The World According to a Hammer

22 11 2013

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Back when I was still running a martial arts school, I heard a highly regarded martial art instructor talk about how to “be the local expert.” His idea was simple; be the most well informed, well educated, and thus most qualified fitness/self defense expert in the area, and be recognized as such. The advantages of being the most qualified expert in one’s field should be a no-brainer. Wouldn’t everybody want to train with the best? As in any highly competitive market, the real challenge lies in being distinguished as the top dog.

Here comes the snake oil salesmen

Enter the world of marketing. As anybody who’s ever run their own business will tell you, marketing is almost as important as the product being offered. In my opinion, it is also the most difficult part of being an entrepreneur. Advertising, i.e. Yellow pages, television, radio, mass-mailing, is extremely expensive. Other methods can be less expensive, but more time consuming, taking one away from their area of expertise. For the small operator, the efficacy of where to invest a marketing budget can be a make-or-break proposition.

Another factor in marketing for the martial arts, and I suspect for many businesses, is the waning effectiveness of traditional methods. With all the competition using the same tactics in the same mediums, things like the Yellow Pages, flyers, etc. just quit working. When everyone is offering the same services, with the same prices, and claiming the same level of superiority, how does one stand out from the crowd and sell their goods?

This is where the genius of his idea lie. It went something like this….

Get involved with the local media whenever the opportunity arrises. Write op-ed pieces on your area of expertise. Become the go-to expert in fitness & self defense, whenever a news agency is doing a piece on those topics. Reporters are always looking for engaging sources, and the more accessible the better. If you’re really good, you could work yourself into this niche. Every time there’s a story on fitness, you’d be the name quoted in the paper. Each segment on crime prevention or self defense would include your face, along with your expert advice. You would have the most powerful advertising available, with the implicit endorsement of every news agency you were featured in, and it’s free! For a small business owner struggling to maintain a reliable flow of customers, this is gold.

Indeed this strategy has been taken up by more than just your local mom & pop karate school. Anybody with something to sell, wether a product or an ideology, a candidate or some piece of legislation, can utilize this same method to get their message out. And everybody is getting on board. As much of a boon as this plan may be from a business perspective, however, this arrangement between “the news” and marketing has some serious problems.

What you don’t know won’t hurt you.

Take the martial arts “expert,” for example. For the record, there are absolutely no governing bodies nor regulatory agencies that oversee/verify any martial art school/instructor. Anybody, regardless of qualifications, can hang the proverbial shingle on the wall and state that they are the nth degree grand master of their system. Any certifications an instructor may have are on the honor system at best, and many require nothing more than paying a fee. Some systems may have stringent standards, but there are no third-party agencies to verify any of their claims. That expert from local dojo X, presenting his opinion on your local news, may very well be an expert. Whether that expertise is on the subject in question or in bullshit isn’t clear, however, without serious research into their actual qualifications beyond being  a self-proclaimed “master.”

The recent revelation in September that “Dr.” Elizabeth O’Bagy isn’t really a doctor of anything (she lied about having a PhD), makes my point, When being an expert has market value, there exists the motivation for individuals to exaggerate how qualified they may actually be. It is a bit scary that she was offering up expert advice on the turmoil in the Middle East, and our potential involvement in Syria. It’s even scarier to consider she was being taken seriously by policy makers.

The tail is wagging the dog

Even though spending a few hours watching the news would leave you believing our world is becoming ever more violent, this simply isn’t the case. The frequency of these stories feeds our cognitive biases and leaves us with an inaccurate perception of reality. (see this earlier post) Violent crime in the U.S. has been decreasing for the past 20 years, and that includes the recent upswing the past two years. The media focuses on the extreme stories, however, because this kind of drama is what get’s viewers’ attention.

Martial arts instructors play upon our fears of violence, just as the media does. Self defense is what they’re selling, and if consumers didn’t see a threat, they’d be out of business. Even though it is statistically un-likey that most martial arts students will ever be in a violent situation, martial arts schools continue to sign up people who worry about defending themselves. (this statistical reality is also why the plethora of unqualified martial art instructors go largely unnoticed as the frauds they are – their students never actually have to use their skills)

Who else might be in a line of work that is dependent upon our fear, and uses the media to feed it? O’Bagy is a prime example, but she is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the “think tanks” we hear about so often are really just advertising agencies in disguise. They are presenting research to support their agendas, expressing opinions as supposed “experts,” when in reality they are often simply pitchmen. Our 24-hour news has been turned into their personal 24 hour info-mercial. The problem is, they’re selling more than a better detergent or the latest workout craze.

In his article The sham “terrorist expert” industry, Glenn Greenwald  discusses “sham experts,” “who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism,” and who “can stay relevant only if that threat does.”

These “terrorism experts” form an incredibly incestuous, mutually admiring little clique in and around Washington. They’re employed at think tanks, academic institutions, and media outlets. They can and do have mildly different political ideologies — some are more Republican, some are more Democratic — but, as usual for D.C. cliques, ostensible differences in political views are totally inconsequential when placed next to their common group identity and career interest: namely, sustaining the myth of the Grave Threat of Islamic Terror in order to justify their fear-based careers, the relevance of their circle, and their alleged “expertise.” Like all adolescent, insular cliques, they defend one another reflexively whenever a fellow member is attacked, closing ranks with astonishing speed and loyalty; they take substantive criticisms very personally as attacks on their “friends,” because a criticism of the genre and any member in good standing of this fiefdom is a threat to their collective interests.

Let the buyer beware.

We view advertisements with a lot of skepticism, knowing that the advertiser has financial incentive to “stretch the truth,” as they tell us how much better our life will be when we own their product. We don’t apply this same level of doubt to the statements of an expert in a news interview, but we should. What if they have a financial stake in the message they’re delivering? If they’ve got financial incentive to influence your opinion, how is their testimony any different than a spokesperson from brand z telling you theirs is the best? Again, if the reporters were doing any in-depth, investigative journalism, they should be pointing out these potential conflicts-of-interest, and if egregious, completely dismissing the credibility of said expert before, if ever, giving them access to their pulpit.

The risks from getting advice or instruction from a less-than-qualified martial artist are, for the most part, benign. You may not achieve the fitness levels you’d hoped for, or your child may learn some cheesy techniques that lose them a trophy at the local tournament. Higher up the spectrum, perhaps you get injured doing inappropriate exercises. Worst-case, you find yourself using bogus techniques to unsuccessfully protect yourself in a violent attack.

The stakes for society at large are much more serious when the experts being touted on CNN, FOX and MSNBC are proponents of, say, bombing another country.  Picture the fictional gazillion-aire industrialist Tony Stark (pre-moral paradigm shift) publicly pushing an aggressive military policy. Would we be willing to accept his “expert” advice to go to war, knowing he’s the guy getting rich off of the deal? If comic-book fiction isn’t you’re thing, how about this. Back in September, about the same time Ms. O’Bagy was coming clean, Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, was making the argument for U.S. military involvement in Syria on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. According to a report by the  Public Accountability Initiative,

“In each case, Hadley’s audience was not informed that he serves as a director of Raytheon, the weapons manufacturer that makes the Tomahawk cruise missiles that were widely cited as a weapon of choice in a potential strike against Syria. Hadley earns $128,500 in annual cash compensation from the company and chairs its public affairs committee. He also owns 11,477 shares of Raytheon stock, which traded at all-time highs during the Syria debate ($77.65 on August 23, making Hadley’s share’s worth $891,189). Despite this financial stake, Hadley was presented to his audience as an experienced, independent national security expert.”

Mr. Hadley wasn’t alone.

To a hammer, everything’s a nail.

Karate, Taekwondo, Kung fu, Muay Thai, and Jiu Jitsu are just a few of a long list of martial arts available to the consumer. Each style will present a different set of skills and methodology. For the devoted practitioner, training in the arts can become a lifestyle, in which hours a day are devoted to the mat, and the ideas & principles from training become infused with the rest of their daily lives outside the gym. The time spent with teammates, together with the common experiences “on the mat” build a strong camaraderie. Students come to identify with their fellow training partners; there are those who train, and those who don’t, their school and other schools, their style and other styles.

All of this makes the students natural marketers. “Do you want to lose weight? You should try our style,” or ” Do you want to get stronger? Come try our classes.”  The martial arts will cure pretty much whatever ails you, especially according to a believer. The passion with which they believe combined with the growing number of believers just makes their story that much more compelling. Their belief becomes sold as fact irrespective of it’s actual validity. Add this bias together with the profit motive of an entrepreneur and you’ve got someone who’s hammer is the answer to all your problems.

Now extend that same mentality to a group of like minded people who make their living off of the nation’s fear of terrorism. Mind you, it’s the perceived threat that we’re fearful of, because the average joe has absolutely no way of knowing what the actual threat is. Also keep in mind that our perception comes from none other than those that stand to profit the most from it’s existence. Can anyone say “conflict of interest?” Whether they come to believe their own hype or if they see it for what it is, the fact remains that it is in their interest to pitch whatever they’re selling as much as they can.

The harm that may befall us individually from believing some less-than-qualified martial arts instructor pales in comparison to the global impact of our decisions in the ballot box. We, as the voting public of the most powerful nation on the planet, have a moral duty to make informed decisions. As Thomas Jefferson stated,

“Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

The problem is, we’re relying, in large part, on a rigged system to provide us with the information we need to make those decisions. As compelling as the story may seem on CNN, FOX, or MSNBC, we need to remain cynically skeptical. The very nature of that medium (entertainment & sales) makes everything they say suspect, and the added testimony of supposed experts is no help, as there’s a good chance they’re just trying to sell us a hammer.





Delusional

19 09 2013

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Wow.  About a month ago, I had a conversation with an acquaintance who was ranting about all that is absurd with the “liberal agenda.”  He brought up the most recent 60% increase in Arctic Ice to point out the fallacious nature of climate change. The inanity of such a statement left me speechless, but I opted to let it alone. What can you say when you realize someone believes what they believe so adamantly, regardless all of the facts to the contrary?

Given his political leanings, it’s hard to say exactly where he came up with this number, but goodness knows there’s plenty of sites out there repeating the same misleading information. Here’s a recent one (Sept. 7) from the quality publication MailOnline, which then got referenced in RealClearPolitics today.

Now I see yet another person parroting the same b.s., but this individual happens to sit on the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Power. During the hearing on climate change this past Wednesday, David McKinley (R-W. Va.) spouted off the same climate change denial talking points. like a pro, yet his “facts” have been debunked, time and again.

There’s no point in recreating the wheel here. Plenty of others have done a much more eloquent job of pointing out the ludicrousness of this. Here’s a great article on this whole fiasco from Slate. One of my favorite “debunkers” is also quite entertaining in his delivery. Check out Potholer54‘s  commentary on this latest climate change denial here.

While you’re visiting his Youtube channel, watch his clips on creationism for a good laugh!





A Dog’s Life

16 09 2013

Montana Dog

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
-Roger Caras

Since we adopted him last fall, an australian shepherd named Montana has become a full-fledged member of our family, and what a wonderful addition he’s been. He has brought much more to our home than I had ever anticipated. I find it interesting that something so seemingly insignificant as an inanimate object or, in this particular case an animal, could be a catalyst for introspection and reflection.

We’d always planned on getting the girls pets once they were old enough to care for them, but it was a more sinister force that precipitated this dog’s sudden arrival into our lives.

The presence of squirrels, raccoons, and rabbits is an idyllic benefit of living next to a golf course and green space. Nature has a way of losing some of it’s glamour when those cute little mammals raze to the ground all of your carrots, spinach and romaine, or trash your koi pond.  A new fence around the garden and an electric wire for the pond took care of some issues, but what do you do about the thievery perpetrated by squirrels? The few peaches they took became a tolerable, albeit annoying loss. However, when the raccoons came under the cover of darkness, and in one night stripped my apple tree of all fifty ripe and ready-to-eat fujis, the romance was over. This was a declaration of war by villainous scum. Within a month, I had found the perfect ally, and Montana came to live with us.

As a “working breed” he is always ready to go and do – anything. He loves my early morning runs, and bounds with joy whenever someone comes outside with his leash. As much as he loves to be busy, he is just as content to lie at my feet, being close to his family. Nothing makes him more content than an appreciative pat on the head, or scratching of his belly, nor is it ever enough. No matter how long I pet him, as soon as I stop, he lifts his head, perks his ears, and looks at me, as if to say, “What, that’s it?”

Pragmatically, raising pets is a great way to help our children learn the importance of being responsible. There’s nothing like having the life of some cute little critter completely in your hands to reinforce this ideal on a daily basis. It’s been rewarding to see how the girls have stepped up in “owning” their responsibilities, feeding him his meals, while also caring for the rest of the menagerie (hamsters, hermit crabs & fish) they’ve acquired over the same period. They’re even big enough now to clean up his poop! (now if they would just keep their rooms clean!)

My hope is these pets will also provide some “teachable moments” on mortality. Admittedly it’s never  easy dealing with the death of a loved one, but it seems there’s a little perspective that can come from flushing a few dead goldfish, before eventually burying a hermit crab, a hamster, and inevitably, even our beloved dog. Well, it’s a plan that “looks good on paper,” anyway.

One thing I had not anticipated, is the emotional attachment that has blossomed since his arrival. It has been fascinating to witness the bond that occurs between man and animal, and the strengthening of our own familial bonds in conjunction. The girls, especially our oldest, are always giving Montana lots of luvin’. Both my wife and I, who tend to be otherwise relatively stoic in our demeanors, are much more expressive of our appreciation and love of this dog than I would have foreseen.

For me, the unconditional loyalty of a dog is a powerful reminder of what it means to be dedicated to your loved ones.  He reminds me that no matter the circumstances, we will always be family. These girls will forever be my daughters, and I, their father. I will always be there for them.

He is a role model for forgiveness. Within minutes of being scolded for some infraction, he is back at my side, as happy and devoted as ever. No matter how frustrated my wife and I may get with one another, at the end of the day, we’re still committed to making one another’s life better.

He reminds me that loving my family as deeply as I do isn’t enough. I need to show them, in deed and manner, how much they mean to me, and I need to do this every day. He reminds me one can never hug his children too much.





More food for thought…

31 05 2013

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For those of you who don’t know me, I guess I’m a bit of a “foodie.” I wouldn’t consider my take on food & eating radical, but I suppose that assessment has more to do with the metric being used. Since we seem to be surrounded here in the burbs by people who live on a diet of highly processed, pre-packaged food, and frequent trips to fast food restaurants, perhaps my notions on food are radical, at least by comparison.

Here’s the simple version of my eating philosophy.

Highly processed foods are bad for you.  The vast majority of the packaged stuff in the supermarket is designed for our industrialized food system. It can be mass-produced, easily transported over long distances, and stored for extended periods. It is highly marketable for it’s convenience to the consumer. It is made from commodity crops like corn and soybeans, which once again, fit well into an industrialized system. Being subsidized also makes them dirt cheap, which makes for greater profit margins. Unfortunately, all of these issues take priority in the marketplace over the one thing you, as the person eating it, should be concerned with; it’s nutritional value.

The healthiest foods are recognizable. A healthy diet consists of lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, lean meats, and nuts. Some whole grains are o.k. The more processed, or hidden in sauces and breading it is, the less it’s got to offer, at least in terms of nutrition. The rule I’ve taught my girls is easy to remember. If you have to read a label to know what it is, it’s probably not very good for you, and if you can’t understand what you’ve read, it’s poison. Of course, they know that the poison part is an exaggeration. It is meant, however, to be a reminder that such highly processed foods should be treated with a bit of skepticism, eaten as an exception to a healthy diet, and not as a staple.

We eat to live, not the other way around. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone state, “I deserve this,” “life’s too short,”  or some other equivalent. If one’s consumption is justified by some sense of entitlement, perhaps it’s time for a re-evaluation of priorities. Food is about sustenance, not entertainment. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t enjoy the food we eat, or that we can’t ever go out for an over-the-top meal. Our happiness simply shouldn’t be the main deciding factor in our daily consumption choices.

Let’s face it: fast-food and pre-packaged foods are convenient, and by definition, fast. These benefits have enabled people to spend much more time participating in activities other than food acquisition and preparation. Parents can go to work while the kids go to school, and their evenings/weekends can be filled with baseball, soccer, track, piano lessons, taekwondo, troop meetings, and the drama club.

Is there a trade-off for all the convenience? The answer is simple; your health.

This diet, which is high in calories and low in nutritional value, is also created to leave you wanting more. Remember the Lay’s Potato chip commercials pitching, “Bet you can’t eat just one”? It’s no joking matter. The industry has spent plenty researching what it takes to get sales up, and when we’re talking about food, that translates to increased consumption. They have manipulated the use of salt, sugar, and fat to get us eating more. These three nutrients are vital for our survival, thus our bodies are hard-wired to crave them. These same vital nutrients that were not readily available in the natural setting of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, are now killing us in their over-abundance. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by David A. Kessler is an in-depth look at this issue.

The fast food I grew up with was always an exception, an occasional special treat. (except for my last three years of high school, during which time my friends and I alternated daily between McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s.) Now this has become the norm, part of many families’ daily routine. Someone eating an otherwise healthy, nutritious diet can occasionally deviate without catastrophic repercussions, however, what’s the result of continually consuming too many calories without enough required nutrients? The answer should be obvious, but to make a point, let’s look at the poor souls at the far end of the spectrum; to the morbidly obese, who are, amazingly enough, simultaneously malnourished. The majority of us, however, don’t show such extreme symptoms. Those who fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve may be only slightly overweight, may experience yo-yoing energy levels, or may not have any noticeable symptoms at all. Sadly, this lack of any apparent symptoms is more a testament to the resilience of the human body, than evidence that such a diet is indeed unhealthy.

How long can our resilience save us from the very food we eat?





Where does the time go?

24 05 2013

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I really dropped the ball this past month. I’d love to blame the plethora of mundane tasks I do daily like washing dishes, vacuuming, mopping, and scrubbing toilets. I could point to all the time spent on even more pressing matters like keeping the lawn mowed and hedges trimmed to the satisfaction of the god-forsaken HOA. On a more positive note, we can’t forget the many hours spent working out. Finally, I could top off the list of excuses with all the truly exciting events that come with raising three daughters. There’s all those benchmarks so common in the life of a busy little two-year old, which are just as thrilling for me the third time around, as well as attending all of the plays, open houses, track meets, and ballet and  gymnastics classes of her older sisters.

I’d love to blame this busy life for not posting. It simply wouldn’t be true. I’m sure there’s plenty of bloggers out there, with schedules just as busy a as mine, who manage much more frequent posts than this. Extraordinary accomplishments come from extraordinary effort, whether it’s at work, as a parent, or in being a world-class athlete.

Let’s face it. I’ve failed miserably at posting even once the past six weeks because I allowed an apparent case of ADD to take charge. In between all of the above mentioned necessities, I got wrapped up in researching logical fallacies, which led to digging out all of my educational psychology books, and diving into some cognitive psychology. In the process I also stumbled into a discourse with an old classmate regarding creationism, which rekindled my fascination with the current trends in science denial, and eventually led me to get all caught up in the latest idiocies committed in the name of religion, and viola – nary a post for far too long!

All of these varying facets of the human condition fascinate me, and there never seems to be enough time to read everything I want to. For every book I check off my list of “must reads,” I add two more. Of course, all of these topics also play into my pursuit of being the best dad, teacher, and citizen that I can, which means I’m building up a backlog of topics to write about as well.

I can’t imagine inconsistency and unreliability are part of any proven formula for building up a large loyal readership, but be that as it may, onward…

In the final analysis, it’s not ADD, ADHD, nor any other malady that interrupted this work in progress. It was just  a lack of self discipline. I could have spent a bit less time reading those textbooks, or saved the debate regarding the existence of god for another day. I let my whimsical wants dictate my direction. Sure, just “going with the flow” can be fun now and then. As a normal modus operandi, however, this method will get you nowhere in a hurry.

There is more “self-help” literature out there than any mere mortal could ever read, and just like all of the dietary and/or fitness advice out there, much of it is junk. Most of it rehashes what’s already been said, repackaging it in varying ways in an attempt to cash in on a booming industry. The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, by Stephen Covey, is one that I highly recommend.  His is a basic treatise on the fundamentals of succeeding in whatever endeavor you choose to pursue. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but I make reference to it on a regular basis, when I’m teaching my kids, when I’m coaching an athlete, or helping someone with their fitness goals.

His time-management system of four quadrants is a great way to break down activities, and best organize one’s time. As a parent of a two year old, there’s quite a bit of time spent in quadrant 1 that is unavoidable.  matrix-for-job-aidsEnough time spent in the second quadrant may lessen the impact of this aspect of child-rearing, but it’s a fantasy of the highest order to think it could be eliminated.

I, however, am constantly guilty of the simple pleasures that come from participating in quadrant four. This is where our whimsical wants of the moment drag us down, fill up our precious time, and keep us from accomplishing what is truly important.

It’s easy to justify all of the reading I’ve been doing in the name of self improvement. The real issue, however, is whether that reading is more important than the other things that I’ve made a priority, especially when it interferes with those higher priorities. As Covey so succinctly states in his third habit, Put first things, first.” Obviously the past few weeks of whimsical reading interfered with my goal of posting once a week. So, to borrow another habit from Mr. Covey’s book, it’s time to sharpen the saw.”








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