I have fond memories of learning American history in grade school. There was something fascinating about the framing of our government, the struggles for equality, the innovation during the Industrial Revolution. There was a clear and obvious reason to feel patriotic about our nation. It seemed even more relevant in the midst of school desegregation.
Patriotism meant pride with humility. It meant we embraced our flawed and often tragic past, but reveled in our accomplishment to get beyond it. We were always a key player in a narrative that benefited a world greater then ourselves. We invented medicines, new industries, and defended friends from fascism and tyranny.
At some point, patriotism was co-opted to be something else. Humility was the first thing to go. Treating war and conflict like a sports rivalry replaced the reluctant gravity of causing death among our fellow humans. Blind flag-waving took precedence over engaged, intelligent discourse. Nationalism replaced patriotism as a means to divide and marginalize segments of the population. Patriotism meant you were with us or against us.
This is not what I learned in school.
Political apathy caused us to elect a reality TV show host, someone more obsessed with his own popularity than solving problems. This isn't normal, but what we've seen in the first week of his presidency has been extraordinary. I'm not referring to his actions, but rather the responses to them. The apathy has transformed into extreme engagement and protest. In fact, I would argue that this is the definition of patriotism that I learned in grade school.
I feel like what I've heard the last two years is that America has become a real shit hole. Obviously, a lot of people believe this. We have challenges, for sure. Technology is radically changing our economy and the labor landscape. Working people live in poverty. The environment puts our way of life at risk because of the way we disregard it. The renewable energy transformation is occurring too slowly.
Despite these challenges, we are still a nation that changes the world with our inventions. We launch and land rockets. We make the world's information searchable and connect friends around the world online. We make electric cars here. Some of the most brilliant scientists and medical minds live here. Perhaps most impressive, we invented devices, supercomputers in our pockets, that fundamentally changed everything about our lives. That's the extraordinary America that I know.
Socially, we continue to slowly erode our foundation of injustice. The hold outs of institutional racism are being identified and dealt with. Our LGBT friends can marry and enjoy the legal protections that match their love. Women are slowly having their rights codified, and the cultural admission of inequality is taking hold as a precursor to action. Religious freedoms are guaranteed but not given as a basis for legal discrimination. That's the extraordinary America I know.
With this week's actions by the president threatening all of this extraordinary progress, the people have found their patriotism. The time has come to take patriotism back, to send the message that we are better then this. Going on about how much we suck serves as an effective means to instill fear and establish control, but we're not having it.
Patriotism means standing up, with pride and humility, acknowledging our flawed past and fragile future, and demanding better. A better outcome that proves that "we the people" includes all of the people. That's the America that we were destined to be.
I've never seen people as politically charged as I do now. Maybe that's a good thing, because apathy is what led a minority (and by most measures, it is a minority) to gain power in government. The apathy has been getting worse for my entire adult life, so perhaps this the collective kick in the nuts we needed.
Regardless, there are several areas of our society that are bizarrely being painted as partisan issues, and that has to stop. It's particularly disturbing in just the first week of the Trump administration.
OK, this one I get why people make it political, because of a misguided sense of obligation to protecting incumbent industries and corporations (something ironically at odds with the desire for less government and regulation... because it's just the same government and different regulation). That's a horrible idea in terms of overall economic policy, because by protecting the incumbents and deincentivizing new industry, you leave those opportunities to someone else, probably China, who gains the first-mover advantage while the incumbents fail to evolve and die. You shouldn't need a degree in economics to understand this.
That aside, science cares not what you believe. You may not believe the sky is blue, but it still is. Nowhere is this more true than with climate change. One of the surprising side effects of this is that, after years of a GOP-run Congress, the states are starting to take matters into their own hands. California and New York are taking extraordinary steps toward securing their own futures in terms of energy and the environment. As Conan The Republican found in the NatGeo doc Years Of Living Dangerously, his own party continues to put the military and the nation at risk by suppressing science and rational energy policy. Inflexible ideology doesn't make science go away, it only leaves you on the hook for ignoring what is right in front of you.
More concerning now though is this insane effort to erase from the Internet the results of scientific study by government agencies. As a taxpayer, I paid for that research, and regardless of whether or not it suits anyone's agenda, I'm entitled to see it. That's what a transparent government does. I'll be watching Data.gov very carefully, because if anything changes there, my own political involvement is going to get extreme.
Science, you see, is not a partisan issue. As Webster puts it, science is "knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method." It doesn't matter who you voted for, the atomic weight of Nitrogen is still about 14, and it still makes up about 78% of our atmosphere.
The worst strawman I've seen this week is that women marching on Washington (and around the world) last weekend was totally unnecessary, because women are equal under the law. That's the most delusional thing I've ever heard. Equality in American history is funny like that, because even outside of the Jim Crow era, inequality that is not explicitly defined leaves room for implied, legal inequality. American history has in the long run been on the right side of this, but it's slow going. Our most recent victory in that sense is the recognition that same-sex couples are due the same rights as heterosexual couples.
This too, is not a left or right issue, but the reason that it becomes political is that the absence of explicit law allows for implied legal discrimination. I admit that the last year has been an eye-opening experience for me, because in the diverse field that I work in, and the diverse places I've lived, I don't fear people who are different than me. However, a vocal minority, now in power because of the aforementioned apathy, is trying very hard to codify their fears from people of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientation and, still, gender. I thought we were over this.
As anyone with even the most basic education knows, we all look pretty much the same when we peel off the skin and the human constructs that we apply to our identities. And even though I don't actively practice the Christian faith that I was brought up in, the most important lesson that I took from that experience was that we need to take care of our fellow human beings, regardless of any of the circumstances or identities that they possess.
Human decency is not a left or right issue.
But practicing human decency means being a lot more flexible in how we see the world, and it requires a great deal of courage to move beyond fear of the people we don't know or understand. Ask yourself, as objectively as possible: Are the people we appoint to lead capable of exhibiting that courage to move beyond fear and embrace human decency? Do you have the self-awareness to answer that honestly?
I'm not sure if I've written about it, but Planet Coaster came out recently, and I think it's a solid game. Like RollerCoaster Tycoon 1 and 2 from way back, I've played through the bulk of the scenarios, and now I kind of hang out in the sandbox to build stuff. It's pretty cool.
Simon, not surprisingly, also thinks it's cool. His playroom is currently occupied by an aging K'nex Serpent roller coaster, and a bunch of wood tracks, a Hot Wheels garage and countless cars of various sizes and shapes. Oh, and a bunch of Duplo blocks. Collectively, this is a "ride" that he likes building, and as is the case with actual amusement rides, he's mostly interested in the mechanics and procedure of the rides and not really the ride experience itself.
For some time, he was all about watching me build stuff in PC, but he wanted to try and do stuff himself. I'm not sure if he's ready for physics and how coasters work (my gut says challenge him and see what his almost-7-year-old brain can absorb), but he gets that he can drop a pre-built ride on the ground and build some paths to the entrance and exit. He also gets that he can do what the game calls track rides, which are things like cars, log flumes and the like. So I let him go nuts.
He dropped in some pre-built coasters that came with the game, or those that I saved, but otherwise, he managed to do some serious work as he sat there, going at it for six hours. He built a custom monorail, some car rides and a log flume, and a ton of flat rides and food stands. I wasn't sure how he would do, because navigating in 3D space with some weird mouse and button movements isn't very natural, but he did it.
In fact, he overdid it. When it came time for dinner, he was complaining about a headache, which isn't entirely surprising because I'm not sure he actually blinked during that time. I should probably have enforced a break. Still, I'm careful about how I limit his time, because I think that there is some developmental benefit there in terms of fine motor skills, problem solving, patience and focus. I also remember how adults were constantly treating me like an inconvenience or burden because I wanted to mess with their computers. I might be a little bitter about that.
We'll try to do the roller coaster physics, and see how that goes.
The march on Washington, and really all over the US and even abroad, was a wonderful occasion. This was a hastily assembled effort that came with an uncomplicated concern: That the civil rights of many people, and women specifically, are at risk because of the current sentiment in government.
Why is this important? First off, there is nothing more American than massive, peaceful protest. Democracy in this country has always been well intentioned, but even the founding fathers knew that "we the people" did not include all of the people. It's a legacy we still haven't beat, for reasons as violent as intimidation and legal as gerrymandering. This kind of protest is self-energizing and sends a message to those in power.
Second, it shows the importance of action. Anonymous social media activism isn't activism. Like and share doesn't mean shit in the greater scheme of things. But get like minded people out into the world, and things happen.
I've read some criticism of the march by people genuinely unsure about why it was necessary. For that, I was struck by a photo I saw of an elderly woman holding a sign that suggested she couldn't believe she still had to protest for civil rights. Indeed, it seems absurd to me that women still do not have an equal place at the table. It's not about butthurt over the election, but the amount of hostility toward the rights of women and minorities has come to a head. It's not OK to continue this way.
I'm proud of all the friends that went to Washington last weekend, or participated in other cities (including Orlando). I have to wonder if we'll ever get to a point where this isn't a political issue, and rather just something that is a result of basic human respect. It's easy to criticize the discontent when you have nothing at stake. That seems to be our cultural climate right now.
I realized today that, in my adult life, there have only been three presidents: Obama, Bush and Clinton. The elder Bush was president in my first two years as a voter, but he was elected prior to my turning 18. Looking back at those presidents, I remember being both stunned that Clinton could pull off a balanced budget, the only one to do it in my lifetime, while pissing away his legacy by humping interns. I didn't vote for Bush, but Gore and Kerry were not particularly compelling alternatives either. I still think that Bush is fundamentally a good man, but his obsession with going to war with Iraq, on what turned out to be false pretenses, will forever overshadow his service. There are no winners to pick.
Which brings us to Barack Obama. He campaigned on the promise of hope and change. In my lifetime, I've been struck by our inability to move beyond race, because as a kid growing up in the inner-city as a white minority, it has appeared absurd that racism is still a thing. Yet, in high school and college, I learned that not only is it a thing, but it's a strikingly commonplace problem. Indeed, just the election of an African-American president implied that we were finally over it. I could not have been more wrong.
So let's just go to the race thing straight up. Obama being elected as the first black president is absolutely an achievement of historic proportions. And I don't believe that it's something that just anyone could have achieved. He truly had the right temperament and appeal to make that happen. At times, "preacher" Obama delivered on the promise to inspire. It was something that we sorely needed more of throughout his presidency, in my opinion.
I'm not going to go through eight years of policy and pick winners and losers, but it was, at best, a mixed bag. Presidents, by nature of the structure of our government, can set agendas and have striking social and foreign policy impact, but getting laws passed requires congress. We know how that went. A lot of people will defend that kind of impotence with "but Republicans," but I think truly transformational leadership figures out how to get beyond that, and that's what I was hoping for.
He did OK on foreign policy. Getting the regular inspections and access in Iran was a big deal, and banning the use of torture was the moral thing to do. On the other hand, he never did close the Guantanamo prison, where we hold people indefinitely without charging them. Few things are less American than that. He failed on the issue of domestic spying until the Snowden leaks, and even then, his corrective action was inadequate.
The bulk of the economic metrics show we're in a better place than we were in the recession, but the speed of the recovery hasn't been ideal or all encompassing. I'm not sure if that's really a problem that government can solve. Politicians in general fail to define the problems correctly (hint: it's not globalization or trade affecting jobs, it's automation). Personally, I'm in no position to complain at all. I've been steadily employed since 2009 and doing well, but a lot of that has to do with my profession (which is, ironically, partly responsible for the aforementioned automation).
The thing that a lot of people are looking at right now though, in light of the election of Trump, is the way a president applies humility and decorum to the office itself. There is a dignity required of the office, and every man who has occupied it in my lifetime has possessed those qualities, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum. The Obamas were a classy family, for sure. The man rarely got too riled up, and he respected the office and institution of government, as those did before him. For that, he will be sorely missed.
How strange that almost two years ago to the day I wrote about the struggle with ASD-related flexibility that Simon has, because we're dealing with it a lot lately. The difference is that now the issues surround things more relevant to an almost-7-year-old. For example, when the tap water is much colder, as it is in the winter in Florida, you have to adjust the shower differently, and my boy freaks out when the perfect temperature is not achieved with the handle at the 12 o'clock position. He's getting better at cutting his food with a knife, but if he can't make a clean cut, he won't eat it. Similarly, if I don't cut a sandwich into fourths, it's inviting drama. The other day he freaked out when his bus was late, and the one that picked up the route meant he couldn't sit in "his" spot.
Now sprinkle in all of the typical stuff where an early grade school kid is just trying to manipulate a situation to get his way, and that's the world we're living in. Inflexibility is, at this point, the most dominant "ASD thing" that Simon deals with (though we're getting him tested for ADHD given some issues at school, which is frequently a co-occurring issue with ASD). The thing that I find difficult to keep in mind is that all things, to him, carry the same weight in severity, so while most situations are minor to anyone else, to him they are dire conditions.
This is something that, as a parent, I've not been particularly good at rolling with. I've been pretty wrapped up in my own world the last six months with work, contemplating life and what not to really think deeply about how to help Simon. This has led to some suboptimal fathering moments that usually involve me getting emotional in a non-helpful way. What I would like to do is find everyday situations where I can switch something up on purpose, and encourage him to deal with the change. I also try to recall situations where "plan B" ended up being an acceptable outcome. He wants the opportunities to make his own decisions, but the frustration can be epic when he can't arrive at the desired outcome.
Fortunately, he's making strides in other areas. Academically, math has really clicked, and reading is finally getting beyond recalling words and into actual comprehension (even if he hates doing the homework that works those muscles). I feel like we're just one step ahead, but we worry a lot about him not keeping up. I'm so grateful for his teacher this year. She's been super collaborative and really looks out for him, but letting him struggle when appropriate.
If there's anything I can really complain about with regard to my education, it's the lack of history. In high school, world history rarely got much beyond the crusades, and American history never got further than the Civil War. That leaves a whole lot out! I think I was fortunate though for going to inner-city schools, not just for the diversity, but for the fact that Black History Month was always taken very seriously, and it filled in a lot of blanks that about the civil rights era that I would never learn about later in high school or college. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day was not just a day off, it was a celebration of his legacy.
We're fortunate that this particular figure in history is one that really liked to write. We don't need to guess what he was thinking, because he wrote his thoughts down. Combined with writings to him, we have a remarkable record of what the man was about in a time where his leadership was so desperately needed. Of the many figures in American history that I wish I could meet, he's easily at the top of the list. His message was essential, and he put himself at great risk sharing that message. Ultimately, he paid for it with his life.
I often wonder if he would be thrilled or disappointed with the progress we've made since that time. After more than a half-century, it seems like his dream should be a reality by now, but I do understand that sometimes it takes generations for change to take hold. I have to remind myself that my great grandmother, who lived to be 96 and died when I was in high school, was born just three decades after the Civil War. We're still a very new nation.
I feel like the last few years have served as a harsh reminder that the brotherhood of man that Dr. King so passionately dreamt of has not become a reality. When I look at the worst parts of the Civil Rights era, I keep wondering where we can find those similarly charismatic leaders that will some day have monuments built for them in Washington. Where is our Dr. King?
It occurs to me, however, that maybe we don't need that kind of revolutionary leadership. Perhaps what we really need is for each of us to try to be more like him. Dr. King was committed to non-violence as a means for change. One of his core principles was to put love over hate in engaging with those who oppressed others. He believed that it was injustice that must be defeated, not people. That's a fascinating bit of nuance to me, because it truly means that you aren't out to take down others, but rather the symptoms of their hate.
I don't hate anybody. I'm strongly discouraged, and sometimes outraged, at the actions of others, but I can't hate anyone. It's just not an emotion that I have the bandwidth for. It's hard not to dismiss those people. But I'm starting to feel more strongly than ever that we, as a nation, are getting a little too old for the 'isms that have plagued us since before the Declaration of Independence was written. If we hold these truths self-evident, that all men are created equal, than let's start walking that walk, and talking the talk. If we can all do it, then we don't need another Dr. King to remind us.
The dream is long overdue for reality.
I'm in the process of hiring someone at work, and while I'm not going to sugarcoat it and say that it's an awesome and fantastic experience hiring software developers, I will say that there's something satisfying about meeting a bunch of new people and seeing the potential of how they may affect your life and your job.
I've said it a hundred times: You're only as good as the people you surround yourself with. I attribute my own success largely to the people that I've worked with. Sure, experience qualifies me to gather a team and handle all of the glue that makes it work, but at the end of the day those skills aren't super valuable without people who are really good at what they do. It's great to have people that you can learn from, and who are willing to learn. There's a kind of self-perpetuating energy that comes from those work relationships, and it absolutely comes through in the quality and value of the end product.
Those qualities in people are probably one of the highest influencers of job satisfaction as well. I worked very briefly some years ago at a company where every sentence started with "I can't" or "I don't know how," and it was a real drag. But the teams where I've enjoyed success have all been filled with people convinced that they can do anything (as time and money allows, at least), and those gigs always produce a natural high.
So right now, that's where I am, imagining a world where the right person fits in and creates that ultimate cycle of revolving awesomeness. It's a torturous process, but fingers crossed that it results in the aforementioned awesomeness.
It has been interesting to see the reaction to Meryl Streep's recent Golden Globes speech, which called out Donald Trump's behavior without even using his name. What she said seemed, to me, to not be something that most anyone could really be offended by. It could really be distilled to this:
And this instinct to humiliate, when it's modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.
On closer inspection though, it doesn't seem like it was the things she said that bothered people, it's that she said anything at all. The commentary was generally along the lines of, "She's an actor, she should stick to entertainment!" There's a bizarre double standard that we hold for our celebrities. When they screw up, we criticize them for not being role models. Yet, when they don't screw up, and in fact achieve things in their profession, we criticize them for speaking up. That's pretty weird, right?
But then, this seems to connect pretty well with American politics in the last year, and in fact Streep's point, that it seems to be increasingly OK to marginalize those who are different or don't agree with you. Disagreement is not the same as marginalization. It's not even a political issue. The economy, national security, whatever... it's all secondary when people in positions of authority use their words to marginalize groups of people based on gender, ethnicity, race, religion or sexuality.
I've been called out twice recently for speaking my mind, and accused of much the same thing. And sure, I'm basically nobody. But the one title I have that counts is father, and I take it very seriously. I have a child that is a little different, and while I'm the last person in the world who wants to hover around him and try to defend him from the bullshit he will inevitably encounter, it's important to me that he learn by example that the truth allegedly held self-evident, that all men are created equal, must not simply be a slogan. We have to stop rationalizing going after every person who isn't like us, because that's what it is.
I admit that since Medium was launched, I didn't get it. But I never really got Twitter either, the other thing that Ev Williams co-founded, and that's certainly useful to someone (in particular inarticulate politicians, it would seem). And if that weren't enough, I thought it was weird that anyone needed yet another blogging platform. Williams suggested that it could give a voice to people who wrote quality stuff with meaning. I still don't understand how or why Medium is better for that, because social media has a way of getting things people care about in front of people regardless of quality. People have to want it, and if they do, it doesn't matter where it lives.
Ugh, I feel like I'm writing a tear-down here, but I'm bothered by two things: Valley thinking and slightly misplaced ideas about the value of content.
Today, Mr. Williams announced they were cutting a third of their staff of 150, and closing two of the three offices they had, in Washington and New York. Now, if you're fans of the folks over at Basecamp, and have read Rework, then you know they're probably throwing some WTF's at the Ev-ster right now. Or they might not be, because moving their blog to Medium has been really good for them. But the company formerly known as 37signals has been ever passionate about bootstrapping itself, not taking VC money, not being in Silicon Valley and most importantly building a sustainable business over chasing an exit strategy. Their books are about questioning the nonsense, and I can't think of anything more ridiculous than opening offices in three of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. And also, having 150 people to build up a platform that, to the naked eye, is super pretty and clean, but lacks the functionality of LiveJournal 15 years ago.
I get that it has the feel of Instagram for words, but that's why I don't think it works. What's the business model? Long-form text isn't something you rapidly scroll through the way you do pictures, so even if they're trying to adopt Instagram's model, who wants to buy that? Beyond that, there seems to be a lofty goal of being super cool and intellectual and it'll make you smarter and all of that, but really, if I want that, why would I ever focus on one place to do so? It just seems convenient that Williams believes publishing on the web won't make sense in the long run, because, well, obviously he thinks Medium is the answer.
Here's the other thing that bothers me about his "refocusing" announcement. He really lays into the whole system of advertising and such, insisting that it doesn't serve anyone. And yes, that's a little ironic when he is simultaneously implying that they don't make any money. While it's certainly possible that advertising as we know it is not ideal, what I feel like he's saying is that all of the free love and exchange of ideas and information should happen for free. By now we should understand that isn't possible. Someone, somewhere, has to pay for it. I've been publishing stuff on the Interwebs now for 18 years (shit, I'm old), and there is a cost for everything whether it comes from ads, the exchange of money or whatever. Don't make this a moral issue. If I write the modern day version of the Federalist Papers, I'm sorry, but I'm not throwing away my shot. (#nonstop, y'all!) It's OK to make a business of distributing content, because that's the only business that Medium can be.
More than anything, content wants to be free. Medium wants to be a closed system. I get a ton of content about stuff that I'm interested in via an RSS reader and stuff my friends throw up on Facebook. It comes from a million places, and that's OK. That's what makes the web awesome, and I don't understand why we keep trying to "fix" that. We've seen that a closed system accessed largely by mobile app, like Facebook, can act as a gateway to that, but there's a reason that the Facebook "notes" functionality never really took off, despite most of the world having an account. Content wants to be out there. It's where the flavor is.
Years later, I still don't get Medium. And that's why I'm so publishing this there.
A former coworker posted a photo today of a piece of furniture that he made. I apologize if that sounds wholly unremarkable to you, because to me it seems pretty amazing. To take raw materials and create something is, I think, one of the most amazing abilities of human beings.
While I don't see any universe where you can argue that technology hasn't advanced human civilization (in a net gain sort of way), there is something to be said for making tangible stuff. My grandfather worked his entire life at a machine shop where he would draft machines, on a drafting board, by hand, and they would transform his drawings into things made right there. Some people value craftsmanship enough to pay whatever it takes to buy goods made by human hands, especially furniture. When you walk into an old building, especially a theater, and see the detail in the architecture and decorative patterns, you know that skilled people had to make that happen.
I admire people who have these abilities. Heck, it doesn't even have to be something glamorous. I was impressed when a couple of guys did some electrical work in my garage. I certainly don't have that expertise. It's kind of weird in our culture that we don't seem to value the trades the way we used to. I realize that a lot of the work is done by machines (and they don't get it right either, as a number of people in my neighborhood discovered when we had walls that weren't flat), but you still need people to assemble stuff, lay bricks, install pipes, etc. Those are important jobs, and the result of their work is the places that people live and work for many years after.
Making durable things isn't exclusively about the trades though. I might be selling my profession short here, but we don't make durable things. The Silicon Valley culture with billions of dollars being spent on yet another "app" or something isn't very interesting to me. Admittedly, my frustration in that case is less about the output and more about the goals, which is often to fund something until you can sell it and cash out. Those people think they're making "value" which in and of itself is not really a thing. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why I find Tesla so intriguing. It's a technology company, yes, but their business is to take raw materials in one door, and cars and batteries and solar panels come out the other door. They make stuff, with skilled people (and a lot of robots) doing the work.
So I tip my hat to people who make things.