Sunday, June 24, 2018

Donald Trump: Brought to You in Part By The Walking Dead

This is hard to write, because I've really enjoyed The Walking Dead. I've been writing about the show in my head since about Episode 3, and have gradually adjusted what I wanted to say as the series evolved. As such, it's only fair that I warn you that this is full of SPOILERS. The SPOILERS are probably pretty out of date for you, not only because you live in my future, but because I watch on Netflix and am always a season or more behind. Still, fair warning.

Love the show though I do, partway through Season 7 I'm not sure that I'm going to make it through. I have already experienced a seemingly endless progression of disappointments. I've witnessed the death of dozens of characters I really cared about. I watched as our people gained what seemed to be a sustainable lifestyle, only to watch it be ruined. I watched miraculous rescues and recoveries, only to watch these characters die pointlessly. I made it through all of this, and yet it's only now that I may be ready to give it all up.

Negan is horrible, but that's not it. I've dealt with horrible villains in this story before and managed okay. There is a kind of despair setting in as they are once again facing unwinnable odds, but that's not it. I believe they will turn this around, as they have in the past. There is a bit of monotony in these episodes as they seem to face the same difficulties over and over again, never making real progress, but that's not it. There is a subtle evolution of the challenges and solutions that I find compelling. Change on this show has always been glacial (except when it's not).

None of this is enough to make me quit. Suffering comes with the territory for fans of shows like this. It's the kind of show I like to watch on the exercise bike. I'm not having a very good time, and neither are the characters--see also: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. This is more than too much suffering, though. The most horrible outcome of this series riddled with horrible outcomes is the possibility that The Walking Dead played a part in the election of Donald Trump.

Given the razor-thin margin by which Donald Trump turned a three-million-vote deficit into an Electoral College victory by way of something like 75,000 votes in just a few states, it's easy to find little things that did the trick. Weiner's...ahem...computer problems alone could have done it, as could polling that told Democrats they could stay home, as could $130,00 paid to a porn star in an important moment. And yes, Bernie bros, and Hillary's Wisconsin strategy, and the DNC all played their part. Wherever you choose to lay the blame, you'll probably find enough votes there to make your case.

Still, The Walking Dead is a cultural force, driving water-cooler conversations and Twitter flame wars across the country. Perhaps more importantly, it's not overtly political. As a result, its ethic is much more readily absorbed by people who profess not to care about politics. Yes, Madame Secretary could have an impact. Sure, Veep could play a part. Of course Scandal, and The Good Wife, and House of Cards deal with politics and had the potential to shape people's perceptions at a critical moment. However, those are shows that self select for people who know they're being inundated by partisan politics. These shows celebrate or lampoon government, politics, and politicians. They indulge in show business's left-leaning tendencies, or purge Hollywood liberal guilt by portraying scheming Democrats and/or moderate Republicans who hate guns, take sensible positions on abortion, and have a real plan to fix education.

The Walking Dead is different. It's ostensibly about zombies, but it was never really about that. Early on was about survival, but eventually they got pretty good at that. Then it was about building a society and about the roles natural and official leaders play in that. That lasted for a while, but when rival societies were discovered it became about a battle between the societies for supremacy. Each group we discover has slightly different governance, priorities, rituals, and vices. In other words, its a show about zombies that doubles as a master's thesis in sociology.

By the end of Season 6, it was about the very fundamentals of civility. Our people, and by extension we in the audience, were faced with the difficult question of whether a society that has most of what it needs for survival have a right--no, a duty--to act preemptively against a known enemy. After choosing to obliterate said enemy, it looked as though we were going to start on some of the real work of society building: agriculture, procreation, education, maybe even the arts.

Of course, the obliterated enemy was actually just the tip of a very overwhelming iceberg. Like some other icebergs we've heard of, this one has proven to be quite deadly. The fact that this new danger is going to result in the loss of more beloved characters isn't why I'm so close to the breaking point.

The Walking Dead has always espoused some pretty Republican values, but it's mostly been the better ones: self determination, rugged individualism, and a strong belief in a market-based system of commerce. Lately, though I'm seeing manifestations of less attractive Republican ideology:
  1. Taxation is fundamentally wrong - Negan runs his operation by taking. Characters in The Walking Dead became preoccupied with acquiring resources very early in the series. During the last days of civilization (the period Rick slept through and we never saw), a great deal of looting seems to have taken place, which led to scarcity even in a world with a very reduced population. Negan found another method of procurement. He figured out that he didn't need to make anything, build anything, or find anything. Instead, he'd seek out weaker people and take what they made, built, or found. For this, he would provide no services at all, except maybe a:
  2. Taxation is at best a protection racket - While he doesn't provide any real services, he does offer a lack of hellfire brought on his taxpayers. It looks like taxation, especially to anyone predisposed to dislike any kind of taxation, but it's actually not tax and spend. It's tax and I won't kill you. All of those "Obama, I Built My Business" folks who forget that businesses need roads, and community police, and snow removal, and employees who can read and write, and copyrights, and patents, and water, and sewer, and sidewalks feel that they know what it's like to live under the thumb of Negan. 
  3. GUNS solve problems - The various societies in The Walking Dead are locked in mortal combat, both with walkers and with each other. Still, in Season 7 there's been a much more intensive focus on the balance of power as it relates to the possession of guns. No longer are they tools for hunting and protection against walkers. No longer are bows and crossbows considered to be an acceptable, sometimes preferable, substitute--given that they're silent and the ammunition is reusable. Guns are power, and Negan denudes Alexandria of them down to the very last .22 caliber to exert ultimate control. How he expected these people to go out and produce for him without even very rudimentary weapons, no one dared ask, but it's turning out to be a big problem.  
  4. Women have their place - Negan points out that the Saviors' women don't look like they're doing the books for a local auto shop. It's easy to imagine a post-apocalyptic society that treats women even worse than that, but Negan's brand of human trafficking is a problem. Just as Donald Trump has ushered in much lower standards of treatment for the women in his life, Negan's "wives" are emblematic of a kind of regressive anti-feminism that are a low grade but important crime against decency. Melania Trump wasn't a significant player in the campaign, but she is a representative of a larger Trump aesthetic in regards to women.
  5. All sport should be blood sport - The Saviors aren't the only sect in the Walking Dead to indulge in a kind of gladiator combat. It seems when you have animated corpses around, one of the things you do with them is have them fight your prisoners. Violent sport isn't entirely the territory of Republicans, but it does seem to indulge some uncivil human tendencies. 
Trump was at the time of the election, and still is right now, nothing like the Republicans I grew up with. He's vulgar, overtly misogynistic, and has the rhetorical skills and style of a fourth-grader. Electing Trump president required an unholy marriage between the kinds of Republicans I still think of before I adjust my thinking and, what's the word?: deplorables.

I think The Walking Dead facilitated this union by turning good Republicans into deplorables. In the way that Diet Coke changes your expectations of what sweet tastes like, wealthy suburban dads and moms (!) came to accept Donald Trump because Republican ideals started to seem life and death. If you don't have guns, and if taxes are too high, and if your SUVs don't have rugged enough suspensions, you're going to literally die. Plus, women should put on some perfume and a nice dress for crissakes.

My (very Republican) parents paid quite a lot of attention to the kind of TV we watched as kids. They weren't just interested in content (violence, nudity, sex, etc.) but the overall values and even the aesthetic of a show. I of course thought this was nonsense growing up. Now I'm not so sure. What if the coarse conversational style of reality TV did more than give us The Apprentice, but put The Don in The Oval Office? What if this show I loved changed the national mood during some crucial weeks in November '16, and put a version of Negan's (mini-sausage) finger on the button?

A version of this discussion appears when we learn the media consumption habits of the latest mass shooter. Somehow it doesn't stretch the imagination too much to see first-person shooter games priming a pump and skewing values. We're not talking about loner kids in their parents' basements sweating on their controllers. We're talking about 17 million people who are allowed to watch this show. Combined them with their parents and grandparents who never turn off Fox News, and you've got yourself an election. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Team of Rivals

Abraham Lincoln famously seated a Cabinet full of many of the people he'd just beaten for the Republican nomination (see also: here). Just as famously, the current leader of the Party of Lincoln values loyalty above all else (see: here). Given the very few people left in the world who haven't yet said mean things about our 45th President, he is having some trouble filling staff positions--especially as new positions become vacant on what seems to be a daily basis. That he is unwilling to face criticism is one of Trump's defining characteristic, and among the many traits and beliefs that should have kept him from the presidency (see also: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; also here; oh, and here). While this obviously isn't the only important difference between Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln, it is a worthwhile aspect of leadership to explore.

Leadership is riddled with paradoxes. An important one is that those who seek power must be ready to accept criticism, and, further, to make use of it. Pursuing leadership positions takes guts. The very act of applying to be a benevolent overlord is by its nature a profession of faith in one's own ideas. Doing these jobs, however, often requires the kind of needle-threading, cajoling, and indirect leadership that can be difficult for someone who is inclined to seek power in the first place.

Trump reportedly spends vast amounts of his time marinating in the warm comforting broth of Fox News. I get it. My Twitter feed and news sources trend toward my own biases and world view. I sometimes dip my toe in right wing talk radio, just to see what's going on over there. It's my own version of things like the cinnamon challenge, the hot stove challenge, and Tide Pods. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Still, I understand the impulse to listen mostly to people who confirm your current world view. Also, I'm not the President of the United States.

I have served on, and been subjected to the whims of, a number of boards, councils, and leadership teams. The best of these were in some cases fairly contentious, as the free flow of ideas sometimes led to conflict. These conflicts may have been uncomfortable in the moment, but they usually made the organization stronger. By surrounding himself with people who agree with him, Trump is missing out on the following:
  1. Rehearsal - Presiding over regular meetings of people who disagree with you is great preparation for facing the press, the nation, world leaders, and internet comment sections. Trump has famously avoided press conferences and will never be allowed to testify in the Mueller investigation--whatever he may say about his willingness to do so. He doesn't face his adversaries, and he's getting worse at it as a result. He needs crib notes just to remember not to be a jerk. He prefers to bask in the adulation he experiences at campaign rallies, where variations in thought--even among conservative Trump supporters--can become lost in the generally positive atmosphere. 
  2. Deadlines - As I've disclosed before (see also: here) I usually get my work done by the time it's due. Usually just before it's due. Trump has faced some deadlines already (see also: here), but he's also fond of teasing things that will be coming in the very near future that we've yet to see, including an Obamacare replacement that covers more people for less, a secret plan to defeat ISIS, his tax returns (just as soon as that audit is completed), and a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending. People don't usually turn in their homework if no one asks for it, and regular meetings come with deadlines. 
  3. Grading - Having one's work scored from time to time by people lower in the hierarchy is not likely to be fun for most leaders. Getting this kind of feedback, however, is part of leadership--likely Trump's least favorite part of leadership. Nevertheless, he needs a report card every now and then (see: here).
  4. Ideas - Trump's brain is very good, just ask him (see also: here). However, getting some ideas from other good brains could be a big help. Maybe with some outside help, he could even come through with some of those items listed in #2, above. No leader, no matter how bright, knows as much as everyone in their organization. The best leaders make use of this wealth of knowledge and freely award credit when they do. 
  5. Diversity - There's a reason the Cabinet is constructed the way it is. It's like the Houses at Hogwarts (brave ones, smart ones, evil ones, and miscellaneous ones), or the Breakfast Club (see also: here), or the Spice Girls. Having representatives from different demographics widens the scope of opinions and perspectives. The Secretary of Agriculture brings different world view and experiences compared with the Secretary of the Treasury--unless they're all former Goldman Sachs executives, which would be stupid. 
  6. Fun - Intellectually curious people enjoy the company of people who make them question their preconceived notions. Trump may only like to hang out with people who are like him, but he'd be a better president if he could become interested in people like me. I'm cool, just ask me. Leading from a comfortable distance may feel safer, but the best leaders enjoy scrapping it out with smart people who disagree with them. 
  7. Broadcast - Most people in leadership aren't all-powerful. This means that imposing policy always involves selling that policy. If Trump could get his message to make sense to a small group of independent thinkers, they could in turn relay these thoughts to congressional leaders, world leaders, and some day our intergalactic overlords. Subjecting one's self to dissent from bellow provides an opportunity to disseminate opinions by way of those who share power. Even if you're the Great Big Boss, there's someone in your organization who shares your power--if only unofficially. Getting them on board can make all the difference.
Recently (since the inception of this post), Trump has undermined my thesis a bit. I’ve read that he now claims he does enjoy conflict, saying that he likes to watch his staff fight things out. It's difficult for me not to imagine this scenario not as much intellectual curiosity as WWE.

Also, we're seeing increasing incidences of a pattern in which he seems to form a position on the spot, only to have his staff "clarify"--that is, completely reverse--that opinion (see: hereherehere, and here). This puts me in the unexpected position of agreeing with him for brief moments (fix DACA at any cost!, suspend due process for gun owners!, raise the minimum age for gun purchases!, etc.), only to see things walked back to a traditional Republican stance in the following days. Since he seems to agree with whomever he talked with last, he may be one of the few people in the world who wouldn't be a better leader with more exposure to an array of opinions.

Evidence that Trump still doesn't do well with dissent can be seen in the parade of dissenters leaving the White House. Gary Cohen, for example, was working hard to steer the administration's policy on tariffs, until he suddenly wasn't. The rapid pace of staff turnover these days may be the result of people discovering that being a moderating force, or "the adult in the room," isn't a very good job in this administration (see also: here).

Still, there are lessons here for those of us in career-long positions. It never feels good to have your ideas filleted in a semi-public forum, but it's even more necessary for those in jobs that last 20, 30 years or more than it is for those that last four (or God forbid, eight). Like managing forests to keep them from filling with fuel for forest fires, long careers need maintenance. Longevity requires renewal, and there's nothing like facing your detractors regularly to keep things from becoming a tinderbox.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Gender Reassignment

I follow the Twitter account Man Who Has It All. Like many of the parody accounts I enjoy, it provides a series of minimally varied riffs on a single joke. As a result, it's the kind of thing that isn't very funny on, say, the 100th time, but somehow on time #103 or so it's funny again . See also: Presidential Trump, Common Squirrel, and pretty much all of Saturday Night Live.

Man Who Has It All makes a simple but important point about the world we live in. The theme and variation is to take women's magazine advice, common wisdom, and 1950s home ec. textbooks and reverse the genders. You end up with stuff like:
and
In related news (you'll need to trust me on this), I recently watched the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. This film was flawed, but not for the reason that my fellow Generation X guys, and the men's rights activists--if you've never heard of such a thing you lead a better life than you knew, until now--have been so butt-hurt over. This version of Ghostbusters suffered from flabby pacing, overly self-conscious jokes, pedantic comedic timing, lots of buddy comedy shtick, gratuitous violence, and a cartoon-ish story line.

In other words, pretty much just like the original. Don't get me wrong, I liked the original. Also, I was in the 8th grade.

People who loved or hated Ghostbusters, however, didn't talk so much about any of this. All they seemed to care about was that the genders were reversed. We heard about the fact that there are no substantive or even interesting male characters, the blatant and unnecessary objectification of the (male) receptionist, and that it seems to fail a reverse Bechdel Test. It's almost as if Ghostbusters was given a pass on any film-making criteria I might care about because it swapped the genders around.

Meanwhile (also related, trust me), I finally caught up on Outlander on Starz and finished reading the first novel. If you haven't done these things, you should stop reading here, since the following will be riddled with SPOILERS.

The first Outlander book/season includes a graphic and disturbing rape sequence--see, told you: SPOILERS. What makes Outlander different from so many contemporary TV series that deal with rape (see also: here) is that both the victim and rapist are male. Also unlike so many series that deal with rape, Outlander spends quite a lot of pages/screen time portraying the lasting effects on the victim.

Complicating the impact of the rape, the protagonist offers himself as a victim to save the life of his wife. As a result, the assault is coerced, but isn't entirely forcible. This factor actually creates more trauma than if it had been entirely violent. Jamie Fraser, a formidable--almost superhuman--character is not entirely sure that he will ever want to be touched by his partner, and for a long time wishes that he hadn't survived the attack. His emotional injuries long outlast his physical injuries, which is saying something given that one of his injuries was having his hand destroyed with a mallet. Luckily, his wife, who served as a nurse in the war, seems to be a osteopathic surgeon and plastic surgeon, capable of rebuilding the ruined hand without benefit of anesthesia, antibiotics, a sterile operating room, or proper instruments. That was fortunate.

The rape plot in Outlander is a far more serious example of reversing genders than that in Ghostbusters, and yields a much more serious and nuanced exploration of gender--emblematic of the feminism throughout the series. Unlike many period costume dramas, Outlander is liberated from some of the built-in misogyny of its era by having a modern (if the 1940s-1960s counts as modern for you) heroine. She brings 20th-century gender norms--enhanced a bit, as those weren't always our best decades for equality--to 18th-century Scotland. Also helpful, she is fortunate enough to hook up with a man who is receptive to it. There's still plenty in the series for the male gaze, as well as some groan-inducing damsel-in-distress moments, but compared with its contemporaries in the genre, Outlander is a Women's Studies course.

This brings me to the final case study. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the first movie in the franchise to demonstrate any idea of how to deal with women. For the first time ever, the most important character was female. For the first time, said character isn't compromised by appearing in a gold bikini, or by having half of her shirt ripped away in a fight, or by falling in love with a complete douche nozzle over the course of one stupid montage. For the first time (a long time ago) in this particular galaxy (far, far away), a female character could have been swapped for a male character without changing any of her lines, or even her name.

It wasn't until I saw it that I realized just how poorly Episodes 1-6 did with all of this. Princess Leia was pretty useful in a fight--especially by 1970s standards--but she was pretty alone in the Galaxy. She couldn't really have a conversation with another named female character (not about a man) because she encountered so few women. Plus, she was a princess. Plus, her hair and wardrobe were not always conducive to doing things--apparently the most difficult special effect in the first movie wasn't lightsabers, it was making it seem like a person could actually run and fight and save people with that hairstyle and without underwear.

The Force Awakens, and its contemporaries Rogue One and The Last Jedi, showed us what we'd been missing the whole time. Characters in these films act heroically and stupidly; they succeed and fail; they fix problems and make problems much worse. What they don't do is always act in a way that lets you know whether or not they have a Y chromosome.

Flipping things around, as in Man Who Has It All and Ghostbusters, alerts us to gender equality defects that still exist. Sometimes the easiest way to see if we've reached an acceptable level of equality is to see how it looks if you just reverse everything. The next level is to subject male characters to horrors usually reserved for women, as in Outlander. The reversal there, and the refusal to make it a quick three-episode arc, makes it clear how cavalierly we generally encounter this horrifying topic.

The Force Awakens (and the following Star Wars movies so far), however, provides the gold standard. We don't need to make art (or public policy for that matter) that reverses past injustices by imposing the same injustices in reverse. What we need are men and women who could sometimes be swapped in their roles and it wouldn't really matter.

You've made it through 1,200 words of this and may have arrived at the question "So what?" As mentioned above, the impetus for this whole post was watching other white, straight, cis males, age 35-50 claiming that Ghostbusters (and Star Wars, and Wonder Woman, and...) had ruined their childhoods. They're like this because they've been well taken care of so far in life (see also: here). I'm not absolutely sure this is what they hated, but I'm pretty sure it played a part.

I'm also watching this from the perspective of the father of daughters. Watching my five-year-old reenacting fight scenes in the grocery store after Wonder Woman, and dressing as Rey for Halloween, and planning to save the world (and learn to sail just by trying it) like Moana has helped me to notice that something has changed since the movies her mother watched. In fact, something's changed since the stuff her sister watched. And it matters. Girls and boys are influenced by seeing themselves (or not) in these roles. Otherwise, grown men wouldn't feel so threatened by seeing the movie franchises of their formative years expanding to include heroes that don't look like them.

If this progress is to be sustainable, it's going to need to be done in the manner of the higher quality examples previously referenced. It's also going to require those of us who have had the entire space to ourselves so far to yield just a little.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Think: Fast

I really like my screens. Some of the actual devices are different from what normal people use (see: here), but I'm dependent on them nonetheless. That said, I like quite a few things that aren't very good for me. In fact, if I'm being honest, I'll admit that I don't always enjoy them responsibly or in moderation. Let's just theorize that it's possible to engage in something bad for you, and enjoy washing it down with something else bad for you. I don't know how many servings there are in a can of Pringles chased with a package of Oreos, but I'll bet it's more than what should be consumed in one sitting over half a season of Breaking Bad.

Sometimes when you're trying to get a handle on a habit that's not very good for you, engaging in a fast (or "cleanse"--though that word is just a little to defecatory for my liking) is a good way to get things started.

Sometimes, it's your wife's idea.

A spouse serving as the impetus for healthier living or other lifestyle upgrades isn't unheard of. For example, I serve as our family's unwavering advocate of farmers' market produce, exercise, weekly church attendance, heating with wood, and raw milk. In addition to campaigning for screen-free time, my wife makes sure that we attend any and all parent-teacher conferences and school open houses, have frequent family dinners, keep in touch with friends, volunteer for stuff, and go to all the recommended medical/dental/optical appointments. We've joked about needing an additional spouse who would specialize in housekeeping, flower gardens, and paperwork management. For those not partnered, advice is widely available from parents, magazine articles, click-baity thumbnails, and pretty much anyone else who navigates vice and virtue and has an opinion about it.

We did our first Screen-Free Week® many years ago when our elder child was in elementary school. Back then it was basically cutting out TV and some occasional web-surfing (via Netscape Navigator?, on dial-up??--could have been). Now our digital lives and our IRL lives are more complexly intertwined.

As part of this project, I kept a journal in a spiral-ring notebook. And I don't mean an app called "Spiral Ring Notebook®" (which I've just invented, so plan to pay me a couple of bucks when you've developed, patented, and marketed it). I mean an actual stack of lined paper held together with a wire. Using a pen. It was a strange few days.

Later, I typed the whole thing into Blogger more-or-less exactly as it was written--spelling corrected, of course. As a result, you'll get to see what my writing looks like before the editor has had her way with it. You'll notice, as I did, an especially complicated relationship with verb tense and sentence structure. Commentary interspersed in italics. Truth is, the longer this post spent in my drafts folder, the more tinkering this got--allegedly for clarity. Not too sure it helped. Be glad that I didn't have any handwriting-ish fonts to subject you to. Look for that in Slackerguide: The Book.

Monday:
The first morning of this began at 6:45 AM. Not early by some standards, including this household's standards when school is in session, but quite early in summertime. Normally, the day would start with the child watching Octonauts while her father reads all of Twitter. This is screen-free week, so this is not how things started.
Breakfast had been completed and the father and his daughter are playing Connect 4. It's not yet 9:00 AM. This is not normal.

I don't know why this entry is written in third person. I seem to be attempting to impose some distance--as if studying an anthropological subject. Whatever the cause, it didn't last.

Tuesday:
I find myself treat-seeking. I walk into the kitchen and vaguely want something. Not so strange for me, I guess, but it does seem intensified by this.
I also lost track of time while reading my magazine. When most of my periodical reading moved to online providers, one factor is that there's always a clock in view. I didn't know how much I relied on this until I tried reading on paper again.

Note: Further research indicates that I was probably in search of dopamine. There is a book making the rounds called Bored and Brilliant:How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self by Manoush Zomorodi. The gist is that we've flooded our brains with the quick fix that a ping on our phones gives us, and in so doing have kept our brains from reaching "default mode," which sort of depends on boredom to do its thing. 

The bit about losing track of time is related, as it turns out. Staying centered on one task is a rare and unfamiliar state in our connected lives.  

Side note: Dopamine is also found in Cheetos.


Wednesday:
One of the advantages of screen-free life is that you and your spouse can talk more. The problem is that we watch TV with a twitchy finger on the pause button and typically spend several hours watching one hour of programming. Without TV, we're left to talk about a much more limited range of topics--no zombies, Secretaries of State, slutty highlanders, etc.--mainly we're left with Real Life.

Note: This entry seems to have been the climax of my dissatisfaction with Screen-Free Week®. The whiny tone, the swipe at my wife, and the ode to a normal life with television are all indicative of how unpleasant I had become by this point. We did probably have an argument, maybe centered on a topic of our life, family, household, or those things in combination, but that wasn't because we didn't have screens. That's because we're living a life together and stuff happens that we need to deal with. There was a sense, however, that without the easy diversion of television and social media that things were baseline a bit more serious and grown-up. 

In my experience, people engaged in fasting often get this way. I remember Good Friday fasts--growing up, we abstained from solid food for all of Good Friday every year--in which my whole family wasn't really speaking by the end of the day. Two hours of church contemplating the Crucifixion and our culpability in it was a particularly difficult way to end the day.

Also mentioned in this entry, the slow TV progress thing is true. In our early days, we'd to try (and fail) to cram all of our discussion into commercial breaks. We were left with the decision to talk over the show already in progress, or try to remember what we were thinking through twelve more minutes of TV until the next commercial. Once we switched to TiVo and later to Netflix, we were able to make the TV conform to our preferred pace. Now we can indulge in all of the real-time predictive analytic and character diagnostics we want. Actually, we could just compile a transcript of these discussions and publish it as a standalone blog, or maybe a podcast.

The record ends there. In part because I've never been very good at following through with journal writing, but also because things got easier and I didn't feel the need to chronicle my suffering. I was eventually distracted by the sorts of things that advocates of this concept are always going on about. I started Infinite Jest, a book so substantial and dense that I may never finish it--at least in what is for the moment a pre-apocalyptic reality, furnished with running water, electricity, and the Internet. I didn't take up a whole new fitness routine, but I may have added a workout or so to my normal efforts. If nothing else, these diversions lessened the suffering to the point that I didn't feel the need to scribble it in longhand. Also, it's possible I temporarily lost the spiral-bound notebook.

Looking back on the previous paragraph, I see that each of those things sheds some light on this whole experiment--well, maybe not the bit about journal follow-through: that probably more effectively sheds light on this whole blog experiment.

First, things do get easier. Giving something up is difficult at first because it is wrapped so tightly with your entire life. Case in point, when we have a power outage I not only continue to flip light switches for the duration, but I keep thinking of things that I could do to pass the time, like watching TV by candlelight. I have a lot of trouble adjusting to a new reality, not just mentally, but in a real tactile sense.

Second, I did take on some things that could objectively considered quality replacements for the low-quality screen time. Reading, talking, and exercising are virtuous endeavors--just ask anyone who regularly takes part in them. 

The thing about the notebook is real too. In my early days of teaching, I had a folder called "Originals"--actually, it probably said "Orriginals"; I'm no good with double-consonants--from which I'd copy worksheets. Because I teach music, these documents included music excerpts held on with sticky-tape. Keeping track of these things and not constantly leaving them on the copier glass was a real burden that has now been alleviated by the fact that I can print directly to the copier from my computer. Organizing in digital space is easier, in part because I don't even need to remember where I put stuff, at least when I can make a decent guess about what I named the stupid thing. 

In the end, I'm not sure that the digital fast has made any lasting improvement. I'm back to refreshing news feeds more-or-less continuously in a vain search for better news--or at least bad news affecting the other guys. It was useful in one sense, however. I proved that I could be separated from these devices and that the world would go on turning without me keeping such a close eye on it. Maybe a longer experiment would lead to more lasting change. Maybe I could try a fast from other unhealthy vices. These things have less power when you know you can give them up for a time when you decide to put your mind to it.

Or if your spouse does.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"I Love Deadlines...

Image from: here.
...and the whooshing sound they make as they go by."
                - Douglas Adams

As I write this, our Congress and President are staring down yet another shutdown deadline. As you read this, they've either solved this current mess, or you're standing in a pit of ash and wondering how everything went wrong. Either way, it's time to talk about budget by Continuing Resolution (a real thing), and the Perpetual Crisis of Governance and the Leadership Vacuum (something I just made up).

The two deadlines in play right now--CHIP and DACA--are artificial in nature. That's not entirely fair; all deadlines are artificial in nature. Unless a meteor is about to hit the earth and you're trying to build a giant shield to make sure we get to keep our atmosphere, your deadline is probably an arbitrary date and time that someone selected. It's possible that your deadline was set to make it possible for someone to do the step after yours, but their deadline is likely artificial as well and may be based on someone else's arbitrary deadline.

The deadlines I'm talking about, however, are a bit more sinister in nature, and shed some light on the the worst kind of manufactured deadlines. DACA was fine, until Trump set a sunset date of March 5 for these protections. CHIP was fine until the Republican-led Congress let it expire with little notice and no fanfare. The Federal Government could pass an annual budget, like your local school board does, but they don't. Instead, at the Federal level, we lurch from one short-term spending plan to the next, meanwhile sometimes needing to deal with the debt ceiling.

By the way, if you're in favor of a debt ceiling as a sensible tool to keep the government from spending too much, you should know it doesn't do that at all. The Federal Debt ceiling doesn't affect spending, just bill paying. That money's already been spent, they're just deciding whether or not to screw their creditors (and their own credit worthiness).

In a related stroke of genius, some years ago our same Congress came up with the idea of Sequestration. The idea here was Republicans and Democrats would put a (figurative) gun to their own heads to get sensible budgeting to take place by agreeing to separate but similarly disagreeable outcomes if they didn't--military spending on the Republicans' side and domestic spending for Democrats. It didn't work. Cooler heads did not prevail and the (figurative) gun went off.

Republicans learned a lesson from this and will henceforth make sure not to put anything they actually care about at risk. Now they put a (figurative) gun to the heads of sick poor kids and a category of immigrants that everyone seems to agree should be called Dreamers--a rare branding win for people who let "tax relief," "socialized medicine," and "death tax" get a foothold. Republicans did sweeten this last round with additional military spending, but nothing was threatened to be taken away.

As mentioned before (see: here) I actually like deadlines. If it weren't for actual hard deadlines, I wouldn't get anything done at all--note how the loose goal of posting every two weeks to your Slacker's Guide has worked out.

To differentiate between good deadlines and bad, I offer this handy guide to deadline design:
  1. Padding, but not too much - All deadlines include a little wiggle room. If you really need it by Thursday, better make it due Wednesday. The problem occurs when there is a series of deadlines based on later steps in the process and everyone adds their own padding. The real deadline for the DACA thing is (was?--I don't actually know, I'm living in your past) March 5. Part of the brief nature of the January shutdown was that it was triggered too early. No one takes a March 5 deadline very seriously in late January. 
  2. Reasonable, but substantial, consequences - You would think that shutting down the government would be its own disincentive to shutting down the government. It's not, because these shutdowns are mostly pretend. If everything the Federal Government did (air traffic control, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, Social Security checks, boarder security, NOAH, ...) was actually cut off the minute we didn't officially have any money to spend, this would all be taken more seriously. This time we didn't even close National Parks because last time that pissed people off too much when Obama did it in 2013. People don't think the Federal Government does very much because we never shut down anything deemed "essential"--which should be all of it, if you stop to think.
  3. Consequences for the right people - Those affected by Federal shutdowns are not those who are making decisions. They're parents who have to come to work, but who have no daycare available. They're low-wage folks who suffer real consequences if they miss a paycheck--even if it doesn't result in a net reduction in pay (maybe because their checking account goes too low and they have to pay fees). Congress just doesn't have skin in the game. They continue to get paid, and even use their gym (maybe with fewer towels). It's possible Trump couldn't fly to go to his party and play golf--which may be part of why it ended so quickly. 
  4. Memorable dates - This seems stupid, but think about it. When are your Christmas gifts due? What about the ones for folks you won't see on December 25--mail carriers, piano teachers, nieces and nephews who live out of state? Do you do better with the deadlines when you can keep the date in mind? That's why lots of stuff is due at the end of the month, and why it's so hard to remember your credit card bills. 
  5. Proper distribution - Making large things happen all at once is difficult. It is helpful to split big projects into smaller manageable benchmarks and set deadlines for each. By the way, I am generally terrible at this. Despite personal goals to do otherwise, I always have way too much stuff due right at the end of the grading period. As a result, my stuff competes with lots of other teachers' stuff, and I'm left with way too much student work to sift through all at once. I plan to improve this. I haven't yet.
You'll notice that the budget impasse we're talking about fails on all five categories. Some of that was just bad luck, some wasn't. Number five, for example, was entirely intentional. Republicans saved important and necessary work to use as a lever against Democrats. Look for more of this in the future, for a very simple reason: it worked. 

Every Senator and Representative I've heard interviewed lately has decried this as a terrible way to govern. It is bad for people doing the actual work--including those in the military--who can only plan three to six weeks out. It's bad for the Legislature, who are always in crisis mode and never get to properly deliberate on anything. It's bad for the electorate who come away with a those-guys-can't-do-anything-right impression and are further disinclined to vote for anyone at all. And it's bad for the country, as it becomes clear that we don't fundamentally believe in anything. Other than tax cuts for wealthy people, which will need to be another post. 

I don't know how and when we'll be able to fix any of this. Someone should set a deadline. 


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Let the Sunshine In

It's a concept so obvious, you'd think someone would make a law: people working in the public trust should do their work in the light of day and subject to the scrutiny of the public. There must be exceptions made to protect the privacy of employees, or to protect classified material, but in general, if your elected officials are acting on your behalf, you should be able to watch them do it.

Luckily, someone already wrote and passed such a law in Pennsylvania. As a result, state agencies, local governments, school boards, and such must conduct business out in the open. Your county commissioners can't get together at the local watering hole after their meeting and keep making policy. They can't hatch up a scheme by email and pass it at the next meeting. The law requires that "any prearranged gathering of an agency which is attended or participated in by a quorum of the members of an agency held for the purpose of deliberating agency business or taking official action" needs to happen in the open.

Un-luckily, the U.S. Senate is not so encumbered. Right now, the upper house is working on its own version of an Obamacare replacement, and trying very hard to keep it out of sight. They have a good reason: once people find out what's in the bill, they may wish the Republicans had left well enough alone, or started with Obamacare and made the necessary technical fixes that should have happened years ago.

Healthcare is hard. The Republicans are charged with crafting a bill that isn't quite as mean as what came out of the House, that simultaneously delivers lower deductibles, more patient choice, no one currently covered losing their insurance, getting rid of the individual mandate, covering pre-existing conditions, covering children until age 26 under their parents' insurance, not cutting Medicaid, and making the whole thing cost less for the Federal Government and individuals without screwing medical professionals. It's not possible. There will be winners and losers, and the losers will be pissed. In the words of Buckaroo Bonsai (during surgery, no less), "No, no, no, don't tug on that. You never know what it might be attached to."

Doing the people's business in the open is important. It has the potential to put significant curbs on:
  1. Self Dealing: Public officials who are in it for themselves have a much harder time slipping themselves little treats through policy-making when the public can keep in eye on what they're doing. We all remember the bridge to nowhere that didn't happen because we called them on it.
  2. Amateur Hour: In the example of healthcare, you really should present your ideas to medical professionals, and probably medical billing professionals specifically. If you are in charge of paying medical bills in your household, you know that matching insurance statements to bills is complicated and frustrating work. You really should have people that deal with this stuff all day long look at your plan and let you know where you've done something stupid. In the case of education policy, you should talk to teachers, and students, and administrators, and building custodians. Members of congress are all professionals at something--some were doctors, and lawyers, and business executives (and teachers, and farmers, and...)--but none were all professions. As Sesame Street taught us, asking questions is a good way to find things out.
  3. Evil: Even if the policy isn't a personal grab, as described in 1, above, it is possible for policy-making to leap right over foolish, past misguided, and land directly on evil. The ACHA, for example, took the hated individual mandate and changed it from a tax to help fund other parts of the law and converted it to a giveaway to insurance companies. 
  4. Nasty Surprises: Not putting the Obamacare replacement through the wringer of public scrutiny means that there will be stuff lurking in there that no one will know about until they get sick or injured. Obamacare itself went through endless hearings and still ended up with some crap in there that someone should have cleaned up before it went live. Having lots of people look this over before it becomes law could keep unintended (or intended, but evil) provisions from sneaking through.
  5. Legislative Hangover: Obamacare never enjoyed a whole lot of public love. The law is byzantine, numbering thousands of pages and cluttered with awkward compromises. The website roll-out was botched, and the implementation of most of the provisions were delayed enough that people could get good and grouchy about them before they saw any benefit (see also: here). Still, the Republican bill faces an even stronger backlash because it's enjoying such secrecy now. Also, given the total lack of Democratic buy-in, Trumpcare will face the same fate of needing to be perfect on the first draft with no way to tweak it down the line. Technical fixes will need 60 votes, since "reconciliation" will have been exhausted.
A podcast I enjoy consistently reminds us that "none of us is as smart as all of us." The U.S. is not a democracy, which means that I won't have a seat at the actual table to write the bill and I won't get to vote on it. However, my elected representatives will, and in PA I've chosen Pat Toomey and Bob Casey--which is proof that I have a multiple personality disorder. Senate terms are long, so many members (including Toomey) won't have to face voters for as many as five years. This means that putting pressure on senators can be very difficult--I know, I've tried. If Mitch McConnell is able to drag this thing across the finish line without real scrutiny and without half of PA's senators, it would show his legislative talents, but also show that he doesn't really understand how our government is meant to work.

Elected officials are supposed to convert the will of the people into public policy. Republicans are very interested in keeping their promise to repeal-and-replace, so much so that they don't really care about the actual result. Getting them to care is our job, through whatever light or heat we can introduce.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The 100 Days Report Card

Grading is an expression of your values. Every one of the dozen or so student teachers I've worked with has received this nugget of wisdom in answer to questions such as: "How many points should this question be worth?", and "Should this be a test or quiz?", and "What time is lunch again?". In this post, we will apply some values-based grading to Trump's first 100 days in office.

The president suddenly decided on day 96 or so that 100 days is not a very good measure of anything. That's fine. All marking periods are arbitrary demarcations, and are therefore poor indicators of overall learning. However, research shows that a student's early grades can be a pretty good predictor of how things will go for the rest of the course. Similarly, the 100 days benchmark also seems to be sort of a thing, so now would appear to be a worthwhile time to take stock, as previously promised: here. By the way, if you find it a little strange that I'm turning in these grades a bit late, you obviously don't work as the office secretary at my school.

Keep in mind, progress in 100 days is a measure that Trump himself invited, back when he assumed things would be going well by then. Using Trump's own promises as a benchmark also seems reasonable, given that it is difficult to choose what to measure for this. That is, it may not be possible to fairly score "success" in goals that more than half of voters voted against. Doing things this way, Trump's first grade report is for a term he chose, based on a syllabus he designed. Given that this is a dream scenario that savvy Slackers should enthusiastically embrace (see also: here), I'm sure he'll do well.

Subject: Border Wall, Paid for by Mexico
Grade: F
Comments: It's possible, though increasingly unlikely, he could still get this done within his presidency. However, it certainly didn't happen this marking period--in fact, the Congress overtly forbid spending on this. Throughout, it's been interesting to watch his surrogates try to float the idea that the wall is more a metaphor for improved boarder security: increased personnel, tweaks to existing infrastructure, and technological improvements, only to have Trump himself come out and say in no uncertain terms that it's a literal wall, and somehow beautiful.  It's a style of messaging that is happening quite a lot in this administration (see also: here).

Subject: Budget
Grade: F+
Comments: This one's an F as well. Trump laid out lots of budgetary goals--which should be viewed as expressions of his values--all of which were rejected in the bipartisan omnibus spending agreement (we can only hope this happens again in the fall). The fact that the agreement itself happened on day 101 is, I think, unlikely to be coincidence. My guess is that the timing of the announcement may have been part of the negotiations, and actually from a request on the Republicans' side, based on the fact that the timing kept another major loss out of the president's 100 days grading period.
Either way, his priorities--cutting endowments for arts and humanities, cutting education, and screwing the poor--were largely ignored. The fact that some additional military spending was thrown in bumped his grade to an F+, but military spending is kind of a given in budgets, and no one really thought they'd hold it to zero. The fact that there were not corresponding increases in discretionary spending is being considered a Republican victory (note: an expression of their values), but it certainly doesn't look like Trump gets any credit here. He tried to spin it otherwise, but Slackers know that's a well-worn report card trick as well.

Subject: Drain the Swamp
Grade: F A
Comments: Two words: Goldman. Sachs.
Okay, more words: Trump never really specified what he meant by "the swamp," but most people assumed that it was the old revolving door of bottom-feeders spending enough time in government to change the rules in their favor, returning to the private sector to reap the profits, and then returning to government to coax through more favoritism. Or maybe it meant longtime bureaucrats and technocrats colluding with sleazy legislators who know how to rig the system. Or maybe it meant...
No, it just meant Democrats.
This grade was originally entered as failing, but on further reflection, he did drain the swamp; then he refilled it with his own slimy beasts. He didn't mention that during the campaign--maybe we failed to ask sufficiently--but according to our curriculum, he did what he said he would do. I predict that there will be additional drainage from this administration coming soon. Prevailing wisdom is that he's getting rid of anyone who seems like they're part of investigation into Russia's meddling. I'm sure it's partly that, but I think any administration official who seems like they're providing council should keep an eye open for oncoming buses. For example, it looked like Rod Rosenstein was having a moment in the spotlight, until Trump noticed that he was having a moment in the spotlight and put an end to it. 
Update: Then our friend Rod appointed a special prosecutor, so it's hard to keep up with how that's going. Better turn these grades in soon or stuff will just keep happening. 

Subject: Fixing China
Grade:W (Withdrawn)
Comments: Turns out China stopped currency manipulation years ago. Oops.

Subject: Better Russian Relations
Grade: C-
Comments: Looks like the love affair with Russia is largely over, but the cooling relations don't seem to have immediately resulted in a deluge of kompromat. Yet.
For this administration, that gets grade-inflated to a C-. Keep an eye on this subject in subsequent grading periods.

Subject: Not Playing Golf
Grade: D-
Comments: You think there shouldn't be a grade for this, but Trump actually made numerous promises not to play golf, usually tied to criticism of Obama. Trump's golf habit, combined with his three White Houses, required $61,000,000 in the budget deal just to reimburse local law enforcement near his properties for his frequent visits. That doesn't include his and hers planes, Secret Service golf cart rentals, and the cost of keeping the press from seeing any of it.
If you're looking for grade inflation here, forget it. Trump has spent more than 30% of his days in office at a Trump property--that includes weekdays. Given that he's spent something like half of weekend days during this time not playing golf, a passing grade here is already a gift.

Subject: Repeal and Replace
Grade: F D
Comments: This was adjusted after the fact, due to some late work submitted the week after the grading period ended. Yes, the House passed a bill, and yes it does more-or-less repeal and replace Obamacare. It's a horrible bill, though, and the grade reflects this. Republicans knew it was a horrible bill, which is why they didn't wait for CBO scoring, or the many months of debate that Obamacare got, or, it would seem, bothering to read the actual bill.
The Speaker of the House doesn't read my blog. I can tell. I'm not permitted to fail him because I dislike the actual bill, but even the Republican-led Senate has rejected it and started from scratch, so it's all sort of a sham at this point.

Subject: A Trillion Dollars for Infrastructure
Grade: W
Comments: This is the real Repeal and Replace of the nascent administration. Turns out, what he actually meant was not so much infrastructure, as tax incentives to create infrastructure. Trump repealed his promise to spend money on real stuff, and replaced it with the old chestnut of "give wealthy people money and they'll spend it on the common good." If this goes through his way, make sure to charge up your EzPass and make plans to go places with a high profit:cost ratio. Don't plan to use mass transit to get there either. Apparently, riding trains is too fuzzy-headed liberal, even if it can be made profitable. You could read actual professional writing on this topic: here.

Subject: Undoing Obama's Presidency
Grade: A
Comments: This subject is proof that the fact that just 'cause you're doing something isn't in and of itself a good thing. Trump's fetish with undoing Obama's impact on the nation has been so single-minded that he doesn't seem to care whether there was merit to the the thing in the first place. Thus we've seen that Trump hates water (despite assurances to the contrary), enjoys climate change, thinks the mentally ill should have guns, doesn't mind screwing student loan holders, thinks BP should have an easier time drilling, doesn't like whistle-blowers,  is suspicious of financial reform, and doesn't like National Parks and Monuments,

Trump's grades so far amount to a desperate situation, but not an irreparable one. There's something of a Scorpion and the Frog aspect to all of this, in that people like me can't help but want to shoot venom into the very vessel on which we all teeter. I was never going to be a fan of this president, but if he started to act in the interests of the people who actually voted for him, we could start to see some passing grades. I don't know that I'm mature enough to wish Trump well, but I do like roads and stuff, I would like to see actual improvements to Obamacare, and I would enjoy not seeing another world war. Improving these grades may be Trump's responsibility, but it's not just his problem.