Monday, December 5, 2016

Selling Yourself to Amazon Go

With those wails from Millennials rising up to the ears of older voters after our surprise presidential election results last month, many of us scoffed.

"Millennials!"  The very term has become one of derision, a catch-phrase for young adults who seem more young than adult.

"Snowflakes" and "generation snowflake" are other references to Millennials.  The image of a snowflake conjures uniqueness in nature, a quality young people generally act as if it's theirs alone.  But snowflakes also melt easily.  That means snowflakes - Millennials - need "safe spaces" in order to survive (like a freezer), plus trigger warnings so they know when something bad - like 33 degrees - is just around the corner.

Millennials are young enough to not know a world without mobile phones.  Older, more mature adults are easily bemused by our Millennials and their apparent immaturity, what with their statistical tendency to live with their parents, even after graduating college.  Their preoccupation with technology over interpersonal relationships.  Their trust in government, their inability to process big-picture problems, their preoccupation with technology, their political liberalism, and their preoccupation with technology.

Millennials would love a world with driverless cars, for example.  Uber is really popular with them.  They want to shop from their phone.  They want to work from home, or from space, or from anyplace where they can still think, create, and "Keep It 100" (which is a Millennial term for "keeping it real").

Attention spans are short.  Cell phones are an absolutely necessary part of functional life.  Minimalism is popular, except when it comes to technology.  Millennials can't have enough technology.

Millennials have FOMO (the "Fear Of Missing Out") so they tend to trend-set in packs.  That's one reason they're glued to their social media so much - they have to know what everybody else is doing, even if all anybody else is doing is checking to see what everybody else is doing.

Granted, there's not a lot unique to Millennials that couldn't also have described previous generations of young adults.  Except that with Millennials, the technology factor runs so deep, this really could be the age cohort that helps usher in the type of social controls previous generations have traditionally viewed with skepticism.

For example, we know about the driverless cars.  About how computers hard-wired into these machines will have the capacity to tell a government - and our car insurance provider - all they want to know about our driving habits.  And about how much higher our insurance rates should be, even if driverless cars are supposed to eliminate accidents (yeah, right...).

We already know that smartphones track our every physical movement.  Online banking has already become a hacker's paradise.  Most of us have some sort of Google profile, optical scanning technology is about to make our biology an integral part of our digital identity, and animals already sport microchips embedded under the skin - a creepy One-World advancement that makes End Times theorists blanch.

Yet Millennials don't seem to care.  Technology is their friend, not their foe.  And it's not just Millennials who are adopting this mindset.  When was the last time you ordered something other than books from  When was the last time you posted videos of your young children on Facebook?  How often do you "balance your checkbook" on a mobile app?

More and more, older adults who should have more common sense are opting for ease and immediacy by letting technology strip just a little bit more of their personal privacy away, one click, one search, one photo at a time.

Today, we learned that Amazon is testing a prototype convenience store in Seattle that will be cashless and clerk-less.  If all goes to plan, starting in 2017, customers will be able to enter an Amazon Go store, activate their Amazon Go app on their smartphone, shop for sandwiches and other items, and then leave, without having to stand in line at a checkout, or even swipe a bar code.

The entire shopping trip will be secretly recorded and, presumably, archived by computer.  Digital scanners will track every product you select - and even return to its place on a shelf - during your visit.  Scanners will even be able to detect portions of the store you entirely ignore.

And most shoppers won't care.  What difference does it make, as long as I can get what I want and pay for it in the shortest, least complicated visit possible?  My life is very hectic.  Every minute I can save by eliminating menial tasks is a valuable minute added to my important life.

Except that somewhere, all of that data Amazon has collected on your one simple visit is being analyzed.  It's being cataloged and tabulated and quantified, along with similar bits of data from every other shopper that visits Amazon Go.

After all, how altruistic do you think Amazon really is?  Sure, they want to save you time - or make you think they're saving you time:  That's their schtick.  That's what they're selling you.  That's their product.

Amazon isn't just selling sandwiches, beverages, and other items.  It's selling convenience, making convenience a commodity.  Sure, other stores have tried to sell you convenience, too, like the 7-11's and Walmarts of the retail world.  But they haven't tracked your movements like Amazon plans to do.  At least, not to the degree Amazon wants to.

Amazon is taking the next big leap in retailing, a leap nobody else has yet been able to.  Amazon is creating a profile of you, the shopper from whom money can somehow be extracted, even if it's in the form of information about you that Amazon can sell to the government or another entity.  Your smartphone service provider also has your profile - including the Internet sites you secretly visit! - and who knows the entities that have access to your profile!  Walmart probably knows what products you frequently purchase, and if you do online shopping, you already know that your favorite online retailers have detailed records of what you've already purchased, viewed online, and deposited/deleted from your shopping carts.

This information has value to these companies.  And every click you make, you're adding value to that trove of information that these companies are compiling and leveraging for their own benefit.

The new thing about Amazon is that now, one of the most basic tasks in life - visiting a convenience store - will become an utterly data-driven, data-rich revenue source for that company - even if you don't buy a thing!

Of course, Amazon isn't saying how it will prevent shoplifting in their prototype, if there's no cashier to at least monitor customer flow.  And nobody's wondering what's going to happen to all of the jobs Amazon could eradicate with their entirely cashless, wand-less checkout.  Currently, approximately 3.5 million people work as cashiers, and while those jobs aren't exactly high-paying, they do employ people whose employment qualifications likely won't easily lend themselves to more sophisticated jobs.

Nevertheless, all of this will likely mean little to the Millennials who won't have to stand in line to pay for their overpriced organic salads, overpriced energy drinks, and overpriced flavored waters.  And it might not mean much to everybody else who likes to look down on generation snowflake.  After all, won't it be cool to walk into a store, not have to talk to anybody, not have to wait in any line, and just waltz out, having the cost of your purchase automatically deducted from your bank account?

Until we start thinking about what all of this technology is doing to us behind the scenes, we'll be no less gullible than Millennials - people who we joke are generally too dependent upon others to be independent and self-sustaining.

It's not that technology itself is bad, or is doing bad things to us.  And it's not like we can individually stop the spread of technology into different facets of life.

Still, do we have to embrace it with an ambivalence towards the personal independence technology tends to suck from us?  Not because having computerized scanners record your every move in a convenience store is evil.  But because the time you're supposedly going to save is being given away by you in the form of your own data.

How fair is that?  Shouldn't Amazon Go be paying you, then?

Friday, December 2, 2016

Falwell Takes Liberty With MacCaw

What a crock.

Liberty University, a conservative Baptist school in Virginia, has scooped up one of the leading figures behind a sex assault scandal at Baylor University, a conservative Baptist school in Texas.

Yee-haw... Lookee thar, Slim - Ah guess Bap-ists will be Bap-ists, per-tectin' thar own.

Earlier this year, on May 30, Ian MacCaw resigned as Baylor's athletic director in the midst of allegations that members of the school's football team had been sexually assaulting women with impunity.  While MacCaw has not been directly implicated in any proven cover-up, it has been widely reported that he knew of at least one of the allegations, but apparently, failed to properly report it.

The appearance of MacCaw not appreciating the gravity of sexual assault claims against members of his successful football team was enough for Baylor officials to sanction MacCaw, fire the head football coach, and force the school's president to resign.  MacCaw himself resigned four days after being sanctioned.

At the time, MacCaw piously declared that his resignation wasn't to protect himself, but to "promote the unity, healing and restoration that must occur in order to move forward."

Well, now, apparently, MacCaw has healed and restored himself enough to move forward and eastward, up to Virginia, and a similar position at a similar university.

Which, of course, has many in the media howling with cries of "Foul!"  And this time, they're right.

Yes, there is a wonderful doctrine within orthodox Christianity called redemption, and it would be nice if somebody gave MacCaw a chance to redeem himself and prove that he doesn't put male football players ahead of their girlfriends and other innocent women.  Except... MacCaw had a chance at Baylor to prove that, and so far, all we know is that he high-tailed it out of Waco as soon as he could.  Not exactly a signal of personal virtue, is it?

And yes, there is another wonderful doctrine within orthodox Christianity called forgiveness, but forgiveness sometimes involves sacrifice, and it doesn't necessarily mean that there are no consequences. MacCaw might consider his resignation a form of sacrifice on his part, but interestingly, he resigned after he was censured, not when his dropping the ball and not reporting the assault came to light.  And if he is simply a fall guy in all this, why isn't his personal reputation worth more to him than dropping out of sight, only to resurface a few months later, in the same role, at a similar school?

Talk about whack-a-mole.

Plenty of pundits have already castigated Liberty University for hiring MacCaw, at least so soon after the Baylor scandal hit the fan.  At the very least, the optics here appear to be quite sexist, and even a bit misogynistic.  And they're all correct in pointing out that there should at least be some sort of disciplinary period for MacCaw that should last longer than a college summer break.  What kind of signal is MacCaw making about his own convictions regarding the accusations against him, his fellow Baylor staffers, and his football players?  That it really doesn't amount to much, in his opinion? 

Is he desperate for the money?  It's understandable for an unemployed worker to seek further gainful employment after losing a job, but athletic directors at prestigious schools with lucrative sports programs aren't living paycheck to paycheck, are they?  And if they are, considering the size of their paychecks, maybe there's more wrong here than we already know.

Meanwhile, what about Liberty, and its decision to hire MacCaw?  On the one hand, you can't blame MacCaw for trying to find another job.  But Liberty has been skating on might thin PR ice these months, following its president's personal support of Donald Trump's presidential candidacy.  Numerous evangelicals - not to mention many embarrassed Liberty students - criticized Jerry Falwell Jr.'s stance, if for no reason than it put an uncomfortable spotlight on Liberty's supposedly non-profit status.  If anything, Falwell's gushing praise for Trump was not wise or helpful in a fiduciary sense.

And what's this "good man" stuff Falwell keeps harping about?  During Trump's campaign, Falwell repeatedly called the thrice-married, proud adulterer, and casino-owning presidential candidate a "good man."  So, Trump is Falwell's definition of a good man, huh?  Doesn't that actually say more negative things about Falwell than it does Trump?

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that Falwell also says MacCaw is a "good man."  Shucks, if I were MacCaw, I might take offense at being characterized in the same way as Trump!

What does it mean to be a "good man" in Falwell's eyes?  Is it just a lame figure of speech for somebody who's supposed to be the educated leader of an educational institution?  Or does Falwell possess some wonky interpretation of "good" that diverges from God's holy interpretation?

In an oddly humorous way, however, Falwell does get at least one thing right with his hire of MacCaw.  "I can’t think of an athletic director in the country who is more sensitized to the importance of complying with the intricacies of Title IX than Ian McCaw," Falwell declared in a press release.

Title IX is the United States Department of Education's protocol for providing a clearinghouse for any form of discrimination at schools receiving any sort of federal funding.  And sex abuse allegations fall under the purview of Title IX administrators who are supposed to make sure collegiate athletic programs keep their players (wink wink, nudge nudge) on the sexually-moral straight-and-narrow.

So yeah, Falwell is correct in that MacCaw has personal relevance with Title IX, after his troubled exit at Baylor.  In that regard, Liberty can be pretty confident that Title IX issues won't be a problem there, at least in the athletic department under MacCaw's watch.  Too many people will now be watching extra closely, almost waiting for the very next infraction to be alleged.

Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that, at least for Falwell, the ends justify the means.  And that's not an acceptable testimony for a supposedly evangelical school official to broadcast to the world.

"Ian’s success really speaks for itself," Falwell crowed during a recent press conference.  "You look at what Baylor was able to do during his tenure.  It fits perfectly with where we see our sports programs going."

In other words, we really don't care if anything happened to those women who claim they were sexually assaulted.  We've got our own athletic department that found a good guy who we were actually able to hire on the cheap, since he's got this big blemish on his record from that stuff at Baylor.

And you don't think sports is its own religion?

“My vision for Liberty is to position it as a preeminent Christian athletic program in America and garner the same type of appeal among the Christian community as Notre Dame achieves among the Catholic community and [Brigham Young University] garners from the Mormons,” gushed MacCaw.

Okay, let's see:  "Feds investigate Notre Dame for possible Title IX violations linked to sexual violence."

And then there's this:  "Brigham Young added to list of schools under federal investigation for handling of sexual assaults."

Now, granted, these cases don't necessarily involve football players, or any school athletes.  But as you can see, if this is the direction in which Falwell wants Liberty to travel, his pick of MacCaw may have credibility after all.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Hot Air Over Trump's Carrier Deal

Nobody seems sure of what president-elect Donald Trump told Carrier Corporation that made the air conditioning manufacturer reverse its plans to transfer 1,000 jobs from Indiana to Mexico.

But whether Trump threatened the company with something, or offered them something, Carrier has taken a public about-face and agreed to keep those jobs in the United States.  So far, all we know is that the company will get about $7 million in incentives from the state of Indiana, ostensibly as a gift for staying put, but that money will be spread out over a decade.  So for an employer the size of Carrier, it hardly seems like a valid financial tradeoff.

Still, Trump has spent the day today exulting in this grand - albeit token - demonstration of his business acumen.  After all, as he keeps telling us, he's a billionaire, which must mean that he's a savvy businessman.  And yes, he's made (and lost) a lot of money developing real estate all over the world.  But does that necessarily translate into Trump being an economics wizard?

The reason Carrier was going to shift those 1,000 jobs to Mexico was - and remains - a simple one.  Mexican workers cost far less than American ones.  That's been the main reason why our country has hemorrhaged so many manufacturing jobs over the past several decades:  Foreign workers cost American companies pennies on the dollar, compared with Americans doing the same jobs.

It's a dilemma that has stumped not only American workers, but middle class employees living in every post-industrialized country, from Germany to Japan.  And it's a dilemma that has confounded the brightest economists, who can't agree on how - or even if - we can generate new jobs for Western workers at pay rates Western workers want.  With the specter of robotization looming on the not-too-distant horizon, the chances of rebuilding our manufacturing payrolls seem bleak at best, at least in terms of jobs that can't be done in emerging-economy countries.

But Trump won the presidency based in large part on his promises of "making America great again" by bringing jobs back from overseas.  This small victory with Carrier provides Trump with a patriotic photo-op, and a chance to look super-presidential, but how many similar jobs can be similarly saved in significant enough numbers to make Trump look like he's keeping his promise?

The reason companies fire Americans and transfer work to cheap-labor countries isn't because American employers enjoy putting fellow Americans out of work.  The reason has nothing to do with emotions, or frustration over unrealistic workers unions, or a desire to raise the standard of living for people half a world away.  The reason is all about a company's profit margin.

Wall Street wants companies to grow their profits any way they can.  And lowering a company's overhead is a relatively easy way to do that.  It's not complex economics, or new math, or bizarre logic.  It's simply capitalism exploiting some of its baser, less beneficent characteristics.  

Of course, while many Americans have gone through economic turmoil over the years as their good-paying manufacturing jobs have been shifted overseas, many other Americans have benefited financially from all the offshoring.  The rise of 401(k) retirement accounts proves it.  In order to maximize returns on the stock market, a company shedding expensive workers creates wealth for investors, and many of those investors are white-collar middle class American workers who need a robust 401(k) account to fund their retirement.

So isn't this a sticky quandary we've made for ourselves?  If you think about it, aren't our 401(k)'s (I don't have one, BTW) actually working against us?  At least in terms of retaining current American jobs, and creating new ones for American workers?

American retirees benefit from when companies in their 401(k) portfolio fire workers and downsize their staffing, and the hope is that somehow, somewhere, those newly-jobless fellow Americans find some sort of employment... eventually.  But your financial advisor doesn't tell you about all the people who might have to lose their jobs to sustain the growth of your retirement account.

Indeed, Wall Street makes out like a bandit, forcing companies into an incessant downward spiral of cost-cutting to generate an upward spiral of profits.  Meanwhile, aren't these opposing spirals also creating a vicious circle that ultimately pits average American workers against each other?  Who's the only real winner here?  Isn't it mostly Wall Street?  Might this be one of the reasons we're experiencing such a dramatic economic gap between the classes?  Might the middle class as a whole not really be winning anything, because Wall Street is making money while we're being forced to play fruit basket turnover?

Maybe, maybe not.  Nevertheless, if pay scales were more robust for Americans, and people earned bigger salaries, they'd likely be able to invest in more traditional ways, and save more (what a concept) for their retirement.  Of course, the notion of higher pay brings with it the likelihood that our cost of living would also rise, since people ostensibly would have more to spend on, say, even bigger homes, even more expensive vehicles, and all the other ways people have to spend money.  It's probably not impossible for most Americans to save money these days, but it sure isn't a popular idea, since we tend to base so much of our identity on where we live, what we drive, where we dine, and what we wear.

Back on Wall Street, however, doesn't it seem clear that our employment and benefits system is actually sabotaging itself?  To make things even more frustrating, it's not like any significant change in how retirements are funded could be implemented anytime soon, since today's workers need some sort of financial vehicle to make up for what they're not earning in their pay packets.  And 401(k)'s - for better or worse, for richer or poorer - are the most widely relied-upon financial vehicle they've got.

Not that Trump is perturbed by any of this.  For one thing, his investments rely heavily on real estate, which traditionally has proven to be an incredibly reliable wealth generator.  But for the rest of us, who can't afford to purchase a $1 billion Manhattan office tower, the game we're forced to play at the hands of companies like Carrier is the only game in town.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Sanctuary Campus an Idyll of Illogic

You've heard of "sanctuary cities."

Now, apparently, comes the "sanctuary campus."

It's a movement by students at universities across the United States that encourages institutions of higher learning to provide consequence-free zones for anyone on campus - student, staffer, educator - who is in the country illegally.

Tomorrow, reportedly, a mass walkout is being planned at several universities here in north Texas, including the University of Arlington, Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas, and Texas Woman's University.  The walkout is aimed at drawing public awareness to the need for sanctuary campuses.

According to organizers of this movement here, the need for sanctuary campuses stems directly from Donald Trump's surprise election as the next president of the United States.  During his campaign, Trump repeatedly promised his supporters that he would expatriate people who are in this country illegally.  Then there was his goofy bluster about building a wall between the United States and Mexico, and somehow forcing Mexico to pay for it.  He recklessly maligned Mexicans as rapists, and cavalierly mocked Hispanics in general.

Indeed, this election was a sordid affair on many levels.  And many people in this country have taken to the streets, marching in angry protest over its results.  And many of those marchers and protesters have been young, idealistic, and impressionable (and easily manipulable) college students.

We've heard the stories of professors giving their students a walk (free pass to not attend classes) to mourn the outcome of the presidential election.  We've heard of professors rescheduling exams, or providing counseling information, so that their grief-stricken students have ways of responding to Trump's win.  Many educators and students alike have betrayed an odd misunderstanding of history and governance with their calls for the Electoral College to be abolished.  They've made a spectacle of themselves, marching to protest no apparent human rights violations, or advocating for a change to the Electoral College that would cause more political disarray than Trump's win could.

Yet one of the most puzzling aspects of Trump's win is the vitriol it has stoked amongst some Hispanics against crucial notions of national sovereignty and the rule of law.  Perhaps this vitriol - they say it's fear, but we all know better - has become more potent to advocates of illegal immigration now that somebody as quixotic and bombastic as Trump will be entering the White House.  America hasn't had a president as untested, untrained, ill-tempered, impulsive, and unapologetically petulant as Trump in quite a while.  Nobody is sure what he will try to do.

What is also unclear is the extent to which schools like the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Arlington can adopt any of the principles of sanctuary campuses.  These two schools are state-run and state-funded, meaning that their control ultimately lies under Texas governor Greg Abbott, an ardent opponent of sanctuary cities.  Which makes it hardly likely that he would be amenable to sanctuary campuses, right?

Yet another puzzlement as to the need for sanctuary campuses regards the strict privacy rules already governing any student's stay at Texas universities, whether public or private.  About the only information school administrators in Texas can release involves whether or not a person is enrolled.  Students can even opt-out of allowing that bit of information to be released, if they so desire.  So the specter of immigration officials sweeping onto a college campus and rounding up students in this country illegally seems remote at best.  Unless advocates of illegal immigration suspect Trump can change the laws to allow such sweeps.

All this continues to unfold, of course, under our country's already bleak tableau of an immigration policy in tatters.  Years and years of bickering over our immigration laws have created a system that is overburdened by demand and underfunded by a cheapskate electorate.  Political partisanship attempts to depict emigres to our nation as either desperate or devious, yet the real stories of why real people want to come here without the proper authorization tend to be far more individualized and complicated than any political party wants to acknowledge.  Then there's the whole saga of anchor babies, separating families, employment and wages, refugees, human trafficking, and possible terrorism.  It's become easier for legal Americans to either shrug their shoulders and say, "let them all in," or throw out their arms and, pointing southward, say "they all need to go back where they came from."

It doesn't help that our mainstream media tends to conveniently drop the "illegal" part of "illegal immigration" from the terminology.  Or that our right-wing media tends to forget that "undocumented" immigrants may actually have legal permission to be here while their paperwork situation is sorted out - a process that takes years, since taxpayers don't want to fully fund our immigration bureaucracy.

With all that is confusing about immigration and illegal immigration, perhaps it's no surprise that college students would be some of the most ardent purveyors of misinformation and inaccuracies on the subject.  After all, they're pretty naive when it comes to the complexities of real life.  A student at the University of North Texas wrote a letter for his fellow students to copy and send to university officials, petitioning for their university to become a sanctuary campus.  And it reeks of naivete.

So let's work through this student's letter, shall we?  After all, correcting errors and misconceptions is a big part of the college experience, right?  And since life is one big educational process, couldn't this letter be part of the instructional preparation a college student should appreciate as they move towards becoming a productive citizen?

Yeah, well, let's go through this exercise anyway.  The corrections are in bolded text:

In the wake of the racially charged and divisive election the faculty, staff, and students of University of North Texas have come together to demand that our university take action and declare itself a sanctuary university. We are not alone in our demands; public universities and private colleges across the country are demanding that their campuses become sanctuaries for students, faculty, and staff who are undocumented, marginalized, and/or at risk.  (First, the term "undocumented" is used in error, since it doesn't necessarily mean the person is here illegally.  Second, the term "marginalized" could refer to somebody who has broken any law, but would students want a convicted rapist running around their campus, for example, claiming they can because it's a sanctuary?  Third, the only people who would be "at risk" would be people who have broken the law... and the United States Constitution does not make any provisions for lawbreakers except for due process.  And isn't due process one of the benefits anybody in the USA should expect?  If we don't have due process for only a certain set of people, who else really should expect it?)

Not only is UNT mobilizing for its own sanctuary campus, but we have built a bridge between the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University as we organize this movement and demand these rights together, as one. Without our demands being met, the University of North Texas will be turning their backs on every person who is marginalized and paying tuition. This would include potential students who will be prevented from gaining access to an education because of their documentation status as well as every faculty and staff member contributing their labor to the education of our future.  (Again, the term "marginalized" is problematic here.  Supposedly somebody who's an English major wrote this.  Not sure the university is getting a strong endorsement of its educational merits with this one.  And threatening the administrators with the lack of funds coming from students being deprived from attending because they're in the country illegally is farcical; it's like warning that a bank robber being sent to jail won't be able to pay to attend... even though online classes could be taken from any country with an Internet connection.)

Our demands align with the UNT’s Core Values and Four Bold Goals. Goal One states that the University will “foster an environment of [...] strong support systems to ensure that more students stay in school, engage in service and campus life, and graduate on time”. Making UNT a sanctuary campus will ensure that those students who are undocumented and/or students who face a daily risk remain in school safely and are able to participate in campus life. Goal Three aims for our university to “become a national leader among universities in student support [and] employee relations”. Making our campus a sanctuary supports its students and employees while they contribute through tuition payments and their labor.  (... regardless of their legal status...?  This student needs to take Logic 101 to understand why this entire paragraph is riddled with fallacies.)

This action will place the University of North Texas in solidarity with institutions of higher education across the nation who have declared themselves a sanctuary campus. Prime examples are Reed College, Columbia, Portland State, and all schools within the California State school system. University of North Texas will be breaking barriers for Texas Universities wishing to become sanctuary campuses by taking the initiative to defend and protect their students, faculty, and staff.  (Wow - defend and protect?  From consequences of the behaviors of students, faculty, and staff who've not abided by the law?  What's next?  Protecting the rapists, drunk drivers, etcetera, etcetera?  If you want to change the immigration laws, then change the immigration laws.  Trying to somehow codify the arbitrary protection of certain people who break certain laws is hardly sound civic judgment.)

- Dear Student:  With apologies for the snide tone of your professor's corrections; but even this is for instructional purposes.  You see, for your petition to be taken seriously, it has to argue on the basis of the merits, not on aspirations based on the troublesome logic of ignoring sovereignty laws.  For example, what are the immigration laws of any Central American and South American country?  I understand you are upset with the way illegal immigration is being handled in the United States, but asking governmental authorities to pretend that certain laws don't exist defies the type of government immigrants supposedly come here to enjoy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Gatlinburg's Fiery Visitor

Last night, Gatlinburg was under the gun.

Eastern Tennessee’s popular resort town faced a mandatory evacuation notice as wildfires swept perilously close.  Nestled within the heavily-wooded flanks of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Gatlinburg’s very identity was threatened by a natural disaster stoked by one of the region’s driest summers in a decade.

Up to 14 separate conflagrations are believed to be eating up dried timber around the scenic community, which thousands of tourists each month use as their launching-off point for excursions into the lush park. 

I’ve been there, and indeed, the scenery is beautiful.  Mountains are impressive, hills are steep, and trees hug even the rockiest of slopes.  The views through valleys and from vistas can be poetic in their charm.  It’s kind of a mix of misty Appalachia, Old West bravado, and sultry Deep South charms.  And it’s not posh or remote, meaning it’s surprisingly accessible, both geographically and economically.  And that makes it especially popular, as you might imagine.

My brother and his family used to live in Sevierville, which is Gatlinburg’s largest neighbor, and home to even more Western-themed hotels and attractions.  Shucks, between Sevierville and Gatlinburg sits Pigeon Forge, a place that used to only be famous as Dolly Parton's hometown.  These days, however, Parton owns a world-class theme park there called Dollywood, based on the trifecta of historic Americana that gives the region its flavor:  Appalachia, the Old West, and the Deep South. 

In fact, that whole three-town area from Sevierville to Gatlinburg has exploded into it’s own sprawling theme park of sorts, with a plethora of kitschy kiddie parks, go-cart tracks, outlet malls, down-home-cooking restaurants, BBQ joints, music halls, water parks, Christmas stores, and other middle-class, blue-collar happiness that keeps traffic snarled and hotels full for most of the year.

Of the three towns, Gatlinburg is probably the most high-brow, with expensive hillside homes perched amidst heavily-treed slopes rising from the center of town.  And unlike some burgs whose old downtowns have died, Gatlinburg retains its vibrant, bustling main street, called a “parkway” since its final destination is actually the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Indeed, despite its redneck proclivities, Gatlinburg itself is a hip new urbanist’s dream.  Nestled along the riverbottom of scenic mountain ravines, the town is very densely developed, since buildable land is at a premium.  And development has been centered on the main drag, both to capture the most tourist dollars, and because the topography isn’t easily suitable for big-box sprawl.  That makes most of Gatlinburg charmingly intimate and easily walkable, with scenic pathways and nicely-landscaped sidewalks running along a bucolic, babbling waterway – an urban tableau that many cities would deeply covet.

Unless you’re driving into the national park, there’s no reason to drive around town, or from your hotel to any of the many restaurants, for example.  Traffic moves too slowly anyway, since again, the topography doesn’t allow for lots of wide roadways.  Visitors to Gatlinburg may drive in, but they park, and then walk around the center of town.  Traffic snakes through on relatively narrow streets, lined with famous attractions such as Ripleys, the Ober Gatlinburg ski lift, and a Guinness Book of Records museum.  There’s an aquarium, new hotels being constructed all the time, and even a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlor.

Regular readers of my blog know I’m not easily impressed by much of anything, but during my couple of visits to Gatlinburg years ago, when my brother’s family lived in the area, I was struck by how appealing, functional, and vibrant a town it is.

Again, the urban planning geek in me would attribute much of that appeal to the town’s lack of sprawl and big-box development, but it also has to do with the town’s overt desire to perpetuate its quaintish, yesteryear-type vibe - and thus maintain its appeal to tourists.  Yes, much of the architecture is tacky and unapologetically exploitative of tired rural themes, but on the other hand, there are no garish glass skyscrapers to make the place look more like one of those big Yankee cities.

Indeed, I got the impression that Sevier County's Appalachian-Western-Southern motif was overdone mostly to remind tourists that they were definitely not in the North.  Even though historically, most folks in eastern Tennessee tended to sympathize with the Union during the War Between the States.

Architecture isn't all that Sevier County's attractions take liberties with.  Historical accuracy also takes a hit.  But then again, across much of America, what else is new?

Fortunately, today, word is that Gatlinburg dodged the worst bullets from those wildfires.  Most of downtown remains untouched, with the only damage being from heavy smoke that has blanked the area for a couple of days.  Unfortunately, however, at least three people are confirmed dead by the wildfires, and 150 homes and businesses on the outskirts of town have been destroyed.  In a community with 4,000 year-round residents, those are especially significant statistics.

For owners and occupants of those properties, of course, and the loved ones of those who were killed, last night was devastating.  But for Gatlinburg’s economy, as well as the region’s, it was mostly a close call that hopefully can soon pass into the history books.

It could have been much worse.  The way much of those three towns are built into the mountains, with sloping hills covered with vegetation reaching down into subdivisions and strip-malls with no buffer from a national park teeming with timber and tinder, forest fires in the area are surprising only because they’re as rare as they are.

These current fires have started and spread mostly because the area is in a drought.  And as we all know, from watching wildfires from California to Canada, nature itself uses conflagrations that humans often can’t control to clear deadwood and aging trees.  Not exactly something that makes us humans safe, especially the closer up against – and within – the forests we live.  But at least these Appalachian towns have been around a while, remnants of bygone settler days, when folks stayed behind as other pioneers kept moving westward, mining the various mineral deposits and farming what flat stretches of rich earth they could find.  Newer parts of Gatlinburg have been carved into the surrounding forests by real estate speculators, but that's only because there are literally no open patches of ground left to develop.

Of course, the science of forestry didn’t exist when towns like Gatlinburg were originally settled.  But as the science has evolved over the years, and we’ve learned more about wildfires, perhaps the prudent, purely utilitarian approach would have been to clear-cut swaths of forest ringing the town, and maybe even bulldozing some of the smaller hillsides to prevent mudslides in the absence of soil-holding trees.  Such preventative measures likely would give Gatlinburg’s residents and businesses a significant sense of safety and confidence that a wildfire near their borders could be successfully controlled, since vegetation – fuel for a fire – was being kept to a bare minimum.

However, obviously, that would also mean that Gatlinburg’s sole industry – tourism – would cease to exist.  As it is, there’s little else keeping folks in the area – or attracting them there – except the scenery.  There is no other industry to speak of.  That’s one reason why Appalachia has suffered so much economically over the years.  It shore is mah-tee pur-tee, but good jobs shore are scarce.

Cut down some of the trees, level some of the hills, and then what’s so special about the place?  Interestingly enough, when the Great Smoky Mountain National Park opened in 1934, it was mostly the result of efforts to stop commercial logging around the town.

As scenic as it is, I have to admit that I never would have visited Gatlinburg – or Pigeon Forge, or Sevierville – if I hadn’t had family there.  And they haven’t lived there for years now… and I haven’t been back.  But that’s just me.  Plenty of other people love visiting Sevier County.  And for the folks who make their living on their hometown’s scenic beauty, I hope the wildfires that have ravaged Gatlinburg haven’t damaged the woodlands too severely to keep tourists away.

But even if the tourists stay away, one can never be sure that wildfires will.  As popular a resort as Gatlinburg may be with us humans, nature can be both a blessing and a dreadfully unwanted visitor.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Diverse Toleration


For many evangelicals, it's become a four-letter word.  Mostly because people outside of our evangelical industrial complex say we're against it, or don't practice enough of it.

And it's true that diversity isn't eagerly embraced within evangelicalism.  Diversity, for example, apparently doesn't describe God's intricate detailing of our biological reality.  Otherwise sins like gluttony wouldn't be as rampant within evangelicalism, and we'd be more sympathetic towards people with chronic illnesses such as clinical depression.

In addition, diversity apparently doesn't represent the various topographies, climates, and seasons of our planet and its place in our solar system.  Otherwise, environmentalism wouldn't be so roundly scoffed by evangelicals.

And diversity does not always flood our imaginations with thankfulness when we consider all of the skin colors, ethnicities, personalities, and emotions of every single person on this planet at this very moment.  Otherwise, racism and nationalism wouldn't be as popular - at least, historically - within evangelicalism as it is.

We evangelicals tend to avoid people who are different from ourselves, whether we're white, black, Hispanic, Asian, or purple-polka-dotted.  We tend to segregate ourselves based on our ethnicity, social class, income level, and even education level.

We're most comfortable when we're around people like ourselves.

But that's not a propensity unique to evangelicals, is it?

Diversity is not exactly a trait that humans instinctively celebrate, whether we're evangelicals, or political liberals, or Americans, or European, or white, or black, or Russian, or Chinese, or poor, or any other type of demographic.

Like tends to attract like.  People with a fondness for liberal ideologies, for instance, tend to find a smug camaraderie with fellow smug liberals.  People with a fondness for nostalgia tend to find a fuzzy solidarity with other people who don't embrace change.  Educated people tend to find common ground with like-minded peers who bristle at the less educated, more rough-around-the-edges folk.

This is no big secret.  But it's something we often forget, or prefer to pretend is a social dynamic that doesn't really exist.  At least, not to the degree that it does.  Particularly the more educated we are - or, at least, the more educated we think we are.  After all, higher education currently champions diversity, so diversity is a trendy pursuit to be theoretically celebrated by the educated.  Since we've learned that diversity is a fact of life, it must be accepted and pursued, at least by the open-minded.  After all, the presumption is that only the ill-informed or the bigoted can't handle diversity.

Yet for all of its vaunted respectability, diversity can also be a concept even the most educated among us can deride.  This is because diversity isn't just about skin color, or socioeconomics, or sexual preference, or nationality.  It's about one's world view, and how people process the reality around them.  And although diversity's conventional champions generally deny it, diversity itself defies their attempts at controlling and owning it.

Diversity may be something evangelicals have a hard time accepting politically.  But diversity is also something educated liberals have a hard time accepting spiritually.  This is probably because spirituality represents an aspect of life that challenges conventionally-educated notions of diversity.  Particularly when it comes to areas involving divisive issues like abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom.

So far, at least in the West, the easy-out for diversity's more liberal advocates has been to quietly rationalize that religious freedom takes a back seat to our common notions of everyday diversity.  It's easier to pretend that religion can be "tolerated" as long as religion doesn't compromise our humanistic notions of diversity.

Yet just because diversity exists doesn't mean that "tolerance" makes diversity peaceful.  Look at the animal kingdom, where diversity rules the jungle, yet there is also a regimented food chain in which survival can be brutal.  Look at how some invasive plants can kill long-established plants.  There is precious little tolerance or peace in nature.  There may be a certain equilibrium, in which plants and animals appear to be surviving in some sort of balance.  But just watch any nature show on TV to have that perception quickly dispelled!

Social scientists claim that our human capacity for tolerance helps separate us from wild beasts.  Yet tolerance is only as tolerant as the world view of the person defining it.  After our most recent presidential election, a lot of pundits are rhapsodizing that what we need now is social harmony based on tolerance for the viewpoints of others.  But that's sheer fallacy, isn't it?  Tolerance can only go so far before even the tolerant folks start getting on each others' nerves.  Some of us like to imagine that humanity only has to cherish a common respect for everybody and everything, and we'll be all right.  But that philosophy didn't even last for long in the Garden of Eden, did it?

God created diversity to demonstrate His creativity, but I'm convinced He also created diversity to keep us from relying on humanity for the peace we so desperately need.  Perhaps you recall the Tower of Babble, when folks were convinced they could supplant God's sovereignty with their own.  The Bible tells us that our diverse languages stem from that fallacy, which to this day represents one of our planet's key examples of both diversity and confusion.  Our inability to communicate remains a surprisingly persistent contributor to much of the strife in our world - even when we're speaking the same language!

God's provision of diversity means that we're all different.  Which, of course, is something we say we know, but is also a fact we rarely respect.  We all have things that prevent us from being exactly like somebody else, and prevent utter homogeneity, compliance, and tranquility.  Which, of course, means that to a certain degree, there are things in everybody else that we need to tolerate in order to simply get along and survive.

We don't have to accept everything about everybody.  We don't have to understand how and why we're all different.  We don't even have to protect all of the reasons why we're different - otherwise, we wouldn't need laws and jails.  Yet in this mix of personalities, ethnicities, temperaments, physical and mental limitations, socioeconomics, and body types, God tell us that the humanity each of us embodies is to be honored.  Humanity is the gift God has given each of us, which means that it's not ours to denigrate - in ourselves, or in somebody else.

But tolerance?  If anybody is to be tolerant, it's us Christ-followers.  But it's not a tolerance that excuses things God says we're not supposed to excuse.  It's not a tolerance that says anything goes, and everything's OK.  But it is a tolerance that celebrates everything that God says is good, and right.  And considering the inestimable breadth of all that God has created within and for us, that's a lot more stuff to tolerate than we generally recognize.

The type of tolerance most non-Christians embrace relies on cultural norms - or, at least lately, progressive interpretations of cultural expectations.  And some of these progressive expectations aren't wrong in and of themselves.  Yet how many of them are based not on an implicit recognition of God's gift of humanity, but on a selfish desire for any of us to be able to do whatever we want?

Just as tolerance is a concept that has been distorted by Western society at large, freedom is another concept that society has distorted.  We've convinced ourselves that as long as it doesn't hurt others, the things we want to do should be available for us to do.

Which means that we have a lot of people out there doing stuff that needs to be tolerated.  And in the process, we tend to create an identity for ourselves based in large part on the stuff that we do.  Which means that the whole notion of respect involves not only the humanity of each individual, but the stuff that they want to do.  Because otherwise, we're not really being tolerant.

At least, that's what our self-appointed tolerance police tell us.

And that helps expand the notion of diversity, since the amount of stuff for which we're supposed to be tolerant expands exponentially based on the size of the population, since we're all individual human agents.

This is the type of diversity we're told matters most.  Not human diversity.  But the diversity of human desires, since desires are now part of our identity as humans.  Again, at least according to our tolerance police.

Which is another reason why religiosity has supposedly become archaic, with its parameters and mindsets that generally celebrate a deity instead of a human agent.

Not that diversity actually isn't something to be tolerated, or even celebrated.

But it does depend on Who is expecting us to tolerate diversity.  And the types of diversity we're supposed to be celebrating.

Unfortunately, people who do not embrace Christ will probably not tolerate Who and what God wants us to celebrate.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Two Hundred Thanks

On this Thanksgiving week, I am thankful for:

1.  God the Father
2.  God the Son
3.  God the Holy Spirit
4.  Christ's death, burial, and resurrection (which, theologically, represent three individual benefits)
5.  God choosing me as His own
6.  God's sovereignty
7.  God's providence
8.  God's grace and mercy (which, theologically, are two separate things)
9.  Love
10.  Joy
11.  Peace
12.  Patience
13.  Kindness
14.  Goodness
15.  Faithfulness
16.  Gentleness
17.  Self-Control
18.  God's Word
19.  Bible-believing parents
20.  My family
21.  The United States of America
22.  Our freedom to worship
23.  Maple Flats Baptist Church in Cleveland, New York
24.  Kenwood Heights Alliance Church in Oneida, New York
25.  Rome Alliance Church in Rome, New York
26.  Arlington Alliance Church in Arlington, Texas
27.  East Park Church of the Nazarene in Arlington, Texas
28.  Pantego Bible Church when it was located in Arlington, Texas
29.  Calvary Baptist Church in New York City
30.  Arlington Presbyterian Church back in Arlington, Texas
31.  Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas
32.  A comfortable place to live
33.  Electricity
34.  Air conditioning
35.  The old house and memories from Cleveland, New York
36.  Our two collies, Felice and Feliz
37.  Our cats over the years
38.  Good friendships
39.  Reliable transportation
40.  Central Park, my most favorite place in New York City
41.  Gramercy Park, my 2nd-most-favorite NYC spot, around which I used to frequently walk
42.  Summer days in upstate New York
43.  Spring days in north Texas
44.  Newly-fallen winter snow in upstate New York (but only in the early days of winter!)
45.  Big trees
46.  My mother's cooking
47.  Clean sheets
48.  Indoor bathrooms
49.  The Internet
50.  Classical music
51.  Pipe organs
52.  Junior's cheesecake
53.  Freedom of expression
54.  Cheddar's restaurant
55.  Uncle Julio's restaurant
56.  Honest and reliable mechanics
57.  Pilots
58.  Tilt-and-telescopic steering wheels, to accommodate my long legs
59.  Rain
60.  Umbrellas
61.  Automatic lawn sprinkler systems
62.  Green grass
63.  Smooth roads
64.  Seersucker shirts
65.  Handkerchiefs
66.  Coastal Maine
67.  "Annabelle's beach" on Maine's Blue Hill Peninsula
68.  Grammie and Grampa's house in Sedgwick, Maine
69.  First Baptist Church of Sedgwick, Maine
70.  Fresh-caught Maine lobster
71.  Seashells
72.  The tide
73.  Buoyancy
74.  Kimbell Art Museum (only the original Kahn building, however)
75.  Safe, clean, walkable downtown Fort Worth, Texas
76.  Police departments
77.  Fire departments
78.  Our military
79.  Our ability to vote
80.  My ability to read
81.  My ability to write (OK, you might not be thankful for this one!)
82.  Good medical care
83.  Eyesight
84.  Humor
85.  Hard work (mostly when it's over, of course!)
86.  Tenacity (mostly in others; if I discover it in myself, I'm usually just surprised)
87.  Hope
88.  Forgiveness
89.  The ability to share in the collective upkeep of public property through taxes
90.  The ability to help others
91.  Air traffic controllers
92.  Supermarket stockers
93.  Elevators
94.  Stairs
95.  Chairs
96.  Ben & Jerry's ice cream
97.  Deodorant
98.  People who are willing to serve as volunteers
99.  Teachers
100.  The ability to smell
101.  Odors that are pleasant
102.  Odors whose unpleasant smells serve as a warning of something negative
103.  Our body's ability to properly process waste
104.  Toilet paper
105.  Refrigeration
106.  Ice cubes
107.  Soap
108.  Rakes
109.  Eyeglasses
110.  Time
111.  Entertainment
112.  Clean air
113.  Clean water
114.  Garbage men (after all, have you ever seen a "garbage woman"?)
115.  Photography
116.  Pizza
117.  Creativity
118.  Fingernail clippers
119.  Toilets
120.  Alarm clocks
121.  Privacy
122.  Windows
123.  Meteorologists
124.  Engineers
125.  People who love math (so I don't have to)
126.  Respect
127.  People who honesty deserve respect
128.  Our ability to communicate
129.  Our ability to reason (even though some of us use this more than others)
130.  Gravity
131.  Fingernails
132.  Photocopy machines
133.  Shoes
134.  Socks
135.  Ceiling fans
136.  Nails
137.  Hammers
138.  Screws
139.  Screw drivers
140.  Fences that keep good things in, and bad things out
141.  Underwear
142.  Judges, lawyers, and laws (not quite sure why this comes right after "underwear")
143.  Windows
144.  Doors
145.  Locks
146.  Keys
147.  People and things that are reliable
148.  Tenacity
149.  Toothbrushes
150.  Televisions
151.  Remote control
152.  Computers
153.  Lawns
154.  Lawn mowers
155.  Staplers
156.  Paper clips
157.  Batteries
158.  Energy
159.  Light
160.  Purpose
161.  Bridges
162.  Watertight roofs
163.  Farmers
164.  Butchers
165.  Bakers
166.  Zippers
167.  Buttons
168.  Sewing needles
169.  Thread
170.  Truth
171.  The ability to discern right from wrong
172.  The courage to do what is right
173.  The strength to resist temptation
174.  Chocolate
175.  Pasta
176.  Walks through my leafy neighborhood
177.  Good neighbors
178.  Immigrants whose desire to live here reminds me how good America is
179.  People wealthier than me, who remind me that riches are relative
180.  People poorer than me, who also remind me that riches are relative
181.  The ability to be content
182.  The ability to wait
183.  Summer breezes
184.  Winter thaws
185.  Colors
186.  Shapes
187.  Dimensions
188.  Harmless comforts
189.  Necessary stimulations
190.  Pecan pie
191.  Affirmation of the good
192.  Caution against the bad
193.  The Chrysler Building, America's most elegant skyscraper
194.  Frank Lloyd Wright's "Fallingwater," America's most intriguing house
195.  My college education
196.  Graduating from college debt-free
197.  Being able to help care for my dear Dad during his dementia
198.  Being assured that Dad's in Heaven, along with everybody who has trusted Christ as their Lord
199.  Being similarly assured of my own destiny
200.  You - for reading this!

Happy Thanksgiving!