September 2018

  • I drove to Stone Harbor on Saturday morning for Gavin and Amanda Keirans’s wedding, which was beautiful. Overcast skies and periodically wet conditions on both Saturday and Sunday ultimately didn’t do anything to dampen the beauty or excitement of seeing Gavin and Amanda, and so many friends, together. Before I left Stone Harbor early on Sunday afternoon, I took a walk through town, picked up a coffee and breakfast sandwich at Coffee Talk, and walked to the 97th Street beach where skies threatened a deluge to come.

    Driving back on the Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway was not enjoyable, but the dramatic view over Logan Circle from the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network office was a rewarding sight.

  • Tunku Varadarajan’s recent interview with George Gilder addresses American higher education. Gilder aligns himself with the Bernie Sanders crowd on the issue of loans, but in a way that I can probably get behind, namely tying across the board debt forgiveness with a some sort of punitive tax on colleges:

    America’s university system, says Mr. Gilder, is “incredibly corrupt and ideological.” How did it come to be like that? Surely, I observe, it wasn’t that way when he graduated from Harvard in 1962. “It was beginning to get that way,” he says, as he revs his engines for a fresh sortie. “The rise of affluence through the 1960s created this kind of amazing irresponsibility that resulted in a whole generation losing track of reality.”

    The pithy aperçu is Mr. Gilder’s forte. He tells me here that “human beings have a propensity to believe in leftism”—in the idea that government can “answer all of their problems, guarantee their future, and relieve them of the challenges of life.” The idea of a “completely providential government” arose in America, and a “whole generation of young people were given college loans in a fabulous national mistake, in which the Republicans participated.” These loans were used by the university system to “increase perks and tenured luxuries and ideological distractions”—all of which led to the “diversity campaigns and CO2 panics” that currently dominate university faculties.

    The only way to undo this “vast blunder,” says Mr. Gilder, is to forgive student loans across the board and “extract the money from all the college endowments and funds that were used to just create useless departments and political campaigns.” More than $1.5 trillion in student-loan money is outstanding, according to the Federal Reserve. That money, Mr. Gilder says, “wasn’t deployed to improve education. Not a scintilla of evidence has been adduced that learning has been improved. It was used entirely to lavish on bureaucracies that, in turn, paid tribute to government and leftist nihilism.”

    The impact of these loans, and of the academic ecosystem they engendered, has been catastrophic, in Mr. Gilder’s view. “The result was to destroy the entrepreneurial optimism of a whole generation of young people, to drive them toward socialism, which they now tend to favor, and to even dissuade them from marriage.” The last is a consequence of debt, “which cripples them for the future.” Any benefit that education might confer on the young is, in Mr. Gilder’s dark view, nullified by the economic burden inflicted on them, which “leaves these kids impotent in the world.”

    If it’s true that Gen Z tends to be as deeply committed to financial security as it’s purported to be, this sort of maneuver might become politically practicable in the next decade.

  • Andrew Price writes on what incrementalism actually means for developing healthy and organic communities. He presents four types of incremental development: incremental intensification, incremental implementation, incremental repurposing, and incremental architecture:

    Incremental intensification often goes hand in hand with granularity. It keeps land ownership diversified, and it enforces good urban bones, since a separate building every so many feet means a destination such as a housefront or a shopfront every so many feet. It lowers the risk that an area will be negatively transformed, as it takes the form of many small bets (a few apartment buildings will pop up first, and if the demand is not there, no more apartment buildings will appear) rather than fewer large bets (the entire block is being replaced with 200 units). …

    Incremental implementation means looking for low cost ways to rapidly prototype and iteratively improve. Henry Ford has a famous quote: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for faster horses.” As with all products, the best way to design a product is to see what sells and watch people use it. By testing out the placement of the bike lanes and trees with chalk and cones first, we were able to try out multiple configurations and we even have the option of rolling back before we spent too much money. …

    Incremental repurposing … It is often cheaper, faster, and less resource-intensive to adapt and reuse what already exists than to build new each time. … Our older urban areas and main streets are filled with buildings that have seen many generations of owners and uses. Zoning codes that allow uses to be mixed together, and allow older buildings to be incrementally updated (rather than denying any modifications because the older use no longer conforms to newer zoning or building codes), encourage buildings to be reused rather than demolished and rebuilt. …

    Incremental architecture is the least common form of incrementalism, but it does happen. You often see this with large public buildings: the shopping mall adds on an expansion. The school constructs an extension so they can fit in more classrooms and a new gym. A house adds on a garage. …

    Incrementalism does not mean doing things slowly: incremental development can be rapid and up to the task of reacting to pressing needs and dramatic societal changes. Incrementalism looks like experimenting, rapid prototyping, iteratively improving, and reducing the risks of bad decisions.

    The graphics that Price includes are probably the best part; they convey these ideas so straightforwardly. I think once you get to a point where you start talking about the need for “comprehensive” solutions, it can generally be assumed that things have broken down. Incremental progress often obviates the need for comprehensive solutions, except in situations where orders of magnitude leaps have to be made.

  • Nike and Kaepernick

    Katherine Miller riffs on Nike and its Kaepernick campaign:

    Nike is the capitalist god of destruction.

    Their omnipresence subsumes, like the above, and co-opts everything from John Lennon to racial justice campaigns. Nike is so big and vast — 25 pairs of shoes per second sold — that the brand undercuts all other considerations. If you go find a group of teens on the street right now, they’re probably wearing one of only a few sneaker brands: the old-school, black-and-white Vans; white Adidas Superstars; Converse (owned by Nike); throwback Jordans (owned by Nike); or black Nikes with the white swoosh. It’s like breathing capitalism. The only question that really matters, and the only one that will tell us something about Nike, the NFL, and Trump is simple: Will Nike hold?

    Because, traditionally, Nike works best when the vibe is all-encompassing domination. The colors are usually the same (stark black and white in matte, neon oranges and yellows, cool blues and grays), and the messaging is usually built around the idea of true exceptionalism, emerging from pain. …

    The early ’90s Charles Barkley “I Am Not a Role Model” campaign carries that intensity. “I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court,” Barkley says, directly to the camera, in black and white, the aesthetic predecessor to Nike’s latest campaign. …

    Nike has unveiled an ad campaign with the league’s essential iconoclast. And if the Kaepernick ad doesn’t exactly fit the singular athletic greatness aspect, it does fit within the singular, absolutist, carved-from-salt message that Nike has been pushing for decades.

    This is why the ad is so striking, and eclipses all the normal considerations: We intuitively know that Nike never, ever, ever backs down. They are so corporate and so vast that every decision they make feels final. So, when you consider that understanding of Nike, isn’t this the firmest sign of NFL entering into decay and decline there’s ever been? When their own uniform maker has launched a marquee campaign with the player suing the NFL?

    Brilliant of Nike to embrace Kaepernick in this way; the reactions so far are exactly what you’d want if you were Nike corporate. Yes, there’s Nike’s opportunism here, and there’s an amorality in its ignoring social concerns over its manufacturing processes, but to whatever extent that the “Nike v. NFL” fight is between two titanic symbols of American culture, it’s likely both will emerge better for it.

  • University of Mary, where I’m studying for my M.S. in Bioethics, is a faithful and growing place. I selected it for a number of reasons; its Christian, Benedictine mission and its interest in becoming a national Catholic university were two of those reasons, and its thoughtfulness in approaching the teleological foundations of bioethics and inquiry into what sort of interventions into the human body, human person, and human genome were consistent with the human good and human flourishing were others. I’m glad to read that the University of Mary is growing:

    The University of Mary has more students today than at any time in its nearly 60-year history. The 2017 class was record setting, but this 2018 fall class is the biggest ever—and by a huge margin.

    Five-hundred thirty-three new freshmen are beginning their first classes on the main campus of the University of Mary today, Wednesday, September 5. That’s 22 percent more than last year, and also raises the number of students living on campus by 17 percent. According to preliminary numbers, the overall enrollment at Mary is expected to be over 3,600 students, an increase of more than six percent in just one year. Official enrollment numbers will be reported in October. Those students are coming from across the nation and the world, with all 50 states, 5 Canadian provinces, and 15 countries represented in the student body. …

    “Once students visit Mary, whether from down the hill or across the country, they are simply blown away by everything we offer. Our Year-Round Campus option is a game changer for students wanting their bachelor’s degree in 2.6 years and a master’s in 4. We have some of the best academic programs and faculty in the world. You can’t beat the Lewis and Clark-view from atop our bluff overlooking the Missouri River Valley. … The world becomes an extension of the classroom with our comprehensive global studies program providing campuses in Rome and Peru and study abroad opportunities in England, Poland, Milan, and Jerusalem. And, they get to compete for conference and national championships in 17 different NCAA Division II athletics.” …

    Helping to facilitate and accommodate that enormous growth is the University of Mary’s Vision 2030 capital campaign that has seen over 225,000 square feet of new facilities in the past 24 months. This three-phased $272 million campaign is nearing its Phase I goal of $96 million—with a new state-of-the-art School of Engineering facility as its capstone project coming soon.

    I’ll be back on campus in December for a few days, ready to experience the start of North Dakota winter.

  • This mid-20th century “Penn State Homes Sales” office has sat on North Atherton Street, just a few minutes from Downtown State College, for decades. I wondered about it when first arriving at Penn State in 2005. In driving by it when leaving State College on Monday I noticed lots of equipment surrounding it, and thought this might be one of the last times I see it if it’s scheduled for demolition. I hopped out of my rental car and took this photo:

    I emailed a friend who grew up in the area to ask about it, and here’s what he wrote:

    Yes, it was the rental/sales office for what was the mobile home park that existed back there up until the mid 2000s or so. I have a vague memory of visiting my aunt who lived there for a year sometime in the mid 80s… Although it was run down toward the end of its life it was actually pretty decent in the prime of days. There also wasn’t a ton of non-student housing available in the State College area back then either (believe it or not considering the expansion of housing options today).

    And here’s a bit from Matt Carroll in the Centre Daily Times a few years ago on what looks like a park that was adjacent to this one:

    The last of the North Atherton Street mobile home parks is closing.

    Franklin Manor Mobile Home Park is shutting down, according to a letter sent Friday to residents and Patton Township officials. The 22 families that live in the park were informed that they have until Oct. 1 to find new homes.

    The park is next to the former Penn State Mobile Home Park, which closed July 31.

    Natalie Corman, Centre County Office of Adult Services director, was informed Friday that the mobile home park is closing, and she said officials already are organizing assistance for residents.

    Owner Ed Temple, when reached Friday, said the condition of the park’s infrastructure is failing, as are many of its trailers, and that ultimately led to the decision to close.

    “This winter was a tipping point,” Temple said. “So many people had failures, frozen-up water lines broke. It just became evident they were just not functional anymore.”

    He said closing the park is a “difficult decision.” It was established by his father in 1953, and Temple grew up there.

    “It’s been a situation where I had generations of people there — parents and now their children,” he said. “We’ve tried to facilitate it. It’s just come to the point where we have to do something.”

    Temple said the park was not being closed to make way for development, but did not rule that out as a possibility in the future.

    I hope this little office survives and is repurposed into something more publicly useful someday. It’s such an aesthetically distinct park of North Atherton Street, compared to the derivative shopping centers and hotels that line both sides the whole way north.

  • Jaron Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts” is worth reading as an introduction to the problem of behavior-manipulating internet platforms. I’m more looking forward to Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” book coming out sometime next year, because I suspect it might provide a less extreme response to the problem of excessive social content creation and consumption and attendant advertising and user manipulation. In any event, here’s a bit from Lanier sharing some background on his thesis:

    It might not seem like it at first, but I’m an optimist. I don’t think we have to throw the whole digital world away. But there is one particular hi-tech thing that is toxic even in small quantities.

    The issue isn’t only that internet users are crammed into environments that can bring out the worst in us, or that so much power has concentrated into a tiny number of hands that control giant cloud computers. A bigger problem is that we are all carrying around devices that are suitable for mass behaviour modification. For example, with old-fashioned advertising, you could measure whether a product did better after an ad was run, but now companies are measuring whether individuals change their behaviours as they browse, and the feeds for each person are constantly tweaked to get the desired result. In short, your behaviour has been turned into a product – and corporate and political clients are lining up to modify it.

    Finally, we can draw a circle around the real danger we face. If we could just get rid of the deleterious business model, then the underlying technology might not be so bad.

    Some have compared social media to the tobacco industry, but I will not. The better analogy is paint that contains lead. When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard. …

    Seems like a good moment to coin an acronym, so how about “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent”? Bummer.

    Bummer is a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds. Since its influence is statistical, the menace is a little like climate change. You can’t say climate change is responsible for a particular storm, flood, or drought, but you can say it changes the odds that they’ll happen. In the longer term, the most horrible stuff like sea level rise and the need to relocate most people and find new sources of food would be attributable to climate change, but by then the argument would have been lost.

    Similarly, I can’t prove that any particular person has been made worse by Bummer, nor can I prove that any particular degradation of our society would not have happened anyway. There’s no certain way to know if it has changed your behaviour, but if you use Bummer platforms, you’ve probably been changed at least a little.

    While we can’t know what details in our world would be different without Bummer, we can know about the big picture. Like climate change, it will lead us into hell if we don’t self-correct.

    “It might sound like a contradiction at first, but,” Lanier writes at one point, “collective processes make the best sense when participants are acting as individuals.” This syncs with something I read years ago, which put forward the idea that referring to the public (individuals collectively) as “the masses” is basically derogatory, because it reduces individuals to mass behavior rather than focusing on (and seeking to elevate) individual experience, goodness, etc.

    I deleted my Snapchat account earlier this summer, and deactivated my Facebook account a few weeks ago.

  • Happy Labor Day. I’m in State College, Pennsylvania this morning and enjoying this beautiful late summer day on my friend’s South Allen Street front porch. A view from that porch below, from last week when I was in town, along with some scenes from Downtown State College and Penn State’s campus from yesterday. Penn State has its flags at half mast in honor of Sen. John McCain.

    College football season has started, and autumn will be here in earnest before long. Looking forward to what the next few months have in store.

  • Appalachian State

    Appalachian State

    Incredible season opener today for Penn State. I got into Happy Valley just after 1pm, visited with Ben Novak and Hollow briefly before Ubering to Beaver Stadium and tailgating for a few hours. Once the game started, met up with Anthony Christina and headed back to Park Forest Village where we watched the game. Closer than comfortable for most of the game, and ultimately driven into overtime before Penn State’s lucky, somewhat incredible victory.

    Here’s Joan Niesen telling the story of this game:

    For the second time in three years, Appalachian State pushed a top-10 Week 1 opponent to overtime—and lost.

    It took a late-game touchdown by Trace McSorley and an Amani Oruwariye pick in the end zone in overtime, but Penn State got its win, 45–38. It was, coach James Franklin said in his postgame Big Ten Network interview, “an ugly one, tough one,” but as night fell in Pennsylvania, the Nittany Lions hung on to their College Football Playoff hopes.

    Going into Saturday, Penn State was a popular pick to make college football’s final four, despite playing in a contender-laden Big Ten East. By halftime, the conference’s other favorites had logged wins; Wisconsin defeated Western Kentucky, 34–3, on Friday night, and Ohio State charged to a 77–31 win over Oregon State—without its coach, Urban Meyer, who is suspended from in-game coaching for two more weeks. Meanwhile, Penn State was tied at 10 with a Sun Belt team playing a first-year starter at quarterback. …

    It looked possible, probable even, that the Mountaineers would get their first major upset as an FBS team, 11 years to the day after they spoiled Michigan’s home opener from the ranks of the FCS.

    In the end, though, the game came down to two plays: McSorley’s 15-yard, game-tying touchdown pass to K.J. Hamler with 42 seconds remaining in regulation (a perfectly respectable throw against a Group of Five defense replacing its own accomplished coordinator, which Matt Millen in the Big Ten Network booth described a “Heisman play”), and App State coach Scott Satterfield’s choice to attempt a 56-yard field goal on fourth-and-four with 15 seconds to go. That decision to try to pull off a long kick rather than eke out four yards would haunt Appalachian State; the field goal was no good, and in overtime, reality took hold. McSorley and company were able to march down the field, and when Appalachian State got its turn, it barely nudged its way to a first down before Thomas threw the end-zone interception that decided the game. …

    Penn State looks like it has ground to gain if it wants to live up to its lofty expectations. The win kept them—and McSorley’s Heisman chances—alive, but with Pitt in primetime next week and Ohio State on September 29, things won’t get any easier from here.

  • Visiting Cincinnati

    Visiting Cincinnati

    I got in to Cincinnati on Wednesday evening, driving through a torrential rainstorm that let up just as I got into the city for dinner at Sotto’s. Spent the rest of the week huddling with Bobby Schindler to talk shop on the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network and both the next few months and longer term future.

    I’ve only visited Cincinnati a few times, and this was the first time I’ve spent any time downtown.