach his work in class every year. I've used “The Crisis” and selections from “The Rights of Man” and “Age of Reason.” If you want to understand Paine and his vision for America, you should read them. Beck doesn’t understand Paine, but he does want to use the credibility of “The Founding Fathers” to promote an anti-government message.

Far from opposing “progressivism,” Thomas Paine is one of the original “Progressives,” though at the time he was called a radical for his liberal views. He is commonly associated with the origins of American liberalism. “Common Sense” was one small piece of his work – it was a pamphlet simply designed to encourage revolution against Britain. Paine later clearly outlined his vision of what he thought American government should look like. This is where Beck falls off the apple cart.

Beck uses this book to openly criticize progressive taxation, public education, social security, and “the progressive agenda.” But readers should know something – Thomas Paine was one of the earliest advocates of progressive taxation, even drawing up tables and rates.

He was also the first proponent of the estate tax. And in Agrarian Justice he proposed combating poverty and income inequality by taxing the wealthy to give jobs and “grants” to young people. He also proposed using this system to provide government-sponsored pensions for the elderly. Paine’s Agrarian Justice can be considered the earliest call for a national old-age pension – ie. Social Security. He wanted to tax the rich and give money to the poor.

He joined Thomas Jefferson in strongly advocating universal tax-supported public education, believing it was necessary to promote an educated electorate and was a necessary way to combat poverty. Paine also sought a federally guaranteed minimum wage, and long before Woodrow Wilson, Paine urged the establishment of, and US participation in, global organizations to help solve international problems and avoid wars.

Yet, this is all lost on Glenn Beck.

Beck criticizes Progressives for leading the United States away from its original purpose. He even goes as far as chastising Teddy Roosevelt. That’s pretty bold for a guy whose only contribution to the United States has been as an entertainer. Has Glenn Beck completely forgotten “The Gilded Age”? While Beck, for whatever reason, is disturbed by progressive ideals, he fails to concede the un-democratic conditions that led to the desire of Americans for the rise of progressive reforms.

In fact, if you look at American history from 1776 to 1900 and from 1900 to present, you will see that Beck is right in that progressives shaped America into the country that it is. It’s one with a thriving middle class, reasonably safe food and water, no child labor, forty hour workweeks, etc. If Beck wants to dismiss Progressives and return to life under President McKinley or Harding with robber barons running the economy and the atrocious work conditions chronicled by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, he’s crazy. Beck has never known what it would be like to live in an America not guided by the leadership of progressives. Instead, he lives comfortably in a nation defined by liberal and progressive policies, and then audaciously challenges the very notion of the peaceful prosperity they provide.

Beck ironically praises “our political leaders” that could inspire us to “defeat Nazism and fascism,” and then goes on to criticize that leader - FDR - as helping destroy the country. Beck doesn’t even concede that the United States would never have been able to wage WWII or build the Atomic Bomb or put a man on the moon or wage and win the Cold War if it weren’t for the large-scale ability of the federal government to raise revenue, mainly through progressive taxation. He reviews the original foundation of the United States government in the Articles of Confederation, acknowledging that it failed because it was too weak, and then heaps his praise on the Constitution. However, he doesn’t concede that the significant difference in power given to the federal government in the Constitution was the power to levy taxes. Even conservative Edmund Burke knew that “the revenue of the state is the state.” Thus, weak revenue gathering equals weak government. And a weak federal government would never have been able to respond to two World Wars, the Cold War, and two Iraq wars.

Beck goes on to criticize Hillary Clinton and the public education system for “suggesting the community has a vested interest in what each child is taught.” Who doesn’t believe that? He offers no alternative proposals for how education should be carried out. Though I hardly believe he is proposing the end of public education. That would be so un-Jeffersonian, another Founding Father.

On page 99, Beck shifts from a scathing criticism of public education to promote God and religion in public life. This is completely disingenuous in a book “inspired by Thomas Paine.” Paine was a deist who vigorously opposed Christianity or any organized religion. He often called himself an atheist. Paine was very anti-Christianity. He vehemently opposed the government supporting religion in any way. In fact, in his later life, he was practically exiled from the country because of his criticism of religion in America.

A few other criticisms:

On page 61, Beck paraphrases Barry Goldwater’s (or some attribute Gerald Ford) quote, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have,” and he doesn’t even give the original speaker credit.

On page 17, Beck paraphrases the well-known “You can’t save the poor by destroying the rich” quote from Reverend William J. H. Boetcke and again doesn’t give credit. Historians and English teachers call this plagiarism.

Finally, Beck writes a mere 111 pages, and then re-prints all of Paine’s “Common Sense” which is in the public domain – and he charges $12.00 for the book. What a sham. I’m glad I checked it out of the library, but I hate that my library spent taxpayer funds on it. They should have waited until it was in the bargain bin for $.99

That’s why Beck is disingenuous. He is a hack, and while I occasionally enjoyed some of his earlier work – I’ve read all three of his books – I am sadly disappointed in this mis-use of one of America’s Founding Fathers. Beck says Americans do not know their history, but he is one of them, and with this book he is counting on their ignorance. Ultimately, this book is a poorly-written piece of neo-conservative fear-mongering. Perhaps saddest of all in a book "inspired by" a Founding Father, Glenn Beck says he "fears" the end of the republic. What a profound lack of faith in the very people and institution he praises. What an absolute insult to every true patriot who has ever laid his life on the line for the republic. As Republican Bob Inglis recently noted, "This is a constitutional republic that can withstand any president I disagree with." If the United States has managed to survive all the trials it has - from the Civil War to the Gilded Age to the Great Depression and beyond, it will survive today.

It will even survive fear-peddling "rodeo clowns" who are ignorant of its history.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

America Will Never Love Soccer – But This Might Help

Now that the Euro Cup is over, and England is reeling after the loss, not to mention all the hype that “football’s coming home,” and many American Gen X soccer fans still probably recall the story of “Soccer Made in Germany,” Americans can now go back to basically ignoring the world’s game for the next four years. Granted, watching Americans develop a crush on the “Beautiful Game” during events like the Euro Cup, the World Cup, and the Olympics is certainly gratifying for soccer fans. However, with the conclusion of any international championships, American viewership of soccer will begin to fade as fast as the Brazilian defense against Germany in the 2014 World Cup. While thousands of American fans always gather to watch the early games of the USA, interest is always bound to die off once the team is eliminated. In 2014, the semi-final match between Brazil and Germany garnered roughly 12 million US viewers, which is basically the same number who watched MLB’s All Star Game a week later. Even then, that’s a huge number compared to how many Americans regularly watch professional soccer in the United States. Realistically, Americans simply don’t love soccer, at least not the way the rest of the world does.

Without the draw of the best players in the world coming together for a once-every-four-years international event, Americans will not naturally shift their attention and enthusiasm to the United States’ version of professional futbol, Major League Soccer (MLS). Certainly, MLS has increased in popularity and significance in recent years, though it still suffers from low-status on the hierarchy of professional sports in the United States. Every year, some will argue that the World Cup was the tipping point, as America finally fell in love with soccer. There will, no doubt, be some increased interest in soccer, and attendance at MLS games will probably continue to rise. It’s TV ratings, though, that truly drives revenue and equates to popularity in pro sports, and in that area pro soccer is severely lacking. For that reason, pro soccer players average salaries of about $150,000, whereas the average salaries of the NHL’s pro hockey players are in the range of $2.5 million. There’s simply no comparison.

As Derek Thompson insightfully argues in The Atlantic, soccer will not maintain the hype of the World Cup any more than professional skiing or swimming or track and field do following the Olympics. Millions of fans tune in to watch athletes like Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps swim and Usain Bolt run and Shaun White snowboard during the Olympics. But those unique events do not create a larger regular fan base for swimming, track and field, or snowboarding as spectator sports. Heck, curling is hugely popular during the Olympics, but it is on no one’s radar until then. It’s the hype of an historic, international event that truly prompted many Americans who "never watch pro soccer" to tune in to World Cup games. For, while more American kids play soccer than any other sport, few youth soccer players turn into true pro soccer fans. Soccer is just not that popular in a country that has so much other sports entertainment.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Of the many reasons that Americans haven’t ever taken to the game en masse, a few aspects of soccer simply inhibit spectator interest. And, it’s not that soccer is simply boring or low scoring. There is arguably much more action in a soccer game than football or baseball, and Americans truly enjoy watching slow games like golf. How else would Tiger Woods have become so popular – and rich? And, baseball fans are as interested in a pitchers’ duel leading to a shutout or a no-hitter or a perfect game as they are in a Home Run Derby. Granted, FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, is never going to take advice from Americans about futbol. But that doesn’t mean that Americans and MLS can’t tweak the game a bit.

Here are a few simple rule changes that could alter America's feelings about soccer:

1. No off-sides penalty – Off-sides is the most useless penalty in soccer, and off-sides is a primary reason games are low scoring and "boring" to non-aficionados of soccer. Watching goals waved off because of this frivolous rule is truly disheartening during the Euro Cup, the World Cup, and the Olympics. Ending off-sides would lead to many more goals, not to mention exciting breakaways and one-on-one match-ups with the goalkeeper. Removing the off-sides threat would also require much more strategy on the part of defenses and coaches. Nothing would be lost by ending the off-sides penalty.

2. Injury Box – There is nothing more annoying to casual soccer fans than the “flopping” and writhing on the ground by players supposedly “injured” from phantom fouls. It’s become such a part of the culture that players will often give up a great opportunity to advance the ball simply to “take a dive” in hopes of a penalty shot. And the imposition of “injury time” which is only known by the ref is so frustrating. So, if a player goes down with an injury and stays down long enough for a stoppage in play, he must leave the field – and be subbed for – for a period of five minutes. The “injury box” would also allow for better evaluation of players with potential concussions and other serious injuries. In fact, it would mandate prudent medical practice. And players would never risk five minutes off the field just to “flop” in hopes of a penalty kick. Referees would also have the authority to stop play and send a player to the box to avoid injured players from worsening a true injury.

3. Continuous Subbing - The limit on substitution – a total of three in a full professional game – is another useless rule that doesn’t enhance the game. And, it’s not conducive with the game so many kids grow up playing where substitutions are quite regular. Intentionally tiring players out is boring and does nothing to elevate the quality of the game being played. Soccer needs regularly fresh players like hockey to keep the action at a higher level. Frequent subbing would lead to greater emphasis on strategy from coaches, and it would increase the energy “on the pitch.” Increased subbing also complements the “injury box” rule.

4. Sudden Death overtime – No game should end in a tie – ties violate the basic rules of competition. Ties are too socialist for Americans, and they remind us of our contempt for the self-esteem movement which implies there are no losers. And, remember how outraged American baseball fans were in 2002 when the All-Star Game ended in a tie. That literally led to a rule change in MLB. So, in the event of a tie, MLS teams should each remove a couple players from the pitch (the way the NHL does overtime), and the teams should play to a first goal victory. Fewer players will open up the field, and the “sudden death” pressure will significantly increase the offense and risk taking.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

California Board of Ed to delay vote on controversial new math standards

According to The Independent Institute, the California Board of Education will postpone until May of 2022 the schedule vote to implement changes to math instruction in the state. At the July board meeting, the state's education leaders were poised to adopt new math standards and curriculum which would stifle instruction, learning, and acceleration in "a step toward social justice and racial equity." This new plan for math instruction is apparently rooted in a one-size-fits-all rigid course of instruction which allows no acceleration or advanced instruction before the eleventh grade. And shockingly, it is alleged to "reject the ideas of natural talents and giftedness" and to oppose the "cult of genius."

As an honors and AP teacher and gifted education coordinator, I am baffled and disturbed by the belief that natural talents and giftedness don't exist and that educational advancement is simply a matter of privilege and even racism. Apparently, quite a few others agree, and hundreds of educators and academics have pushed back on the state of Californian in an open letter to the board and the governor, a letter which is believed to have influenced the decision to table a vote on the changes for one year. 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Thoughts, Quips, & Comments

  • My dad was the eternal optimist, and one of his favorite stories was about two brothers - a pessimist and an optimist -- who were tasked with cleaning up a huge pile of horse manure. As the pessimist whined and complained about the work and the mess, the other brother just started digging through the pile. When the first brother asked what he was doing, the optimist looked up to say, “With all this horse s--t around, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.” Look for the pony, my friends. Always look for the pony.

  • Years ago during a moment of ennui and melancholy, I voiced a worry that I had perhaps lost my faith. A young but wise and spiritual man told me that, on the contrary, faith is what remains when all else seems hopeless. Faith is not something you lose -- it’s what you turn to when feeling lost.

  • From a physiological standpoint, it should be impossible to hit a 95 mph fastball from 60 feet 6 inches away, and according to the laws of physics and aerodynamics, bees should not be able to fly. Neither professional baseball players nor bees know this.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Boyz in the Hood -- Thirty Years Later

"Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care what's happening in the hood."

Those daunting, heartbreaking, and prescient words were first uttered by Doughboy thirty years ago at the close of a film which shocked and amazed audiences and critics alike, while kicking off a new era of independent filmmaking and kickstarting a discussion that society is still having three decades later.

While it might have been easy to dilute the movie's message down to a warning about drugs and gang violence in the inner city communities like South Central Los Angeles, the inaugural work from iconic Gen X filmmaker John Singleton was so much more. Boyz N the Hood was a groundbreaking piece of cultural commentary about race in contemporary America. Through the words of Furious Styles, the team of Singleton and Laurence Fishburn gave audiences a master's thesis on racism, gentrification, youth, policing, and the socio-political urban landscape, while making the case that Black Lives Matter decades before the words became a rallying cry and social movement.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Healthy Living would make America Great

My latest column for The Villager:

Worried about the national debt? Fretting about our deficit? Want to see a cut in government spending? Hoping for lower taxes? If these issues are on your mind, one of the best things you can do to play your part is to start living healthy. Cut out the soda, avoid most heavily processed foods, walk thirty minutes a day, and save the country. Of all the spending in the United States at the federal level, it’s healthcare that is the true budget buster, accounting for nearly 25% of the budget.

It seems like every single day the news features another article about how to live healthier, and the benefits are not surprising to anyone who pays attention. Yet while people are living longer than ever before thanks to medical advances, most are not living healthier. Americans regularly put their health, both physical and fiscal, at risk by remaining sedentary, eating large amounts of processed foods, and relying on medications to treat conditions which could be improved through lifestyle choices. Nothing in the news has reversed these trends in the past three decades. However, perhaps a new angle regarding the pressure our weight and poor health are putting on the national pocketbook could redirect the discussion.

Dr. Ezekiel Immanuel, brother of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Immanuel asserted in a column for the New York Times that “We Can Be Healthy and Rich.” Without doubt the greatest economic risk to the American budget is the unfettered growth in health care spending, predominantly via Medicare. Thus, if Americans simply consumed less health care and demand went down, the federal government could shave hundreds of billions of dollars off the federal budget. Instead, older and retired Americans, who are virtually uninsurable in the private market, are in need of increasingly costly health care. And, it affects those still working as well, for according to billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett “medical costs are the tapeworm of American competitiveness.”

Medicare accounts for more than 15% of the federal budget, and hospitalizations are more than 40% of the cost of Medicare. Alas, it doesn't have to be that way. The federal budget is straining under the burden of health care costs precisely because Americans are entering their later years in need of increasingly extensive and expensive care. Once Baby Boomers started retiring, with Generation X following soon, it’s no surprise the Medicare budget was going to balloon. The problem is that so many health care problems are easily treatable with lifestyle, notably diet and exercise. Countless Americans are on blood pressure, insulin control, and cholesterol medications while making no changes to their lifestyle. These ailments are often predominantly lifestyle conditions, and much of the cost could be eliminated with healthy living.

Of course, the problem is not just an issue for government spending. The private health care and insurance system spreads costs across risk pools. Thus, one person's habits affect another person’s costs, and all consumers are intrinsically linked to each other whether they want to be or not. While many Americans consume little to no medical treatments, that doesn't prevent their premiums from rising annually because overall costs and payouts still go up, and they do so at a rate which far outpaces inflation. Granted, a broad range of illnesses and health care costs cannot be avoided. The problem is that so many of the payouts are for preventable conditions. Thus, the best way to save money via health care spending is to simply not need to spend money on health care. Or more importantly, spend the money on health not sickness, and on true health care, as opposed to sick care.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that health care is nothing short of a national security issue. Anyone who truly seeks to save money, both at a personal and federal level, should be doing everything possible to improve the overall health of the nation and decrease the need for and the consumption of health care, or more accurately “sick care.” Health care is, or at least should be, the steps we take in life to avoid needing medications, doctors, and hospitals. And that starts with increasing physical fitness while decreasing consumption of empty carbohydrates and poor diets of processed foods. Our health, and the health of the nation, depends on it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Permanent Olympic Cities

In 1972, via a statewide referendum, the people of Colorado rejected funding for the 1976 Olympic Games, becoming the only city ever awarded the games to turn down the chance to host. It wasn't a surprising move for anyone who knows the voters and taxpayers of the Rocky Mountain state, and knowing what we know now about the fiscal nightmare the Games can be for some cities and countries, it was in some ways a surprisingly prescient and prudent move. 

Hosting the Olympic Games is an incredible honor and opportunity, but that benefit is overshadowed by the corrupt history of the bidding process at the International Olympic Committee and the potential for bloated budgets prior to the event followed by potential blight afterwards. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Instead, the international community should establish permanent locations for the Olympics, where all countries contribute to maintaining the sites as the premier athletic facilities in the world. Athens is the obvious choice for one permanent summer location. Salt Lake City or Lillehammer are good bets for the winter.

This idea is not new and has been thoroughly investigated and discussed for years by various contributors at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and others. Now, we need for our political and business leaders to take the discussion to the IOC and make it happen. With many future games already assigned and planned, there is plenty of time to develop and implement this logical change to the Games.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Is there really a Generation X or Millennials or Boomers or Gen Z

Born in 1970, raised on Punk, New Wave, 80s Rock, & Grunge, weaned on sitcoms and John Hughes movies, and having written my master's thesis on the novels of Douglas Coupland, I certainly consider myself to be a member of Generation X. And, of course, that means that I believe Gen X is actually a thing which means more than a book by Coupland, a cover story on Time Magazine, or the first band of Billy Idol. However, Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, disagrees with me, and in a piece for the WashPost, he argues "Generational titles mean nothing. It's time to retire them."

The practice of naming “generations” based on birth year goes back at least to the supposed “Lost Generation” of the late 19th Century. But as the tradition devolved into a never-ending competition to be the first to propose the next name that sticks, it has produced steadily diminishing returns to social science and the public understanding.

The supposed boundaries between generations are no more meaningful than the names they’ve been given. There is no research identifying the appropriate boundaries between generations, and there is no empirical basis for imposing the sweeping character traits that are believed to define them. Generation descriptors are either embarrassing stereotypes or caricatures with astrology-level vagueness. In one article you might read that Millennials are “liberal lions,” “downwardly mobile,” “upbeat,” “pre-Copernican,” “unaffiliated, anti-hierarchical, [and] distrustful” — even though they also “get along well with their parents, respect their elders and work well with colleagues.”

Ridiculous, clearly. But what's the harm? Aren’t these tags just a bit of fun for writers? A convenient hook for readers and a way of communicating generational change, which no one would deny is a real phenomenon? We in academic social science study and teach social change, but we don’t study and teach these categories because they simply aren’t real. And in social science, reality still matters.

While I can acknowledge and even support many claims Cohen makes, I'll still argue that designations like Generation X, Millennial, Boomer, and even Gen Z mean something. At the most basic level, I think generations have a lot to do with whatever cultural and historical references seem familiar to a reasonably large age-based demographic. Generations have common allusions that, despite our varied experiences, seem to resonate and evoke common feelings. That cohesiveness can be comforting to our sense of self, placing us a certain time in a general community of people who might just get us, so to speak.

Of course, the divisiveness and blame-gaming that goes along with generational labels is something we can do without. And the associated problems of labeling people that Cohen criticizes are reasonable criticisms. Still, I think there's a place for such identifications.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

CRT in Colorado - a primer from the Denver Post

"Denver doesn't teach Critical Race Theory -- but that hasn't stopped the complaints," reported the Denver Post on July 6 in response to the rising tide of tension and conversation about race and public education nationwide. Seemingly out of the blue, especially for an idea that has been around since the 1970s, the topic of critical race theory in education is on many minds, is being discussed publicly at school board meetings, and is even driving new legislation in some states banning the topic in education. Of course, many people have little knowledge or understanding of what the term even means and why it's so controversial.

To that end, a couple of journalists at the Denver Post have put together a couple of thoughtful, well-balanced, and comprehensive articles about the topic and its local relevance. John Aguilar has written the lead story which frames the topic and the current discussions happening around the Denver area.

The combustible intersection of race, equity and education is fueling late-night school board meetings across the Front Range, where parents, teachers and students sound off about a phrase and concept that’s suddenly everywhere in the U.S.: critical race theory. The loudest of the discussions is in Douglas County, where a newly adopted “equity policy” has set off a firestorm of accusations that the 67,000-student, mostly white district south of Denver is embracing the controversial theory. A similar debate happened last month at a Cherry Creek School District board meeting.

Critical race theory has morphed from its roots as a lofty academic notion into a catchphrase for those sensing the long-term power structure being under challenge by traditionally marginalized communities, University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Jennifer Ho said. She pointed to conservative filmmaker and commentator Christopher Rufo, who was recently profiled in The New Yorker as the architect behind turning critical race theory into a potent political weapon. In lambasting the “elites” for “seeking to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race,” Rufo concluded that appropriating the left’s own terminology could make critical race theory “the perfect villain.”

Additionally, Post reporter Conrad Swanson has put together a succinct but informative primer or explainer for the question "What is Critical Race Theory."

Critical race theory suggests that racism and other prejudices are social constructs embedded in legal systems and laws, not the product of individual biases, according to Education Week.

Think of the theory as a “remix” of the civil rights movement, Reiland Rabaka tells his students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The professor of African, African American and Caribbean studies said the theory suggests that American culture, religion and institutions are inextricably linked with race, gender, sexuality and physical ability.

But it’s more than that: Critical race theory says institutions like the criminal justice or education systems have systemic failures — like the intentional segregation, or “redlining,” of neighborhoods across the country — built into the way those things work, according to Debora Ortega, a professor of social work at the University of Denver. Those failures or acts of discrimination might be attributed to a single racist or a misogynistic administrator or worker, but critical race theory asserts there is a broader and more complicated reason for them.

These two pieces reflect some really solid journalism that contribute important information and perspective on a timely topic.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

"Punk is ..." -- A Punk Manifesto by Greg Graffin

So, as I've noted here before, I have long introduced the works of Henry David Thoreau to my students by describing him as "America's original Punk." This hearkens back twenty years to when I was speaking with a colleague about the overall Punk aesthetic, and he introduced me to "The Punk Manifesto," written by Bad Religion's Greg Graffin. The work of Thoreau was just so evident in the tenets put together by Graffin, and the two men and their ideals have just always seemed connected to me. The Punk Manifesto was originally published by Graffin in the band's newsletter, and I believe it was re-published in a magazine, though I can't recall where. Anyway, as I've been working on my piece about Henry David Thoreau and Punk, I've realized that finding the text for the Punk Manifesto can be a bit challenging. So, I am re-posting it here.

Punk Manifesto by Greg Graffin

I have never owned a record label, nor directed a successful merchandise company, so I don’t pretend to be an expert on marketing. I have evolved through my craft as a songwriter, but others have labeled it and marketed it and made it neat for consumption.

Although I have made money from Punk, it is a modest amount when one considers the bounty that has been bestowed on the companies that promote Punk as some sort of a product to be ingested. It has always been my way to de-value the fashionable, light-hearted, impulsive traits that people associate with Punk, because Punk is more than that, so much more that those elements become trivial in the light of human experience that all punkers share.

Since it has been a part of me for over half of my life, I think the time has come to attempt a definition, and in the process defend, this persistent social phenomenon known as Punk. It is astounding that something with so much emotional and trans-cultural depth has gone without definition for so long, for the roots of Punk run deeper, and go back in history farther than imagined.

Even in the last two decades, it is difficult to find any analysis of the influential effect that Punk Rock had on Pop Music and youth culture. And rarer still are essays detailing the emotional and intellectual undercurrents that drive the more overt fashion statements that most people attribute to Punk. These are some of the wants that compelled me to write this. If my attempt offends the purists, collapses the secrecy of a closed society, promotes confidence in skeptical inquiry, provokes deeper thought, and decodes irony, then I have done my job and those who feel slighted might recognize the triviality of their position. For I have nothing to promote but my observations on a sub-culture that has grown to global proportions, and through visiting much of it, I have found threads of common thought everywhere.

Common thought processes are what determine the ideology that binds people together into a community. There is desire among Punks to be a community, but there needs to be some shape imparted on the foundations of the punk ideology, and where it comes from. The current Punk stereotype is scarred by mass-marketing and an unfortunate emphasis on style over substance. But these ills don’t destroy the Punk sentiment, they merely confound the education of the new generations of people who know they are punk, but don’t know what it means. It is a long road to understand what it means. This essay is part of the process.

Punk is a reflection of what it means to be human. What separates us from other animals? Our ability to recognize ourselves and express our own genetic uniqueness. Ironically, the commonly held view, among the marketeers and publicity engines, stresses the “animalistic”, “primitive” nature of punks and their music.

They assume that violence is a key ingredient in punk music, and this assumption is easily perpetuated because it is easy to market violence and news items about violence always get column space. This focus on violence misses a key element of what Punk is all about:

PUNK IS: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions.

Violence is neither common in, nor unique to punk. When it does manifest itself it is due to things unrelated to the punk ideal. Consider for example the common story of a fight at a high school between a punk and a jock football player. The football player and his cohort do not accept or value the punk as a real person. Rather, they use him as a vitriol receptacle, daily taunting, provoking, and embarrassing him, which of course is no more than a reflection of their own insecurities. One day, the punk has had enough and he clobbers the football captain in the hallway. The teachers of course expell the punk and cite his poor hairstyle and shabby clothing as evidence that he is a violent, uncontrollable no-good. The community newspaper reads “Hallway Beating Re-affirms that Violence is a Way of Life Among Punk Rockers”. Spontaneous anger at not being accepted as a real person is not unique to punkers. This reaction is due to being human, and anybody would react in anger regardless of their sub- cultural, or social affiliation if they felt de- valued and useless. Sadly, there are plenty of examples of violence among punks. There are glaring examples of misguided people who call themselves punks too. But anger and violence are not punk traits, in fact, they have no place in the punk ideal. Anger and violence are not the glue that holds the punk community together.

Nature bestowed on us the genetic backbone of what punk is all about. There are roughly 80,000 genes in the human genome, and there are roughly 6 billion people carrying that genetic compliment. The chances of two people carrying the same genome are so small as to be almost beyond comprehension (the odds are essentially ½ 80,000 times the number of possible people you can meet and mate with in a lifetime! A practical impossibility)

The genes we carry play a major role in determining our behavior and outlook on life. That is why we have the gift of uniqueness, because no one else has the same set of genes controlling their view of the world. Of course cultural factors play the other major role, and these can have a more homogenizing effect on behavior and world-view.

For example, an entire working-class town might have 15,000 residents who are raised with the same ideals, work at the same factories, go to the same schools, shop at the same stores, and like the same sports teams. As their children develop, there is a constant interaction of opposite forces between the social imprinting their culture imparts and the genetic expression of uniqueness.

Those who lose touch with their nature become society’s robots, whereas those who denounce their social development become vagrant animals. Punk stands for a desire to walk the line in between these two extremes with masterful precision. Punks want to express their own unique nature, while at the same time want to embrace the communal aspects of their cookie-cutter upbringing. The social connection they have is based on a desire to understand each other’s unique view of the world. Punk “scenes” are social places where those views are accepted, sometimes adopted, sometimes discarded, but always tolerated and respected.

PUNK IS: a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through willful ignorance of human nature.

Because it depends on tolerance and shuns denial, Punk is open to all humans. There is an elegant parallel between Punk’s dependence on unique views and behaviors and our own natural genetic predisposition toward uniqueness.

The compulsion to conform is a powerful side-effect of civilized life. We are all taught to respect the views of our elders, and later when we realize that they are just dogmatic opinions, we are taught not to make a commotion by asking difficult questions. Many just go along with the prevailing notions and never express their own views, which is analogous to a premature death of the individual. Our species is unique in the ability to recognize and express the self, and not exercising this biological function goes against the natural selection gradient that created it in the first place. This complacency combats a fear of failure. It is easy to assume that if everyone else is doing something, then there is no way to fail if you just go along with it. Cattle and flocks of geese can probably recognize this advantage. But the entire human race could fail because of this mentality. Thinking and acting in a direction against the current of popular opinion is critical to human advancement, and a potent manifestation of Punk. If an issue or phenomenon is found to be true only because other people say it is so, then it is a Punk’s job to look for a better solution, or at least find an independent variable that confirms the held view (sometimes the popular view is just a reflection of human nature, Punks don’t live in denial of this). This ability to go against the grain was a major part of the greatest advances in human thinking throughout history. The entire Enlightenment period was characterized by ideas that shunned the dogma of the time, only to reveal truths in nature and human existence that all people can observe, and that are still with us today.

Galileo fought the church, the church won the battle, by putting him in jail for life, but ultimately lost the war; few people today believe that the sun orbits around the earth, and thus God didn’t create the earth as the center of the universe. Francis Bacon insisted that human destiny is equal to understanding. If we deny this fundamental principle of what it means to be human, he reasoned, then we descend into the depths of mere barbarism.

Charles Darwin, wrote after the heyday of the Enlightenment, he nonetheless was directly influenced by its tradition, was trained as a theologian and yet still was driven to understand the underlying order that connected biological species he observed in his travels. His views threw into question many of the Bible’s tenets, yet his reasoning was sound, and through a process of self-improvement (the struggle in his own mind to understand) he improved mankind by establishing a new benchmark of human knowledge.

The dogma of the church was further marginalized. The fear of repercussion from the church was overshadowed by the wave of understanding that his views created in people, and by the truth to his observations.

The modern-day Punk thought process, driven by this desire to understand, is a carbon-copy of the Enlightenment tradition. The fact that so many historical examples exist that reveal a will to destroy dogma leads to a powerful tenet: It is a natural trait of civilized humans to be original. The fact that uniqueness is so rare reveals that our nature is stifled by an equally potent opposing force: fear.

PUNK IS: a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and by extrapolation, could lead to social progress.

If enough people feel free, and are encouraged to use their skills of observation and reason, grand truths will emerge. These truths are acknowledged and accepted not because they were force-fed by some totalitarian entity, but because everyone has a similar experience when observing them. The fact that Punks can relate to one another on issues of prejudice comes from a shared experience of being treated poorly by people who don’t want them around. Each has his/her own experience of being shunned, and each can relate to another’s story of alienation without some kind of adherence to a code of behavior.

The truth of prejudice is derived from the experience they all share, not from a written formula or constitution they have to abide by. Punks learn from this experience that prejudice is wrong, it is a principle they live by; they didn’t learn it from a textbook. Without striving to understand, and provoking the held beliefs, the truth remains shrouded behind custom, inactivity, and prescriptive ideology.

Philosophers distinguish between capital “T” truth and truth with a small “t”. Punks deny the former.

Truth with a capital “T” assumes that there is an order prescribed by some transcendental being. That is to say that truth comes ultimately from God, who had a plan for everything when he created the universe.

Little “t” truth is that which we figure out for ourselves, and which we all can agree upon due to similar experience and observations of the world. It is also known as objective truth, from within ourselves, revealed here on this earth; as opposed to big T truth, which comes from outside and is projected down to us, specifically for us to follow. Morality need not be thought of as a product only of big “T” truth. Objective truth lends itself just as readily to a moralistic, spiritual culture.

PUNK IS: a belief that this world is what we make of it, truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be.

Punk’s dependence on objective truth comes from the shared experience of going against the grain. Anyone who has stood out in a crowd feels the truth of the experience. No one had to write a doctrine in order for the outcast to understand what it meant to be different. The truth was plain enough, and that truth could be understood and agreed upon by all those who shared a common experience.

The fears that drive people to conform have caused dismal periods in human history. The so-called Dark Ages, were tranquil and without upheaval, but also dismally quiet and pestilent, nary a contrasting view to be found. The pseudo-comfort and tranquility that the people of the Dark Ages experienced, by conforming to a rigidly enforced bureaucracy enforced by the king and church, was masked entirely by the misery they had to endure in their day to day life. Life is easy as a peasant, no direction, no purpose, just produce more goods and offspring for the benefit of the king. But using fear to control peasants (or modern-day blue-collar workers for that matter) is just a short-term foul exercise, because peasants have the same mental equipment as the royalty.

The deeply ingrained biological traits of self-recognition and the desire to express the self cannot be quashed for long. Eventually peasants realize that life without the practice of reason is as good as being a farm animal. Being controlled by fear is the same as being biologically inert, unable to take part in the human drama, merely wasting away. The fear that controls human behavior is learned. It is different from the immediate, reflexive, run-away-from-the- nasty-stimulus response that other creatures employ to stay alive. We have motor reflexes like these as well, but fear of failure, and fear of speaking out come from the limbic system.

The limbic system is a network of neurons in our brain that control our most deep-seated emotions. It connects two parts of the brain together: the midbrain, where sensory information is sent (i.e. sight and hearing stimuli) and the forebrain, where that information is processed. Although the forebrain has been around for at least 480 million years (it was present in the earliest vertebrates), it evolved special functions with the advent of humankind.

A specialized portion of the forebrain, called the cerebral cortex, is highly developed in humans. 95% of our cerebral cortex is responsible for associative mental activities like contemplation and planning. The other 5% is responsible for processing motor and sensory information. By comparison, a mouse (also considered a higher vertebrate), has a cerebral cortex with only 5% of its neurons devoted to associative functions, while 95% are devoted to motor and sensory functions.

The highly developed limbic system is at the core of what it means to be human. We differ from other animals in the amount of time we spend planning, contemplating, and expressing ourselves. Our limbic system is very powerful. It can over-ride primitive emotions, and suppress deep desires. Anyone who has ever seen a sad movie with friends, and willfully held back tears because they didn’t want their friends to see them crying, employed the power of their limbic system. They contemplated the repercussions of their friends reaction to crying, and shut off the emotional cascade that would have brought the tears.

In the same way that rationality is the product of the limbic system, fear is also centered in the same neurons of the limbic system. Fear is usually rational behavior, based on irrational thoughts, and it can freeze the processing power of the cerebral cortex. Denial and fear go hand in hand, and both are examples of how our limbic system can suppress obvious stimuli and promote behavior that is safe and conforming.

The limbic system is like any other organ in the sense that it can operate unchecked to produce detrimental results. Being in touch with our bodies leads to overall general health, and the limbic system needs constant attention in order to master it. To overcome fear, one needs to be in touch with their limbic system, and recognize when it is suppressing the obvious.

Etiquette and “being nice” are forms of limbic-system repression, necessary at times, but ultimately demeaning of human originality. Lying is the ultimate form of limbic-system repression. It is a denial of the obvious. Truth-tellers, those who are authentic and trustworthy, have learned to master their limbic system. They recognize the desire to lie, but rationalize the futility of advocating something that is not true. Liars, on the other hand, are slaves to their limbic system, out of touch with their most basic mental capacities. Their behavior is guarded and shifty because they let their flawed reasoning, to cover up the obvious, control their entire makeup. They eventually have to give in to the truth and concede defeat, but only after every possible avenue of deception and twisted logic has been advocated in the interest of hiding their fear. Politicians, Clergymen, Business leaders, and Judges are masters of twisted logic and promotion of fear. They make good intellectual targets for Punkers because they don’t respect people who have learned to master their limbic systems. And Punkers are not afraid to point out that which is obvious, even if it means their social status might be jeopardized.

PUNK IS: the constant struggle against fear of social repercussions.

I have tried to enumerate some of the factors that make Punk a movement, in the cultural sense. The typical stereotype of a feeble-minded ruffian vandalizing, destroying, stealing, fighting, or arguing in the name of some empty, short-lived cause is no more punk than the pretty-face-empty-head image of today’s pop stars.

Because it is so easy for record companies to sell images of violence, sex, and self-importance, many bands have taken the bait and portrayed themselves as Punks, without realizing that they were actually perpetuating a stereotype of conformity that is wholly un-punk.

The “come join us” attitude that seeks to attract followers, usually results in a rabble of weak people who think that their power lies in the large numbers of like-minded clones they have compiled. There is no strength in numbers however, if the people are glued together by a short-sighted, self-serving, fear-induced mantra that promotes factions and exclusionary principles. Strong ideologies don’t require a mob, they persist through time, and never go away, because they are intimately connected to our biology. They are part of what it means to exist as Homo sapiens. Punk typifies that tradition. It is a movement of epic proportions, that transcends the immediacy of the here-and-now, because it is, was, and always will be there-and-forever, as long as humans walk the earth.

As we enter a new era in the voracious march of culture, Punks will have their day. The internet has allowed people to communicate directly once again. On the web, human behavior is interactive, like it was before the advent of mass-media.

People now focus on ideological discussions and lifestyle issues, as opposed to the classic 20th century behavior of closing oneself off from cohorts, and adhering to a network’s, or commercial’s prescriptive code of acceptable behavior. The lies, and mysteries of elitism will erode quickly as the global conversation that transpires daily on the web invades more people’s lives.

The world population will be more receptive to alternative ideologies because they will be creating them. People will be less receptive to ideologies of out- dated institutions because the holes and flaws in their logic will be ever more amplified when they are broadcast instantly around the world as they become revealed.

The “Strength-In-Understanding”, and “Knowledge-Is-Power” ethics that Punks maintain will become the norm. The rigidity, brutishness, and futility of secret agendas will be made obvious, paving the way to an appreciation of human uniqueness, and a new era of originality.

Everyone has the potential to be punk. It is much harder for someone who comes from a placid, un-challenging, ignorant upbringing, because they don’t see the value in questioning or provoking the institutions that gave them such tranquility. But such examples of carefree existence are rare in today’s shrinking world.

Eternal questions still burn in the minds of most people. What it means to be human is becoming more clear every decade. Sometimes, people are trained to follow the safe path to an early grave by consuming and repeating the dogma of a fearful aristocracy.

On the other hand, the human spirit is hard to kill. Punk is a microcosm of the human spirit. Punks succeed with their minds, not their brute force. They advance society by their diversity, not their conformity. They motivate others by inclusion, not domination.

They are at the front lines of self-betterment and by extrapolation can improve the complexion of the human race. They adhere to unwritten universal principles of human emotion, obvious to anyone, and shun elitist codes of behavior, or secret agendas. They embody the hope of the future, and reveal the flaws of the past. Don’t tell them what to do, they are already leading you.

PUNK IS: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions.

PUNK IS: a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through willful ignorance of human nature.

PUNK IS: a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and through repetition, flowers into social evolution.

PUNK IS: a belief that this world is what we make of it, truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be.

PUNK IS: the constant struggle against fear of social repercussions.

-Greg Graffin, Bad Religion

Monday, July 5, 2021

Institutions and the Bonds that Unite Us

In thinking about the state of the union as I read a couple works of non-fiction by a couple favorite writers, I've been thinking about institutions. By that I mean the structures and systems and connections and foundations that help us establish and maintain a civilized society. Here's this week's column for The Villager. 

Society is built upon institutions, and when faith and trust in those institutions weakens or wavers, the foundations of society are at risk. Family, church, neighborhoods, schools, civic duty, government, these are the heart of any society. They are glue that binds communities together and the systems which allow them to thrive. And Yuval Levin is worried about the rising mistrust in institutions.

Levin, an esteemed scholar at The American Enterprise Institute, recently published A Time to Build: How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. For many years, Levin has worked in government and public policy, and as he witnessed leaders come and go and political parties move in and out of power, he has relied on institutions to preserve continuity and stability. The problem in contemporary society is that because people have become so comfortable living under the stability provided by institutions, they often fail to understand and appreciate their benefits. Levin hopes to restore America’s faith.

The fourth estate of journalism is one of the most important institutions for a free society, and also one most at risk. Disparaging the media and journalists has practically become a sport for commentators and the public alike, with a rising number of people claiming to not read or watch the news while simultaneously criticizing and questioning the coverage of issues. Sadly, the talking heads and political leaders actually depend upon the very newspapers and reporters for the news that they then comment on, even as they disparage the source. As interest in the news goes down and media companies struggle financially, the one institution with the reach and resources to hold people accountable begins to fade.

In a column for the New York Times entitled “What Life Asks of Us,” David Brooks also emphasized the stabilizing and unifying nature of the institutions. Institutions have rules long established precisely because they work. There is prudence and caution in institutions which believe the old and established can often be trusted in ways that the new and untested can not. As such, institutions are society’s hedge against radical change, disorder, and ultimately chaos. What nineteenth century scholar Edmund Burke called “the little platoons” are the first and most personal institutions in which we place our trust. They are “the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

At times the stability and order offered by institutions can seem to be at odds with the self-reliance and rugged individualism at the heart of the American spirit. Yet, as individuals in increasingly larger and more diverse communities, we can’t know everyone personally. And for society to work, we have to be able to trust people we don’t know. Institutions help support and promote that trust. Institutions are what enable us to trust, yea to know, that when we wake up in the morning, the lights are going to turn on, the water in the shower will be hot, the food in the fridge will be safe to eat, and our fellow commuters will stop at the red lights as we drive to work.

The schoolhouse is one of the first institutions outside of our homes in which we place our faith. A free and public education has long been the foundation for growth and mobility in American society, yet Americans have incredibly conflicted attitudes about schools. While the average person will bemoan the state of education, Americans have a surprisingly high faith in and support of their own schools and their own personal education. Thus, the perception of the institution is often disconnected from the personal experience.

Writer Michael Lewis is also concerned about the strength of and faith in our institutions, and his recent book The Premonition: a Pandemic Story explores the challenges facing them and the potential catastrophe that can result when institutions fall short and faith in them is strained. Lewis has always been fascinated by the quiet heroes who go about doing the work without praise. And having explored topics as vast as data metrics changing the game of baseball to the complicated financial instruments that caused the 2008 economic catastrophe, Lewis has become fascinated by the stories of the people who used their institutional knowledge to identify solutions long before the public ever knew there was a problem. Sadly, people often wait too long before listening to them.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Can Debate Class Save America?

In the past ten years I have been involved with our high school's speech and debate program, though I was never a debater in high school. As an administrator I have travelled with our team numerous times, as an English teacher I have often served as a judge at competitions as well as a promoter of the program in news coverage for the Denver Post's YourHub, and as a parent I have supported my children in the program, as well as my wife who is a "debate mom." Here's my latest column for The Villager on the value of speech and debate.

“Anyone who bemoans the state of public education need only spend a weekend at a high school speech and debate tournament to have their faith restored.” That perspective from Curt, a debate coach at a suburban high school outside Denver, was shared with me one bright Saturday morning as thousands of students descended upon a local school where they’d spend the day doing what they love, arguing. People who grew up with memories of John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” might think spending all day at school on a Saturday would be a punishment. But that’s not the case with competitors in the world of high school Speech and Debate, and the spirit of community and intellectual engagement found in the debate world might be just what America needs.

Jason Kosanovich, a local civics teacher and debate coach, believes passionately in the power of debate to engage kids. “Community is the key,” he told me, “because they have an open respect for each other” even as they compete over divisive topics. Debate is also one of the most inclusive activities found in school, for it’s open to everybody who is willing to put in the time. One of the strengths of the speech and debate tournament scene is the collegiality found among the students as they gather at local high schools for numerous weekends during the year. Debaters spend hours of downtime in the hallways and cafeterias conversing about their performances and supporting each other as they prepare for their next rounds.

Debate tournaments have numerous styles and events ranging from strict public policy debate to extemporaneous speeches about international issues and even dramatic interpretations or personal commentary. It’s in the head-to-head events like Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum that politics, argument, and rhetoric reign supreme. Yet, decorum is the rule and debaters “have to ignore their biases, drop their personal opinions, and leave their egos at the door” when they enter the debate room because they’re going to flip a coin to determine which side they argue in that round. Having the ability to effectively defend any position has a calming influence, a feeling shared by a team of public forum finalists, who once told me, “The structure of debate prevents anyone from getting too heated. If you get crazy, you lose.”

Clearly, many adults could learn from the maturity of these teens when discussing political issues. And being required to competently argue both sides of an issue definitely informs their own views. Undoubtedly, these kids exemplify the classic characterization by novelist Henry James of being “a person on whom nothing is lost.” In competition, it’s not surprising for students to repeatedly cite references to numerous research studies and news sources like The Atlantic, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and more as they make their cases with the poise of veteran attorneys arguing before the high court. Extemporaneous speakers might be tasked with defining the challenges of the next Congressional session, explaining the complicated relationship of China and Taiwan, or analyzing the impact of the Boko Haram terrorist group on central African politics.

Regardless, speech and debate kids are knowledgeable of the world and thoughtful about it. They are also self aware and confident in their own skin. It’s not unusual at a tournament to encounter kids in the hallway talking to lockers, walking the halls citing statistics and quotes, huddled in groups comparing notes, or simply encouraging and challenging each other. In rounds they can be heard smoothly pulling quotes from obscure UN studies and journals of scientific research, and they display a mature command of their topics. That’s what impresses coaches like Kosanovich who explains “Walking into an interview with confidence, being able to focus and think clearly, maturely organizing their days and weekends, these are skills and qualities that will ripples throughout their lives.”

Those worried about the motivations and abilities of Generation Z to lead and improve their world should consider attending a speech and debate tourney. Walking the halls of a debate tournament, it’s hard to be critical of teenagers and public education. While many of these kids aren't always challenged by the academics of the classroom, competition is where they show off what many educators and employers believe to be the most important skills people can develop – critical thinking and the art of public speaking. These tournaments are great places to find the state’s best and brightest young people as they gather to “geek out” on being smart.