My Most Important Blog Post Yet – Answering Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Science in America”

If you know me at all, you know I have a bit of an iconoclastic streak going against the much beloved astro-physicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. In a previous post, I used a tweet from Mr. Tyson to launch into an attack against his (and many other people’s) ideas about public funding of the arts. In that post, I argued that if you are truly in favor of the development and success of the arts, you should be against public funding for them. I am here today to make a similar case against Mr. Tyson’s ideas about science, as detailed in his recent video currently making the rounds all over social media.

Many people will likely feel free to disregard my opinion here, as I am not a scientist, let alone on the level of Mr. Tyson. However, if you are a person who is sympathetic to his ideas that normal people need to take action to lead to a better world, I think it would be hypocritical to be selective about who gets to have a meaningful opinion. If you are a true NDT devotee, you owe it to his own principle espoused in his most recent video, that we need to have “political discussions” about science. In this sense, I am not contradicting his ideas there at all, simply obliging by them. To start, let’s make one thing clear: the following statements and opinions in no way demonstrate my beliefs on the validity of vaccinations or climate change or any individual issue. In fact, let’s assume I agree 100% with the scientific community consensus on each of these issues.

After watching the video a couple times, let me summarize (in good will) what I believe to be his main point: America became great because we led the way into creating new industries and technologies, i.e. relying on the scientific method to guide us to new heights that the world had never even thought possible before. However, the modern age is different in that people now have a troubling tendency to deny scientific truths that can affect the wellbeing of others, even the entire world (vaccines, climate change, etc). Thus, we need to take it upon ourselves to become scientifically literate so we are able to make the political decisions as a country/democracy that will lead to the most harmonious and prosperous future possible.

It seems to me that his entire outlook is based on a few assumptions: 1) utilizing government power is the best way to solve large scale problems, produce a prosperous nation, and promote science; 2) there is something fundamentally different in the Zeitgeist regarding science today vs. in the past; and 3) we need to value what is true above all else, regardless of whether or not it makes you comfortable.

Let’s look at assumption #1 and see if it holds any water. Mr. Tyson sees a connection between government action and scientific progress. As a child of the 1960s and an astro-physicist, I am sure he is referring to the advances in space technology made during the Cold War. During his childhood, it all of a sudden became possible to send human beings not only into outer space, but to walk on the moon and build a space station. This indeed is a near miraculous achievement that our grandparents likely never thought about until one day, it actually happened. However, I posit that these advancements were not merely the benevolent activities of a scientific and scholarly state, but rather the cutthroat competitiveness and win-at-all-costs attitude of a power hungry government willing to do anything to score points against its rival, the Soviet Union (which confiscated vast amounts of wealth from its own people in order to prove itself against the USA). Leaving that aside for the moment though, how does Mr Tyson account for the scientific progress of railroads, steel production, and automobiles? Was this the result of a massive government program, or was it more the efforts of people like the Fords and Vanderbilts? Did Carnegie and Rockefeller play second fiddle to the US government’s central plans at that time?

The Apollo program alone cost over $100 billion (in today’s money). Even this decade, we are still spending around $20 billion per year on NASA. This seems like a lot for a country that apparently is so ardently against all public spending, especially science spending, as Mr. Tyson and others would like to have us believe. Public spending on this type of grandiose activity didn’t even exist during the height of development in the United States. How can the Tysons of the world explain this? What is the justification for this level of spending? Why is it not enough to rely on further private research and development? The government did not invent the iPhone, or the automobile, or the airplane, or the personal computer, or the air conditioner, or indoor plumbing, or Instagram, or motorcycles, or basically anything cool and useful that you use every day. I don’t see a failure of private industry, which, by the way, “we” did not “pioneer”; rather it was the result of the coordination of millions of individuals (entrepreneurs, laborers, etc) each seeking their own most favorable results, i.e. profit.

In addition to state control over scientific funding simply not being the best way to go about things, it can also lead to downright evil results. I am not suggesting that Neil deGrasse Tyson or anyone who supports his ideas want to fund programs like producing Agent Orange, or writing eugenics into law, or using human subjects for questionable experimentations. I am simply saying that I am unsure what principle is being acted upon. Do we give the state authority over science or not? Some science has undoubtedly been used by the state for nefarious and destructive purposes. How can we actually avoid that again? If the scientist’s default position is that we have to know with evidence that something is true before accepting it, then I am confused how people can then go and look at our own past scientific tragedies and write them off as nothing? I want to know for sure how people plan on using government power to lead us to scientific glory and at the same time prevent the state (and its multitude of clandestine operations) from carrying out destructive campaigns with this power, which it has done so frequently in the past.

In response to Mr. Tyson’s point that people didn’t use to deny science (assumption #2), let’s say I give him that one for free, since I wasn’t alive at the time. But people in the past also didn’t go running to the government to have their scientific ideas enacted using taxpayer money. As he admits in the first 30 seconds of his video, during this time, we became the greatest nation ever. Though I must admit, I am skeptical of his claim that people today are unscientific. If you believe the, ya know, “empirical data”, it seems that the USA is tops in science PhD’s and patents granted. Science today is more accessible and studied than at any point in human history. Thus, I think that if there truly are issues with how science is approached, it probably isn’t because we don’t know enough about it. Maybe it’s time to start questioning the utility of the politics that Mr. Tyson thinks is the solution.

The third thing that Mr. Tyson assumes is that we need to care about what is true above all else. I agree that water boils at 100 degrees celsius whether you believe it or not. Certainly, gravity exists regardless of you approving of it. One could also say that God exists independent of your belief to the contrary. This however, is not really what many people would accept as a full definition of “truth.” I would call this a “fact” personally, but without getting unnecessarily philosophical or semantic, let’s carry on.  This type of scientific fact/truth doesn’t necessarily determine an action. Let’s say sure, climate change is man-made, very real and incredibly dangerous. This is true. But how does one determine what to do with this? This in my opinion is the greater truth: what ought to be done vs what is. There is nothing about a given statement of scientific fact that implies morality, for example. When talking about government policies, something might sound good, moral, and true, but there are a multitude of harmful possible outcomes behind any given law or regulation. I have yet to see a coherent justification for why the state is the proper vehicle to use in regards to “truth.”

In many ways, I don’t disagree much (if at all) with the Tysonites about the merits of the scientific method and how the world is better off with technological development. Yet I strongly believe that if you are really being rational and honest, you would have to seriously question some of the foregone conclusions that are presented by Mr. Tyson and others. This in no way is being close-minded or anti-science, rather it is to ensure that we don’t make disastrous and permanent mistakes. Everyone should be able to get behind that.

Case Study: Cleveland #1 – Hough

This series will detail particular aspects of life and development, both politically and culturally, of my hometown of Cleveland. My hope is that these tangible examples and points made can be recognized by the reader and applied to life anywhere else. 

Welcome to Hough, Cleveland.

This east side Cleveland neighborhood welcomed thousands of visitors every summer for over 4 decades as the home of the Indians from 1901-1946, as well as a variety of other baseball and football teams dating back to 1891 when League Park was first constructed at the corner of Lexington and East 66th Street.

This neighborhood was a place where magic happened for all those fans back then. Walking around the block of the old ballpark, you can look around and try to envision what it must have been like on a game day: kids running down from the front porches across the street, racing their brothers to the gate (maybe a few of them trying to slip in undetected via a slight opening in a fence), Bob Feller throwing warm-up pitches from the mound,  people in local taverns buzzing about how badly they hope the Indians will stick it to Joe DiMaggio or Babe Ruth. True Americana. Hough in the early- to mid-20th century was a Cleveland equivalent to Brooklyn, NY: middle class, ethnic, blue-collar, family oriented, very densely populated, and obsessed with baseball. Streetcar lines criss-crossed the lively neighborhood as a true focal point of Cleveland life.

Then the 1960s happened. Race riots featuring the National Guard. The 1970s didn’t help either. Deindustrialization and decline. The 1980s and 1990s brought more of the same. The housing crisis in 2008 really finished off the little of what was left of Hough. League Park saw it all happen as it sat vacant (though mostly demolished) for over 50 years.

Until recently, that is, when in 2014 the park was completely refurbished and the Baseball Heritage Museum opened up, a rare positive for the beleaguered community. When League Park reopened, the neighborhood had already lost 30% of its total population in the last decade, but reclaiming a part of its history seemed to produce a new pride on the streets. Hough was, at least for some, a destination again. Along with other positive developments like the opening of Chateau Hough Vineyards, it seemed like the true nature of these Clevelanders was coming back: hard work, creativity, grit, optimism in the face of adversity, and sacrifice for the betterment of the local community.

Enter councilman TJ Dow to do his best to stunt growth. Though he represents one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest major cities in America, Mr. Dow seems more interested in making sure his friends have access to resources than his constituents have access to jobs, entertainment, and a higher quality of living. In addition to his many past failures to let individuals capitalize on the neighborhood’s prime location near Cleveland’s “second downtown” of University Circle (home of Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cultural Gardens, Western Reserve Historical Society, among many more institutions), he is back at it again to try to prevent League Park from reclaiming another portion of its venerable legacy.

The latest proposal in Hough is for a building right across the street from the old ticket office, right at Lexington and E. 66. A former church called “Straight Up Missionary Baptist Church,” it has been vacant for more than a few years now. Bob Zimmer has a great idea for the now useless building: an ice cream parlor/cafe, baseball memorabilia store, and broadcast studio that could be staffed by neighborhood kids. Capitalism at its finest. Who doesn’t like ice cream and baseball? Who could be against employing underprivileged teenagers?

Well, Mr. Dow for one. Though not to be too critical only of him, it seems that the entire city council prefers government-funded “jobs” for these teens as the answer to what they admit is a huge problem, namely youth unemployment. Quite a bit of time and energy is put into funding dubious “jobs programs” with taxpayer money and navigating bureaucracy and complaining about how if we don’t just force tax dollars to the poor we are anti-progress or insensitive, etc. Meanwhile, guys like Bob Zimmer (who runs the Baseball Heritage Museum, teaches local kids baseball, among other such noble activities) have actually done all the thinking already, have their own money already, and want to give their idea a shot. Why not let him try it out? What does Hough really have to lose?

For some inexplicable reason, it matters quite a bit what Mr. Dow and his councilmen cronies think of what other people want to do with their money and talents. In the past, Mr. Dow has wanted private development to be accompanied by additional funds directed towards his “community development” program in the neighborhood. In his strange world, that money will lead to more jobs and wealth for the community. But why? What is the basis for this concept? How does the private development, employment, and the general building up of this area as a potential tourist destination NOT help the community in exactly those ways?

Keep in mind, this is the building we are talking about. And this.

Mr. Dow, who is black, says he thinks this kind of establishment will attract unruly teens from the (96% black) neighborhood, which could lead to fights or even gunfire. This is nonsense. So what does Dow think is better? Couldn’t anything open to the public in theory attract bad people? Do we just have to bulldoze Hough?

It must be easy for people like Mr. Dow, who have never spent a day in the private sector (assistant county prosecutor and now councilman, after about a decade at university) to have a vast overestimation of one’s own knowledge, as such people have never once been objectively tested (via market forces) to determine if they are actually good at anything at all. All people like this are capable of doing is winning popularity contests (elections). They have no fundamental understanding of what a job actually is, what wealth actually is, or even of what responsibility actually is. Thus they are quite content to sit back in their comfy government funded chairs and tell everyone with skills, ideas, and passion what they cannot do and what residents should and shouldn’t want.

Moving from Mr. Dow’s view of what’s best, let’s look at  someone who lives in Hough, under the reign of King Dow, one John W. Mann. I found an open letter from Mr. Mann after googling a bit to try to find out what happened to the Straight Up Missionary Baptist Church. Here is what he had to say:

My name is John Mann, and I’m a new member of a very nice (but very poor) church called The Straight-Up Missionary Baptist Church. We’re located in a poor Inner-City neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio at 1572 East 66th St. near E 66th and Superior.

As a new member to this church I was surprised (and saddened) to find I’m one of only a few members of the church to have a job.

These are some very nice but very poor folks.

Anyway, the gas in the church is turned off so I am working to help them raise the money to get it turned back on before winter sets in (and winters are COLD in Cleveland!)

Anyone wishing to make a donation to the church directly, please contact me at john@johnwmann.com

You’ll get a tax write-off to boot because the church is a non-profit organization here in the US.

So Thank you and God Bless,

John W. Mann

Just from this simple letter, you can feel the modesty and authenticity of Mr. Mann and his church. No suggestions to write to the councilman, or the congressman, or the senator. No demands for more “community development” funding. No plea for more Section 8 housing or higher welfare payments. No, rather Mr. Mann embodies the Cleveland attitude: we have a problem and I want to do something to fix it myself. This is what it means to be a community, even if it is struggling as much as Hough is. These people don’t need a wise man to tell them what they can or can’t do. They need the space to thrive.

Hough, and the world in general, could use a few more Bob Zimmers and John Manns than TJ Dows.

The Arts & Funding

Revered Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently articu-tweeted his view on funding of the arts in America, in light of discussions about cutting various governmental sources: “We can all imagine a land that provides no support for Art [sic]. But is that a place you’d want to Live [sic]? To Visit [sic]? To Play [sic]?”

Certainly this land without any support of arts whatsoever would be miserable. Thinking about my own consumption of the arts, I realize just how much I’ve relied on them for entertainment and enrichment, just in the last year. In that time, I’ve attended one ballet, three operas, two orchestra performances, a few local indie shows, a couple recitals, visited three art museums, and every weekend at my parish I’m treated to top quality Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, and classical masses (not to mention the beautiful stained glass windows, statues, marble altars, and exquisite design elements of the building itself). I also quite enjoy playing guitar, singing, and I’ve dabbled in banjo in the past. There is absolutely zero doubt that I have personally benefitted tremendously by the artistic talents of people around me, even just in this last year, exponentially more if you consider my whole life!

I firmly believe that the arts play a role in making people’s lives not just better in a superficial way, but actually improving individuals as people. It is for this reason that I am against state funding of the arts in any way.

Show me the money!

If this seems like an absurd notion, as it surely does to Neil deGrasse Tyson, then we might have to talk about the word “support.” According to Giving USA, charitable giving reached $373.25 BILLION in the United States in 2015. Of that, $17.07 billion went to Arts/Culture/Humanities (not to mention the billions more that went to “Education”, “Public Society Benefit”, “Religion” or “Foundations”, all of which could share considerable overlap with the arts). These numbers represent a 4% increase in overall charitable donations from 2014, as well as a 6.8% increase for the arts. Of the nine categories used by Giving USA, the arts increase in overall donation amount eclipsed all but “Education” and “International Affairs.” As I said though, consider how much those categories, especially “Education” might share with “Arts/Culture/Humanities.” Does this not qualify as sufficient “support?” Put it in perspective: that $17 billion that went to the arts charitably and voluntarily in 2015 alone, is 30% more than the total capital raised by Goldman Sachs over the five years between 2008 and 2013. Keep in mind, that this money is all in essence “extra” money being given away. It does not take ticket sales for exhibits or concerts, etc into account at all.

I am not quite positive about where this idea comes from that if we don’t use tax dollars to transfer money to orchestras or museums or local arts programs, then nobody would take it upon themselves to develop artistic talents. Is there a basis for this? And if it is the case that truly nobody (or at least not nearly enough) would pay their own money to support the kind of art currently being presented in a given community, then how can we really say that it is actually making anyone’s lives better? From my perspective, if people aren’t willing to spend their money on something, then it just isn’t ultimately living up to the standards. As demonstrated in the previous paragraph, there is no real shortage of money in the arts. This leads me to think that if your particular program isn’t being well supported, instead of blaming the government for not subsidizing it, perhaps you should re-evaluate the function that your favored institution is actually serving.

One possible objection to this position is that people who are not well-off still don’t have access to arts. Although I believe that given the vast dollar amount contributed, this problem is largely exaggerated, I concede that there are undoubtedly areas of our country that don’t have a level of access that would lead to true knowledge or appreciation of a given art form. I would answer by saying that this is where the people who see this problem (they are the ones bringing it up after all) are in infinitely better a position to address it locally and immediately than a bureaucracy that can’t act independently. It might take some serious elbow grease and some marketing savvy, you might also have to solicit donations yourself, but if you truly do care about the arts in poor areas, I don’t see why you wouldn’t make the necessary sacrifices.

What about the poor?

Now, some might even say that sure, there is enough money out there and sure, it’s all well and good to tell people to solve their own problems, but at the end of the day the poor are often ignored by society at large and simply lack the resources to create art education programs or buy ballet tickets. Because of this, it’s very unrealistic and insensitive to suggest that they can afford to take the incredibly necessary and precious time away from work and family to focus on other things. This is why we need state intervention here.

Again, I am willing to concede this to a degree too, but still disagree with the conclusion. I think that with any state-imposed arts program, by nature of it not responding directly to particular needs, wants and tastes (i.e. market forces), you can never know if it is actually effective. In worst case scenarios, the art supported by this type of blind, unresponsive system might actually turn people off completely to the artistic world. Think about all the other public services in poverty-stricken areas: do they produce the results promised? I know this is venturing into another debate to a degree, but I simply want to point out that good intentions do not equal good results and frequently produce the opposite when government promises are in the mix.

A just wage for artists

This deviates slightly from the topic of government funding, but one somewhat related final point I want to make stems from an idea presented in Brian Lauritzen’s blogpost. I specifically want to address the following:

Part of the problem facing musicians is their skill set is so highly specialized  From a management perspective, then, why not just cut pay? It’s not like there are that many principal bassoon jobs out there. Where are they going to go?

But that’s precisely why these musicians deserve a fair wage. Out of 313 million people in this country, they are literally one of probably 100 people who can do this job. They’ve been training their entire lives to do it. These musicians uniquely possess the talent, the artistry, and the dedication to skillfully and movingly execute the intricacies of the music of Mozart, Stravinsky, and John Adams. They deserve to be paid like the superstars they are.

The age old question of the “just wage.” Lauritzen suggests that being exceptionally good at something, regardless of whether or not enough other people value it, should determine compensation. Some of you might recognize this sentiment as a derivative of the “labor theory of value.”  I do not intend to go into detail about the economic philosophies for and against this idea (you could spend the rest of your life doing that), but rather let’s look at this kind of situation in practical terms.

In his post he was talking about a strike by the San Francisco Symphony musicians. He suggests that the Symphony should pay them more because of how elite they are at their craft. This sounds reasonable enough. However, given that people like Lauritzen also nearly universally subscribe to the idea that we need to make art more accessible across socio-economic classes, I question how he thinks a pay increase without a corresponding revenue increase will benefit those in society that are commonly thought to not have enough access to these kinds of performances. Wouldn’t this raise have to be accompanied by higher ticket prices to make up for it? The money would have to be transferred from somewhere else; symphonies don’t have an infinite source of funds, especially the San Francisco Symphony, which has run at an operating deficit every year since 2008.

So who makes up that cost? It seems that Lauritzen would prefer to shift the burden either to the government/taxpayers (the issues with which I have already dealt with) or raise prices for their fans, in the process also making it even more unlikely than before for those of modest means to ever be exposed to Mozart, Stravinsky, or Adams. Is it more important to pay elite performers more, or to further make things harder on the poor who show interest in music?

Be the funding you want to see in the world

Honestly, one of the highlights of my week every single week is listening to the choir at my parish on Sundays. It would be a tragedy if we lost them. To try to keep them around, I think putting an hour’s wage of pay into the collection basket is well worth it. If everyone who loves art intensely and passionately translated those feelings into spending their own time, energy, and money for the greater artistic good, I think we’d see a flourishing in theater, music, painting, etc; one that would be personal, tenacious, engrained in our communities, and indestructible. We only get this by voluntary sacrifice and careful attention to detail, not by passing bills off to others who do not share our convictions.

A Secular Lent?

As fellow Christians (Catholics, Protestants, and even the Orthodox this year) are well aware, last week marked the beginning of Lent. Over the next month and change, the faithful will challenge themselves in unique spiritual, mental, and physical ways. It is common to “give something up for Lent” in addition to fasting and abstaining from meat on Fridays. A common critique of how people do Lent is that sometimes we focus too much on giving things up (e.g. not eating sweets) but don’t do anything actively positive (perhaps, for example, using that money you saved by not eating sweets to donate to a charity or take someone out to lunch or something along those lines).

This year, I’m really trying to incorporate all of these ideas for a more fulfilling Lent. Some things I’m trying to consider this year include: no phone/internet after 8:30 pm, cooking more meals at home (been on a cooking kick for a while now), no purchases of anything not immediately necessary (like clothes, for example), and trying to get to two daily masses during the week. We are not even a full week into Lent, and I’m already finding this all very challenging but simultaneously motivating and rewarding.

Challenge is a catalyst of growth. This is true for pretty much anything. You don’t gain muscles unless you lift weights you aren’t totally comfortable with. You don’t learn a foreign language well until you make thousands of mistakes. You can’t play a Liszt sonata without first butchering it countless times. But after subjecting yourself to the daunting and grueling challenge and unpleasantness of attempting something you are initially no good at, the rewards are tremendous. You actually have something tangible to show for yourself, whether that be bigger muscles, a perfectly written French essay, or a flawless concert performance. Undoubtedly, not only do you feel better about yourself for having accomplished something, but you also think of yourself as somehow actually a better version of yourself for it. After reaching a certain level of skill or ability in a given activity, I don’t think anyone yearns for the days before they attained such mastery. After studying Russian in high school for two years, college for four, and living abroad in Moscow, I know I would never want to go back to the days when I had trouble remembering when to use the dative case or basic words like “table” or “family.”

This desire to fulfill personal potential is not unique to only Catholics or Protestants or Orthodox. It actually applies to everyone. Reflecting on this idea, I have decided that the secular world needs to embrace Lent. It already celebrates Christmas/Advent whether they think of it religiously or not. But consider the Christmas season: non-stop annoying music, relentless commercials and materialism, stress and anxiety about buying the right gifts for the right people. Does anyone really enjoy this? I submit no, the secular version of Christmas has been ruined beyond repair and it’s time for a bold, meaningful replacement. I strongly sense that the people of my generation are craving something deeper and productive in their life rather than just recycling the tired cliches of generations gone by.

So to my peers- I think you should all consider what ways you see yourself lacking. This Lent (you haven’t missed that much of it, so it still counts) do something about it. You can’t fill the holes in your life by buying an iPhone or taking a vacation. Those are certainly not bad things to do, but they are useless without a larger context of who you are as an individual and what direction you are going. A scary thing to think about sometimes is how much your individual actions matter, even the ones that nobody knows or sees about. However, if you start today changing  even the seemingly smallest and most insignificant of those actions, you might be surprised what kind of positive cascading effect might follow in its wake down the road.

Home cooking follow up: Super Bowl edition

A couple weeks ago, I wrote this piece extolling the virtues of a nice home meal. Just so you don’t think I’m a hypocrite, I want to show a bit of what I was up to in the kitchen over the weekend.

The Super Bowl is a big food day regardless of where you are in the country. However, given that the New England Patriots were one of the teams competing this year, the game naturally took on extra significance in Boston, where I currently reside. It seemed only fitting to have a small shindig at my house featuring a few of my favorite dishes for my friends to enjoy.

My theme was “Ohio.” Ohio’s deep football tradition is evident around the state, from the historic Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals to the juggernaut Ohio State Buckeyes, alongside a true “Friday Night Lights” high school football culture. The biggest football game of the year begs for some Ohio representation!

As a native Clevelander with Polish roots, pierogi have long been a favorite of mine. For the Super Bowl, I thought it was appropriate to fuse a little Americana into this ethnic staple in making Buffalo Chicken pierogi with blue cheese as a sour cream substitute.

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I also had a little Cincinnati chili. In case you are unfamiliar with this dish, it’s not really “chili” per se. What makes it specifically “Cincinnati chili” is spaghetti covered in the chili (a “two-way”). If you add shredded cheddar on top of the chili, it is now a “three-way.” Have a hankering for onions on top of that? Four-way. Kidney beans too? Five-way. Since the Super Bowl is a go-big-or-go-home occasion, I opted for the five-way (or at least the potential five way; diners were able to pick and choose which toppings they wanted). Created by Macedonian immigrants to the “Queen City” one hundred years ago, Cincinnati chili remains popular in southwest Ohio today. The rest of the state might be familiar with Skyline brand Cincinnati chili, but I’ve found my own to taste better. I really love making this dish because it’s something that New Englanders have never heard of, let alone sampled before. It has an interesting flavor: beef with cinnamon, cocoa, all spice, cheddar and spaghetti. Must be tried to understand!

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To represent the capital of Ohio, Columbus, as well as my alma mater, the Ohio State University, making the traditional “buckeye” desert was a necessity. The genius is in the simplicity and the presentation: just get some sugar, butter, vanilla extract and peanut butter and mix it all up and shape it into little balls, freeze them with toothpicks poking out, melt some chocolate chips, dip the frozen balls into the chocolate (leaving the top exposed to make them look like buckeyes, a poisonous nut found only in Ohio that looks a bit like a Chestnut, but IS NOT A CHESTNUT!!!), then freeze them again before enjoying.

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We also had some chips and homemade pretzels out for the game. The party ended up being a great time just with the food alone. The incredible Patriot comeback didn’t hurt either. Even though it was a joyous night for New England, it still felt right to have those little pieces of Ohio with me.

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Deleting Uber?

Yesterday at about 12:30 pm, I was getting on the bus after mass in Cambridge, MA heading downtown. At first, the bus was relatively empty. Then, as we went through the heart of Harvard Square, BOOM! Probably 30-40 sign wielding students descended upon us, cramming the bus absolutely full. Although I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, it suddenly became obvious what was going on: a demonstration against the “#MuslimBan.”

I’m not writing today to comment on the topic of immigration or refugees. Honestly, I think it is a much more complex issue than anyone on either the Trump or progressive side of things wants to admit. No, instead, I’m writing today in defense of a company that has probably done more for both immigrants and natives alike in recent years: Uber.

I started seeing some progressive friends of mine on Facebook yesterday posting the directions on how you can delete Uber, with no explanation given as to why one would want to do such a thing. Upon further investigation (please correct me if I am mistaken), it seems that in response to a New York City taxi protest in support of refugees, cab companies in the city would not drive to JFK airport on Sunday. In response, Uber decided it would suspend “surge pricing.” This action has enraged many people. In doing so, they argue, Uber is seeking to put profits over people! Have they no shame?

So, let me get this straight: if Uber charges surge fees, that is selfish pursuit of profit. If they don’t charge surge fees, that is also selfish pursuit of profit. Which one is it?

If anything, turning off surge prices yesterday HURT Uber’s own bottom line. Without the surge, there were likely an inordinate number of rides from short distances that would normally cost more ending up costing much less. It seems that Uber was simply trying to publicize the fact that even though many other transit options in the city were quite limited that day, you could still use their service. Service which, by the way, provides rides to natives and immigrants alike and gives an income source to many that these protesters would describe as “marginalized.” As of 2015, 59% of Uber drivers did not have a college degree and 19.5% were Hispanic (vs ~16% of total population), and 15.2% were black (vs ~12% of total population), for example. The source I provided doesn’t detail how many of these drivers are immigrants, but anecdotally, I would say that at least half of all the drivers I’ve had were foreign born. (As a side note, Uber drivers average a wage of $15.68/hour, surpassing even the ideal minimum that many left progressives want to enforce on everybody).

The main question on my mind is: if an individual, be it a white Wyoming native or an Arab immigrant, chooses to drive for Uber in the first place and then further chooses to drive (with or without surge pricing) during a taxi strike, what exactly is the issue? Are the immigrant drivers who chose to drive yesterday just ignorant and contributing to their own exploitation? Or do they perhaps have children at home and are trying to make honest money themselves to provide for them? Were there NO immigrants in New York City yesterday that might have needed to get to the airport for any number of reasons? Are they self-hating for taking Uber? Why are some people so radically against voluntary, non-coercive action?

So, people of America, delete Uber if you like. There is certainly something to be said for supporting or not supporting companies depending on their corporate values. If you don’t want to provide your hard earned money to an institution that works against your beliefs, then don’t. But a couple things: a) be grateful that you CAN choose to not support such organizations (those against Planned Parenthood, for instance, have no such option), b) make sure that you have considered all sides of the issue before doing so.

Home cooking is an amazing exercise in human freedom.

Back before my time in Post-War, carefree 1950’s America, so-called “TV dinners” took the culinary landscape by storm. Marketed especially to women (who bore the brunt of all home duties at the time), these prepackaged meals required merely the application of a little heat and almost immediately would be ready for the whole family to consume. This innovation, along with other new products such as the dishwasher and washing machine, was a sign of a new era: one that would liberate humanity (especially women) from the drudgery and monotony of time-consuming but necessary chores, opening them up to a new world of possibilities beyond the home.

I am a huge advocate of convenience creating technologies. I don’t like wasting time unnecessarily on simple tasks. However, this whole movement away from actual home cooking to convenience food from the 1950’s to now, I submit, is robbing us of our culture, creativity, and even our freedom.

21st Century Convenience

I understand that microwave meals are somewhat passé these days. Walking around the fashionable neighborhoods in my city, I don’t see many hipsters munching Lean Cuisines as they sip on a cappuccino in the process of mixing their baroque pop revival band’s new EP on a Macbook. According to a study by AMG Strategic Advisors, it does seem that the younger crowd has undeniably been turning away from the TV dinners of their parents. However, a recent Gallup poll shows that eating out is still a major pass time  in the USA, above all among 18-34 year olds. As per the poll, millennials tend to go to restaurants at similar rates across the board, regardless of income level.

This information stacks up well with what I have personally observed on a daily basis. New restaurants are opening at an eye-popping rate here in Boston, especially in the areas with higher concentrations of 20-somethings. Trying to navigate the sidewalks around Harvard Square is difficult with people jumping in and out of eateries. Over the years I’ve been alarmed by ringing doorbells at strange hours, only to find a delivery guy summoned via Grubhub (which boasts 7 million and growing diners, almost exclusively millennials) asking if I happened to be my roommate.

As a free-market, laissez faire kind of guy, I honestly have no problem with how people choose to spend their honestly earned money. Many people would probably poke fun at me for spending hundreds of dollars a year on sporting events, coffee, and Gregorian chant CDs. Fair enough. Nevertheless, get back in the kitchen, America!

So much more than a chore

Just the prospect of preparing a meal should excite anyone. You get to go to a magical grocery store where literally 10’s of thousands of products from all over the world for all kinds of tastes sit waiting for you to take them home. At what point in human history have we ever had as many choices in anything than we do today at any grocery store in the land? What a magnificent privilege! Then you head back home and still have a multitude of possibilities in front of you. How are you going to prepare the vegetables? Stir-fry? Sautée anything? Are we going to do a marinade? How about a rub? Dessert sounds good too…

Cooking allows you to flex your creative muscles like nothing else in every day life. Sure, you could strictly follow a recipe, but I tend to view those mostly as just suggestions. Over time, you will develop your own preferences that you didn’t know you had as a result of your kitchen experiments. Making dinner at home, you don’t have a boss telling you what to do. You are not obligated to do anything in a certain way. This comes as a huge relief after a long tedious day in the office or classroom. Plus, you have the added satisfaction of having created something ex nihilo! Ok, not quite out of nothing, but you did take things that by themselves are inedible (like raw beef) or disgusting (broccoli) and transformed them into something (hopefully) delicious.

Cooking is also such a crucial cultural activity. Personally, I’ve used it to get in touch with the ethnic culinary traditions of my  family, which has been very rewarding. But going beyond this, it allows you to form your own new culture here and now. Most people in my generation have a deep existential longing for connectedness in a world of growing alienation. What better way to accomplish this than by randomly baking your friend some cookies? Or inviting someone over for dinner? Or preparing a meal together with your parents or boyfriend/girlfriend? Who knows, together you might just make the next great innovation! At the very least though, you will start forming bonds with the people around you.

We do not have to despair over the loss of culture all the time. Rather, let’s focus on not only regaining some of the great traditions of the past, but especially on starting our own new ones now. I think that in returning to home cooking, we are in a unique position to use our freedom to benefit ourselves and others in ways that most of humanity couldn’t conceive of. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity.

So. What’s for dinner?

The Bible, the IRS, and You.

One of my favorite passages from the Bible comes from 1 Samuel Chapter 8 verses 1-22:

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me,[a] from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle[b] and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Israel’s Request for a King Granted

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” Samuel then said to the people of Israel, “Each of you return home.”

TL;DR: Samuel, an ancient Hebrew prophet and judge, is approached by the Israelites who demand to have a king appointed, in order to be like other nations. Samuel talks to God about this. God seems somewhat unimpressed with this request and instructs Samuel to simply warn them of all the awful things that kings do: conscript their sons, confiscate the fruits of your labor, force your daughters to work, etc. My favorite line comes when Samuel, relaying the message from God, says “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Unpersuaded by all this, the Israelites persist in their desire to be ruled, and thus their wish is granted with the anointing of Saul. You’ll need to read the rest of the Old Testament for yourselves, but trust me, the kings certainly end up having their share of terrible qualities.

Now, I am no seminary professor, but it does seem like God is not a fan of formal government, especially the idea of taxation. This is confirmed in the book of Matthew (17:24-27) with Jesus referencing the temple tax:

24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax[a] came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”[b] 25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter[c] said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin;[d] take that and give it to them for you and me.”

So according to Jesus (AKA “Son of God”, “Word become flesh”, second person of the divine Trinity, fully God and fully man), it is those who are exempt from this taxation that are actually free. Everyone else (the taxpayers), I think we can safely infer, do indeed have at least some level of freedom stripped away.

I find Jesus’s reaction somewhat humorous. He makes it a point to first show how unjust the tax is before relenting and sending his friend (Peter) out on a somewhat comical mission in order to be able to pay the absurd fee. Jesus doesn’t seem to take his “civic duty” all that seriously.

Every year around this time when I receive my W-2 and start thinking about the coming April 15th, I must say, I feel very close to Christ. I, too, genuinely desire to tell my friendly neighborhood IRS agent to go jump in the Massachusetts Bay, swim around for a bit and open the mouth of the 13th mackerel s/he sees. Therein can be found 25% of my income. In coins.

If Jesus found these taxes in the early years AD to be so ridiculous, I wonder what he might think of modern America. Our obligations today are not “temple taxes”, but rather used for any number of nefarious purposes: nuclear bombs, massive domestic and international spying projects, torturing foreigners without probable cause, drones, a welfare state that traps the most vulnerable in poverty, public schools in state-ruined neighborhoods that seem just as likely to produce felons as graduates, etc.

However, it is also important to look at what Jesus and the early Christians did in these situations: paid their taxes. Perhaps they did so reluctantly, but they did pay. Do not give the civil authorities such an easy way to come after you and prevent you from finding your vocation, fulfilling your life’s goals, following God, starting a family, continuing your education, furthering a career, learning a second language, or any other kind of productive activity. This idea is reinforced by St. Paul’s letter to the Romans 13:1-7 (which many Christians use to argue precisely against my point here, but I think the context of trying to avoid persecution/oppression in an unfriendly time is quite relevant to this particular letter).

Now, this doesn’t mean we need to be happy about unjustifiable state compulsion, nor that we shouldn’t seek to better our own world in this regard, but it is a reminder to us that we shouldn’t be so focused on these things of the world so as to avoid pondering that which is beyond the material.

So sure, render unto Caesar (to borrow a phrase) if we must. Refusing to do so is ultimately futile. But above all, let’s be sure not to forget about the larger goals, aspirations, and just obligations that we have to ourselves and especially to others.