Gallery: Grease Ball II at Slim’s Last Chance Saloon

On August 13th, Slim’s Last Chance Chili Shack & Watering Hole in Seattle hosted their second annual Grease Ball vintage car and motorcycle show. The event attracts local motor-heads and rockers of all stripes with live music on the stage and custom cars and bikes competing for awards in both “Clean” and “Dirty” categories. This is one show where rat rods are welcome! Here are some of the rare, unique, and downright strange creations that showed up.

What Happened to Presidential Politics?

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Many of us have been confused, baffled, amused, or even enraged by the 2016 Presidential race. So, how did we get here?

Somehow again, it seems the most unsavory elements of both major parties have made it to the conventions as front-runners and our choices are a curmudgeonly old white man inciting borderline class warfare, a conniving senator from a family of career politicians, or a xenophobic egotist with a bitchin’ comb-over (I guess the creepy conservative uncle just dropped out of the race. Better luck next time, Teddy).

But if you stop to think about it, this phenomenon is not confined to this election, or the last two, or even three. For many election cycles we have seen the discourse devolve from respectable and universal discussions about the philosophy of freedom, the nature of personal liberty, and the dangers of government power to emotionally-driven, reactive, and identity-based discussions where the populace is constantly split into warring tribes and pitted against each other in a fight for resources/respect/minimum wage/safe spaces/whatever. We’ve stopped asking what is right and good for all human beings and started asking “how can my in-group get what it deserves or keep the out-group at bay”.

Consider these historic Presidential quotes on immigration, economics, and liberty:

“It is now true that this is God’s Country, if equal rights—a fair start and an equal chance in the race of life are everywhere secured to all.” -Rutherford B. Hayes

“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” -John F. Kennedy

“Wealth can only be accumulated by the earnings of industry and the savings of frugality.” John Tyler

“Whoever controls the volume of money in any country is absolute master of all industry and commerce.” – James A. Garfield

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” G Washington

“That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.” -Thomas Jefferson

as compared to these gems from the 2016 Presiential race:

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” Trump said of immigrants coming from Mexico. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” -Donald Trump

“If people are bringing — pregnant women are coming in to have babies simply because they can do it, then there ought to be greater enforcement[…] so that you don’t have these, you know, ‘anchor babies,’ as they’re described, coming into the country.” -Jeb Bush

“Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” -Hillary Clinton

“Many of you are well enough off that the tax cuts may have helped you. We’re saying that for America to get back on track, we’re probably going to cut that short and not give it to you. We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good.” – Hillary Clinton


So what is happening to American politics? Brain Drain.

As the ideological gap between the Democratic and Republican parties widens, it is swallowing up anyone in the middle who has a reasonably balanced political  philosophy and social outlook. Both parties have pursued increasingly extreme methods seeking very different ends, and have alienated many people who have trouble accepting their overzealous policy packages.

The Pew Research Center has an amazing body of work on political affiliation in the U.S. spanning 70 years based on historical data and their own polling, and a review of their data reveals some fascinating trends:

First, the partisan divide is the widest it’s ever been. To quote the Pew study “Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era”: “Across 48 value questions asked consistently over the past 22 years, the average difference between the opinions of Democrats and Republicans has grown from nine percentage points as recently as 1997 to a new high of 16 points today.” Democrats have a higher opinion of government intervention/effectiveness than ever, while the Republicans’ views are more negative. The Democrats are losing support from those who are wary of government intervention in the economy and Republicans are losing anyone who has a liberal social policy. Put another way, most Independents are socially liberal and non-militaristic but resent the overreach of recent Dem administrations vís-a-vís militarism and personal liberty/privacy, and as classical-liberal-style Republicans defect to the Independent group or social issues they bring more conservative economic views.

Second, the Independent/non-affiliated cohort has exploded in the last ten years. Since 2004 the number of people reporting as Independent grew from 30% to 39%. In the same period, the percentage of Republican respondents dropped from 30% down to 23%. Democratic numbers have been more steady at 32-33% with a spike in 2008 of a few percent. But the very next year something very interesting happened…

Thirdly, as of 2009, there are more Independents in the U.S. than Democrats or Republicans. That’s right- whether you knew it or not, for seven years we have been a country with an Independent majority. In 2009, 34% of respondents identified Democrat, 24% identified Republican, but 35% reported being Independent. This isn’t the first time in recent history this has happened (in 1992 there were more Independents but the Dems matched them the very next year), but it is the first time that the trend has continued unabated for several election cycles- As of 2014 data, 39% of respondents are Independent with just 32% Democrats and 23% Republicans. This could be the single greatest indicator of American political disaffection today: a majority of citizens have essentially voted “no confidence” in either major political party- and many have stopped voting period as a consequence. But the tide is still turning.

Finally, Democrats still maintain an opinion advantage. Despite the growing number of Independent-minded citizens, most Independents still report that they “lean” toward the Democratic platform than versus the Republican (48% versus 39%, a lead they’ve held since 2002). It seems there are still more liberally-minded Independents out there than conservatives, even if they can’t bring themselves to officially identify with the Dems in their current incarnation.

For all the data, see this interactive chart and this article at the Pew Research Center.


Did anyone see this coming?

In retrospect it’s easy to see trend of the growing Independent class in the United States, but it’s much harder to spot year-to-year when you’re standing too close to it. Still, some previous Presidents have warned us of the dangers of political power and office-seeking, as far back as Washington himself:

“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.” -George Washington

“Nothing brings out the lower traits of human nature like office seeking.” -Rutherford B. Hayes

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” -James Madison

“If the rabble were lopped off at one end and the aristocrat at the other, all would be well with the country.” -Lyndon B. Johnson

This last quote from Johnson is particularly prophetic. He might have intended the statement as a prescription for equality or centrism, but it turns out to have been a grim prediction: The entire American political discourse has turned into the rabble versus the aristocrat, as embodied by the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. How did this happen? It’s called “identity politics”: arguments based on the perspective and desires of the groups people identify themselves with. It’s been used to divide and conquer the American populace throughout the 70-year period covered by the Pew study, pitting minority special-interest groups against each other for control of public policy which will affect an entire nation once made into law. The effects of identity politics warrant discussion in a dedicated article, but for now it is amusing to note how well the problem of the growing partisan divide was captured by two very different Presidents, despite both holding office while the process proceeded unmitigated:

“We need a spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together. If we have no sense of community, the American dream will wither.” -William J. Clinton

“Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you. Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” -Richard M. Nixon

So much for those ideas. It seems most people these days agree with William H. Taft:

“Politics, when I am in it, makes me sick.” – William H. Taft


What does this mean for the future of the U.S.?

It’s impossible, of course, to predict the future- but one can identify current trends and make inferences. One insight comes from Andrew Jackson:

“Internal improvement and the diffusion of knowledge, so far as they can be promoted by the constitutional acts of the Federal Government, are of high importance.” -Andrew Jackson

This may be the key: “diffusion of knowledge”; but it hasn’t been due to acts of government. It’s come from technological innovation and those who employed it to defy a government increasingly tightening its grasp on power as it feels its support slipping away. It seems that the ready availability of information ushered in by the IT age has done much to pull back the curtain on the real behind-the-scenes dealings of governments, banks, businesses, and institutions- and the ugly truth of partisan politics is now too much to ignore. The people are recoiling away from what they can all increasingly agree is a broken system, but have yet to identify a common way forward toward fixing or replacing it.

So the U.S. partisan discussion today is, at best, akin to a gymnast who has stumbled but hasn’t yet recovered her footing, or at worst, a comet hurtling toward the sun, casting off all but the most stubborn of material before meeting its final demise. But that doesn’t mean we should fear. The first step toward restoring sanity in this world is accurately identifying, bringing to light, and discussing even the most heinous of problems with the status-quo.

Perhaps this will mean the rise of a viable third party within the next handful of elections. Maybe this growing mass of Independents will eschew identity politics en masse and become the new center for political discourse; and the two parties will simply see participation dwindle to zero. Perhaps, ultimately, information technology will make it possible to entirely replace party politics with a tech-enabled version of a more direct democracy, bulletproof government accountability, or competing decentralized systems of law and commerce.

For now, one thing is clear: the American people have seen more and more of the partisan circus, and the more they see the less they like. But there is a light on the horizon as technology empowers the populace. Let us turn to the wisdom of the very first President:

“Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.” -George Washington

How Tatiana Proskouriakoff Revolutionized Mayanist Studies

Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s story took her from imperial Siberia all the way to the jungles of Mexico and Guatemala, and into the anthropological history books. Her insights would make great advances in our understanding of Mayan history and culture. This is her story in a (very small) nutshell.

A Twist of Fate

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Image credit: Penn Museum

Proskouriakoff was born in 1909 in czarist Siberia, daughter of a chemist and a physician. At the onset of World War I, the family was moved to the U.S. so that her father (the chemist) could oversee munitions production for the army- but when the Czar was overthrown in the Russian Revolution in 1917, the family was forced to stay and settled in Pennsylvania.

Turning Back Time

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Acropolis at Piedras Negras. Image credit: Penn Museum

Proskouriakoff grew up to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania at the undergraduate, then graduate, level. This is where she began making her first contributions to the historical record. During her graduate studies, she was invited to join archaeologists on an investigation of the Piedras negras site in Mexico. On this, and eventually subsequent trips to this and other sites, she used her knowledge of architecture and her keen intuition to draw impressively accurate visual reproductions of the Mayan structures in their original state. These drawings reveal the ancient cities in all their precision and magnificence- and are still considered by many to be the best ever made.

But that’s only half the reason Proskouriakoff is included in this article. In the 1940s she would proceed to revolutionize the world’s understanding of Mayan writing as well. Mayan buildings, like Egyptian pyramids and other ancient sites, were not just buildings- they were living libraries covered in glyphs and images with rich and timeless stories to tell. These heiroglyphs must have been too intriguing for Tatiana’s curious mind to resist.

Competing Theories

At the time, there were two competing theories of Mayan writing: One school thought that the language was alphabetic (each glyph stands for a letter of a Mayan alphabet just like English). The other camp proposed a syllabic language (one in which each glyph represents a certain sound or pair of letters). As for the subject matter of the inscriptions, however, both sides seem to have agreed that most Mayan writings were about astrology or metaphysics- essentially religious or shamanic in nature.

A Legacy in Stone

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Stela from Takal’ik Ab’aj

Proskouriakoff was to set the record straight on both topics. While inspecting Mayan glyphs, she realized that the patterns and spacing of symbols could relate not to astrological cycles or mythological events, but to the lifetime of a human being. She did so by building on the syllabic theory of Mayan text (thereby validating it). Every so often there was a certain symbol that she came to understand meant “birth” or “was born”. Similarly, there were symbols for “acceded the throne” and “death”. There were also symbols that varied from one phrase to the next. Proskouriakoff figured these must be names… Breakthrough! These symbols showed a pattern that seemed to relate the lifetimes of seven Mayan rulers who held the throne, one after the other, for about two hundred years. The Mayans were not relating mythic stories or high-minded astrological theories, they  were recording their own history for us all to see, if we could just learn to read it! With the proper context, Mayanists around the world could go on to decipher many more texts containing these and other glyphs.

Proskouriakoff lived to age 76 and is , quite poetically, buried at the top of the Acropolis at Piedras Negras (where there is a plaque honoring her life and work).

So, for her contribution to Mayan studies and the great human history project, in both the realm of architecture and the realm of linguistics, on this International Women’s Day Recreational Thinker recognizes Tatiana Proskouriakoff.

Jon Ronson: “How One Tweet Can Ruin Your Life | Jon Ronson | TED Talks” on YouTube

Watch Jon Ronson give a tremendously important and very well-delivered talk on public shaming via social media and its very real dangers.

Ronson covers the surreal story of Justine Sacco and her demise at the hands of the bloodthirsty Twitter “social justice” mob, and presents us a critical lesson on the power of social media for good- or ill. And with great power…