What Social Networks Want: Some Thoughts on Social Canvases

As most of you know, I’ve been working on creating a different kind of social network, Sideview, which aims to break the current status quo of social network structures by doing away with a judgment system.

Early in the Sideview design process, I wrote a manifesto about design structures that has guided us in development, and so I thought I’d share it here.

WSNW Cover

Nine Reasons Why There Will Never Be Another Wu-Tang…

1. Popular music today isn’t complex enough to be misunderstood
Let’s face it. The idea of a band of young, black rappers named after a style of kung-fu reciting lyrics heavy on cuss words and drug references made our parents uncomfortable. But revisiting their work as adults 20 years later, we hear an audio encyclopedia of 1990s world pop culture, Staten Island-centric but extending to all corners of the world. From the obvious references to Hong Kong cinema to New York City drug life to Vegas gambling, Dorothy Hamill, the Olympics, Guns of Navarone–the list goes on and on–these guys were cultural encyclopedias. Not to mention the obvious evidence that the Wu definitely didn’t skip their World Civilization classes in high school (how many artists do you hear on the radio today that know who Judas, Henry VIII, Genghis Kahn or Constantine the Great are?). And that’s just from a single Ghost verse (“4th Chamber” from the GZA’s Liquid Swords album).
2. The focus today is increasingly about fast money
I’m not saying this in a “when I was your age” kind of way…there’s nothing wrong with doing something with the intention of getting paid. And there’s never been an artist who wasn’t interested in getting paid for his or her craft. But do the math. The best Wu offerings featured up to 10 rappers (if you include Cappadonna). But you’re still just paying $12 bucks for the CD, $25 bucks for the concert–and that has to be split up. These economics just don’t mesh with the money grab mentality of today.
3. The RZA is an underrated gem of a musician
Though the musically-aware know The RZA is one of the all-time great producers, he doesn’t have the popular name recognition enjoyed by the likes of The Neptunes, Timbaland, Kanye, etc. But the man responsible for creating what many consider the best movie soundtrack of all time (see Kill Bill), is a genius. During the Wu days, he produced a truly one-of-a-kind sound; nobody else experimented with the drum patterns and odd twists of unheard-of instruments that he did. And next time you nod to a K.West beat, don’t forget who he acknowledged as the father of the style he has mastered.
4. Audience attention spans are too short
This ties in with Point 2, but can we realistically expect to ever see an album like “Wu-Tang Forever” again? It is a double album, featuring 27 tracks, of which 20 or more are straight studs. With today’s cash grab practice of releasing an album every year, 20 stud tracks would be fodder for 4 or 5 albums. I remember the buildup when Forever was released–I actually faked sick from my second period class in the 12th grade so I could be at the store when it opened on the day the album dropped.
5. Protect Ya Neck
Q: Could this be one of the best rap songs ever? A: Yes, yes it could be.
6. Triumph
Could this also be one of the greatest? I know I’m not the only one out there who can still spit every word of this gem 17 years after it dropped.
7. The last verse of “Winter Warz” by Cappadonna (and oh so many other verses by everybody)
To think, this guy wasn’t even part of the “A” lineup?
8. Who can come up with words like “discumbumberate”? (See Item #7)
9. Quality control
Yes, the Wu only released two real albums as a group. But its members released several “solo” albums, which were actually so full of participation by other members that they might as well have all been labeled “Wu-Tang Clan.” And by and large, these albums were every bit as good. Some, such as Ghostface’s “Ironman”, Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” or the Genius’ “Liquid Swords”, were every bit as good as the group albums top to bottom. Where The RZA is in charge, you’ll be getting quality music.

Text Messaging and Cell Phones Has Created a Generation of Pussies

Having had the good fortune to travel all around the world, I am always reminded in ways both obvious and subtle how similar people are from place to place. While we too often choose to focus on our surface differences, most people that have actually experienced different types of people and cultures up close and personal will agree that below the surface, we are basically driven by the same motivations.

That established, I am not willing to go so far as to say we are all the same and that stereotypes are wrong. Because as much as I am diametrically opposed to stereotyping based on size, shape or color, I am forming a hypothesis that seems to grow stronger every day that there is a criteria that can fairly accurately predict how an entire group of people will act: access to text messengers and cell phones during adolescence.

Something very significant happened when I was in school, as AOL’s Instant Messenger eclipsed house parties and frat parties in popularity as the place for college kids to hang out. For the first time, it was possible to get laid without ever having to muster up the courage to talk to a girl. Guy is bored at 2am on a Saturday morning and logs into AOL. Girl from his history class, who lives two dorms over, is equally as bored and chatting with her friends back home. Guy messages girl with the most impersonal of ask outs: “what are you doing?”…to which she replies, “nothing.” “Cool.” “We should, like, watch a movie or something”…and so it goes.

It has only gotten easier from there. Now, kids in the single digits have cell phones. This means something very significant: even though computer-based chat messengers are pretty much extinct, guys today under the age of, say 25 or so, have never once had to speak to the father of the girl they were chasing. I’m not sure about any of you, but I look back on the first few times calling my high school crush and praying like hell she would answer the phone (specifically and intentionally timing the calls at the exact time I thought her father would still be at work)–only to have a deep male voice greet me on the other end–as some of the events that helped me develop into a man. “Hello Mr. (silly readers, you aren’t getting a name out of me!), this is Steve Klimek calling. Is (pretty, tall girl) home…may I speak with her?” As I was saying this, I remember looking in the mirror and seeing the most pained expression on my face, as though the receiver was actually pulling the teeth out of my gums. And if her older brother answered? Even worse, because I knew that he actually could potentially kick my ass if he felt like it.

I know it sounds like I’m making this into a joke, and to some extent I am. But I believe that the technological revolution of chat messengers and cell phones has deprived young people of actually developing the confidence and skill set to speak with purpose–it has allowed them to stay within the confines of their comfort zones and still achieve things (such as getting laid) that previously required at least a slight foray outside of it. It is funny looking back on those awkward middle- and high school phone calls, but I can’t underestimate the impact those 10-second conversations had on my ability to handle personal and professional social situations as an adult, particularly as they required me to venture into unfamiliar situations and surroundings.

I’m not preaching, either. Believe me, if I would have had access to a direct phone number of my crushes (actually, one of my high school girlfriends had her own line, which at the time was like a gift from heaven), and the ability to chat rather than actually have to speak to them with a cracking, stuttering voice, I would have taken full advantage. Unfortunately, I had to go through those awkward conversations the hard way, but in hindsight, I’m glad I did. The same goes for flirting–it’s a lot easier nowadays to make those provocative comments complimenting some physical feature of a girl, fully intended to be a hook into something more, via text message than having to actually look her in the eye and get the words to come out. After all, if she doesn’t reply in 60 seconds or so, you can forever save face and be bailed out by the follow-up “LOL, just playing” text.

I believe that you can see the impact of this all over pop culture. Today’s generation of athletes, or the AAU generation as I call them, often doesn’t seem capable of even doing everyday chores such as grocery shopping by themselves. They can jump through the roof and squat-thrust a million pounds, but they can’t make a doctor’s appointment. This is because as a result of the access to mobile technology they have had since childhood, they have had grown-up leeches lining up to wipe the sweat off their ass since age 9 in hopes of “access” down the road. Michael Jordan is the greatest of them all, and he still had to do some things on his own as a young adult before Nike’s Air Jordan line made him a global phenomenon. It is evident in our celebrities as well–just look at the vastly different behavior of a young Usher 15 years ago as compared to his own personal protege, the obnoxious and bumbling Justin Bieber today. That’s not to say that yesterday’s celebrities didn’t act like jerks at times also, but I think there is a difference between acting like a jerk because a) you can; b) it is fun; or c) it helps your image, rather than doing so simply because you are incapable of handling social situations thrown at you.

One thing I am sure of is that if I ever find myself interviewing people younger than me to work on anything important, one of my criteria will be to make sure that they have, at some point in their lives, actually approached a member of the opposite sex (or same sex if they swing that way, no discriminating here), and spoken (with their voice, not through an electronic messenger) to introduce themselves. Bonus points if they have been horribly rejected. And even better yet if they have had to speak with that love interest’s father on the other end of the phone. A simple criteria, sure, but in my humble opinion, a significant indicator of one’s ability to adapt and adjust to the varied social situations that life outside of the comfort zone will throw at you.


Now It’s Time for Twice as Many of Us to Attend the NYC Marathon, Fourth of July Fireworks and All Public Celebrations

In the 48-or-so hours since the Boston Marathon bombings, I’ve made a point to stay in public places to overhear the inevitable chatter the tragedy has stirred up (this article is being written from the Terminal 2 lobby at San Francisco International Airport). I figured this would be a particularly good place, given the number of direct flights arriving from Boston and the news crews I can see about 50 feet ahead of me, cameras ready to catch people who may have been at the marathon.

While it makes sense that people are talking, I have observed complete polarity in terms of the future effect events like this will have on people’s day-to-day lives. Some are adamant that the event will come back stronger than ever, and if they participated or attended, they wouldn’t miss it for the world again next year. Others, however, seem to be taking a very clear stance that the world is just nuts and they will think twice before attending any event of this magnitude in the future.

If any of you find yourselves leaning towards the second category, I’m writing this article in hopes of bringing you back to the first.

That someone would do something like place a bomb next to a trash can with the intention of killing innocent people at random is reprehensible. I’m pretty sure any of you reading this are fully in accord with that. But by letting such an tragedy deter you from pursuing something you would otherwise enjoy, people who take this approach are simply reaffirming the responsible party’s intention of not only killing people, but creating lasting fear and paranoia, which I would argue is just as toxic in the long-run.

The Marathon bombing was truly tragic, and everyone’s thoughts and prayers should go out for the three fatalities and 176 people injured in the blast. Scary stuff? Absolutely. But let’s shed some perspective on it. Of 23,000-plus runners and an estimated 500,000 attendees, perhaps we were fortunate that there were only those three fatalities and 176 injuries. By comparison, the city of Boston alone has averaged about 10 traffic fatalities for every 100,000 residents each year over the past two decades or so, which projects out to about 52 for the same amount of people who attended the Marathon. That breaks down to one every week. Add in the suburban area, and pedestrian and bicycle fatalities, and we’re probably talking about a total death and injury count that is comparable to what happened at the Boston Marathon on a weekly basis–just by people going about their daily business to-and-from work or activities.

Of course, the often-sensationalized media coverage also doesn’t help deter the spread of this paranoia and fear that the culprits intended. Watching the news last night, I was saddened that the report about a 20-year-old who was identified by police as a “person of interest” because he was seen running from one of the bomb sites with a hand injury (which would make him just one of 176) had to specify that he was a Saudi national. It turns out that after police talked to to him, this “person of interest” was determined to be nothing more than a victim, but I can’t help but think about all of the people who heard that report and what they will think the next time they walk past a Middle Easterner on the street. I simply don’t see why the “journalist” couldn’t have just reported that police were talking to a person of interest, rather than specify his ethnicity or nationality, at least until there was any evidence that he was in fact involved. We only have to look back as far as Newtown to see that it isn’t just foreigners that commit acts of terror in this country.

My point in all of this is not to belittle the magnitude of tragedy that the 2013 Boston Marathon will forever be remembered for. Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old from China fulfilling her dream of pursuing her Master’s in the United States, Krystle Randle, a lively 29-year-old from the Boston area and 8-year-old Martin Richard all had promising lives ahead of them, and will be dearly missed. The 12 others who suffered amputations of some sort will also surely never forget Monday.

My point is also not to suggest that we should be afraid to drive or bike or walk to work. Accidents have and always will be a part of the cycle of life, and the reality is that no matter how careful or cautious we try to be, any of us could have our number called at any time.

My point is to demonstrate that by pursuing the things we love to do, participating in things like Boston’s Patriot Day and storied Marathon that are celebrations of the human spirit, even with the ever-present threat of life’s evils, we are at no greater risk than we are going about our everyday business. And more importantly, to emphasize that if we allow fear and paranoia to dictate the way we live our lives, we are allowing the people responsible to succeed in their mission far more emphatically than they have already. I didn’t have the honor of knowing any of them personally, but I would argue that Lingzi, Krystle and Martin would rather be remembered as heroes who died celebrating one of the more exciting days of their short lives rather than as symbols of the day we let the fear and paranoia stirred up by a few sick individuals triumph over the human spirit.

It is appropriate that we should all be in a state of mourning for the three beautiful people we lost on Monday, and send our thoughts and prayers to their families, friends and the other victims who will have to struggle the rest of their lives without an arm or a leg. But we should also be careful not to let the psychological impact that Monday’s bombing, and the sensationalized media coverage that has surrounded it, sap some of our spirit for celebrations of humanity. I can’t help but thinking back to childhood, growing up watching Mister Rogers, and remembering him talk about seeing scary things on the news:

My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.

Here’s to taking Mister Rogers’ advice and looking back on Monday as a story of heroes like Lingzi, Krystle and Martin, and helpers–the thousands who made sure that the tragedy wasn’t any worse–rather than a story of terrorists and victims. If we do that, then evil simply can’t win.


The Irony of Higher Education

Very few people, if any, would argue that education is a bad thing. In most middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, that someone will pursue higher education after high school is virtually a given; those who choose not to become branded with a negative stigma. Increasingly today, even a Bachelor’s degree isn’t enough as a default expected education, as a Master’s is rapidly becoming the norm.

I myself have a Master’s degree, and yet I am among the first to encourage people not to pursue such without a clear goal in mind for which it is required. In my case, I only decided to attend grad school because, through a few strokes of good fortune and luck, I was awarded a full fellowship. Had I been taking out loans for that extra credential, I wouldn’t have gone forward with it.  I often ask people who do put themselves into serious financial debt to pursue an advanced degree what their motivation is, and conventional wisdom seems to be that the higher our educational attainment, the more options we have.

The problem is, those of us who actually spend the money, time and effort to attain that advanced education far too often don’t see it this way. Instead, we pigeonhole ourselves into the state of mind that we need to pursue a career that is “worthy” of our education. Service? Certainly not, why that’s below us. You don’t need a Master’s to do that. Culinary? Of course not…my career adviser doesn’t have any contacts there.

Quite simply, the more education we have, the fewer jobs we feel are noble and worthy for us. How many law school students do you know would feel good about knowing that in five years, they will be teaching elementary school children for $30,000 a year? Of course they will not be satisfied with that—they would be “overqualified”, right? But what happens when the attainment of those jobs we consider to be worthy doesn’t lead us to happiness?

I use the law student example because I have come across several JD’s who wind up doing exactly that—teaching elementary school—after spending a few years at cutthroat firms. They all have told me the decision to leave law for education was not easy, often harrowing, and that the single biggest thing holding them back from pursuing what was truly in their hearts—teaching kids—is the fact that they spent the time, money and effort to earn that JD.

So it turns into a grand irony—while those with no higher education may be “limited” to the service industry or vocational trades (within which there are countless options, I may point out), those of us with the advanced education become even more limited by the limit of what we may deem acceptable. I know many an extrovert who may be happiest as a hotel concierge, meeting people from around the world and being wined and dined at five-star restaurants, who instead toils away behind spreadsheets and regression analyses all in the name of getting a “return” out of his or her academic credentials.

I’ve learned to stop looking at careers with a judging eye, and instead have realized that there is no limit to what any individual may be happiest pursuing. And while I am not against education in any way, and I indeed agree that on the surface, it gives anyone more options, I think it is important that we remember that options are not meant to be limited by the status we have achieved. If you have a Master’s and the career that makes you most happy doesn’t require it, who cares? It can still serve you well in so many other ways, and I am a firm believer that if you follow your heart and passion, just due financial rewards will come. Who’s to say that the MBA who decides to join the front desk of a hotel won’t be in charge of the check-in procedure and overall customer experience within a few years? No career has to be a dead end.

Education does in fact give us more options, but only if we truly accept the full breadth of those options. To do so, we must excuse judgment, push aside prejudice, and have the courage to pursue whatever it is that will maximize our career and personal happiness, no matter what kind of expectations we may have had upon making the decision to pursue advanced education.


Costas’ Nationally-Televised Plea for Gun Control Reform was Well-Timed and Appropriate

When the Bill of Rights was drafted more than 200 years ago, the United States of America was a vastly different place than it is today. Back then, we were a small agricultural country, and the framers of the Constitution themselves were essentially farmers who had lived their lives up to that point amidst civil war. So they drafted the Second Amendment, granting us the right to bear arms within a “well regulated militia.”

This was designed to protect individuals from a government infringing upon their basic freedoms—mind you, a government that was not equipped with nuclear weapons and surveillance technology robust enough to monitor the personal actions of everyone from its own military chief on down through its illegal immigrants.

That same premise doesn’t exist today. We have an established government, and one that—whether you trust it or not in the era of Guantanamo Bays and “no fly” lists—will infringe upon your rights if it deems such necessary. Having a gun at home isn’t going to protect you from that.

Yet, powerful (and rich) organizations like the National Rifle Association keep brainwashing confused lemmings into believing this is a basic foundation of being an American—the right to bear arms—and fail to see that our lack of gun control is what has people around the world actually afraid to visit a place that we feel is the most “civilized” of societies.

This is a hot topic today especially, given the shocking news from the weekend about a 25-year-old, multimillionaire professional athlete in the midst of living his dream, gunning down the mother of his 3-month-old girl in front of his own mother before taking his own life. During a nationally-televised football game the following day, NBC commentator Bob Costas made a public endorsement for gun control by paraphrasing journalist Jason Whitlock’s column calling for the same. Here’s an excerpt:

“We’ve come to accept our insanity. We’d prefer to avoid seriously reflecting upon the absurdity of the prevailing notion that the second amendment somehow enhances our liberty rather than threatens it.

How many young people have to die senselessly? How many lives have to be ruined before we realize the right to bear arms doesn’t protect us from a government equipped with stealth bombers, predator drones, tanks and nuclear weapons?

Our current gun culture simply ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy, and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead.

In the coming days, Belcher’s actions will be analyzed through the lens of concussions and head injuries. Who knows? Maybe brain damage triggered his violent overreaction to a fight with his girlfriend. What I believe is, if he didn’t possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.

That is the message I wish Chiefs players, professional athletes and all of us would focus on Sunday and moving forward. Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it.

But we won’t. We’ll watch Sunday’s game and comfort ourselves with the false belief we’re incapable of the wickedness that exploded inside Jovan Belcher Saturday morning.”

While it perhaps wasn’t the ideal venue for such a discussion, I respect Costas for doing so. It’s a message that people simply need to consider in context. Of course, this brought out the critics in full force, with the following being among the tweets that circulated after the Costas segment:

“Does Bob Costas know that people are murdered everyday by means other than gunshots? Removing guns will not stop psychos from killing people.”

“Yes, Bob Costas, guns are the problem. Nicole Brown Simpson would be alive today if OJ hadn’t shot her with that knife.”

For those in favor of simply ignoring any sort of historical context in advocating Second Amendment rights, I believe you may well be able to craft a good argument doing so. I just haven’t heard it yet. Instead, all I hear are the same old variations of the same old, ignorant view that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Such ignorance in an argument never ceases to amaze me. Nobody is saying that stricter gun control laws are going to prevent 100% of murders from happening in our society. It’s simply saying that without a gun sitting on the table next to someone in the midst of an emotional, heated argument, it’s much less likely that people would die as a result of fighting. There’s a difference between people fighting and people shooting one another. The arguments above are akin to saying that having laws and prisons are pointless because some crime still exists, or that traffic signals have no purpose because a few individuals run red lights anyway.

Humans were blessed with free will and a more independent spirit than any other animal, so there will always be people who choose to inflict evil on the world. But if you take away the easy means of inflicting the ultimate evil on another—murder—you make said evil much less likely to happen. If someone is really intent upon killing another, having to physically do it with one’s own hands is much more personal than having to pull a trigger at a distance. There are a lot of people, I’d argue, who are capable of squeezing their eyes shut and doing the ladder, but probably wouldn’t be able to do the former.

It’s easy for us to look at someone who committed murder and judge them as “evil”—we feel better about ourselves knowing that we are incapable of such atrocity, and that the individual we cast judgment upon must simply be a cold-blooded savage. But what about when you consider the possibility that Jovan Belcher was not really a “psycho”? When you talk to people who actually knew someone like Jovan Belcher for years, and learn that he was involved in his community, that he cared for friends and loved ones, that he was just like…us (!!), it makes me wonder how many murderers may have felt instant regret upon realizing the gravity of their actions. How many got caught up in a fit of rage and lost their head, acted strictly on emotional impulse….and happened to have a gun, with all of the instant gratification and suddenness that pulling a trigger provides, handy. Do a psycho lay down and kiss the body of the woman he killed after the fact, apologize to his own mother for his vile actions, and go out of his way to thank the men who helped him achieve his life’s dream while asking them to look after his soon-to-be orphaned daughter, as Belcher reportedly did? Or would a true psycho have just shot all of them?

Of course some murders would still happen in a world without handguns, as it did before guns were even invented. But I’d argue that a whole lot more, in the actual midst of inflicting harm upon someone with their hands, would possibly have come to their senses in those moments and nobody would have died. I’d argue that Jovan Belcher had no intention of killing himself when he woke up Saturday morning, but instead that he lost his head in a moment of rage, killed his girlfriend, and then felt no other choice than to take the easy way out rather than face up to the consequences of his actions. Without the gun, he would have been arrested for domestic violence—itself a vile crime—paid his punishment, sought out some professional help, and continued to live his life as hopefully a better and reformed man. And, oh yeah, his daughter would have a father.

London 2012: Why an American Swimming Coach Needs to Shut Up and Why the Olympics is Ridiculous to Begin With

I try to avoid watching the Olympics, given that it encourages the continued exploitation of young kids in sports that nobody really cares about, but for whatever reason, I caught myself watching the other night. And I was quickly reminded why I am at times embarrassed to be American when I’m overseas. I hadn’t really felt this way since Bush left office four years ago, but American swimming coach John Leonard’s comments brought back some ugly flashbacks.

Leonard, who has a history of idiotic, sexist comments, wanted “to be careful about calling it doping,” though essentially accused Chinese gold medalist Ye Shiwen of exactly that. This pissed me off on two levels: firstly, that it’s surely okay that Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte win EVERY swimming event, shattering world records in the process, and of course would never raise any suspicion of doping. I guess this is because NBC shows us day and night the touching stories of how hard they have worked for this for four years (spare me, please). Apparently, despite building our entire railroad network in helping the US attain its industrial power status in the 19th century, we cannot believe that someone from China could possibly have the same work ethic of some rich, white kids who grew up in suburban swimming pools. Secondly, for Leonard to even say “we want to be very careful about calling it doping” while clearly implying exactly that is just cowardly. If you’re going to say something and try to smear this girl’s hard accomplishment, then at the very least put your neck out there and just say it—don’t dance around your point.

It’s a typical arrogant American attitude in full display, which I go to great lengths to try to downplay when I’m overseas. We’re not all that way, I try to explain, but idiots like Leonard make this very difficult to sustain.

That being said, I’m not really in favor of how the Chinese handle their athletics program either, which is exactly why I’m pretty much anti-Olympics. Let’s be honest—nobody really cares about swimming, from a spectator standpoint. Sure, people watch at the Olympics, but that is solely because of the bigger stage of what the overall competition is. People plan vacations around it, and not to watch a 200m freestyle relay. Soccer, basketball, American football, baseball, hockey, auto racing, and to some extent golf and tennis—these are the sports that have a continued following and can sustain themselves as professional businesses based on fan interest, ticket sales and television demand. Equestrian, swimming, or synchronized diving? I think not.

Yet despite this, I continue to hear stories from the Olympics like the one of China’s gold medal diver Wu Minxia, who had news of her grandparents’ deaths hidden from her for over a year so as not to interfere with her concentration for London. This poor girl was training daily from age 6, and taken from her home and family at 16 to be enrolled in a government aquatic academy. Even her father, who presumably (we hope) had to agree for this to happen, said his family “accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong entirely to us,” and that he doesn’t “even dare to think about things like enjoying family happiness.”

For what, may I ask? Is it really worth it for this girl? This is a perfect example of why the Olympics are really for the benefit of everyone but these athletes. In Wu’s case, she has become a gold medalist, which (we hope) will lead to opportunities that she can personally benefit from in the future. But for every Wu, there are hundreds and thousands of other athletes who do not register the same success after going through the same process. Can you imagine what the psychological impact must be on them for being expected to produce the same results and “failing” on the world stage? They are treated like machines that exist solely to bring gold medals back to a country, and if they fail at that, then what good are they, really?

Sure, for some who are clearly participating in the Olympics on their own terms, like the USA men’s basketball stars or Paraguayan track athlete Leryn Franco (who is not even in London to compete, but to boost her modeling career), it is just a fun event with which to further elevate their global celebrity. But the vast majority of these athletes are not rich, visible celebrities. Their hard work and, in cases like Wu Minxia, personal sacrifices, are solely for the benefit of the Olympic television sponsors, the rich IOC, and the corrupt politicians from various countries who can leave their 20-year-old mistresses aside for a  moment to revel in the fact that they are developing a “successful” athletic program.

If the Olympics truly were an amateur event which benefited the athletes who partake, I would be all for it. But unfortunately it’s anything but, and the existence of institutions that take “amateur” athletes from their homes and families and hide news of family tragedies from them in the name of “focused preparation” make this fact painfully evident.


3 Reasons Why We Need to Put the Penn State-Sandusky Issue to Rest (and Let JoePa Rest in Peace)

I can’t seem to go anywhere these days (not even Borneo, Malaysia apparently) without seeing some news coming out of tiny State College, Pennsylvania. This is, of course, in regards to the child sex case of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and more recently whether his boss, the legendary, late head coach Joe Paterno was guilty in covering up for his buddy. There are three reasons why I’m simply sick of hearing about this. Sandusky’s crimes were indeed troubling, but it is time to both give this a rest, and let Paterno rest in peace as well. Here’s why:

  1. Neither man was either as great, or is as evil, as we make them out to be.

What do I mean by this? First of all, I’m not in any way, shape or form condoning Sandusky’s crimes. He obviously did some sick things that severely impacted the lives of some of his victims. However, we are a bandwagon society. If Sandusky, who had a children’s foundation, worked with hundreds of kids throughout his years at Penn State, and abused a handful of them (which again, I am NOT excusing), I’m pretty sure there will be plenty of others who were not victimized that will come forth with dollar signs in their eyes. And wouldn’t you? This is how our society is, and always has, worked. Like the ambulance-chaser legal ads we see on late night television, or the flyers we receive in the mail that tell us we may be eligible for compensation because we rented a car in California in April of 2007, when we see an opportunity to profit, we pounce. And while Sandusky did victimize some children and does not deserve to be let off the hook for even one, I’m sure the extent of his crimes has been overstated as other kids who participated in his programs are being influenced by ‘advisers’ to try to cash in. (If I receive those notices about renting a car 5 years ago, imagine how many lawyers have contacted every kid who was ever in any way linked with Sandusky’s program!).

We put these men on a pedestal because they could coach football, nothing more and nothing less. And because we regarded them so highly before, it’s our nature to kick dirt on them now that they have fallen.

  1. Paterno is dead, and Sandusky will face the wrath of the law.

I can’t emphasize this point enough. Paterno is dead—anything that comes out now to further defame him is like kicking a man when he’s down. He cannot defend himself. Anything more negative that comes out about him is only going to make the remaining years of his widow’s life miserable, and what did she do to deserve that? Further, while idiots like former FBI chief Louis Freeh, who surely cashed in hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money for his “investigation” into the case (like Penn State administrators couldn’t have accessed the same email history without the massive fee) continue to defame anyone associated with the case further, has anyone for one minute put themselves in the actual shoes of Joe Paterno? Keep in mind, this man first met Sandusky in 1963—more than 30 years before any allegations of child sex abuse came out. Who is to say that when he first heard any speculation, he didn’t approach Sandusky and confront him about it? If you had a 40-some year relationship with someone, and they told you that something simply wasn’t true, wouldn’t you probably give them the benefit of the doubt as well?  Again, I’m not defending Sandusky, or even Paterno if he did in fact go to any lengths to cover up the issue. What I’m suggesting is that he more than likely did ask Sandusky about the allegations and simply didn’t believe they were true, based on a trust that 40-plus years of knowing someone and working with someone probably brings.

As for Sandusky, he has already been defamed, will forever be known as a child rapist, and will die behind bars. What more does anyone want?

The latest talk is about imposing a full-year ban on Penn State football, but all that serves to do is punish 19-year olds who are currently living their dreams of playing Penn State football, and the thousands of fans who see PSU games as the highlight of their autumn, for the past actions of people who are now dead or in prison.  And with NCAA (which is among the most hypocritical institutions going) rules that make things very difficult on players who wish to transfer to other universities, such a ban would be a very short sighted, bandwagon approach that displaces punishment onto innocent people.

  1. We (the media and fans) are the idiots for continually elevating entertainers into greater cultural and moral idols.

So you want to remove JoePa’s statue from the Penn State campus, do you? Well, may I ask why that statue is really there in the first place? Let’s get it straight: while Paterno was indeed a great football coach, he coached scholarship athletes who would have simply accepted scholarships to play football at Pittsburgh, or Ohio State, or Syracuse if Paterno wasn’t around. If you really want to elevate sports figures or coaches into saints, then I’d suggest starting with youth coaches for troubled kids, or high school coaches in inner cities, who are actually taking young, impressionable children off the streets and instilling within them discipline and responsibility. By the time people like Paterno (and even more so professional coaches) get to these players, they are already nearly grown men. Their most impressionable years have passed. Surely Paterno positively impacted the lives of some of his players, but in far less proportion to other people these young men dealt with prior to attending Penn State.  As I said earlier, Paterno coached football—he didn’t walk on water, heal lepers and turn criminals into saints.

This reminds me of the public shock and scandal after Tiger Woods’ sex addiction came into the public eye. We, the media and public, along with his hundreds of sponsors, were furious. How could Tiger commit infidelity as a husband…for he’s the greatest golfer in the world!??! Does anyone else realize how ridiculous this sounds? We don’t make statues of, and sponsors don’t pay millions of dollars for endorsements with, Joe Average who is the community youth director at church, or the guy who runs the homeless shelter down the street. If we want to idolize people for moral and humane reasons, then these are the folks we should look at. But we idolized Tiger Woods because he was really, really good at hitting a little, white ball into a tiny cup with a metal stick. That’s it. We idolized Michael Jordan for being really, really good at making a bouncy, orange ball go through a net. So how could he possibly cheat on his wife??? We are simply fools for trying to project a larger image onto people for being incredibly talented at a particular craft. Unfortunately, there is absolutely not, and has never existed, any correlation between talent in a particular craft and moral fidelity. And when you think about it, it’s kind of silly that we make it so.


Walking Through Life With Blinders…

This post has been a long time coming, but I just wanted to put a feeling I’ve had for a long time into words. I can remember the second time I ever flew in an airplane, looking out the window in absolute amazement at the world becoming smaller and smaller below me–people and cars and buildings steadily turning into visual ants–while the landscape simultaneously expanded, growing and growing forever. (The first time I flew, as a six-year-old, my only recollection was excruciating head pain while trying to chew gum and pop my ears). At the time, I didn’t know a thing about the physics of aviation (not that I know much more now), but  it was simply mind-boggling that I could defy gravity and experience the world as a bird does. Now, some 650 takeoffs and 1.2 million miles later, I must confide that the feeling isn’t much different. The fact that we can still defy gravity in a metal tube, taking off in one corner of the world and touching down in another, is awe inspiring.

That feeling is especially true in places where the airport location offers a treat of a view–San Francisco International and New York’s LaGuardia come immediately to mind–I could fly out of either every single day and never fail to be amazed (pictures of both attached). Yet, with both cities full of road-warrior business travelers, I am saddened each time by how many people I see simply close the window shade before even taking off, completely oblivious to the amazing view that they are missing out on. Of course some of these people probably are on these flights weekly, but we’re only talking about a minute or two, max, before we’ve climbed above the clouds. I feel for all of those first-time flyers who may be missing out because these individuals so consumed with their daily business that they simply can’t be bothered by beauty and imagination.

(I have inserted some photos to demonstrate the beauty I’m talking about, but please scroll beyond them to continue reading.)

Downtown Manhattan on approach into LGA
Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge & Lower Manhattan
Midtown Manhattan on approach into LGA
NYC at night after takeoff from LaGuardia
San Francisco & The Bay shortly after takeoff from SFO
Downtown San Francisco after takeoff from SFO
Downtown San Francisco & the Golden Gate after takeoff from SFO

A few weeks ago, the Space Shuttle Discovery was “retired” into the Udvar-Hazy branch of the  National Air & Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia, USA (which also happens to be the town I grew up in). It was big news–when the Boeing 747 carrying Discovery was due to land, people all throughout the Washington, D.C. area had literally stopped on the highways to get out of their cars and take a look. The plane even did a l0w-altitude fly over the White House and United States Capitol, just so everyone could get a good look. Once Discovery had finally arrived at Dulles International Airport, the 747 with Shuttle attached remained parked on the tarmac the next day while they prepared to separate the two and enshrine the Shuttle into its new home at the opposite end of the airfield. The 747-Shuttle combination sad in a vacant area, between the second and third IAD north-south runway–a good distance from the terminal. Flying out of Dulles on a near-weekly basis, I’ve noticed that we use the first runway (1R/19L) or east-west runway (30) nearly every time. However, this time, we had the good fortune of taxiing out to the furthest runway (1L), which  meant we’d be passing directly in front of the parked 747-Shuttle.

Space Shuttle Discovery & 747 circle downtown Washington DC
Space Shuttle Discovery & 747 parked at Dulles Airport

As we approached Discovery, the captain made an announcement that the Space Shuttle would be visible on the right side of the aircraft, and sure enough it was, facing us–no more than 50 meters away from the end of the wing of our little, 50-seater regional jet. While the majority of folks on board scrambled to lift the window shades and contort themselves to get a glimpse out of the small windows, the two men directly across the aisle from me, with perhaps the best view of all, didn’t even flinch. The man by the window didn’t look up from his magazine to touch the shade, while the man closest to me, a tall German with bold features and a hardened face, couldn’t seem to take his eyes off a stack of CV’s he was scouring through. (!!!).  It was as if the CV’s were printed with invisible ink that was going to disappear back into the page seconds later if he didn’t get through them. It made me realize that this was about much more than a stack of CV’s–this was probably how these men live their lives. I know it’s wrong, but I immediately made a projection onto their relationships with their girlfriends, wives or children…can you imagine trying to please someone like that?

Despite my twinge of sadness, however, I’m grateful to have witnessed this as another reminder that no matter what kind of pressure I may feel that I’m under in a particular circumstance, I must always make sure that I’m still not oblivious to the beautiful or unique things that I may encounter on any given day.