Better Late than Never

I figured a series of posts about the Amendments to our Constitution, counting backwards, would start slow and steadily build up to Number 1. I had no idea what an amazing story Number 27 would turn out to be. To call it inspiring falls profoundly short. This was an infusion of hope for our country that I sorely needed.

Hope – the opposite of fear

First, a quick shout out to the number 27 itself. It’s a cube: 3 times 3 times 3. It’s also the number that was worn by Steve Atwater, who because he played for the Denver Broncos isn’t yet in the NFL Hall of Fame. And it’s the last two digits of the year in which our house was built. Could this one number be any more awesome? Yes… yes it could.

As I noted in my previous post (, it’s remarkable that there have only been 27 Amendments to our Constitution. The process of changing the document that underpins our republic was deliberately and understandably made extremely difficult. Unlike the cluster-fudge bills that are introduced on a routine basis by our Congress, Amendments require not just their overwhelming support, but also the support of three quarters of the states. It’s part of the delicate and underrated balance between federal and state government.

The idea of the 27th Amendment is pretty simple: if Congress votes themselves any change in their own pay (up or down in fact), it can’t take effect until after the next election. You can probably see why this is a good idea, and so it’s not too surprising that people could see that over 200 years ago. And so when James Madison submitted the first batch of twelve proposed Amendments to the Constitution in 1789, this was one of them. Ten from that batch became our Bill of Rights. Another still sits on a shelf somewhere, perhaps the topic of a future post here. And this one, even though it was approved by Congress, only got ratified by 5 states at the time, and so it didn’t become law.

Over the course of the next nearly 200 years, a state per century decided to ratify the 27th Amendment. The first was Kentucky, in 1792. But everybody forgot they had done that until over 200 years later (more on that below). The second was Ohio, in 1873. The third was Wyoming, in 1978. Talk about the quintessential slog. Of course, part of the problem here, especially with Ohio and Wyoming, was that these states weren’t necessarily looking to change the constitution, but they found this Amendment a nice way to make a point.

But that all changed in 1982, and if you ever question the power of the individual, you should read one of the accounts of this story (NPR has a nice one, in particular – In that year, a student at the University of Texas named Gregory Watson was researching for a term paper, and discovered this Amendment. More importantly, he found that there didn’t appear to be any sort of time limit on its full ratification – meaning even over 200 years after being approved by Congress, it could still become law if ratified by enough states. He turned in his paper to that effect, and the teaching assistant gave him a C. He appealed to the professor, who agreed it should be a C. And then, where most of us would just throw up our hands and have another beer, he decided he would do something slightly different – he set out on the road to get the thing ratified.

Watson wrote letters to many in Congress – most of them did not respond, or if they did, they indicated why it wasn’t worth pursuing. But Senator William Cohen from Maine actually passed it along to the folks in his state, and they voted to ratify it. Colorado followed not long after. And each year a few more joined in. Finally, in 1992, Missouri became the 38th state to ratify the Amendment. But nobody knew that, because they forgot about Kentucky having done it in 1792. So Michigan was the state that got the pomp and circumstance as they ratified, with Watson himself listening in. 203 years after being introduced, the 27th Amendment became an official part of the Constitution:

No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect until an election of representatives shall have intervened.

A few years later, Watson pushed Kentucky to ratify as part of a campaign to make it a unanimously ratified law. That’s when he and others discovered they had already done it back in 1792. But they went ahead and ratified it again. Which I suppose means that if the remaining four states (Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, and Pennsylvania) ever ratify the 27th Amendment, it will stand for generations as the only Amendment that was ever ratified 51 times.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Watson later worked to get Mississippi to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, as a symbolic but powerful gesture.

And here’s my favorite part of the entire story: in 2017, 35 years after his turned in his paper, his grade was officially changed to an A. I didn’t expect to cry a little writing about the 27th Amendment.

So, the next time you find yourself feeling powerless, remember Gregory Watson. Just a student at a university who got a bad grade, who decided to do something about it, and now his legacy is etched in the greatest legal document ever written, as surely as that of our Forefathers who signed it over two centuries earlier.

Making Amends

Rarely does any of us ever get it right the first time.

A perfect example of “us” is “US” – our great nation, and more specifically our rightfully revered Constitution.

How sneaky to write the Constitution when Jefferson was in Paris

After completing the original Constitution, it didn’t take long for (most of) our Forefathers to realize they forgot a few things, hence the Bill of Rights, also known as the first ten “derps” of our Republic. The flip side of that characterization is that these are the things that apparently weren’t important enough to include in the original. It all depends on your point of view, and your mood.

Since 1789, there have been only 27 Amendments to the Constitution. 10 of which came almost immediately via the Bill of Rights. That’s not bad for getting most of it right in the first draft. I’ve amended this post 27 times and it hasn’t even been posted as of the moment I said that. Another way to look at that is, it takes a lot of work and wrangling to make an Amendment happen. That means each one ought to be pretty important. But as much as we universally revere the Constitution, we are remarkably selective about which Amendments we similarly revere.

I could ask you which Amendments you actually know in terms of matching a number with its content. But I’ll do one better than that and reveal my own ignorance, which is extreme. On a daily basis, as I go about my routine of wondering why my phone can’t peacefully transition from the WiFi at our house to LTE as I listen to Internet radio on the way to work, I know the following:

1) Amendment 1 is about free speech, free assembly, free religion, and some other free stuff.

2) Amendment 2 is about the inalienable right to have a musket so you can join the militia.

3) Amendment 5 is about not saying anything that might get you in trouble.

And that’s it. I know there are other Amendments – the abolition of slavery, prohibition and the subsequent prohibition of prohibition, and the right to citizenship if you’re born in the Land of Generally Unknown Amendments. But in terms of knowing which one is which, that’s a score of 3 out of 27. That’s 1 in 9, or 11%. There is no test in any venue at any time of year where 11% is considered a passing grade. People that were not born here, who have to take a test to become citizens, will score far better than 11% on the Amendment Challenge. And of course I scored far better than that in elementary school, which is the last time I was asked to remember any of our Amendments by heart.

Here’s another interesting tidbit. It’s entirely anecdotal, but it appears depressingly reliable. If you are passionate about Amendment 1, you are likely to be equally dispassionate about Amendment 2. And vice versa. That’s not a generalization. It’s a sad statement about how polarized our nation has become. Amendment 1 is almost always a top priority on the left side of the aisle, and Amendment 2 is a stronghold of the right. If you spend any amount of time talking about free speech and the importance of a free press, you probably don’t spend anywhere near as much time talking about the right to bear arms. And vice versa. Get mad if you like, but as far as I can tell, it’s simply true.

Now, I know people who consider both of these Amendments to be equally important. I can think of a couple in particular who are among my most treasured friends. But those people are rare. Thank you so much, two-party system. George Washington tried to warn us, but we wouldn’t listen.

So here is what I’m going to do. Call it a gimmick if you like, but I call it a way to avoid coming up with new topics for up to a year. The next 27 posts on this blog will be about our Amendments. And here’s the fun part. I’m going to start with Number 27. Think of it as the Ultimate Top 40 Countdown. Except for the 40 part. I will learn a great deal as I research the material that will go into these posts. You will also learn a great deal, simply by living life over the next year. If you happen to read anything I write along the way, great.

No, let me amend that: GREAT.

It Came from Outer Space

Our own Sun could send us back to the Stone Age in the wink of an eye. #uncaringstar

Exhibit A on why “artist” is not my day job

As we go about our daily lives, stressing over which player to start in fantasy football, how many seats will flip in Congress every two years, and whether to like that weird Facebook post (what’s up with that anyway), we all sit on top of a ticking time bomb.  There are, at any given moment, many threats to the survival of our civilization.  But one in particular gets very little attention, and this is unfortunate, because it is one of the threats more likely to be realized in our lifetimes.

In the late summer of 1859, a storm ravaged the Earth.  Not a hurricane or a tornado, but a geomagnetic storm, caused by a flare from our Sun.  The flare itself was actually independently observed and recorded by two English astronomers – Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson.  The storm later came to be known as the Carrington Event.

Among the more widely told accounts from this event were those surrounding its effects on telegraph lines.  Some operators were literally shocked, and others were able to communicate across significant distances even when they unplugged their power.  There were other effects – auroras visible near the equator, sunless skies bright enough to read by, and of course a healthy dose of mass panic.

But back to the telegraph lines.  Electricity and magnetism tend to feed upon each other.  That is in fact how a ray of light travels through space.  The Sun, in addition to generating countless rays of light, has a powerful collection of magnetic fields, which can generate “explosions of light” known as solar flares.  Solar flares travel at the speed of light – eight minutes from the Sun to the Earth.  But they can also lead to Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which are composed of billions of tons of electrically charged particles.  A CME can typically take on the order of a day to reach the Earth, and of course since space is pretty vast, it won’t always hit us at all.  But when one does, it can cause a wide range of disruptions – including dangers to astronauts, communications issues for aircraft traveling over the poles, and if strong enough, impacts on our electrical grid.  This is possible because the electrically charged particles slam into Earth’s own magnetic field, which in turn can introduce massive electrical currents at the Earth’s surface.  And that is how the telegraph lines were so severely affected in 1859.

In March of 1989, there were widespread electrical outages in Quebec, resulting directly from a geomagnetic storm, albeit less severe than the Carrington Event.  But in July of 2012, a “Carrington class” solar event occurred; the CME simply missed us.

Why is all of this important?  Because of our frightening dependence on electrical power.  An event the size of what we observed in 1859 (which hit us) or 2012 (which missed us) would have similar effects to what happened in Quebec, but potentially with much higher damage and on a national or even global scale.  Costs have been estimated in the trillions, and recovery time in years.  But none of that strikes at the heart of the matter, which is how many things would simultaneously become unavailable at once: power in our homes and businesses, Internet infrastructure, hospitals, government institutions, banks (both actual banks and the infrastructure that connects financial institutions around the globe), communications (from damage to both ground and space assets), and, well, you get the picture.  It is not out of the question that society itself would break down on a global scale, and unfortunately the things that are designed to be most resilient to these types of situations are the core military systems that would enable a nuclear response to the chaos.  In other words, our Sun does something to the Earth that it has been doing every 500 years on average (from best we can tell), and we promptly extinguish ourselves.  Even if we didn’t take it that far, some studies have suggested 90% loss of life in the United States just from the starvation, disease, and societal collapse.

So are we screwed?  Certainly if we do nothing, the answer is a resounding yes.  This has happened innumerable times in the history of our planet, and it will happen again.  But there are things we can do to protect the grid.  Granted, those things will likely cost trillions of dollars.  But if you think this is only about dollars, you should probably re-read the previous paragraph.  And better yet, do your own Google search on this subject – don’t take my word for it (consider that general guidance on any posts you read here).  Multiple agencies in the government are studying this problem and how to solve it, but it’s unlikely most of us have ever given it much thought.  In my opinion, the matter needs to be treated with more urgency, and that will only come from a groundswell of support.

The alternative is that we might lose everything under the Sun.

Short Memory

This will not be a post to forget.

I am a rabid sports fan.  As soon as I was old enough to vaguely understand football, my happiness each Monday depended on how the Broncos did on Sunday.  I even wore Broncos gear when composing music with my brother.

This will be bigger than the Beatles.

Interestingly (an arrogant phrase, isn’t it? What a brilliant writer I am!), the Broncos have only won the Super Bowl when they’ve had a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback.  Turns out that’s true for most teams if you think about it.  And in the pass happy modern NFL, it’s hard to win one without two shutdown cornerbacks as well – they are often on the proverbial island at the most critical points in any game.

What does this have to do with memory?  I’m not done yet!

Fast forward from the dashing young prodigy above to adulthood (don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of time for me to tell you all the effed up things that happened in between).  I have spent a fair chunk of my adult life playing goalie in ice hockey.  People are often impressed with that (until they see me actually play – see the picture below).  A common theme is “wow, how can you let people hit you with slap shots” – but the truth is, there is a lot of padding to deal with that.  Goalie is much more challenging to the mind than to the body.

Note the unideal position of the puck relative to the goalie. The team never recovered.

What does this have to do with memory?  I’m not done yet!

I am a fairly decent Colorado Rockies fan, though I’m not as much into baseball as I am into football and hockey.  I will watch high school versions of the latter two if I flip to it while channel surfing.  But baseball is more about the ballpark than the game for me.  I have precisely one signed item from the Rockies – a picture of Huston Street from the late 2000’s.  He was the Rockies’ closer the year in their last playoff appearance before 2018 – and he blew the save that ended their season.  But I always admired the way he didn’t shy away in the postgame interviews.  Closers have to deal with a lot of the same mental hurdles as hockey goalies.

In fact, goalies, quarterbacks, cornerbacks, and closers all share one common trait if they are successful:  they all must have a short memory.  If you give up a goal, a pick six, a long TD pass, or a home run in the ninth, you have to forget about it and move on to the next task at hand.  In those specific cases, there is no skill quite as important as having a short memory.

You would think, then, that having a short memory is a rare trait, limited to the elite of the elite.  Interestingly (there I go again), it is not.

I have, probably in the last 24 hours, been driving somewhere, and cursed at the malevolent force that is sitting in my blind spot, preventing me from executing my carefully prepared automotive itinerary and causing me to miss my acceptance of a Nobel Prize.  I have also, in those same 24 hours, been the malevolent force.

I could unleash a slew of other examples, and I could even move them into the realm of the political, but let’s face it – I don’t have to.  You probably need not look far in your life to find a moment where you conveniently (even if not consciously) forgot what it was like to be “the person in the other car”.  Cars make it even worse, of course, because we see the car first, which detaches us from its occupants and makes it easier for us to start getting angry instead of understanding what they’re doing.  The Internet serves a similar purpose.

This also ties back a bit to the inaugural post here about perspective.  Sometimes we don’t even remember we were once standing where the other person stands now.

So let’s recap the trilogy of posts that have ushered this blog into cyberspace:

  1. There are other points of view out there besides the two that have been prescribed for us by our completely polarized political machinery.
  2. A meaningful discussion of any meaningful issue cannot occur within the confines of a meme, a tweet, or a political TV ad.
  3. Leave all high horses at the door, because none of us are innocent of the things we hate to have done or said to us.

That’s probably enough setup.  The next entry will start getting into juicier discussions.  Bring a napkin.  And don’t forget.


Building Character(s)

280 and 1 vs 5298 and 150. That is the main problem with public discourse today.

Ok, fine, I’ll elaborate.

The limit on the number of characters in  a tweet is 280.  That is up from the previous limit of 140, a change made in late 2017.  The average number of characters in a word (by the way, I just hit 280 characters in this post) is 5.  That means the maximum number of words in the new, liberated gasbag era of Twitter is, on average, somewhere approaching 50 (leaving room for spaces and such).  How good are you at expressing your complete assessment of a situation in 50 words?  If you’re really bad at it, you’re better than most.

Most tweets are generated in reaction to something.  Sometimes it’s something that’s just happened, and sometimes is just another tweet.  But either way, there are zero mechanisms in place to prevent you from tweeting something as fast as your fingers can move.  The general thought is, on average, it takes a minute or less to generate a tweet, from inspiration to immortality.

280 characters and 1 minute.

My first blog post, by comparison, was 5298 characters, and 936 words.  Thinking back to my first draft of that post, and how many times I went back and tweaked it, I’d say I spent about 150 minutes actually writing or editing it.  Granted, I probably spent more time on that inaugural post than I typically will from here on out, because let’s face it, it’s all about first impressions.  But that’s how much time it took me to really think through what point I wanted to make, and how I wanted to say it.

5298 characters and 150 minutes.

Public discourse today is overwhelmingly in the 280 and 1 world, and it needs more than ever to move back to the 5298 and 150 world.  This is not all Twitter’s fault.  On Facebook and Instagram, the meme is even worse, typically doling out irrefutable wisdom in 10 to 20 words.  And before any of these platforms were in place, we were already in a world of sound bites.  Look no further than the political TV ad, where the challenge is to tell millions of people why they should pick this person over the other in the course of 30 seconds.  No wonder it all gets reduced to mud-slinging; what kind of meaningful discussion of the issues can you have in 30 seconds?  And of course slogans didn’t arise with the advent of TV; they’ve been around as long as politics has.  And so the only thing we really end up saying to each other is “Yay for our team, the other team is stupid/evil/lying, and anybody who disagrees with me is an idiot.  And this picture of a cat underscores my point.”

To be concise (now I’m doing it), human beings have become lazy communicators, effectively neutering one of the abilities that allowed us to rise to our current status of dominant species on Earth.  No doubt we will soon find a way to nullify the opposable thumb as well; its main purpose today is to type tweets.

I will do my part in this blog to help move us away from these unfortunate trends.  But in so doing, my blog will automatically generate a tweet and a post to Facebook, so I’ll probably accomplish a net of zero.  The only possible salvation is if you actually read this.  So really it’s all on you.

I hope you have enjoyed these 2619 characters.

Welcome to the Machine

This is the part of the post where I struggle to come up with an opening line.

Okay, let’s go with this.  As I type these words, there are around 152 million blogs in cyberspace.  How do I know that?  The first hit from a Google search said so, and everything you read on the Internet is true, especially the first hit.

Fortunately, that number could be way off, and it wouldn’t change the point: there are a lot of blogs, and somehow I need to make this one stand out.  Meanwhile, you are going to be the judge of whether this blog stands out.  So unless you’re one of the few hundred Facebook friends I’ve invited to read this, we haven’t even met, and you already have the upper hand in our relationship.  In the past, I’ve always needed to meet someone to create that situation, so I’m going to claim progress.

So what will this blog be about?  How about dangling participles?  Wait, I’ve got an even better idea: this blog will be about perspective.  

This is the part of the post where I explain how I came up with the name “Parallax Machine”.  

You may or may not know what parallax is.  If you already know, please forgive my feeble attempt to define it for everyone else: parallax is the effect by which something looks different depending on your perspective.  It usually applies to optics, but I’m going to hijack it to apply to the way we form our opinions and beliefs.

Far too often, and increasingly so, we are polarized into one of two camps on any given issue in the world.  Entire nations routinely operate in that mode, and it is a tragic waste of our potential to solve our biggest problems.  The ability to truly understand, much less solve, a problem depends entirely on the ability to see that problem from multiple perspectives.  Black and white must give way to varying shades of gray – and yes, sometimes even fifty or more.

I am a highly flawed human being, a completely unshocking statement to those who know me.  I will not pretend I know answers.  Frankly, the frequency with which I see people exhibit 100 percent confidence in their own points of view is alarming.  It’s a symptom of a closed mind, which in turn has little capacity for meaningful dialogue and growth.  We will never break down the barriers between us unless we understand where each of us is standing relative to those barriers.  Hence this blog’s tagline:  where you stand depends on where you are standing.

This is the part of the post where I vastly overstate the impact this blog will have on the world.

Humanity is at a crossroads.  We must decide whether we will give in to our most basic biological urge, or seize upon our ability to grow beyond that urge.  Our most basic biological urge is to protect ourselves, and maybe to extend that courtesy to those who look and sound like us.  If we do not evolve beyond that, we will likely not survive as a species.  The specific reason – nuclear war, squandering of our resources, or failure to expand beyond our world when some inevitable cataclysm hits us from the depths of space – is almost unimportant.  What is important is that what made us the dominant species on Earth won’t keep us there.

Not every entry on this blog is going to speak at that grandiose level.  Often I’m going to talk about things that seem (and probably are) completely unimportant by comparison.  But the common theme will always be there:  challenge yourself to think beyond your own perspective.  Picture yourself standing somewhere you haven’t stood before.  I find myself doing that every single day.  It is a nice way to avoid getting things done.

Let’s end this inaugural post with a picture, accompanied by somewhat less than the proverbial thousand words.

I took this picture a little over a week ago, on the shore of Estonia.  Momentary digression: Estonia is a beautiful country with resilient and thoughtful people; you should definitely visit if you get the time.  End digression.

Look first at the boats.  They look like they’re converging, so that if you kept adding more and more to each row they’d eventually collide.  But those rows were in fact parallel to each other, which would be painfully clear if you were floating overhead.  An isolated perspective can skew the world.  Look next at the water.  You can see the ripples from the wind.  But if you were floating overhead from a great height, you would see larger ripples that follow broader wind patterns.  And if you were a few inches above the water, you’d see smaller ripples and maybe even Don Ho’s tiny bubbles.  An isolated perspective can simultaneously miss both the details and the bigger picture.  Look next at the trees in the distance.  They look tiny (like bubbles) compared to the boats, but they are really much larger.  An isolated perspective can make big things seem small and small things seem big.  And finally, look at the sky.  It looks blue overhead, but different colors as you approach the horizon, as though the air itself is changing.  But it’s all the same atmosphere, it’s just that sunlight gets more scattered the farther it has to travel through the atmosphere to your eyes, and that changes the colors you see.  An isolated perspective can lead to entirely the wrong conclusions.

And speaking of conclusions, this is the part of the post where it ends.

Talk to you again soon.