NASCAR Culture and Sport

Dale EarnhardtI spent today at the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Sonoma. I have never been to a NASCAR race and I doubt I will ever go again. But it was a great opportunity to see what it was all about. As you may remember, I wrote about auto racing less than a month ago and questioned why people like watching the sport. What’s more, I mentioned the effect that Dale Earnhardt’s death had on increasing the popularity of the sport. And here I was today watching his son, Junior, race. It was an educational experience on two levels: sporting and cultural.


There were 42 drivers competing today so I figured I needed to settle on a couple of them. There was one woman driving, so I picked her: Danica Patrick. And I picked another driver that I mistakenly thought was Iranian: Boris Said. Mostly I focused on Patrick because she was in the most brightly colored car and it made it really easy to spot. As a result of this, I got a better idea of the skills that are involved in racing. It is a lot like watching chess. Basically, it is a defensive sport. The driver is trying to not make a mistake that will allow another driver to get past her. That really is the main thing. There isn’t much brilliant driving, only keen skill in taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes. And that is most of what goes on in a chess game.

It is also like a chess game in that it is highly technical. The errors made by the drivers are all quite minor. Except for the crashes, of course. But I don’t think there is all that much appreciation of what is going on. The difference between a good turn and a bad turn strikes me as very small, even though one ends with a position change and the other does not. In that way, I can see that the crashes might have an appeal that is totally unrelated to the danger and damage. It does act as a kind of shuffling of the deck. It is the one time during a race when positions change in a big way. The rest of the race is quite subtle.

Speaking of accidents… Given that what I saw was a “12 turn road race,” it did not have the potential for high speed crashes that the oval track races do. I much prefer that. But there was one crash and the audience gasped. Or at least, the women in the audience gasped. It made me feel a lot better about the people who like auto racing. From now on, I’m going to assume that they really are concerned about that aspect of the races.


Although my opinion of auto racing fans was marginally improved by the great gasp, the NASCAR culture on display was truly horrifying. A friend of mine had made a joke about Confederate flags I would see at the race. I thought it was just that: a joke. But it wasn’t. I saw many Confederate flags. I find this very offensive. First, the Confederacy was a rebellion against the United States. It was not only unpatriotic, it was treasonous. Second, it was done in the name of our greatest national shame: slavery. I have no problem with people being proud of their southern heritage. But Germans manage to show their pride without waving Nazi flags around. The Confederate flag is no less offensive.

I was surprised that the auto race started with some Eagle Scouts leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance. That annoyed me for a couple of reasons. First: Eagle Scouts. Really? Why not just have Anita Bryant lead us in a stirring rendition of “One In A Million.” Second: I hate the Cold War pandering “Under God” addition. But most of all, I don’t like pledges of that kind. It’s too general. What exactly am I pledging? I’m sure everyone has their own ideas and that’s dangerous. I think it is particularly dangerous when a lot of those people think the Confederate rebellion was some kind of act of patriotism.

After the Pledge, it got much, much worse. There was a prayer. I was stunned. But what was really interesting was that I didn’t get the idea that most of the people were particularly happy about it. There was, however, a vocal minority who were whooping it up. And that told me two things. First, it wasn’t about religion; it was about cultural signifying. They were saying that they were the real Americans: the ones who are Christians. (Of course, check out this Google image search of Danica Patrick to get some idea of just how wholesome a sport auto racing is.) Second, NASCAR is pandering to this vocal minority.

Everywhere I went at this race I was struck by how NASCAR uses a kind of cliched Red State idea of what a real American is. It wasn’t just the ostentatious religion and the waving Confederate flags. There were constant mentions of our military. I remembered one point in particular, the announcer said that our “military men and women” keep us safe. We spend as much on our military as the next 11 countries combined. That isn’t a military that “keeps us safe”; that’s an imperialist military. What’s more, I’m not convinced that the safety our military provides us isn’t offset by the extra danger they bring upon us. Certainly, the 2000+ US troops who have died in Afghanistan were not safer.

So I have an increased appreciation for the sport of NASCAR. But it is way more than offset by its cultural pandering. Of course, it wouldn’t be my thing anyway. It is incredibly loud. It may be interesting, but it isn’t exciting. And it doesn’t show humans at their best the way that baseball or tennis can. Regardless, NASCAR clearly goes out of its way to make anyone like me feel unwelcome.

Apologies to Alan Turing

Alan TurningOn this day in 1894, the iconic sex researcher Alfred Kinsey was born. He was trained as an entomologist, which I suppose is as good a form of training as anything to study human sexuality. Kinsey’s great insight was simply that if you wanted to understand human sexuality, you just needed to ask humans about their sexuality. People are surprisingly honest about that kind of thing. Even as late as the discovery of natural selection, co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace was shy about placing man in with the other animals. To this day I find that many people think there is something fundamentally different between animals and humans. So the idea that human sexuality would be just like that of animals was and still is quite shocking to people. Ultimately, Kinsey’s main findings should not be surprising: human sexuality is a statistical continuum—deviance is a social and not a physical construct.

The great choreographer and film director Bob Fosse was born in 1927. It is really hard to pick something to showcase his work. It is best to watch one of his best films: Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Lenny, and All That Jazz. But here is a great scene from that last film with much credit to editor Alan Heim:

And June Carter Cash was born in 1929.

American embarrassment Clarence Thomas is 65 today. A good day to retire? Actor Frances McDormand is 56. I’ve been a fan of hers as far back as Mississippi Burning, where she had the weight of the whole of the decent white people of Mississippi. But she’s best known for Fargo. I’m not that big a fan of the film, but I really do love this scene near the end of the picture where she sums up its theme, “I just don’t understand it.” No, none of us really do:

And Joss Whedon is 49 today. I’m very fond of Firefly. I also think he wrote a good script for the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I think Fran Rubel Kuzui made a mess of. I’ve tried to like the series but apart from developing a crush on Alyson Hannigan, I think the show errs in not realizing it is first and foremost a comedy. I liked his script for Alien Resurrection. And you can read what I had to say about The Avengers. So he’s a mixed bag and certainly way overrated.

The day, however, belongs to the father of the computer Alan Turing who was born on this day back in 1912. He was also extremely important in breaking Nazi codes during World War II. We rewarded him by castrating him for the “crime” of homosexuality which quickly led to his suicide at the age of 41. But lest you think I am suggesting that we are somewhat more enlightened now, I’m not. Here’s what I wrote about Michelle Obama’s interest in Downton Abbey:

I assure you of this: in 100 years, people will look back on us with horror that we threw junkies into jail for decades (when we didn’t just let them die from dirty needles and tainted drugs). And they will look very far down on a president and first lady who watched millions of young people’s lives destroyed while they patted themselves on the back for their liberal attitudes. Oh my! How very forward thinking the president was in coming out in favor of marriage equality in 2012! What cutting edge liberal thinking! Please. Let’s be clear: if it were 1952, Obama would (Regrettably, mind you!) be in favor of castrating Alan Turing.

We are a horrible people and we always will be. My very great apology to Turing and all of the rest. But for today, I hope, I can say without irony:

Happy birthday Alan Turing!

Unstable Weirdos and Business Success

EntrepreneursDave Logan over at CBS News explains why so many geniuses don’t have jobs. He has a broad definition of the word “genius”: anyone who is brilliant at something or other that the business world might find useful. The problem is that people who are really good at one thing are usually very bad at others. Like most management consultants, Logan likes to quantify things, even if it is just a wild ass guess; so he lays out a 10-point scale: 1 being very bad and 10 being great. Implicit in his argument is that companies would rather hire someone who was 5 across the board than some brilliant person who also had personality issues.

Logan also subdivides the geniuses into three categories: (1) obnoxious extroverts; (2) invisible introverts; and (3) unstable weirdos. But like most people in the business self-help world, he has no real insights into these people. His big idea is to train them to act more appropriately in a business setting. That might work with the obnoxious extroverts, but it won’t work for the others. The only way to work with a brilliant introvert is to create a safe environment were he can gain confidence. Introverts are more than willing to put forward their ideas if they get the chance. My experience of it is that in most businesses it is only the loud who get listened to. So if employers want to hire brilliant introverts, they need to change their work environments, not their introverts.

For the unstable weirdos, it is even worse. Logan writes of them:

On their good days, they seem like ideal executives — able to take lots of views into account, plot the best course forward, and exude so much energy, the lights are brighter when they’re in the room. On their bad days, they are moody, unresponsive, slow, and pessimistic. They may have bipolar disorder, or something else.

Exactly! Yet he thinks that somehow they can be fixed with a little chat about office decorum? Bipolar people aren’t pretending. They really do think they can conquer the world some days and can hardly manage to get out of bed others. It’s brain chemistry. And it’s awful.

Being, by all accounts, a type (3) and to a lesser extent a type (2) genius, I know what kind of work environments these kinds of people need. And that is the problem. The business community does not like these kinds of people because they disrupt regular order in the work place. And it isn’t just their oddities. Their “positive” attributes are also upsetting under most circumstances. Logan mentions Steve Jobs. Regardless what you think of him (I think he is the most overrated executive ever), he wasn’t part of a team — he always led the team. Thus he created the environment that he needed to flourish.

Even in the high tech world, people are treated as parts of a machine. That is why they have job titles like “computer programmer.” If one employee leaves, another can be hired and plugged into the same position. I’ve had the experience of being too valuable to an employer, and they hated it. And understandably so! If I had left suddenly, they would have been screwed. But on an even more fundamental level, they just didn’t trust me because I was not really part of their tribe. I didn’t fit in and fitting in is what most work is about. Most companies just trudge along. They don’t innovate. People need coat hangers, not new fangled devices for hanging clothes. And so finally, what is an odd genius in the workplace other than a dangerous disruption?

When a company needs a genius, it contracts with one.


The idea that businessmen are necessarily entrepreneurs is ridiculous. Most successful businesses are nothing more than well managed operations. Innovation is only acceptable if it is incremental. Businesses do not do revolution. Think of Apple: most people’s idea of a highly innovative company. They’ve come up with almost nothing new. They are good at packaging other people’s ideas. But even there, the “look and feel” of their devices has evolved gradually. Like most big high tech companies, when they want a new technology, they just buy some little company where geniuses are still welcome.

Impulsivity in the Park

kids playing outsideFor those who don’t know, I homeschool my son. Part of the experience involves participating in afternoon park days with a couple of homeschool groups every week. Most often my boy seems to have fun as he plays with other kids. This past week, however, was not the greatest experience due to an incident during a game of Red Rover.

Allow me to briefly explain what this game involves. The kids split into two groups. One group forms a line holding hands. They call members of the other group over by saying “Red Rover, Red Rover, send (input child’s name) right over.” The kid who’s called has to run as forcefully as he or she can toward the line of children holding hands. The object is to break the connection between two of these kids. After that, I forget what the rules are. I know, it sounds like an injury waiting to happen, especially for the fact that the age range of kids playing this particular day was 4 to 13. I know it seems obvious that maybe we should have suggested another game, but hindsight is 20/20, and it was a game I played as a kid without injury (at least none I can remember).

Anyway, while a couple of other parents and I were chatting away, I looked over and noticed a small child on the ground. It wasn’t clear if he was injured because he wasn’t crying. As it turns out, he had been hurt by my son who happened to now be facing away from the group several yards away. I called my son to return to the group to have him discuss the situation, but he was, as usual, close-mouth. I knew that this was not a time to be accusatory (not that it ever is), especially since my boy had tears welling up in his eyes. I simply and gently told him that it was just important to apologize when we make a mistake and hurt someone.

Meanwhile, two of my son’s friends gave the details of the story. What happened was apparently a combination of errors. There were only three kids holding hands in a line. Two of the bigger kids in the line had been standing so closely that my kid’s only option was to run between the smaller child and the older kid in the middle. Because he has ADHD, my son doesn’t always think about consequences. He might otherwise have asked the children who were standing shoulder to shoulder to separate.

Normally, when my son unintentionally hurts someone, especially a small child, he demonstrates remorse and apologizes. According to my boy’s storyteller friends, in this situation, he didn’t get a chance. When he tried to run through the line and the small child toppled over, that child’s big brother immediately laid into my son, saying things like, “Thanks a lot for hurting my brother!”

After the incident and after I got the details of the story, my son left the group, teary-eyed, and headed to the bathroom. Fortunately, there was a  dad in the group who was able to follow him to chat and make sure my son was okay.

In my head, a light went on. I had always wondered why my kid wanders off by himself so often. Sometimes I see him sitting on the lawn in the middle of the park or climbing a distant tree. Often, I have gone to him and asked “what’s wrong,” to which I get, “Nothing. Everything’s fine.” Even though my son is so close-mouthed, I now strongly believe he goes off by himself after something bad has happened. To make matters worse, since my son has a reputation for doing things without thinking, other kids feel they have a license to be inappropriately severe with him.

My son’s impulsivity has diminished as he’s gotten older, though it can apparently still cause him problems. I just have to hope the impulsivity will occur less and less often, and I will keep reminding him to consider potential outcomes for any given situation. Maybe this will help. Though this is tough for many people, I think.

While my son was in the bathroom having a heart-to-heart with the homeschool dad, I was talking with the mom whose boys were involved in the Red Rover incident. I was able to explain to her that my son has a diagnosis of ADHD. I also had to kind of explain to her what that means, as much as I know, anyway. She actually thanked me. She said her older boy and mine had had some history of conflict. My explanation for my son’s impulsivity was really helpful, and she would have a talk with her children. I’d like to think that this will help and this will improve my son’s relationship with the other kids. I now feel like I should be talking to more parents about why my son often behaves the way he does, the fact that he has ADHD and what that means.