Dec 28, 2015

One of God's Own Prototypes

"There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production." - Hunter S Thompson.

Lee Lyons is dead at 35 years old.

Lee isn’t going to get a front page obituary anywhere but here, so I’m going to make this count.

He was the strangest person I’ve ever met, and that’s not an exaggeration. Keep in mind that for many years I frequented circles of punk rockers, goths, junkies, hippies, LSD users, ravers, cocaine dealers, pot dealers, journalists, political scientists, historians, rail fans, comic book fans, Star Wars geeks and prostitutes of all persuasions.

Not one of them comes close to Lee.

I first met him when I was in the late middle school early high school years, between the ages of 12 and 14. I can’t pinpoint the exact year or the exact date, but I can make a hazy estimate: Lee was already armed and dangerous with a VHS camcorder, and already had at least one movie under his belt.

He had already christened his movie company: Giant Terd Productions.

I met him through a friend. Lee and I didn’t go to the same school — I was part of an arts magnet program that Lee probably belonged in, while Lee went to conventional public school. Lucky for me, a neighbor of his was in my school, and that neighbor, Hunter, shared with me an artistic talent: we both played cello.

Hunter was already part of Lee’s inner-circle of actors and off-camera collaborators, which we affectionately dubbed “The Terds.”

Aside from his movies, which I hope are preserved and remain unseen by any law enforcement agencies and future employers, Lee was also a avid musician, visual artist and writer. Though he created a lot by himself, in his ‘workshop’ where he made our movies using an old analogue, throttle-based video editor, he also collaborated widely with anyone who was interested in playing a role.

As a young, geeky high school kid who was part arts geek and part culture nerd, I envied the way Lee seemed able to attract members of different cliques among the youth of our home town. Lee’s movies featured black, white, Asian and Latino kids in what was essentially a self-segregated city. He featured rich and poor kids, jocks, ‘gangsters,’ preppies, punks, both the beautiful and the disfigured, all equally respected and ridiculed.

Members of the circle of Terds came and went – a few of the actors who preceded me left as Lee’s behavior and his artistic choices became more erratic, or as they matured and became concerned about their reputations. For a time, I was a regular, spending time not only playing roles, but also helping to edit and score Lee’s movies.

See, Lee and his camera became ever-present factors of every weekend gathering during our late middle school and high school lives. So all of our embarrassing moments, all of our skeletons were documented and catalogued in his expanding collection of VHS tapes and what I can only now imagine is gigabytes of video files.

He shot film of our experimentations with drugs and our encounters with sexuality, all of which he edited to emphasize how ridiculous teenage boys are.

Much of the footage is humiliating to watch as an adult.

As we grew older and began to go our separate ways, I became concerned with Lee’s collection of footage. As social media networks came into their own, my concerns were justified as Lee began posting some of our nostalgic footage for the world to see.

At the time, I didn’t want my name associated with movies named “Pervert’s Quest” and “Assblast.” I didn’t want people to see me partially nude, or simulating sex acts and drug use (much of the drug use was NON simulated, if I recall correctly). I was trying to build a career and a reputation. I cared.

Lee, on the other hand, never learned the burden of giving a shit. Even after becoming a father, he still lived more freely than I ever could. Lee faithfully uploaded our movies, posted them on Facebook, and tagged us in them.

Lee was the kind of guy who almost never had cigarettes, but when he did he would bum them out generously. He was the kid who spent the balance of his allowance on a dimebag of pot just to get his friends high. He was the guy who would call everyone out-of-the-blue on a boring summer day to get together in a public park to create something — chaos, if not art.

Lee was the kind of guy who would wake you up at 3 a.m. to dose LSD and just walk around the suburbs — which sounds kind of lame in hindsight, but with him it was always an adventure.

The character of Charley Kelly, from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” bears a striking resemblance to Lee in his creativity and strangeness.

I lost touch with Lee around the same time I married my wife. Our lives were moving in different directions. While we were working our way through school, Lee was calling us up looking for places to buy drugs we weren’t even using anymore. He was knocking at our door unannounced. Some times we would pretend like we weren’t home to avoid the awkward conversations.

Though, for a time, it looked as if he might grow up, Lee struggled with some addictions, some personal turbulence, and type 1 diabetes. In the end, it was the diabetes that got him.

But, because Lee was such a creative soul, he’s left behind a treasure-trove of media for his family and friends to sort through. He has one of the best documented lives on the planet. There’s no chance that any of us who knew Lee would ever be able to forget him. Trust me, some of us tried.

I’m a little ashamed of trying.

See, when we moved away from Lexington to chase a career, my wife and I were acutely aware of how limited our time in our hometown would be, so we started to closely guard when we were coming back to visit so people like Lee wouldn’t be able to find out and dominate our time. I didn’t have precious hours to devote to his silliness. It was a difficult decision to make, but we decided to prioritize family and a subset of friends who were taking their lives in directions similar to ours.

I feel a lot of guilt about that decision now, even though I came to find out that I wasn’t the only one who did that.

Now I know I’ll never get one of those weird phone calls again, I’ll never play music with him again, I’ll never drunkenly sing Nine Inch Nails songs with him again, I’ll never get throw-up drunk off of Montezuma Tequila with him again, I'll never walk five miles in the rain while on LSD with him again, and I’ll never be a Terd again. It’s breaking my heart.

But I’m also so grateful that for a couple of years I was a part of his life.

Lee passed away on Christmas day, leaving behind a son, an ex-wife, heartbroken parents and siblings, and too many friends to keep track of. I can't imagine what they're feeling - yes, I lost a sibling during the holidays many, many moons ago, but he was an infant. Lee's fingerprints are all over their lives.

Lee made us all laugh, and he made us all laughable. He knew he was ridiculous, too, he broke down all your attempts to be the ‘straight man’ — in Lee’s world, there was no room for Bud Abbott or Zeppo Marx, we were all Lou Costello or Groucho or Harpo. Everybody was a punchline. In a way, through Lee’s eyes, we were all equally dumb and awkward and silly and broken, but we all had creative potential.

That’s a damn beautiful way of looking at the world, isn’t it?

Dec 23, 2015

Anti-social Media

So from November 13 through some point earlier this month, I deactivated my Facebook account.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Let me tell you why, first, because I think that deserves some explanation.

I am no longer a true liberal in the U.S. politics sense of the word - though I am by no means aligned with most American conservatives, either. Many of my Facebook friends are liberals. That’s fine. We still share many values and ideas and under the right conditions have cordial, productive discussions and debates.

Facebook is not a great venue for those kinds of discussions and debates, especially when whiskey enters the picture.

While at a major financial conference, I engaged in an argument with someone who I consider a friend and whom I respect. I was arguing that most wealth is self-made, that many of our country’s millionaires do not live privileged lives and actually fit in with the Horatio Alger mythology.

She very passionately maintained that these people were the recipients of a great deal of privilege.
Clearly buzzed, I took umbrage at that remark for no reason and argued that attributing their success to privilege minimized their accomplishments, and said a few derogatory things towards my friend before putting my phone away and enjoying the rest of my party.

When I woke up the next morning, surprisingly free of a hangover, I was embarrassed by my own behavior. I decided that it was time for a Facebook break and temporarily deactivated my account.
In the 28 days I kept myself away from Facebook, I became a more productive and happy person. I found myself reading more things online instead of scrolling through them. As an experienced researcher, I discovered an internet full of useful information, not snark and pseudoscience.

I wasn’t memed at constantly.

I maintained a social media presence — my Twitter account needed the attention anyway — and I still interacted with others digitally, but didn’t do so on Facebook.

I recommend that everybody try it. You don’t have to plunge into the deep end and trash your account, Facebook will let you deactivate for a predetermined period of time, after which your account will become active again as if you had never left.

I’ve often complained that Twitter’s 144 character limit reduces conversations and discussions to “duckspeak” with little room for nuance or explanation, but in some ways Facebook is worse.

With Facebook, we’re shouting at each other with tags and wallposts and there’s little call and response. We inundate our friends with media of our own happy lives, or with religious/political/spiritual messaging that has little basis in reality. We're not having conversations, we're hurling our opinions and thoughts at each other with little filter, like firing grapeshot into a crowd.

On Facebook, #FeelTheBern and #DumpTrump pass for coherent political arguments.

Even more dangerous is that major social media sites like Facebook have grown beyond being a way to keep up with family members and old friends — they have become potent marketing tools for businesses. I’m working on an article about how financial advisors can harness social media to prospect for clients, and these are mostly small, independent businesses. If they’re getting in the game now, how long do you think the Coca-Colas and WalMarts of the world have been using data from social media to target you with their marketing?

And I know, Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter are great tools, sine qua non for a journalist like myself. But maybe we should step back and start treating them like tools instead of a source of knowledge and entertainment.

Maybe we should seek out the communication tools that enhance our ability to be considerate and civil, not the ones that diminish the "better angels of our nature."

Maybe, when we have a political thought to express, we should choose a medium where we can give it breadth and context, where we can explore the nuances and details instead of making sweeping assumptions.

Maybe we should move our debates back to the barroom or the kitchen table where we can more easily address the human being on the other side of the issue.

Or maybe I’m the problem, and I need to learn more self-control and tolerance before engaging in these kinds of conversations in front of the world on social media — but, if that’s the case, I’ve encountered quite a few people with the same issues.

Either way, I’m sorry, Marie. Still friends?

Dec 22, 2015

Can We Really Say That the Middle Class is Crashing or Taking Off?

On Sept. 23, 1999, NASA lost contact with the Mars Climate Orbiter as it entered its orbit around the red planet, because the $193.1 million spacecraft disintegrated in the planet’s atmosphere.

A review found that a simple mathematical mistake caused the mission’s failure: Lockheed Martin, which developed software for the mission, reported altitude using U.S. standard measures (feet and miles) while the NASA computers interpreted the reports in metric measure without converting the numbers – thus three feet could become three meters, or almost 10 feet, inside NASA’s computers, and what was mathematically expected to be a perfect orbital insertion instead flamed out in the Martian atmosphere.

I cite this example to note that numbers and reported data aren’t the only things that matter: Metrics matter. Context matters. Conclusions matter.

I think that Pew Research, one of the best polling and data analysis agencies in the country, may have forgotten that lesson in a recent study.

Pew Research, using American census data, has concluded that for the first time since they started measuring socioeconomic class, “middle class”Americans are no longer a majority.

Since the report’s publication, blog posts and articles have proliferated about the demise of the American middle class, Pew even framed the results as evidence that the middle class is “losing ground,” but that may not be what the article is telling us.

For one thing, Pew wasn’t measuring socioeconomic class based on net worth or investible assets, the researchers were measuring income. For their purposes, they defined ‘middle’ incomes as households whose annual net income is between two-thirds and double the national median income for similarly-sized households. While Pew chops their data up by household size, we can use the U.S. Census Bureau median for the sake of ease:

If $51,939 is the U.S. median household income, middle class households make between $34,626 and $103,878 according to Pew's assumptions.

That’s where I have a problem with the conclusions drawn from this research. Let's start by saying that using national averages to convey a sense of wealth and poverty is foolish. Mississippi, our lowest income state with a household median around $36,000, is at 79 percent of the national median, while our highest income state, Maryland at around $69,000, is at 138 percent of the national median. A median Maryland household makes almost twice as much as a median Mississippi household not just because Mississippi has historically high levels of poverty, but also because Maryland families endure astronomical costs of living by comparison to Mississippi families. 

In some places, $35,000 may qualify one for middle income, and $33,000 a year may make one lower income, but there’s no way that a paltry $103,878 should be considered ‘upper income’ no matter where you live. Around 20 percent of households in the U.S. make more money than that.

By comparison, most academic definitions of socioeconomic class have ‘upper’ class consisting of the top 1-6 percent of American households. To be in the top 6 percent, your family would have to make around $175,000 annually – certainly more deserving of upper-class than $103,878 households. To be in the top 1 percent, a household would need a net annual income of more than $250,000.
But that’s a small issue. I think Pew and the pundits may miss the greater message behind the statistics.

The overall decline in American wealth can be attributed to three issues: The Great Recession and its related factors, the baby boom retirement, and an increased focus on wealth inequality as a form of social inequality.

Boomers were the big gainers in income, mainly because they’re living the last years of their working lives and have finally reached peak income. The most competent among them have also been saving in retirement and investment portfolios that are likely paying a nice dividend to replace income that they would otherwise get from bonds or CDs. However, they could also be starting to contribute to Pew’s ‘lower income’ numbers as they transition from income generation to living off of Social Security and retirement accounts.

If I recall correctly, an average retiree lives off of around $40,000 annually, but as retirees age past 70 that number drops to under $30,000 per year. They’re not taking huge disbursements from their retirement accounts, many are living off of social security and little else. As the percentage of the population over 65 and 75 increases, the percentage reporting within Pew’s “lower income” bracket should also increase.

The Great Recession undoubtedly had an impact, especially for younger people. I’m about to turn 35. People my age and younger have been competing for jobs in one of the worst job markets the country has seen since the 1930’s. It doesn’t shock me, then, to find that 18-29 year olds and 30-44 year olds who report ‘upper’ income levels have declined precipitously over the last 45 years. As millennials, the nation’s largest generation, enter the workforce, they’ve had to take lower-income jobs not just because few options existed, but also because boomers have been slow to retire. That’s beginning to turn around.

It’s more controversial to say that our efforts to address social inequality have led to greater inequality of wealth, but it’s hard to deny that some of our educational and economic policies are pushing artificial bubbles and concavities when it comes to affluence.

In the past 40 years, black households have experienced greater income growth than white households, women have experienced greater income growth than men, and the elderly have experienced greater income growth than youth. These three groups are commonly targeted for federal and state entitlements and scholarships over more white, male and young citizens. While there is ample evidence that the economic well-being of these populations is increasing, there’s still a widespread perception that they are socially disadvantaged, thus they continue to receive social welfare at inordinately high rates.

As an aside, there is an argument that these increases and the policies that have allowed them represent a move towards greater equality. Equality is a subjective term. The only thing we should be concerned with is equality under the law – as long as the law extends preferential treatment, greater monetary assistance or support-in-kind to some citizens in lieu of others on the basis of their gender or their minority status, we’re moving away from, not towards equality.

Pew’s message is also wrong. Rather than sliding into poverty, more middle class Americans than ever before are ascending into the upper class.

The proportion of American adults living in the middle-income tier decreased from 61 percent to 50 percent from 1971 to 2015. During that same time, the proportion of households considered lower income increased from 25 to 29 percent, but the proportion of households considered upper income increased from 14 to 21 percent. So 4 percent of Americans went from middle class to lower class by Pew’s definition, but another 7 percent ascended from middle income to upper income in the same time period.

The seven percent are almost undoubtedly part of the sizable segment of the American population known to financial advisors as “the emerging affluent.”

For those of us who have read Thomas Stanley’s and William Danko’s 1995 book “The Millionaire Next Door,” this is even less surprising. Stanley and Danko found that, for the most part, millionaires come from middle class backgrounds and up to 80 percent still live middle class lifestyles – their net worth, however, and the income they derive from it has pushed them past the definition of middle class.

These aren’t eccentric billionaires like Elon Musk or Warren Buffett. They aren’t caricatures of wealth like Richie Rich or Tony Stark. They’re people who own small businesses who are making their ideas work. They’re middle-level professionals who have learned to live simply and to sock money away for the future.

Stanley and Danko’s research found that these, by and large, aren’t the people buying up mcmansions, Ferraris or Armani suits. The most popular car among millionaires? The Ford F150. Why? Because they’re cheap to own, cheap to maintain, last a long time, and are useful for independent contractors, who as it turns out, are the Americans with the most socioeconomic mobility.

Since even Pew, further down their report, mentions that socioeconomic class is more a ‘state of mind’ than a strictly defined income or asset bracket, who is to say that these humble, self-made millionaires aren’t middle class? They live in middle class neighborhoods, buy middle class products from middle class – or even thrift – stores, and their wealth confers no immediate special benefit other than peace of mind.

For another matter, the measurement of income as a sign of wealth is less relevant than ever before, and that in part is due to some of the differences in millennials and to a lesser extent generation X. Millennials aren’t placing as much emphasis on purely generating income, but more on lifestyle independence. Now that the economy is loosening up and the job market is strengthening, fewer millennials are opting for the 35-to-40-year career at a single company or long periods of full-time employment. They’re the force behind the growing ‘gig economy’ where more individuals work part-time, on-call, on contingency or when they want.

As we move away from traditional careers towards a gig economy, I think the number of these emerging affluent, self-made upper-income households is poised to increase. According to Pew, in 2014, 10 percent of American workers were self-employed, and another 20 percent worked for a self-employed person.

Much of this income is recorded as ‘miscellaneous income’ for tax purposes and ends up on a 1099 form, which is where companies report payments to contract, temporary, or contingent workers. In 2014, 91 million 1099 forms were filed, and a lot of them are likely from middle class or upper-middle class workers with side hustles or work-from-home projects.

In the future, income inequality will become even more difficult to measure using Pew’s source data, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey – not because of the research methods behind the survey, which are sound, but because respondents won’t know how to report the money they’re making.

While inputs like Social Security payments, retirement account distributions, interest and ‘miscellaneous’ income are supposed to be reported in the current data, there’s little evidence that respondents are accurately reporting that data now, let alone 10-20 years in the future when it will likely make up a larger portion of their annual income.

The measurements we’re using and the ways we’re interpreting them can’t provide elegant solutions to put us precisely into orbit, but convey very rough, incomplete pictures of reality that, if used as a basis for policy, might hurl us out into space or slam us into Mars.

I’ve digressed several times, so let’s close with a few takeaways:
  • Socioeconomic class is subjective and more related to lifestyle choices than it is to income.
  • Pew might be right in saying that the number of ‘middle income’ Americans is declining, but they’re using an overly-narrow definition of middle income.
  • These assertions are losing meaning not just because they’re subjective, but because the metrics we’re using to support them are becoming meaningless.
  • The American dream is not dead, but it has been redefined by the emerging generations to mean more than the simple accumulation of wealth and property.

Dec 21, 2015

J.J. Abrams Has Re-Kindled My Inner Star Wars Nerd

Let’s get two things out of the way: The new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is an excellent film, and I won’t spoil the major surprises for you in this piece if you haven’t seen it yet.
I was not in the theater during for the movie’s opening, the first time in 16 years that I have not gotten myself to taxi-calling levels of inebriation before tromping off to a megaplex with a bunch of costumed fellow-nerds to cheer on the latest installment from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

That’s right, I was dumb enough to go see all three sequels in the theater, so I wasn’t going to be the sucker to watch a potentially ponderous misfire at midnight on a work night just to say that I’d been there. Instead, I went to a late-night showing on Friday.
No matter when you see it, the movie is worth the price of 3-D and theater surround sound.
Now that we’ve all recovered from our collective Star Wars hangovers, there are many returning to internet forums, social media, and to their blogs to pan The Force Awakens. These people are largely hipsters who get their kicks from being contrarian. I know because I get a lot of kicks from being contrarian, too, but I can’t do that to this movie.
First of all, it hits me in the nostalgia zone (that area between the butterflies in your stomach, the palpations in your heart, and the lump in your throat). Seeing Harrison Ford’s Han Solo at the helm of the Millennium Falcon again, or R2D2’s friendly trash-can shaped exterior, Chewbacca’s growl/howl, seeing Carrie Fisher bring gravitas and wit back to the series with her depiction of Leia Organa and the callbacks to iconic scenes (think trash compactor) made me smile and sigh.
It was like I was coming home again.
Like the much-maligned prequel trilogy, there are plenty of new characters introduced. A couple of new baddies – the pseudo-Sith Kylo Ren, the Empire-esque ‘civilian’ commander General Hux (played by Harry Potter’s Domhnall Gleeson) and the enigmatic Snoke have appeared to hold the galaxy hostage with the First Order, the heirs to the Galactic Empire. These characters are not yet ‘round’ — Hux and Snoke are possibly purposefully underwritten to leave room for exposition in Episodes VIII and IX.
Kylo Ren is a nice combination of the whiny, conflicted Anakin Skywalker and the cold-blooded horror of Palpatine. To avoid major spoilers, I’ll say no more, just that there are a few eye-opening reveals about him throughout the movie, and likely more to come if the producers and writers remain close to the Star Wars formula.
The new good guys, Rey, likely a Force-user played by Daisy Ridley, Finn, a former stormtrooper played by John Boyega, Maz Kanata, a strange little alien creature voiced by Lupita Nyong’o and Poe, an ace pilot played by Oscar Isaac, are fully-round characters (the first round good guys introduced into the Star Wars universe since Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian) that steal the show from the heroes of my childhood.
There are three things that put the ‘new’ Star Wars on par with the old:
1) Casting – in the disastrous prequel trilogy, George Lucas was casting for looks - he wanted his Anakin to look like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, so he cast two actors who couldn't really act but looked the part. JJ Abrams and the producers went for people who could fill out roles in this movie. Especially impressive are the outings by Boyega and Ridley, who, though just 23 years old, give believable performances.
2) Effects - using more practical effects, and being able to use digital technology that is 10 years more advanced, gives The Force Awakens a more realistic, immersive feeling than the cold, artificial prequel trilogy.
3) Writing with courage - It took guts to make the first half of the movie so dependent on utterly new characters with little relation to the old. It took guts to kill off one of the most beloved and iconic characters of all time. It took guts to write a villain in Kylo Ren that has so much in common with the much-criticized depictions of Anakin Skywaler in the prequel trilogy. It took guts to leave so many unanswered questions and to not try to write an explanation for everything.  In the prequel trilogy, even the machinations of The Force are tediously explained and rationalized. Every scene in the prequels is written with so much explanatory context that the main characters become props in an overburdened plotline.
By contrast, the original trilogy and A Force Awakens are written in an almost semiotic style where your imagination has to work to fill in the gaps - how did Ren learn the force, how does his lightsaber work, how did the Millennium Falcon end up on Jakko,how did Maz end up with Luke/Annakin's old lightsaber, what happened to the "new" Galactic Republic, where's Lando, who the heck is Snoke, etc. etc. etc. - the viewer, the audience gets to fill in the gaps. That is a difficult thing to do when writing science fiction, as the urge is to come up with an explanation for everything using technology/science or mysticism (The Force). Big cheers for JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan staying to their narrative and not making this into another "Star Wars Encyclopedia" through stilted dialogue.
In the past two weeks, I’ve posted about a movie and music. I still promise that there will be more focused content on this blog, but I’m a nerd and I need to get these things off my chest, otherwise all you’ll hear about is science fiction, zombies, hippie/electronic music and video games.

What are you still reading for? Go see The Force Awakens. Disney needs your money to produce the next 30 installments of Star Wars.

Dec 14, 2015

What I'm Listening To

Most of my music is listened to either live, in person, or via iPod hooked up to my car stereo. But occasionally, at home or at work, I get a chance to turn up the stereo or put on the earbuds and zone out to good tunes. Here's what I'm liking currently.

I’m an old school guy when it comes to music, but I like new-school sounds.

I like people who have footprints in both the future of music and the past. Few people embody that strange dichotomy better than Dr. Alex Patterson and his space-ambient-techno-noise duo The Orb. This is my brain food:

Sometimes, I want music with some more booty-shaking qualities, and I go back to my mid-90s electro-house hero, Fatboy Slim.

And there’s nothing better than a little rock n’roll flavor mixed in, so here’s an impressive outtake from a concert I saw last year (2014) at The Gathering of the Vibes music festival in Bridgeport, Conn.: Lotus channeling The Talking Heads.

And, of course, last weekend I got to party down with the Funkateers as George Clinton came home to New Jersey and played a 3-hour-plus show of awesomeness. This music always has a spot on my playlists.