Monthly Archives: October 2013

Red October

The Red Sox won the World Series last night in a 6-1 home game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

So, that’s pretty great.

But since everyone else is already talking about that, I’d like to write more generally. About why baseball is great.

It is, I like to say, a game of suspense.

I grew up in a big baseball family. In Oakland, CA the A’s were my home team. I have many fond memories of going to the park as kid.

Waiting in line for hours to get a free Miguel Tejada bobble head doll. Getting there early to watch batting practice. Memorizing the roster. The batting averages. The ERAs.

When Jason Giambi played for the A’s, Crazy Train was his entry music. They used to play Darth Vader’s march if we were up around the 8th inning, but I can’t quite remember the rules for when they did that. I used to always lose at dot racing.

And I never felt more patriotic than when I heard the national anthem before a game, and few things feel more communal than a rousing round of Take me Out to the Ball Game during the 7th inning stretch.

Baseball was also an affordable pastime growing up in Oakland. Average people could go to games regularly. I used to go with my whole family. Aunts, uncles, cousins.

I love Fenway, but the first time I went – with my Grandmother for a Red Sox/Yankees game – we dropped $50 per ticket. And this was pre-2004 series victory. Almost sounds reasonable given what I’d expect to pay for a comparable game today, but still a far cry from the $1 Wednesdays back in Oakland. It’s a shame.

To be clear, I am a Red Sox fan. It was a long and difficult transition, but after 13 years in Massachusetts, I got there somewhere along the way. I haven’t watched an A’s/Red Sox game in 13 years though. Too painful.

And finally, I can’t talk about baseball without a shout out to the one and only Richard Delaney. My late cousin and fellow Oakland resident, Richard used take me to games with his family somewhat frequently. But he was also a…somewhat opinionated radical labor organizer.

And whenever I think of baseball, I think of Richard Delany complaining about the wave.

At the ball park one summer day, the energized crowd started doing the wave. I was pumped. Everyone has to work together to make it happen. And it goes round the stadium. An artful human force.

Richard was not pleased.

After a rough back and forth, Richard finally looked at me dead on and said:

“Don’t you know it’s just a capitalist conspiracy to create pliable people through the illusion of collaboration?”

I hadn’t known that. But now I do. I guess.

And I still love baseball.

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Wealth migration

I spend a lot of time thinking about gentrification.

Poor and/or working class communities begin to develop a hip vibe. College grads not ready for the suburbs move in. Artists can afford the rent. Start up business can afford the low capital costs as well.

Pretty soon, everyone wants to live there and folks from that community can’t afford to live there any more.

But gentrification is a complicated story.

Sometimes it’s called revitalization.Sometimes there’s high crime and no jobs. Sometimes a community needs a little something to make it better. Sometimes that’s what the residents want. Sometimes the residents who leave a community are cashing out – glad of the retirement plan secured by their now-valuable house.

I’ve always looked at gentrification from within the view of my communities. Somerville, MA is rapidly gentrifying. Parts of Oakland, CA are gentrified and other parts…could use a little revitalization (I say with love).

But what does gentrification look like on a larger scale? Where are all these new people in my community coming from and perhaps more importantly…what happens to the communities they leave behind?

A recent paper, Why Has Regional Income Convergence in the U.S. Declined?, which I saw presented by co-author Daniel Shoag, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, got at this question.

Shoag compares state-level economic snapshots over time with an eye towards understanding how people migrate within the U.S. over time.

I won’t go through his math in detail here, but essentially he argued that in 1960, a state where you could earn 1% more for your work cost 1% more to live in. And that was true across job and skill types. This created income convergence as people from all classes migrated to “wealthier” cities.

Comparatively, in 2010, a state where you could earn 1% more for your work costs an average of about 2% more to live in. This leads to “skill sorting” as “high skilled” (white collar) workers move to wealthier areas while lower income workers move out.

Shoag traces this all back to the increase in housing regulations of the 1970’s – leading to dramatically increased housing costs in “wealthy” cities.

That’s doubtless a piece of the puzzle, though I’m not sure whether it’s the ultimate cause. Either way, though, it’s important to think about this greater sorting happening around us.

In Somerville, MA poor people might be getting pushed out, but in Flint, MI they might wish for such “revitalization.”

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Times have changed

On the news this morning, a commentator was decrying children’s overuse of computers, television, and all manner of electronic devices.

The concern was brought on by a new study out from Common Sense Media. Here are some numbers for you:

  • 72% of kids have used mobile devices
  • 38% of children under 2 have used a mobile device
  • Children’s average daily use of mobile devices has tripled since 2011, and is now at 15 minutes per day

Now, if I were a parent, I might indeed find this concerning. I’d probably appreciate the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new guide on how to create a family media plan. Most families, it would seem, believe children should have rules. So whether it’s a curfew or a media plan you’re into, I am not here to judge.

But, I would say, the world is not ending.

At least not because of this.

Hearing the commentator talk about how things were “back in his day,” only makes me roll my eyes. Whenever anyone complains about how society is rotting and how modernity has sucked all sense of humanity from us, all I can think is:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.


The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today…

Written almost 80 years ago by Cole Porter, those lyrics are from, you guessed it, Anything Goes.

To be fair, there are plenty of people who think society’s been rotting for more than 80 years. Many theorists trace the curse of modernity back to the Enlightenment or thereabouts. When science made us lose our souls.

But that is a subject for another day.

The point, today, is this: create whatever guidelines work for you and your family, but blustering about how technology is draining our children’s brains does nothing. I have survived radio, television and video games and no doubt plenty of others have emerged unscathed as well.

Calm down and buck up. I think we’re going to make it.

It is a shame, though – back in my day, the world was perfect.

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Villains always blink their eyes

When I was a child, my father made a joke about Holly from Miami, FLA. When I didn’t get it he, like any good father, made me listen to some Lou Reed.

I don’t think that’s how most people were introduced to this musical legend who passed away over the weekend, but, I guess, that’s what happens when you grow up in Northern California.

Years later, when I first saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I identified with Hedwig’s fictional story of growing up with his head in the oven. Listening to Walk on the Wild Side.

I never did that, but it certainly felt that way sometimes.

As if the whole world would melt away. No troubles or concerns. Just the music. The beauty and the sorrow.

Incidentally, I don’t think I can mention Hedwig without commenting that my first job out of college was running lights for that show. Also, I still laugh at the line:

I got kicked out of university after delivering a brilliant lecture on the aggressive influence of German philosophy on rock and roll entitled “You, Kant, Always Get What You Want.”

But I digress.

On the news this morning, someone described Reed as the pessimists’ response to the optimism of hippies. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I can see where it comes from.

His music can be dark and gritty. It can be tough and uncomfortable.

But it’s also beautiful.

Lou Reed taught me that people are often not what you expect, that you should be whoever you are, and that life is hard…but that’s okay.

To live life fully, you’ve got to take the good with the bad. Just experience. And be. Live. Love. Lose.

What else is there?

Some people, they like to go out dancing
And other peoples, they have to work (Just watch me now!)

And there’s even some evil mothers
Well they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
Y’know that, women, never really faint
And that villains always blink their eyes (ooh!),
And that, y’know, children are the only ones who blush!
And that, life is just to die! 

(Sweet Jane, The Velvet Underground)

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Fiction Friday – the call

Last week, I started Fiction Friday, a futuristic film noir. Below the story continues.

Also, I perhaps should have warned people that my fiction tends to be dark. There’ll be some light moments coming. But, I fear, not today.

***
The world was empty. A gnawing pit. Sinking. Darkness. He can’t begin to describe how he feels.

Feel. The word was wrong. He felt nothing. He felt confused. Why would someone play such a cruel joke. His mother had called him. Tears in her voice. So convincing. But it couldn’t be true. It was a joke. A terrible joke. It didn’t make any sense.

Because it wasn’t a joke. He knew that, but he didn’t. It wasn’t a joke. His mother had called to tell him. She wouldn’t make that up. His brother was. Was. He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t think it.

The police must’ve been wrong. That was it. His mother was confused. That’s why she’d say such a thing. It was all a hoax. Or a misunderstanding.

Mitch’d call any second. With some story. Some explanation. Something.

It couldn’t be true.

But it was.

Was.

Gabe shook himself and looked around. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he got off the phone. It felt like a life time.

He looked up as his wife came back in. A sad smile. Comfort in the cold darkness.

“Talked to Reyes,” she said softly. “She’ll let the foreman know. So. You don’t need to worry about work.”

They sat in silence.

“I’ll start packing,” she breathed. “We should head out in not too long. Should be with your family.”

Family.

He should be with his family. He should.

But he couldn’t. Not any more. His family would never be together again. He’d never be with his brother again. Never see his brother again.

His brother. His brother. His brother was.

His brother was murdered.

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Career motivations and social outcomes

In public service work, does it make a difference whether a person is motivated by personal, career goals or by altruistic, social goals?

Well, I don’t know. But it’s a really interesting question.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear Nava Ashraf, Associate Professor, Harvard Business School, speak about her recent paper “Do Gooders and Doctors: Evidence on Selection and Performance of Health Workers in Zambia.”

In Zambia, there’s a great shortage of health care workers. The government is actively recruiting for these positions and has a particular interest in providing good training and career development opportunities in order to build an infrastructure of health workers at all professional levels.

These positions also have a meaningful social motivation and are critical to improving the health of communities.

This dual goal on the part of the government provided a framework for testing applicant motivations and outcomes.

Working in 48 Zambian districts, Ashraf and her team advertised for health care workers using two different approaches. In half the districts, job announcements focused on the career benefits of the position. In the other half, announcements focused on the community benefits.

Perhaps more interesting, the hiring committees were also part of the experiment – in the “career” districts, hiring committees only saw the “career” oriented announcement, in the “social” districts they only saw the “social” advertisement.

So, what happened?

Well, the two pools of candidates were fairly similar. The “career” pool was slightly more skilled (as measured by test scores), but the pools were the same size, contained equal numbers of women, and showed similar results on a range of psychosocial tests.

Following interviews and hiring, the pools changed. Higher skilled people fared better in the social group – equalizing those finalists with the skill range of their career counterparts. Women were more likely to be hired by the social group – skewing what had been equal pools.

Ashraf theorizes this is an expression of social bias – that hiring committees saw women as better suited to social vocations but not to careers.

So the two groups go off, train together for a year, and then begin working in the community.

The main job of these health workers is to do home health visits. But, Ashraf found, workers from the social group completed significantly fewer visits than their career counterparts. Instead, it seems, they spent more time on paper work.

Now, number of visits is an imperfect measure of success. There’s no data about the quality of care or patient satisfaction. But Ashraf is quick to point out that the primary job is to see clients and record health data – so the mere count of clients is still a valuable assessment tool.

The career-oriented workers, she argues, are better at their jobs.

Interestingly, Ashraf doesn’t draw this out to a general conclusion about the worth of career-oriented verse social-oriented people.

Instead, she puts this idea on it’s head – what if, she asks, advertising the unexpected aspect of a job is what brings in the best candidates?

Healthcare, you could argue, is intrinsically socially motivated and often perceived as such. Therefore, advertising it in a career-oriented way brought in better candidates.

If you took a position that had the opposite reputation – one where people automatically thought of the career benefits – and instead advertised the social benefits, perhaps then you would get better employees for these jobs as well.

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Nobody

One of my blog posts from earlier this week has received over 200 views. Not so impressive in the grand scheme of the Internet, but still, more than I would have expected.

People I don’t know have read it.

Earlier this week I happened to speak with a young woman in a meeting. “I feel like I’m in a room with the most successful people ever,” she told me. “I don’t know if I should speak up – what could they learn from me?”

To me, it was obvious that she should speak up. It was obvious that her voice was valued. It was obvious that her voice should be valued.

I told her that. I’m not sure she believed me.

But she spoke up anyway.

Similarly, I find it impossible to imagine that 200 people could possibly care what I have to say. Even if they clicked on the link and decided it was terrible – for at least a moment they saw something of value.

I say this not as a cry for help or to fish for praise, but too give voice to something everyone experiences.

We’re all the awkward kid in the cafeteria, desperately hoping the cool kids will allow us to sit with them. Whether the cool kids are jocks, cheerleaders, band geeks, science nerds, theater kids, or outright outcasts, we’re all hoping one of them will let us in.

We’re all hoping to belong.

And we all do belong. Not just in one clique but all of them. We all have something have something to offer. We all bring value.

But here’s the thing: it’s those situations in which we feel most uncomfortable, in which we feel most like nobody – it’s those situations in which we most need to speak up.

If you believe that diverse voices bring value, then you must believe that your diverse voice brings value, too.

Sometimes I joke that, just like Odysseus, I am Nobody. The joke, of course, being that Odysseus wasn’t nobody. And he was pretty arrogant.

But, it’s a helpful reminder to me.

It doesn’t matter whether I think I’m nobody. It doesn’t matter whether I feel awkward or like I don’t belong. It’s my responsibility to speak up. It’s my responsibility share my perspective.

And it’s your responsibility too.

If you’re sitting in the back of the class, feeling hesitant about getting involved, worried what others might think, just remember: they need you. They need your ideas, opinions and insights. They need your voice.

Whether you believe it or not, it’s true. They need you.

So speak up, Nobody, I want to hear from you. I need to hear from you.

(No cyclopes were harmed in the writing of this post. Well, maybe one.) 

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Truth in advertising

We all expect a little spin in advertising. If you’re a pessimist you expect a lie, while at best, an optimist expects exaggeration.

And as people (or consumers, one might say), we get attuned to tuning out. We expect the spin, the exaggeration, or even the outright lie.

And that just adds to the noise as marketers compete in an arms race for attention, taking more elaborate steps to attract attention while we get better at ignoring their tactics.

Sometimes, I dream about doing a totally honest marketing campaign. Saying the things you’re not supposed to say. Saying the things everyone’s thinking.

I think it would be refreshing. I think that would get attention.

Imagine, for example one day, you got a bulk mailer with this scrawled on the outside:

I don’t know about you, but I’d open that.
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I’m concerned about the blueberries

Last week, a strange billboard caught marketers’ attention. “I’m concerned about the blueberries,” it proclaimed.

As theories swirled about what’s so concerning about blueberries, marketers wondered what evil genius came up with this great buzz campaign.

I, for one, imagined an M. Night Shyamalan sequel to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Most speculation about the billboard, which appeared on Interstate 69 in Flint, Michigan, pointed towards some activists/political group trying to make a statement about agriculture, drugs, or corporate America.

But, as it turns out, the explanation is much more interesting.

Businessman Phil Shaltz paid for the billboard after vacationing in Alaska. As AdWeek reports, when Shaltz asked a young tour guide how things were going, the guide responded simply, “I’m concerned about the blueberries.”

Specifically, he was worried there wouldn’t be enough rain for the state’s blueberry crop. As Shaltz thought about this interaction, he began to see “blueberries” as a metaphor.

“We all go through the day and we see people who have blueberries—their own issues—and we don’t do anything,” he explained.

So he paid for a billboard. Not so much to bring attention to the problem of rainfall and blueberry crops in Alaska, but to remind people to help each other.

And it’s doubtless true that we don’t do enough for each other. That we should each do more to support each other and sort out difficult “blueberries.”

But I see the problem of blueberry-denial a little differently. From what I can tell, the root of the problem isn’t necessarily that we see each other’s blueberries and decide not to act – it’s that we don’t take the time to acknowledge each other’s blueberries in the first place.

Everyone has issues. Some days are good and some days are bad, but we’re all bearing our burdens. Some people do this loudly and some people do it silently. And some people complain loudly about one issue to avoid drawing attention to another.

And many people are so busy dealing with their own blueberries, that they forget to inquire about another’s. And many people are so busy hiding their own blueberries, that they forget that other people might care.

So, yes, I am concerned about the blueberries.

And I hope you are too.

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Fiction Friday

I’ve been feeling a little uninspired on Fridays lately. So, I’m going to try something a little different.

I used to write a lot of fiction, and I always appreciated it as a venue for exploring difficult questions. Both in reading and writing, these imaginary worlds create space to ask new questions and to look at problems in a new way. You can play with society a lot more when it’s not real lives you’re talking about.

A world’s been taking shape in my mind over the last week. Since I wrote about imaging utopia. It started forming when I found myself asking, what would it look like if a perfect society was full of imperfect people? I’ve hardly had a second to explore this world – a sort of futuristic film noir, gritty but beautiful – so I will do so here. Perhaps in serial format, updating on Fridays. At least, I believe the below is intended to be an initial installment. We’ll see how it goes.

O, for a muse of fire.

***

Detective Jones stared a long time. She’d seen bodies before, sure, but nothing like this. It had always been random accidents or natural causes. Occasionally, a sudden crime of passion. A misstep, a blood clot. The usual. Tragedies all.

But this was different. This was intentional. Someone had done this. And not out of clumsiness. Out of…she didn’t even know. What could possibly make someone do this to another human being?

Detective Jones let out a long breath. “Alright, Harrison, I’m packing it up. Let me know if you get anything new.” She nodded to the medical examiner as she left. 

The chief’d want to talk to her for sure. This was gonna be a day. This was gonna be a case. She’d been a cop for ten years, but nothing had prepared her for this.

As she walked to subway, she went over the details of the case in her head. Forced entry. Violent assault. Neighbors saw nothing. Well, nothing of value. Glimpsed a shadow fleeing the scene after they awoke from the noise.

She’d have to inform the family. Maybe they would have something. Known enemies? But enemies exchange hard words, they don’t do things like that. Or at least they didn’t. 

Maybe she’d call her contacts in other cities. See if they’d every heard of anything like this…this premeditated murder? The concept was unfathomable.

She’d better call her wife. Let her know she’d be late for dinner.

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