Hi, I'm Tom Shakely. I try to write daily about culture, social entrepreneurship, marketplaces, platforms, Catholicism, place, etc. Each Sunday I share a recap of the week; you can subscribe here.

Running in Philadelphia

I remember John Mayer commenting one time about what it feels like to miss the gym for a while, something about feeling “like a pile of wet cement.” That’s how I feel if I don’t run every so often. I spent Independence Day in Philadelphia, and fit a run in while there from Old City across past the Philadephia Museum of Art and back.

When running past the museum, I stopped to admire John Marshall welcoming visitors to the Impressionist exhibit. The podium he’s sitting on reads:

John Marshall
Chief Justice of the United States
As solider he fought that the nation might come into being.
As expounder of the Constitution he gave it length of days.

This reminded me John Adam’s remark to the French, (paraphrasing) that he studied war in order that his children might enjoy peace, and in turn study things like the arts.

Independence Day is a celebration not only of our freedom as a people, but also of the Constitutional order that preserves our liberty. Like art, it’s important to study.


Bruce Shakely, my great uncle, turns 92 this month. It’s hard to believe it’s already been two years since I headed out to Western Pennsylvania to celebrate his 90th birthday with him in what became a national family reunion. It was during that visit that my grandfather’s cousin’s daughter and I connected and she provided me with the genealogical records that I needed to join the Sons of the American Revolution:

The SAR is a historical, educational, and patriotic non-profit, United States 501(c)3, corporation that seeks to maintain and extend: the institutions of American freedom, an appreciation for true patriotism, a respect for our national symbols, the value of American citizenship, the unifying force of e pluribus unum that has created, from the people of many nations, one nation and one people.

We do this by perpetuating the stories of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, tragedy, and triumph of the men who achieved the independence of the American people in the belief that these stories are universal ones of man’s eternal struggle against tyranny, relevant to all time, and will inspire and strengthen each succeeding generation as it too is called upon to defend our freedoms on the battlefield and in our public institutions.

SAR has roughly 30,000 national members. This pales in comparison to the Daughters of the American Revolution that have more like 300,000 members. I don’t know whether that means SAR has historically done a poor job of recruitment, whether DAR has done better, or whether one gender tends to be more or less interested in membership.

It is fascinating to be a member, and receive the regular news mailings from the national, state, and local chapter. I feel a bit more connected both to my Revolutionary-era ancestors and my family, and also to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. A small example is Washington Square in Philadelphia, where a small memorial to Washington stands with a little altar and perpetual flame. This was placed there in part through SAR efforts in the 1950s.

Having the SAR connection is helpful for me to think about the sort of things that might be done in the future based on the past. I’m glad I joined and hope it can become a wider family tradition.

Beats 1

Beats 1 is fun to listen to. It’s worldwide radio that has character and doesn’t feel formulaic. 

Some of the on air moments have felt risqué given Apple’s typically buttoned up nature, especially given that the audience includes listeners from more than 100 countries. The Ed Sheeran interview was an example of risqué.

Apple Music and Beats 1 feels like a different Apple—a bit bolder in flexing its cultural muscle. It reminds me of Tim Cook’s comment that after Jobs, “everything can change except the essence.”

Beats 1 also feels surprisingly intimate. Hearing “world first” debuts is interesting, and hearing shout outs to listeners and the stories  of the DJs in their broadcast cities roots the on air product in a way that doesn’t feel overly corporate. The actual voices of listeners aren’t on the airwaves yet, but I imagine that might change at some point. 

Also super interesting is that Beats 1 is embracing sponsorships. Since Beats 1 is available to any Apple user regardless of an Apple Music subscription, sponsorship makes some sense. But what’s interesting is the quality of the sponsorships, which are much closer to noncommercial radio sponsorships than commercial advertising.

Sponsors like American Express are announced live by the DJ and in very modest tones, similar to native podcast sponsorships or old time radio advertiser announcements. This contributes to the intimate feel of the product, because these announcements don’t disrupt the flow of the stream.

Neat to see a commercial product adopt a best practice from what has traditionally been the noncommercial side of radio.


Mark and Sara Borkowski live with their two young daughters in a century-old, fifteen-hundred-square-foot house in Rutland, Vermont. Mark drives a school bus, and Sara works as a special-ed teacher; the cost of heating and cooling their house through the year consumes a large fraction of their combined income. Last summer, however, persuaded by Green Mountain Power, the main electric utility in Vermont, the Borkowskis decided to give their home an energy makeover. In the course of several days, coördinated teams of contractors stuffed the house with new insulation, put in a heat pump for the hot water, and installed two air-source heat pumps to warm the home. They also switched all the light bulbs to L.E.D.s and put a small solar array on the slate roof of the garage.

The Borkowskis paid for the improvements, but the utility financed the charges through their electric bill, which fell the very first month. Before the makeover, from October of 2013 to January of 2014, the Borkowskis used thirty-four hundred and eleven kilowatt-hours of electricity and three hundred and twenty-five gallons of fuel oil. From October of 2014 to January of 2015, they used twenty-eight hundred and fifty-six kilowatt-hours of electricity and no oil at all. The Borkowskis reduced the footprint of their house by eighty-eight per cent in a matter of days, and at no net cost.

This New Yorker piece is just one of many examples of the fact that renewable energy is now a practical option for ordinary people. I think it’s also validation in the faith in free markets to solve problems like energy access and distribution rather than top down bureaucracies.

Tesla, SolarCity, and companies like them are doing more than most policy makers ever could have done. But as the piece points out, a crucial role for utilities and policy makers lies in helping us finance the shift to renewable infrastructure.

Lean nonprofits

In the startup world the idea of the lean startup has become popular shorthand for taking an idea to market, trying to find product-market fit, and scaling in a way that preserves founder/investor equity as much as possible through leanness, by requiring as little capital as possible in order to win. 

Nonprofits are often lean, but in a state closer to malnutrition than fitness. I think too many nonprofits end up reinventing the wheel by not paying attention to best practices and not putting solutions in place that equip them to scale their mission in a way that maximizes their resources.

NationBuilder is a great example of a solution not only for nonprofits but really any social mission that’s looking to organize a tribe. NationBuilder is itself a startup based in Los Angeles. What makes them exceptional is their solution is essentially “organizing in a box,” that gives a nonprofit a website, email and text communications, database management, online giving and tracking, and even a phone number that’s cloud based all for a flat monthly fee. Their pricing model echoes companies like MailChimp, where a monthly fee scales up as membership scales up.

I’ve implemented NationBuilder for a few nonprofits I’ve consulted with, and it’s fascinating to see that in one case in particular the effect of NationBuilder as a central membership platform (coupled with a smart staff) is reshaping their approach to their mission.

NationBuilder is worth a look, if for no other reason than its pricing is reasonable and it can scale with the mission.

Apple Music

When I had a few minutes this morning I updated iOS to 8.4. I’ve been eager to try Apple Music, and today’s its debut. After the first 12 hours with Apple Music, Beats 1, and the overall experience I’m all in. I agree with Walt Mossberg that it’s the best streaming service I’ve tried, and the core human-curated streaming radio, playlists, and connect features are the key reasons for me.

IMG_0458Beats 1 has been fun so far too. Trent Reznor’s role in its creation is fascinating, particularly his idea that I read somewhere that Beats 1 is an experiment to see if it’s possible to create “monoculture” through global streaming radio in the age of algorithmic curation. Streamed Zane Lowe and Ebro Darden’s shows; it was cool to hear requests coming in from places like Estonia, and hearing Darden walk listeners through a set of New York borough-centric tracks.

In terms of pricing, it works out to 50 percent cheaper than Spotify in my case. I was on a $5/month Spotify subscription. On Apple Music I’m a part of family sharing, so my share drops to ~$2.50/month, and each family member gets their own streaming library, settings, etc.

If this is at all what the refreshed Apple TV subscription service looks like, it should be a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change.

In the bookstore

As of a few weeks ago, Conserving Mount Nittany is available in the Penn State Bookstore on campus, along with Nittany Valley Press’s The Legends of the Nittany Valley. It’s very meaningful for me to see this happen.

Not just because I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany. Not just because I want to see more people learn about Mount Nittany. Not just because I’m on The Nittany Valley Society board. It’s mostly meaningful to me because we didn’t make it happen.

Alex Koury graduated in May and will be teaching in Japan later this year, and was working on a class research and writing project. After searching for information about Mount Nittany online, he came across our books and made Mount Nittany the focus of his semester writing project, relying on three of our books as his source material.


What started out for him as a routine class assignment turned into something more. And by the time he had turned in his final report, finished the class, and was set to graduate, he went into Penn State’s Bookstore and suggested they carry the copies of our books that are now available in the Local Interest section.

I’ve never met Alex Koury. I’ve never communicated with him. I learned about all of this through board conversation.

But the way these books became available in the Penn State Bookstore is a perfect example of The Nittany Valley Society’s mission. Set aside the rhetoric, the programming, the finances, etc, and determine whether the mission has changed a single person’s life in some way.

Alex’s semester project is a witness that our mission changed a part of his life, and his wanting to help others have a similar experience through easier access to the books he encountered is a great example of how to pay it forward.

I’m going to see if we can share his report on The Nittany Valley Society’s website. At some point later this year hopefully we can share that.

Family resiliency

In April, Centre Foundation brought in Tom Rogerson to keynote their Campbell Society luncheon. Tom is a family philanthropy adviser at Wilmington Trust, and a compelling speaker. I wasn’t there, but a friend recorded the talk for me and I sat down to listen to it recently.

Over the past two years I’ve helped kickstart four Centre Foundation funds: Nittany Valley Renaissance Fund, Novak Fellowship Fund, John Raynar Penn State Media Leadership Fund, and Shakely Family Conservation Fund. The first two are The Nittany Valley Society’s endowments, and the latter two are DAFs, or Donor Advised Funds.

I’m a fan of Centre Foundation, and am interested in learning about intentional approaches to family life, which is what Tom Rogerson addressed in his talk from the angle of governance and philanthropy.

A few things I took from his talk. First, on family culture. Specifically the idea that stronger families learn how to make decisions as a group. This can include lots of things, including a united family approach for decisions involving schooling, higher education, career, etc.

What Tom proposed a means to strengthen that sort of family culture involves family meetings, that could be paired with Thanksgiving or other annual events but that were distinct, involved decorum and were focused on leaving everyone having learned something or at least started on chewing something for further conversation. It can also involve family team building exercises, family philanthropy, and even a family literary program to teach family members over time about their own history and lessons from successes and failures over time. All of this is connected by the idea of fostering family resiliency and nurturing talent within the family.

Second, on family governance. Specifically the idea of defining success for the family as a whole. An example was one family’s definition: a healthy and united family, where individuals had high self esteem, built trust and communication through their relationships and through meaningful experiences.

When it came to family philanthropy as one facet of this, that involved a vision for what they wanted the family to look like down the road, and ultimately led to a committee within the family to engage in family philanthropy with a goal of group governance and transparent decision making that could avoid divided approaches that used limited charitable resources inefficiently or wastefully and at the same time could help avoid an unhealthy and divided family culture.

Third, on family philanthropy. Specifically by harnessing healthy family culture and governance to further strengthen relationships and decision making concerning charitable resources, no matter what size.

Tom cited DAFs as a way to approach family philanthropy using his own approach as an example that achieves not only the philanthropy component, but also the culture and governance component. DAFs are a way for families to determine and communicate their priorities as a group. He sets aside $5,000/year for his DAF, which is split so that each of his four kids gets to award $1,000 to a beneficiary. All four have to agree on a beneficiary for the final $1,000. This can be done with $5,000 or $500 or whatever. But he cites the “together piece” as the most valuable.

This is taken a step further, where he sets aside another $500 year that his brother matches. Then both their kids get together and as cousins agree where that $1,000 will go, contributing to communication, decision making, trust, and seeing results over time as a group. And because it’s done through the DAF vehicle, beneficiaries see the names of the children as donors rather than the parents.

It was a great talk, and leaves me with a lot to chew on. I think the connecting theme was family resiliency, and if each of us can figure out how to contribute to that, we’ll be building a much better society.

Big Spring Spirits

I visited Big Spring Spirits in Bellefonte, PA tonight. It was Small Batch’s first gathering and it was a neat experience.

Small Batch is a new thing, a member group for young professionals and others looking for distinctive bar experiences outside the typical State College area bar filled with undergraduates.

We arrived at Big Spring at 7:45pm and entered the refurbished distillery that’s located in Bellefonte’s historic Match Factory. The first drink was on Small Batch, and I ordered the “Manhattan Bridge,” a lightly aged rum, neat.

After about 15 minutes the behind the scenes tour of Big Spring got started and we learned about the distillery process. Big Spring is unique in their approach to sourcing and infrastructure. All their ingredients are locally sourced within 25 miles, and their distillery is the first LEED certified distillery in the country.

It was amazing to hear from Kevin Lloyd that one barrel produces about 500 bottles of product. We also learned about the Takamine distilling process, created by the same man who brought the Cherry Blossom’s to the Capitol basin.

Kevin worked in analytical chemistry in State College for pharma before selling his company and going into semi-retirement. Big Spring is his next act. It’s worth a taste.

Chewing on Laudato Si

On Tuesday night I queued up Pope Francis’s Laudato Si and had Siri read it to me. It took about 90 minutes to get through the ~40,000 word encyclical, but it was nice to have it read to me even in Siri’s mechanistic voice.

Laudato Si is challenging because it demands engaging with creation and the environment in a much more comprehensive way than just through policy. Pope Francis explicitly calls for “attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems” and rejects anthropocentric and technological-utopian thinking as the solution to environmental crisis.

He calls for “a change in humanity” as the fundamental first step in resolving environmental problems and the inequalities related to access to energy and environmental resources. Here is an example of that approach:

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.

Pope Francis also cites Saint Francis: “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” And he leans on Benedict XVI to stress the spiritual dimension: “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.”

Laudato Si leaves me thinking about environmentalism in a much deeper way than I did before, so in that respect I’m already glad I read it.