An Experiment In Scotch

I write to discover what I believe

Month: February 2016

Caprock Canyons Aoudad Hunt

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Alone on the highway again, Bob squinted at a wadded quilt of cloud crawling over the sky. There unrolled beside the Saturn the level land, every inch put to use for crops, oil gas, cattle, service towns. The ranches were set far back from the main road, and now and then he passed an abandoned house, weather-burned, surrounded by broken cottonwoods. In The fallen windmills and collapsed outbuildings he saw the country’s fractured past scattered about like the pencils on the desk of a draughtsman who has gone to lunch. The ancestors of the place hovered over the bits and pieces of their finished lives. He did not notice the prairie dog that raced out of the roadside weeds into his path and the tires bumped slightly as he hit it. A female red-tail lifted into the air. It was the break she had been waiting for. – From That Old Ace In The Hole

Driving into the canyons on Tuesday morning, I think to myself “There is nothing I find more beautiful that a sunrise the the Texas Panhandle.” This is the country I grew up in and its palette still stirs my soul. I’m on my way to Caprock Canyons State Park for an Aoudad and feral hog hunt that I have won through the Texas Parks and Wildlife draw hunt system. I am meeting my father-in-law in the park who drove nine hours from Rogers, AR yesterday with his RV that I will stay in instead of having to camp in a tent in the middle of winter. I have pretty cool in-laws. In my preparation for the hunt, I found very little first hand knowledge on the web so this is my review of what I did to prepare, what the hunt was like and any other tips that come up.

Equipment
Rifles: Weatherby Mark V in 7 MM magnum, Savage Axis in .243
Boots: Danner 8 inch High Ground
Binoculars: Steiner 8×22
Rangefinder: Redfield Raider 600

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Preparation
My physical preparation involved CrossFit about every other day starting in October. In December, I started ramping up leg work, specifically squats, cleans and deadlifts. At the beginning of the hunt, I was back up to 3×5 back squat at 195lbs with a max around 235-245. I also started running 5 miles once a week in January. Going in to the hunt, I was a little nervous about my preparation given the description of the hunt which is “This is a VERY strenuous hunt.” As usual though, CrossFit prepares you better than you think. I always feel weak and unprepared before physical challenges because CrossFit exposes your weaknesses. But it over prepares you for everything else. Over the course of 3.5 days of hiking in extremely rugged terrain, my only issue was tight achilles which I suffer from anyway. I was never sore which made starting days at 5:15 much easier. This is definitely the hardest physical hunt I’ve been on and I wouldn’t want to go into it unprepared.

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Day 1 Scouting
I arrived at the park around 8:30 and got settled into the trailer. I headed out to scout around 10 AM and started in the North Prong parking lot headed north towards Fern Cave. I walked all the way to Fern Cave that morning glassing the walls of the canyon as I went. There probably wasn’t any hunting reason to go all the way up but Mara and I had been here in September and not made it so I wanted to see the ferns. I didn’t see any sheep or hogs on that section but there were plenty of places that looked promising. In the afternoon, I walked the Canyon Rim trail out to where it started down into the Canyon. This trail bisects the Orange Compartment. There were some very sheep-y looking spots along the canyon rim and down into the canyon at the end. However, if you shot something down in one of those canyons, I don’t think there’s any way you could get it out. The orange compartment looked decent from this side of the park but I found out later that the opposite side along CR 29 was pretty forbidding. That night, I met one other group of hunters who were camping. A father and daughter, I think it was her first hunt. They were tent camping a couple of spots down from me. He had talked with the rangers pretty extensively and apparently the hunt two weeks before us had been pretty successful with 13 sheep killed though 1 guy had killed 8 of those. Apparently he was some sort of sniper and saw a herd 750 yards away. He took out 8 before they realized what was going on I guess. I guess sheep don’t pay much attention when Bob drops dead next to them. That’s also pretty impressive given everything I read online said aoudads were very hard to kill.

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Day 2 Briefing, Compartment draw and hunt
The draw happened at 9 though standbys had to show up at 8:30. There were six groups total, at least one of which was standby. There are seven compartments so no one got turned away. We signed all the liability waivers and then got the pre-hunt briefing from the coordinator. Basically, it boiled down to be careful, wear your hunter orange or get kicked out, be ethical hunters and don’t touch the middle wire on the boundary fence. Apparently, bison require fairly forceful reminders that there is a fence there. We drew for compartments and I got Green South. This wasn’t any of the areas that I scouted of course but the person in charge of the hunt seemed to think it was a good compartment. Three days later, I decided she was just being nice to me. This hunt had two dates and 24 permits available which would come out to 12 per hunt date. The officer in charge has said there were two cancellations but that still doesn’t add up to 12 so I’m not sure what was different. After we drew, the hunt officially started and everyone headed out to their compartments. The ranger who did the briefing gave pointers to everyone on their compartments and generally seemed pretty knowledgable. I got to my compartment around 10:30. I hiked up Canyon Loop Trail about a quarter of a mile and headed right into the compartment. Green South is in the middle of the park and doesn’t have any canyon walls like several other compartments. There is a large ridge/plateau that runs east and west through the compartment which looked the most promising and was where the ranger and sent me. I hiked all the way around it it that afternoon glassing for sheep up the plateau and hogs in the flatter areas. Everywhere I went I saw tracks, torn up prickly pear and scat. However, that’s all I saw all day. I couldn’t walk five feet without seeing tracks, mostly hog, but never saw a single animal. Unfortunately at some point, my shirt that I thought I had tied to my backpack disappeared. I backtracked about half a mile but never found it. I stayed out until right at 6. Legal shooting hours were from 7:15 to 6:30 but I wasn’t sure how far of a hike I had back to the car. Turns out, it was a pretty long one over rough terrain and I finally hit the Canyon Loop trail at dark. On the way out, there were a pair of great horned owls in trees on the bluff which was neat to see. Not as neat as an aoudad or hog but better than nothing. I signed out at 6:45 and chatted with two other groups. They were in blue and orange, both had seen nothing either all day.

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Day 3
I signed in at 6:15, first on the sheet. I didn’t have a very good feel of where to go so headed back to a similar spot though on the north side of the plateau. I glassed there once the sun was up and then moved along the north side from ridge to ridge, glassing as I went. Same story as the day before, lots of sign, no animals. I eventually did see three mule deer about 600 yards north of the plateau. I ended up circling the entire plateau this time with the exact same result. About 5 hours in the field. On the upside, I did find my shirt from the day before which was pretty lucky given the terrain. So it wasn’t a completely lost morning. The scenery was beautiful and it was nice to see the sun come up in the canyon. I decided to head up to headquarters around noon to see if anyone had bailed or if they had any other tips for my compartment. As it turned out, someone had already headed home. He was another single hunter like me (we were the only two singles) and had drawn Orange. He had signed in at 9:15 and back out at 11:30 and said he was done. I thought I would give his compartment a shot since it had looked semi-decent on my scouting. I decided to go around to where he was hunting from on the far eastern side along CR 29. As it turns out, I see why he quit. I’m pretty sure the rangers sent him this direction and it is VERY difficult hunting from there. If you shot something, there’s no way you could drag it back to the road. It was cut by several deep canyons running north and south. I hiked in in two places and immediately was stymied on going further. The funny thing is, the access from Wild Horse campground is way better and you’d have a decent chance to drag something out if you shot it. I assume the rangers know best but in this case, the north end of Orange along Mesa trail would be much easier to get into while still looking like good sheep terrain. I headed back to headquarters to switch back to Green South. The office was closed so I texted the hunt coordinator to see if I could switch back. My plan was to walk in from Wild Horse. I didn’t hear back from the coordinator but assumed no one else had signed into green while I was out. I walked in from Wild Horse and headed west on the Lower Canyon Trail. After I crossed the river, I walked up a mesa to glass. The Lower Canyon Trail is the boundary between blue and green but I had assumed no one was hunting that slice of blue north of the park road. However, immediately upon sitting down, I saw a flash of blaze orange on the mesa just south of me. One of the blue hunters was looking west along the river. I decided I didn’t want to be looking the same direction and switched to the other side of the mesa. About 20 minutes later, I saw him walking east on the Lower Canyon trail towards the trailhead and Wild Horse. I immediately got worried that someone had in fact signed into green while I was in orange. I didn’t want to be hunting in a compartment that had other hunters who didn’t know I was there so I hiked out at that point to confirm what compartment I was in. As it turned out, I was in green and had been switched. At that point, it was 4 PM and after a ton of hiking up very rugged terrain and seeing nothing, I decided to call it a day early.

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Day 4
The wind was blowing hard out of the southwest this morning which affected where to hunt. I could have gone back into North Prong area but it would have been a hard walk in the dark across the plateau so I decided to head down from the Wild Horse campground in search of a downwind spot. Yesterday, I had come to where the Canyon Loop trail crosses the river but it was deep enough to cover my boots and the thought of wet boots didn’t interest me much. This morning, I headed east on the Mesa trail and the river was much more navigable. I decided to climb the first mesa north of Mesa trail which overlooks the river in two directions, a creek and the trail junction. It was a good spot downwind with excellent vantage. Unfortunately, like all other days, Mother nature didn’t agree with me. I stayed there getting wind blowing 20-30 MPH winds until around 9. At that point, I headed into Green South and hiked about half a mile in over two mesas and looking into the canyons. Nothing. At this point, it was about 10 AM and the hunt ended at noon. I didn’t want to walk farther in because on the extremely unlikely chance I saw anything, I wasn’t sure I could drag it out by 12. So I sat on the mesa overlooking the river and just contemplated the previous days. About 10:30, I caught movement in the river to the east near the Mesa trail about 600 yards off. My excitement was short-lived as I turned my binoculars to the area and saw that it was 14 bison. The camp staff had been trying to round up all the bison over the past month and maybe these were the main holdouts. I watched them walk them walk the Lower Canyon Trail and then double back up the hill towards the Wild Horse Trail. They were magnificent to see and made my morning given how much terrain I had looked at without seeing anything. I gave them about a 15 minute head start and then headed down the mesa towards the car. I ended my hunt around 11 AM having walked close to 25 miles over 3.5 days. I had seen only 3 mule deer. I signed out around 11:15. Another group hadn’t shown up the last morning leaving only 4 groups out of 6 remaining. The ranger had taken the father/daughter team to a new compartment because it was her first hunt and they were hoping to at least shoot some hogs having seen no aoudads in 2 days of being in a promising compartment. I had spoken with the father the night before and he had said another group was going to hunt their compartment. As it turned out, that was the group that didn’t show up leaving what looked like the second best compartment (Pink on the map) empty on the last day of the hunt. I wish I had known that and in the future, I will confirm with parties their plans. Even going in blind, that compartment is much more sheep-y and who knows what a new day would have brought.

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Overall, the hunt was a fantastic experience even without seeing a single shootable animal. It was physically challenging in the extreme and I felt good in my preparation. In retrospect, I’d do two things differently. First, I’d definitely confirm people’s intentions towards the end of the hunt, especially the last day. This is the second draw hunt I have been on and on each occasion, people have not hunted the last day. This leaves compartments available and in this case, a good one. Second, for this hunt in particular, after first light, if nothing showed in promising areas, I would walk more canyons in poor compartments just looking for hogs. Apparently that’s how the rangers hunt the park. The hogs will hole up in the canyons during the day.
I’m thankful to the excellent staff at the Caprock Canyon State Park for the job they did in organizing and helping the hunters. I’m also grateful for the experience. The odds of drawing this hunt are very low (1 in 1200 or so for 2015) and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity. I may try to do standby here in the future, especially if weather is worse because they seem to have cancellations. Even this week, a perfect week weather-wise (though I think colder weather would have helped move the animals around), 2 groups cancelled leaving an empty compartment. The one standby group got a really good compartment so there’s no reason not to try it if the schedule allows.

There is a certain emotion with events like this that are expected for so long and then over in 3 days. I still feel a pang of a hazy nostalgia when I think of the trip over a month later. I planned for and thought about those three days for 5 months prior to the trip so it is only reasonable to feel a sense of loss when it is over. But even more than that, it’s a nostalgia for the plains of the Panhandle, for the stark beauty of the canyon, and the openness of the prairie beyond the windshield of the car. There is a breadth to the Panhandle that seems to consume and minimize you along with your fears and desires. There is nothing soft there, only angles and wind and a thousand things that can stick, bite or sting you. Yet when night falls and the Milky Way opens up above your head or the sun rises over your shoulders while walking along a prairie trail, a sublime beauty emerges from the starkness capable of soaking your soul. There is little else there and the quiet and the darkness still the mind allowing for peace to return. It’s a beautiful place beyond my expectations and one I always treasure.

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Software Gambles

Bear with me, this isn’t going to sound like a software essay for a little bit. But trust me, I’ll get there.

Ask a random sampling of people who know me at a level somewhere north of “mere acquaintance” what one word they would use to describe me and I’d bet at least 30% of them said “gambler”. I’m not going to get into the details of why that might be the case here on the public internet but the moniker might be warranted based on certain extracurricular activities. On the surface, this seems weird because I’m not much of a chance seeking, thrill riding enthusiast in regular life. But I do love action when it comes to football games, casinos and golf matches. Early on in my gambling career, there were lots of losses and not so many wins. Gambling, like any other skill, involves some experiential instruction that can’t be readily gained from reading about it on the internet. But there’s a dirty little secret to gambling that most people on the outside looking in don’t understand. Good gamblers rarely take risks on the unknown or combinations of bets because they know as a general rule, you have a much higher chance of going broke when you do. The fat tail of gambling failure is similar to the old adage about the stock market: it can stay irrational a lot longer than you can stay solvent. Betting on 10 games on Sunday is a fast way to go broke unless you have very real, very hard empirical data that says you can win 56% of the time (and that’s all it takes to be a very successful sports bettor which is a shocking fact to many people and one reason why you should never, ever trust someone who is trying to sell you picks that claim greater than 57% winners. If they could really pick ’em at that clip, they wouldn’t be selling picks).

Let’s say you really can pick football (or basketball or whatever) winners at 55%. Let’s say you have a $2000 bankroll and you bet the recommended amount of 5% of your bankroll on any given bet. If you bet one game on Sunday, you have a 55% chance of winning $100 and a 45% chance of losing $110 (the extra $10 is the service charge the book extracts, that’s another post all to itself), all else being equal, for an expected profit of $5.5. Sweet, we’re going to be rich! Seems like we should be as many games as we can then, right? Well, no. For one thing, chances are you don’t actually pick at 55%. You pick 55% right on games you fully understand and that you have studied. Others, you might not have a clue about. Also, even if this is a very normal distribution AND if you actually do pick every game at 55%, there is a chance you will lose every single game over the course of 2 weeks and go broke. The chance is astronomically low but it exists. And that’s why most professional gamblers don’t bet lots and lots of games every weekend. Limit your risk by taking singular and calculated gambles that you control for.

What does this have to do with software? This essay on building stable systems contains a treasure trove of important ideas for developing good software but one that stood out to me was this paragraph:

A project usually have a single gamble only. Doing something you’ve never done before or has high risk/reward is a gamble. Picking a new programming language is a gamble. Using a new framework is a gamble. Using some new way to deploy the application is a gamble. Control for risk by knowing where you have gambled and what is the stable part of the software. Be prepared to re-roll (mulligan) should the gamble come out unfavorably.

Note the intersection of ideas between actual gambling and gambling on your software projects. Limit your risk by limiting your gambles. At work, I’m currently involved in a high-priority project that has the potential to shift the types of products we can offer our customers substantially. It’s actually been on the books for over two years with fits and starts but finally has the political backing to get it done. Now to me, a high priority, high visibility project like this is in and of itself a gamble. On top of that, this particular project is different from our current set up in a few important ways which increases the risk. That alone should be enough to say: “let’s not introduce any more risk into the project.” Instead, for a variety of reasons both political and technical in nature, we are attempting to deliver this project using a new communication framework (RabbitMQ), integrating a new database (Couchbase), monitoring it using a new stack (ELK), deploying it using a new tool (Octopus Deploy) and possibly utilizing an offshore team in Russia. As exciting as all that sounds technically (except for that last part, that gives me nightmares), it seems to me a project fraught with risk. If our chances of success for the project doing just one of those things is somewhere in the realm of 80%, the chance of getting them all right is tiny. Our best case scenario in a probability function is that each event is unrelated (this isn’t necessarily true if some of the probabilities are related and work in each other’s favor, see Bayes’ Theorem but I seriously doubt implementing RabbitMQ is going to drastically increase the success rate of a Couchbase implementation). Instead of limiting our risk, this project is taking on scope like the Lusitania took on water.

None of this means the project will be a failure. But what it likely means is that many of the gambles added to the project will result in poor implementations that hurt our chances of success in the medium to long term. This is not the way to build a stable system. So how do we manage the risk? One is to push back on all the technological scope. This is possible but difficult in an environment where there are competing interests above and beyond the success of the project. Delivering X is great for the company but delivering X with Y new technologies is better for N number of teams. Saying no means some teams have their darlings at least pushed off into the future if not killed. The problem with this is that my team doesn’t control all these decisions. Another way might be to utilize one technology (RabbitMQ for instance) to ease the risk of another one (Couchbase. By doing database writes via a queue, we could write to both the new and old database to ensure success). This is something the team does have control over and that we will probably implement. Another way is to leverage the expertise of other teams/people for particular pieces (DevOps controls Octopus). But each of these are just Band-Aids on the larger wound of too much risk in a single project.

The right way to have a successful project and move towards a stable system is to bite off only as much risk as you can hedge. Each of the tenets in that essay can be used to build a stable system but it involves engineering discipline and political understanding to get there. If you watched the Republican debate tonight, you know political understanding is a dying characteristic in our society. In the interim, the best I can do is protect the team from the risks to the best of my ability and let strong engineering rise to the top. And hope that the next big bet I make only includes a single gamble. I may or may not like the Steelers at 10 to 1 to win the Super Bowl next year. 🙂

On Disconnection and Isolation

Last week, at 11:17 PM on Tuesday night, our front door bell rang. For most people, this would result in a slight apprehension before answering the door to find out what neighbor is locked out of their house. But if you harbor some anxiety about the neighborhood you live in, justified or not, a rung doorbell at any hour outside of a 12 hour window between 10 AM and 10 PM can have a definitely different reaction. There have been stories lately in our neighborhood of people ringing doorbells to find out if people are home before breaking in or stealing their cars. We have a neighbor directly behind us who have who had their front door kicked in in broad daylight and all electronics stolen. We’ve had a home invasion on our cul de sac in the 18 months we’ve lived there. And so, instead of making a logical decision (it didn’t help that we were long since asleep and not particularly rational when the door rang), I immediately started thinking the worst and worried for the safety of family and home.

By the time I had actually woken up and made it into the living room, handgun in hand, I saw a black truck drive away from the house and turn the corner. We have renters next to us who have been, if not outright unfriendly, then at least aloof and one neighbor behind us has seen people from that house come down and take pictures of our cars. All of these things come to mind at 11:30 at night when the doorbell rings. After making the rounds of the house and seeing nothing outside out of the ordinary and setting the alarm, I climbed back into bed. Immediately the phone rang with a unrecognized numbers. “Weirder and weirder,” I said to Mara but didn’t answer it. Only when I got the voicemail from our friendly neighbor behind the house about our garage door being wide open, did I start to feel exceptionally foolish. Of course it’s a neighbor. That’s what neighbors do. But fears of crime and a general feeling of anxiety turned a neighborly act into a stressful situation. Once upon a time, in a different era, people were more likely to be connected to their neighborhood (though of course we know this is a generalization about a false nostalgia but I don’t think anyone would argue that the neighborhoods of today are more connected than those of 30 years ago when kids played safely on the street and walked safely home from school). A doorbell after 10 might cause concern but not fear. Yet today, in areas like south Dallas, it’s difficult to manage those fears, especially when there is a constant, torrential inflow of information regarding bad things happening to people.

And we’re some of the lucky ones. Many people have no idea who their neighbors are. We have the phone numbers of several around us. We talk to them regularly in the street. Still, in certain circumstances, fear is the easier emotion to muster when something happens. A strong crime-free neighborhood can be thought of as a kind of cultural safety net. When something happens, people are there for you. However, as a society, we are more disconnected from each other than ever before. In a world when you can Skype with people in Russia, there is less and less meaningful human connection, more and more isolation as we have to drive farther and farther to get to our jobs and more and more inventions designed to keep our face glued to a tiny screen in front of us instead of lifting up our heads to see the world. This disconnectedness, this isolation, makes it easy to prey on our fears whether the hunters are politicians, marketers or media talking heads. And because we are evolutionarily wired to be alert for danger and react to it (far better to run like hell from a shadow that could be a lion but turns out to be a bush than to “make sure” and be dead), this disconnectedness is a self fulfilling circle. It is not easy to get out of our natural state and try to see things in a different light.

David Foster Wallace wrote a commencement speech for Kenyon College in 2005 called “This is water”. I watch it once or twice a year to remind myself of its lesson which is this: our default setting is almost always self centered and revolves around how poorly we are treated or what bad luck we have. When someone cuts us off, we yell in rage in our confined little cars never once thinking that maybe that person is trying to get to the hospital to see his child born. When the grocery store only has one checkout station open, we mentally fume about how our time is being misused never thinking what it must be like to be that one single clerk servicing all these angry people. It takes a great deal of effort, perhaps more than most people can bear, to step outside this default and assume the best of everything. Because it’s much easier to assume the worst, we fall into traps constantly about what is causing the problems that we have. Now, 70 years after a generation of Americans saved the world from incomprehensible evil, we have a society and a culture that in almost every way is designed to pander to our default setting of selfishness. Yet, we are a social species so we find communities within this selfishness that oftentimes become echo chambers and further the self-fulfillment of “It’s someone else’s fault.” We have at least one full generation who has grown up totally on the Internet where saying things you would never say to anyone’s face is de rigueur. More and more we have created places in our lives where it’s acceptable to do perfectly inhumane things. And while most of our bad behavior is limited to the confines of our car or Facebook or whatever, our politicians have become living caricatures of that behavior.

We have a leading Republican candidate who wants to build a wall between us and Mexico because it’s the illegals who are making it difficult to get a job, not because long ago we allowed our corporations and manufacturers to send perfectly good middle class jobs overseas. We have an entire Republican field who seem to strongly believe the sitting President of the United States should not nominate a Supreme Court justice after Justice Scalia passed away last week. We have a Democratic candidate and former Secretary of State who found it perfectly reasonable to have a private email server for official United States business. We have become disconnected not just from those we disagree with but also from a sense of common decency. Gone are the days of cross-aisle negotiations to get key legislature passed, ala Lyndon Johnson. Our centrist common sense politicians are being replaced through big money and big lobbying with meme spouting rich loud mouths. Our politicians vilify opposing view points as if they were truly evil and not human beings coming to different conclusions regarding certain facts.

But our politicians are and always have been real life caricatures of ourselves. Walk anywhere today and you see people totally disconnected from the world around them, heads buried in their phones or tablets, headphones on to drown out the sounds and distractions of the world they only partially inhabit. People share tiny sound bites on social media that are extremist representations of the political and cultural memes they believe, beliefs that are almost always handed down to them through their families with little thought of how the other side might operate. Other people in their own echo chamber share and promote this extremism. We live our technological lives in mediums that are designed to grab attention as quickly and cheaply as possible. The words “socialism” or “immigration” or “taxes” and a million other talking points encompass entire gray universes of complex issues that we increasingly refuse to accept. And then we are shocked (shocked I tell you!) when our very own extremism and disconnectedness come full circle and are personified in our political candidates. The mediums we choose for communication today drive our inability to discuss and grasp the subtle and sublime in life and in politics.

We don’t do this out of malice. In fact, our technical interaction is largely done for the same reasons and through the same mechanisms as today’s click bait advertising. We want to see the little red circle with a large number of likes or comments in it. And the easiest way to do that is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. A picture of a cat with a cucumber will get more response than a 5000 word essay and slowly our ability to deeply understand and discuss our world fades away. Our relationships become shallower and shallower. In return for our own abandonment of the connectedness of social interaction, we receive politicians who are incapable of consensus building. They can only yell like children that they have been wronged which is exactly what we do every day. It is our default setting and without struggle and effort and vigilance against the forces in our technologically connected but socially disconnected world, we fall farther and farther into that default setting until we are unable to experience someone who disagrees with us as anything but an enemy to be defeated. When that happens, we are lost because there are always enemies enough in life without creating make believe ones ourselves.

Here’s just on example of how this works, how we get caught in our own personal echo chambers driven by social media. Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was buried. President Obama attended the visitation Friday to pay his respects but did not attend the funeral. This morning in my Facebook feed was a post from the Chicago Tribune faulting Obama for not attending the funeral saying it was what “Chicago guys do”. I read it and immediately thought of the time an aunt died in my family. I wasn’t close with that part of our family but I took off work to drive to Oklahoma City to go to the funeral. I did this because she had been important to the continuation of our family reunion. But I also did it out of sense of duty, a sense of “that’s just what you do”. So as I read this article about Obama not attending Scalia’s funeral, I did so in the light of my own bias, my own belief system and by the time I was done, I was convinced this was a mistake if for no other reason than the political enemies of President Obama could now use this as fodder for retribution around the entire empty Supreme Court seat. I expected to add this story here as an example of disconnectedness. A moment of reflection and a quick Google search led me to another conclusion. There are perfectly other, perfectly plausible reasons why a President might not attend the funeral of a sitting Supreme Court Justice who died. For one, a Catholic funeral is not an event of state. Having a President attend with all the related logistics would have added significantly to the planning and execution of the funeral. For another, it’s perfectly reasonable he made contact with the family and they expressed a desire to not have him there for the very same reasons. There are myriad other reasons why he might choose not to attend. Yet, as I sat drinking coffee reading one viewpoint that happened to exactly fit my personal biases. I convinced myself this was a major error in decorum. This is a very personal decision made by the President of the United States possibly in conjunction with the family of Justice Scalia but I made it into a political issue because of social media and my default setting and bias. It’s worth noting that this particular bias is actually a good one and is directly related to maintaining a sense of connectedness with those who are important to us. But I managed to briefly turn it into a way to be disconnected because social media and the ever present stream of information it feeds us makes it very easy to do so.

What does all this mean for our society? Our choices of communication enable us to superficially remain connected to more and more people while losing many of the aspects of deep connection. We live two lives, the one on social media where it is easy to isolate and promote sound bites that fit our personal biases, the other in real life in our interactions with our family, friends and the world in general. As we begin to spend more and more time on social media in an echo chamber of our own making, the actions on social media, being easier to accept, believe and promote, will continue to bleed into real life until we have effectively lost the ability to empathize and understand those with whom we disagree. We will have built a society around shallowness lacking civility that is incapable of emotions other than anger and disagreement. When I look at the politicians of today, I fear we may already be a long way down that road.

On Populism

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. – John F. Kennedy

Recently, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump dominated the New Hampshire primaries. Sanders won over 60% of the vote while The Donald pulled in 35% in a much more crowded Republican field. Both were 20% points more popular than their nearest rivals. In their respective parties, these two represent a brand of populism in American politics that hasn’t been this strongly in the public consciousness since Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. If you believe things on the Internet (and at least some things are occasionally true there), the entrenched establishments of both parties are starting to get twitchy from the thought of America electing either of these two rather extremist candidates. Clinton has begun to launch more and more negative ads aimed not at spreading truth but instead hypocritical lies about Sanders. Time’s Joe Klein has taken to calling Trump’s supporters “A threat to the country“. These are just a couple of more prominent examples.

What does all this mean? There seems to be a seismic shift in the tectonic political plates playing out in this year’s political cycle. For so long, the status quo has been a very centrist undifferentiated political stance from either party. There is very little difference between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. There is less difference between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. They are all mainstream, middle of the road candidates who track slightly towards each extreme in the political party during the primaries and then run back to the middle during the campaign. This political regression to the mean compounds over time until we have candidates at all levels who are career politicians expert in saying soothing things while delivering more and more of the nation’s income and wealth to the powered elite who make their campaigns possible. And those of us on Main Street have gotten used to this average, this general centrism even as many of us suffer from lower wages or menial work or overwhelming debt. That is, until we start to notice that some of our politicians (and maybe most of the establishment front runners) are largely paid by financial firms. Hillary Clinton made close to $10 million dollars from speeches in 2013 with a large chunk of that coming from firms like Goldman Sachs. Based on the amount still sitting on Jeb Bush’s super PAC, I doubt it’s much different on that side of the aisle. Can anyone believe that these candidates are unaffected by these donors and fees when it comes to regulations that they support? Not with a straight face. For decades, political power came directly from financial power which came directly from donations, not from Mom and Pop, but from the continued growth of corporatism in American politics which finally became enshrined as doctrine when five misguided individuals on the Supreme Court told us all that “Corporations are people too dammit!” In his dissent, Justice Stevens said the Court’s decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.”. Prescient. And for so long, the money has followed the main stream candidates because they won’t shake up the status quo leaving those who are actually in power, the Goldman Sachs, the military industrial complex, still pulling the marionette’s strings.

But they didn’t count on a sheep-like populace suddenly growing some fangs when more and more of the wealth and income in the country rose to the top. The “recovery” from 2008-2009 has left large swaths of the American people totally behind. 7 million men from the ages of 25 to 54 aren’t in the workforce and aren’t even looking. They aren’t counted in the unemployment stats because of this. In 1954, 98% of the men in this age range were employed. Now it’s 88%. The labor force participation rate is at the lowest its been in 38 years. This “recovery” we’ve had is a mirage and the establishment hopes we don’t notice it while we stare at our cheap Chinese crap that supposedly increases our quality of life.

We elected Obama in 2008 on a platform of change. What we got was zero bank officials paraded out into the public eye and legally tarred and feathered, an Affordable Health Care act that is anything but, higher and higher bank executive pay, the lowest labor participation rate in 38 years, an increase in jobs in the service industry which are historically low paying and poor, etc, etc, etc. So we have arrived at the election cycle of 2016, eight years after we demanded change and got more of the same. It shouldn’t be surprising that two political radicals are doing so well in the early going. Each man (Sanders and Trump) plays to a particular section of American populism that has been under threat for the last 40 years. Sanders is an economic radical, promising a larger share of the wealth to the middle and lower classes through redistribution and government intervention. Trump is a cultural radical, promising to build a wall around our border, throw out the illegals, stop Muslims from entering the country and (maybe) reducing the military-industrial complex by getting out of places like South Korea and Japan.

The vested political interests in each party are starting to fight back. It looks like the Democratic establishment will try to use a very undemocratic mechanism of their selection process to ensure Clinton is the nominee, largely through fear mongering in the public since the idea of Superdelegates throwing the election to Clinton against the will of the popular vote would likely destroy the Democratic party as we know it. The Republican establishment will probably try to find equally shady but effective tactics to fight an eventual Trump or even a Cruz nomination. The Establishment of both parties are in danger to some degree, the Republicans less so I imagine since every candidate on that side promises to cut the highest tax rates from 39.6 to anywhere from 35% (Rubio though he makes up for that paltry crumb by eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends, the province of the rich) to 25% (Trump). We’ll ignore Cruz’s 10% flat since the chance of America ever having a flat tax is effectively zero. But there is no doubt that Trump and Cruz are not your run of the mill Republican candidates of the past few years. Trump’s cultural populism is less of a threat to the political elites on the Republican side but one has to assume they are afraid of his ranking on the loose cannon scale, somewhere slightly below Howard Stern but way, way above Jeb Bush. If he’ll repeat a comment about a political rival in which someone calls that rival a pussy , what will he start calling the leaders of foreign countries? There is no filter on Trump which is why he draws support from a certain filterless subsection of the populace who long for the good old days where America paraded around like an 800 lb gorilla.

One common theme in populist rhetoric is the scapegoating of other groups as catalysts for the populist’s problems. That clearly is true in the candidacies of these two men. Trump tends to blame our troubles on the Mexicans or the Muslims or the North Koreans. Most of our modern day liberal sensibilities flare up around such rhetoric because it doesn’t take much to jump from one racial or demographic population to another when the frying pan gets hot. But Sanders isn’t that far off in his moral outrage towards the corporations and Wall Street bankers. Populism becomes quite dangerous in this regard as eventually there is little left to scapegoat and the beasts turn on each other. Our inability to look critically and carefully at our own roles in the off-shoring of jobs or Muslim extremists hatred of America or the increasing flow of America’s wealth to the financial elite causes us to ignore the complexity of these situations in favor of the ease of blaming other parties. Because of this, candidates that espouse the same blame can garner great support as we are seeing with Trump and Sanders.

Throughout American history, local people have risen up against corrupt governments, actual and imagined, typically in violent conflicts. We have recently seen this in places like Baltimore and Ferguson where violent protests have broken out. But what we are seeing in the political process of 2016 is a more generalized revolt, a democratic middle finger lifted to those in power by those who have lost the most in our continued march towards oligarchy. People who wonder why Trump and Sanders are so popular in my anecdotal experience are those who haven’t had to feel most of the pain from 2 major crashes in our economy in the last 15 years. To them (and I certainly sympathize to some degree), it makes no sense that we might elect a self-proclaimed socialist or a loose cannon that would make George W. Bush look like Gene Autry. But the alternatives to rapid change in our leadership is likely to be some form of revolution. That seems almost unthinkable to those of us who have lived in relative domestic peace our entire lives. But history tells us that the peaceful times are regularly punctuated with bouts of turmoil and violence when the populace has had enough. The popularity of Sanders and Trump may be a last civilized signal from the American people in their desire for real change.