Podcasts to Ponder Plus

1. NPR’s Hotel Corona.

“When the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem was leased by the government to house recovering COVID-19 patients, the new guests gave it the nickname, “Hotel Corona.” The nearly 200 patients inside already had the coronavirus; and so, unlike the outside world on strict lockdown, they could give each other high fives and hugs and hang out together.

What was even more surprising than what they could do was what they were doing. Patients from all walks of life – Israelis, Palestinians, religious, secular, groups that don’t normally mix – were getting along and having fun. They were eating together, sharing jokes, even doing Zumba. And because they were documenting themselves on social media, the whole country was tuning in to watch, like a real life reality TV show.”

34 minutes of joy and hope.

2. Malcolm Gladwell, Revisionist History, A Good Walk Spoiled.

“In the middle of Los Angeles — a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world — there are a half a dozen exclusive golf courses, massive expanses dedicated to the pleasure of a privileged few. How do private country clubs afford the property tax on 300 acres of prime Beverly Hills real estate? Revisionist History brings in tax assessors, economists, and philosophers to probe the question of the weird obsession among the wealthy with the game of golf.”

In my junior and senior year of college I was a teacher’s assistant at the Brentwood Science Magnet School for the best third grade teacher ever, Marilyn Turner. I parked across from the school on the leafy border of the Brentwood Country Club next to the chain-linked fence Gladwell describes with great disgust. This excellent story hit home.

3. What Does Opportunity Look Like Where You Live? An interactive story, made even more interesting by putting in the name of the county you live in (if a U.S. citizen). The New York Times is unrivaled when it comes to interactive, data-rich, compelling story telling.

[Some readers have informed me they can’t access the New York Times articles I link to. You have to register at the New York Times to access them. Registration is free.]

 

White, Male, Runner Privilege

I can run alone, anywhere in my Pacific Northwest county, even after dark. And I do. Without thinking twice. That is the ultimate white, male, runner privilege.

Women have to consider time and place. African Americans have to consider time and place and whether to ever run alone.

I’ve never been more aware of my white, male, runner privilege than this week when the story of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American who was killed while on a run in Georgia two months ago, broke wide open. Today would have been Arbery’s 26th birthday.

Only yesterday were the father and son who stalked Arbery and then killed him arrested. And only because a video of the incident was discovered. Had there not been video, they probably would’ve gotten away with murder. And they’re not convicted yet, only arrested.

Charles Blow draws on the police report which detailed the father’s explanation for why he and his son chased Arbery:

“McMichael stated he was in his front yard and saw the suspect from the break-ins ‘hauling ass’ down Satilla Drive toward Burford Drive. McMichael stated he then ran inside his house and called to Travis (McMichael) and said, ‘Travis, the guy is running down the street, let’s go.’ McMichael stated he went to his bedroom and grabbed his .357 Magnum and Travis grabbed his shotgun because they ‘didn’t know if the male was armed or not.’”

Blow then provides needed context:

“Arbery was not armed, and he was not the ‘suspect’ in any break-ins. He was a former high school football player who liked to stay active and was jogging in the small city of Brunswick, Glynn County, Ga., near his home.

Neither of the McMichaels was arrested or charged.” 

And the ultimate context:

“Slavery was legal. The Black Codes were legal. Sundown towns were legal. Sharecropping was legal. Jim Crow was legal. Racial covenants were legal. Mass incarceration is legal. Chasing a black man or boy with your gun because you suspect him a criminal is legal. Using lethal force as an act of self-defense in a physical dispute that you provoke and could easily have avoided is, often, legal.

It is men like these, with hot heads and cold steel, these with yearnings of heroism, the vigilantes who mask vengeance as valor, who ­cross their social anxiety with racial anxiety and the two spark like battery cables.

Arbery was enjoying a nice run on a beautiful day when he began to be stalked by armed men.

What must that have felt like?”

What must that have felt like? I have no idea.

Leaders Manage the Unknown

The New York Times is hopelessly old fashioned, still practicing fact-based investigative reporting and all.

Today’s lead article, He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus, was the work of six people.

Unfortunately, we live in an age when only the liberal “choir” will read it, which is too bad, because it’s incredibly restrained.

For example, this is not politicizing the pandemic.

“There were key turning points along the way, opportunities for Mr. Trump to get ahead of the virus rather than just chase it. There were internal debates that presented him with stark choices, and moments when he could have chosen to ask deeper questions and learn more. How he handled them may shape his re-election campaign. They will certainly shape his legacy.”

“Ask deeper questions,” when has Trump done that?

I listened to Scott Galloway interview Tim Armstrong on his podcast this week. Galloway asked him about leadership during crises. Armstrong talked about interviewing many top executives during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. He summarized their insights this way, “Managers manage the known and leaders manage the unknown.”

The President has not managed the known well and has shown no aptitude for the unknown. Governors, mayors, business leaders, epidemiologists, selfless healthcare workers, and other “essential” people have filled the void brilliantly, managing the known extremely well against all odds.

Armstrong was talking about commercial enterprises, but what about noncommercial ones? What about the common good? Who will manage 21st century unknowns related to public health, environmental degradation, and global poverty?

 

E Unum Pluribus

US television viewers’ deeply disparate responses to the daily Trump coronavirus briefings means it’s time. Time to update the motto of the US, “e pluribus unum”, Latin for “out of many, one”; to “e unum pluribus”, out of one, many.

Out of one country, many factions with diametrically opposed perspectives on reality.

Exhibit A. How large swaths of liberal Democrats, like your favorite blogger, think about the pressers as described in The Trump O’Clock Follies by Susan B. Glasser of The New Yorker.

Her opening paragraph:

“During the Vietnam War, the United States had the Five O’Clock Follies, nightly briefings at which American military leaders claimed, citing a variety of bogus statistics, half-truths, and misleading reports from the front, to be winning a war that they were, in fact, losing. Richard Pyle, the Associated Press’s Saigon bureau chief, called the press conferences ‘the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd,’ which, minus the ‘Southeast Asia’ part, is not a bad description of the scene currently playing out each evening in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, in the White House. We now have the Trump Follies, the nightly briefings at which President Trump has lied and bragged, lamented and equivocated, about the global pandemic that poses an existential threat to his Presidency. Just as the Vietnam briefings became a standard by which the erosion of government credibility could be measured then, historians of the future will consult the record of Trump’s mendacious, misleading press conferences as an example of a tragic failure of leadership at such a critical moment. There will be much material for them; the transcripts from just the first three days of this week runs to more than forty thousand words.”

Shortly thereafter, Glasser adds:

“The disconnect between Trumpian reality and actual reality has never been on starker display than in the past few days, as the true face of the horror we are facing in the United States has shown itself, in New York City, with overwhelmed morgues and emergency rooms, a governor pleading for ventilators and face masks from the federal government, and heartbreaking first-person accounts reminiscent of the open letters sent from Italy a few weeks back, which warned Americans: this is what is coming for you—don’t make our mistakes.”

But there’s a problem with Glasser’s analysis. Many, many of the Presidents’ supporters see a completely different reality. In ways I don’t understand, they literally do not see “horror” or “overwhelmed morgues and emergency rooms” or “a governor pleading for ventilators and face masks”. What do they see?

Exhibit B. How large swaths of conservative Republicans think about the pressers as described by the President’s daughter-in-law in “Trump’s handling of coronavirus crisis shows America what real leadership looks like”.

Lara Trump takes a little longer to warm up. From her second paragraph:

“Unprecedented times call for a strong leader. My father-in-law, President Trump, is showing what leadership looks like in a time of crisis. He is taking bold and historic steps to combat COVID-19.

While Democrats and the media were obsessing over impeachment, the president took early and effective actions to stop the spread of coronavirus. He ordered travel restrictions on China and Europe and restricted our southern and northern borders. Less than a month after learning of the virus, the CDC began working on a vaccine. By March, the president announced that the first potential vaccine entered a “phase one” trial, breaking records for the speed it moved to trials.

While these scientific developments were taking place, the president and the administration led efforts to support states, small businesses, jobs and American families. They’ve waived interest rates on federally held student loans and afforded borrowers the option to suspend payments. They have prioritized the health care of our most vulnerable veterans, and deployed tens of thousands of masks, gowns and other medical devices to states in need.”

Liberals will laugh this off much more quickly than they’ll acknowledge that the President’s approval ratings have gone up quite a bit since the daily pressers began. You can tell the President knows his ratings are trending up as he grows more informal, verbose, and cocksure with each passing one.

How will the (dis) United States resolve this dilemma of its citizens seeing things so differently? Through the electoral college on November 3rd, 2020. I just hope not too many people die unnecessarily between now and then.

 

 

 

The Mastermind

Evan Ratliff tells the story of “the decade-long quest to bring down Paul Le Roux—the creator of a powerful Internet-enabled cartel who merged the ruthlessness of a drug lord with the technological savvy of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.”

Paragraph to ponder:

“Some people speculated that his drive was fueled by some submerged pain—his hurt over being adopted, or some other childhood affront for which he was forever exacting revenge on the world. Maybe so. I always suspected that at least a part of the answer dwelled in his life as a programmer. Le Roux had found his place inside code, a universe in which he could bend reality to his will. It seemed to me that he tried to apply the detached logic of software to real life. That’s why the DEA schemes must have appealed to him. ‘Nothing involves emotion for him,’ the former 960 agent put it to me. ‘Everything is a calculation.’ His approach was algorithmic, not moral: Set the program in motion and watch it run.”

Since I’ve watched Breaking Bad and am watching another season of Narcos, I’m kinda an expert on criminality :). Some take-aways.

The poorer the country, the more explicit the corruption tends to be. In my late 20’s, I was in a van in Kenya when our driver was pulled over by a local cop for no reason other than to “make a payment”. The casualness with which he paid the bribe blew my mind. When police and army salaries are super low, it’s relatively easy to co-opt them through regular “payments”. In countries like the Philippines, where most of The Mastermind takes place, when criminals like Le Roux strike it rich—at one point he was making $6m/week—they can bribe local, provincial, and federal police; military officers; lawyers and judges; and key politicians. Then they can really “scale their business up”.

The Mastermind reveals a seriously flawed United States judicial system. As illustrated so poignantly in post 9-11 analysis, inter-agency rivalries are endemic. Not just between the CIA and the FBI, but also between local, state, and federal policing agencies. People with state-wide authority routinely look down on local officials, federal officials look down on everyone. The greater one’s authority, the greater their sense of superiority. Yet, in the end, the Feds made the worst decisions and ensured justice would not be served.

Criminals benefit massively from interagency rivalries because information is treated as a valuable asset that shouldn’t be shared “down” the line with less competent, less trustworthy underlings. And because each agency wants credit for the biggest busts, competitiveness trumps cooperation. Consequently, all the agencies are much less effective than they could be. This persistence of this phenomenon strikes me as a serious failure of modern social science.

If your television viewing sometimes Breaks Bad, you’re down with Narcos, and/or you’re a student of social sciences, I recommend it.

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How to Do Nothing—Resisting the Attention Economy

By Jenny Odell. Even though I just finished it, I suspect Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” will be the most influential book I read in 2020 because it’s the most thought provoking book I’ve read since America the Anxious and Palaces of the People, books that also emphasize the importance of community, public places, and the common good. It is so unique, insightful, and challenging, I processed two-thirds of it at most; meaning, I need to reread it, which is a bit problematic since it’s due back at the library. I should probably make Eldest’s day, a true bibliophiliac, and just purchase it. Especially since it will take me a long time to even partially apply her numerous insights.

The front jacket lead, which I’ve amended, is a decent overview:

“A galvanizing critique of the forces vying for our attention—and our personal information—that redefines what we think of productivity, reconnects us with the environment, and reveals all that we’ve been (what we are) too distracted to see about ourselves and our world.”

If you are wary of individualism and seek more community, read Odell.

If you long for a more meaningful, less commercial existence, read Odell.

If you suspect your life might be enriched by less social media activity, read Odell.

If you want to think and care more deeply about your local ecology, climate change,  economic privilege, and alternative ways of thinking about progress, read Odell.

If you want to see Odell explain her book while reflecting on the challenges posed by its unexpected success, watch this November 2019 talk.

“How to Do Nothing” is especially important for anyone thinking, “No way am I spending 23 minutes I don’t have to watch the video.”

So You Wanna PhD

You don’t care that higher education is hemorrhaging jobs. You don’t care that you may end up living in a van down by the river. You’re determined to get a Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology or Sociology. But you’re in need of a dissertation topic.

I’m here to help.

Wikipedia describes Nextdoor this way:

“Nextdoor is a social networking service for neighborhoods. Based in San Francisco, California, the company was founded in 2008 and launched in the United States in October 2011, and is currently available in 11 countries. Users of Nextdoor submit their real names and addresses to the website. Posts made to the website are available only to other Nextdoor members living in the same neighborhood.”

I’ve been a member for a few years and have concluded it’s a solid source for analyzing human nature and theorizing about it. For example, a recent post in my Nextdoor feed began thusly:

“To the fool driving the grey Lexus mini SUV today, tailgating me down Boston Harbor Rd. Can’t you see clearly that the roads are TREACHEROUS and icy today!?? Melting snow, causing severe ice, on roads that clearly have not been treated. You may have all wheel drive and feel safe. . . ”

The author, whose intro reads “I’ve been working in the Creative arts, music, video and ministry related field the past 18 years”, and lists “Westwood Baptist Director” as one of his titles, goes on to say he hopes the tailgater totals his car.

Leading to quite the kerfuffle. Keyboard warriors rushing into battle, angrily slinging words like arrows in The Game of Thrones.

A doctoral candidate in the social sciences could use textual analysis on Nextdoor messages to theorize about our modern state of affairs.

One would most likely draw an overarching conclusion from such an analysis. People do not know how to get along with one another. Interpersonal conflict is the new normal. People who enjoy harmonious relationships with others are outliers.

Invective, defined as “insulting, abusive, or highly critical language,” is the defining feature of Nextdoor communications. So much so, the only reason I’m still a member is I have a fear of missing out on the next “your horse is loose in our yard” or “your pig just ran into our barn” message that my urban self finds endlessly entertaining.

I’m not going to write the title for you, but here’s some words and phrases to help you get started.

  • An Examination of A Social Networking Site For Neighborhoods
  • Discord
  • Interpersonal Conflict As The New Normal
  • Dissonance

You’re welcome.