Category: Conversations

Chaos, chaos figures and disrupting you

Chaos, chaos figures and disrupting you

Some translations of the Old Testament of the Bible begin something like this:

In the beginning, when the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.

Science calls this moment of light the Big Bang.

Unlike the serene scene of a dark, formless void with the spirit of God moving upon it, the ancient Greeks believed in Chaos. Chaos was both a place, where the gods resided, and the god from whom creation sprang.

Among Chaos’s first creations were the earth, the underworld, love, darkness and night.

The ancient Greek religion isn’t the only one with chaos gods. They appear all over the world, including, in ancient Egyptian culture, the battle between Isfet (chaos) and Ma’at (order), which reminded me of Crowley and Aziraphale.

During our collective quarantine, comedian Duncan Trussell has been talking philosophy with actors Marcus Henderson and Brandon Sanders, and they released one gathering as a podcast and one of the guests mentioned chaos figures, and pointed out that President Trump is one.

To explain chaos figures, he pointed to Ego, Peter Quill’s father from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

, played by Kurt Russell. In the film, Ego is a god who puts down roots on as many planets as possible in an attempt to spread his seed and alter the universe.

Trump obviously is not that sort of chaos figure, but he’s the sort of person who shakes things up enough to change the way some people operate and the way some systems work. We don’t know what the results — aftermath, if you will — of his time as president will be, at this writing.

But this isn’t about Trump.

Chaos is defined as:

a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order

A chaos figure, then, is someone who disrupts existing systems in such a way there’s a sense of confusion along the way — most likely at the beginning.

COVID-19, although not a person, is a chaos figure. The Boston Tea Party was carried out by chaos actors. Gandhi, Hitler, Mandela and Stalin were chaos figures. Not all of them are for good, obviously. They merely disrupt, often drastically.

Let’s look in the mirror for a moment, shall we? How are you doing right now? Could you use a little chaos in your life to disrupt your patterns? Maybe it’s time to jump in a ball pit or go bury yourself in the sand at the beach or go dance in public. Disrupt yourself. You’ll thank me later.

‘The soup is getting cold’: Lessons in curiosity and perfectionism from Leonardo da Vinci

‘The soup is getting cold’: Lessons in curiosity and perfectionism from Leonardo da Vinci

I’ve recently finished listening to the audio version of Walter Isaacson’s excellent Leonardo da Vinci biography. I’m sure I’ve lost something from actually holding this one, but at least it came with a PDF that’s 70-something pages long with all kinds of images and timeline information.

We look up to Leonardo for a lot of accomplishments. The Mona Lisa. The Last Supper. Vitruvian Man. Flying machines. Methods for diverting rivers. Early ideas for a tank for military use. Molds of human organs. Notebook after notebook full of innovations and drawings and notes and curiosities.

More: What creative minds have in common (or don’t) »

But Leonardo was eminently human. You see, he was a terrible perfectionist, and, for lack of a better term, a bit of a flibbertigibbet. He was also supremely curious and inventive, and there are things you don’t have to be born with to emulate the good stuff.

First, a little thing about his life, and how it played in his favor to be who he was: Leonardo was born out of wedlock.

As the first-born son in his family, he would have been entitled to an inheritance, but he also would have been expected to take on his father’s profession. In this case, that profession was as a notary.

When he was 10, his father had the opportunity to legitimate him, which, again, would have made Leonardo the rightful heir over his half-brothers, but it would have been expected for him to become a notary. At that point, it seemed almost certain the notary guild wouldn’t have accepted him, and also that he wouldn’t have been very good at the job anyway.

He would later have a legal battle with his half brothers over some inheritance (he wasn’t entitled to any, but he settled with them for some other rights for them upon his death).

Maintaining his illegitimacy, then, allowed him to go off and create.

Leonardo wrote backwards, in a mirror script. It may have been a code, though an easily breakable one. Or, maybe that’s just the way he wrote. He was left-handed (we know that because of the direction of the hatching in his drawings). I’m right-handed, and when I try to write left-handed, my natural inclination is to reverse the script.

Leonardo wasn’t a fan of what Isaacson frequently dubs (not his term, I’m sure) received knowledge — that stuff we learn in books. He wanted to discover for himself. “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker” is a phrase that shows up in his notebooks.

He worked tirelessly on things he wasn’t paid for, just to sate his curiosity. He made great advances in Euclidean geometry, in human biology, in military technology. He designed a system to divert the flow of the Arno River, though it was never used. He is credited with designing the first helicopter, though it was probably meant for the stage, since he never included it among his military designs. He designed the first tank.

He was mercilessly detailed. Vitruvian Man is actually an improvement on Vitruvius’s studies on the proper proportions for drawing men. Leonardo spent hours with various men measuring lengths and widths, to determine what proportion of the body the head should be, and then from the hairline to the top of the nose, the nose to the chin, the mouth to the chin, ear to ear, the length of the arm, the distance from the naval to the top of the genitals, and on and on.

Leonardo had a very human flaw: he was a perfectionist. And perfection is a stumbling block to good.

The Mona Lisa, his most famous masterpiece, was commissioned in 1503, and was never delivered. He was still adding brush strokes when he died in 1519. His patrons frequently had to renegotiate contracts to require delivery of unfinished work plus return of advance payment if deadlines weren’t met. Some contracts, particularly early in his career, had frequent deadlines — and related penalties — attached.

He sweated over details the way only a true master could, sometimes staring at The Last Supper for an hour or two, making a single brush stroke, then retiring for the day.

He seems to have gained more admirers than detractors during his life, but there were plenty of letters of complaint along the way.

Endlessly curious, endlessly practicing, endlessly perfectionist. Two lessons and, perhaps, a warning from a great master.

But don’t forget to enjoy yourself. “I must go,” Leonardo intimated as the final notes were made in his notebooks. “The soup is getting cold.”

Get a damn flu shot

Get a damn flu shot

It’s coming on flu season, and that probably means something much different this year, thanks to COVID-19, than it does most years.

The four identified influenza (flu) viruses — A, B, C and D, the first three of which typically infect humans — have been around in some form for a long time. Data on annual epidemics and pandemics really starts in the 16th century, but may have been the cause of an epidemic in China some eight thousand years ago. Hippocrates, the “father of modern medicine,” described flu symptoms about 2,400 years ago.

In an average year, flu kills about 290,000 people worldwide and 36,000 people in the U.S.; the 1918 Spanish Flu (about 500 million worldwide infections and 50 million deaths) was among the worst.

It wasn’t until 1933 that the virus itself was isolated, and a live vaccine quickly followed. We now have a dead vaccine (meaning the flu shot doesn’t actually give you a live infection to fight off anymore) that covers up to four strains — the originally identified A and B strains and a mutation of each.

My child was born during flu season, and the CDC doesn’t recommend anyone under six months old get a vaccine. The people most susceptible to flu, as you might imagine, are the very young and the very old. About a third of people who catch the flu virus are asymptomatic, and asymptomatic carriers can pass it along. So when she was born, we told anybody who wanted to have contact with her to get a flu shot or wait until she could.

The list of people who shouldn’t get a flu shot is pretty short.

If you think you might come into contact with people who could reasonably die from the flu — and again, that’s an average of 36,000 people in the U.S. every year, most of them grandparents and babies — get a flu shot. You can get one at your doctor’s office, at most grocery store pharmacies, and at most national chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreen’s.

Just like masks with COVID-19, it’s as much, or more, for other people as it is for yourself.

Is your war worth fighting? Nature vs. nurture, free will and Good Omens

Is your war worth fighting? Nature vs. nurture, free will and Good Omens

This post may contain spoilers about the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It came out in 1990, so don’t be mad at me for that. I haven’t seen the more contemporary Amazon Prime series, though, so I don’t know if it follows the story line closely. I won’t be offended if you decide not to read this because of the potential spoilers. I will be offended if I get angry emails/tweets/etc. because you couldn’t be bothered to read a paragraph of italic text.

The book is wonderful, by the way. It was recommended by the chess champion Garry Kasparov to the Persuasion Community.


In the novel Good Omens, Crowley and Aziraphale have been adversaries for a long time. Around 6,000 years, to be more precise. When you’re adversarial for that long, your battle becomes a bit of a partnership.

Crowley is a demon; Aziraphale is an angel. They are bound, by their natures, to act accordingly: Crowley clears out traffic so he can drive too fast; Aziraphale gives a wrecked bicycle some massive upgrades when he “repairs” it.

Crowley is given the job of bringing about Armageddon. He doesn’t particularly want to, but, well, demon. Nature.

Here’s the thing: You can only get the antichrist to do so much, particularly if his unsuspecting parents call him something mundane, like Adam. There’s nature vs. nurture at play. When the child is taught to love, his evil nature can only take him so far.

And there’s the matter of the hellhound, who shows up on the antichrist’s 11th birthday. His nature will be determined by the name the antichrist give him. Some are hoping for something along the lines of Killer. But he is endowed with the name Dog. And so he’s happy to see people, and he enjoys chasing rats and getting petted and will do pretty much anything for a treat.


Fast forward a bit and Aziraphale is speaking with the Metatron (the voice of God). The angel is asking the Voice what needs to be done to avoid the coming battle between Heaven and Hell.

The point is not to avoid the war, Metatron says, it’s to win it.

Some battles — even if you’re not sure you can win them — are worth fighting.

You just have to know which ones.

Crowley and Aziraphale are not human. They are driven by nature. So is the hellhound, even if his nature is altered by Adam.

But Adam has as his nature the direction to bring about the end of the world. He is taught, however, to be better than that.

Nurture wins.

But so does free will: Adam still has the option to kick off Armageddon, but humans make it through.

And so, you.

Are you only what you were born for, or can you nurture something more? Alternately, if you’ve been taught the wrong things, is it in your nature to settle for them?

Do you have free will? You can always make a choice. Sometimes the consequences of your choices aren’t comfortable, but sometimes those choices have to be made anyway.


On lives, and mattering

On lives, and mattering

At a fairly young age, Jewish children are shown a picture similar to this one: A pile of dirty shoes, all gray with soot and ash. They range in sizes from toddler to adult. It’s an uncountably large pile, with no ground visible between the shoes as you look down from above. The shoes were taken from liberated concentration camps, their former owners gassed or shot or butchered for no reason other than an accident of being born into a faith (usually Jewish, occasionally Catholic) or race (usually black or Romany) or sexual orientation (this might surprise you, but Nazis were against homosexuality).

Often, the photo is accompanied by a short poem by Moshe Szulsztein. It reads like this:

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh,
Each one of us avoided the hellfire

When the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993, they recreated the photo in a large display, with the poem stenciled on the wall above the shoes.

Jewish children are also exposed throughout their religious education to this poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller. It’s also stenciled on a wall at the museum.

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Nobody asks them, but I’m guessing reading this poem throughout their formative years is one of the reasons so many Jews get involved in social justice causes. And let’s be clear: there’s a difference between social justice and what we call woke culture. Lawyers taking up civil rights cases and journalists writing books about the history of radical movements are much different than sitting on Twitter and nitpicking.

And having this poem knocked into my cranium is probably why I take it for granted that black lives matter, and trans lives matters, and my life matters, and your life matters, and everyone’s life matters and not one of those things is mutually exclusive to any of the others, and none of those things is a political statement.

You’ll notice I left out “blue lives matter,” which seems to be in political opposition right now to “black lives matter.” “All lives matter” seems to have a similar political opposition to “black lives matter,” but let me put forth a couple of things here.

First, I don’t say blue lives matter because no one is literally born a police officer. Yes, I think the vast majority of the 800,000 police officers in the U.S. are good at their jobs and unfortunately, a few bad apples show up as representative of the profession in some people’s eyes.

I invite you to read what I wrote in the wake of George Floyd’s death for more on that.

Georgia recently made police officers a protected class under hate crimes laws. While I appreciate the hard — and often dangerous — work our men and women in blue do, other hate crimes laws cover things that are part of people either by birth or by raising. Race. Sexuality. Gender. Religion (yes, we can choose our faith as adults, but there’s a reason it’s constitutionally protected).

There are one, perhaps two professions mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Journalists are protected by freedom of the press, and faith leaders are, by and large, protected by freedom of religion. The founders of our country decided those were important enough to the continuation of a free and open society to mention them. There aren’t hate crime laws protecting journalists, by the way, but they would apply to religious leaders in most cases, one would think.

No other profession is protected under hate crime laws. I think it’s a little too virtue-signally.

In the early days of the Back Lives Matter movement, I heard it described, as opposed to All Lives Matter, like this. I wish I had an attribution for it.

You’re a child at dinner with your parents and your three siblings. Everyone gets served except for you. “Dad, I deserve my fair share,” you say. “That’s selfish,” he replies. “Everyone deserves their fair share.”

The implication is that yes, everybody deservers their fair share, but you didn’t get yours; how can everybody be treated fairly if you’re not treated fairly?

Similarly, yeah, sure, everyone’s life matters, but if a large swath of the population believes their lives don’t appear to matter, it can’t be true that all lives matter. In short, All Lives Matter because Black Lives Matter. And if black lives don’t matter, it can’t be true that all lives matter.

Get it? It’s pretty simple.

I’ve been trying for months to figure out how to say “Black Lives Matter” without it sounding political, because while I don’t believe it’s a political statement, too often it sounds like one. I’m not looking for a pat on the back. I’m looking for a way to recognize that All Lives Matter because Black Lives Matter and because Jewish Lives Matter and because Catholic Lives Matter and because Trans Lives Matter and because Baptist and Muslim and Brown and White and Asian and Zoroastrian and Queer lives matter.

Just be nice to each other, people. There’s plenty for everyone. Promise.

Unhindered by custom

Unhindered by custom

The U.S. Air Force used to be a unit of the Army. That made some sense in the beginning, when you couldn’t carry a large payload on a plane. Airplanes weren’t good at evasive maneuvering, they weren’t very big, and they couldn’t cross an ocean.

As World War II approached, however, the Air Force wanted a way forward as a separate branch of the military, and they set out to make a name for themselves. They began planning on larger planes that could carry bigger bombs and go farther, faster. Some would be sleeker to handle evasive moves, others would be larger people and bomb movers.

In 1929, a small group dubbed The Bomber Mafia began developing the larger bombers. Their motto? Proficimus more irretenti. We make progress unhindered by custom.

Malcolm Gladwell did a couple of episodes on them in Season 5 of his podcast Revisionist History.

The leader of a Masonic Lodge is addressed as Worshipful Master. This is not a divine title; in 1717 England, where modern-day Freemasonry was founded, “worshipful” was a nice thing to call a good person.

A new Worshipful Master will hear on his first night, in jest, and, if he’s done anything important, many times throughout the year in earnest, “That’s not how we did it my year.” Sometimes it’s phrased “That’s not how we’ve always done it.”

But sometimes you need to move forward and break the mold, even in a traditional setting that maintains its ritual as supremely important. Unhindered by custom. The way you’ve always done something gets you the same thing you’ve always got, whether that’s an old fraternity or the food you eat or the ways you goof off at work. The ritual can stay, but some stuff just has to go.

The novel coronavirus the world has faced this year has thrown a lot of wrenches in the works. People out of work. Businesses closed. Governing teams going to remote work. Schools doing the same.

And the protests. Dame Helen Mirren said she was glad to see the young people having balls again. Yes, those were Helen Mirren’s words. That’s their job, she said.

There are a lot of things about this year that have been uncomfortable.

It’s not just SARS-CoV-2. Not just the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and, interestingly, in a few other countries around the world. Not just Trump vs. Biden. Not just the people we’ve lost — not just the collective we, but our family specifically.

People have had to come up with creative solutions. Our closest precedent, the Spanish Flu pandemic a bit over a century ago, was devastating. And that was a much different world: many fewer people, much less technology, much less overall knowledge — both in the professions and available to the populace at large.

This time requires an evolution of the world, unhindered by custom.

My home has become the repository for old family photos when they come off the walls during redecorations. In the home office, where I’m typing this, there is a portrait of my grandfather, whom we called Zadie, after his upsherin, the ceremonial first haircut for a boy, typically around his third birthday. It has his hair braided around the outside of the portrait. You wouldn’t recognize the clothing, and it’s tough to tell whether it is a drawn-then-painted portrait or a photograph with some painting around it (I’d lean toward the second). This would have been circa the fall of 1926.

Next to that image is a portrait, probably a painted photograph, of his maternal uncle or great-uncle, from whom he took a middle name. The man is younger, perhaps middle aged. I have no idea when the portrait dates from, but I know he died in 1923, months before my grandfather was born.

My grandfather enjoyed chatting with his grandkids on AOL Instant Messenger. It was a slow process for him, but this is a man who was born before most homes had a radio, and in-home refrigeration was about a decade old.

He always drove giant Cadillacs, one or two of which had car phones, back when they were big old bricks. He died in 2008, not long after the first smart phones were invented. When he was born, they were still doing studies of the human head to decide how to design the handheld telephone. They finished laying the second transcontinental phone line less than a year before his birth.

If we assume normal life spans, for as much as the world we die in barely resembles the world we were born in, consider what my grandfather would think about the world I’m going to die in. In fact, go back to his grandfather; if we consider a 25-year average per generation (and my first child was born when I was 42, so that’s not always accurate), that man would have been born in 1873. Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, among others, were still working on the technology for the first telephonic transmitters. His grandson died in a world with iPhones.

If my daughter has a child when she’s about 25 and that child lives to about 85, that will be sometime around the year 2129. I remember cars with bench seats and rear-facing back seats. Seat belts were recommended but not required. Kids could sit in the front. There were no air bags. There wasn’t even a third break light. Parents could run into the store and leave their kids in the car, with the car running. I certainly won’t recognize the world my grandchildren will die in.

Every generation, or sometimes more often, we decide which pieces of custom stay, and which go.

The 1960s saw a shucking of a lot of social mores.

The 1980s saw an overhaul in the U.S. regulatory culture.

The past 30 years have been a whirlwind of style, sound, technology and more.

I feel like we’re on the verge of something else, though, unhindered by custom.

Abundance, for excellence, not entitlement

Abundance, for excellence, not entitlement

Did you start a podcast or a blog during your coronavirus quarantine?

If you did, you’re not alone.

You’re probably also not alone in discovering that you starting a blog or podcast doesn’t entitle you to suddenly have thousands of readers or listeners, with many of them giving you money.

I want to tell you, then, about a few things I’m supporting, and a couple that I would support if they had a good route for me (they might by the time this posts, for what it’s worth, but I’m writing this three weeks ago — yay time travel!).

I’m hoping the point of sharing here is twofold: (1) you’ll find something you like and (2) you’ll be inspired to do better work.

Team Human (websitepatreon). Douglas Rushkoff is an author, media critic, professor and one of the guys who (originally) made Manhattan a cool place. I first became aware of Rushkoff in the 1990s with his profile in an independent arts newspaper of the late Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Rushkoff isn’t a technophobe. Instead, he writes about finding the ways to use technology to be more human.

His book Present Shock reminds us that on the internet, time is flat. It might have happened 10 years ago, but if you’re just finding it, it’s new now. Like if you were to find this post in 2045, it’s happening now to you, even though it’s 25 years old.

Rushkoff’s manifesto Team Human is a continuation of his work, remarking on how memes work, how algorithms work, and how we can make technology work for humans, rather having it as a tool to make humans work for corporations. His podcast is a combination of monologues and conversations about doing just that.

The Portal (websitewiki). Eric Weinstein started a podcast that quickly grew into a community of different-thinkers and difference-makers. Weinstein has a wide-ranging group a friends and a great curiosity for deep ideas, especially dispruptive ones. His initial idea for the podcast was every time we enter a fantastical place, it’s through a portal — Alice goes down the rabbit hole; Neo takes a pill and plugs in; Dorothy opens a door into a Technicolor world. Here’s Weinstein himself with the explanation:

Some of Weinstein’s big ideas include the Distributed Idea Suppression Complex (DISC) — think, for example, mainstream media’s leaving out Andrew Yang from the narrative in the 2020 Democratic primary cycle — and making physics more accessible to the masses. He’d like to change the political system in the U.S., the education system in the U.S., and plenty of other stuff.

Blocked and Reported (podcastpatreon). Let’s call Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal tangential journalists. Herzog was laid off from The Stranger during the COVID crash and Singal has a book coming out in 2021. They come from a sane-left viewpoint. Essentially, solidly liberal, but not “you’re a bad person because you don’t agree with this litany of demands” leftist. They’ve both been exiled from that far-left-wacko movement because they’ve written about the de-trans community; that is, people who at one time were undergoing treatment to transition their gender and then changed their minds and undid the work.

Let’s not unpack this sniping battle too much, but that did not put them in favor with the far wing of the left, which assumes that if you change your mind on something like being trans, you must hate trans people, and by pointing out that these people exist, you must also hate trans people.

Anyway, these two started a podcast. They do some media criticism and some angry-left-Twitter criticism. They present the stories like journalists, and then do an essentially fair job of breaking down the story, each coming from their own respective viewpoint. They’re friendly with each other, it’s fun, and they’ve begun to put together some inside jokes. They play well with and off each other on Twitter (HerzogSingal).

They very quickly put together a supportive community; as I write this, they are 20 episodes into their podcast and have over 2,400 people donating to their Patreon campaign. At the very least, take a look through their podcast episodes, find something that made you angry, and listen to their take on it.

The Psychology Podcast (websitepatreon). Scott Barry Kaufman is a humanistic psychologist who has written a book reimagining Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It turns out Maslow never envisioned the pyramid we attribute to him. Kaufman has gone through Maslow’s unpublished notebooks and come upon a new way to diagram the hierarchy. Since it’s not in common circulation yet I won’t stick it in here.

I first came across Kaufman on a call with the Flow Research Collective, founded by author Steven Kotler.

Kaufman is interested in things like kindness and happiness and transcendence. He has an interview-style podcast dedicated primarily to the psychology of these things, with some other stuff thrown in.

Articles of Unity (website). Bret Weinstein (Eric’s brother) came to national attention when the already liberal university at which he was teaching went wingnut. They had an annual event called “Day of Absence,” during which Black students, staff and faculty would stay home to remind everyone of the impact of the Black community.

One year, however, they turned the tables and asked white people to stay home. Weinstein declined, saying in effect that you can opt yourself out, but you can’t opt others out. And further, you don’t tell Jews where to go or not to go — we have the lessons of the Holocaust and everything leading up to it drilled into our brains from an early age, including “Jews go over there.”

He was then declared a racist, and hunted to such an extent there were students with baseball bats looking for him. He had to move his family from their home and sources of income in secrecy, to an undisclosed location.

Flash forward a couple of years, and Weinstein is starting to see the divide that got him run out of town splintering the nation.

He has launched a new organization focused on drafting a new ticket to run for president. The ticket would consist of one person whose views are center-right but far enough outside of the inner circle of the Republican Party that he or she would not currently be welcome on a Republican ticket, and a similarly center-left candidate unwelcome by Democratic insiders. In 2020, one would be the presidential candidate and the other would be the vice presidential candidate. In 2024 — even if that ticket were to win in 2020 — the ticket would flip, so the vice presidential candidate would run for president, and then they flip again in 2028. They do that until one candidate is no longer eligible or someone decides they no longer want to be on the ticket.

Weinstein does have 2020 candidates in mind; they are not yet on board as of this writing, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be, or that there won’t be others. Here is the introductory video, including Weinstein’s preferred candidates.

Persuasion (website). This is another group looking to overhaul the discourse. Yascha Mounk is a professor at Hopkins, an author and journalist.

I knew nothing about Mounk until I heard him on Blocked and Reported (see above), but he’s put together a board of impressive names, and in addition to the newsletter and a podcast (free with unpaid subscription), there are paid add-ons like virtual get-togethers and book clubs with the likes of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and authors Jonathan Haidt and David Frum, among others.

These people are creating new things. They are making money doing so. Because those things are excellent, not just because they did it. It’s not “if you build it, they will come.” It’s “if you build something awesome, they will come.”

So go. Create. Do so excellently.

It’s easy to be kind

It’s easy to be kind

I had a lot of links pulled aside for a post on cancel culture today.

Cancel culture isn’t the desire to see someone like Bill Cosby, in jail for rape after facing accusations from over 40 women, lose his audience. It’s getting someone, not a public figure, fired — and probably forced into early retirement — for a costume in poor taste at a party two years ago.

Or getting someone fired for 10-year-old bad joke tweets.

Or closing a tenant’s store because his teenage daughter posted racist stuff on social media several years ago.

It’s Amy Cooper getting fired for what we all understand was a racist and stupid overreaction that she was charged with filing a false police report for. But losing her job over it?

There’s a bunch more stuff going around these days. It’s dumb.

And then I saw a story about an (apparently adult) couple who showed up at a Central New York ice cream shop during the COVID-19 pandemic without masks, and were told by two teenage employees they would be refused service if they didn’t wear masks. The couple screamed at the employees.

Now, let’s imagine for a moment that the couple was maskless because they believe in individual liberties. Wouldn’t the notion that a business can turn away any customer for any reason fit into that belief?

Let’s imagine, instead, that they just didn’t have masks with them. That they were driving around just getting out of the house and they saw an ice cream stand and decided an ice cream might be nice. Well, just as some places post signs that say, “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” now some businesses have added “no mask” to that list.

Whatever the reason, the couple couldn’t possibly think that a couple of kids — the employees working were 16 and 18 years old — came up with the policy, or, let’s face it, had the authority to override it. In fact, in some counties, they’d be breaking the law if they were to serve those people.

Apparently, they’re not alone.

Let’s take the politics of the mask out of it. Unlike “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” “no shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service” currently sits outside the Overton Window as a policy decision. If you simply don’t meet the qualifications for being a customer somewhere, why do you think that place owes you something? And, on top of that, why be positively horrible to a couple of young people who are merely enforcing an unsurprising rule at a nonessential shop? It’s not like that couple needed the ice cream, even. They just felt that the couple of dollars the stand charges is all that was required to entitle them to the treat.

It’s hard to have honest conversations. It’s hard to admit pain to a colleague. It’s hard to be open and vulnerable about fears — be they fears of illness and death or loss of liberty or simply the unknown.

But it’s actually easy to see people as people. You don’t have to love everyone. You don’t have to agree with everyone. The root of most of the world’s religions is be nice to others. It takes no effort to not take your frustrations out on people who don’t deserve it.

Ethics and support: What do you want from media?

Ethics and support: What do you want from media?

The opinions herein are mine, not my employer’s. This statement is original to the post, not forced by my employer after the fact.

Edited to add: I had this post scheduled from a couple of weeks ago, and neglected to update as the news came down yesterday of Bari Weiss’ resignation. She was one of the adults in the room on The New York Times Opinion page. But there aren’t very many people who can be described that way. Go read her letter. It’s a good summary of the problems in many of today’s newsrooms.

I hear a lot about how divisive media is. How evil the industry is. To stop paying attention to media. It seems people can’t stop complaining about media, but also can’t stop following along.

I’m not sure what those people are paying attention to, but I’ve been in media (newspapers both in print and online) for two decades, and the vast majority of my colleagues are hard-working, honest go-getters.

I want to examine two things, and take a look at how they can be at odds with each other. The first is support, and by that, I mean monetary support. Unlike, say, China, North Korea or Russia, our news outlets are not state-operated. They are, by design, independent. The founders of our country may not have had radio, television or the internet, but they had news media, and thought it was so important to have a free and independent press that they included it in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The second is ethics. While some people claim that they would prefer to support an ethical media, what they seem to mean is that they’d prefer to support a media institution that confirms their biases. While it’s tough to get people to talk about where they actually spend their money, it’s pretty easy to look at what people are clicking on.

Newspapers used to have two revenue streams: advertising and subscriptions. Advertising — specifically classified advertising — was far and away the more profitable, which is why it took about five years for your average newspaper to go from a quarter to a dollar an issue, while ad costs moved only incrementally.

For cities with multiple papers — which was a lot in the mid-1990s — the paper that was probably going to make it was the paper of record; that is, the one in which courts required legal notices to be filed.

But when everything went online, subscriptions fell off by a lot.

Craigslist sucked up all the classified advertising, at least until newspapers moved their classifieds sections online and started charging next to nothing for ads.

And display ads — the ones you’d see on the pages of the paper as you flipped through — went online and, instead of being paid by the column inch, the papers were paid by page views.

Page views. That meant that in order to get any money, the paper needed you to click on a story.

It didn’t matter what you said you wanted; it mattered what you clicked on. If you said you wanted more positive news but didn’t click on it, the positive news went away.

And that’s how we got to paywalls and click-bait headlines: If you’ll only click on something if it tricks you, well, that’s the only way to get paid.

It’s not fantastic, but the idea that great journalism would stand out didn’t come to bear. Not everyone can win a Pulitzer, or they wouldn’t mean anything. And sometimes you need to know about a car accident or the weather or whatever.

I don’t like the click bait any more than you do, but for what it’s worth, you need to read the whole story, not just the headline. Reading just the headline is how we got to angry and divided in the first place.

The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics. It’s somewhat idealist, since it turns out that people won’t really pay for all that much ethical journalism, and the problem with running a business is that you have costs and you need to turn a profit (especially if you’re a publicly traded company).

Don’t be sneaky. Give voice to the voiceless. Expose unethical behavior. There are a lot more, but those are some of my favorites.

If you think journalists are shady now, you should take a look at how journalism was when our Founders decided we needed a free press.

Ben Franklin used to write a column in his paper, write an argument against it in someone else’s paper under a fake name, and then respond with an argument for it in his own paper under someone else’s name. He might have been America’s original troll.

There was a whole genre called yellow journalism. Think click bait, but with no actual truth in the story, and not even an argument using the subject’s manipulated words to attempt to back up claims. Just plain old fiction.

I feel like I shouldn’t have to defend the need for a free and independent press, but I should probably make the point. When the government handles all reporting on the government, they tell you whatever they want. You can’t even search for Tiananmen Square from an IP address within China. When you control the narrative, you control the people.

An antagonistic press is important. And let me be clear: Journalists should be antagonistic to all leaders. Report truthfully, don’t play stupid gotcha games, but every decision should get a thorough questioning.

Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. That’s our job.

Prying apart the sides: George Washington on our current situation

Prying apart the sides: George Washington on our current situation

We’re coming up on the Fourth of July, Independence Day here in the U.S.

Whether to wear a mask during a pandemic is a political issue. So is whether to actually keep testing; apparently, if we don’t test, nobody is confirmed to have the pandemic disease, which means it went away.

Black Lives Matter is still more of a shouted plea than a reality. Blue Lives Matter is its obverse, as though we could only care about black people OR police.

People are getting fired for stuff that was perfectly reasonable when they were doing it. I suppose I’m supposed to take those Mark Twain novels off my shelf. You should see the language in those.

The New York Times wanted to do a feature on a popular science blogger who wanted to maintain semi-anonymity so he could keep his job, but they refused to leave out his last name, so he took down his blog, effectively killing the story, and making his large readership (and those who are new to his blog because of the newfound attention) get creative in seeking posts archived elsewhere. If you think internet anonymity is dumb for people who don’t earn a living online, ask Zoe Margolis how her life changed. She just wanted to blog about sex in peace.

Soon after the book was published, The Sunday Times published an article which revealed the identity of the author as Zoe Margolis, an assistant director in the film industry. Margolis described the experience as “nightmare,” “hell” and “fiasco,” writing about how deeply it affected her personal life and caused her to lose her career in the film industry.
After having her anonymity removed, Margolis went into hiding for a while. She chose to present her view in the media giving an interview to The Guardian and writing an article for The Independent, in order to balance the tabloid press. Despite losing her anonymity, she continued to write the blog.

I’m sure George Washington is out of favor right now. He was our first president, sure, but he was a slave owner, a military general who took up arms against his native country, and (gasp!) a Freemason (which holds more of a tin-foil-hat conspiracy place in the U.S. but is a big deal in parts of Europe).

You may have heard reference, recently, to the fact that Washington warned against forming, specifically, two political parties in his presidential farewell address, but let’s take a look at what he actually said.

In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.

The initial thought, then, was that parties were likely to form based on geographic distinctions. Turns out he wasn’t entirely incorrect. Obviously the Civil War represented some geographic tearing apart. The coasts these days largely lean Democratic with the interior of the country leaning Republican. Larger cities, too, lean Democratic, with suburbs, exurbs and rural areas getting progressively more Republican.

But note, more importantly, that Washington points out one of the worst things a party will do, when there are only two parties, is make false claims about what the other party wants and is doing.

You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.

You cannot shield yourselves against it. The parties will render us alien to each other, even though we ought to be bound together. United States? Not with two parties.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

The ruins of public liberty!

Two parties, in Washington’s view, will go back and forth and try to consolidate power in a party leader until the leaders of the respective parties have corrupted everything so much public liberty itself is in jeopardy. Are we there? Some might argue we are. If we’re not there, we’re getting closer.

Until we step out from behind our Ds and our Rs and all the other things that divide us, there’s only regression. We’re not growing as a people, and we won’t. When it’s news that a black guy and a white guy are drinking beer together, we’re headed the wrong direction. News is for anomalies, things that stand out. This should just be two people having a normal afternoon, not national news.

Let’s all step back, take a breath, and start over. As people.