I achieved a fitness goal without Facebook

Today is March 29. Judgment day.

Rewind to November, me and some fellows in the perpetually-chubby club decided to have a contest: Whoever can lose the most weight from Dec 1 to April 1 (was since revised) wins money. $50 /person with 5 people provides a meager $200 incentive provided the participant is willing to endure the temptation of, well, avoiding temptation. Today, I’m writing to share (brag) about winning.

I started on Dec 1 at 229 lovingly pounds and am typing, with great agility and alacrity might I add, at 182.6 lbs, close to 50lbs in 4 months.

I can’t help but notice all the fitness check-ins, the posts about leg day, or the easily forgotten motivational tropes. Listen, dude, no one cares that you lift your legs. In fact, no one will probably read this blog, so it’s probably just a cathartic, albeit narcissistic, process. At least I recognize the “look at me” approach that is the fitness subculture. Anyway, for those looking for tips in how I succeeded, here goes.

Lose It!

Prior to the competition, I had dabbled in downloading a calorie counting app. A friend had one, and he seemed successful in dropping real pounds. I always have been someone to work out. And before I tell you about how this app applies to my success, I must provide a little background.

I love beer, pizza, chips, soda, liquor, bacon, beef, chicken, and basically every iteration of the potato. Food I dislike to the point of gagging (trust me, I’ve tried): just about everything healthy. I don’t like lettuce, cabbage, carrots, etc. I think you see the disparity here. Anyway, it’s difficult for my palette and metabolism to work together in a way that allows for me to be smaller. Insert the calorie counter.

The Lose It app, if used correctly, makes you track every piece of food that enters your mouth. You quickly learn that one cookie (in all of its ooey, gooey deliciousness) will not be worth the emaciated feeling you’ll leave yourself with versus eating less calorie dense foods. Also, it gives you a daily allotment alongside a fitness goal. Say I start at 229 and want to lose 2lbs a week, the max the app allows, it will give you the number of calories you can. After each weigh in, and I weighed in about twice a week, the app would adjust since your resting metabolic rate….blah blah blah….you’re not as fat so you don’t need as much food aka energy. The module is simple.

I opted for the 2 lbs/week option. I set my goal for 192. I had not been under the Mendoza line since I played football for the St. Mary Knights, a lofty goal. With full confidence, I will say the first week and, by extension, month, is the hardest. My stomach was huge, but I was throwing pebbles in it. December sucked, and I was completely sober the whole month. The first beer I drank was on New Year’s Eve.

By January, I had been in a rhythm. They say it takes about 20 some days to get oneself into a habit. It takes longer, but a month or so should get the ball rolling. For early dieters, my advice is to go on a strict, dedicated diet for at least 30 days. Afterwards, you can loosen it up a little bit. February came and the weather sucked. While I maintained, I did take a week off. I ate and caved on a few things: sweets, starchy carbs. But by February, I believe my metabolism was working far more efficiently than it ever had. I got back into it with little damage and got prepared for the final push. March simply came and went, I was in a lifestyle by this time. The following is a list of crap that I ate in any combination, all under the calorie limit, though I did go over some days (weekends).

  • Apples
  • Low Fat Yogurt
  • Strawberries
  • Whole whole bread
  • Low carb pasta
  • Greek yogurt
  • Chicken (tons and tons of chicken)
  • Potatoes
  • Pickles
  • Marinara sauce
  • Tomato sauce
  • BBQ sauce
  • Low fat mayonnaise
  • Whole wheat tortillas
  • Flour tortillas
  • Popcorn
  • Pretzels
  • Cottage cheese
  • Beef Jerky
  • Fiber One 80 cal/serving cereal
  • Skim milk
  • Corn
  • Eggs
  • Egg whites (the ones that come pre-separated)
  • Grapes
  • Ham
  • V8 Fusion
  • Miller Lite
  • Olive Oil
  • Peanut Butter
  • Rice and Sides
  • Coffee
  • Ground Turkey

I made almost every meal at home. When I did eat out, I would substitute beef for chicken and try to avoid fries. I did cheat from time to time, so don’t think this diet was held to with Amish-like adherence.



Full candor:  playing football most of my life was great for working out. I don’t hate going to the gym. I just hate running and still do (being fat/chubby is a frame of mind, which will never, ever leave me). Those looking to get a trainer or join CrossFit, which I keep hearing about, go for it. I had enough background to get away sans trainer/training program. My approach was much easier.

Sidenote: we live in the Internet age. The Internet is an easily accessible network containing innumerable amounts of information on anything. Use it! Research diet and exercise. You do not need anything more than a treadmill and floor space. 

I ran. A lot. I did intervals to start, running usually about 40 minutes with 4 minutes at a quick jog and 2 minutes at a brisk walk to recover. Once that got easier, I increased the pace. Once that got too easy (and you know it’s easy when you’re not breathing like a Jabba the Hut after walking a flight of stairs), I added elliptical and stairmaster jaunts. I’d run for 30 minutes, hop on the elliptical for 20, and finish on the stairs for 10. I’d vary those three based on how my legs felt that day, and how motivated I was.

At certain portions, I’d add in weight lifting. I’d work mostly on the floor doing core exercises and push-ups. It’s enough to maintain muscle without overworking the body.

By the last month, I was in good enough shape to run about 4 -5 miles per day in a single session minus the intervals. Each week I’d dedicate a day to trying to achieve a mini goal. For example, two weeks ago I’d decided I’d run 60 minutes straight and see how far I’d get. I ended at 7.5 miles, a personal achievement.

Honestly, if you distill all of my workout regimen,  it’s just to make sure you push yourself each week. If any single work out is getting too easy, increase the difficulty. Set mini goals, set time goals, set pace goals (quicker pace also burns more calories and hence I’m allowed to eat more food!)

The main idea

I didn’t share this over Facebook every day. I realize people don’t care all that much outside of their close circles. And by February, when someone’s eating pizza in front if you, $200 means nothing. The simple truth is that you, singular, have to be motivated. You have to want to get into better shape. If you’re cheating and then complaining about results, you’re lying. Find a reason and make progress. Those reasons can be any, but it comes down to you alone. I’ll always be a fat kid at heart, and I’m going to push my work outs further, but it’s been a great payoff.



El Fin


The Coolest Thing I’ve Never Heard of: Bitcoin

In a conversation I had with a student of mine last week, he asked me, quite offhandedly, if I had heard of Bitcoin. I thought it rang a bell.

I replied with a casual, “yeah, I think I’ve heard about that.”

He elaborated a bit further, explaining how it’s become an accepted currency around the Internet. That sparked my interest.

A few days later, I lie in bed trying to fall asleep while Conan O’Brien makes weird faces and Andy Richter chimes in with jokes that are only sometimes funny. I’m tired, but I suddenly remember the above conversation, so I reach over for my iPad and begin Googling.

As it turns out, Bitcoin has been around since 2008.  I felt weird to be so out-of-the-loop since the Internet ages like a dog with the same fictionalized Progeria as Robin Williams in Jack. (Sidenote: This means if you’re still relying on joke stems like “said no one ever” or “that awkward moment” to be funny, the Internet has aged you out. It’s time to start plagiarizing a new meme. )

The further I dug into this on a Thursday night, the more intrigued I became, and I’ll tell you why.

What is Bitcoin?

Essentially, this a what all Libertarians have been clamoring about since they heard about Ron Paul, decriminalizing drugs, and auditing the Federal Reserve. To summarize the video, Bitcoin is a digital currency. It derives from a P2P (Peer to Peer) source code. Have you ever downloaded music from a torrent site? Limewire? Kazaa? Napster? Remember how the interface looked while you were downloading Paradise by the Dashboard Light and someone was simultaneously leeching Bye Bye Bye off of you? Bitcoin works in a similar fashion.

It all started back in 2009 when Satoshi Nakamoto, a pseudonym according to Wikipedia, released the first set of Bitcoins. Great, so we just go out there and grab them? Find them? What? The video mentioned “mining.” What the hell is Bitcoin mining? From what I can gather is that, as mentioned in the video, your computer must run an application that will literally search, or mine, for digital groups of coins (they come in groups of 25 or 50). Once these coins are found, the person whose computer found those coins will now keep them in a digital wallet. These same miners are the same people who verify transactions between peers (hence the peer-to-peer).

This all seems too damn good to be true, just too easy to earn “money”. So why am I still typing, and why are you still reading? Well, because it’s more sophisticated than that.

What is “Mining?”

In the beginning, a computer similar to the one I am currently typing on had the ability to quickly and efficiently run an application that would find Bitcoins. To do this, the application would have to solve an increasingly difficult series of algorithms. As explained in the video, this wasn’t a big deal in Bitcoin’s infancy. However, we’re four years removed from the genesis. Bitcoin miners have implemented the use of powerful graphic processing chips to increase mining efficiency. The chips were quicker at solving the algorithms. Once those became obsolete, miners turned to a chip called ASIC. It’s apparently (thus far) the best way to mine for Bitcoins. People have even interconnected machines dedicated solely to Bitcoin mining called Bitcoin mining rigs or “farms”.

The caveat is that there is a set limit to the total amount of Bitcoins being released. People will persistently mine for these Bitcoins, the coins will eventually be fully dispersed to the public in around 100 years, and a set limit will then be available to the public for trading (which is when its real market value will be established). While these coins are being released, however, they are also becoming harder and harder to obtain. So much so that the mining rigs (or farms) use up thousands of dollars in energy running the application to find the coins. In a world of imagined code, people are using real energy to extract a (seemingly) imaginary currency. You see where I’m getting with this? If not, let this guy explain:

So after each “block” is found, it just keeps getting harder and harder to find more Bitcoins. Think about it in terms of Gold. Gold is a precious metal that requires mining. We are far along enough in human history to know A. There’s a finite amount of gold available on this planet, and B. In 2013, there are myriad gold prospecting shows on TV, and all of them require a massive exhaustion of resources to find minuscule amounts of gold. On the flip side, the United States Federal Reserve keeps printing money. It keeps releasing money into the economy without any real deserved reason. What this will inevitably lead to (eventually) will be inflation in some form. This is where I got interested.

Why this is so damn cool

In the 21st Century, we take certain ideas for granted. In reference to this topic, we have taken the way currency works for granted. While reading The Unwinding this summer, there was a passage where Peter Thiel, current billionaire investor, reflected on his invention, PayPal. He believed that he could build a digital currency that would undermine the way the world’s financial system works. At the time, I had no idea what he was referring to. After finding out about Bitcoin, I finally do.

Pretend the plot of The Walking Dead actually happened. You awake to find a world usurped by a plague where society and the people living it no longer operate within the bounds in which it was previously held. Aside from the zombies, how do you survive? How do you get, for lack of a better term, stuff? How do you get shelter if you cannot build it yourself? How do you get food if you cannot farm it yourself? How do you get clean drinking water if you cannot filter it yourself? The answer is to exchange favors with somebody who does know how to do that. In essence, you’re back to a barter economy.

“Man, I’m about to literally die of thirst,” Rick said.

“Well, I can get you clean drinking water, but you need to provide me with protection,” Herschel replied, noticing the desperation in Rick’s voice and realizing he had demand/leverage on his side.

Fast forward 50 years. The world is safe and society is back in order. People realize that there can now be a placeholder for services rendered. Protection, healthcare, entertainment, and other assorted services can now be given a set price according to the market. And there we have a very condensed, very poor genesis for how an economy grows while creating or adapting a form of currency.


We have a well-established currency in 2013. But the optics of Bitcoin could be perceived as a de-revolitionary idea. It wants to go back to creating a currency that is based, singularly, on one’s own ability to work for it. There aren’t taxes imposed by a centralized government, and there isn’t the traditional oversight as one would see in a sovereign governance.

Paul Krugman is skeptical. In April of this year, he wrote about Bitcoin in his column for the New York Times:

Money is, as Paul Samuelson once declared, a “social contrivance,” not something that stands outside society. Even when people relied on gold and silver coins, what made those coins useful wasn’t the precious metals they contained, it was the expectation that other people would accept them as payment.

What Krugman is referring to is that the only reason a dollar is worth anything is because we actually accept it as a form of compensation for our work. And everybody does so in relative agreement. Bitcoin, as he believes, is a shady investment because it relies upon people accepting it as compensation. According to Forbes, these are the top ten places that accept Bitcoins as payment:

  1. WordPress
  2. The Pirate Bay
  3. Reddit
  4. The Internet Archive
  5. OKCupid
  6. 4Chan.org
  7. NameCheap
  8. EZTV
  9. LumFile
  10. LewRockwell

While some of those entities seem questionable, one familiar name is flirting in the Bitcoin arena: Ebay. Even crazier, according to Bitcoin Charts, a Bitcoin is worth around $140 USD as of October 1. It’s important to note that this is still volatile. Mostly from what I’ve read, investors still see it as too risky. The highs are too high and the lows are too low. But heck, Apple was risky 25 years ago. Who the hell was Google but a search engine when I was in middle school? Crazier things have happened in our world.

Aside from the legitimate merchants that accept Bitcoins as payment, there is also something else that has trickled up: a black market. Capitalism is beautifully tragic in this way. It’s called Silk Road, and it’s an online marketplace for illegal goods. Among some of the items sold include heroin, LSD, and weed. A sister site, The Armory, sold weapons. It was shut down due to the lack of demand, but nonetheless, these are vendors that sell illegal (at least in the United States) items for Bitcoins. The currency can operate outside political lines. I can imagine this being a logistical nightmare for the United States court system in the same way Shield laws have to be interpreted in the age of the Internet. Cyberspace is an abstract idea that works pragmatically. It operates everywhere and nowhere.


For all this explanation, discussion, and analysis, I don’t know if it will ever work. I’m never going to invest (partially because schoolteachers and liquid assets mix like oil and water, which, for the record, doesn’t bother me, I knew what I was getting into when I declared a major). I would like to see this change the way our financial system works, though.  I revel in the idea that some guy or gal, or a group of people, came up with an idea, coded it, and changed the way the financial system operates forever. They literally created a new economy from the sweat of the brow, from the proper synapses firing. It’s like the genius in the garage building a revolutionary idea cliche. It’s just cool. Plain and simple. 

And with a quote, I’m out.

“If you build it, they will come.”

Hollywood’s Counterintuitive Business Model and TV’s Juxtaposition

“You will make a movie called the Rest In Peace Department, and you will get Jeff Bridges to agree to do it!”

When was the last time you were genuinely excited for a movie? Sure, there are movies that contain our favorite stars, which make us (or at least me) think, “It’s (fill-in-the-blank star), he’s not going to take a garbage role.” Unbeknownst to myself, the above dialogue I have is simply me–justifying to myself–why I should retain hope for another failure. But if you’ve been alive this summer, quite the contrary has happened.

The following was the best Hollywood could come up with this summer–a time for the big-budget, big box office projects to lay themselves among the audience:

  • Iron Man 3 (success)
  • After Earth starring Will Smith (failure)
  • Hangover Part III (meh)
  • The Internship (doesn’t qualify as a summer blockbuster, but still just check out my prior review)
  • Man of Steel (OK, but there’s a disclaimer I will get to)
  • World War Z (surprisingly good, naturally expensive)
  • White House Down (Channing Tatum would have been a better pick had this been a musical)
  • The Lone Ranger (*A whistle mimic-ing the sound of Fat Man falling out of the Enola Gay*)
  • Pacific Rim (Blockbuster budget, moderate success)
  • Grown Ups 2 (This is a franchise?)
  • Red 2 (See above parenthetical)
  • R.I.P.D. (Oh come on, now!)
  • Wolverine (Didn’t they make this already?)
  • 2 Guns (moderate success based on exceptional casting)
  • Elysium (Matt Damon probably thinks this is a smart movie)
  • Kick Ass 2  (TBD, but the first was actually pretty good)
  • jOBS (TBD, reviews haven’t been great) 

Time to put on my Captain Hindsight uniform and say there are some serious turds in that bowl. R.I.P.D. are you kidding? I understand that a movie script can, in fact, be well done before it goes through the Hollywood machine, but this is an unforgivable concept. The two sci-fi movies, After Earth and Elysium, both are heavy with the political themes and are no where near living up to expectations. So what does that say about the movie market? Perhaps we don’t want to sit through an editorial disguised as art. But seriously, another Wolverine-based movie? Another Iron Man? Franchises galore. Are we seeing a pattern yet?

There are few auteurs left in the film business. Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight franchise, Inception) is one. His brother wrote Man of Steel, which is why I can hold out hope for that it would be a much more original take on a tried-and-true tale. Peter Berg, the director of films such as The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights, had to make Battleship (god-awful) in order to make his baby, Lone Survivor. Battleship is a Transformers spinoff. Hollywood is addicted to CGI like crack. It cannot stop. It firmly believes that more action set pieces will drive audience interest.

I figured my internal gripes were hipster-like grievances until I started seeing prominent authorities in the industry speak up about it. Steven Spielberg, whose name in the byline of a film title adds a chunk of revenue itself, remarked the following to a group of USC film students:

That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown [in Hollywood]. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.

According to the Huffington Post, “Spielberg lamented that it’s becoming harder and harder for even brand-name filmmakers to get their projects into movie theaters. To wit: “Lincoln,” which was a critical and commercial success for the director, nearly ended up on HBO, he told the audience. Unestablished talent, meanwhile, has run into trouble getting their projects greenlit at all, because their ideas are “too fringe-y” for studios.”

The Economist has cooborated this sentiment by calling Hollywood exectives “paranoid and insecure. Adding, “between 2007 and 2011, pre-tax profits of the five studios controlled by large media conglomerates (Disney, Universal, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros) fell by around 40%, says Benjamin Swinburne of Morgan Stanley. He reckons the studios account for less than 10% of their parent companies’ profits today, and by 2020 their share will decline to only around 5%. That is because the “big six” studios (the other is Sony Pictures, owned by the eponymous electronics maker) are growing more slowly than TV. In 2012 Time Warner grossed $12 billion from film, up 20% from 2002. That compares with a more than 84% rise in the company’s TV-network revenues during the period, to $14.2 billion”

George Lucas, who was speaking at the event with Spiellberg, opined, “the pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller.”

So Lincoln struggled to get funding but apparently no one was sober enough to shut down R.I.P.D.? Deadline Hollywood recently reported that Spiellberg couldn’t “square his vision of [American Sniper] with [the given] budget.” One would think that if there are any safe bets for a movie to be profitable, having the director of Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, E.T., etc. would certainly help.  Oh, and Bradley Cooper is set to play the lead role. I would go see it, and I’ve reached that age where I frequently give up on movies.

Steven Soderbergh, the director Ocean’s 11/12/13 and HBO’s Behind the Candelabra (among others), ranted about the industry in a speech at the San Francisco film festival:

The meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies. So it can become a very strange situation. I mean, I know how to drive a car, but I wouldn’t presume to sit in a meeting with an engineer and tell him how to build one, which is what you feel like when you’re in these meetings. You’ve got people who don’t know movies, don’t watch movies for pleasure, deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make. That’s one reason studio movies aren’t better than they are, and that’s one reason that cinema, as I’m defining it, is shrinking.

In essence, studios find it necessary to put all their chips on one number to gain 36:1 profits with the reasoning that the movie, once greenlit and successful (two big hurdles) will become a continued (franchised) success. See: Batman, X-Men, Iron Man, Man of Steel, the Hangover, and so on. When these comic book adventure films were a novelty, they were a novelty. That luster has since worn off, and audiences don’t get excited about it. The tried and true method of all great films is having a great narrative, a great, wait for it, story!

“We are a species that is driven by narrative,” Soderbergh added.

Hollywood has abandoned the story ship, and boarded the Battleship. “Special effects are what audiences want,” says the executives whose sole focus is the bottom line. 2 Guns and soon-to-be Lone Survivor star Mark Wahlberg basically agrees. “They are spending so much money to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes with these effects-driven movies,” Wahlberg said.

If you experience anything enough, be it a Prime-cut steak, an exotic vacation, whatever, excess will deteriorate the desire to experience it again. Las Vegas is an adult playground, but if you live there and indulge in the  vices festivities “on the reg” you will inevitably miss the mundane lifestyle of suburban middle America. Jurassic Park was awesome when it first came out. The special effects were mind-blowing. 15 years later, those same effects have been overused. They are simply add-on features to a car. But consumers don’t buy a car for add-on features. They buy a car for transportation. Consumers primarily watch a movie for a strong narrative.

The market for narrative has always been there. Do you want proof? Look no further than cable TV. The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, The Americans, Mad Men. Even the shows with the loftiest budgets still don’t compare to the money pit that is John Carter. TV writers are the ultimate middle manager. They must do more with less. They must create a better story with fewer set pieces or big name actors. Who was John Hamm before Mad Men? Can you watch Elf now and see Peter Dinklage in his original role and not think Tyrion Lannister? Byran Cranston is now synonymous with perhaps the most iconic role in TV, Walter White. These are career defining roles in TV.

If I said this 10 years ago, people would think I’d be crazy (partly because I’d be 14 and my TV apptetite consisted of Carson Daly on TRL), but right now, in 2013, TV programming is much, much better than anything in film.

Vince Gilligan, the brains behind Breaking Bad, had this to say about the difference between TV and film:

I love movies, and I love TV. In TV, you have the time to get deeper into a character, but movies are a two-hour block of time in which we get transported to another place. We’ll always have Paris, and we’ll always have movies. But we’re going through a time, unfortunately, when the big movie studios are run by folks that are more obsessed than ever with the bottom line and who probably love movies less than any studio hierarchy that’s ever existed in my life. Back in the day, when the Irving Thalbergs and Louis B. Mayers ran the business, those guys could bite your head off. Those guys were tough sons of bitches, but they loved movies. They weren’t obsessed with counting beans. The problem with the movie business now is that it’s marketing-driven—driven by demographics, by spreadsheets and flowcharts and all this shit that has nothing to do with storytelling. But the movie itself, the structure of the movie, will always be with us. And occasionally a really great movie for grown-ups does sneak through.

In short, the bottom-line-obsessed executives need to leave art to the artists. AMC was never on my radar until Mad Men and Breaking Bad came out. Now they’ve built a brand which tells their audience they are willing to take a chance on originality. FX did the same when they started out with The Shield and Nip/Tuck. They brought HBO drama to basic cable. As a consequence, TV has proliferated into a medium that has become much more entertaining (and cheaper) than film. TV has undercut film, and it’s filled with irony.

An unexpected twist in this whole debacle is seeing film industry regulars converting to TV. Scorsese serves as an executive producer for Boardwalk Empire. David Fincher worked on House of Cards. Names like Kevin Bacon and Kevin Spacey, once indigenous to film, are migrating to the TV landscape. Creative freedom is something all artists strive for. One must survive, so a paycheck is ultimately more important. But for entertainment’s sake, these artists must not be subjugated to recycled story lines with new tricks.

TV is the best example, but not the only one. Video games have become technological wonders. Developing teams are auteurs in their own right, placing their stamp on masterpieces such as Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid. The publisher acts as the film industry executives. Call of Duty 4, developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision, was a mega success. It contained brand new gaming infrastructure, redesigned and streamlined with state-of-the-art gameplay. Yesterday, Infinity Ward (minus two if it’s lead developers) unveiled Call of Duty Ghosts’ multiplayer, which is its first for the upcoming next generation consoles, X Box One and Playstation 4. This is Call of Duty’s sixth iteration since Modern Warfare came out. The innovation is little. They’ve doubled down on what worked before, hoping to fool audiences by using the word “innovation.” Meanwhile, Naughty Dog put out perhaps the generation’s best game in The Last of Us on the Playstation 3, a less powerful machine. Activision, and they are perfectly entitled to this, decided to copy what works to retain their audience. But the reason the game was so successful in the first place was precisely because it was a hallmark for video game innovation.  Unfortunately, innovation looks bleak when the captains of industry are in no hurry to change what works.

 Tom Bissell of Grantland perfectly summarized my point:

[T]he amount of work required to make The Last of Us is basically unimaginable to anyone outside game development. Games with this amount of detail and polish are possible only when dozens of men and women voluntarily elect to damage themselves and their lives for the entertainment benefit of strangers.” He continued, “Sony undoubtedly recognized from the start the hard uphill battle The Last of Us had in front of it, which means the game was probably intended as a prestige project done both for the good of the medium and to burnish studio and platform pride. Obviously, that’s a somewhat cynical way of looking at things. Less cynical would be to say, ‘The Last of Us is a masterpiece.'”

The writing is on the wall. Now if only those who wield the green flame can read it. And we, as consumers, aren’t completely innocent. We must better speak our minds via the mighty dollar.

Book Review: The Unwinding by George Packer

Subtitled “An Inner History of the New America,” George Packer provides readers with America’s institutional transformation in the last 40-ish years. He does so not with a chronological timeline, but rather through smaller vignettes, histories of particular individuals who have worked in the industries that have either reformed, evaporated, or prematurely adapted. The main characters to see such a transformation include Tammy Thomas, a native Youngstown, Ohioan and African American who grew up in a city with an economy predicated on manufacturing; Jeff Connaughton, a man who climbed through the ranks to become one of Joe Biden’s top staffers; and Dean Price, a southern entrepreneur whose life’s mantra had been crystalized by Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.

Those are the main characters–they are the repeated story lines that help define our new America. However, Packer also includes two other running threads throughout: Tampa and Silicon Valley. The former is the epicenter of the housing crisis and ground-zero for those affected by the  “Great Recession.” The latter is the history of how housing prices in Silicon Valley went from a modest ~150K to an astounding ~800K. Well, not the prices specifically, but how Silicon Valley became the hub for the information age, the cabal for some of our country’s greatest new thinkers. Silicon Valley’s main character is Peter Theil, the founder of PayPal and now a hedge fund manager (you may have seen him for about 30 seconds in The Social Network where Zuckerberg walks into an office late and poorly dressed at the advice of Sean Parker).

Lastly, Packer includes even smaller vignettes–contemporary prominent figures in American culture: Jay Z, Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Andrew Breitbart, Colin Powell, Alice Waters, Robert Rubin, and Elizabeth Warren. Having read Andrew Breitbart’s Righteous IndignationI was already privy to much of the source material that Packer provides. His role as a media magnate can’t go unnoticed, and perhaps I thought his role in modern media was still understated. (In Righteous Indignation, the section where Breitbart outlines his panel discussion on Real Time with Bill Maher is positively riveting). My favorite mini-history is probably Speaker Gingrich’s. During the height of Gingrich’s power,  I was much more focused on Tommy Pickles and what the rest of the Rugrats were doing, but I have since followed his political footprint. The chapter was a nice insight as to what the term “career politician” actually means. We throw it around as a pejorative platitude; however, you actually see someone who’s a master at character assassination, someone–as stated in the novel–holds a cache of terms that can be strung together to fire up a base. It became known as the Gingrich lexicon:

He recruited Republican candidates around the country and trained them with his own words and ideas on video tapes and cassettes, like a motivational speaker, understanding the language was key to power. His memos included vocabulary lessons: if you discuss your opponent with words like betray bizarre bosses bureaucratic liberal lie limit(s) obsolete pathetic radical shame sick stagnation…you had [Democrats] on the defensive,

The main story I found most fascinating was Jeff Cannoughton. He started as an idealist, a bonafide “Biden guy.” (He became inspired when he heard Biden speak while he was a college student in Alabama) He first worked on Wall Street, a place where he discovered the inner workings of the financial system all while making himself a nice payout. Eventually the idea of working for Senator Joe Biden began to itch far too much, and he worked for the Senator as a staffer. In my opinion, there can’t enough news about low, mid, or even high-level staffers for seasoned politicians. The idealism that Cannoughton started with started to fade. He noticed that the same joke Biden opened his speech to a youthful Cannoughton hadn’t  changed. Biden was using the same ice-breaking material for decades. During the impending financial crisis, Cannoughton grew increasingly frustrated by the Washington gridlock. He was convinced that money had far too much influence on politics. Oddly enough, Cannoughton left Biden to work on K-street as a lobbyist.

This was the biggest eye opener for me. If you’ve seen House of Cards on Netflix, you may have noticed how quick politicians will throw each other under the bus in order to climb the ladder (cue Littlefinger in Game of Thrones). As a correlary, one will see how political ideologies don’t quite matter once dollars and cents are involved. Cannoughton had maintained the ideals of Democrats for years. Once he got a job working as lobbyist, he used his networking to work alongside Republicans to represent the interests of their clients regardless of ideology. Here are few tidbits that summarize the place that lobbying had/has in Washington:

Wealth added to their power, power swelled their wealth. They connected special interests to party officials using the adhesive of fundraising. They ate breakfast with politicians, lunch with the heads of trade associations, and dinner with other Professional Democrats. Behind their desks were ‘power walls’–photo galleries showing them smiling next to the highest ranking politicians they knew. Their loyalty was to the firm first, then their former boss in politics, then their party, and then–if he was a Democrat–the president.

Or, how about couples in Washington?

Certain couples belonged to the subset of Washington’s permanent class having to do with the financial sector, the Wall Street–Washington axis–Treasury officials, Banking Committee staffers, regulators. Connaughton called it the blob. Members of the financial blob were unusually tight with one another. In the case of one couple, the husband was an ex-lobbyist who worked on a key Senate committee, the wife an ex-Treasury official who went over to the SEC. They networked night and day, playing the long game, and when the two of them decided to cash in for good, they would be worth a lot of money.

To paraphrase, principles don’t exist inside the beltway of the D.C. elites. Political talking points are merely the pieces to the chess board that is our current political landscape. The best man or woman for the job is negligible. Ever wonder why Susan Rice was at first nominated for Secretary of State before John Kerry? Based on my latest read, I’d say she was climbing that ladder by voluntarily taking a few shots (Benghazi) for Obama and in turn was promised the Secretary of State job. As I read Cannoughton’s story, House of Cards became less and less fictional. Rep. Underwood’s relationship with his wife made much more sense. Its basis as a professional relationship became palpably real.

Meanwhile, in the land of actual people known as the continental United States, people are suffering. Tammy Thomas, who managed to raise two children on a factory job by herself, was now struggling for work. The steel mills that peppered the Youngstown area were now being sold and liquidated to other companies. The jobs were leaving, and people were suffering. Dean Price, an entrepreneur whose goal was to take advantage of peak oil (the point at which oil production has hit it’s peak–supply will no longer be able to keep up with demand–and oil prices will soar) and locally manufacture biodiesel was perhaps ahead of his time. Also, people in Tampa, Florida are foreclosing at a record rate. Some of the blame rests in Washington’s Community Reinvestment Act, which ostensibly gave away loans to people unable to pay them. To compound that, banks were packaging these piss-poor loans in what are called “Mortgaged-Backed Securities.” The mortgages were so sliced and diced that it was simply impossible the trace where the original mortgage belonged. Housing prices soared, people flipped homes, families bought these artificially inflated homes, and then the market crashed. Suddenly the only real middle class asset–a home–became worth a fraction of what it was payed for. Your 500K house can now only sell for 200K. All while politicians and lobbyists muck it up to create meaningless legislation. (While working in a high-ranking staff position for then Senator Ted Kaufman, Cannoughton described Biden and Obama as “financial illiterates.”)

It’s difficult the tell, but it seems Packer leans left. The book, though, is not polemic. Instead, it presents exact histories and asks the reader to think about it. I certainly found the lobbying industry in Washington to be an absolute farce. Though I understand the basis for the Citizens United case, I can’t help but think that lobbying has actually disenfranchised free speech. Real entrepreneurs–the ones who create something from nothing–must face the reality of failure all while established rank and file politicians create their own exclusive Facebook where political ideology is more of a brand than a way of life. Those same entrepreneurs must have their interests represented in Washington to increase their chance at success (grants, favorable legislation, etc.). Ayn Rand was also on to something with Wesley Mouch, the sleazy Washington insider.

Though I have ideas for how to solve such a function, I’m sure they’d be far too radical for those of whom only keep a house in their home district to maintain a seat in the capitol. I vote to decentralize Washington. Why, besides the White House, do representatives need to be there for more than a couple weeks a year? We are in the age of information, where FaceTime has revolutionized long-distance relationships. You can’t tell me there isn’t a way to create a hyper-secure encrypted communication line between Senators and Congressmen/women. Detach these people from the beltway. Make them live within their own mistakes or successes. Also, please tell me with a straight face that government isn’t too big. I dare you.

Book Review: The Outpost by Jake Tapper

What makes HBO’s The Wire a great series is, well, many things; however, what struck me most was when I’d be watching, I’d forget that it was dramatized fiction. It seemed all too real. When approached at a micro level, you found yourself cheering for violent criminals. The disconnect between the homicide/narcotics detectives and high-ranking officials in the police department made too much sense to be fiction. At the macro level, it’s a commentary on institutional dysfunction. One gets to see where seemingly objective statistics and numbers can be misconstrued as progress, where goals and initiatives can only result in a better world for all. Yet, once we see people operating with their own prejudices, biases, motives, etc., we find how organizations falter. In the same way The Wire portrays this, so does Jake Tapper in his thoroughly researched, entertaining-yet-horrific account of the war in Afghanistan entitled The Outpost. 

Enter 2006. The United States military, in act of utter hubris, decided to build a presence in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan along the Hindu Kush mountains. This is the same area the Soviets attempted to take over in the late 70s and 80s. Despite superior technology, the Soviets found themselves on the losing end. But how did that happen? A layman would shrug it off as inferior training or perhaps shallow morale. Despite all this, and despite reluctance from some lower-ranking analysts, the outposts would be built. Each one started with one name, and, when I finished the book, would end with another–named after a fallen hero.

In the grand scheme, the Army brass thought these outposts to be indicators of progress–a march forward. However, those making the decisions weren’t the ones dealing with the day-to-day operations. The goal, among other things, was to build transportation infrastructure into the region making the logistical nightmare of delivering supplies a little easier. The process came by way of employing the locals. This would prove futile as the locals, battle-hardened peoples with a penchant for playing both sides, couldn’t police the region enough to maintain consistent work. Despite the Army’s efforts, the road would never get built, making helicopter drops the only method of delivery.

Prior to this book, I’ve read my fair share of modern military accounts: Lone Survivor, Generation Kill, Fearless, and American Sniper. All of these, including The Outpost, have put into words the tragedy that comes with war. However, The Outpost is the most difficult to get through because chapter after chapter, soldier after soldier, death happens. A significant number would enter, and then another significant number wouldn’t return. Tapper, being a journalist (currently as the host of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper) writes with brevity, and it works. The gruesome tragedies that incur amongst our own are horrific and detailed. This passage was one in particular that stuck out to me:

“Inside the bird, a cold calm came over the men. They knew what their purpose was. Portis thought, I’m not going to come back from this mission. This is it. This is how I’m going to die. He had written his wife, Alison, a farewell letter and given it to his brother to present to her should he not return. She would be taken care of. Portis got choked up for a second, and then he made his peace with what awaited him in the valley. This is what he signed up for…putting pen to paper, he drew a diagram and began planning with his men how they would exit the helicopter, run for cover, and then join the fight to save Combat Outpost Keating.”

To put this into context, Combat Outpost Keating was set to ship out. Word spread and the Taliban executed their biggest attack yet. The attack came in the early morning and wouldn’t finish until nightfall. Soldiers who were hurt wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the “golden hour”–the idea that if a soldier is wounded in battle, he or she has a 90% chance at survival if given medical attention within an hour. Since the only way in was by helicopter, and RPGs were falling like rain, the golden hour was awash. Soldiers like Portis in the above passage were aware of their situation. They simply made peace with the fact that they will die. The romance of dying for your country becomes negligible. These proud few willingly became the most selfless individuals on the planet because they were brothers in arms, they died fighting for each other, and most frustrating, for a whole lot of people wearing YOLO hats or a media that use these exact battles as political capital for mindless punditry.

I found it difficult to read a soldier’s heartwarming and humanizing backstory only to see him die. I would hold on hope that Hollywood would intervene with a dramatic recovery. But real life isn’t Hollywood. As the KIA numbers increased, so did my respect for what these troops did. While I sat in the basement of crummy college house slamming cheap beer with friends, soldiers my age were selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way. This is a required read just to realize how well each and every free American has it.

At the micro level, you get to see the great work that individuals did day in and day out. Work that no one ever talked about at home. Counterinsurgency, the idea of creating a bond with the locals to ensure a more open dialogue, made real progress. It took time, energy, and death. And when General McChrystal and President Obama get in a rift that becomes public in Rolling Stone, the chips start to fall. Troop levels fluctuate, eventually pulling the plug on the operation altogether, which begs the ultimate question: What was the effort here worth. Despite the small victories in battle, was the American presence in Nuristan worth it? That question is never really answered, but I’m ambivalent about it. It seems that we gained an experience that will change future operations out there. This question, along with the residents of Nursitan and it’s surrounding hamlets, is a fickle matter.

Altogether, the read is necessary for understanding why progress isn’t as fast as everyone would like it to be. And this is microscopic in terms of information needed to judge the war effort in general. I won’t pretend to have the answers, and I don’t think Tapper does either. His voice is largely absent throughout the whole book besides the epilogue in which asks a few fair questions. Do not read this and expect an endorsement of neither President Bush or President Obama. The focus is to highlight the heroic nature of our troops. What is interesting, though, is how politics directly affects real people. Rarely do the ones behind the microphone actually have to practice what they preach. In that, I find that overt praise for a high-ranking politician for a war victory to be naive. War is an animal. The president is the owner of the animal. However, the ones responsible to taming that animal are the soldiers.

I know I’m late here, but I urge any and all to read more about our troops, so on Memorial Day, you can actually acknowledge the ones who have paid the ultimate sacrifice by name rather than provide us with a generic Facebook post. I would recommend starting with The Outpost.

On behalf of 20 somethings,

Thank You!