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The Aggregating Magnetism of Proximity

Proximity as a variable has deep roots in areas of study like sociology and psychology (list 3 studies), but has been de-emphasized as an important contributor in other fields, like geopolitics and economics.  The “flattening” of the world via technological advances has seemingly crumbled the geographic walls and laid waste to the secretive concentrations of power and inequity. 

Much of the research and focus on the changing world has been the symbiotic rise of economic and quasi-democratic reforms across the globe and new powers (Brazil, China) threatening to usurp the old (Europe, the US).  The other variable, of course, is the continued tension of countries with significant natural resources that continue to be key economic players despite sustained autocratic ruling (what Tom Friedman calls “The First Law of Petropolitics”. 

But whereas before countries were considered autonomous entities, now much of the world can be described in terms of clusters or “blocs”, and economics and politics have followed, with just as many failures (the Euro?) as successes (example).  Regardless of the outcome of specific initiatives, it is absolutely true that the old boundaries don’t matter as much as they used to, and the new boundaries are and will continue to be in flux.  In the old way, political and economic battles had clear winners and losers, and the losers might take 50 years, or perhaps forever, to recover.  In the old way, when you played the game of thrones, you either won or you died.  In the new way, winning intimates a responsibility to look after the loser and have a continued partnership for growth – winning just means your margin is larger.  Winning means that a rising tide lifts all boats, but some boats lift significantly faster. 

With as much chaos in the world, with an unclear rule set and nuanced definition of what success and failure means, it would seem on first glance that the disintermediation of information would compel entities (countries, companies, individuals) to create partnerships agnostic to any interest except their own rational economic self-interest.  Therefore geography, proximity, affinity, and other “itys” are completely irrelevant. 

But the study of human nature (and corporations are people, my friend, as are countries) demonstrates that we are anything but rational actors that solely consider our best long-term self interest.  Study after study demonstrates that as we perceive chaos in our world, we revert to a state of risk aversion by “circling our wagons”.  We trust only in the world we can see around us – that we can touch and experience, rather than trust.

In this type of environment, proximity is king.  Our experiential knowledge, and thus the things we place value in, is highly correlated to our mobility.  This internal corrective mechanism is often subconscious and can manifest itself as geographic and economic tribalism.  If I see it, touch it, work it, explain it, and have tacit knowledge of it, then I trust it, invest in it, and overvalue it, much to the detriment of things I have not directly experienced through my senses.  This largely explains why venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have a “20 minute rule” about how close prospects must be to their office in order to warrant investment.  It explains why journalists from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a national publication, inevitably write 80% of their stories about initiatives in the New York region.  It is why ESPN’s Boston- and East Coast-centric sports media culture, which made perfect sense when the company was headquartered in Connecticut, is rapidly becoming a West Coast-centric culture, now that the company is co-located in Los Angeles.   

The subconscious neurological method is almost Cartesian in its egocentric self-aggrandizement: “I see and experience (it), therefore it is”.     

The challenge, and certainly opportunity, for a Houston-based organization is that our region is drastically undervalued, under-recognized, and underrepresented at the national level. If the logic above is sound, then this is not an intentional slight, but a byproduct of the proximal magnetism of the traditionally dominant geographic and cultural centers around the country. This magnetism acts as a self-perpetuating aggregating mechanism, where resources and attention are drawn disproportionally to a few centers of old power. In times of flux, everyone circles the wagons, intentionally or otherwise.

How then does the greater Houston region break through?  (To be continued, or maybe just deleted.)

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December 24, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s Hard Out There For… A Poor Person

An article in the Houston Chronicle recently highlighted the growing number of families in poverty, both from the national and our local perspective.  The bad news: more folks are poor and need help.  The good news: some people say it could have been worse.  I believe that, but am not sure how much consolation it is to struggling folks to know that, in some sort of parallel universe, their bizzaro self is much worse off.  The Chronicle quoted a few notables like President Obama, United Way president Anna Babin, a struggling single mother and some fake hipster.  (How is that for self-serving?  By the way, I meant to say “not quite below the poverty line.”  I’ve had to tell people that all day, to the point where I feel like Ross from Friends yelling “we were on a break!”  But this isn’t about me.  Overtly, anyway.)

The percentage of people in poverty is increasing, up to 14.3% nationally and 17.3% in Texas.  As the article mentions, almost 3/4 of a million people called the 2-1-1 Texas United Way Helpline last year.  Anecdotally, the agency I work for has seen a lot of folks who have never engaged in social services before – the formerly middle class.  It took a lot for them to call United Way and engage in our services.  But just looking at poverty stats doesn’t tell the whole story, or even a lot of the story.  I have a family of three: my wife, daughter, and myself.  We used to consider the dog a family member but after we had the kid the dog became an afterthought.  Don’t roll your eyes, dog lovers – if you’ve had children, you did the exact same thing.  If you haven’t, you will.  In any case, for my family of three, if I was making $19,000 per year, we would not be considered poor.

Let me repeat that – if I was making $19,000 per year, which is somewhere around $9 per hour, we wouldn’t be considered poor.

Can you imagine living off of $19,000 per year?  Housing, utilities (ac during the summer!), groceries, car/gas/insurance (a necessity in Houston), health care, just to name a few.  And Houston is one of the most affordable big cities in the nation.  Imagine trying to live off of $19K/yr in LA or even Phoenix.  Most folks wouldn’t feel comfortable until two or three times that amount.  Why the heck would I not be poor at $19K/yr?

Mollie Orshansky.

Holla at your girl, Don Draper.

You might remember LBJ’s War on Poverty, which was as futile as the War on Drugs, the War on Disco, and my personal War on Crabgrass.  None of these wars will ever have a Mission Accomplished press conference, although at least one of these wars has an offseason.  When all my grass dies.

To win a war, it helps to know what you’re trying to accomplish (either that or you just bomb the holy hell out of everything), so for the War on Poverty the Johnson Administration adopted a poverty threshold created by an economist named Mollie Orshanksy.  In the early ’60s, food was around a third of a typical household budget, so she based it on what a food plan from the Department of Agriculture cost and multiplied by 3.  That’s what defined poverty in 1965, and still defines poverty today.

Whether this standard of “3 times a market basket of goods” was the best measure possible in 1965, I don’t know.  I was -13 at the time.  It was easy to measure and there probably wasn’t a better alternative.  It sure as heck doesn’t make sense today, when food accounts for a much smaller percentage of the household budget.  Food now accounts for about 1/6 of a budget; everything else got much more expensive.  The poverty line is indexed for inflation, but it doesn’t take into account the difference in regional costs of living.  New York vs. Brownsville, for example.  Even Mollie Orshansky argued later in life for changing the formula, stating, “(i)t’s hard out there for a pimp.  It’s actually hard for non-pimps, too.”

This fact (that the formula is anachronistic, not the subject of the Hustle & Flow song) has been long argued and isn’t really in dispute.  A number of interesting alternatives have been proposed, but the fact remains that is is much less expensive to not count people as poor, whether they are or not.  It’s a political nonstarter, except in The West Wing (the show, not the real one).

Maybe the true number of Texans in poverty is close to 30%.  Maybe 25%.  Maybe 1/3.  Would it make us think differently about “the poor” if one out of every three people you saw was officially designated as poor?  Hard to say.  Whatever the true number is, it means that “poor people” aren’t just “other people”.  They aren’t just the homeless guy on the street or the Bed Intruder guy.  They’re people we know, see everyday, work with.  Most are working hard, trying to make ends meet and create a better life for their children.  It’s hard out there at $9 per hour or at $24,000 per year, when the cost of everything is going up but wages and salary aren’t.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of public policy, especially 1965 public policy.  Mollie Orshansky was wicked smart, plus she played a mean clarinet.  It would probably be political suicide to suggest changing the formula to say that there were 6 million new poor people, each eligible for some benefits that would need to be paid for.  What it does mean is that just because we severely undercount poor people doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  And many of them aren’t who we imagine poor people to be.  Many work, very hard.  “They” have the same hopes and dreams that “we” do, and “they” might have a better work ethic and resilience than “we” do.  They’re just further behind, for many reasons.

It’s hard to argue for nuance and context when talking about public policy.  Much easier to brush things in broad strokes, on both the far left and the far right.  I’d argue for empathy.  I know that’s a dirty word, but I take it to mean this: if I was making $19,000 per year trying to support my family, would I need a little help?  Would you?

September 18, 2010 Posted by | Not the expert at..., Social Workey Stuff, Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

In political news…

You little jabronis...

I thought both the State of the Union and the Republican response were very well done.  It turns out Obama does have a fastball, and will be interesting to see if he starts using it.  I was hoping he’d break out the Sam Jackson “get these motherloving tea partiers off my motherloving White House lawn!” (link nsfw)  Alas, he kept it civil-ish. But he did lay the smack down a bit, with postpartisan postracial postmodernism at the beginning and end. It was like a turkey sausage sammich – hot in the middle with plain white bread on either side.  Speaking of, during the speech, I almost forgot I was white. Isn’t that right, Chris Matthews? People afterward made a big deal about Harry Reid yawning and Alito mouthing off (literally) but there were two Republicans using their blackberries – there was a camera that kept panning overhead from the back, and the blue screens in their laps were unmistakable. Maybe they were tweeting “zomg i cant believe how orange Boehner is!!!1111”. John Boehner really is incredibly orange – it looks like he follows the same “GTL” system as The Situation and Paulie D. Bro, lay off the tanning bed, bro.

There he is! And by "he", I mean a CNN camera!

For the Republican response, Bob McDonnell actually did a good job of being “firm but fair” in his response, although the fawning statehouse audience was a bit disrespectful – they tried (and succeeded) to make it look like a mini State of the Union.  If it was pure showmanship, it went a little far, but if it intended to be a “Federalist/Anti-Federalist 2K”, I’m ok with it.  I’m not sure any modern politician could be that subliminally clever – showing the limits of the federal government by having the speech at the state capital. Someone should have asked him what he thought about Federalist Paper #10, which is the only one I remotely remember from college.  But his speech itself was very good – he pointed out areas of difference and also areas of common ground.  McDonnell’s going to be a political rock star, as long as he doesn’t start trying to marry off his sons to Scott Brown’s daughters. Political hotness will ensue, although TMZ would have a field day. If Jenna Bush sticking out her tongue was a big deal, these kids are going to make moveon.org’s collective heads explode. Literally. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing – as Jon Stewart quipped, moveon has the distinct ability to disgust even people who agree with them.

I'm too sexy for a razor...

In other news, Persian Ron Jeremy (Khalid Sheikh Muhammad) might or might not be tried less than a mile from the twin towers. It took months for NYC to realize that they were going to have to build a mobile fortress around him to keep him from getting lynched wild west style, and that this was going to be very expensive. I don’t really have a point, I just wanted to call him Persian Ron Jeremy.

I motion to raise the roof!

Lastly, I was at an event recently where Sheila Jackson Lee crashed, even though she was invited and said she wasn’t coming. This was fantastic – she crashed an event that she was actually invited to. Of course she grabbed the mic from the presenter and started rambling like Kanye and Taylor Swift. This isn’t the first ninja move SJL has made – there are several other times when she or her aids have showed up invited-but-didn’t-rsvp to events and demanded to interrupt the proceedings to do her own thing. Goldfish also was at a Rita relief center where people were giving foodstuffs and water to victims as they drove through in cars. SJL showed up, grabbed a bottle of water, pretended to give it to someone in a car, and then when the photographer said “we got the shot”, she actually gave the bottle back to the volunteer instead of completing the handoff to the Rita victim. Then she rolled out of the center with her Entourage. Sheila Jackson Lee, you are the worst person ever. Hallelujah, holla back.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Not the expert at..., Uncategorized | , , , | 4 Comments

Slimmah Down Nah!

This isn’t a New Years Resolution thing. Not that I’m too good for that – I organized a Biggest Loser four years ago with a bunch of dudes and money was involved.  I stuffed my face right before the first weigh-in as an attempt to gain an advantage since we were doing “pre-post total weight loss”. Everyone got bored with it by Feb and went back to hanging out at bars. In any case, the motive this year is more…pure, I guess.

Let’s do a 1 sentence recap of Josh’s perceived body image first. I was chubby as a pre-teen, skinny as a teen, chubby my senior year of high school (thanks, CiCi Pizza!), skinny through college, almost fat in grad school (thanks, World of Warcraft!), and have been somewhere in between until Ava was born, at which point I kept gaining sympathy weight. So while I have an esoteric desire to fit in most of my pants, it isn’t that compelling when compared to a Pizza Hut Pizzone. Num num…

Then a buddy called and asked me to join his basketball league and I realized that would be a perfect distraction goal – I’m 197 as I type and can’t keep up with skinny fast guys on the court anymore. The league starts in about 6 weeks, which is perfect. So there are two ways to go with this. One is to eat right and exercise and achieve a good, sustainable loss (maybe down to 188?).

The other is to go nuts with too much exercise, too few calories, and several crazy diet products and see what happens (180? death? loss of hearing?).  Which sounds like a better blog topic? Darn right. If it works, great. If not, I’ll probably have some great stories about how I was so hungry I almost ate the dog with BW3s wing sauce. Plus I can review a few of the better known diet products. Just to make it more entertaining (or less, either way, really), I’m going to keep a running diary for the next six weeks. Please keep reading or Fat Josh will eat you.  Skinny Josh never would…

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January 26, 2010 Posted by | Not the expert at... | , | 1 Comment

Modern Warfare 2: A Very Late Random Goldfish Review

Most media reviews happen upon release of said media – movies, books, TV shows, video games.  They represent an elitist and snobby perspective on the subject – someone who is paid to critically review the intellectual property, drawing on vast expertise.  The critic also has to finish the product and write the review and get on to the next product asap to make his/her bosses happy.  So not only are professional reviews overcritical from a layperson’s perspective, they are based on a method of consumption that most common folks don’t use.

For example, when I play a video game that is 15 hours long, it takes me around a month.  A video game reviewer will finish the game in a day or two. This makes the experience fundamentally different – repetitious components of the game for the reviewer will serve only as an annoyance, whereas for me repetition serves as a guidepost and helpful reminder of where we left off (see Creed, Assassin’s).  A book may take me several weeks to read, whereas a NY Times reviewer may finish it in one sitting.  Furthermore, I haven’t read every book in the genre, so a book’s similarity to another title doesn’t upset the balance of the universe like it does for a NY Times book reviewer. Nerds.

Anyway, that is the premise for reviews at Josh Being Josh. Real people reviewing things. Maybe several months after things come out. And that’s more authentic and more Random, if not Very Late. Some reviews will be done with my bff Goldfish, ergo the Random Goldfish Reviews. If you aren’t bored out of your mind by now, here is the first one.

Modern Warfare 2: A Very Late Random Goldfish Review

My platinum plaques and status is whack if I’m not the baddest… Eminem, Till I Collapse

Truer words. The song (top 5  of the decade) is perfect for the launch trailer for Modern Warfare 2. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was the true Halo Killer. Lots of games aspired to kill Mr. Halo, but none of them lived up to their self-billing. Then Infinity Ward took their Call of Duty split franchise (it’s complicated) from World War 2 to a modern-day setting. Mr. Halo became Mr. #2, and we all know who # 2 works for. Modern Warfare has been #1 for a while now, and the sequel might well be the most anticipated video game of all time.

But Modern Warfare 2‘s platinum plaques and status is whack if it isn’t the baddest. Does the game live up to the unprecedented hype? Keep reading “below the fold”. Pretty Please.

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January 11, 2010 Posted by | Random Reviews | , , , | 5 Comments

Hopes for 2010

Here are some things I hope for 2010.

I hope that giant baby in the picture above doesn’t eat the earth. At least until 2012.

I hope that Lil Wayne doesn’t lose his edge now that he is in fact the greatest rapper alive.  There are already signs that point to complacency.

I hope that we can wake up to the undeniable human tragedies happening around the world – can we continue to ignore things just because they’re not in our back yard?

I hope my team figures out how to make low-interest loans to people with high risk profiles in a sustainable way (i.e. we don’t lose our shirt so we can make a lot of loans in 2011 and beyond).

I hope I can fully abstain from cursing before Ava asks me what a shit is.

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December 29, 2009 Posted by | Lists and Such | | 4 Comments

A List of Lists of the Decade

The decade isn’t over.  If you are a numbers purist, you know it won’t be over for another year.*  How-ev-ah, I don’t math, and most of you don’t math, either.  Or grammar.  So let’s do some “Best of Decade” lists!  This is inspired by my fraternity brother Bill S. Liston, Esq. 

Most Underrated TV Shows of the Decade

5. West Wing. How can a commercial and critical success be underrated?  Not only was the show a great poly sci lesson (and not nearly as liberal as it is remembered), but it was incredibly prescient.  The Josh Lyman / Rahm Emanuel similarities alone are amazing – former White House understudy takes unknown minority congressman and turns him into presidential material and then President.  I actually thought about doing advocacy for a career, and it started with West Wing.

4. Glee. You say sarcastically – great list, Reynolds – everyone knows of #5 and #4 is not only a smash hit, it has already led to its own Idol-esque reality competition.  The reason Glee is underrated is not enough guys get past their macho predilections to give this show a fighting chance.  And it is worth it.  The music has already revitalized the concept of Glee Club across America. Jane Lynch plays the role of Sue Sylvester so masterfully that she deserves to be damed (sp?) like Judy Dench.  I don’t LOL much at TV, but “Sue C’s it” is the best Alpha Female antihero we’ve seen in a long time, and her understated dialogue is truly laugh out loud. 

3. Rome. Out of this world acting, scripting, choreography, etc… If you netflix (yes, I just used it as a verb), netflix Rome and watch it after you put the kids to bed.  Talk about an emotional investment in characters.

2. Deadwood. Poor HBO shows.  Deadwood is hard to watch, unless you love the grimy moral turpitude that defines the wild west.  I want to say that Deadwood is authentic as it gets, although not being 250 years old I have no frame of reference.  Best dialogue ever – beautiful prose, sometimes in old english, interspersed with enough f-bombs to make a frat boy blush.  Which I am, and did, on many occasion.  Al Swearengen is my favorite character of any medium ever. Note – the show is the single most NSFW or most other places of anything on this list.

1. The Wire. Maybe the finest show ever made. Problem was, the creators went out of their way to give it as little mass appeal as possible.  The story revolved around the city, not archetypal characters.  The actors were unknown brits, aussies, and african-americans, none of which sell well to the flyover states.  The dialogue was so authentic, it was hard to follow.  And they killed off everyone’s favorite characters, seemingly on principle.  But believe me when I say – it is the best show ever, and if you can make it until the end of the first season, you’ll be an acolyte, too.

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December 26, 2009 Posted by | Men Being Men | | 4 Comments

This I Believe

I was lucky enough (and self-promoting enough, I guess) to do This I Believe on Houston Public Radio (HPR) a few months ago. It’s all sorts of Social Work-ey. Here is the link (click on the little play button under the picture):

This I Believe

I got to go up to the station and hang out with Paul Pendergraft and get a tour of the place. KUHF-HPR is a gem and it also happens to reside on the best campus in the country. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t too cool for school. Get it? Eh? Never mind…

Anyway, people say the University of Houston is the Harvard of the South. It’s not. Harvard is the University of Houston of the North. Word to your mother on that.

Even though I read the essay like a nervous 3rd grader, Paul asked me back for My Source for the fall campaign.  Brandon Wheeler, a colleague who nerds out on HPR, and I went and chatted about why we value public radio. Here is that link, and scroll down a bit:

My Source

We might have been higher if we wore bow ties. 🙂

(Home for the day today with baby duty, but baby went sleepy.  Is this post too self-aggrandizing?  I thought about adding a poll with that question but don’t really want to know the answer.)

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Social Workey Stuff | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Old People Need Facebook Rules

(Pic from here)

I’m sorry, but it’s true.  I’m including myself on that category.  This “FaceSpace Interwebs” thing is so convoluted with its shifting social norms and unwritten rules that I’m never sure if I’m doing it right, or if all the 23 year olds are laughing at me.  You’re either laughing or nodding your head, and if it is the latter, then listen closely – it’s not your fault.  Look at me, old person.  It’s not your fault.  It’s not your fault.  (Language on the youtube clip = NSFW, and that means “not safe for work”, you old person.)

It isn’t our fault.  The ground is shifting and we’re just trying to keep up and maybe see what people from our high school look like now.  Admit it.

Here is a series of questions you should consider asking yourself.  I don’t know the answers.  Maybe one of the 20-somethings can answer them in the comments section below?  Come on, whippersnappers!  We old people need Facebook Rules.  Would it be cooler if we called them Fac3buk Rulez? (No.)

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December 17, 2009 Posted by | Not the expert at... | 4 Comments

I Heart the 80s

Of all the trends in recent memory, this 1980s cultural renaissance has to be the most fun.  The music, the movies, the hair, the tights.  This column could just be a bulleted list of great stuff from the 80s, but here is something even more interesting: while many things contributed to this trend, I think there were a few “tipping points”, and those tipping points may have been Maddox Pitt Jolie and Natalie Portman.

By the way, calling the 80s a “cultural renaissance” probably has Leonardo DaVinci and the rest of the Mutant Ninja Turtles rolling over in their graves.  See?  Even 80s jokes are more fun!

We’ll get to Maddox and Natalie.  But first, have you noticed that there are three distinct age cohorts celebrating the 80s revival?  People who are now around 40 were the 80s.  A People who are now around 30 witnessed the tail end of the 80s.  I’m a smidgen over 30, so in 1989 I was 11.  People who are around 20 have no personal knowledge of the 80s.  They’ve created an understanding of the 80s, but it is based on other peoples’ memories and relics of popular culture.

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December 15, 2009 Posted by | Pop culture | , , , | 5 Comments