Friday, November 29, 2019

Things I'm Thankful For 2019

Last year I got to thinking about the many things that I should be thankful for, but never have, mostly because they have kinda been off my – and most folks’ – radar.  More macro-level social elements that have helped to enable me and my family to have a life that we are indeed very thankful for.  So I did a blawg post, and since I  - not surprisingly – got carried away, I did another one.  Here we are another year hence and Thanksgiving looms large (especially with a coast-to-coast storm and a never-before-heard-of  “bomb cyclone” crashing into the West, which sounds good!).  Not surprisingly, since we were just in DC, a few of them are a bit history-intensive.

It’s no secret that the news industry is hurting.  And “hurting” may be a euphemism.  Major city papers around the country are a pamphlet of what they once were, and it’s clear from the plethora of ads for hearing aids, ED, adult diapers and living facilities that their target market won’t even be around much longer.  And yes, Ashley and I still rely on someone driving around in a car, burning gasoline throughout the wee hours of the morning to toss a physical paper onto our porch. Then we put it in the recycling bin with the other mostly-ridiculous social dinosaur of US mail and hope that the Chinese will be able to recycle it for us. 

But we do read the paper.  And it’s great. The Salt Lake Tribune – as it’s banner proudly proclaims – been around since 1871 and literally is an institution in the state.   Paul Huntsman (brother of former UT governor and presidential candidate, and recent candidate for guv again Jon Huntsman) was apparently inspired by Jeff Bezos who bought the Washington Post, but even families’ mountains of money aren’t enough to plug the dike, because recently the Trib went to a nonprofit model; the first “legacy” paper in the country to do so.  We’ll see how it goes. 

In DC we went to the soon-to-be-shuttered Newseum, which was incredible, and getting a historical perspective of how important newspapers have been throughout our country’s history indeed gave a lot of credence to the famous Thomas Jefferson quote:  “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”  
Paul Revere wasn't only a good horseman with a lantern, he was also a muckraker!  
and speaking of muckrakers:

There's no doubt that papers have had a big effect on history:
The movie "The Post" is a great version of this story that stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks
Now of course, with 24 hour news channels and a gazillion “news” outlets on the interwebs that have a clear social/political bias (for sure, bias has always existed, but it’s gotten turbocharged over the last 20 years) it has created a society that tends to clique together into echo chambers, but I’m pretty convinced that most reporters, papers, and news agencies are committed to honesty and integrity in their reporting, with newspapers perhaps being the last holdouts. 

The Daily Show

Speaking of biased news, the Daily Show has been a bit of an institution for liberals looking for someone to skewer…pretty much everyone for over 20 years.  To be sure, the Daily Show just another in a long litany of TV political satire:  the Smothers Brothers show got heavily censored and eventually cancelled for it’s unceasing criticism of the Vietnam War and the president:

and the classic “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live nearly defined satire news culture in the 70’s:
the actual sign that was used on SNL
and all the while the likes of Carson, Leno, and Letterman delighted legions of fans with their nightly opening monologues.  But it seemed like the Daily Show turned up the volume a notch with a creative, hilarious, and bold cadre of correspondents that in turn have gone on to successful careers doing more of the same themselves.  And while the likes of Carson et al seemed to be pretty much performing for laughs, Jon Stewart infused the (actual) fake news with a real passion that was reflected in his stories and the crew around him, and as such he and they seemed to transcend the blurry line between comedy, news, and social commentary. 
Trevor Noah had hugemungous shoes to fill, and Ashley and I feel like he’s done a great job at retaining the Stewart Spirit.  

Here are some other perspectives of Jon Stewart at his retirement:  

Michael Steele was a particular target of Jon Stewart's

as was Glenn Beck. 
And of course, someone who could never deign for a compliment or even a coherent statement:

Steven Spielberg
On the plane the other day I watched “Jaws” for the first time in….a longggg time (I remember reading the book when I was 10).  It’s still a great movie.  I was surprised at the end to see that it was a Steven Spielberg movie.  I don’t really know much about him as a person, nor really what he actually “does” (or, for that matter, any directors/producers do) but he’s been an integral part in a big handful of pics that have almost defined pop culture of those eras.  In addition to Jaws he did the iconic full-on entertainment ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Goonies and Gremlins, the Jurassic Park series, Back To The Future, Poltergeist, and Catch Me If You Can, yet in between he made the really profound Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Flags of Our Fathers, and of course many others (32 total).  One ancient classic that is a favorite of Brother Paul and I that I just found out is a Spielberg creation:  Duel.  Making entertaining movies isn’t necessarily a paramount ingredient of our existence, but the litany of movies that he’s done have added a fair bit to our social web. 

Daniel Kahneman (and Amos Taversky)

Some years ago I saw a guy named Jonah Lehrer being interviewed on a tour for his new book “How We Decide”, which I found to be pretty intriguing since  - as Ashley found in later research – we make something like 35,000 decisions a day, and making more “right” decisions out of those 35k might make for a better life.  It was a good book (tho Lehrer was later disgraced by plagiarizing – of all people – Bob Dylan in a subsequent book) and put me onto a bit of a binge of reading similar books, including Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, another unspellable guy’s “Flow”, and “Deep Survival (who lives, who dies, and why)”  Basically, I wanted to try to get a handle on my own decision making so that I wouldn’t make dumb decisions. 

I realized that a common name that kept coming up in those books was Daniel Kahneman.  Kahneman had won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2003 for proving a very simple thesis:  people do not act rationally.  Almost all economic models made the fundamental assumption that humans are rational and will always act in ways that will enhance their position.  However, anyone with a pulse or knows someone who has one knows that this isn’t true.  Kahnemann and his deceased buddy Amos Taversky basically just proved that and put it into terms that pompous economists apparently could understand and accept. 

But he didn’t stop there.  Basically, the Father of Behavorial Economics decided to put his life’s work into a tome for non-economists (and non-psychologists) called “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that puts our rational and irrational behaviors under a microscope and explains them very effectively, and kind of introduced the concept of “heuristics” (rules of thumb, based on previous experience, for right or wrong) to many people.  For my little world, Ian McCammon took the concept into the decision-centric backcountry ski/avalanche world (“do I ski this slope or not?  Will it avalanche or not?” and pretty much changed the avalanche education world. 

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” is a bit of a project, but I think – and many other folks who are far smarter than me would agree – that it’s the most important book ever. 

I of course got carried away on this "thankfullness" concept and have a coupla more, for another post later this weekend.....

Tuesday, November 19, 2019


"Freedom", as it appears on top of the Capitol building.  Do we really have it? 
Every couple of years Ash and I do a few days of very “normal” touristing where we check out the sights of a city, whether on a bike tour or simply going someplace to navigate the urban jungle adventure.  A few years ago we “did” Manhattan, and this past weekend we went to Washington DC, which I have grown to really like:  there’s so much interesting stuff to see and do, with so many reminders of American history that I learned long ago, augmented by a ton of important fill in history/info that I never learned. 

Our visit began with a visit to Congressman Ben McAdams’ office.  Four years ago I went to Washington to lobby for the Land Water Conservation Fund (which was temporarily scuttled by our awful rep Rob Bishop, but was then revived with permanent funding as part of last year’s sweeping and great lands bill).  Even though I wasn’t able to meet with any of the congressmen themselves (the pope was in town) I got a kick out of at least being in the offices and talking to the enthusiastic legislative staffers (who assured me that they had the ears of their bosses).  I came away from that trip with the righteous conviction that it’s pretty much incumbent upon us as ‘Merican citizens to try to meet with our congressmen if/when we go to DC.  So when this trip came around I reached out to McAdams’ office and got an appointment, and I had a great half hour meeting with Ben and an enthusiastic staffer about the goings-on relative to the potential Wasatch protection legislation and the “Recreation Not Red Tape” act. 

The rest of the weekend was spent visiting museums, socializing, eating, and hitting museums. 

One of these was the “Newseum”, which is a historical celebration of the First Amendment:

The First Amendment, carved into the wall of the Newseum

Being somewhat news junkies, Ash and I loved it, especially since one of the exhibits was of the Daily Show:
hanging out with one of her heroes

 One of the most provocative displays there was the map of the world showing freedom of the press:

Green means a very free press, yellow is sorta free, and red means state run press.  There's a lot of yellow and way too much red in this image.

Tragically, the Newseum is closing on December 31st.   For some reason it is not a Smithsonian museum so it’s not free, but despite this it’s had 10 million visitors over the last 11 years that it’s been open, but apparently that model was not sustainable.  It seemed so ironic that one of the thrusts of the impeachment hearings happening a coupla blocks is – at least, according to Devin Nunes – a function of The Media and its influence over our politics.  But the Newseum reminds its visitors of Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote:  “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”  It’s hard to not imagine that there’s something odd happening when a very popular museum in Politics Centrale is not supported and allowed to die….because the folks who could save it are the very ones that the museum is celebrating the exposure of. 

Even Reagan was a fan:

As I left the Newseum on our last day and headed west down the Mall, I reflected on our visits to the Capitol and the museums.  The Air and Space is always a great reminder of the race to the moon that America “won” with a mindbogglingly-difficult and sustained effort:  
the African American Museum is a comprehensive view of the bad (slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality) and the good (the zillions of contributions) of African Americans:

the Holocaust Museum is a profound experience and an all-too-vivid account of what happens when a country and a people go bad, and getting a Capitol tour is a vivid reminder of the ideals that our country represents.

Ash celebrating freedom!

On the way I went by the Washingon Monument at sunset:

Which is certainly dramatic, even if it’s a bit weird; it’s always struck me that GW was a pretty humble and practical guy, and “his” monument is very much neither. 

Further along is the World War Two Memorial, which has this engraved on the base of the two flagpoles:  “Americans came to liberate, not to conquer; to restore freedom and to end tyranny.”  As a guy whose dad fought in WWII (but didn’t like to talk about it much) it felt pretty lofty.  

 Therefore, as I approached the Lincoln Memorial I was feeling….not really “patriotic” per se, but maybe just happy that I was an American who has been able to have a very fulfilling life, in no small part due to people who have indeed sought to battle against oppressors, maintain freedom of the press, sacrificed their lives to end slavery and tyranny, and liberate the oppressed. 
pretty inspiring
I had walked up the steps, found the spot where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, and gazed back over the reflection pond to reflect, when I realized that there was a bit of a commotion going on inside the memorial itself.  It was jammed, and there was a woman speaking who was fired up and getting the crowd wound up as well.  I saw a sign:

Justice for Bijan

I felt sorta stoopid:  who was Bijan?  I know about Michael Brown (Ferguson), Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and others, but I didn’t know Bijan.  I didn’t have time to hang out and find out, so I left, trotting for the edge of the mall towards Georgetown.  At the crosswalk I waited for the light with a guy who also had a sign, so I asked him “Sorry to sound like a dunderhead, but who’s Bijan and what’s the story?” and he told me the tale.

Bijan Ghaisar was a young guy born in the US to an immigrant, and two years ago he was in a minor traffic incident near the mall that he drove away from (a misdemeanor) and was then chased by National Park police.  He stopped once and a policeman approached him with his gun drawn, and Bijan drove away, eventually hitting 57 mph in a 50mph zone.  He was pulled over again by the park police – who had left their jurisdiction, which is not allowed unless a felony has been committed – and as he again tried to drive away…..they shot him nine times, and then claimed they shot him in self defense.

Bijan was on life support for ten days and his family had very limited access to him.  He was taken off the respirator and died. 
Bijan Ghaisar, who was shot to death by U.S. Park Police in November 2017, at a picnic in April 2015. (Sima Marvastian)

Since then the Park Police stonewalled any investigation, with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke refusing to even release the names of the officers.  Two DC congressmen and Senators Kain, Warner, and Grassley have gotten involved and the FBI has it “under investigation” but earlier this month the Park Service issued an announcement that the two officers would not be charged (more details here).  Yesterday’s Washington Post had an article about the protest I saw. 

Suffice to say, the balloon of satisfaction with and gratitude for my country was popped.  Two hundred and forty years of “progress” that lasted through many wars and countless trials tribulations have resulted in….this?  The impeachment of an amoral president on one end of the mall and at the other end a protest for an unarmed guy shot dead by police for a misdemeanor, with the cops' superiors holding his family and any investigation at bay, with no regard for congressional pressure? 

I am not proud. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Elijah Cummings and integrity

There are 435 representatives in Congress, and with only a few exceptions, I know very few of them beyond Utah’s congressional delegation; for those names I do recognize, I usually can’t remember which state they represent.  However, there was one name I did know:  Elijah Cummings.  I knew that he had humble roots, had an oversized voice and personality, and was a fierce defender of those who didn’t have the advantages typically enjoyed by middle class American, both in his district and across the country.  I was impressed that this representative from an area that’s about as urban as they come was keen to visit Utah, and indeed enjoyed our canyon country and even a river trip on the Colorado; probably a big deal for a guy from inner-city Baltimore. 

On Thursday there was a memorial service for Congressman Cummings, and it was clear from the many luminaries present that he was about as well-respected as a member of congress can be.  I listened to a few of the eulogies, and was struck by a recurring theme encapsulated in one word that seemed to guide Mr. Cummings throughout his life and his congressional tenure:  Integrity. 

The dictionary defines integrity as:  The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.  Given this very simple definition, it is difficult to argue against this being the single most important characteristic for people to possess.  Someone may be highly intelligent, but without integrity that intelligence can be - and many times is  - used to manipulate people.  Someone may be very passionate, but without integrity, passion can becomes the annoying or dangerous zealotry of an ideologue.  Someone may be a world-class athlete, but without integrity, they risk losing the respect, adulation, and the riches associated with world-class athleticism.  Someone may have been able to assume a high level of political power, but without integrity, they create rancor, divisiveness, and distrust. 

These days it seems that the very concept of integrity is under siege.  Whether you agree with his policies or not, it seems clear that Donald Trump does not consistently exhibit “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, and moral uprightness.”  While Elijah Cummings was alive, Trump not only had no problem insulting him and his district, but also had the gall to call Cummings – who was black – a “racist.”  This was but one of the many insults and mischaracterizations that Trump has perpetuated throughout his presidency, and while this is “disturbing in the extreme” (as our oh-so-bold freshman senator might be inclined to say), what is more disturbing is that Trump’s amoral behavior seems to be trickling - or maybe even streaming  - down.  From Cummings’ fellow congressmen who continue to explain away or shrug off the President’s boorish behavior, to the Utah state legislature that vainly tries to convince the state’s populace that taxing poor people more and rich people less will be good for The People, to a rural Utah county that creates a ham-handed process to disenfranchise a large chunk of their voters, to the FedEx guy taking bribes, people seem to be more and more emboldened to forget their integrity.

Or are they?  Our mayoral election features two candidates that are similar in many ways, yet have different takes on solutions to our city’s issues. But both of them – and most of the primary candidates as well - have, if nothing else, shown that they are people of indeed “strong moral principles.”  Even Jason Chaffetz  - who has crossed the line of integrity plenty of times – was clearly quite sincere in his condolences for Congressman Cummings, since Chaffetz had notably worked closely with him and hosted him in Utah.  And there is no doubt that there are innumerable small, good deeds that are done for others in our state and across the country every day that go unreported.  Perhaps we have glimpsed the bottom of our moral morass, and there’s nowhere to go but up? 

Hopefully, this era is fleeting, and many of us – including, hopefully our congressional representatives – still have at least a small moral compass tucked away in our pockets that we can pull out periodically to ask - as Congressman Cummings often did: “is that the best that we can do?” and exercise the kind of integrity that this honorable man embodied.