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Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

A Friend Indeed

In General Principles on May 27, 2011 at 10:00 am
What a wonderful thing it is when you feel that things couldn’t seem worse a soul (or more) comes from out of nowhere and at the last minute and miraculously snatches you from the jaws of perceived doom.  Many will never know this salvation.  Plenty call this sensation “God”; but I’d like to focus on the flesh and give adoration to a human man and his spirit.
   
Today more than ever we are so acutely aware of all the tragedies that are enveloping the world – war, famine, poverty, personal loss – and the list is longer than I care to write about here.  We are force fed with a language of fear through the media because that’s what sells and we are always seduced by what is wrong.  But tragedy has always been with us, and it won’t be going away as long as we’re around (a human condition).  Maybe it’s me.  We see the bad in the world through the camera and computer eye, and many of us withdraw and just carry on surrendering to the “I can’t make a difference” feeling and even feeling like we might be in as bad a position as the other folks we feel bad for.
   
I’m carrying on about this because a recent interaction and external experience got me thinking about the microscopic aspects of pitching in. We are bombarded with trouble these days it seems en masse by the light-lit screens that are in our faces most of the time.  But I think the things underneath are what I would like to bring attention to and try and beat down the doom and gloom that can be so easy to fall into these days.  Our great country (and world for that matter) is in dire need of a positive jolt of who we really are.  Humans are such a wonderful creature when they care about their brothers and sisters: a truly unstoppable force of good.  But so many of us give in to the ethic of helplessness bequeathed by the all-seeing eye of modernity because that’s what comes easy.
  
Trouble comes to us in mostly macroscopic ways today, and that’s why it can seem unconquerable at times. But this is a deceptive notion.  I just wrote an article profiling a man and his brilliant engineering ideas for a better way of life:  Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome lets us understand how science can create a beautiful shelter for people now and in the future.  I drive at this because the geodesic dome provides us with a metaphor for how we can each make a difference: Buckminster Fuller used small geometrical formations to construct a larger good that ultimately benefits a macroscopic group.  The secret is in the small components.

Tragedy comes to any of us in different ways.  But there’s no arguing that loss is loss.  Today I sit back in my humble dwelling and can easily deflect from the problems I have by empathiing with the misery of the people I see on the screen.  But recently, a friend of mine (after I told him I was having a hard time) immediately went to work helping me solve my problems.  Even though this person is dealing with a major personal tragedy on his own, he has been unwavering in his support.

      
Here’s the point and it’s nothing new: it’s the little things.  We make progress by thinking small at first so as to tackle a large problem.  When our compartmentalized thinking gets a better handle on things, we expand and progress, evolve.  But without the (sometimes unnoticed) small help from someone, miracles simply go undone.
  
My friend who could hardly manage to juggle the recent tragedies of his own life, when he was made aware of my troubles, he forgot all about his own and took mine on.  And I would do the same for him.
We don’t die. We multiply.

Rhetoric Revolutionized: How Twitter, Facebook, and Text Messaging Can Save Argument

In Empires of the Mind on May 26, 2011 at 10:00 am

<This guest post is contributed by Leslie Johnson, who writes about health, green living, and parenting at masters in health administration.>
   

the structural transformation of the public phereIt has been said time and time again: the internet has revolutionized the world in many ways.  The World Wide Web has unquestionably changed the way we live our lives, providing a means for instant information, endless conversation, and worthless entertainment.  While several aspects of our world have been altered by the internet, the way in which we communicate with one another is perhaps what has been the most altered.  With the advent of text messaging, Facebook, and Twitter comes a new discourse environment and a new rhetoric.  While critics endlessly condemn social media as a destructor of verbal language, when used to its fullest capacity social media has the potential to promote public discourse and constructive argument.

Social media has allowed for the advent of many things, not the least of which is digital rhetoric.  But – as with any new or revolutionary movement – many individuals are not completely sold on the idea that microblogging could be beneficial to discourse.  The central complaint made against the discourse created through Facebook and Twitter is that it is trite and autobiographical vanity.  While aspects of this critique are warranted, it sorely misses the essence of digital communication and its rhetorical situation.  Yes, some Tweets and Facebook status updates are merely narcissistic dribble.  People will use this medium to divulge their favorite breakfast cereal or their current whereabouts.  

   
However, at other times Twitter and Facebook are used to present opinions, share valuable information, and create discourse.  Whether the discussion is about the best place to eat chicken wings or the condition of healthcare in the United States, discourse is being made, and this is important. Like it or not, social media encourages open public discussion.  Individuals practice written argument, critical thinking, and reading comprehension skills when participating in Twitter and Facebook.  While not all of the dialogue within this medium explores elevated, educational exposition, social media gets to the essence of our lives.  We discuss real things that concern our lives as they unfold.
   
The other most prominent complaint made against digital rhetoric is that it is inferior to extended argument.  Critics will purport that Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging only allow for limited discussion.  Many say that the 140 characters allotted to an individual in many social media realms is too limited a space to make a valid argument supported by evidence.  Many others would scoff at this.  As any argumentation, persuasion, or composition expert would insist, conciseness is fundamental to successful argument. While much academic writing displays otherwise, concise and well constructed thought makes for more solid and thorough argument.
   
All too often, arguments are stretched out into long and confusing sentences with long-winded vocabulary and unnecessary complexity.  Limiting an argument to 140 characters (about 20 words), makes for clear and direct discourse.  Furthermore, there is value in having discussions in everyday language.  The ability to bring mass public discourse to an immensely widespread social realm is endlessly valuable to the art of rhetoric.  There should be some positive recognition of the potential condensed prose could have on rhetorical power and scholarly argument.
  
No doubt social media and digital rhetoric has its shortcomings in the realm of argument.  However, in many ways, limiting our conversations and thoughts to 140 characters may revive our rhetorical abilities if done properly.  Bringing written composition and persuasive argument to the masses young and old in disguise as a small bluebird and 200-plus friend requests only promotes the written word and public discussion.

A School for People

In Specific Facts on May 23, 2011 at 6:04 pm

A friend sent me a piece of memetic folk wisdom called “The Animal School”:

Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something decisive to meet the increasing complexity of their society. They held a meeting and finally decided to organize a school.

The curriculum consisted of running, climbing, swimming and flying. Since these were the basic behaviours of most animals, they decided that all the students should take all the subjects.

The duck proved to be excellent at swimming, better in fact, than his teacher. He also did well in flying. But he proved to be very poor in running. Since he was poor in this subject, he was made to stay after school to practice it and even had to drop swimming in order to get more time in which to practice running. He was kept at this poorest subject until his webbed feet were so badly damaged that he became only average at swimming. But average was acceptable in the school, so no body worried about that – except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of her class in running, but finally had a nervous breakdown because of so much make-up time in swimming – a subject she hated.

The squirrel was excellent at climbing until he developed a psychological block in flying class, when the teacher insisted he start from the ground instead of from the tops of trees. He was kept at attempting to fly until he became muscle-bound – and received a C in climbing and a D in running.

The eagle was the school’s worst discipline problem; in climbing class, she beat all of the others to the top of the tree used for examination purposes in this subject, but she insisted on using her own method of getting there.

The gophers, of course, stayed out of school and fought the tax levied for education because digging was not included in the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to the badger and later joined the groundhogs and eventually started a private school offering alternative education.

I’d like to criticise the parable on its assumptions.  The idea that we all have different natural abilities as differentiated as flight to an eagle and a rabbit’s swiftnesssuggests a reductivist genetic determinism that eventually leads us down the slippery slope to social Darwinism.  The other extreme that people are blank slates to mold and fashion doesn’t hold up either.  

Really, people are like web pages: that is, they are plastic templates onto which nearly anything can be pasted (with a few exceptions, like some aspects of math for instance).  For the purposes of our education system, the ability to compose sentences and paragraphs (English), an understanding of numbers as a language (math: something that I have argued is of utmost importance to societal well-being), a thorough grounding in the scientific method and what we have learned from it (science), a firm grasp of who we are and where we came from as a species, civilization, culture, country, region, or ethnic group (social studies) have all been widely agreed as being important enough for every citizen to learn.  That all citizens may be given access to this important knowledge was a battle hard-fought by progressives at the turn of the century, and the result was the national, standardized, public school system that has provided millions of American citizens with the basic suite of knowledge required to determine their own paths.  The result has been the most technologically skilled workforce in the history of the world.  

That being said, the way people live now is very different from the way people lived when our public school system was first devised.  Some private schools have recognized this fact; for example, the Sudbury Valley School allows children to learn to read at their own paces on the basis that it would happen eventually anyways since we are now living in a literate society.  While I generally think this sort of curricular practice is a bit extreme, I can sympathize with the premise.  The fundamental ways and means of the industrial-era public school classroom clash strongly with our contemporary reality of increasingly decentralized information flow and egalitarianism.  

Public schools where they’re needed most are failing, and overstandardized education, paradigms of teacher “accountability” and the ensuing emphasis on “results” is to blame, such that nowadays many quintessential progressives support school choice.  I am not a progressive, but I support school choice to coincide with what I see as a technological broadening of the global economy and its main medium-term problem of a fundamental mismatch between skills available and skills demanded.

Nevertheless, given the present transitionary shape of the world, it is important to strike a balance between choice and the rote learning of necessary skills.  As I wrote in response to my friend’s parable:

I really like this, but I think the school system we have generally prepares us well for the world we have. I was always the “discipline problem” kid when I was in school, and I never really learned to follow proper procedures, although I could duplicate results, so I got good grades. But I continue to have problems with authority and struggle profoundly at basic and important tasks like filing my taxes, applying for visas, signing up for health insurance, applying for a vending license, or composing a cover letter. I kind of wish I had had at least one teacher who made me practice repetitive and boring tasks until I got it right instead of trying to build the self-esteem of the students, since repetitive and boring and often nonsensical deference to authority is the basis for our society and the happy existence of the individual in it.    

In order for school choice to work, the same decentralizing and technological changes that occur in the school system must also occur in the greater society, since it is the primary responsibility of the school system to prepare individuals for existence in the greater society.  Regarding that greater society, we as a nation have two choices: we can continue to have a society based on rules and procedures, tight authoritarian hierarchies, and collective coercion along with a hyperstandardized school system that kills passion, encourages passive learning, fails to teach in response to the demand for skills, and prepares adequate managers to perpetuate the system.  Or we can develop a more decentralized society with a more decentralized and loose school system.  

To get to this point, right now we can start promoting more cooperative public school systems: arrangements can be made with students’s parents to participate more actively in school.  Perhaps in a class of twenty-five students, each parent could teach one hour a month: I may choose to teach Japanese geography; my wife could have the students read a short story and analyze its characters; my child’s friend’s dad could teach about electric circuits; and his wife could teach the children how to develop photographs.

This sort of cooperative home school/public school hybrid would provide parents with concrete opportunities to address what they may personally view as shortcomings in the school system; and it would foster a culture where parents are necessarily invested in their own children’s education and themselves held partially accountable for their child’s education.  Such a hybrid school would also provide students with enough broad knowledge to choose what it is they’re truly passionate about and begin pursuing it at an early age.  At a certain stage, students can engage in more projects where they themselves take the lead – teaching a topic that they are reasonably competent about to their peers.

Such a school system would demand that the teaching of subjects which are more about acquiring skill than learning facts can benefit from dramatic improvements in efficiency or be pared down considerably.  A subject like math could be taught primarily in the form of an electronic game with minimal oversight.  Customizing such programs to the levels of individual students would ensure that teachers will no longer have to contemplate which percentile to teach to, another source of tremendous waste.  The current, low price of computer equipment and Internet access plus the money saved by having parents teach subjects they are experts about would ensure that schools are not bankrupted by the necessary massive investments in technology. 

Nevertheless, in order for the improvements such a school might generate to have any meaning at all, corresponding changes would have to occur in the greater society.  Structural reforms like encouraging self-employment and entrepreneurship by reducing government-imposed barriers to entry, ceasing to encourage economies of scale past certain points, and ending the tethering of health insurance to corporate employment must accompany near-future technological changes like the decline of the importance of the traditional office, marked improvements in information technology interfaces with daily life, and the ability of anyone anywhere to fabricate anything, all of which promise to tear down established power structures and replace them with more plastic empires of the mind.

Hope & Reliance – tohoku earthquake part seven

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on May 19, 2011 at 12:09 am

The ramen shop was flooded with light and familiar smells. My wife and I, our boys between us, sat across the low table from Jun, his brother Yu and his friend (girlfriend?) Miki. We ate as we would on any night, though the cooks couldn’t make a couple of dishes for lack of certain ingredients. We talked as we would over any meal – hometowns and high school memories, jobs and friends and the soft-boiled eggs Yu had this thing about. Yamato slurped his noodles, splattering his soup. Seiji fussed and laughed and ate and refused in turns. The radiation we had run from seemed far, far away.

Yet the reason we were there wouldn’t fade from my head. Not completely. Not for a moment.

Back at Yu’s apartment we would share snack food and drink a random assortment of beer in cans. Yamato was given his first taste of video games and Harry Potter. Seiji entertained before he started tiring; my wife would skip his bath tonight and try to get him down. We talked more, about all manner of things, though somehow – as it seems to happen in Japan – we never scratched too deep below the surface. This because maybe the Japanese are inclined on all levels to remain one of the group; tipping the conversational scales in any one person’s direction, particularly their own, is not the overriding inclination.

On this night we had all we needed to keep ourselves connected without anyone standing out.

As the evening drew on we fell fully back into reality. ‘Flights out of Akita are full for the next two days,’ Yu said, pecking at his laptop with one hand, thumbing his cell phone with the other. Jun coaxed what information he could out of a second laptop, looking for options for a family with no specific wants save one: get us out of Japan as soon as possible. ‘Tokyo might be overrun with people trying to leave.’ Herds of weary travelers sleeping on the terminal floors, waiting for a seat to open up – it wasn’t hard to imagine. ‘Do you want to try to fly to Itami and then transfer to Kansai International? Or maybe fly to Seoul?’ So went the conversation with Jun and his brother, accidental hosts to a family of refugees. They were calm and intense at the same time as they searched for better options, quicker options, for getting us on a plane out of the country. Their country, which they most likely would not be leaving, no matter what melted or exploded in Fukushima.

Outside the snow continued to fall.

I posted a note on facebook, first in English, later in Japanese, for anyone with a friend in Morioka to let me know. Staying one night in Yu’s tiny apartment after hitching a four-hour ride with Jun was much more than we could have asked for, more than a neighbor who hadn’t found a moment in the past year to ask someone his name deserved. I sent text messages to friends in Tokyo and Osaka, even Nagano, not knowing where we might end up, nor when, asking for small favors based on ‘if’ and ‘we might’ and ‘by tomorrow we should know for sure’. A friend who I’d worked with in Osaka seven years previous and was now living in Tokyo dug up some info on the shuttle buses running between Haneda and Narita, Tokyo’s two main airports, offering to reserve seats for us and even, if needed, go ahead and pay. ‘Get me back whenever, don’t worry about it, just get yourselves out.’ A former student of mine from Osaka who now lived in Yokohama had gone back home to be with her family, away from the aftershocks and rolling blackouts. She had a young boy close to Yamato’s age. ‘If you need a place let me know,’ she replied. ‘Our house is not very big but we will make room for you.’ She lived minutes from Itami Airport. ‘It would be no trouble to come get you, and even drive you to Kansai International if you need me to.’ The food and gas shortages hadn’t reached the Kansai area; still, if they had, I was sure my friend wouldn’t have offered us anything less.

Jun and his brother kept at it on their laptops, thumbing their cell phones at the same time though it all seemed to be going nowhere. Mayumi finally got Seiji to sleep. Yamato fought to stay awake, engrossed by a fantastic make-believe world of wizards and magic. I continued with the text messages, alternately please and thank you to friends from various times of my life in Japan while offering similar sentiments, over and over, to our two new friends who had assumed, it seemed, the role of caretaker. And here I began to understand Jun’s hesitation back in front of our apartment building in Fukushima as I stood in the street asking him if we could join him in his car.

So much goes unspoken in Japanese society. When there is a barrier – cultural, linguistic – even more is left unsaid. Jun would probably never say, and I probably would never suggest, but I think his momentary reluctance (as much as I perceived it) to give us a ride to Morioka had nothing to do with taking us there but what he could or couldn’t do for us once we’d arrived. ‘I can only take you to Morioka,’ he had told me. ‘And I don’t know where you can stay, the hotels might be all full, I’m not sure.’ A few minutes later, as my wife and I scrambled to get our immediate future into two bags Jun called his brother to ask if he would let two adults and two little boys move in for the night. For me a ride to Morioka was more than enough, more than we could hope for at that moment and beyond. For Jun, I think there was more to it.

In Hokkaido Highway Blues Will Ferguson tells his story of hitch hiking the length of Japan. I only got through the first few chapters but that would be enough for any reader to get a sense of the Japanese spirit. Invariably, after the person picking Mr. Ferguson up asked where he was going they would tell him they were only going to the next town or village or office building. And then, invariably, that person would drive far beyond where they said they were going – as far as time and circumstance would allow if they didn’t end up taking him all the way to his day’s destination. With Jun, I think the same mindset prevailed.

He could only get us to Morioka, and while that was fine with us I truly believe he wanted to take us as far as we wanted to go. He wanted us to be taken care of, he wanted us to have a place to stay and a place to go afterwards and a way to get to wherever it was we were going – which we didn’t know, standing in the street in Fukushima just trying to get out of town, would turn out to be America. And, rather than let us go without a plan, he wanted to make sure, right alongside his brother, that we had a plan and the means to carry it out. Jun was not just giving us a ride. He was getting us to our destination, in whatever way he could. In Japan, it is not enough to simply give what is asked for.

It was midnight by the time I was able to convince Jun and Yu to stop searching and call it a night. We weren’t going to make it to Tokyo or Osaka the next day in any event; the only buses out of Morioka the next day would be leaving too late to make any flight out of anywhere a possibility. ‘We’ll find something tomorrow,’ we agreed. Then my family stretched out on Yu’s bed while he and Jun talked quietly and fell asleep on Yu’s L-shaped couch.

In the morning we all shared what little food we had between us while we got back to scouring the Internet for answers. I harbored more frustration than hope – proving to myself once again I am not the father my family needs me to be, not when we need all the strength and faith we can muster. The minutes wore on, and we soon had to accept the reality that we had only one option for the day: a bus to Ohdate, in northern Akita prefecture, in striking distance of Ohdate-Noshiro Airport should we find a flight out of there. ‘Fine, let’s go,’ I said as if I was making any sort of real decision. ‘So how soon can we fly out?’ I expected a three-day wait, maybe a week, before getting to Tokyo, or Osaka. Maybe to Korea, maybe all the way to Europe; my aunt from Germany was now digging around too, looking for ways to get us out of Japan. Friends sent their support; several were ready to send money. This I knew I would politely refuse. If nothing else I had the monetary capacity to take care of my family.

Yu found a website advertising flights out of Tokyo the next day. ‘Going to New York City,’ he said. ‘On China Airlines.’ I’d once sworn, for several reasons, I’d never fly another Chinese airline. But for six hundred and forty bucks a seat – the next day, in the middle of a mass exodus – I’d put my lofty principles on hold. I could deal with curmudgeonly baggage handlers and snot-nosed flight attendants if it meant getting my family out of there. ‘Or Continental to…Newark?’ Yu looked up at me. ‘New Jersey?’ I stared back at my newest best friend; he was talking about the same direct flight I’d taken to get home so many times before. ‘No way,’ I grunted, in an instant stuck between hope and angry disbelief. Now is not the time to screw with me I thought, turning to the faceless entity on the screen now before me.

Ten seconds of scrolling and scanning told me one of two things: either every flight had seats available or this was just a schedule and did not reflect one god damn shred of reality. I grabbed my cell phone; in the next breath Jun and his brother were also dialing up Continental. All three of us, dialing and redialing, trying to get through to a human being. At the same time Yu checked for a flight from Ohdate to Tokyo the next day – which he found, to everyone’s amazement. Where were all these flights yesterday? There were plenty of empty seats too. Moments later I got through to the miracle I still wasn’t banking on: there were exactly four seats left on the next day’s Continental flight to Newark.

Jun drove us to the bus terminal in downtown Morioka, his brother coming along to see us off. ‘No work today,’ he told me though I got the feeling he would have come anyway. The streets were clear of snow and glaringly devoid of traffic. We’d only seen Morioka under cover of night and through thick swirling snows, enough to make anything possible in the imagination, even normalcy. In the gray daylight we saw the incongruity that had befallen every other city, village and field between Fukushima and here.

Office buildings rose like concrete shells, ten and twenty stories above the streets. Ramps and overpasses hung overhead, useless appendages lolling from the surrounding train station and adjacent bus terminal. Yawning intersections and comatose traffic lights, and block after cold, gray, inanimate block of a city that felt like it had long been deserted. Jun parked and flipped on his hazards, which would now seem a signal not that the owner would be right back but that the car hadn’t been altogether abandoned. In every direction, nothing but cement and an absence of life, in any form, save for the occasional car, hurrying, seemingly searching. We walked up a set of steps and emerged onto the elevated bus terminal, a loop that one week ago would be bustling with people. Today there was one line, for one bus – fifty people or more, standing in orderly manner. Many of them had bags in tow, gym bags or overnighters or compact suitcases, the kind that can be carried on board an airplane. All these people, all going the same way. The only way, perhaps, there was to go. All around us the city stood silent, a thousand windows of a thousand offices staring blankly out over the grays and whites of the world.

‘There are two buses,’ I heard someone say as more people appeared, lining up behind me and my older son. My wife sat with our little boy in the crowded waiting room, taking comfort perhaps in the notion that he was too little to understand – though not too young to know things had been very different these past several days. On the surface, both boys were going along with us effortlessly, even though the older one knew there were still earthquakes in the ground, and ‘bad gas’ in the air where we lived.

Jun and Yu smiled in the cold and snow, all too happy to continue waiting with us, passing back and forth between them our heavy green duffel they insisted on holding. I thanked them again for taking us in, for helping us find a way forward, for making sure we were safely on our way even as they would be staying behind. This was their country – and I was being treated like a king, ushered to safety by those who would remain to withstand the quake’s after-effects that had already turned their existence upside down. And though none of us would mention, it was possible that the worst was yet to come.

I kept thinking about Jun and Yu as our bus rumbled down the highway, taking us further north and west. The snow was blinding, the countryside awash in white. It was the middle of March, but winter was still alive and well and pummeling the land. We had our flights booked; our escape was lined up. Still, looking outside at a world that had never seemed so relentless I knew that any plans we had depended on the mercy of God and the earth. Everything was planned and paid for. And nothing was certain. Not in this place, not now.

The snow had abated by the time we pulled into the bus loop outside Ohdate Station. There were signs of life inside, though none of it had to do with the trains that weren’t moving. To the west, above the one-story shops and office blocks and houses in front of us, hotel façades rose up here and there. One of them was ours. It looked a mile and a half away.

Inside the girl at the front desk greeted us as she would greet anyone on any day. The hotel, I learned, was nowhere near capacity. Their restaurant was open, though the menu was extremely limited. We could use the hot spring bath until eleven. Breakfast would be available from 6:45 am – enough time to eat what we could before heading back to the station to catch the bus to Ohdate-Noshiro Airport. My boys wanted to play; they needed sleep. There was Internet access in the lobby.

I stared out the window of our room, over the town and the distant fields and the fading contours of dusk. My wife was giving our older boy a bath. My younger son sat in my arms, looking around at yet another new environment. The snow was falling again, hard as ever. There were lights out there, scattered and few, fending off the encroaching night. We needed to get to the airport in the morning. We needed our plane to take off. We needed to get from Haneda Airport to Narita, an hour and then some to the east, out in Chiba prefecture. We needed just one more day of luck and God’s grace, neither of which I felt certain of, even as – or because – we had already received more than our fair share. People had died in these days. Thousands and thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands had lost their homes, their livelihood, everything they had, past present and future. And these were the ones who would stay behind as my family and I took off to comfort ourselves on the other side of the world.

I didn’t deserve to be one of the lucky ones. No one deserved to lose everything, yet so many had. The people who had been so good to me, the countless kind souls who filled my life for the nine and a half years I made this place my home – I was leaving them all behind. Leaving them to face what I could not allow to hurt my sons. Leaving them to their shattered existence so I could pick up and create a new one in a place most of them could not go, or would not go, for this was their only home. I looked at my son’s reflection in the window. His face was blurred. He might have been smiling, thinking that everything was okay. He didn’t know how lucky he was to be here; didn’t know how lucky his father had needed to be, to compensate for his shortcomings. My little boy felt safe in my arms, because he didn’t know the truth. Right or wrong, this was what filled my thoughts, sank into my chest, forced itself up behind my eyes in a flood of emotion that had been building up for five days. My little boy would soon be safe, but only if things worked out. If the weather cleared; if the ground kept calm; if a thousand things his daddy couldn’t control somehow remained in our favor. I’d done nothing to get him this far; it was all due to people better than me, forces more powerful than my own mind and will. And so the rest would go. All I could do was hold him in my arms, like I had my older son at 2:46 pm on March 11th, and tell him everything was okay even though I had no idea if it would be. And whisper in his ear the only thing I knew for certain. ‘I love you, buddy,’ I said.

My head fell against the window, and I started sobbing.

Modern Visionaries Part II – Buckminster Fuller

In Empires of the Mind on May 17, 2011 at 9:00 pm

“For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known.  Only ten years ago the “more with less” technology reached the point where this could be done.  All humanity now has the option of becoming enduringly successful.” – Buckminster Fuller, 1980.

This Buckminster Fuller stamp is itself an achievement in design.

Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller was born on July 12th, 1895 and died on July 1st, 1983.  Fuller was an American engineer, author, designer, inventor, and futurist. “Bucky” was the author of more than thirty books; he was responsible for creating and popularizing futuristic terms like “synergetics“, “Spaceship Earth“, and “ephemeralization” – terms many of us have heard and even used without knowing where they came from.  

Fuller attended Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts and after that began studying at Harvard University.  He was expelled from Harvard twice: first for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest.” Fuller later described himself during this period as a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment.  

Buckminster Fuller went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most futuristic, controversial, and creative thinkers.  Fuller is best known for inventing the geodesic dome, but Fuller had many other inventions – such as an air-streamed, three-wheeled car – and many influential ideas on how to benefit humankind.  Buckminster Fuller was truly a modern visionary.   

Fuller had many inventions, most of them architectural, and the most famous is certainly the geodesic dome.  A geodesic dome is a structure comprised of a complex network of triangles that form a roughly spherical surface. The more complex the network of triangles, the more closely the dome approximates the shape of a true sphere.  “By using triangles of various sizes, a sphere can be symmetrically divided by thirty-one great circles. A great circle is the largest circle that can be drawn around a sphere, like the lines of latitude or longitude around the earth.  Each of these lines divide the sphere into two halves, hence the term geodesic, which is from the Latin meaning “earth dividing”.

geodesic dome schematicThe geodesic dome was designed by Fuller in order to demonstrate some ideas about housing using his concept of “energetic-synergetic geometry”.  The geodesic dome is an ingenious demonstration of Fuller’s synergetics principles, a school of thought on thinking and geometry developed by Fuller.  Under the right circumstances, the geodesic dome could solve some of the mounting housing and energy problems of today (a crisis which Fuller predicted back in 1927).  

In his quest to design things that would benefit mankind, Fuller didn’t stop at housing structures.  He was quite successful with motor vehicles as well.  The dymaxion car was built by Fuller in 1933. The word “dymaxion” appears in many of Fuller’s inventions.  It was a phrase Bucky used as a part of a more general project to improve humanity’s living conditions.

from the 1933 dymaxion car patent applicationFrom Wikipedia:

The dymaxion car was a three wheeler, steered by a single rear wheel, and could do a U-turn in its own length. However, the rear-wheel steering made the car somewhat counterintuitive to operate, especially in crosswind situations. The body was teardrop-shaped, and naturally aerodynamically efficient. The car was twice as long as a conventional automobile, Drive power was provided by a rear-mounted Ford V8 engine, The front axle was also a Ford component, being the rear axle of a contemporary Ford roadster turned upside-down.

Although the dymaxion cars were never produced, the design was influential on several future car models.  The most well-known example of its influence was the Fiat 600 Multipla.  With this car, an extreme rear-mounted engine and a driver position above the front axle were combined to produce an extremely compact car/van hybrid capable of seating six people. Optimal efficiency by aerodynamic design and employing the most advantageous materials heralded an age of qualitatively more advanced thinking in automobile aerodynamics and efficiency. 

Buckminster Fuller’s early 1960s design for “Triton City” to float in the middle of Tokyo Bay. Instead of Cash for Clunkers or bank bailouts, can this please be our next stimulus program?The Buckminster Fuller Challenge was launched in 2007,  it is an annual international design competition that awards $100,000 to the most comprehensive solution to a pressing global problem.  From the BFI website: “Winning solutions are regionally specific yet globally applicable and present a truly comprehensive, anticipatory, integrated approach to solving the world’s complex problems.”

For readers interested in learning more about Buckminster Fuller, an episode of the PBS series American Masters about Buckminster Fuller gives an educational vision into the life and ideas of a man many people have never even heard of.  The documentary takes a close-up look at his unconventional life, his creative innovations, and his radical view of the contemporary world.  

Buckminster Fuller had many inventions and visions for the future; they are still with us today. “Bucky”, was undeniably one of the key innovators in the twentieth century.  He is known as a philosopher, thinker, visionary, inventor, architect, engineer, mathematician, poet, cosmologist, and more.  Like Daniel Quinn in Part I of this series Fuller’s only wishes were to solve human problems through genuine care and thoughtful design.

Disney’s Rent-Seeking: A Singularity of Suck

In Specific Facts on May 15, 2011 at 12:01 pm

According to Alex Weprin at mediabistro.com, Disney has recently trademarked the phrase “Seal Team 6”.  Seal Team 6 happens to be the name of the Navy Seal team that took down Osama bin Laden:

The trademark applications came on May 3rd, two days after the operation that killed Bin Laden… and two days after “Seal Team 6″  was included in thousands of news articles and TV programs focusing on the operation.

Disney’s trademark applications for “Seal Team 6″ cover clothing, footwear, headwear, toys, games and “entertainment and education services,” among other things…

…Of course, for all we know Disney has been working on an animated feature about a team of anthropomorphic seals in search of adventure, but given the timing of the application that seems… unlikely.

I’m not quite sure how to interpret this, but I know it needs interpreting.  The part of me that wants to be charitable doubts what this story implies – that Disney has bought the rights to the next FDNY hat in an effort to capitalize on and exploit suffering – as just too disgusting to possibly be real.  Another part of me is too shocked to be disgusted.  A third part of me sees this as affirming all the unsubstantiated horror stories I’ve heard about Disney from acquaintances who work in the film world.  A fourth part of me sees the burden as falling on the American people for creating a system that tolerates and even encourages this kind of (entirely predictable and inevitable) corporate behavior in the first place.  Finally, a last part of me perceives this as all of the major problems with modern America rolled into one event: the eponymous Singularity of Suck – an event that sucks so much that what kinds of things will suck in the future becomes qualitatively and fundamentally unpredictable.  

Disney clearly sucks the most here.  As Joe said in his recent tweet of the news, “Mickey the rent seeker reminds us why intellectual property law is such a joke.”  This is well-put.  My own position on intellectual property law is not well articulated yet; but I lean heavily towards average citizens not being held liable to massive corporations for trying to unwind with a nice pirated movie after a stressful day of wage slavery.

It is clear that the existence of the government-issued monopolies that we call patents, copyrights, and trademarks strongly violates free-market principles.  As traditional production of goods and services continues to move offshore and under the purview of the highly-managed trade agreements that we usually label “free trade agreements”, the leveraged production of technologies and information comes more and more to dominate the American economy.  This leads to an ever more restricted suite of economic possibilities for individuals and an ever more expansive realm of the economically possible for legally or politically-favored corporate entities.  In a world where Disney is allowed to own a national event, we should consider whether we have anything resembling a “free market” at all.  

If we really want the best ideas to rise to the top, we should at least make the King’s Charter more difficult to obtain if not eliminate intellectual property law entirely.  Strong laws against fraud and slander should continue to safeguard longterm investments.  Good ideas, know-how, and the ability to deliver products that people want – rather than skill at paperwork – should come to define successful companies.  (In the meantime, we at the Inductive welcome you to steal our material as long as you credit us by providing a link.)

Of course, I also hope deeply that Disney is wrong about the phrase “Seal Team 6” being a cash cow.  As I concluded in my long article last week on the death of bin Laden:

(T)he way the United States killed bin Laden was cowardly and pathetic; the way we lied about it does nothing but reaffirm my fears that we are living in an era marked by widespread weakness and collective stupidity; the way we celebrated the death of a criminal fugitive after ten years of nothing but own-goals was childish and embarrassing.  The assassination of Osama bin Laden is only significant in a symbolic light: it allows us to see with unusual clarity the nature of our civilization.

Again, this is not to diminish the Navy Seal team that did the dirty work of raiding bin Laden’s compound; but, making the soldiers into demigods is misguided.  The Obama Administration is right in downplaying the event.  Celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden indicates incredibly low standards for celebration. Huckstering merchandise celebrating that death is just wrong.

This clarity that the death of Osama bin Laden provided is only matched by the clarity of Disney’s cheap opportunism: “A company notorious for shortchanging its workers and exploiting the ideas of others buys the exclusive rights to a phrase which no one should be able to own anyways in hopes that citizens will vomit hard-earned cash in exchange for the privilege of displaying said phrase on their bodies” would be a great premise for a dark, dystopian novel if it weren’t a true description of real events.  

Formalisms and Formalities

In Empires of the Mind on May 11, 2011 at 12:00 pm

[I’d like to use this post to introduce a new feature on this website: Apture.  You may notice that there are no links at all in this post.  That is because Apture allows easy lookup of words and phrases: simply highlight any word or phrase on this page and move the cursor over to “learn more”.  A pop-up window from Wikipedia or Google or some other source should appear…]

The Japanese are often stereotyped as being excessively formal.  This stereotype I think is true for the Japanese (although necessarily oversimplified and commonly misused); but America is full of formalism too.  Our formalism is qualitatively different than that of the Japanese, but in my experience formalism has a quantitatively equal role in each country.  In Japan, formalism is often associated with the most mature expressions of traditional arts: kata in karate; shodo; even the infamous Japanese bureaucracy has its roots in the formal rigors codified in Confucianism.  Formalism lies at the received base of the culture (especially with Shinto), and this is difficult for the American in Japan to grasp.

American formalism on the other hand is a modern invention, unrefined, and even wild: Taylorism and scientific management; organizational theory and Edward Bernays; the elaborate dance sequences associated with modern finance and commercial banking security protocols; outsourcing and automated customer services; the grand and complex American healthcare system; and finally (corporate) job applications.  This kind of formalism is as American as apple pie.

Now that I am back in the United States, I am looking for a full-time job for the first time since college.  I recently applied for a position at a high-profile private university where I would really love to work.  It took me two days to formalize my existing resume and draft a cover letter in accordance with (in places nonsensical) standards specifically delineated on the university’s website.  I then submitted my excessively formatted and formalized resume and cover letter electronically in accordance with specific and detailed guidelines.  

Exactly ten days later, I called the school’s human resources department to inquire about the status of my application.  The woman who answered told me that the position had been in the end stages of the interview process for quite some time now, the school was waiting for a favored interviewee to accept the position, and my resume and cover letter had not been looked at and probably wouldn’t be.  This bothered me, since I had been on the phone with the university’s human resources office throughout the process to make sure everything was carefully done on my end.  All I had received apparently had been official pleasantries.  Even though I had gone through the dehumanizing process of running my application through the school’s human resources assembly line, the powers in charge had lacked the common courtesy to tell me that the position was no longer available (nor did they update their website accordingly). 

As a friend who helped me with my cover letter replied afterwards: welcome to job search.  

Fair enough.  These things take time, and there are a lot of false starts along the way; I just think it’s interesting that here we have a clear example of information technologies leading to inefficiencies: institutions have nothing to lose by taking the human element out of job placement.  But those who are looking for jobs tend to waste a lot of time pursuing positions that were never open to them in the first place – and this at a time when our biggest economic problem is unemployment, specifically that the skill set of the unemployed does not seem to match the skill set demanded by employers.  Far from assisting the coordination of information, information technologies in this case seem to lead to a coordination problem.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

In Specific Facts on May 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I’ve written before that it’s very important for America to learn to count past “one, two, many”.  Case in point: BP’s $25,000,000 fine for DPing Alaska’s North Slope back in 2006.  From the New York Times:

BP will pay $25 million in civil fines to settle charges arising from two spills from its network of pipelines in Alaska in 2006 and from a willful failure to comply with a government order to properly maintain the pipelines to prevent corrosion, federal officials announced on Tuesday.

The fine is the largest per-barrel assessment ever levied against an oil company in a spill case and represents a new blow to BP’s corporate treasury and reputation.

The aggressive approach of federal prosecutors in this case could portend huge fines and penalties from BP’s much larger spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

I will eat my own arm if $25,000,000 dollars “represents a new blow to BP’s corporate treasury and reputation”.  BP’s 2010 revenue was $309,000,000,000.  $25,000,000 represents 1/12360 (0.008%) of BP’s 2010 revenue.

To put this figure in terms the average person can understand, the median annual household income in the United States in 2010 was just under $50,000.  0.008% of $50,000 is four dollars.  BP paying a $25,000,000 fine is like you or me paying four dollars.  (For comparison purposes, a typical bounced check fee represents a six to ten times greater economic burden on the individual than a $25,000,000 fine represents for BP.)  Surely a $25,000,000 fine is not “a new blow to BPs corporate treasury”; hence, I do not have to eat my own arm.  

(As for BPs reputation, I doubt it could get any worse, but I also doubt that this matters; people generally need gasoline, and BP exercises significant control over supply.  Even if a high percentage of consumers decide to boycott BP gas stations, the gasoline still has to come from BP wells and the company would have little difficulty finding a buyer.)

More math: BP is being fined $25,000,000 for dumping approximately 5,000 barrels of crude oil onto the arctic tundra and into a lake.  One barrel of crude oil equals forty-two gallons.  Therefore, 5,000 barrels of crude oil equals 210,000 gallons.  One gallon of crude oil weighs six to eight pounds.  This is important since many states administer littering penalties based on weight.  210,000 gallons of crude oil weighs approximately 1,470,000 pounds.  A $25,000,000 fine for 1,470,000 pounds is equal to seventeen dollars per pound.  BP has 80,000 employees.  A $25,000,000 fine also represents $312 per employee.

Alaska’s littering laws are fairly squishy, so let’s compare the “new blow to BPs corporate treasury” of seventeen dollars per pound to the penalties citizens might receive for the same offense in some other states.  The phrase “Don’t Mess With Texas” derives from a public awareness campaign associated with new, stricter anti-littering law in that oil-saturated state on the BP-spill-ravaged Gulf of Mexico.  Under Texas law, littering over five pounds carries a fine up to $3,000.  

We’re sorry.If 80,000 people walked out their front doors in Texas and each of them dumped eighteen pounds of crude oil onto the pavement, they would each be fined up to $3,000.  If 80,000 people did the same in Alaska and called themselves “BP”, they would be fined $312 each and then the New York Times would characterize this fine as an unprecedented attack on business.  Incorporation seems to carry a 90% discount over being an average citizen.

Texas’s penalties for littering are mild compared to those of Arizona, fellow Gulf state Florida, and Maryland.  In Arizona, littering more than 300 pounds is a felony with up to one year imprisonment.  In Florida, the penalty for littering more than 500 pounds of material is up to five years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine.  Maryland is even stricter than Florida: up to five years imprisonment and a $30,000 fine for littering more than 500 pounds.  Factoring in immediate lost wages for the median household (and this is a certain underestimate since neither wages lost because no one wants to hire an ex-convict nor interest payments on hypothetical investments are counted; plus the average BP employee almost certainly makes more than the median annual household income), typical penalties for littering in Arizona, Florida, and Maryland represent economic burdens of $50,000, $255,000, and $280,000 per person respectively.

For its Alaska North Slope spill, were BP held fairly accountable to Arizona law, the company would have received a fine of not $25,000,000 but $245,000,000.  In Florida, BP would have been charged $750,000,000; and in Maryland, BP would have had to pay $823,000,000.  These three numbers are ten, thirty, and thirty-three times BP’s $25,000,000 slap on the wrist for its Alaska spill.

BPs 2006 spill in the Alaskan tundra was 5,000 barrels.  The company’s much bigger Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010 released almost 5,000,000 barrels – one thousand times more than the company spilled in Alaska.  The economic and ecological impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill has been catastrophic and unmeasurable.  If BP is found grossly negligent, the company could be fined $25,000,000,000 in keeping with the precedent now set by the North Slope spill (in accordance with the Clean Air Act).  But even this potential largest fine in history is less than what BP takes in in one month.

For the sake of fairness and for the well-being of all, corporations should at least be held to the same standards we have devised for citizens.  Every time a corporation does anything bad in this country – such as put lead in toys, give people cancer, or destroy an entire ecosystem – our government issues “huge fines and penalties” which are so wildly beyond what most people could ever hope to make in a lifetime as to compel the proverbial townspeople with torches and pitchforks to go home to the bread and circuses of Snooki’s new book and Jacob Lusk’s elimination from American Idol.  

On the scale of corporate revenues, these incomprehensively large fines amount to a wink, a secret handshake, and a firm yet gentle pat on the ass from government to big business; and they are one of the most pernicious obstacles to a free and healthy society.

Featured Find: Osama bin Laden’s American Legacy

In Specific Facts on May 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Tom Engelhardt discusses Osama bin Laden’s real significance:

As is now obvious, bin Laden’s greatest wizardry was performed on us, not on the Arab world, where the movements he spawned from Yemen to North Africa have proven remarkably peripheral and unimportant.  He helped open us up to all the nightmares we could visit upon ourselves (and others) — from torture and the creation of an offshore archipelago of injustice to the locking downof our own American world, where we were to cower in terror, while lashing out militarily.

In many ways, he broke us not on 9/11 but in the months and years after.  As a result, if we don’t have the sense to follow Senator Aiken’s advice, the wars we continue to fight with disastrous results will prove to be his monument, and our imperial graveyard (as Afghanistan has been for more than one empire in the past).

At a moment when the media and celebratory American crowds are suddenly bullish on U.S. military operations, we still have almost 100,000 American troops, 50,000 allied troops, startling numbers of armed mercenaries, and at least 400 military bases in Afghanistan almost 10 years on.  All of this as part of an endless war against one man and his organization which, according to the CIA director, is supposed to have only 50 to 100 operatives in that country.

Horowitz’s Haiku: A Lesson in Emptiness

In Uncategorized on May 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm

One fine autumn day Horowitz the anti-Chomskyite was sitting alone in the woods burning all seven of the books he had collected over the first fifty-three years of his life.  His new Buddhist teacher had told him that he needed to rid himself of the ideas, notions and misconceptions he had accumulated over the years as they were no doubt what had led to his ignorance and warped perception of reality and the subsequent suffering which presented itself as irrational and illogical anti-Chomskyanism.  Horowitz had no problem with this order as book-burning was a hobby of his anyway.  So, there Horowitz sat, gazing down into the fire, watching the last little bit of ‘Radical Son’ and a few Oliver Kamm papers go up in smoke.  Horowitz’s teacher also told him that he should give haiku a try.  This suggestion was quite appealing to Horowitz as there need be only seventeen syllables in an entire poem, and given the fact that Horowitz usually broke out in hives when exposed to any writings longer than this.  So, there sat Horowitz, pencil in hand, eraser in nose…uhhh….never mind…pencil in hand…..and began his haiku meditation.  What follows are a few of the haiku which were found in Horowitz’s drawers upon his second release from the Boston Mental Hospital.  He had initially been admitted to BMH after having been required to clean Chomsky’s toilets for several months as a part of his occupational therapy after finding out that he had inadvertently read a Chomsky book and thought it was great.  This time he had been admitted to BMH because after having tried to achieve TRUE emptiness with the help of his Buddhist teacher he had a difficult time adjusting back to his usual reality. But wasn’t this the point? Wasn’t the point that Horowitz empty himself of all of his delusions and try to see the true nature of reality more clearly?  Anyway, his friend Ron was a little perplexed by the whole Horowitz-Buddhist therapy thing anyway as he thought Horowitz’s head was empty most of the time already and wondered if there was really anything left to empty.  Here are Horowitz’s four controversial Haiku poems: 

 

Horowitz’s Haiku: Four Seasons

~

a winter day spot

had a book but couldn’t read

Chomsky laughs at me

~

anti- Semite spring

is Chomsky this I ask you? 

ignorant I am

~

summer fever cry

holocaust denier nye

why am I dumb I? 

~

fall sitting in pond

Pol Pot apologist not

empty my head is

~

In all fairness to Horowitz it should be noted that many haiku poets, scholars, and psychiatrists have pondered over the meanings of these great poems for years now.  There seem to be many ways to interpret them depending on the perspective from which one’s analysis begins.  Had Horowitz actually recognized his pathetic ignorance and attempted to detach himself from his desire to cling to his irrational anti-Chomskyanism?  Was Horowitz being sarcastic, actually meaning the opposite of what he posited in the poems?  Or, in his unconscious desire not to be released from BMH, was this simply a case of Horowitz’s Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy disorder presenting itself again?  Only one person really knew, and this was his friend Ron.  Ron was aware that Horowitz’s emptiness was not the emptiness of those seeking to detach themselves from the delusions of the perceived world in order to expand their awareness, and, thereby, rid themselves of their unwanted sufferings.  Nor was it an emptiness which brings peace and oneness with all of humanity and the universe.  It was an emptiness of the type you find when you’re assigned to read a Chomsky book, but you can’t, and you have to lie, and lie, and lie, and pretend that you have, all the while knowing deep down that you’re fooling no one but yourself, and you’re not even really doing a good job of that.  It’s the emptiness of knowing that your lies are being witnessed by all, especially those who have actually read Chomsky’s work.  It’s the emptiness of knowing that every false assertion and out of context reference can be easily exposed by any third grader.  This is a different type of emptiness, an artificial emptiness, an emptiness like that found when examining “The Anti-Chomsky Reader”, many, many, words and not a shred of truth behind any of them.  So, what was Ron to do?  How was he to help Horowitz become a semi-well-functioning person again?

First, Ron had to find Horowitz, and no one had seen him since his second release from BMH.  There had been rumors Horowitz had been hit by a truck while chasing a rabbit across Interstate 66 with an empty bowl in his hand.  Other rumors had it that Horowitz had given up his anti-Chomskyanism, gotten married, had eight children, and began making porno films and selling contracts for Haliburton.  And, yet, still other rumors had it that Horowitz had had plastic surgery and had gone back to cleaning toilets at M.I.T.  Then, one day, as Ron was about to give up his search for Horowitz, he wandered into the local Taoist cigar club to ask the owner if he had seen Horowitz hanging around his club, possibly carrying a bowl, or a rabbit.  Just then, to Ron’s amazement, he looked up and saw Horowitz hanging stuffed as a trophy on the wall between a donkey and a pig with a bowl on his head and a rabbit clenched in his teeth.  Ron asked the owner where he had acquired his trophy.  The owner assured Ron that he had not killed Horowitz himself, but had bought him at a yard sale which had been held by several Buddhist monks.  When asked how they had come into possession of this stuffed Horowitz trophy the monks simply replied that one day as they were in a deep contemplative meditation their master approached Horowitz from behind as he thought him to be dozing off.  The master gave Horowitz a good solid whack on the shoulder with his bamboo staff and yelled CHOMSKY as loud as he could to wake him up.  They said that at exactly that moment any residue of self which may have remained in Horowitz’s being instantly evaporated, and he keeled over and died.  But what was even more astonishing to the monks was what happened later when they took him to the taxidermist to be stuffed.  The taxidermist said that upon making the first incision into Horowitz’s body a tremendous gush of hot air was released and the body collapsed in on itself like a hot air balloon.  The taxidermist passed out and had to be admitted to BMH a few hours later.  At a loss of what to do with the deflated body, the monks, in their infinite, mysterious, and ironic wisdom, decided to tear the pages from every book Chomsky had ever written, and to stuff the empty shell of Horowitz with these pages, so that he could go through eternity filled with that knowledge which he had refused to, or perhaps was unable to, because of his ignorance, accept during his short and miserable anti-Chomskyan life.

The End