All posts by Danny Silverman

Accidentally watched four episodes of The OA before I forced myself to stop. Wow. Compelling, captivating, original. Netflix is the only network I need.

For the last week I have dreaded loading Facebook for what I might see. Today my feed is full of hope and cheer and possibility. Let’s savor this, for at least a few more hours.

On Charter Schools and State Ballot Initiatives

There is intense debate in Massachusetts right now around Question 2, a ballot initiative aimed at raising the cap on public charter schools. I am generally of the opinion that legislating through ballot initiatives is a poor idea (with all the normal downsides of direct democracy). This being New England, we experience the flaws of direct democracy perennially at our horrible “town meetings,” which is apparently not enough to discourage proponents of ballot initiatives.

Which leaves us with Question 2, and the requirement for a simple “yes” or “no” vote. I have been a big believer in public charter schools ever since attending Santiago Charter Middle School in Orange County, California. Before that I attended a magnet program that was also excellent. Both were formative experiences that I believe profoundly affected who I would grow up to become.

I have no experience with privately run charters. I was in a very diverse environment, but as a student on an accelerated learning track my classmates often looked like me, and my experience has no relevance when discussing the needs of underserved populations. My school district was run at the county level, with over 20 elementary schools. My middle school of approximately 1000 students is roughly the same size as the entire enrollment of the school district of Hull, where I currently reside.

Santiago has 42 credentialed educators providing a diverse range of programs including wood shop, theater, dance, Chinese, and various other additions to standard, remedial, and honors curriculums. Hull’s Memorial Middle School has a quarter of the students but almost half the teachers, spends vastly more per pupil, and offers far fewer programs. Economies of scale cannot be achieved unless towns are willing to regionalize their school systems, which seems extremely unlikely to occur.

Which is all to say, educational policy and funding is extremely complex. A yes/no ballot question on charter caps is a very coarse instrument for making policy improvements. And based on my education, experience, and research, I cannot offer a concrete conclusion on whether passing Question 2 will improve things in aggregate, or not. From what I have read, the impacts of Question 2 in the first few years will be primarily in Massachusetts’ larger cities, while the majority of the opposition comes from its smaller suburbs. I don’t want to see public school districts anywhere suffer from decreased enrollment to competing charters if it negatively impacts educational outcomes. But I’m also not sure there is a better policy prescription than charters for continuing to experiment with new programs and approaches for education.

On balance, I think the benefits of more charters at least slightly outweighs the potential downsides.

White Trash Triptych

As a student of American civilization, I continue to work to understand what drives supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. The many media narratives to choose from are universally simplistic and self-reinforcing. The more I read, the more muddled my thoughts become.

The people I know who support Trump do not fit the narratives being peddled, and the people I know who should fit those narratives are not Trump supporters. One thing I know for sure is that the simplistic characterization of Trump followers as rural working-class white “trash” is an easy crutch for urban elites, but a false one.

I have been thinking about this and reading about it for months, for years, if you go back to the rise of the Tea Party movement, but even still I cannot form my thoughts into prose. I will delete the many paragraphs I have spent so long writing and instead simply link to a few of the stories I have found most compelling and enlightening. They don’t all agree with each other, but they are all good food for thought.

As I write this the odds are somewhere in the 90% range that Hillary Clinton will be the next president. But even if she wins, and even if the Democrats take back control of one or both houses of Congress, the Trump supporters are not going to disappear, and the problems of rural whites are not going to magically get better.

Two perspectives of the urban vs rural divide and the plight of the white working class, the first more irreverent than the second:

A long read that discusses the social science around white nationalism and traces its roots and effects around the world, going back to World War II:

And finally, two articles discussing recent books on the subject, Strangers In Their Own Land, about the Tea Party movement, and Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of growing up in an Ohio steel town:

Ahmad Khan Rahami Is Arrested in Manhattan and New Jersey Bombings

I do not want to see bombings become a normal part of American life. But, much like homicides, robberies, and drunk driving, we cannot let individual incidents of violence terrify us or change how we go about our lives. Informed, engaged communities; committed, dedicated police and investigators; trust in the power of a democratic society to bring justice — this is how we remain resilient and free.

Jalapeño Poppers

Meghan’s aunt gave us a ton of jalapeños from her garden, so I tried making poppers for the first (or possibly second?) time. It was a very time consuming process. I should have worn gloves (oh, the burning!). But they turned out absolutely delicious.

Today’s rainstorm in Louisiana is at least the eighth 500-year rainfall event across America in little more than a year, including similarly extreme downpours in Oklahoma last May, central Texas (twice: last May and last October), South Carolina last October, northern Louisiana this March, West Virginia in June, and Maryland last month.

America’s Latest 500-Year Rainstorm Is Underway Right Now in Louisiana by Eric Holthaus in Pacific Standard Magazine.

Anyone in federal elected office who still refuses to acknowledge human-caused climate change is a menace to our society and should be impeached, recalled, or tried for treason. The longer we wait to act, the worse it will get.

Impromptu swim lessons for a harbor seal in training

The weather was so nice I cut our run short when we got to the pier and went for a swim in my running clothes. Salty would not come in at first. He freaked out and ran around the pier and float, then for some inexplicable reason picked up my socks and flung them into the water in exasperation, where they sunk before I could get to them. It was hilarious and also sort of problematic, because I had to run back home, wet, with no socks. I did manage to get him into the water eventually, and he swam around a bit, then repeatedly attempted to climb atop me and drag me under.

Pacific View

On my run this morning I stopped by to visit my grandpa in the park. Looking over that vast ocean of grave markers, it occurred to me that no matter our standing, wealth, or lineage, we all end up in the same place in the end.

Passing the memorial to drunk driving victims on the way out, I pondered the many ways we can care for each other but choose not to. And I noticed the names that surrounded me, family names that span the world — some I could not even pronounce. I remembered that we all came from somewhere, near or far, but we all ended up here.

So maybe in the short time each of us has, we can try to be a little more understanding, a smidge more accepting, a tiny bit less hateful. Because in the end, we are all just a few words on a headstone and the memories we have left behind.

Traversing long distances, slowly

A few months after college graduation in 2005 I started contemplating running my first half marathon, but by 2007, I was content to simply complete a 5K. I finished the Couch to 5K program (sort of) but did not actually run a race.

In the intervening time I’ve occasionally fallen into and out of running, completing a few 5Ks and a few runnings of the Manchester Road Race, but never anything more ambitious.

Winter 2014-2015 was intense, with massive snowfalls, frequently impassable roads, and a lot of dreary days stuck indoors. By the time things warmed up in early March, I was stir crazy and ready to hit the road again. I pulled out my running shoes and took a few short runs, which felt really good. A few factors in particular were helping me to push harder and further than I had before:

  • The timing was right, with the days beginning to get longer and lighter
  • My new job had a shorter commute, meaning I could run in the mornings and still get into work on time
  • The weather was cool and mild
  • Our new pup was grown up and bursting with energy

Salty and I hit our stride in April, with 12 runs totaling 38 miles.  By the end of that month I was resolved: this would be the year — ten years after I first contemplated it — that I would run a half marathon. I signed up for an October race, and kept on running.

In May I took fewer runs but upped my distance, with the dog accompanying me on many of my outings.  I kept it up as the weather got warmer in June, starting a 12 week training program in July and peaking at 76 miles in August.  I bought some new running clothes and picked up a goofy “hydration belt”.  I got some expensive “minimalist” running shoes. I started trying out the gelatinous food pellets that runners gobble on long runs (yuck!).  I explored every nook and cranny of Hull, finding ways to fit 8, 9, and 10 mile runs into a narrow 2.8 square mile peninsula.

Along the way a few people offered invaluable support, tips, and encouragement, which helped me keep going.

I made a playlist.  I ran the race.  I beat my 11 minute/mile goal.  I got a medal.  I did it!

But I didn’t write a blog post.  Because I was worried that the story would end there.  Winter came around again, and as expected I barely ran at all in January and February.  In March I picked it back up, but it did not feel as good.  I couldn’t go very far, or very fast, and things hurt — my feet, my legs, my back.  It was hard to make the effort.

Luckily, I had anticipated this, and had wisely (or foolishly) signed up in December for another half marathon in June. Not only that, I had convinced friends and family to sign up as well.  So I was committed. And I kept running, even if I wasn’t feeling it.

The race is tomorrow, and I don’t think I will achieve a new personal record. But I expect I’ll finish.  And looking back through my run stats, I feel a lot better about my progress.  Compared to this time last year, I have run substantially more miles.  It’s June, not October, so I don’t have as many months of build-up, but I’ve done 11 and 12 mile distances successfully.  And the weather this year was much less enjoyable to run in, freezing cold and raining through much of March.  Even still, I made it through my 12 week training, and I’m feeling less achy, and I’m confident I can keep it up.

The story isn’t over after all.  I guess I had better sign up for my next half marathon– and start striving for a new personal record!

I think a great way to be a good person is to get in the habit of consciously thinking about the fact that almost every stranger, co-worker, friend, acquaintance, fling, customer service representative, driver, waiter, customer, client, neighbor, and person on the internet you come across:

  • Has a family who loves them and vice versa
  • Has hopes and dreams and regrets and frustrations
  • Has as many thoughts going through their head at all times as you do
  • Is dealing with random health problems, trying to make ends meet financially, and is probably tired
  • Might be supporting one or more other human beings
  • Might be just a little sad all the time about a tragedy in their past
  • Might be the most important person in someone else’s life
  • Is just trying to figure out how to be happy

i.e. They’re a full human just like you.

Remembering that will make you kinder and more empathetic.

— Tim Urban, Mailbag #1 on Wait But Why

Alone, wandering Hong Kong

Upon exiting immigration control at Hong Kong airport I was briefly seized with the panicked realization that I was alone in a foreign country with no real plan. Oddly enough, Hong Kong’s subway system, the MTR, quickly put my mind at ease. The order, cleanliness, and copious English signage helped me to realize that I can do this. And I immediately started noticing the little Hong Kong-isms that would so delight me throughout my stay.

Hong Kong Airport

Hong Kong Airport

For example, everywhere you go there are a lot of people employed as human directional signals, ushering people one way or another, or blocking their path. It was amazing to me how many people seemed to hold this seemingly trivial job. And how about how they call moving walkways “travelators”? Or how everyone runs to form a long line anywhere a soft-serve truck appears?

In many respects Hong Kong seemed as dirty and smelly as any major city, but there were signs everywhere of a focus on sanitation, disease prevention, and public health.

The SARS epidemic and bird flu left their mark on this region. One of the most interesting and saddest things I stumbled upon was a memorial in a Zen garden honoring doctors and health workers who died combatting SARS in its early days.

The memorial was in Hong Kong park, which also sported a lovely (if slightly ironic) aviary.  It was hard to get birds to pose for me.

The weather was warm and the humidity intense, but all the locals were wearing pants and jackets. I wandered the Kowloon waterfront, but there was not much to see — a lot of it is closed for renovations. I had arrived just after the big Chinese New Year celebrations, so I missed the fireworks display but did get to see a lot of the decorations and art celebrating the Year of the Monkey.

Year of the Monkey decorations

Year of the Monkey decorations

Most of my time in Hong Kong, the city was blanketed in fog. I visited Victoria Peak, high above the city, on a cold and overcast day, to find that there was nothing to see but a shopping mall. So I took an impromptu hike that ended up being a long, haunting, tiring adventure — I made a video that attempts to capture the strangeness and surprising beauty of the whole ordeal.

 

A lot of Hong Kong felt just like New York City. Everyone had their nose in their phones, and the crush of people and buildings was intense. I wandered out to the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden in Kowloon, which offered a nice change.

Nestled serenely between high-rises and highways, the sprawling gardens and temple complex are both quite new — built in just the last two decades — but are designed in the classical Tang Dynasty Chinese style. Some of the buildings were built using classic techniques (no nails!) and other highlights included a pagoda, a restaurant under a waterfall, and a “rockery” where the finest rocks from their collection are shown off.

I’ve never been to a rockery before. The descriptions of the rocks were quite something, on par with descriptions of fine wines or works of art, discussing the delicate grain and subtle textures of each stone. I tried to appreciate the beauty of each rock, but to me they mostly looked the same.

“Colourful, lustrous yet simple, Dahua rock has very visible and tasteful grains.  Stone connoisseurs believe that the discovery of Dahua rock has made a lasting impact to the traditional standards of rock appreciation.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Wong Tai Sin Temple. This historic temple was completely overrun with Chinese tourists waving incense sticks in every direction. The smoke in the air was overpowering, the crush of people overwhelming, and the danger of being burned very real. Still, it was quite a thing to behold.

I found the food scene surprisingly cosmopolitan, and had a lot of trouble finding the East-meets-West dishes I was seeking. There were plenty of places to get a hamburger, a burrito, or most any other cuisine, though. On my last day in Hong Kong I took a food tour and got to sample some of the more local dishes and establishments. If I had had more time, I would have tried to get even further off the beaten path.

One dish I was delighted to rediscover was crispy french fries doused in salty curry powder in the British style. It was paired, oddly enough, with Pho in a trendy fast-casual restaurant hidden behind a clothing stall in a narrow alley.  Why oh why haven’t curry fries made it to America?

Pho and curry fries with three dipping sauces from a small establishment hidden behind a clothing stall in a narrow alley

Pho and curry fries with three dipping sauces from a small establishment hidden behind a clothing stall in a narrow alley

A few other tidbits:

  • Most interesting-looking historic buildings and complexes that I would detour to check out ended up being shopping malls. Or banks.
  • A surprisingly high proportion of the models in advertisement photos were white.
  • It’s interesting being taller than almost everyone.
  • In certain districts, I was constantly mobbed by guys trying to sell me suits and dress shirts. Sometimes they would follow me down the block. By the end I started getting good at avoiding those areas.
  • Having an Octopus card (a stored-value card issued by the MTR) makes a lot of things much easier. It can be used for various attractions as well as the Star Ferry and to pay at many shops. But for a lot of the stalls and smaller shops, cash is the only option.
  • Everyone, everywhere has their noses in their phones.  In that respect, its much like home.  Different is how adeptly they switch between Cantonese and English keyboards when composing their mixed-language text messages.
An urban columbarium, where ashes of deceased are stored -- the neighbors hate it

An urban columbarium, where ashes of deceased are stored — the neighbors hate it