State College changes

Robbie Rockwell at Onward State wrote to a bunch of Penn State alumni recently, asking for memories of the ways in which State College has changed over the years. I didn’t write, but my friend Chris Buchignani did. After his time as a student in the late 1990s/early 2000s, he decided to settle in State College. I’m sharing a portion of what he shared with Onward State:

Town and campus have changed so much in the 20 years I have lived here, you wouldn’t believe it. Commercial development along the North Atherton corridor has exploded. Campus roads have been closed or rerouted (Pollock Road once connected to Atherton; Shortlidge once connected Pollock and Curtin). Countless new buildings have been constructed (including Business, Forestry, Architecture, Law, IST, Science, and Hockey). The HUB has been renovated and expanded twice. Rec Hall and the IM Building have been expanded. The new Schlow Library has been built. The State Theatre repurposed and reopened. A total overhaul of State College High School is rapidly progressing, while Memorial Field has been tinkered with more times than I can count. These are a fraction of the substantial changes, and they’ve all occurred over just the last two decades.

The guts of the Nittany Valley are timeless and ageless, but we get some plastic surgery practically every year.

What I want to know is what big changes have occurred on or off campus that were particularly surprising or upsetting to you?

I lived in Toftrees for several years and absolutely loved the proximity to nature and illusion of isolation offered by the dense woods up there. The amount of development in the last several years is absolutely heart-breaking to me, so much clear-cutting. There was a charming character to the place that is irreparably diminished.

Were there any places that you spent a lot of time at that were torn down for something new?

I definitely think of the short-lived roller hockey rinks along Bigler Road that lasted less than a decade after their construction before they were demolished to make way for Millennium. Lots of pick-up and league games were played there, and it was a shame to lose that resource.

While it was not demolished, I also feel compelled to pour one out for the Playland Arcade on College Avenue. A relic of a bygone era for sure, but also a long-time beloved hangout for students and townies alike where I once inexplicably spent $10 in quarters to beat CarnEvil. Here’s a fun short documentary that tells its story.

How do you feel about high rises being built downtown? 

I have mixed feelings. I suspect, based on recent conversations, that some of my friends … feel more strongly than I do. While I think the process that got us to this point was basically a mess, I’m glad the Fraser Center is now a thing and not a giant hole surrounded by a dangerous, rusty fence. I am open to the new construction and think it has its place. I hope we’ll have the foresight to keep it to the periphery of the Downtown and not compromise the distinctive “college town” character of the main drag. That is a cultural resource for this place that could be mismanaged or squandered as surely as a natural resource.

What was a popular bar or restaurant that is no longer around? 

For me, it’s the Sports Cafe (once known as the Sportscenter), home of Tears of the Lions wings and $2 Michelob Amber Bocks. It was located on the corner of College and Burrowes where Noodles & Company is today. Huge projection TVs inside, outside deck seating in the front, pool tables in the basement, and zero belief in capital reinvestment. It was great. I gathered with hundreds of fellow Penn Staters to share many great (and not so great) moments in sports. I’m a Cubs fan, so this October, I went to Noodles & Co the day after the Series and got my picture taken in the exact spot where I stood to watch the Steve Bartman play. The Gingerbread Man deserves a nod, and I assume Rotelli’s closing is still fresh in the local memory, so Sports Cafe is the one.

Are there any things that were torn down or renovated for the better; meaning were some places on campus just a pain to have to go to? 

I never kept a car in Lot 80, but by all accounts, that is one campus change that no alumni will lament. If I’m not mistaken, Lot 80 was cleared out to make way for Katz and/or the Arboretum. The H.O. Smith Arboretum has been one of the nicest, most welcome additions to campus during my time here. It’s a great spot and keeps getting better. I hope they’ll get a planetarium soon.

I should also mention the studio facilities for The LION 90.7fm. The station was hidden away on the second floor of the Burrowes Building when I was a student and made the long-overdue move to the HUB (behind the fish tanks) in 2003. The new space in the HUB expansion is the best ever – it’s a tremendous resource for the organization, and I’m very appreciative of Dr. Sims and the Student Affairs leadership who prioritized that.

God willing, we will one day add Hammond Building to this list. it’s a truly miserable eyesore.

Can you think of any new editions to campus or downtown that you wish were there during your time at State?

Pegula. Easily. I had the extreme pleasure of getting to cover Icers hockey for The LION, and Coach Battista was exceedingly gracious with his time throughout. It was impossible to be around him and not feel the infectious passion he had for Penn State hockey and the dream of a top-flight varsity program. Many times I would sit in Greenberg as the crowd went wild and think, “What if this were a real arena, with ‘We Are’ chants going back and forth across the ice as we played Michigan or Ohio State?” It was a wild dream then, and I still can’t quite believe it’s become such a successful reality. I can’t help but feel a bit jealous of the Roar Zone.

How do you feel about the lack of open space and large buildings being put in like the Milenium Science Complex?

I’m not sure lack of open space is problem, at least not yet. We still have the IM fields and the Arboretum, and being a local, I know that the Centre Region maintains a sprawling parks system that is relatively accessible to the student population. That said, I did experience some melancholy as I watched the Thomas Building expand and then the Millennium Science Complex cover over what were once open fields. I spent so many happy hours in college playing sandlot football games on Pollock Fields – one of my best memories. No future generations will get to make more of those, plus it’s a damn shame to see the site of one of my all-time favorite athletic accomplishments covered over (a brutal block to clear out the lane for a punt return touchdown – it was a thing of beauty).

Philadelphia’s peripheries

I was driving through Philadelphia earlier today, specifically from my office on Logan Circle to the Schuylkill Expressway to get out of the city. I snapped this photo as I was waiting at a red light, about to merge onto the expressway.

The city is changing, most obviously with the near-topping-out of the latest Comcast tower to the far left. The Cira Center looms large on the right. Much more is planned and potentially starting this year on that side of the Schuylkill River in University City. Plenty of other large and smallish projects throughout Center City.

But I wonder how much is being done to create vibrant neighborhoods in other parts of the city. Not much, I suspect.

Places like Manayunk continue to thrive, but the poorest neighborhoods and those in transition like Brewerytown don’t seem to be developing coherent cultures of their own in the way a place like Manayunk has, or in the myriad ways that Center City enjoys from river to river.

The health of Philadelphia over the course of the long 21st century will be determined as much by the development of the cultures of these neighborhoods on the periphery as it will by the redevelopment and jobs available in Center City and West Philadelphia.

Fingers crossed.

Super Bowl 51

Incredible game last night. I wanted the Patriots to win, and boy was I surprised when they did. After the Patriots scored their first touchdown late in the third quarter and then failed on their extra point attempt, I wrote them off as a loser for the night. Tom Brady and the team hung together: record Super Bowl passing yards, a comeback from a record deficit scoring 31 unanswered points, first Super Bowl overtime. As a very casual NFL fan, it’s fun to see the Patriots secure their place as one of America’s great football dynasties.

Les Carpenter writes:

Before the Super Bowl winning drive Tom Brady stood on the Houston stadium’s field and said to his team-mates: “Let’s go.” And later, after the New England Patriots had won on the game’s final play and confetti tumbled over them their right tackle gushed: “He thrives on those moments.”

That was 13 years ago, on the night the Patriots won their second Super Bowl,which came in the same stadium, in a similar high-scoring game, won at the end by the Patriots on a drive led by Brady, who would be named MVP. Back then Brady was the 26-year-old quarterback who had won two titles in three years but wasn’t judged as the greatest at his position that the game had seen. That legacy would take more winning, more touchdowns and ultimately three more championships.

Now that he has won five Super Bowls, the most remarkable thing is how time has failed to take its toll on Brady. No quarterback at 39 makes storming through the final minutes of the Super Bowl look as easy as he did at 26. No quarterback has been as remarkably-consistent and dominant for two decades while players swirl in and out of the league around him.

A few days ago, Damon Huard – Brady’s backup on those first two championship teams – talked about returning to New England last fall for a celebration of that initial 2002 Super Bowl win and realizing that all but one of those Patriots had long retired. It was a jarring sensation for Huard, watching Brady that afternoon while assessing his own full post-football life.

“It’s just so hard in this job and profession to win,” Huard told the Guardian. “How they are still doing it is amazing. I was looking out there and I said to myself: ‘That’s No12 out there and it’s still [coach] Bill [Belichick] in the hoodie and they still have the drive and work ethic to make this happen.” …

But the 39-year-old Brady was not the carefree 26-year-old Brady. He fell to his knees after Sunday’s championship in a rare public expression of sensitivity. He talked around rumors that his mother has been seriously ill. He even struggled to remember what had happened in the game’s frantic last minutes, admitting: “There was a lot of shit that happened.”

Thirteen years after he took the Patriots to a championship on the same field, he became the only quarterback to win five Super Bowls. He also became the first to win four Super Bowl MVP awards. He gets older and nothing changes. He keeps winning. New England keeps winning.

It’s as if this all can go on forever.

Dumb smart clocks

Alexander Aciman writes about his experiences with Alexa, a “smart alarm clock” that’s “dumb otherwise.” All of these services are, in one respect or another. It’s in iterating the product that there’s potential for breakthrough growth, and in that respect I have faith in Apple or Google developing their products:

Sometimes Alexa forgets to wake me up in the morning; other times, if the volume hasn’t been turned up all the way, I’ll wake up half an hour late to an alarm that is only one tenth as loud as I want it. But if she loses connection to my WiFi at 3 am, she’ll definitely let me know right away. If someone shouts my name—Alex—across the apartment, it will activate Alexa, although sometimes Alexa will also be activated by arbitrary syllables in ordinary conversation. And if she starts doing something annoying, you’ll have to shout “Alexa, Stop,” six or seven times. Sometimes she’ll play Rod Stewart covers of Ella Fitzgerald songs instead of the Ella Fitzgerald versions, which defies both the alphabet and common sense. She struggles to understand phrases like “rewind” or “maximum volume.”

If I’m feeling sentimental like Rick Blaine, I can ask her what the weather is in Paris, but it takes two separate commands and questions to find out if it will rain or snow in New York. As I read this paragraph aloud to myself, her blue ring has already lit up several times and is blinking in panicked anticipation of hearing an extremely basic request that she won’t be able to fulfill. This is not what artificial intelligence looks like. But what I will concede is that at $49.99, Alexa is one of the best toys for adults, and the world’s best clock radio.

A thing I thought of recently that I’d love from Siri: the ability to snooze an alarm (or turn off the alarm) with voice. As it stands, my morning alarm goes off in the other room and I have to stumble over and stab at the glass of the screen to hit a very small “Stop” or “Snooze” command. How great would it be if I could simply say, “Snooze for 10 minutes” without going near the device in the first place. These simple developments are the future, I hope.

In one commercial for Google Home a father asks his device how big a blue whale is and is told that it weighs 300,000 pounds. When I asked Alexa the same question, she informed me that there is no real way to estimate the size of a blue whale because whales are so big that they usually need to be cut up into blocks and weighed piece by piece.

Big fan of this.

What markets are for

Kevin D. Williamson wrote a few years ago about the true function of markets, which is not “competition,” but something else:

Complex though it is, the iPhone is also a remarkably egalitarian device: The president of the United States uses one, as does the young Bengali immigrant who sold me my coffee this morning. But you can bet that her children do not attend schools as good as those that instruct the Obama daughters. The reason for that is politics: not liberal politics, not conservative politics, not bad politics, but politics per se. …

The problem of politics is the problem of knowledge. The superiority of market processes to political processes is not in origin moral but technical. The useful knowledge in any modern society is distributed rather than centralized — and, as Read intuited and as modern scholars of complexity studies confirm, there is no way to centralize it. Ludwig von Mises applied that insight specifically to the defects of planned economies — the famous “socialist calculation problem” — but it applies in varying degrees to all organizations and all bureaucracies, whether political, educational, religious, or corporate. Markets work for the same reason that the Internet works: They are not organizations, but disorganizations. More precisely, they are composed of countless (literally countless, blinking into and out of existence like subatomic particles) pockets of organization, their internal structures and relationships to one another in a constant state of flux. Market propositions are experimental propositions. Some, such as the iPhone and the No. 2 pencil, are wildly successful; others, such as New Coke or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo, are not. Products come and go, executives come and go, firms come and go.

Politics isn’t dynamic in the way that markets are. Politics is both centralized and nostalgic, which means a few people who claim to act on expert knowledge work to impose what are promised as systemic solutions. When other enterprises become too rigid or ineffective, they fade away. Yet:

A political establishment is a near-deathless thing: Even after the bitter campaign of 2012, voters returned essentially the same cast of characters to Washington, virtually ensuring the continuation of the policies with which some 90 percent of voters pronounced themselves dissatisfied. No death, no evolution. Outside of politics, human action is characterized by evolution and by learning. And what are we learning? How to take care of one another, which is the point of what we sometimes call capitalism. (Don’t tell Ayn Rand.)

As a civilization we evolve, but not all constituencies or groups within a culture evolve at the same rate. Some never do. Politics by its nature must be slow and deliberate and considered to be good at its function; the opposite of markets. Even the roots of positive change are misunderstood, especially what we call “free market capitalism:”

It is remarkable that we speak and think about commerce as though competitiveness were its most important feature. There is, as noted, a certain Darwinian aspect to economic competition — and of course we humans do compete over scarce resources. But what is remarkable about human action is not its competitiveness but its almost limitless cooperativeness. Competition is one of the ways in which we learn how best to cooperate with one another and thereby deal with the problem of complexity — it is a means to the end of social cooperation. Cooperation exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom, but human beings cooperate on a species-wide, planetary level, which is a relatively new development in our evolution, the consequences of which we have not yet fully appreciated.

So distribution is preferable over centralization, which is another way of saying that it would be better to have fifty different state governments with wide latitude over state-level decision making than one central government deciding vast national policy.

We want a culture closer to the people not only to make it more participatory, but also to avoid the political equivalents of “Touch of Yogurt” shampoo becoming our only nationally-approved haircare product.

Johnson Amendment

About a month ago I was in Washington where I heard a congressman talk about whether a Trump administration might really push the senate to get rid of the Johnson Amendment. What does the Johnson Amendment do? It restricts any 501(c)3 nonprofit from engaging in meaningful political activity. The IRS explains:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances.  For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.

The first thing to understand is that the Johnson Amendment isn’t a law. It’s a senate-committee amendment to the federal tax code. It’s just a tax policy; easily changed.

The second thing to understand about the Johnson policy is that Lyndon Johnson pushed this through his senate committee in 1954 after narrowly winning re-election in Texas after he faced serious, nearly career-ending attacks from 501(c)3 nonprofits. This was created by a singular politician and very much motivated by his own self-interest.

The third thing to understand about the Johnson policy is that it’s a simple and straightforward violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of expression that applies to some (but not others!) simply based on their tax status. A nonprofit corporation is a still a corporation—a coming together of people to engage in public life and ultimately to influence its development in a certain direction. Like any other corporate or human activity. If Trump had the senate create a tax policy restricting the speech rights of Medicaid-eligible citizens, or granting speech rights (rights to libel or defame) to hedge fund managers, it would be immediately recognized for the obvious farce that it is. This farce exists today for every nonprofit from charity:water to United Way to your local church. A young Pell grant recipient in college doesn’t lose his right to give to a political candidate or publicly speak on behalf of a candidate. Neither should a corporation, regardless of tax status.

The fourth thing to understand about the Johnson policy (as Mark Kellner points out) is that it’s contrary to 165+ years of American experience that understood freedom of expression in a much simpler and less compromised way.

This anti-speech tax policy was created by a politician whose self-interest required muzzling nonprofits to ensure easier re-election. I’m hopeful it will be eliminated by a politician who now finds it in his self-interest to restore these simple speech rights.

Winter life

It was snowing in Philadelphia earlier this week. This was the first true snow I’ve seen this season. It didn’t last.

This month is my least favorite in terms of the “feel” of the month, but it’s one of my most favorite in terms of getting things done. There’s power in accelerating at times when others are slowing down, and I think this month more than any other is a time when slowness seeps into life.

Anyway, I’ve got a number of personal and professional things that I’m looking forward to completing this month. It’s going to be fun. See you at the finish.

Broken windows

After finishing Robert Caro and Jane Jacobs’s masterpieces on city life recently, I went back to some notes I had scribbled down a few years ago that I vaguely remembered. It’s a little anecdote: I was at St. Thomas Aquinas in South Philadelphia, in a meeting with the pastor of the parish there. It was 2012 and we were talking about a vision for this great Catholic parish to become a beacon for renewal in that part of the city.

I had mentioned James Wilson’s broken window theory in the course of the conversation and that prompted the pastor to recall a story from earlier in his life. This is what I had written down from his memories:

It was the early 1980s, and I was at a parish that was closing. The Sisters were due to move out of the convent at the end of the week. A group of boys came up to me, and asked me: “What day are the Sisters moving out?” “Friday,” I told them. “And what time are they moving out on Friday?” “Why do you want to know?” I asked.

After some hemming and hawing, one of the boys explained: “We want to be the first ones to break the windows of the building. If we don’t do it, the other guys in the neighborhood will, and so we’d at least like to be able to break them first. But we can’t do it while the Sisters are still around.”

The sisters left. The windows were broken.

I wonder what that neighborhood is like today. This is a real world example of the validity of the broken windows idea. In this case, there was a place literally consecrated by religious and symbolizing authority in the neighborhood. When that light went out, so did the sanctity of the place.

A light that remains lit can be a powerful symbol. This is true even if it’s lighting an empty husk of what once was and in the hope of attracting what might be, rather than what it presently is.