Norway Sees Norwegians

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The most impressive performance at the 2018 Pyeonchang Olympics has been the collective performance of the athletes of Norway. With a few days left, Norway has captured 33 medals in total, a little over 14% of all medals awarded.

What makes that incredible, of course, is that Norway is home to a mere 5.3 million people. That’s roughly equivalent to the population of St. Petersburg or Philadelphia.

Over the course of the modern Olympics, the US has managed to win 15% of all medals awarded in the Winter and Summer Olympics combined. So far in Pyeonchang, however, the US has won at roughly half that rate, although it is typically stronger in the summer events.

Still, there’s Norway, with less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population, with all those medals. That can’t be explained just by latitude or snowfall. Colorado and Minnesota, after all, each have more inhabitants.

Nor does money seem to explain the relative performances. Norway’s total economy is only about 2% of the US economy. Even adjusted for population the two countries are pretty close, ranking 6th and 9th, respectively. And while the US funds its athletes, as it does most everything, through corporate and private donations, as if these somehow don’t come out of the pockets of taxpayers and consumers, branded athletes don’t appear to be living lives of deprivation.

What really differentiates Norway from everyone else, it seems, is that it ranks number 1 in the World Happiness Index. The US ranks 14th, while Canada, which also has more medals than the US, ranks 7th.

Perhaps most telling, however; according to the CIA the US has the 40th least equal income distribution in the world, as measured by the GINI coefficient, worse than countries like Cameroon, Argentina, and Thailand. We’re a little less “unequal” than Jamaica and Saudi Arabia, admittedly, but Norway ranks 139th in financial inequality, while Canada ranks 112th, and Germany, the country with the second most medals, ranks 137th.

Statistics, of course, can be coincidental more than causal. There are an infinite number of variables involved in determining Olympic performance. The Norwegian athletes do seem happy, however. When Ragnhild Mowinckel won silver in the women’s downhill, no one seemed more surprised and unentitled than she did. Lindsey Vonn also showed the sportsmanship for which she has become known over her long and illustrious career, although many American headlines suggested she “settled” for third place. Even her father suggested she needed to take more risk.

I wonder, in fact, if an individuality index isn’t at the heart of all of this. Throughout the Games the Norwegians have talked exclusively about the team’s performance and supporting one another, and I suspect that’s how the people of Norway see it. American observers, on the other hand, seem intent on turning every athlete into either a celebrity or a bust, just like we evaluate our politicians.

We’re a “click” nation. Perhaps that’s why we’re not as happy as the Norwegians in the end.

If you like this thought, you’ll enjoy my latest book, now available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon. Click here for the paperback. Click here for the Kindle version.

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Gun Regulations – The Binary Myth

AR-15 Assault Rifle

When it comes to regulating access to certain types of guns, the debate inevitably takes on a binary quality of all or nothing. Gun owners, of course, fear the proverbial slippery slope, worried that if they can’t own some guns today, they won’t be allowed to own any guns tomorrow. Governance, however, is seldom binary. Regulations are inevitably designed to reflect the current reality, which in most aspects of our lives is constantly changing.

Consider this excerpt from my latest book, We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America: “The only guns available when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791 were the single fire musket and the flintlock pistol. In the hands of the most skilled operators, they had a capacity of about three rounds per minute and were accurate only at very short distances. The 2017 Las Vegas shooter, who killed 58 and left 546 injured, by comparison, was able to fire 1,100 rounds in less than ten minutes, massacring innocent civilians at a range of almost 500 yards.”

In Parkland, Florida, this past week, a nineteen year-old who was not old enough to buy alcohol, was able to legally purchase an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle with which he massacred 17, and wounded many more, all in a matter of minutes.

In every aspect of public safety other than guns, regulations change over time in order to recognize changes in technology. The automobile is a good case in point. When the car was first introduced in 1893 there was no requirement to have a license to operate one. By 1935, decades after the first car hit the roads, only 39 states required a driver’s license and few of those required a test. South Dakota didn’t require a license to drive a car until 1954. And cars were, of course, a pulbic safety hazard long before then.

At this point in time, of course, no one would seriously suggest that anyone should be allowed to drive a car without any kind of competency exam. And, of course, there are numerous restrictions on what kind of car you can drive. Why should guns be any different?

The real slippery slope is not the regulation of gun ownership but the path we’re on. If entertainment is the only requirement, why can’t I own a nuclear bomb or other such device? It has no use in traditional activities like hunting,of course,but neither does an AR-15 assault rifle.

So why won’t lawmakers take on the gun lobby? It’s the money, of course. But that is the slipperiest slope of all. When money drives governance, as it clearly does now, tyranny cannot be far behind. (Or is here.)

At some point, we have to say that enough is enough. Our political representatives are not going to do it on our behalf.

How many more innocent deaths will it take?

If you like this thought, you’ll enjoy my latest book, now available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon. Click here for the paperback. Click here for the Kindle version.

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Professional Alpine Skier Compeeting at Giant Slalom Race Against the Blue Sky
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History may or may not rhyme, but it does unfold in starts and stops that appear, in retrospect, to be, well, nonsensical. What were we thinking?

I think we can safely say that about the multi-millennial run of slavery, white patriarchy, sexual abuse, and discrimination in all of its various shades. How did we ever think those things were okay?

The obvious explanation is that the folks who enjoy a position of power are naturally reluctant to push for change. Why would they? Eventually, however, the tipping point arrives, the oppressed have had enough, and change follows, as we are now experiencing with #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

It’s about time. There is much work yet to be done. And part of the reason I am so anxious to solve these long-simmering and egregious problems is my hope that we can move on to attack my own pet peeve (I am after all, an older white male, so have little else to complain about.): commercialism.

Commercialism is the logically and morally ridiculous notion that our eyeballs and our attention are the property of corporate America. We have an obligation, or duty, in other words, to watch commercials online and on television because “they”, the corporations, are what make it all possible.

I am reminded, once again, at just how far we Americans have drifted from common sense while watching one of my personal favorites, the Winter Olympics. It’s all about the purity of amateur athleticism and the strength of the human spirit. And yet to have the right to celebrate these values I am forced to endure completely irrelevant advertisements from corporations like Koch Industries, McDonald’s, and, of course, the car companies, which have virtually no relevance to the events taking place.

Why? Because, we’re told, they are the ones who pay for the coverage. It is our patriotic duty as Americans to watch their commercials because they, corporate America, are the backbone of American exceptionalism.


It’s bunk.

Ultimately, there is only one source of wealth and that is the hard work of individual people just trying to get by. It stops and ends there. You, my friend, are paying for the privilege of watching all of those commercials. You. Only you.

This idea that we must allow the advertisers to exploit our attention is the very same logic that applies to the government’s application of tolls in order to pay for new highway initiatives. It all sounds fair in the beginning but the reality is that those tolls will remain in place long after the highway is paid for. Why? Because they can.

We don’t have to put up with it. And I am not. What coverage I can’t find online I am watching on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation channel. (Yes, I live in the US.)

As the founder of Filene’s, Edward Filene, famously and accurately noted, “I’m glad to pay half of my money in taxes to the American people because I took it all from them to begin with.”

If you like this thought, you’ll love my latest book, now available on Amazon. Click here.

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Spectacle Nation

Crowd at concert and blurred stage lights .
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I would love to see a Super Bowl halftime show with an “unplugged” theme. You know, like Eric Clapton or Alicia Keys used to do. Just a musician alone on stage with an acoustic guitar or a piano and something to share.

That won’t happen, of course. We are a spectacle nation now. We like our entertainment big and splashy. We like performances we can turn into memes.

Actually, we’ve given up on entertainment. Despite the fact that entertainment and social media are gazillion-dollar industries, no one wants to be awed any more. We want to awe.

For many, Ryan McKenna, 13, was the star of this year’s Super Bowl. Yes, he was the kid shown standing next to Justin Timberlake but otherwise absorbed with his own cell phone, undoubtedly checking out the selfie he had just taken with the famous alum of The Mickey Mouse Club and *NSYNC.

Take a closer look at the now famous picture, however. (You will have no option if you open your browser today.) Half the people around Timberlake and McKenna are staring at the screen on their smart phones making sure that the video they are recording is awesome. The other half are posing for the jumbotron, hoping to become memorialized for being “there”; there being the absolutely best, hippest place to be at the moment, having little to do with Timberlake’s actual performance.

When Timberlake was down on the field, dancing and strutting his way through the small army of backup performers, each dancing in their own signature style, the mood was very much the same. They weren’t backing up anyone. They were out to make sure that someone saw them doing “their” thing.

Okay, so I’m old and the art is different now. I get that. But it’s not a spectacle. It’s a thousand would-be spectacles all happening at once. It’s no wonder loneliness is now considered by many to be the biggest health issue facing the country today. And let’s not forget boredom; because they are two sides of the same coin. Life is pretty boring if your sole objective is to become popular and everyone else is busy pursuing the same objective.

Whatever happened to just watching? It’s a lower bar, for sure, and I’m all for setting a high bar, but it is more realistic and, in the end, probably more rewarding. What was the last thing that happened in your life that really wowed you—as in WOW! that was great—that you merely observed and had no role in whatsoever. You weren’t recording it to post to your Twitter feed. You were just watching and taking it all in.

We’ve forgotten how to watch. And that’s more than a little sad. How can we be a society of 315 million individuals, each existing in our own bubble? (Hint: We can’t.)

And, yes, my new book is now available on Amazon. I know it’s not about you. It’s not about me, either. It’s about us. Click here.

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Old Age

Happy Couple In The Kitchen
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Old age gets a bum rap. Yes, time is running out. And one becomes, in general, less and less relevant. Your younger colleagues stop listening quite so attentively. Your children increasingly dismiss what you say as, “That’s just Dad.” Or worse yet, “Things are different now.” (No, they aren’t.)

But the bum rap just doesn’t hold water. Old age may be the most liberating time of life. There is virtually no doubt that with age comes wisdom, although like anything in life, you have to be willing to let it come. (That, of course, is true at any age.)

The real value of age is that if you have lived at all you have come to realize just how complicated life is. You see life for what it is, but the world is not less colorful. There is, in fact, more color. There are just fewer shades.

But perhaps that is the most liberating aspect of old age. You’re running out of runway. Time to pick a perspective. No time for bullshit. No time for pretense. No time for deluding yourself the way most of us do throughout our so-called peak years. It’s time to speak the truth, to yourself and others.

Young people should listen to us more. But life is a dichotomy. The truth is that we should listen to them more attentively than we do. They have something to say, just like we did. The fact that no one listened to us is no excuse to perpetuate the ignorance.

They say you mellow with age. That’s not true at all. You’ve just learned to separate the wheat from the chaff. That’s focus, not lethargy. And with focus comes clarity.

I care a lot less about how I look or whether or not I’m ready for a haircut. But I’m not getting lazy. I just have priorities. Correct that: I have different priorities.

So don’t feel sorry for we older folks. And please stop encouraging us to act and think young. We’re not. And young is vastly overrated. I see that now.

I have regrets. I have many regrets. And that’s a good thing. I didn’t have so many regrets a couple of decades ago. They were worries then. Regrets are just worries that have fallen out of suspension. But that makes them more tangible, and tangible is good. You can deal with things that you can touch.

I do not fear death. I am, in fact, anxious to see just how clear my mind gets as I continue to age. Clear enough and death will be just like birth. Clarity to clarity, with a whole lot of noise in between.

Not bad.

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Facebook’s Binary Flaw

Binary Numbers Dataset Low Angle
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For a guy worth north of $70 billion, Mark Zuckerberg seems worried. He has been in the news a lot of late making important strategic announcements about the future of his creation, Facebook. And what seems to be the source of his concern is the growing backlash over the issue of fake news and Facebook’s unintentional impact, perhaps an illusion, on the 2016 election.

In a short period of time Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would de-emphasize the news provided by its institutional clients, and, this past week, that the sources relied upon in building Facebook’s news feeds will be defined by user assessments of credibility and trust.

The source of Zuckerberg’s dilemma, in the end, is the binary flaw. It is the source of many problems in the tech world that are just now beginning to be understood by the billions of users who have flocked to the Internet in search of truth.

The Internet is ultimately built on binary selections because that is ultimately what the technology is built on. At the heart of every computer is a chip that contains a series of electrical markers that can only be on or off. They can, by definition, be nothing else.

The tech companies and their legions of coders can organize these binary selections in ways, often through the use of algorithms, that make them appear to be multiary. But it’s an illusion. Until computers acquire human consciousness, and they are a long way off from that, the reality of tech is binary.

In addition to relying on algorithms to make binary decisions behave in more complex ways, the masters of the tech universe turn to the law of large numbers. As it applies here it essentially holds that even though a single decision may be binary, if you amass enough binary decisions, the result will look a lot more like a multi-faceted, reasoned assessment.

The law of large numbers, however, only behaves this way if the original binary decision is relatively obvious and easy to render, and the large numbers cannot be organized by the binary decision-makers. The large numbers will statistically overcome any coincidental or causal bias in the individual assessments.

That, however, is not the case here. There is absolutely no science to suggest that the opinion of a billion users, when it comes to news, will be any more valid than the opinion of any one person. In fact, because there is virtually no barrier to casting a vote, just the opposite is true. Counting votes will empower those opinion groups that prove most successful in organizing their members.

In the end, Facebook’s only real choice is, not surprisingly, a binary one. If it really cares about its role in disseminating false news it has only two choices: 1. It can stop disseminating news. 2. It can educate its users on the binary flaw so that they can decide what is true and what is not true for themselves.

That’s it: bias or transparency.

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The Null Hypothesis

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The universe is a duality. Every coin has two sides. For every pro there is a con. For every yin there is a yang. For every this there is a that.

But which is right?

The Chinese would say, neither. Reality is defined by the balance, or lack thereof, between the two. Scientists, on the other hand, would insist that one side or the other is the dominant reality—one side of the duality is the rule and the other side is the exception.

But which is which, and how do we determine the rule and the exception?

Using the scientific method, a theory is verified through controlled experimentation that isolates one variable and measures its influence against the control.

It all sounds straightforward and rational, of course, until you look a little more closely. In many cases the two sides of the duality are not deductively equal.

As an example, it has been shown that people who go to college, on average, earn more money over the course of a lifetime. Why? We assume it is because of the knowledge acquired. But is the correlation causal or coincidental?

What if the value of the college experience is simply the acquisition of the ability to drink large amounts of alcohol? Would it be enough to prove that college graduates drink more? Probably not. To get your theory accepted, you’d have to prove that they drank more and that they acquired no knowledge. Otherwise people would say that they might drink more but that’s not the reason they get ahead. The knowledge theory, in other words, just makes more sense than the drinking theory.

In science the prevailing assumption is called the null hypothesis. It’s the hypothesis that must be disproved in order to approve a different hypothesis.

I am currently reading a book by Yale ornithologist, Richard Prum, in which he argues that the extent and diversity of beauty in nature cannot be explained by adaptive or natural selection alone. But Prum’s opinion is widely dismissed by other scientists because natural selection is the null hypothesis among evolutionary biologists.

To prove his theory Prum would have to disprove the null hypothesis. And it can’t be disproved if you’re not willing to accept that it can be. Even if you can show that the peacock’s tail has no advantage in natural selection, perhaps a big pretty tail just shows that this peacock is so genetically superior that he survives natural selection despite his handicap.

Which is why most scientific research simply confirms the null hypothesis. Science is not neutral. It is asymmetrical. The game is rigged. The popular kids get the most likes simply because they are more popular.

In fact, we’re wired to form decisions quickly. It’s more efficient and it allows us to escape imminent danger.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the most obvious explanation is the correct explanation. More often than not, we see what we expect to see. Or, at least, what we allow ourselves to see.

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