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Category: Rants

(Not Quite) Back To School

Here we are at the end of the summer. Along with other parents, I’ve been holding my breath as to whether we’re doing in-person schooling in the fall in the midst of COVID-19. After reflecting on last school year, it’s become more apparent that the distance learning didn’t work at all in our house – not for lack of effort by the school, our great teachers, or by the parents – we all gave it our best, but it just didn’t work for our first grader.

Now we’re T-minus 10 days from an already-delayed start of the school year. While our district has maintained that they will be doing in-person learning for elementary students, they’ve already walked secondary schools back to a hybrid model (rotating cohorts of 2 days per week). This week we’ve seen neighboring districts announce the suspension of in-person learning until October, with the announcements leaving a lot of ambiguity about the date.

During that time I’ve seen a lot of people take to social media (especially Facebook) to publicly express their concerns and fears about whether to return to schools, on both sides. While I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject, discussing it with my wife (who has been in logistical discussions all summer about how to safely open and operate a high school during COVID), I’ve purposefully avoided discussing this on social media. Facebook more and more just seems more toxic.

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COVID-19, Sports and the NFL

Throughout this COVID-19 crisis, it’s been tragically fascinating to watch how this has impacted sports. Despite it being entertainment, sports remain a foundational pillar of our society, in large part that it gives distraction from the problems in our daily lives, as well as provides a commonality for us to rally around (or against, in the case of the Raiders). Obviously lots of serious things are missing from our social fabric right now, but the absence of sports leaves a unique void.

Likewise, it’s been fascinating to watch how the leagues try to figure out what comes next. Weeks after the abrupt shock that was the NBA and NHL vanishing overnight, it still seems that any sports are months away from returning, even in modified gameplay, sequestered teams, in remote locations, without fans.

Then you have the NFL.

The NFL has a large advantage of being in the midst of their offseason, as well as the ability to turning every league milestone into a major event. They’ve been able to portray “business as usual” more than any sports league. As refreshing it’s been to be reading content that isn’t about COVID-19, it’s not clear whether the NFL realizes that they can also sound tone-deaf about being a contact support involving hundreds of people in the field, in stadiums that typically house tens of thousands of fans – all at a time when people see this as a major risk for virus spread.

For Broncos season ticket holders, the first payment for next season was due on March 11, right when our world seemingly changed overnight. For those that are on payment plans, the remaining half of ticket balances are due in June. Those three months might seem like three years later, at a time when we’ll likely still know less than we do know when it comes to the fall, as well as many fans having experience severe economic disruption and challenge since they made their first payment.

Look, I get that season ticket ownership is a privilege, and in the case of the Broncos, there’s a long line of people who would gladly take your spot. That said, the Broncos and the NFL shouldn’t blame any ticket holder who has major reservations about going to in-person games in 2020. I’ve long thought that season ticket ownership is a years-long partnership between fans and the team, where fans are encouraged to financially contribute in both good times (like the Super Bowls), and bad (like the first back-to-back-to-back losing season in the Bowlen era). The tickets in my stewardship have been with the Broncos since the franchise started, and it’s unfair for the NFL to ask fans to potentially risk their lives in going to games, as well as blindly contribute a significant amount of their income for games that they likely won’t be able to attend.

There’s an easy solution to this problem, one that can ensure that both the fans and the team can continue their partnership: allow season ticket holders to defer their 2020 tickets (and second half payment) to the 2021 season. Ticket holders can elect to apply their previous first-half payment to the 2021 season, giving the team assurance that the fans want to maintain the season ticket partnership. In return, the ticket holders forgo their rights to games in the 2020 season, and their seats are added to the “individual game sales” pool that goes on-sale in July, when the league has a better sense of whether and when any in-person attendance would be allowed. Personally, given the amount of public health and financial uncertainty, I would take this deal in a heartbeat.

However, I remain skeptical that this will happen. Given how ruthless the NFL can be, they’ll continue to expect their season ticket holders to make payments on time, for games that likely won’t happen. They’ve already sent an email stating that they’ll refund any games that don’t happen – but of course after the fans have coughed up the money and the team can make interest off the funds.

Come on Broncos and NFL, these are extraordinary times, take this as an opportunity to do right by your long-time fans.

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The Astros, Sign Stealing, and Baseball Innovation

In watching the Houston Astros Sign-Stealing scandal unfold, its punishments getting doled out, and the open resentment from other players in the league, the same question kept popping into my mind:

Wouldn’t it be possible to equip pitchers with a microphone that enables one-way communication to an earpiece in the catcher’s helmet? If the pitcher quietly speaks into the mic with the glove over his mouth, wouldn’t that stop sign-stealing?

I posed the question on Twitter and Facebook (and thank you to those who responded) and received many illuminating responses.

A quick primer to those not familiar with sign-stealing: when a batter’s at the plate, the catcher will relay a series of signals from his hands (typically between his legs) over to the pitcher, seemingly proposing pitches. The pitcher provides non-verbal responses in the forms of head shakes or nods, then throws the agreed-upon pitch. Sign stealing is when the opposite team tries to intercept and decode the signals, then relay them non-verbally back to the batter. Typically this has been done when there’s a runner on 2nd, but players and teams continue to be innovative in employing sign-stealing, with the Astros having team personnel monitor the signs real-time, relay it to the dugout, with players banging a trash can to get the message back to the batter. The scandal now has a Wikipedia entry if you want to learn more.

Technically, sign-stealing is considered cheating, but the culture of baseball tolerates it as long as you don’t cross an invisible line. Under the mantra, “If you don’t cheat, you don’t try.”, players continually innovate to find new and more effective ways to steal signs, which is what landed the Astros in hot water.

This brought me to the above question, wondering why can’t baseball incentivize teams to apply the same level of innovation to thwart cheating. With apologies to the people for not better representing their thoughtful comments, the gist of reasons were:

  1. Catchers are the ones that have all the knowledge and are instructing the pitcher on what to throw.
  2. It would be too much to ask of pitchers, especially relievers, to call pitches.
  3. Teams would try to intercept the transmissions.
  4. It’s not too much to ask teams not to cheat

For the sake of argument, let’s discard #4 and accept that teams will continue to push boundaries. As for point #3, football has been using play-calling radios for decades – and Patriots jokes aside – has not generally had a problem.

That leaves us point #1 and #2, which to a baseball skeptic like me translates, “It’s always been this way and it’s asking too much for pitchers to change”.

This is the crux of why I struggle with baseball. The double-edged sword of being steeped with tradition also has the ill effect of being resistant to new ideas and methods.

I’m not saying that the sport needs to force every team into doing this, but if they changed the rules to allow for this, you might see some teams taking advantage of the technology, even if it’s just for playing certain teams suspected of cheating. We’ve seen this play out in other sports. When a team finds success, the copycat league will try to adopt and further the methods. Instead, many baseball purists seem to accept that the players will work this all out, with their own form of vigilante justice – taking a few pitches to the ribs. At least through enabling and promotion innovation, you at least give teams an alternative than resorting to physical retaliation.

This also boils down to the fact that Commissioner Rob Manfred opted not to punish the players, in part to achieve their cooperation in the investigation, but also to avoid drawn-out appeals from the Players Union. There wasn’t a great solution to this, but as players have been reporting into training camps it’s been obvious that many harbor vast resentment towards current and former Astros. Perhaps Manfred should consider placing a permanent asterisk on the Astros 2017 championship. Outright stripping the title opens a can of worms (Who would get the title instead, no one? Do the players have to give back their championship rings?), but placing an asterisk allows people to view the 2017 World Series in their own light and allow history to ultimately pass judgement.

The way baseball views sign-stealing is not unlike hockey views fighting: they pay lip service to being against it, but through their inaction they don’t do anything to actually thwart it, relying on some invisible line. People then clutch their pearls after it gets crossed.

Ultimately this is indicative of the decisions that are relegating the National Pastime into a distant third in popularity. The NFL and NBA have their own sets of problems, but they don’t seem to be afraid to promote new ideas and innovation to help the game evolve. I get that baseball is a timeless, individual-statistics-driven game that favors the record books, but this seeming apprehension to evolution is going to be the sports undoing.

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How to fix Twitter

Over the last 15 years, my affinity for social networks have come and gone, but Twitter has remained largely constant and for the most part, beneficial.  That said, Twitter has some serious wounds that they have yet to address after all of this time.  Twitter does have a tendency to get toxic in its discourse and does seem to often devolve to trolling and harassment.  While Twitter has paid lip service on fixing the issue, boasting about their improved capabilities in reporting and responding to abuse, it doesn’t seem like Twitter has the wherewithal to take the issue head-on.

Twitter’s problem: the blue checkmark

I remember when Twitter started to gain traction beyond the tech community, and you would start to see actual bonafide celebrities gain a massive amount of Twitter followers. Given the skepticism of the platform and its stage of growth, it made perfect sense for Twitter to institute a “verified” certification to help followers distinguish between a real person from a fake or parody account.  However, that blue checkmark has morphed into a validity tracker, a sign of whether someone has “made it” in the zeitgeist of popular culture.

By being secretive about how and which Twitter users get verified, Twitter has enabled the checkmark to become a status symbol, and a clear way of distinguishing who Twitter deems an influencer on their platform. This has resulted in the public developing a belief that verification is a defacto Twitter endorsement of that user on their platform. You see this play out when a celebrity or influencer causes controversy, which is met with an outcry that their verification status should be taken away.

Twitter needs to get back to the basics and impose the original intention of its blue check mark – that the Twitter user is in fact who they claim to be. This is the root of how to fix Twitter.

Step 1: Enable any user to get a blue checkmark

Rather than reserve it for the elite amongst our population, verification should be accessible by anyone. In fact, Twitter should enable users to request verification by collecting a modest fee – say $10-15 – to cover the costs of validating a users identity. As a user who is vested in the platform, I would gladly pay that amount to prove the legitimacy of my accounts identity to the world. In many ways this could enable another revenue stream for the company.

Step 2: Change the platform to ignore mentions and replies by unverified users

Twitter could then alter their interface to toggle between showing mentions/replies/interactions from unverified users. They say that on the Internet, anonymity is a hell of a drug – then enable Twitter users, from celebs to muggles, to choose whether they want to remove anonymity from their engagement. People could even take it a step further and allow their Tweets only to be seen by verified users. There are benefits in Twitter providing access to anonymity (e.g. whistle-blowing, speaking out against an oppressive government), but those that are concerned about trolling and harassment can easily disengage from those that aren’t brave enough to attach their identity to their comments.

Step 3: Ban the disruptive users

I know, they already ban the trolls, especially when they cross the line. Many will turn around and create another account, but this time when they do it, they will permanently lose their access to verification. They will now be relegated to the cesspool of anonymity that can easily be turned off with a toggle of the switch.

I realize this won’t fix all of Twitter’s problems, but I do think it would go a long way of re-establishing credibility within the platform, promote civility among their users, but yet continue to enable the ability to converse, discuss and debate on this public platform.

Please, @jack and the rest of Twitter, democratize the blue checkmark. Oh, and stop being jerks to the app developers that got you where you are today.

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Keep Liberty In Our Library: An Open Letter to Mayor Melendez of Windsor

Dear Mayor Melendez,

I am writing to express my concern regarding efforts to restrict the freedom of your residents that wish to participate in programming at the Clearview Library. After watching events unfold over the last month, it appears that you and some local officials are attempting to ram through a particular point of view over the civil liberties of our neighbors.

Freedom and liberty are the bedrocks of our society. As elected officials, you have a duty to protect all viewpoints, even those that may make some feel uncomfortable. While I may personally have no interest in attending the Drag Queen Story Hour, I also recognize that the Clearview Library District is chartered with offering diverse programming to all parts of our community, and understand that not all library services and events must appeal to a majority of residents. With a Facebook Event RSVP that exceeds the capacity of the library’s large meeting room, a significant level of interest has been met to justify this programming. If no laws are being broken, and no hate is being advocated, then it is up to you as an elected official to protect its freedom and respect its right to seek programming and resources.

Suppose the library heeds your mayoral advice and cancels the event: should they then proceed to ban all programming that is mildly controversial? Shall we strip the library of all books and movies that may contain people dressed outside of their biological gender?  If a biological man walked into the library wearing a dress, should he be barred from entering? Do we hold the same standard against women wearing outfits that challenges the Town Board’s definition of “modesty”? Shall the library also ban resources that do not conform to the moral view of current town leadership? Should the library require approval from town and school boards before community groups/and or political clubs can gather?  Is there a similar policy in place for our Rec Center and parks? By publicly placing your elected thumb on the scale, you are creating a slippery slope on the path towards repression and government censorship, resulting in potentially costly legal challenges for our town.

As the father of two young girls, I can sympathize with parents that object on the grounds of avoiding exposure to their children.  However, the consequence of participating in a free society is that our kids will likely encounter people and ideas that are in conflict with their parents’ world-view.  Just last month I took my 5-year-old to an Eagles game and had to spend the first period explaining what “sucks” means and why the crowd was chanting those words.  The reality is that parents are challenged with turning those occurrences into teachable moments. We must also respect those parents that see this event as an opportunity to further their child’s exposure to the gender identity conversation. Of course, to parents that wish to limit exposure, there remains the obvious remedy: do not attend. It is not the role of government to shield the community from objectionable viewpoints, especially when suppressing the rights of others.

I challenge you and our leaders to do what’s right, rather than simply pleasing the population of those aligned with your ideals. Please do not abuse your stewardship by seizing the power of society and administering a top-down implementation of your morality, especially at the expense of law-abiding groups in our community. These actions are far more damaging to our communal fabric than any single library event.

Sincerely,

Jeromey Balderrama

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