Barbecue, Bonfires and Balderdash

Front Page, History, Opinion/Editorial

     Summer has arrived in South Texas, and if it wasn’t for the heat and humidity, it would be the best season of the year.  The long summer days provide ample time for outdoor activities such as fishing, baseball, swimming and of course, celebrating Independence Day.  As I write, I can almost smell the smoke of barbecue pits and hear the sounds of fireworks.  Flags are being removed from closets and are unfurled on lawns, in gardens, and along the beach shore.  It is a glorious day for our nation and our people, and it is a day worthy of the greatest celebration of the year.  John Adams, one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, wrote to his wife, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” However, John Adams was referring to July second because this was the day the Continental Congress approved a resolution of independence declaring the United States independent of Great Britain.  July 4th was the day the Declaration of Independence was signed; however, not everyone signed on that day.  The last person to sign the Declaration of Independence was Matthew Thornton, and he signed on November 4th of 1776.

     While John Adams was wrong about the date, he was certainly right about the celebration.  Independence Day has been celebrated annually since 1776.  In the New England states, it was the custom to begin the celebration on July 3rd with a bonfire, and towns competed to have the largest bonfire.  The largest bonfire recorded was made from wooden barrels that were stacked in a pyramid shape that was forty barrels high.  The custom is still practiced in some New England towns today.  In 1778, General George Washington marked July 4th with a double ration of rum for his soldiers and an artillery salute.  In 1781 Massachusetts became the first state to recognize Independence Day as a state celebration.  In 1870 the U. S. Congress made independence day a federal holiday for employees.  Today the celebration continues with picnics, barbecues, parades, fireworks, patriotic displays and of course, a big sale down at the Walmart.  And naturally politicians want to get in on the celebration and can often be found on Independence Day delivering political speeches filled with nonsensical rhetoric and balderdash.

     With all of the celebration, it is sometimes difficult to understand the significance of Independence Day or the Declaration of Independence.  However, in the preamble to the declaration, we find these words.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is one of the best known sentences in the English language and has influenced many other nations declaring independence.  The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is one noteworthy example, but it has been used with variation by many other nations including Venezuela, Liberia, Viet Nam, Haiti, New Grenada, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Rhodesia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, and others.  Despite the influence our declaration had on the world, it was our independence that was important, and it is our independence and our birth as a nation we celebrate.

     Too often our Independence Day is referred to as the Fourth of July or simply July 4th.  I think this diminishes the significance and causes confusion especially to younger people who are not well versed in history.  I am reminded of the college student who saw the Declaration of Independence for the first time and remarked, “How cool is that?  They signed it on the Fourth of July,”  Make sense of that if you can.

Until next time…

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The Ultimate Pillar of Success: Be an Existential DJ

Arts, Education, Front Page, Human Interest, Opinion/Editorial, Science

       Imagine the sheer astonishment of Leonardo Da Vinci if he were suddenly alive and flying in a 747 at 35,000 feet above the ground. Can you see his mind-body – all his senses – become arrested in a state of complete Nirvana? Can you see him gasping at the recognition and acknowledgment of the fact that one of his wildest luminary visions is now a reality. The nature of humanity, however, suggests that the sublime bliss of this experience is likely to dissipate by more than half by the time he sets foot on his return flight. The emotional return on the experience will continue to diminish with each passing flight until one day he will get on the airplane, shut his window, shut his eyes, and hope for a new dream to entertain him during the hours that follow.

         What happened to his awe? What happened to the ecstasy? This diminished return on experience is known as, hedonic adaptation (def. the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative life events or changes). It so happens that being awestruck is the key to being our best selves, the key to our inspiration, and the key to liberating our inner genius. When in a state of utter surprise, we are attentive, we learn more, we think and perform better. These behaviors define what it means to be in an ecstatic state of mind (aka – a “flow state” or “the zone”). Unfortunately, the more exposed we become to the goings-on of the world around us, the less surprised or compelled we are by anything that happens, and the less affected we are by the sheer magnificence that engulfs being a living, breathing human being.

          So how do we transcend the been-theres and done-thats of our adult minds – the banality of our everyday lives? Can we reverse-engineer the experiences that allow us to use our minds in the most optimal way and tap into our highest potential? Legendary observationist, Charles Darwin, said: “Attention, if sudden and close, graduates to surprise; and this into astonishment; and this into stupefied amazement.”

Charles Darwin resting against pillar covered with vines.

           But how many of us today have the attention span of Charles Darwin? And how, in a world where the patience to pay attention to any one thing is so rapidly in decline, can we mindfully slow down and focus for long enough to become interested? Might this not explain why children seem less and less likely to sit through a full-length movie, but prefer instead to watch YouTube?

 

       We know that our minds and moods are dictated by neurochemistry. After years of examination, science seems to have become fairly accurate in identifying scenarios that trigger the chemicals which cause us to feel, think, and act in the various ways that we do. So, if scientists can predict which chemical will be released during a given situation, then we should be able to – using a variety of methods – author our own neurochemical Nirvana. Timothy Leery obviously believed so. And his “trippy” method, though highly controversial and ultimately unsuccessful, is still very much in use today. MDMA, for instance, is being prescribed to PTSD and OCD patients on a regular basis, and in many of these cases is being reported to have, in one afternoon, the same effect of 10 years of psychotherapy. (And yes, I did just use 3 acronyms in one sentence.) Using drugs as tools or loopholes to alter our state of consciousness in search of ecstasy is no doubt a controversial topic. But perhaps, through a delicate and mindful combination of psychology, technology, and pharmacology, the future will allow us to engineer our own paradise, offering us the proverbial “red pill”, a super-drug that has managed to dispense the bathwater and reprieve only the baby.

      Pharmaceuticals, however, are nowhere near our only hope. Neurochemicals, after all, are stimulated naturally and require no drug whatsoever if the human in question is disciplined enough to seek the proper experience and dedicate himself to the time and patience necessary to become submerged in said experience. For some, such ecstasy may be rendered through a specific artistic endeavor, or by spanning time in some natural or designed heterotopia; outer vastness reflects inner vastness, after all. Others might meet their hedonistic needs through meditation or Yoga, or maybe through an extreme sport where the risk of danger or injury is present. Personally, I haven’t found a high quite so exhilarating as that of leaping from the top of a tall cliff into a deep, glassy body of water. Though it is a very short rush, facing the fear of what I perceive in the moment (accurately or not) as falling to my death leaves me feeling completely alive.

 

       No matter the method, bliss and sublime well-being are consciously achievable and are not limited to fleeting moments which lie outside of our control. The final frontier has been said to be outer space, but I would contend that perhaps there is a final-final frontier, one which consists of our own inner space. You don’t need to be a “flow-junky” or a philosophical hedonist to aspire to have the key to your own happiness and your own gift of genius. As Brain Games host, Jason Silva, puts it, “Ask yourself: What makes me feel alive? What gives me the goosebumps? What makes me well up?” When you have the answer to these questions, make note of the surroundings – both those which lie without as well as those which lie within. Nail down the formula, and then, like a DJ with all the tools at your fingertips, tweak and tailor each component. Mix, match, and harmonize your own Nirvana.

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Futurism – Is It Natural to Become More Man-Made

Front Page, Opinion/Editorial, Science

     In an age where smart phones are visibly evolving to become a part of our hands, and during which we carry more knowledge in our pockets than we can hold in our heads, we must take pause and ask ourselves: What is the real meaning of natural selection? What will our species become in the next 100 years? 500 years? Are we turning science-fiction into science-fact? Will the future be less about building robots and more about building ourselves into robots?

future 

     I was listening to popular futurist, Ray Kurzweil, speak about the exponential growth of humanity as it relates to technology, and he posed an example regarding books. His idea is that books and learning take too long (a fact I have always recognized). Soon, we will be able to link our brains to the cloud and access every book we ever wanted to read but didn’t have time to do so. The information will just be stored in there for us to reference while at work or during casual conversation. Imagine the pattern association involved in having so much information readily available. Imagine the infinite possibility that would result from such exponential growth of knowledge. The 1980’s hit, Short Circuit, may have gotten it wrong when Johnny Five blazingly flipped through book after book, absorbing “input”, as he so famously called it. There will be no need for turning pages. We will simply plug in and connect to input. No longer will there be issues surrounding a lack of information, but only the problem of deciding which information to use and how best to use it. This, of course, is just one mind-blowing example from the utterings of futurists like Mr. Kurzweil.

     Oddly enough, at least once a day, I look at my 12-year-old students at school as they obsess over their smart phones, and I fear the years ahead. As I watch them, my predicting mind envisions a future that looks more like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy than that of the one imagined by Ray Kurzweil. My inner-monologue goes something to the effect of: “Our devices make us dumber because they do all the work, and do it so fast that careful thought is rendered unnecessary, and we are left with too much time on our hands and not nearly enough productive ways with which to fill it, meaning we will end up spending our days eating junk that rots our guts and watching rubbish that fries our brains…” Okay, I just became my mom between the years of 1987 and 1997 (I was a part of the MTV generation, after all).

kids-on-cell-phones

     Perhaps Kurzweil’s vision will play out in the reality of those who are driven, and Judge’s vision will play out in those who are not – thus creating the largest ever divide between those who are smart and those who are stupid (I am purposely avoiding the use of politically correct language in order to avoid confusion).  Sooo… should extremist egalitarians stop supporting technology in order to prevent any such divide and revive the hippy-communal movement of the Sixties where everyone gave up their technology and their possessions (and their jobs), and spent their days in Golden Gate Park indulging in Timothy Leary’s chemistry experiment which turned hate into love, love into confusion, and confusion back into hate? I digress…

     The truth is, like it or not, technology is growing at an exponential rate and is shaping our lives in the same way. Tools are meant to extend our reach, and if used appropriately, do so. When we imagine extra-terrestrials from some far-flung galaxy in deep space being so far ahead of our own evolution that they have mastered interstellar travel, a little piece of us smiles inside at the sheer wonderment of what could be. Much of what is impossible today will become the reality of tomorrow. And the astonishment of our imaginings will not be so astonishing when such dreams come true because they will do so as part of a natural and practical process. When I think back to being 8 years old, imagining the day I might hold a phone to my ear in a red, white, and blue corvette (it was definitely the 80’s), I laugh because we have actually reached the point where holding a phone to your ear in a car is not only possible, but has been for so long that we have learned it to be dangerous, and thus, have made it illegal. What a big thing I thought I was dreaming at the time, but when the day came that I could actually drive and talk on a phone at the same time, I wasn’t so astonished because the change occurred gradually and in a way that made good sense. When I was 8, my imaginings were more magical, more fantastical. An emotional letdown perhaps, but it doesn’t change the fact that my wildest childhood dreams became child’s play reality in less than 20 years. If the curve continues as it has, who knows what I stand to see as an old man.

     When I think of what is natural, however, technology and its astronomical progression does not immediately seem to fit the mold. After all, natural, we are taught, is that which is not man-made. But is it not natural to evolve, to build tools that allow us to build more tools, and to use anything we have at our disposal to see as far as we can at any given moment?  Yes – the tools, like the times, they are a changin’ – but the more things change, the more they tend to stay the same. Apart from the tools themselves, is anything we are doing really so different at the core? Two-hundred years from now, there will be an entirely new population of people on earth, all with better tools that will allow them to build even better tools, and my mind lingers around the idea that they, too, will be dancing around the same thoughts that I have today.  Perhaps the new natural is building devices that aid us in becoming more assured in our health and more advanced in our minds – more “man-made.”  Of course, this all assuming that we as a people do not suddenly decide to settle where we are with the tools we have and stop moving forward.

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Brexit: Good or Bad?

Business, Corpus Christi, Front Page, Government and Politics, Opinion/Editorial

https://i0.wp.com/s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/d0/53/4f/d0534fff31b0c64c7110bbe1594aac06.jpg?resize=332%2C191&ssl=1

     Donald E. Westlake was a supreme sensation when it came to writing the Comic Caper novel. His most famous work features a character by the name of John Dortmunder, a criminal mastermind, and the world’s unluckiest crook. In 1972, The Hot Rock, Westlake’s first novel in the Dortmunder series, was adapted for the big-screen with Robert Redford leading a team of lovable losers on the quest to steal a large diamond from an alarm-less museum. Dortmunder, fresh out of prison, is approached by his brother-in-law with his first opportunity to do what he does best: plan (and fumble) the big score. In the following quote, Dortmunder weighs the pros and cons in order to rationalize his inevitable acceptance.

Dortmunder
It’s good, and it’s bad. There’s a guaranteed return, and that’s good. But the guarantor is Amusa, and Amusa’s a rookie, and that’s bad. But it’s an easily transportable object, and that’s good. Only it’s in a rotten position in the museum, 30 steps to the quickest exit, and that’s bad. And the glass over the stone, that’s bad too, because that’s glass with metal mixed in it, bulletproof, shatterproof. But the locks don’t look impossible, 3, maybe 5 tumblers. But there’s no alarm system, and that’s the worst, because that means no one’s going to get lazy watching, knowing the alarm will pick up their mistakes. Which means the whole thing has got to be a diversion job, and that’s good and that’s bad, because if the diversion’s too big, it’ll draw pedestrians, and if the diversion’s not big enough, it won’t draw that watchman…

Kelp (the brother-in-law)
Dortmunder, I don’t know where the hell you are, or what the hell you’re saying. Just tell me, will you plan the job?

Dortmunder
[pauses, then smiles] It’s what I do.

    This article, however, is not about the fictional blunders of John Dortmunder, but rather, the Dortmunderesque rationale that may be applied to the recent panic surrounding the current state of affairs in the EU as it relates to Brexit. In the attempt to cover the pros and cons of this epic bit of world news, let us take a moment and compose a monologue channeling an inner-Dormunder as we assess the “good and the bad” of Brexit.

     First, we should retain a few important facts surrounding what seemed at first to be an otherwise unlikely departure. Ladbrokes.com, a gambling website, recorded the largest betting turnout for any political event in UK history in the days leading up to the vote. Odds landed at 4 to 1 in favor of Bremainers, meaning that a 100-dollar bet in favor of the UK remaining a part of the EU would trigger a mere 25-dollar profit. On the other hand, a 100-dollar bet on a successful Brexit would score 400 dollars. In other words, the money was on the wrong side of truth in lopsided fashion. Basically, few, including PM Cameron, believed that the democratic process would result in a majority of UK voters who no longer wanted to remain under the wide-spanning wing of the European Union. But why did people not foresee the outcome of the election? And more importantly, why did the majority vote as they did?  Certainly this is no black and white issue, and surely there must have been some sort of voter rationale, shouldn’t there?

     Back to John Dortmunder: In order to address a possible rationalization, let’s allow Dortmunder to be our voice of reason. It would go something like this:

Dortmunder

It’s good and it’s bad… There is a guaranteed immediate return in that we save 13 billion pounds per year in EU membership costs, and that’s good. But even though we currently split our profits, and more importantly, our losses with 27 other countries, we now will be forced to depend on our own economy, which means our losses will rest sorely on our own shoulders, and that’s bad.

But it’s a large shift away from the fear of globalization and the apocalyptic dread of those who foresee a trend toward one-world government, and that’s good. Only we are in the rotten position of being the first major nation to exit, which could possibly trigger others to follow suit, and while watching the dominoes fall seems like it could be good, it is risky. It is unclear how much resentment and general backlash we could endure from the countries who will inevitably blame us for starting the exodus… and that’s bad.  And the possibility of other countries voting themselves out, in the near-term, that’s bad, too, because the union as a whole could capsize, and then trade becomes as volatile as a pregnant woman in a salami shop.

Each country could, however, secure its borders in the waking onslaught of a refugee crisis and increasing terror strikes, and that’s good… But then international travel slows down in Europe with Customs clearance checks at every border. And right away, a general malaise and uncertainty will set in, and that’s the worst, because uncertainty causes panic, and panic will drive the market through the floor at a time when we need our currency to be at its strongest. Which ultimately means that in order to save 13 billion dollars per year, we will have to live with the hefty risk of a European domino-effect and the potential disarray that such an effect could have on the global economy – and moreover – the European banking system.  And if banks begin to fail, we will no doubt be staring down the barrel of an ensuing bailout which is sure to cost UK taxpayers far more than the 13 billion we will save by going it alone.

But, by ultimately going alone, we are choosing a path of freedom, which is also good and bad, because while we are free to forge our success in any way we see fit, we will also be free to fail, which is particularly scary because not only would we suffer, but we’d be forced to swallow our pride and turn back to the union for help.

Let’s face it: freedom costs, and only time can tell whether or not we as a people truly have the salt to absorb and endure such costs. After all, some find it easier to live under varying degrees of oppression in exchange for varying degrees of certainty.  

https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/160624_inv_howbrexitaffectsyou.jpg?quality=75&strip=color&w=1100&resize=423%2C254

     Now, did the voters really process the potential risks and rewards as Dortmunder would have? With a whopping 72% voter turnout, there is no way to tell for certain, but consider a few statistics and make of them what you will.

  • The average age of a person living in the UK is estimated to be around 40.
  • Of the 72%, 52% (17,410,742) voted for Brexit; 48% (16,141,241) voted against.
  • 36% of all 18-24 year olds voted; 64% stayed home.
  • 75% of the 18-24 year olds who voted, voted against Brexit.
  • 56% of 25-49 year olds voted against; 44% for.
  • 44% of 50-64 year olds voted against; 56% for.
  • 39% of those 65 and older voted against; 61% for.
  • 34% of voters with a high school education voted against; 66% for.
  • 71% of voters with a college degree voted against; 29% for.
  • 43% of The Conservative Party voted against; 57% for.
  • 69% of The Labour Party voted against; 31% for.
  • 73% of The Liberal Democratic Party voted against; 27% for.
  • 7% of The Independent Party voted against 93% for.
  • London led the way for regional Bremainers with 60% voting against Brexit.

      In the U.S., 75% of Republicans, 72% of Independents, and 59% of Democrats supported Brexit, a polling that is actually more lopsided than that of UK citizens. Now, I am not going to go to any great lengths to make heads or tails of all these statistics (readers will do that for themselves), but I will note two glaringly obvious trends:

1) The older the voters, the more likely it was that they supported Brexit.

2) The higher degree of education, the more likely it was that they supported Bremain.

     Furthermore, it is important to note that Brexit is a non-binding referendum that can only take effect 2 years after the announcement is made that they want to leave. In the time between now and then, there will be new elections, and of course, a potential retraction of the referendum. In the wake of the media firestorm and mass hysteria over Brexit, many are concerned as to how much of a global effect this will have on trade and the economy in general.

     In the first two market days after Brexit was voted in (6/24 and 6/27), the Dow dropped by a whopping 806 points, the global market declined by an estimated 3 trillion dollars, and the British pound declined in value by 10%. Why? Uncertainty. The market hates surprises, and those who invest in it, are notoriously unable to resist the temptation to act in response to their panic when events like Brexit occur.

     A financial advisor friend of mine in Corpus Christi who has made his living for well over a decade by following and predicting trends within both the national and global economic sphere had the following to say when asked about the effects we can expect to see following Brexit:   

“Brexit should affect European markets more than our own.  Globalization has created a flat and interconnected world, but Americans are not likely skipping their morning Starbucks because Britain decided to exit the European Union. The bigger risk lay in Europe.  Investors should pay particular attention to the European banks. These banks are the bobbers floating on the economic pond that offer the best glimpse of what may be lurking beneath the surface in Europe.  Stocks are leading economic indicators.  In other words, stocks usually change before the economy as a whole follows suit.  Major European bank stocks are trading at prices below the March 2009 low created by the US financial crisis.  By comparison, domestic stocks (S&P500) have rallied over 150% during the same time frame.  This disconnect between appreciating domestic markets and declining European bank valuations existed before Brexit.  The British vote did not cause the disconnect; it exacerbated it.  European bank stocks were among the hardest hit after the vote.  A week after Brexit, domestic stocks have rallied to previous highs.

“The European Union was born under the premise of reducing political tensions between countries that had been at war for the better part of the twentieth century.  The fundamental issue is that monetary union without political integration acts as a potent recipe for further political instability.  In the US, if one state experiences an economic downturn, it has the political (and monetary) support of the federal government.  By contrast, Greece is a member nation of the EU with unemployment nearing 25%.  When the country recently asked for monetary support from the EU to help the Greek government pay its sovereign debt, the EU required Greek austerity measures in exchange for its assistance.  German citizens decried publicly that their tax dollars were not collected to bail out Greek misfortunes.  Herein lies the problem.  Without substantial political power at its center to tax and control fiscal policy, the EU finds itself at an unenviable inflection point.  It can either evolve into an even closer union, where its leaders are voted into power to protect the interests of the European economy at-large.  Or, other nations can follow the British example and divert to the land of drachmas and francs and solid borders.  

“The European Union’s epitaph has yet to be chiseled into history.  Brexit represents the first shot across its bow.  Time will tell if this vote is a death knell to the union or a diagnoses that instills the necessary change for its survival.”

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Father’s Day: Reflecting on Dad Is Reflecting on You

Around the State, Corpus Christi, Education, Flour Bluff, Front Page, National Scene, Opinion/Editorial, Personal History

Robert and Matthew Alike

     Roughly a billion dollars is spent each year on Father’s Day. It isn’t surprising, however, that when the holiday began in 1910 it was not widely celebrated. My dad always said holidays had gotten out of control and that, more than anything else, they best served to line the pockets of greeting card companies. I tend to agree with him. A family newspaper, however, is not the place to attack the gray areas of capitalism that surround celebrating holidays such as that of Father’s Day. Instead, I’d like to address that which I imagine to have been the more altruistic platform upon which such a day was invented.

     When sons and daughters reflect on their mothers and fathers they are forced to either face a mirror image of themselves, a bundle of flaws they hope never to possess, or the plain and simple fear that the person they see is one whose high water mark is seemingly unreachable. When I look at my dad and consider the most important things he tried to put in me, I sometimes find myself withholding a bit of fear that I may never level up to the mark. If I had to narrow the intangible principles that were stressed throughout my upbringing to a Top Five, they would rank as follows:

Number 5:  Flexibility: “Don’t be too particular about every little thing you do. Nobody likes being around somebody who always has to have their way.”

Number 4:  Toughness: “Whatever ails you may hurt right now, but it won’t last forever. Suck it up and keep moving forward. It’s the only way.”

Number 3:  Big-Picture Thinking: “Don’t get so hung up on little things that you find yourself incapable of zooming out and seeing the big-picture. And don’t get so hung up on yourself that you forget to tend to the little things.”

Number 2:   Humility: “If you’re ever good enough at anything that it is worth talking about, you won’t need to speak a word of it yourself. Everyone else will do it for you.”

Number 1:  Counting back from five, the first four could be easily summarized with quotes I heard time and again throughout my entire life. But number one isn’t so much a quotable phrase or sentence. My dad wasn’t necessarily big on gushy words about how much he loved my sisters and me. He tells us he loves us, sure, but more than anything else he constantly shows us a greater affection of unconditional love than any son or daughter need expect. Take, for example, the time he made an 8-hour roundtrip to Austin just to install a garden fence while my wife and I were at work because he heard her complain once that the chicken-wire she installed was falling down. By the time we got home, we didn’t find him, just a sturdy new wooden fence bordering the garden. Or, there was the time he heard me mention that I wanted to build a table top to set on a tree stump from a tree that “fell” down in our yard. A month later I drove into my parents’ driveway for the Christmas holiday, and the topper was leaning against the garage, built solid and to perfection by my father’s own hands.

table

     The examples are endless, much like that of Dad’s watchful and caring disposition. And when I consider who he is, I find – that more than anything – I am forced to consider who I am. Do I add up? Would he be proud? Should I be proud? These are the questions that pass through my head.

     How about you? Your dad? What can thinking about him teach you about you?

     Happy Father’s Day to all of you dads out there. May your weekend be relaxing and your children be thoughtful.

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Dumb and Dumber Economics: A Middle School Guide to the Federal Debt Crisis

Front Page, National Scene, Opinion/Editorial

DUMB and DUMBER

     As a history teacher, my job is to spin all kinds of otherwise dead-and-gone facts into middle-school friendly topics.  I suppose you might say that my interest in creativity is not only spurred on by a love for the arts, but also from the day-to-day challenge of turning boring information into relevant and interesting lessons for teenagers.  The curriculum this week in 7th-grade Texas History landed my classes on “The Principles of Republican Government”, a rather riveting subject that almost always opens the portal into Ben Stein’s high school Econ course in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Republican Government”, mind you, is not meant to be the lopsided view of politics that it has become in the adult world, but rather a factual study of the type of government that was so intricately constructed by our Founding Fathers.  As part of the teaching, students are required not only to identify the principles that make-up a republic, but they are also required to understand the strengths and potential weaknesses of said principles.  When writing a lesson plan, I always attempt to call on my right-brain with the hope that it might prevent my left-brain from hijacking the classroom and turning Santa Anna’s Siesta into a History Alive! project, complete with desk-drool and a scathing red-mark on the forehead.

     As I sat thinking about all the points that needed to be covered, my brain stumbled (or digressed) onto the problem of national debt, a pickle all too pertinent to our republic. Being a movie-lover, I was immediately reminded of Dumb and Dumber.   Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne have an arguably fortuitous run-in with a briefcase full of cash – ransom dollars, “blood money.”  Lloyd and Harry have no idea that by holding onto the briefcase, they are putting their lives in danger.  Instead, they celebrate their good luck with a run of brash and unbridled spending.  New suits, new cars, a new life on the rise… Lloyd and Harry hit it big and weren’t looking back.  But, how would they repay the owner of the briefcase whose money they had “borrowed” and spent? “IOU’s!”

Lloyd: “That’s as good as money, sir. Those are IOU’s. Go ahead and add it up. Every cent is accounted for…”       

     “Every cent is accounted for,” he assures. Ironically enough, Dumb and Dumber were echoing the same thing Uncle Sam has been echoing to the American people for decades. In fact, every cent to the tune of nearly 19 trillion dollars is accounted for.  What does that mean as far as repayment goes?  Nothing. A s of the time of this writing, the U.S. government is set to collect 3.4 trillion dollars in revenue in 2016.  The federal budget is slated to cost roughly 3.9 trillion dollars, adding about a half-trillion more dollars to an already unfathomable debt crisis.

US-national-debt-GDP-graph

     While the latest figures are in fact an improvement when compared to previous years (e.g. 2010 deficit: 1.29 trillion dollars), there is no solution in sight, and no presidential candidate or any other elected official is talking about this Herculean elephant-in-the-room.  Instead, they continue borrowing money from a wide variety of cash sources, not the least of which includes printing new money through the Federal Reserve (also known by its American euphemism: “quantitative easing”), an action resulting not only in the devaluation of American money, but one that also accrues debt for the number of dollars printed alongside the interest charged by the fed for the printing service.

     As a lover of history and the arts, I realize I am the diametric opposite of a mathematician, but you don’t exactly have to be Euclid to see that America’s budgetary model is designed for failure. As the 2016 election closes in, the U.S. will wrap up one of the most interesting presidential races the country has ever seen.  And while it is difficult to back any candidate for fear that he or she may be leading the electorate astray, I find myself more and more inclined to focus on the economic issues, looking for the person who seems most fit to redirect the methods with which we collect and spend money.  While certainly debatable and important, most weighty social issues, tend to trail behind the primary impetus for governmental policy: money.  As goes the economy, so goes society (for the most part).

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PlanCC 2035: Gambling with Tax Dollars

Corpus Christi, Flour Bluff, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial

PlanCC

Upon reading the didactic fable regarding Plan CC 2035 – “The Story of a Smart Plan Gone Awry” – I was reminded of a pair of quotes:

 

          “A politician is a person who will build you a bridge where there is no river.” – Nikita Khrushchev

          “Being a politician means having the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next  month, next year… and having the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.” – Winston Churchill

     Ironically, the idea that politicians so frequently create both false predictions and false promises is apparently not one that is exclusive to Americans. Mr. Khruschev, after all, was the Soviet dictator who headed up the Cold War for Russia and was dedicated to the spread of Communism throughout Southeast Asia and Cuba.

     As for the fictional story of a young couple who falls prey to their own ignorance, it does a great job in illustrating a natural progression of life and reminds us that our wants and needs will change alongside our age and the circumstances under which we live. As a first generation millennial, born in 1980, I understand that many 20-somethings (and in some cases, 30-somethings) will continue to share an infatuation with “downtown living.” Cities like San Francisco and Portland (both mentioned in the story) are growing in population each and every day, and those who move to cities like these certainly are not doing so because they want to live in the suburbs. Moreover, the urban-dwellers who live in these types of cities tend to tout their chosen locations precisely because the downtown area provides for a style of living that is as practical as it is pleasurable. While statistics show that most people still ultimately prefer to own homes outside of the city on larger plots of land, cities with downtown attractions are exploding: Austin, Fort Worth, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, San Diego (to name a few). And although many of the millennials who account for this surge in downtown living will move away from the city as they grow older, another crop of young people will surely move in and replace them.

     One major problem for any city is the art of prediction and planning for the rate of growth that the city can expect to endure. It is difficult to know for certain how many people will move in, how fast they will show up, and what types of consumers they will be. New companies turn up and trigger new visitors, new residents, and new types of business. Together, these things shape and shift the culture of a given place. Because such changes are not exactly predictable from 10 or 20 years out, building a “smart city” with high-rises that reach for the sky in the attempt to force development of a downtown before there is demand for any such development may not be so smart. If high-rises are what people want, a profit-motive will emerge – and so will the high-rise.

     The city of Corpus Christi is not growing at any supreme rate and has not done so for many years. Since the year 2010, the Corpus population has risen by some 15,000 people. When considering the massive influx of new Texans moving to the state each day, it is clear that the Coastal Bend is not carrying the same degree of gravity as that of central and north-central Texas. Moreover, the largest portion of the growth that Corpus has experienced has occurred from the outside-in, starting with the suburbs.

Population CC
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

https://i0.wp.com/res.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/img/census_cities.jpg?resize=385%2C561

population of texas

     Although Plan CC 2035 may not qualify precisely as “smart growth”, it does lay the ground work for a city that is pouring tax dollars into the development of the inner city while attempting to shrink urban sprawl and the expansion of suburbia. Certainly such a method of development has been happily embraced by the citizens of cities such as San Francisco and Portland. However, in a city like Corpus Christi, a key weakness in smart growth mentality becomes accentuated as the local government engages in a combination of prediction (the key concept in the fable) and money-spending, which is more recognizable by its other description: gambling. Of course, when the government gambles, they do so on the dime of taxpayers.

     Under its current conditions, the city of Corpus Christi shows no signs of demand for a plan that aims to eventually cut into the expansion of suburbia. In fact, based on the small growth that has taken place, there appears to be more of a demand for suburban life than anything else. Unfortunately, when a city starts down a path like that of smart growth (or any other prediction-driven policy), it falls into a pattern of attempting to fulfill the needs of some (e.g. those who prefer to live downtown) by sacrificing the needs of others (e.g. those who prefer to live in other parts of the city). In the case of Corpus Christi and Plan CC 2035, the needs that are being placed on the chopping blocks are those of the majority. Worst of all, the majority has remained silent because they are largely unaware of these potential changes and the lasting effect they could have on them, their children, and their grandchildren.

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You Just Thought Anti-Uber Policies Place Restrictions on the Citizenry and Free Market!

Corpus Christi, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial

uber-serp-logo-048389ae0a

     For over a month, Corpus Christi has been up in arms over the policies governing taxis and ride-share companies. Why?  According to those who work for Uber, use Uber, or just like the name Uber, cities across the nation are killing freedom of choice when it comes to calling for ride.  The topic of taxis and TNCs has dominated local council meetings, set social media on fire, and forced friends on opposite sides of the issue to part ways.  I find it odd since most people in Corpus Christi drive their own vehicles everywhere.  But, something is looming over this city that could create more restrictions in the way we live than anyone can imagine.  That something is PlanCC 2035.   If you like the freedom to build in an area you choose, want to retain the few private property freedoms you currently have, prefer driving the vehicle of your choice, and want to see taxes, city debt, and utility costs decrease or remain static, then you must pay attention to what is about to happen in this city with the comprehensive plan, the law of the land that governs what the city will allow us to do with our land. 

     If you want to know more about this plan, I encourage you to attend the Planning Commission meeting tonight (April 20, 2016)  at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall to hear for yourself what could be in store for all of us if this plan goes into effect.  If you haven’t read the plan, please do so.  You should read and compare the existing 1987 Plan, PlanCC 2035, and Councilman Chad Magill’s PlanCC 2036.  Then, read what citizens from other cities have said about the smart growth (aka sustainable growth, new urbanism) plans and how they feel the elements of these kinds of plans have bound them one little rope at a time.  Note:  Watch this VIDEO of Congressman McClintock talking about the effects of “smart growth.”

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Related articles: “Free Market Not Quite So Free”

                             “1987 Comprehensive Plan Is a Classic”

                             “A Map Is Worth a Thousand Words”

                             “Is PlanCC 2035 the WISE Choice for Corpus Christi?”

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Chicago, 1855: Digging Down to Reach New Heights

Corpus Christi, Education, Flour Bluff, Front Page, Government and Politics, National Scene, Opinion/Editorial, Travel

The stories of Corpus Christi battling its streets problems reminds me of another story…

Chicago River Clark Street Bascule Bridge
Chicago River Clark Street Bascule Bridge

     A man who was passing through Chicago discovered another man buried to his neck in mud. “Sir, it appears you have a problem. You must need some help,” the passerby said.“No, thank you, I’ll be all right. I have a fine horse beneath me,” the man in the mud replied.

    People have proven many times over that while under the influence of necessity and behind the power of many, a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. As the old adage goes, “Together, we can move mountains.”  A brief look to history shows us how Chicagoans demonstrated the truth of this idea during the mid-19th century. Only they weren’t moving mountains; they were moving the entire city!

     At the time, Chicago was young – a mere 20 years – and it had a severe drainage problem. Streets became impassable in wet weather. Chicago is situated along the southwestern edge of Lake Michigan – a body of water the size of a small ocean.  The elevation at the time was essentially no different than that of sea-level. Besides being an annoying living condition, health and sanitation issues quickly became a major concern. The people needed an answer if they hoped to see their city grow and reach a point in which it could eventually become home to nearly 3 million people and one of the tallest skyscrapers the world has ever seen.

    After several failed attempts to plank over the streets and redirect standing water into the river, the Chicago Common Council (i.e. City Council), behind the plans of E.S. Chesbrough, determined that the only hope was to manually elevate the city (anywhere from 4-14 feet, location pending) and install the country’s first comprehensive storm-sewage system to solve the drainage quagmire and ensure the city would not become a permanent cesspool and breeding ground for cholera.

     A solution of such extreme measures, however, stimulated a greater and far more interesting obstacle: How in the world would they lift a city full of large buildings, homes, hotels, and not to mention – people – 14 feet in the air?  Enter George Pullman. Pullman developed a method employing hundreds of men turning thousands of jack screws beneath building foundations. Over the course of two decades, they jacked buildings up like cars (many with people still inside them) so that new foundations could be successfully poured beneath them, leaving both the city and its structures permanently elevated. Smaller homes and businesses were placed on rolling devices and wheeled to new locations. The streets were then leveled up to new heights to meet the level of front doors. New sewage drains were installed and designed to run from the streets down to the river and lake in an amazing effort which lifted Chicago from a wasteland of sludge.

     A report by the Chicago Press & Tribune in the March of 1860 issue:

“The entire front of first-class buildings on the north side of Lake Street between La Salle and Clark streets is now rising to grade at the rate of about twelve inches per day. It will be at its full height by tomorrow night, when it will constitute a spectacle not many of our citizens may see again, if ever, a business block covering nearly one acre, and weighing over twenty-five thousand tons resting on six thousand screws, upon which it has made an upward journey of four feet and ten inches.”

 

Raising of Chicago
The task of raising the Briggs House, a hotel at Randolph and Wells Streets, in 1857 involved the coordinated efforts of hundreds of workers. During the raising, the hotel remained open for business. (Chicago Historical Society)

     Cities, they say, develop a persona of their own, all of which is nothing if not indicative of the spirit of its citizens. Ultimately, when problems arise, people become faced with choices: accept your collective fate, ignore the coming future, or act accordingly. Mid-19th century Chicagoans proved early that they were determined to create the possibility that their city might eventually become the megalopolis that it is today. Little did they know that shortly after they were able to ascend from the squalor of sewage, the citizens of Chicago would be faced with yet another test in 1871, The Great Chicago Fire.  This time they would be forced to ascend from the ashes.  Ultimately, the people, like their story, now belong to the ages. But, such as any good anecdote – if remembered and studied – it can offer deeper answers for particularly troubling problems of the present. Perhaps Henry Ford said it best: “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”

 

Chicago_River_from_Lake_Street_bridge
Chicago Today: Chicago River from Lake Street Bridge

Articles about Corpus Christi streets:

Takin’ It to the Streets: A Highly Qualified Committee

Takin’ It to the Streets: A Man with Questions

Takin’ It to the Streets:  Addressing the Status Quo

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Confidence, Fear, and Patience: “A General Theory of Creativity”

Arts, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial
Original artwork © Matthew Thornton
Original artwork © Matthew Thornton

     Ever been so sure of an idea that you rushed through it on impulse, overlooked something small (or big), and proceeded to watch your idea come crashing to the ground? Worse yet, ever wanted to create something that you were afraid might not amount to much if seen by other people, so you decided never to begin? Or what about that time you knew exactly what you wanted to produce, took all the necessary steps, and then watched in surprise with everyone around you as your idea came full circle from concept to reality? If the answer is no, stop reading here and go to a library or a museum, or anyplace at all that might fill your soul with a whisper of a thrill or a spark of inspiration. If, on the other hand, the answer is yes to any or all of the preceding questions, then I have one more question for you: Have you ever wondered why your creative undertakings succeed or fail, and how you can ensure that your next idea will come to fruition?

     Creativity exists in the narrow fracture between confidence and fear, a place where patience holds the reins and gives us the courage not only to forge ahead, but also the acute awareness of when to slow down. Mindful rousing and taming of your creative inner giant is developed through artistic patience – a skill requiring a conscious awareness of purpose, a self-reflection of habit, and the most recalcitrant element of all: time.

Original artwork © Matthew Thornton
Original artwork © Matthew Thornton

     Confidence, though wildly desirable, has the nagging ability to produce a self-righteous voice in our heads: gas-pedal to the floor, eyes on the horizon, all the while neglecting the side and rearview mirrors. Anyone who has felt it is sure to be addicted to the high of feeling unbridled certainty. Unfortunately, what goes up must come down. Without the lows, after all, highs would be indistinguishable. Pure confidence, therefore, rarely produces our most creative selves.

Original Artwork © Matthew Thornton
Original Artwork © Matthew Thornton

     Fear, on the other hand, produces nothing short of a well-armored fortress of excuses, telling us we should wait for ideas to strike, for resources to appear, and for acceptance by the masses. Worse yet, fear not only cripples creative impulse, but it also has the sneaky ability to transform in such a way that falsely spins our angst into the image of patience. Fright tricks us into telling ourselves, “It’s okay… Take your time… Don’t act too fast.”  Make no mistake; this is not real patience.  It is the proliferation and paralysis of fear.

Sun Worshiper © Matthew Thornton
Sun Worshiper © Matthew Thornton

     Unlike the extremes of confidence and fear, creative patience settles our minds in such a way that not only fuels confidence but also seeks and destroys fear; it pushes us forward without allowing us to act in haste. Ironically, it is the moments during which we feel the most sure that we might need to slow the cart, and the moments during which we feel the most fearful that we should forge ahead.  More time and more tools do not equal more freedom, more productivity, or necessarily even better quality. In fact, real freedom is found in limitation, which means that with the correct mindset, having access to fewer resources and less time can often lead to both more and better results. Creative patience spurs us into taking the time to figure out why and how we should create something, and then, without rushing or skipping steps, creating it.

     Don’t wait to start until the ideas strike; strike until the ideas start. Don’t wait until you have the tools to build; build with whatever tools you have. And above all – don’t fall slave to trends of the majority. Go the other way. Be a misfit, make your own rules, and remember that creativity is a result of lifestyle and habits. So shape your thoughts and actions accordingly and make your ideas become reality.

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