Saturday, December 07, 2013
Friday, December 06, 2013
My first exposure to suicide was when I was six. It claimed the life of a rancher with a place north of the ancestral spread where I was born and spent my early years.
As we drove up to close down his ranch and take care of his livestock, my dad explained that his friend from school had never been the same after returning from WWII nine years earlier.
Dad called it combat fatigue a euphemism for “neuro-psychiatric” disorders that hospitalized a million soldiers during WWII.
An Army general and psychiatrist noted that these disorders claimed nearly all members of rifle battalions who were not killed or otherwise disabled during that war and suicide rates among WWII vets are double now what they are among soldiers returning from recent wars.
Today, more than 38,000 people commit suicide each year among more than 959,000 attempts annually in the United States. That’s nearly one every 30 seconds.
Suicide attempts, including two more that were successful, have come even closer to me on six other occasions over the intervening sixty years since that rancher took his life including:
The wife of a grade school friend just days after childbirth -my best friend in high school a few years after graduation – an LGBT friend in college - and three other people over the years who are even closer to me in relation or to people with whom I am close.
I haven’t been keeping a tally, and I doubt I am considered among the average of six people each, or 1 in every 6 Americans in a given year who re counted as survivors of suicides.
But it feels like it when those who have touched my life cross my mind, as they do from time to time, such as when I came across some very interesting information over Thanksgiving.
First was an article published near that holiday a year ago. It was about a study reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health where researchers almost inadvertently learned that 40% of kids who attempt suicide first try in elementary or middle school.
Something I recollected while listening and viewing a November TED presentation, which was put online over the holiday, is that since the early to mid 1990s, researchers have been aware that a third of teenagers at-risk for suicide are LGBT.
The speaker is a successful tech-executive-turned-PhD candidate in Psychology who helped researchers at Utah State University and Brigham Young University conduct a study released last year of LGBT Mormons (considered America’s most conservative faith.)
It found that the average age when these folks felt different was 9.6 years old or fourth grade. The study also found that the average age when that “difference” was identified as same-sex attraction was 14, which is before the vast majority experienced romantic relationships.
The American Association of Suicidology reports that suicide attempts by high school students are 3.4 times more likely among those who are unsure of their sexual orientation and 8 times more likely among those who experience severe family rejection.
One of the researchers on the Mormon LGBT study, Dr. Bill Bradshaw, began teaching at BYU when I was a student there, two decades before another Idaho native John Dehlin the TED presenter attended BYU (he was raided in Texas.)
Dehlin eloquently describes that being an ally for those facing social injustice such as that which is experienced by people who are LGBT, makes the most difference when you have something at risk socially.
It made me think about whether I paid any price for standing up as a student more than forty years ago on this and other issues of discrimination and injustice. I don’t think I paid a price other than being subject to a few rumors.
My price was self-exile forty years ago. I walked away to preserve my personal spirituality while still respecting and honoring my Mormon cultural heritage. Many others have stayed active and are pursuing change within, some of whom have paid a price.
Dr. Bradshaw is an expert in microbiology and molecular biology. He has written and lectured on the evidence for a biological origin for homosexuality for a decade. I am sure some have tried to make him pay a price.
However, Mormons have always been more resilient and adaptive and far more diverse of opinion than is perceived. There have always been internal ideological and theological struggles.
Voices among those who are still active and outspoken within the faith are getting traction, as is LGBT acceptance is across the nation. Numerous websites and blogs promoting dialogue have emerged, including one by the church itself.
It has always been a very caring and evolving Christian institution and I agree with others that its stance regarding sexual orientation is evolving and may be far ahead of perception as evidenced by the church’s response to the changes with Boy Scouts which it clarified:
“Sexual orientation has not previously been – and it is not now – a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint scout troops.”
If what surveys show to be America’s most conservative faith can evolve, lets hope North Carolina where I live will soon follow.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
I just learned that this fourth generation, native-born northern Rocky Mountain, Mormon-cultured boy is 1% Jewish by ethnicity.
For some time now I’ve used DNA tests to unearth or confirm genealogical connections, but this new insight comes from a new test by Ancestry.com.
It also estimates that I am 47% British, a third Irish and 8% western European. My Quaker lineage obviously trumped my Alpienne Amish roots.
It turns out that while “exactly half of our genome derives from each parent…the fraction from grandparents is by chance,” according to Razib Khan who is studying for a PhD in evolutionary genetics at the University of California – Davis.
Until this month Khan blogged for Discover magazine on the topic when he moved over to The Unz Review, an intriguing new webzine. He blogged this week on the use of genetics to excavate the historic flow of civilizations.
There are other “trace” ethnicities in my DNA including 2% Scandinavian and Iberian and 3% Greco-Roman, each of which I have traced genealogically as well.
This also gives me clues, as a hobbyist, to the origins of my British roots since that island was invaded by and then acculturated by Romans, Vikings and Normans, the latter two of which may explain the Iberian influence.
This DNA test also predicts the probability of my relationships to others conducting family research, giving me more certainty to dig down into their roots for connections or the ability to confirm ancestors I have discovered.
My trace of Jewish heritage may have been gleaned when Judea was a province of Rome, or from the large communities of Jews who settled in France and Germany after the fall of Rome, some of whom then migrated to Britain.
Or it could have become part of my lineage during the Crusades. But I plan to dig further into possible connections where Jews gathered in two small Swiss villages along the German border in the Aargau area, about 60 kilometers northwest from my roots on the shore of Lake Zurich.
These historic Jewish villages are only a couple of hours by highway today southwest of Tailfingen where a German branch of my roots lived for a few hundred years before both my Swiss and German branches migrated to America during the first half of 1700s.
Coincidentally, and maybe now not so ironically, both areas came to have a later connection to my dad during the months before and after the German Reich fell to Allied troops in World War II.
Freed to sweep into southern Germany after being halted when fuel supplies had been shifted instead to British armies in the north, American units reached Tailfingen too late to free prisoners who had been brought west from Auschwitz to work on an airfield for German Night Fighters.
Instead they found only a mass grave and the remains of nearly 100 prisoners who had been cremated. The remaining prisoners had been moved to other camps from which they were ultimately forced on a death march south to Dachau where those who survived would be liberated when the Americans reached that infamous camp.
My dad’s unit was dismounted from armor and remounted on horses and in Jeeps and in reconnaissance aircraft to patrol for NAZIs trying to flee to the south.
But in addition to processing prisoners for the return home, they were processing some of the nearly 60,000 civilian refugees and a similar number of soldiers and airmen who had been detained during the war in neutral Switzerland, many in conditions similar to concentration camps.
When my dad and some friends took an Army Jeep up into the Alps for a few days of snow skiing, they would have driven past those Jewish settlements along the border in Switzerland. My dad may have learned by then that 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish refugees had been turned away at the Swiss border during the war to face certain death.
On a per capita basis, America was even more reluctant to accept Jewish refugees, ostensibly for fear of infiltrators. More of a factor may be that the 1930s had been a period of virulent anti-Semitism here too.
These views were held by as much as half of all Americans even as the war came to an end, so I would not be surprised to learn that my dad held some of those views until he was sobered by Dachau.
I doubt he was any more aware of his own trace of Jewish heritage than I was until this week.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
“The problem with ‘self-regulation’ is that it’s usually ‘no regulation’.”
My involvement in scenic preservation since retiring four years ago from a forty year-career in visitor-centric economic development has given me a front row seat on how regulations evolve, at least in North Carolina, and it isn’t what I thought.
Equally distressing has been learning of the lack of vigor with which they are enforced at the federal level when states and their constituent counties violate or end-run agreements such as those related to the Highway Beautification Act.
A variety of studies by experts explain why this is the case, but also why it is counterintuitive to what those in high office seem to think. But while drilling down, I’ve also come across some future solutions.
Many politicians attack regulations in the name of being pro-business, others defend them as being necessary to compensate for marketplace failures, especially where costs are not fully incorporated by the market but are instead pushed off on the general public.
Economists call these negative externalities.
The latter view is called the “public interest” approach, which is how I have always naively viewed regulations. But there is a far more insidious rationale called “public choice,” which turns out to be much more prevalent now.
This “public choice” approach refers to the fact that, once enacted, regulations and the very agencies in charge of imposing and enforcing them are “captured by the businesses and industries they are supposed to regulate.”
Often, as has been the case with outdoor billboard companies, regulatory “capture” is gained with the complicity by billboard interests in elected office which in North Carolina were deemed by their peers not to have a conflict of interest because the benefits will accrue to all billboard companies, not just to the billboard owners behind the legislation or regulations.
This convoluted reasoning is why transparency isn’t what it is so often cracked up to be and as shown in studies, often serves as an enabler for others to cross the line, a shady quid pro quo.
An excellent study published in 2006 revealed that business interests have far greater influence in regulatory rule-making than either public interest groups or the general public, more than twice as much, and not because their input was more substantive.
Ironically, or maybe cynically, Republican candidates seem prone to pose the issue of regulatory reform as being pro-business.
Democratic party candidates often defend regulations as being pro-consumer but seem to fail to understand that this is the very reason regulatory reform as a means to cleanse them of “capture” should be so important as a bipartisan issue.
The news media, as with most things counterintuitive, usually settles for just parroting “bumper sticker” slogans. Unraveling misperceptions such as this must seem too daunting. So regulatory reform is often reported with little or no penetrating analysis and never with persistence.
This all clouds the issue of regulatory reform which has real day-to-day consequences.
While it doesn’t explicitly account for “externalities,” an excellent analysis co-authored by Dr. John Dawson, a peer with my friend Dr. Dana Clark who heads the hospitality degree program at Appalachian State University’s Walker School of Business, calculates that federal regulations have reduced economic growth by 2% a year between 1949, the year after I was born and 2005.
Regulations in the public interest are meant to act as a sort of hidden tax on activities where the free market fails to account for negative costs that are pushed off onto the general public instead. But because the regulations aren’t revisited for simplification or to simplify or remedy unintended consequences, they often fail in that purpose.
Regulatory reform is far from simple even when genuinely and/or astutely undertaken.
Findings from studies about regulatory reform among states are mixed as to whether legislatures or governors are more effective, but most give the nod to governors. Courts are shown to play an ineffective role, especially where judges are elected such as in North Carolina.
Here, the legislature set up a commission to oversee rule-making, but failed to insulate it from partisanship, abuse of power by individual legislators or “capture-driven” by business interests. Unfortunately, this commission often pretends to be a court, although unauthorized.
Recent regulatory legislation starts off with a few pages of just that. Then it succumbs to six times that number of pages filled with “regulatory capture” by extremely narrow “whiner” business interests.
This legislation sets back true regulatory reform by decades. You can often see these same “whiner” interests at work in a local chamber of commerce.
Years ago, committees in these member-driven local business advocacy organizations were carefully balanced to represent all interests including the general public’s and that of the communities whose business climates they were meant to represent.
Many have now devolved to be havens for self-appointed committees of “whiners” working to end run more legitimate forums that are free of conflicts of interest, or worse, to push on behalf of special interests including the “capture” of regulatory rule-making.
Executives who once safeguarded the integrity of these organizations from whiners now often enable them instead or lead ambushes in hopes of gaining a member or two.
Rather than pro-business, many groups like this are complicit in regulatory “capture” and anathema to business climates.
They would have been well served to have attended a one-day symposium last spring at NYU’s Stern School of Business entitled “Darwin’s Business: New Evolutionary Thinking About Cooperation, Groups, Firms and Societies.”
“…people have been applying Darwin to business since Darwin’s day, but they applied a cramped and crippled version, assuming that Darwinism’s primary postulate was that the strong do (and should) crush the weak.”
Instead, evolution is actually far more about cooperation. Haidt provides Chapter 9 of his best seller The Righteous Mind as background to this notion, which is highly recommended to anyone interested in legitimate regulatory reform.
The Stern School of Business is the first to think about and seriously relate modern evolutionary science to the world of business. Visit Evolution: This View of Life or click here for snippets as well as full-length versions of the talks at the spring symposium held at Stern.
Integral to regulatory reform should be the notion of “coopetition,” a term we used during my now-concluded career in community destination marketing.
It refers to the integration of cooperation with competition. What is good for public interest is good business, what is good for business must be in the public interest.
Regulatory reform is critical. As a society we can no longer afford regulatory “capture,” a form of hostage taking.
We must break the strangle-hold that narrow-interest whiners have among business interests and on regulatory rule-making. This means rebalancing business groups, agencies and elected officials to pursue only the most practical, proven and cost-effective regulations possible.
This means regulations that are both in the broader public and business interests.
But since regulatory rule-making is now dominated by business interests, often to the detriment of business in general, a good start for any effort at regulatory reform would do well to begin with Dr. Haidt’s overview entitled “Working With Human Nature To Improve Business Ethics.
Another intriguing idea is open-source regulatory reform and rule-making. A good overview of how this might work is gained by listening to a TED talk by Beth Simone Noveck who led President Obama’s Open Government Initiative who also founded the “Do Tank.”
Three years ago, the President issued a an executive order to improve regulations and rule-making. It called required government agencies among other things to (underlining is mine):
(1) propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that its benefits justify its costs (recognizing that some benefits and costs are difficult to quantify);
(2) tailor its regulations to impose the least burden on society, consistent with obtaining regulatory objectives, taking into account, among other things, and to the extent practicable, the costs of cumulative regulations;
(3) select, in choosing among alternative regulatory approaches, those approaches that maximize net benefits (including potential economic, environmental, public health and safety, and other advantages; distributive impacts; and equity);
(4) to the extent feasible, specify performance objectives, rather than specifying the behavior or manner of compliance that regulated entities must adopt; and (5) identify and assess available alternatives to direct regulation, including providing economic incentives to encourage the desired behavior, such as user fees or marketable permits, or providing information upon which choices can be made by the public.
More importantly, the President called for more public involvement in regulations and rule-making, a 21st Century approach. In a related move he issued an order opening up government data for public and private use.
As noted by Noveck in her speech, what we have done to involve the public until now is primarily with voting and juries. This is much too slow and cumbersome in today’s world.
In her speech, she gives a number of examples where open source government is at work, including the U.S. Patent Office and states such as Texas which use “policy wikis” to craft better regulations and policies and to simplify he ones that exist.
It is not about privatization or transparency, both of which have serious drawbacks. She gives a number of examples. There may be not yet be legal precedent to open-source government but there should be.
I think she is on to something.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
There is a fascinating chart on page four about vehicle accidents in a recent comprehensive analysis of autonomous vehicles that have the potential to revolutionize road travel including what is already the mode of travel for 2 billion visitor person-trips each year.
Of the 5.5 million crashes a year, 31% involve alcohol and 7% involve drugs, 30% involve speeding, 21% involve distracted drivers and 14% involve failing to keep in the proper lane etc.
Distractions include decisions to text while driving which is just stupid. But some distractions to drivers are purposeful, such as state-sanctioned commercial outdoor billboards that contribute significantly to the $300 billion annual cost of vehicle crashes (2% of GDP.)
In total, of the 5.5 million crashes per year, 2.2 million result in fatalities or injuries.
If this isn’t reason enough to ban billboards along publicly-built and owned roadways from which they parasitically draw their only value - to be seen - billboards are also responsible for the clear cutting of hundreds of thousands of publicly-owned trees, robbing the nation of their public health and ecological benefits.
It may sound a lot like corruption, but like most, it is legal corruption.
Will autonomous vehicles further enable billboards by making the consequences of distracted driving moot? My guess is that freed from worrying about this particular distraction, billboards will become even more irritating to the nearly 8-in-10 drivers and passengers who see them as blight, robbing them of a scenic viewshed.
Advertisers are becoming sensitive not only to the negative return on investment from that marketing tactic in general, but that it also makes no sense to turn off such a high ratio of consumers for every one you serve. Not a very smart business plan.
And then there is the increasing value of the trees they desecrate to global climate regulation. So what will happen to those whom Americans deemed “billboard barons” almost a century ago?
And what about the 1-in-10 people traveling on the roadways who still find them useful or entertaining?
Enablers come from ironic places. On a recent trip to Birmingham, Alabama, anticipating the Birmingham skyline around a bend at the top of a rise, not far from “dead man’s curve,” I was greeted instead by a Realtor’s message on a huge billboard heralding her expertise in curb appeal while marring that community’s visual aesthetics.
In North Carolina where I live, a group worried about the desecration of proposed fracking is utilizing a billboard that desecrates roadside mountain views as the means to get their message out to the public.
What a win-win for the out-of-state billboard company which provided this comp I assume, in a deliberate strategy to glean some much needed credibility. But the lack of credibility is likely to rub off on the advertiser instead.
Their excuse is that fracking is an even bigger potential blight. That’s lame and hypocritical. Roadside forests along the national highway system alone amount to the equivalent of 14 national forests and the equivalent of sequestering emissions from 2.6 million cars a year.
It is a “dot” some of us had to connect a few years ago for Keep American Beautiful when officials there suffered a lapse in judgment and forgot that scenic preservation is more than reducing roadside litter. It also includes what many Americans call “litter on a stick.”
The group that generates funding for the arts in Charlotte has succumbed to billboard subterfuge first perpetrated by billboard companies in the 1920s and 1930s when billboard barons justified blight by claiming to to be the “art gallery to the masses.”
The group, which should be more, not less sensitive to visual blight, is utilizing billboards to showcase the work of local visual artists probably provided comp or at a discount, again to reap much needed credibility.
Lost on those who should probably best understand scenic preservation vs. blight is that the billboard companies there are simultaneously slashing trees and vegetation meant to prevent erosion and eliminate toxic chemicals from storm run off while pressing the state to be able to clear cut trees planted by that community to beautify boulevards.
As Jeff Buddle noted in the publication ArtsEditor several years ago (paragraph breaks are mine):
“The term ‘artist's billboard’ is an oxymoron. While not seeming to, the two words cancel each other out.
As artists, critics, or simply art-fans, we hope that artists are powerful enough to conquer their media bending an unconventional form to their will.
But a billboard’s semiotic associations are strong to the point of impenetrability; they are perceived as a ground whose sole domain is owned by advertising companies.
If an artist takes over a billboard, his or her artwork is bent and skewed by our expectations…the road diffuses the images, the gallery infuses them.”
State Farm agents (including my own) and Harley-Davidson dealerships (with the exception of mine in Durham, NC) are also ironic enablers of billboards.
The former should be concerned about distracted drivers and the latter, for which scenic preservation and enjoyment is a primary reason to ride, should both know better. But most marketers never think about the downside or net effect.
All of these enablers seem more like hostages strapped to the front bumper during desperate escape attempts. But they are keeping an obsolete and increasingly negative-return technology on life support by providing the misperception of credibility.
While binging on movies over the holiday, I may have glimpsed what will be a win-win-win while watching Parker, an action-drama released a year ago starring Jennifer Lopez and Jason Statham, and set primarily in West Palm Beach, Florida.
As shown in the image in this blog, the director superimposed the name of the community, whenever a change of location occurred.
In the future, when we have autonomous vehicles and when both the billboard barons and their state-sponsored enablers have determined that these grossly impractical sources of blight are just not beneficial or cost effective, they will hopefully transition to “virtual” billboards.
Like the movie special effect that superimposed the name of the community on the West Palm Beach skyline, billboard companies could soon transition to producing and selling virtual billboards along highways instead of blighting the landscape with the physical versions of today.
Rather than disgusting the nearly 8-in-10 Americans who view physical billboards as a desecration, these virtual billboard would be visible on prompt by only the 1-in-10 passengers who desire to have them superimposed on the route, using the windows of autonomous vehicles much like Google Glass is today.
I have a good friend who finds billboards useful primarily as a means of breaking monotony. Have at it, but hopefully in the future with the use of virtual billboards and without desecrating roadsides and compromising public health for everyone else.
This would be much less expensive for the billboard barons than maintaining millions of physical billboards.
It would also be better for advertisers who would finally have a reliable metric of effectiveness or lack thereof, better for the environment and for those who prefer a blight-free experience.
Best of all, it would still be license-able by states, cities and counties for user fees but hopefully indexed to the revenue reaped by the billboard companies rather than based on physical real estate value as they are now.
I’ve always driven vehicles with manual transmissions because I like the feel of the road driving that way and the control it gives me over the vehicle, but I’ll willingly give that up for safety just to get rid of billboards as a major source of scenic blight.
Besides, there will probably be a feature in automated vehicles that would give me the same sensations. And my friends traveling with me who may enjoy billboards can look at as many of them as they wish but without desecrating views for the rest of us and creating havoc on nature.
Autonomous vehicles are not as far off as you think. According to the report, which lays out a series of policy recommendations, the mining conglomerate Rio Tinto is already using the technology for its huge Komatsu ore trucks and plans to add another 150 to its feet over the next few years. Caterpillar also offers autonomous hauling, dozing, drilling and other heavy equipment.
The promise for tourism, or the promotion of visitor-centered economic and cultural development that communities use to leverage and promote sense of place is immense including the benefits of fewer accidents, elimination of driving while intoxicated as an issue, virtual wayfinding and roadside scenic preservation, to name only a few.
If I were an investor in the hedge funds that now own or bankroll most billboard companies, I’d be pushing now for autonomous vehicle research and the beginning of a related transition to virtual billboards.
If I was a researcher doing future reports on the impact of autonomous vehicles, I’d begin incorporating the public health and other sequestration values of eliminating the need for physical billboards and the reversion of roadsides to nature.
If I were still involved in community destination marketing, I’d begin strategic preparations now for this and other near-term transitions in tourism and ensure that I wasn’t enabling roadside blight by using billboards, even if the blight is created elsewhere.
If I were a state of federal official including those responsible for roadways, I’d be pushing billboard companies to begin the transition to virtual forms and begin the reforestation of roadsides by recognizing the much higher priority on scenic preservation as a far more valuable resource for sense of place and economic development.
This isn’t magic -Just sayin’.