Category: Conversations

What do we want? Applying SMART goals to police protests, COVID and more

What do we want? Applying SMART goals to police protests, COVID and more

One of the things frequently discussed in the motivational and self-help spaces is goal-setting. Even if you don’t sit down and do it as an intentional exercise, you probably do some goal-setting in your life. It might be saving for a vacation or your kids’ college. It might be getting ready to buy a house. It might be sitting down with your boss and setting a sales/page view/whatever goal or budget for the year. It might be a weight-loss goal, a money-saving goal, or you sign up for a race and now you have to train.

Whatever it is, you’re familiar with setting goals. Achievement is, after all, something we value in ourselves.

A lot of people don’t set goals correctly, however. “Lose weight” is not a good goal. “Lose 20 pounds in 3 months” is. “Save money” is not a good goal. “Save $5,000 in 10 months” is. See a pattern? OK. There’s a term for this: SMART goals.

S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Achievable
R = Relevant
T = Time-bound

Last week I wrote about doing the work to rebuild our broken — or even just tarnished — systems.

What does that work look like? What do we even want?

Let’s start with the #DefundThePolice people.

First off, I imagine they don’t actually mean to defund (that is, remove all funding from) the police. Which is a problem — say the words you mean; it’s how people actually understand you. What a lot of people really mean is, “take some money away from the police and put it toward programs that support minorities.” Camden, New Jersey, blew up its police department and created a new one, but I can’t imagine there are very many people who want zero police.

I won’t get into my views on it. I just want to start here because it’s a poorly-set goal. It’s not specific. Assuming “defund” doesn’t mean “zero,” it’s not measurable. It’s not achievable. Yes, it’s relevant. It’s not time-bound.

But if the desired result is “fewer unarmed black people killed by white police officers,” “defund the police” is entirely different. And by the way, “fewer unarmed black people killed by white police officers” is also a poorly worded goal. It’s not specific. It’s measurable, assuming we pick a standard by which to measure “fewer.” It might be achievable [you’d think we’d been angling for it since Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but, well, here we are]. It’s relevant, for sure. It’s not time-bound.

“Reduce police-involved killings of unarmed black people by 50 percent by the end of 2020” is a better wording for that goal. There’s still more specificity to get at. There’s agreeing on a measurement standard. There’s a discussion of methods (which is really what defunding is, a method), which is separate from actually setting the goal, but you need a well-defined goal before you can actually get to where you want to be.

What about systemic racism? “End systemic racism” isn’t a SMART goal. Again, it’s relevant, but that’s about it. We didn’t get here overnight, we’re not going to get where we want to be overnight.

If we take the example that systemic racism can be oversimplified by saying redlining led to poor schools led to poor education led to poor jobs led to increased crime ted to increased incarceration led to more single-parent households, this is a multi-generational problem that needs several approaches to defeat. But what would SMART goals look like for any of these problems? What if we started with funding schools equally across the city, rather than using district-specific property taxes? By the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year? That’s a SMART goal.

And what about our COVID-19 crisis?

Get people back to work, open businesses, grow the economy, reduce deaths, increase testing, flatten the case curve, decrease unemployment … not one of these is a SMART goal.

“Test 80 percent of the state’s population before Labor Day 2020” is a SMART goal. “Keep new cases below 10 percent of new tests through the end of 2020” is a SMART goal.

Again, once the goals are set, you worry about methods, but you need to set a goal you can actually reach.

So let’s start taking this approach every time we have a major event that prompts a call for change. What does the change actually look like? Do we want the change or do we just want to yell about it?

Attack of the black squares: On virtue signaling, rebuilding and actual work

Attack of the black squares: On virtue signaling, rebuilding and actual work

One of the things I thought would go away with our COVID quarantines was manufactured offense. We were taking care of each other, 10 short weeks ago.

But as we got used to our new normal, we slowly trickled back toward petty insults and cancel culture.

And then the George Floyd protests started. After about a week of protests, Instagram was taken over by black squares. Like this:

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#blackouttuesday #vidasnegrasimportam

A post shared by Thayla21 (@thaylabarret) on

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A post shared by @ dymonddesiree_ on

And so on. You probably get it by now.

Here’s a potentially unpopular opinion: Your black boxes don’t mean anything. Most of the people who follow you are aligned with your political views. You’re not making a political statement in a roomful of people who think differently from you. This is what is called, in the parlance of our times, virtue signaling.

People across the political spectrum do this. Scope out your Facebook feed. Your liberal-leaning friends are posting memes that say, “I, too, believe in liberal ideas! Don’t you believe in liberal ideas, also?” You know, things like “Trump bad, Biden good” and “Fund schools not military” and “More health care, fewer guns.” Your conservative-leaning friends are posting memes that say, “I too, believe in conservative ideas! Don’t you believe in conservative ideas, also?” You know, things like “Media bad and Fox News isn’t media” and “Climate change is a China hoax” and “Babies aren’t a choice.” The grammar on these memes won’t be much better than that, also across the political spectrum.

It’s a show we put on for our friends. And it’s assumed that if you post a meme in one column, you also align with all the other memes in that column.

It helps maintain our tribes, and it gets no real work done.

Have you ever been swayed by a meme you didn’t already agree with?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a long post about George Floyd’s death, protests and more. It was full of facts, context and nuance. Along the way I asked if his death was a figment of systemic racist violence — in this case, wondering if the violence itself was systemic.

What I’m not curious about is whether racism is systemic — not necessarily “are people systematically racist?” but more “I know the system is racist.”

Here’s a pretty good, short explainer:

Yes, there are black people who are able to break out of the system. Yes, there are white people stuck in the system. But it’s a system.

There are people calling for defunding police departments. That’s not a good idea, but overhauling some of them might not be a bad thing. Camden, New Jersey, did it in 2012 and 2013 and saw saw great results, at least through the first couple of years — reduced homicide rates, more police officers on the streets, more community trust. It was a department that couldn’t keep officers on the force and couldn’t keep crime under control, and it seemed to work.

Like I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there are some 800,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. The difficulty is, once you put on a uniform, you represent all of them. If one one-hundredth of one percent of those officers are simply jerks, you have 80 people who ruin it for everybody. That’s a wonderful ratio, but the (now former) officer who killed George Floyd and 79 others across the country make a bad name for the rest of them. Fair? No. True? Yes.

That’s what something systemic looks like, though.

The late great John Baldessari cremated his early work as a signal to himself to improve. Some houses simply have rotten foundations; you need to burn them down and start from scratch.

Others, you strip the floors, pull out some drywall, put in some elbow grease and give them some new glory.

Still others just need a little grout, a tile here and there, maybe some spackling and paint.

All three methods have a couple of things in common: The recognition of what needs to be done, and putting in the work to actually do it.

Let me say that again: you have to put in the work to actually do it.

Hard work is hard. And it’s work.

Funny that something that is hard and also work is called “hard work.”

We try to avoid telling the truth so often. “Social distancing” is really physical distancing. Remember alternative facts? Did we ever figure out what covfefe was? And apparently I’m no longer allowed to wear a Hawaiian shirt.

So much is coded.

But not hard work. There’s only one way to accomplish it, and that’s to do it.

This is a good time to reset. We’ve been talking about this a lot lately on JKWD. It’s a good time to figure out whether you need to burn it down and start over, or whether the bones are good and in need of some love, or whether it just needs some spit-shine.

And once you figure that out, get to work.

Perspective: When things get weird, how weird are you willing to get?

Perspective: When things get weird, how weird are you willing to get?

In the film “Men in Black II,” there’s a scene involving some other-worldly residents of a locker at Grand Central Terminal in New York City. It’s under two minutes long; give it a watch:

It’s a beautiful takedown of organized religion. The inhabitants switch their allegiance to a deity when one giant comer takes away his material gift and the other giant comer gives a new material gift. The inhabitants have also built their moral code around the words printed on the business card of a video rental place, complete with a large adult section in the back.

In the context of the movie, though, it’s a setup to a callback at the end. Will Smith’s character, J, has lost the girl (who had to fly away to her home planet — and don’t you get mad at me for spoiling the ending of an 18-year-old movie), and his partner, K, played by Tommy Lee Jones, has brought the locker inhabitants from Grand Central over to the locker room at Men in Black headquarters, to give J a boost.

J declares that they really should allow those tiny critters to know there’s a bigger world out there than that which they know and are happy with, but K hits him with a reminder that we don’t know anything (watch this even shorter clip):

What a weird year 2020 has been, so far. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we were to find that door that K kicks open.

But here’s a question: If we find the door to our locker, are you in the first group out to explore the larger world, or are you happy in the locker?

George Floyd and COVID-19: Land of the …

George Floyd and COVID-19: Land of the …

Note: It takes a while to get there, but this is a post about the death of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations across the U.S. A week after his death, I can’t for the life of me find a story that notes why he was in police custody at the time of his death, but it’s clear that Floyd didn’t need to die and, given the context of being a white police officer with a black man in custody, the officer charged in Floyd’s death (I’m making it a point to not give the officer notoriety by naming him), the officer and his compatriots should have made a conscious effort to keep him alive.

This post includes a lot of facts. It includes context. It includes nuance. I believe you can be angry at Floyd’s unnecessary death and also support and appreciate the hard work and dedication of our 800,000 law enforcement officers. I believe you can feel frustrated and disenfranchised and also express those feelings nonviolently. I believe our current state of things comes down to two things: selfishness and a lack of leadership. You can’t keep a nation going if you only take care of certain segments of its populace. There’s a lot of good leadership out there, but there are pockets of bad leadership in protest organizers, police forces, cities, states and in segments of the federal government.

When you’re willing to use military and law enforcement violence against a citizenry, you have to expect the citizenry to fight back. Those are exactly the circumstances that led to the founding of our great country.

On June 4, 1982, my baby sister was born.

She’s the youngest of the three of us, but was the first to marry, the first to have a child.

I remember for the couple of days our parents were in the hospital surrounding her birth, my brother and I stayed with some family friends — Donna and Bill, and their kids Maura, DeDe and Chris. They had two Siamese cats.

As we were growing up, we had a cat named Bluffy. She was a runt; probably a week old or so when DeDe found her abandoned and they brought her by. I wanted to call her “Blue” for her eyes; my siblings wanted to call her “Fluffy.” We compromised.

Bluffy used to sit on my sister’s chair at the dinner table, next to her, and eat off her plate. She — the cat — would take a two-week vacation from us every summer.

On my sister’s seventh birthday, two extraordinary things happened.

Poland held a legislative election, the first free elections in Eastern Europe since the aftermath of World War II.

And, earlier in the day, China set its military on its citizens in Tiananmen Square, an event highlighted by the Tank Man photo, maybe the most iconic protest photo since the Burning Monk 36 years earlier.

I was 12 years old, studying for my bar mitzvah, which took place in the days after the Berlin Wall came down.

I know, I write about this with some frequency. They’re some of the events that shaped my life.

It’s hard to not catch any news these days. Even if you don’t read, watch or listen to any news source, and you’re managing to stay off social media, you’d also have to not talk to another adult to know we have two things going on in the U.S. right now:

(1) We’re over 10 weeks into some form of stay-at-home order across almost all of the nation due to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19. People are out of work. Businesses and schools are closed. We’re going to address this first, because it explains why tensions were already high, and it didn’t take much for .

(2) George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minn. This is the latest case of a black man being killed by a white police officer. The officer who killed Floyd was charged in his murder, while that same officer and three who were with him at the time of Floyd’s death have been fired. There have been violent protests across the country. We’ll get to that in a moment.

I spoke a couple of months ago with Peter Serafine about the loss of liberties tied to the quarantine. What we didn’t talk about then — because it wasn’t evident yet — is that we’re having in a lot of places, if you’ll excuse the crude phrase, a dick measuring contest.

There are some people — and don’t you go about putting names in my mouth because I think you’ll make some incorrect assumptions — who are saying and doing some things just to push some power around.

Here’s a more elegant way to state an overarching problem with politics in this country right now: we’re insistent on playing a zero-sum game inside an infinite game.

An example of a zero-sum game is a football game: someone has to win and someone has to lose. There’s a plus-one (win) and a minus-one (loss), and added together, they total zero. Republicans win, Democrats lose, or vice-versa.

An infinite game is one in which we keep tweaking the rules with the goal of simply keeping the game going. In this case, the idea is to keep America existing in perpetuity.

We probably can’t have both, at least not in our current form.

Businesses are clamoring, in some states, for their “right to open.” But anyone who needs a license to operate can have a license pulled at any time. People are talking about their rights to work, but even in “right-to-work” states, you don’t have a right to a job.

There are protests in a lot of places demanding politicians either listen to or ignore health experts. But no one’s lighting themselves on fire for it. No one’s standing in front of a tank after hundreds of citizens were killed by the military. Nobody’s overtaking forces to knock down a wall. Because we don’t have to.

We consider ourselves the land of the free, and, while we certainly have a lot more freedoms than most other nations, freedom doesn’t come without responsibility.

A big part of the American Dream, as it were, is the ability to fail without disastrous consequences. So maybe what we need is a better support net.

And so to the late George Floyd, and more specifically the protests across the country. The list of black men and women killed by white police officers (or while in the custody of white police officers) in the past few years keeps growing. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Keith Lamont Scott. Breonna Taylor. And more. I’m not even including Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old with an air rifle shot by police at a public park in Cleveland.

In Tiananmen, there was tank man. In Ferguson, we saw something similar: a militarized police force with armored vehicles rolling into town to stop protesters while someone stood face-to-face with the front vehicle. That night it was not just protest. There was violence and looting. It was a testament to the frustration a community was feeling, and that frustration is both growing and spreading. Like things were after Rodney King. And Watts. And Miami, Cincinnati, Newark, Detroit and lots of others.

And it hasn’t been helped by the quarantine, which, as I mentioned, is costing jobs, closing businesses, and generally has people’s nerves up.

So the protests started in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed. And then they spread to Louisville, where Breonna Taylor, a black first responder on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, was killed by white narcotics officers who knocked down the door of the wrong home while the suspect they were actually looking for was already in custody.

And then they went national. The trend was, in many cities, a peaceful protest in the afternoon, and, when the sun went down, things got violent. Curfews were put in place. This happened in dozens, if not hundreds of cities, from Syracuse to Portland, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Denver, Cleveland, Newark and a host of other places.

Here’s what I know about being a police officer: not much. I do know that it’s high-stress. Every time an officer stops someone, whether in a car or on the street, it’s potentially (a) a life-threatening moment and (b) a public-relations disaster.

I did a ride-along with a an officer in Holyoke, Mass., in the early 2000s, before cell phones had cameras and before most of us had high-speed internet access. The officer told me it would probably be a quiet Monday of parking and walking around to check in on business owners, maybe hanging by the train tracks to watch for people with expired vehicle registrations (the road was in rough enough shape that cars had to slow down enough for the officer to see).

Instead, we weren’t out five minutes before we were called back to get a sketch of a suspect, and then we weren’t out another five minutes before we pulled over and the officer chased that suspect down on foot, and I got to watch a booking before 8 a.m.

The officer then asked a couple of kids in a double-parked SUV to move along, and a half-hour later we were in a high-speed chase with that same SUV — the kids were shooting air guns, blowing out tires. When we pulled them over, one of the kids told the officer the gun was real. Looking back, that could have been a big problem for that kid — of course, they probably wouldn’t have put a reporter in a car with an officer for whom that was likely to be an issue.

As the day wrapped up, the officer was called to an accident in which a sedan ran a stop sign and went under an SUV, rolling the bigger vehicle, and killing a teenager who in the course of the rollover slid under the shoulder restraint and out the window, with the SUV landing on him.

That sounds like a rough day at work, particularly for someone who thought it was going to be a quiet day. And he did it all while dealing with a reporter in his mid-20s sitting in his car.


There are some 800,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. The vast majority of them are awesome. It is a really hard job. What made that Holyoke police officer put a black teenager who claimed an air gun was real in the back of a patrol car but a Cleveland police officer fatally shoot a 12-year-old black boy on a playground with an air gun? It’s a split-second decision, and, in some cases, it’s a whole lot of split-second decisions.

Consider the George Floyd case. The now-former officer had to decide to detain him, restrain him, put a knee on his neck and leave it there, and he had to make that decision over and over for a while, with three other officers nearby, keeping their safety and his own under consideration.

It’s widely believed (and, deferring to the experts on this, I’ll have to agree) that somewhere along the way the decisions were the wrong ones. He and his three colleagues were fired. In this case, it was probably racism. The now-former police officer charged in his death was known to go a little overboard on “African American nights” at the club where both Floyd and the officer worked security. Would the officer have made the same split-second decisions if Floyd had been white? We have no way to know, and every situation needs to be addressed as it comes.

Split-second decisions also depend on things like how much sleep someone got, what they ate for breakfast, how their relationship is with their spouses and kids, whether they got cut off in traffic on the way to work, and a host of other seemingly insignificant factors that pile up during the day. We also get what’s called “decision fatigue” — we make thousands of tiny choices during the day (what to eat, which route to take to work, which coffee mug to use, which sock to put on first), and for that reason, we tend to make more thoughtfully considered decisions in the morning (or in the few hours after we first wake up, for those people who sleep during the day and work evenings).

There are no statistics on how many interactions police have. It’s probably in the hundreds of millions a year. One site says police killed 1,099 people in 2019. Medical errors account for way more than that. And doctors, like police, are expected to protect us. But they don’t have the public, armed presence police have.

We don’t have good numbers on how many of those police-involved killings were of unarmed suspects; the same site says that, in 2015, police killed at least 104 unarmed black people across the country.

Not awesome, but is it a mark of systemic, racist violence? We do know that black men, especially, are detained, jailed and killed disproportionately to their population, which may point to something at least somewhat systemic. Comedian John Mulaney may have been going for a laugh in one of his specials when he declared that middle class white kids weren’t going to jail for marijuana while implying that black kids might, but let’s face it, it’s true.

The city of Cleveland — with the Tamir Rice killing in its history — is considering declaring racism a public health crisis. The city of Flint, Michigan — where even getting clean water has been a problem for years — has made a similar declaration.

I know I’ve been tossing around a lot of research. Let me make a couple of things clear: I believe racism is bad. I believe George Floyd’s death was avoidable. I believe George Floyd’s death was at least partially driven by racism. I’ll follow the experts on this one and say I believe George Floyd’s death was a homicide. But …

But it’s no excuse for rioting and looting. That’s not what the First Amendment is designed for. We have the right to peaceably assemble. We can do so loudly and forcibly. We don’t need to burn down businesses in our community and steal from them.

A tale of two cities:

In Charleston, South Carolina, on Sunday, the mayor set an early curfew — 6 p.m. — and told people to behave. There were 35 people arrested.

In Savannah, Georgia, on Sunday, the mayor joined an afternoon protest, set an 8:30 p.m. curfew, and told people to be safe. There were no arrests.

If you want people to behave like adults, treat them that way. Lead by example. We can do this in our communities. All of them.

I get that violence is born of desperation. But we can be better.

Back to that support net I mentioned 1,700 words or so ago, when we were discussing our quarantine situation, with lots of people on edge at home, out of work and missing human contact.

All nations are backed up by threats of violence. In some instances it’s more clear than in others. In some places you “disappear” for disagreeing with the head of state. In Singapore, you might get caned for petit theft. In the U.S., a traffic ticket is backed up, eventually — if you fail to pay, miss enough court dates and continue to drive and get caught — with jail.

We call ourselves the land of the free, but obviously freedom has limits. When the government tightens those limits, and then the people we trust to protect us cross lines, killing citizens, and redress becomes impossible, tensions will rise, violence is possible, and right now it’s happening.

You can’t sell the notion of a peaceful nation-state to citizens who feel like they’re losing their rights and their livelihoods, and who fear they are in danger of losing their lives.

We need our leaders — our governments, our police, our community organizers, our NGOs, our pro- and anti-organizations — to work together. We can’t do it with our current attitudes. And I really think it’s our attitudes we need to change. We are not each other’s enemies. There are enough resources for all of us. Let’s be responsible stewards of our society. Onward.



I was out for a walk with the kiddo and the pupper recently when I saw something that I forgot I hadn’t seen in a long time: A child was out on her own, exploring her neighborhood. She may have been around 8 or 9, I don’t know; I’m really bad at that.

When I was a kid, I used to grab my baseball glove and hockey stick, hop on my bike, and go meet up with James and Jason and Gerry and sometimes other kids and we’d play some pickup baseball at the elementary school (the had a large yard) and pickup street hockey at the Catholic school (they had a fire escape that was the perfect for a goal) and maybe we’d run down to the drug store for a candy bar and a soda and wander down the railroad tracks to see what was going on in the woods near the river.

We weren’t just out having fun, we were exploring our world. We were curious. Yes, we visited libraries. Yes, we read books. Yes, we’d watch movies. But the world outside was so much cooler than all the representative worlds we knew.

You don’t actually learn about frogs from Frogger. You learn about frogs from watching them, listening to them, picking them up and putting them down (and maybe dissecting them, but our 8-year-old selves weren’t sociopaths).

We’re in a much different world now. You can learn everything about frogs on your telephone. Right now you can only get descriptions of what they feel like and how they smell and how they taste, but I’ll bet we’re not too far behind at least one or two of those catching up with how they look and how they sound, which we can actually get very good representatives of in our pockets.

We might still take apart toasters or radios or whatever, but by and large, curiosity has come into the house and online. There’s no real need to explore the world around us. But aren’t we so much more interesting if we do explore?

I’ve been bemoaning our general lack of curiosity in this space for a really long time, much of it inspired by the likes of Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein and others.

But maybe I’d been traveling in the wrong circles, since there are clearly a lot of people who are curious about not just the world, but the universe. There are people interested in outer space and inner brains, in coffee and mushrooms and mountains and waves and cars and pandas and language and atoms.

And the people who are doing the most interesting stuff don’t spend most of their time looking at a screen; they go out and discover.

Curiosity is good for business. It’s good for memory. For productivity. For health.

Get curious. Explore. Turn off your computer and get outside. Notice stuff. Wonder about it. Go.

Learning in isolation

Learning in isolation

My daughter took her first unassisted steps over the past week, at about 16 and a half months of age. That’s later than some (average is about 15 months), but not considered delayed (which it would be at 18 months).

She was late to crawl with her belly off the floor; that came at around a year, right after we got a puppy. It turns out it’s easier to chase a puppy without worming your way across the floor.

My daughter had been walking holding onto a toy or wall or something for a few months, and for going on a month or so had been holding onto one finger while walking with my wife or me. I was getting a little frustrated, truth be told.

One of the things that our at-home time during the COVID-19 crisis is our local libraries are closed. With our daughter not in day care, her primary interaction with children her age has been at story time at the library, and at that age, peer pressure is great.

Without that, she doesn’t have an example of wee humans walking.

There is a girl about a year older than her up the street. She’s learning to ride a bike, so when we see her on our (very frequent) walks around the neighborhood, that’s usually what she’s doing.

And then, one day, we saw her walking around the cul-de-sac. In fact, she came over to pet the dog, and the dog knocked her down (she was fine, bouncing onto her bottom and right back up as toddlers do). Later in the day, our daughter took her first steps. She’d seen another person about her size (and age) walking, and she put it together.

Something else that’s happening a lot in our collective coronavirus quarantine is schools — elementary, middle and high schools as well as colleges and universities — are going online. Sure, plenty of college classes were already being taught online, but even classes that were meeting in person on March 10 were meeting online a few weeks later.

The teaching might be happening in a multi-user environment — students are learning at the same time — but the students are learning in semi-isolation. They can be “present” when their peers ask questions, but there’s not a lot of peer interaction, at least in a learning context. Once you move the conversation to text, Snapchat or whatever, I’m guessing the subject matter veers away from coursework.

For the grade-school and high school-age children, the learning environment is very different from what the vast majority are used to, and parents find themselves suddenly homeschool administrators without warning. For college students, on the other hand, the taste for distance learning among people who expected to have the in-person experience is so bad a lot of colleges and universities are being sued for tuition refunds.

Meanwhile, for those of us who have been in the working world for a while, the opportunities for learning on our own have abounded in the internet age. Yes, there are podcasts and YouTube, but there are also learning platforms like SkillShare, Udemy, The Great Courses Plus and Class Central, among others, some of which offered steep discounts or extended trials during the quarantine.

Of course, non-fiction books and audiobooks are also good ways for autodidacts to pick up new skills or become experts in topics they never studied in school (or only touched on).

While a lot of people who have been long-time readers and studiers and who take instructional courses for a specific purpose — say, to learn a coding language or how to install a water heater — have been learning on their own, it turns out that both learning and studying in groups is more effective than doing either on our own.

Going it solo certainly has some benefits — including self-pacing and limited distractions (or at least the ability to limit distractions) — but it’s not the way most peple learn best.

There’s an old proverb that goes something like this: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. It applies to a lot of things, including learning, at all ages. We are social beings, and we gain more from being in groups.

The role of sports in a post-fact world

The role of sports in a post-fact world

Note: I work in the news industry. Opinions herein are my own and are not endorsed by my employer.

If the world were “normal” right now, we’d be watching baseball. The NBA playoffs would be going on. The NHL would begin its long, slow march toward the Stanley Cup. Nobody would know anything about Bill Belichick’s dog. We’d be into Triple Crown season.

This past Saturday would have been the running of the Kentucky Derby (it will be run in September). I’ve never been to the Derby, but I’ve been to the horse track, and it is a supremely weird environment — so weird that it launched Hunter S. Thompson.

There are two distinct crowds at the track. One owns or rents covered boxes. They wear gaudy suits and elaborate hats. They sip bourbon — mint juleps specifically at the Kentucky Derby — and place bets and food and drink orders via a monitor at their box. The other drags coolers full of cheap beer and camping chairs in, places bets at windows with tellers or ATM-type machines and watches races on giant monitors; sometimes there’s a little bit of standing room in one portion at the bottom of the grandstands that house the boxes. They wear dirty jeans and sleeveless t-shirts.

The actual sporting event is a series of 2-minute sprints, run every half hour by horses carrying jockeys. The worst horses are either put out to stud, or, if injured, euthanized. The best horses get to run their sprints again in a few weeks. The jockeys, trainers and owners of the winning horses are celebrated.

But here’s something about a horse race: A horse crosses the finish line first. Sometimes it takes a camera and a second look to see who it was, but once the determination is made, that’s it. The rules are everyone has to wait until the gun to leave, you can’t do stuff like collide intentionally, and the first one across the line wins. Swale won the 1984 Kentucky Derby. Funny Cide won in 2003. Those are facts. If you argue that Funny Cide won in 1972, you’re wrong — that was Riva Ridge. If you argue that Michael Jordan won in 1984, you’re wrong. He is a retired professional basketball player, not a horse.

Bob Costas talks to Cal Fussman on Big Questions about sports and news and the current political environment.
If for some reason you don’t know who Bob Costas is, he’s been a sports commentator forever. Football, baseball, the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby — he’s done it all, and he has dozens of Emmys for it, and probably hundreds of other awards. And then at some point, he started adding commentary.

Maybe you don’t want commentary with your sports, but his commentary was always reasoned, thought-through and supported by examples. By facts.

The news media industry has changed a lot since I entered it a little over 20 years ago, and even more since I started paying attention as a kid.

I remember lying on our living room sofa in 1992 when the U.S. attacked Iraq in retaliation for that country’s invasion of Kuwait. We turned on CNN and watched the missiles fly live, the first time something like that was available.

The research on media influence through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s said that media told people what to think about, but not what to think. In nerd terms, salience, not valence. For example, we would talk about whatever was in the paper or whatever Walter Cronkite was talking about, but we as readers, listeners and watchers formed our own opinions.

I don’t know what the new research says, but it’s clear that some outlets are fans of teams (political parties) rather than watchdogs. There’s also this new thing happening with the internet. With unlimited news hole and sites getting paid for views, it behooves sites — regardless of whether they belong to newspapers, TV or radio stations — to write about whatever’s trending on Google, and to get it fast without independent verification. It also leads to a lot of story aggregation, wherein perhaps a site like TMZ reports something and then a reporter for another outlet writes a story about what TMZ said, without doing any original reporting.

The other thing this period in journalism has brought is a much wider competition. The newspaper in Buffalo, New York, used to only have to compete with the TV and radio stations in Buffalo. Now, that newspaper is also competing with other regional papers like those in Syracuse and Albany, as well as all the news outlets in Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Sacramento and everywhere else.

We seem to be in a post-fact environment right now. I’ve been writing about this since before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, but the reality is that truth has been politicized.

Remember alternative facts?

In his discussion with Fussman, Costas points out that you can argue about whether not playing against people of color boosted Babe Ruth’s stats, but you certainly can’t declare that Ruth wasn’t a good player. Much like the Kentucky Derby winners, there’s a truth to sports that isn’t subjective.

The return of baseball after 9/11 was the mark of some normalcy. David Ortiz declaring Boston to be “our fucking city” was the start of healing after the Boston Marathon bombing. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, pro sports are looking at a $12 billion revenue loss, but when they start back up, we’ll know things are on the way back.

And when things are on the way back, we know we’ll argue about Red Sox vs. Yankees, Tom Brady as a Buc, and all the other things sports bring. But we won’t argue about whether the Red Sox are a basketball team, whether Tom Brady is one of the worst quarterbacks to play football or whether ice hockey should be played on horseback.

Play on.

Time, revisited

Time, revisited

A couple years ago, I wrote this:

Time is always moving, but it doesn’t fly. It doesn’t even meander. It stretches and contracts and flows and fits into whatever mold you need it to fit into.

I called that post Tempus tabescet — “Time melts.”

A couple months later, I wondered if I was stuck somewhere else in time — my mid-20s, or whether I might be willing to take lessons forward.

The things that are behind us have shaped us, and continue to shape us. It’s up to us whether not only our tastes evolve as time passes, but also whether we continue to learn new things as we grow older.

I’ve recently read Present Shock, by Douglas Rushkoff. Summary point: This post publishes the morning of April 22, 2020, but if you’re reading it for the first time on the evening of September 18, 2032, it doesn’t matter that it posted 12 years ago, it’s new now.

In fact, everything is happening now. If you’re reading a book, the weight of the unread pages on the right shifts to the the weight of read pages on the left. Not so if you’re reading on Kindle (or your Nook or whatever): The completion numbers show, but it doesn’t really feel or look different. You’re always in the same place; only the words change.

As I write this, much of America has been under a stay-at-home order for a month or more. We’re coming on five weeks where I am. Time’s passing, but it seems to be going slower. I’m working my regular schedule. Our daughter is growing, developing. We walk the neighborhood a lot. There are fewer cars on the road. There are no planes in the sky. It’s peaceful. I hope we keep some of these things.

Time always moves at the same rate. We can decide how to measure it, or not. We can decide how to use it, or not. But it will march on. The Earth will keep spinning, and keep rotating around the sun. The moon will wax and wane.

While that’s happening, it’s always going to be now. You’re currently reading this sentence. Now you’re currently reading this one.

Make the most of your nows.

COVID-19 and the death of manufactured offense

COVID-19 and the death of manufactured offense

I don’t know when you’re reading this, but if it’s not long after it goes up, you’re probably still mostly sticking to your home. And if you’re doing that, you probably have a lot of extra time to find new ways to ignore the people you live with reflect.

I was part of a wave of high schoolers in the early 1990s who kicked off a wave of political correctness that, a generation later, seems to have run amok.

We by no means invented political correctness. It had been around since the Russian revolution, and waves of political correctness hit the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s.

There are two primary things I remember from our era:

(1) The flattening of race. Rather than “Chinese” or “Japanese” or “Korean” or asking, “what are you?”, our generation asked people to consider a term like Asian-American. At the same time, we struggled with a term like African-American, since not all people who present as black are of African descent.

(2) Recognition of females in Judaism. This is a lasting thing, by the way. Newer prayer books acknowledge the contributions of traditional matriarchs as well as patriarchs, though they try to skirt around the fact that the Hebrew versions of prayers use masculine words, so the translations also come out as awkward, saying “God” where “God” is the appropriate translation, but also where “Lord” and “He” are more appropriate translations.

We seem to have hit a different time in the history of political correctness, though, with many different recognized (and sometimes unrecognizable) pronouns and people with soft triggers and my approach has generally been this:

(a) I’m not out to hurt anybody intentionally. I’m happy to call you what you want to be called or not call you what you don’t want to be called, but don’t make me guess and if I mess up, just correct me.

(b) Actually, that’s it. Don’t hurt anybody intentionally, but if you’re hurt, don’t assume people were out to hurt you. Most of us are just dummies trying to live our lives.

I call this ability to be easily offended “manufactured offense.”

Here’s the cool thing about manufactured offense: We live in a time in which unintended verbal offense can be a central worry for some people! That means we’re worried about words, not tigers or Genghis Khan or any major threat to life and limb.

But this novel coronavirus has us behaving differently. We’re caring for our neighbors. We’re doing things to keep other people safe.

When we’re through this, I hope that people continue to not hurt each other intentionally, but I hope people who are easily offended start to realize they have bigger things to worry about.

Lift each other up, people, stay safe and keep everyone healthy.

Creation, adversaries and disruption: The War of Art, fundamentalism and humanism

Creation, adversaries and disruption: The War of Art, fundamentalism and humanism

In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield puts in terms of art fundamentalism and humanism.

I usually read the book once or twice a year, and this is the first time this particular passage has jumped out at me.

The main character (if you will) of this book is Resistance — whatever it is that is standing between the creative individual and the act of creating. Resistance could be anything from agreeing to meet your friends for the game to spending three hours at the gym to deciding on just one more nap or one more cup of coffee or — worst of all — waiting for inspiration instead of sitting down to do the work.

It’s certainly not the first time since I’ve been reading and re-reading War of Art that I’ve thought about fundamentalism or about humanism, but maybe we should look a little bit about what they are before diving into what Pressfield has to say about art (and by art, he means something creative — books, screenplays, sculpture, painting, etc.).

Fundamentalism, says, is:

1. (sometimes initial capital letter) a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam.
2. the beliefs held by those in this movement.
3. strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.

And since the definitions of humanism vary so greatly, including one that disavows God (while Pressfield specifically includes God), I’ll include only the first:

any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.

So, a fundamentalist is someone who subscribes to literal texts, while a humanist is pro-people.

“The fundamentalist (or, more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism),” Pressfield writes, “cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past.”

“Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive,” he continues. “There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted. He creates destruction. Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organization, are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and of himself.”


Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive.


I put extra space around that because it’s a good reminder that the narrower your mind, the less you are capable of.

It gets worse:

But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil One, seeking to seduce him from his virtue. The fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death.

Pressfield reminds us that the fundamentalists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center frequented strip clubs during their training, that their promised reward was to be a harem of virgins in heaven. They were most drawn to the things their teachings said were evil.


The fundamentalist puts his greatest creativity into the perfect avatar for the thing he most despises.


“The humanist,” on the other hand, he writes, “believes that humankind, as individuals, is called upon to co-create the world with God.”

What’s the difference? Pressfield:

While the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.

“When fundamentalism wins,” he writes, “the world enters a dark age.”

Where are we right now?

I love people. As individuals. As a collective, not so much.

We create tribes. It used to be important: we were resource-poor, inadequately defended and we needed to band together to prevent tigers from eating our babies, monkeys from stealing our food and other tribes from killing our men, raping our women and taking our stuff.

Now, it just gives us a reason to despise others for dumb reasons, like what they look like and what they believe. I’ve written and spoken enough about that in public forums. I’m not here to beat a dead horse.

But if you talk to individuals, you’ll find most of them are rational, generous and empathetic, even if they don’t have a lot of empathy. They are willing to share resources if you ask. They have reasons for what they believe, even if that reason is inheritance (“I believe this because my parents believed it”). They will help a person in pain.

So, if there’s a dichotomy between fundamentalists and humanists (it’s more likely, of course, that it’s a spectrum and there’s a lot of nuance and many other points along the way), I’m firmly on the humanist side.

I keep thinking about John Baldessari, who cremated his early work. This has been my Resistance point. I wrote about it a while ago. And a while before that.

I’m pretty good at destroying my bad art. In recent memory, I dumped a bunch of early tweets; maybe 27,000 or so. I cleaned out my Facebook profile. I axed a couple hundred subpar blog posts. I suspended my Instagram account. I ended my solo podcast.

You can prepare forever. But if you do that, you never actually achieve. That is Resistance.

I keep moving around the office furniture. Cleaning off my desk, letting it fill back up, cleaning it off again. This is Resistance.

I spend time tweaking the childproof-ness of the house. I crawl around and decide swap the card table and the chair, decide I don’t like it and switch back, then decide I liked the change better. This is Resistance.

Steven Kotler and several members of the Flow Research Collective are hosting a series of calls while we’re all quarantined.

During the first call, they discussed something a lot of us are feeling: cognitive overload. I think the term is self-evident when you hear it, particularly if you’re suffering from it. You get overwhelmed and — here’s the important thing — you never get out of the fight or flight response, which means your creativity is stymied.

Not only is that dangerous for creators, it also means that the innovators aren’t innovating as much, and we really need innovative solutions right now, not only as a global pandemic causes a lot of people to work from home and some economic issues, but also as we move into the future when more and more things will be automated and people will generally be out of work in favor of robots.

What’s your Satan right now? Are you putting your energy into crafting the perfect enemy? Is it a virus? A government? Your family? Are you putting any energy into an adversary? If not, good for you!

We need creators. We need art. We need growth. We need less adversity, less energy spent on running scared. We need the right kind of disruption. Go out and make.