It’s NOT simple


Worst offense against human consciousness: bad oversimplification. Great art simplifies small and/or large ideas elegantly; crystallizes with beauty of form and content. Communication in all forms can strive for elegance, and often-necessary simplification. Otherwise anyone- even experts in any field- are just babbling schizophrenics to those who attempt to listen. It leaves the listeners only the construction of their own minds (with respect to post-structuralists, communication does/can happen), and encourages ignorance.

Advertising has elevated the business of lying to sell a product or service to an egregious degree, such that we watch ads now during events such as the super bowl for the ads themselves, not to find out about a product.  High entertainment indeed.   It is communication without content, only form.  Marketers do not want people to know content such as what is in a product, or the hidden costs of a service, because that might dissuade a potential sucker- er, customer.  Obfuscation, the intentional bad oversimplification, the appearance of truth within a lie- is what is expected now days to sell anything.  It is the opposite of enlightenment, of learning, of being informed.

This reality of accepting, even expecting bad oversimplification has transmogrified with the cult of celebrity, of instant tech celebrity, and of superficial, fleeting appearances over any other form of being.  While what I am considering is not new, the critiques began long ago I admit- it is the lack of outrage and even boredom with cynicism that does seem to be new.  Some have said they observe a sticking the head in the sand, hands over ears and eyes approach to the overwhelming presence of what I am calling the wash of bad oversimplification (bad in moral, as well as aesthetic meanings), but I find it much more a perverse boredom that does not want to be aware, and while some may ignore the cracks in the veneers of culture, allowing oneself- yes, choosing- to chase the next over stimulating lie in order to feel engaged, it is a drug of such power few ever dreamed of.  Many of those peddling bad oversimplification in all arenas of human activity tend to ignore it.  Mediocrity?  No real communication or exchange?  Grades as a reflection of how well one can cheat, and jobs having no meritocracy but for your age, looks and temporary utility?  The very idea of elegant simplification- of terse, beautiful and informative communication seems not only an unfair expectation, but something for which we have fewer and fewer models and hence any cultural memory for it is evaporating. 

Art that sells because it is obtuse, and the maker has disappeared up his or her own arse hole usually with a mind numbing string of unrelated words or written inanity (substituting verbosity for content) compounds a general expectation that the experts know more than anyone else ever will, and what is not understandable is therefore good and important.  Or as the evangelical christians have marketed so well: in the face of feeling overwhelmed accept your own stupidity and the authority of others- you’ll just never know, and to inquire is blasphemous.  Oh, and you must enjoy the bad oversimplifications given to you.  Ironically, this message can be masked in the sale of simplicity!  Think of the yoga-vegan stereotype of goodness and simplicity, that encourages a degree of happiness and tranquility by ignoring as much as one can, and simply purchasing the right product, eating a particular food, and “not over thinking”.  Bad oversimplifications all.  

It may seem paradoxical yet consistent that only after considering the complexity of an idea, act, or object one might arrive at good simplicity and elegant understanding.  I can’t recall the exact quote, but Twain is noted for saying when asked to give a speech, that it took him about an hour to write a three page speech, half a day for a two page, a day for a page, and a week for a paragraph.  Good simplicity is an art to be appreciated in all forms; a scientific abstract, a research design, an essay, a novel, a film, architecture, design, a policy, a curriculum, an assessment or evaluation design, and any other activity one can imagine, especially speeches.  Or as Bob Stake has put it: simplicity is often a marker of quality (certainly of clarity); and even on the best day, quality is damned difficult to define.


Note: Tackling this concept requires a display of my own bumbling over-simplification, I admit- I never said I was efficient at simplifying, just frustrated at being able to identify the problem.  And yes yes- “bad over simplification” is redundant in a sense- but there can be oversimplification that is simply a structural mistake, and does not fall into the moral and aesthetic category of “bad”.  Not  therefore good, but benign perhaps.

As a friend recently said, watching Fight Club is a good way into thinking about the problem, and with humor.

Who knows?

In light of the massive fraud case being pursued by the federal government against a company that runs for-profit colleges in culinary, visual art, and other programs one wonders where people can attend higher education any more and learn anything practical.  In his book, “Shop class as soul craft: an inquiry into the value of work”, Matthew Crawford elegantly examines this problem, and how a culture that loses the ability to appreciate work of the hands is in trouble.

Most liberal arts institutions and major state universities still follow what we might think of as a books and desk curriculum, or more aptly a books-desk-computer curriculum.  Lab spaces are for the use of chemistry, biology, a few engineering, some medical, and studio art courses.  Very little else of what is done is “hands-on”.  That is usually considered more base, less theoretical, and relegated to what we used to think of as community colleges.  But even community colleges started dumping hands-on courses favoring a “college prep” curriculum, and becoming less identified with “training”.  High schools did the same, tossing out shop classes in favor of computer lab space.

But as I searched for an expert plumber, electrician, heating and cooling expert, bricklayer, and various other “hands on” professionals in the past several years, one thing became clear.   The people who spent their lives developing exquisite expertise in essential areas of functionality are growing old, and there is no one to replace them.  Every professional I spoke to agreed, and lamented the lack of preparation programs in both high school and community college, and the cultural perception that somehow these careers are less valuable, less honorable, less important than say accountant, banker, business manager (all of which these people learned to be, or at least learned how to hire others to do), or other higher status fields.  One went on to say that he sees so many people going to the gym to work out, but if they had jobs working with their hands and getting off their behinds every day they would not need to.  It was an interesting point of view.

I recall my father talking about all the “college educated” engineers who could not see when their CAD drawings, like an Escher print, would not work.  He would often take wire and bend it for a 3-D representation, to show them the error of their ways.  They were never very happy about it, but over time came to depend on his visual-spatial and hand skills- and offered a grudging respect.

As I get older, I wonder who will know?  Who will know how to do anything- are we expecting just to do searches on our computers, run down to the Lo-HumDepo-Ace’s, get what ever standardized Chinese made supplies they have and do everything ourselves?  There are a lot of issues that one must be an expert in to truly understand, to strategize, to plan, to solve.  Just reading a how-to page will never be enough.  Husband did a fine job on 80% of the house.  But that final 20% needed an expert, and he relied on experts to check the work he had done as well.

All my sewing machines are still machine based, not digital.  It is a cost-benefit analysis for me:  when something breaks or goes haywire on the computerized machines, it is hideously expensive to fix and often requires a new machine.  They are also plastic through and through, and the wear and tear on them adds up quickly.  My mechanical machines (mostly metal) still require maintenance (which I am learning to do), and sometimes specialized care.  Then, they are usually good to for a long, long time.  But the people who know how to work on these machines are also aging, dying, and passing into memory.  They take entire worlds of knowledge with them, knowledge we may not get back.

There is also the aesthetic appeal of machines, of working with one’s hands, and seeing the results.  It not only builds confidence and practical skills, but also develops complex 3-D thinking in ways nothing else can.  I think Crawford is right: until we begin to value work of the hands again, we will continue losing not only a part of our culture, but an important part of our minds.  As discussions about rewriting school curriculum continues, let us not disregard the shop classes, the labs, and the field work that helps us become what we are- 3 dimensional beings made of muscle and fine motor skills.  Also, let all forms of learning and technology be respected as helping us become the best of who we can be.   Let us plan sensibly for all the jobs/roles we need to run our wires, pipes, and build our communities.  In sum, I hope we are not left standing around asking, “Who knew?”

An open letter to Warren Buffet and Bill Gates

It has been said in many research reports that the way to improve the lot of the world is to educate women.  “Sure” I have heard in response, “because those models assume what women will do AFTER they have been educated.”  Yes, they have fewer children, are more capable of combating illness and disease in their homes and communities, and yes they feel empowered to become leaders in their immediate locales.  But lest we forget the lessons of Iraq and much of the Middle East as it became awash in fundamentalism (or our own country for that matter), women can be bloody PhD’s and get persecuted for their “education”.  That makes them very capable, don’t you think?

I do believe the formal, scientific and humanistic education of women is essential.  Do not get me wrong.  But there must be attention paid to what happens after said educations.  In the U.S. I know many educated women, highly educated in fact.  They are capable, responsible, funny women on the whole.  Several have blazed their own paths in areas not traditionally run by women.  But there are still power games, sexism, and established ways of doing things that prevent many of these women from getting their best done.  Hence the proposal for Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, two good friends who pride themselves on being practical, innovative people.

Consider that one of the criticisms of the U.S. is that it has slipped quite a bit in how well educated, literate, and scientifically able it’s people are on the whole.  Consider that innovation in products is a lament.  Any anthropologist with a brain in her head can tell you to go to the source of problems, and ask what the people directly involved think and do.  So Mr. Buffet and Mr. Gates- form a think tank.   Hire my friend Carolyn who has worked for IBM research her whole life and is tired of that wage slave arena.   She is very smart, disciplined, and experienced at being a creative problem-solver.  Hire Jennifer, an experienced anthropologist who moved across the country because her job and her husband’s could not be reconciled (she had to give up hers).  She is a practical, innovative, smart woman who is underutilized.  Hire me, who did PhD work in cognitive/educational psychology and is off the academia ladder.  Hire more women in their 40’s looking for transitions, those educated women in engineering, anthropology, psychology, education and the like, those very capable women who are underutilized in their ability to improve the lot of the world.  Go ahead and write the mission statement, and let them shape it.  Have them meet in a physical space on a quarterly basis, and produce white papers on topics of everyday objects, how to green and innovate, and frame problems in the best ways to think about them.  Save money on other regular meetings by- here’s Mr. Gates investment- meeting virtually the rest of the time.  The real innovation for women is respecting their complex family lives.  Many are either caring for aging parents, their own children, or have extended lives into their communities that require actual physical presence most of the time.  Let them do their job as a group for 3-5 years.  Then look at what they have produced.  Kill the project if you don’t find it useful, tweak and extend it if you do.  Oh, and pay them living wages as employees of the think tank.  You will, I am betting, find this project more worthwhile than you ever anticipated.  Funding for research in the U.S. is at a low point, and this project could spawn others.  Take a chance gentlemen.  What have you got to lose?



The unpopularity of kindness


I watched my son and his preschool group on the playground this past fall.  I saw a little boy filled with compassion, the only child who worked to not only acknowledge the tiny girl with Downs Syndrome, but to actively invite her into activites, and help her with her shoes.  His teachers commented on this at the teacher-parent meeting, and how the previous year he was known for not hesitating, running to hug any crying child and ask, “are you ok?”  He was 2.  This child, who seemed to wriggle out of the womb with a smile, who hardly ever cried, and can charm even the coldest stranger, this child who never takes a bad photo (he has even had photo development folks ask to copy his photo for their stands), I fear for him.  His greatest gift is that he has a well of instinctive compassion, and a skill for kindness.  He is a typical boy too- he competes with his brother from time to time, and has been known to recklessly throw a shoe at the cat in a moment of high enthusiasm to get her to pay attention to him.  But he feels instantly regretful, running up to her and telling her he is sorry.  I have cried at night when I have seen him earlier in the day rejected by another child, or treated with distanced curiosity by children who are not as open, enthusiastic, or kind.  He struggles with his impulsiveness and lack of focus (distractibility) to a degree that makes me fear he might be dyslexic (like his grandfather, and genetic links for dyslexia are becoming clear in research), or have attention deficit issues.  Yet at the same time he sings precisely in tune, and has lyrics memorized effortlessly.  He is altogether a normal kid, but for his outstanding ability for kindness.

I have given the notion of kindness a lot of thought in the past few weeks.  “Spontaneous/random acts of kindness” has become a hip bumper sticker, a phrase for talk show hosts to throw about; setting up the expectation that a single act gives an individual moral integrity, even authority–but the truth is, it does not.  Real kindness is not popular.  It does not make one popular, it is not profitable, it does not seek attention, nor does it offer clear long-term benefits.  There is no “sell advantage”, no advertising, that addresses real kindness.

It does not take the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, or any text to determine and instruct anyone on kindness, though they have been known to help.  I argue that our current dominant culture pressures us NOT to develop the skills of kindness, from a very young age.  When moral and religious texts are used to popularize hate and war, kindness is gone from the message.  When money, prestige, appearance, and being first- and only first- dominate all forms of media and symbolism, there is no kindness.  Token PSA’s reminding people to drive with caution, to learn to negotiate instead of fight, fall on deaf ears.  Any instinctual, social drive to be kind is quickly eradicated by fear.  Fear of failure, fear of association, fear of rejection.

My in-laws are on a trip through the Southwest right now.  In the snow with night falling, they found themselves in desolate northern New Mexico with a bad tire.  A young Latin man stopped, made sure they were o.k., and helped them fix it.  When Pops offered him money, he shook his head with a smile, thrust his hands into his pockets, and got into his car and drove away.  Enacting kindness is difficult, but accepting it can also be hard.  It can make us feel weak, vulnerable, or needy.  Accepting kindness, especially with grace and sincere thanks, even pleasure, is none of those things.

I read a recent study reporting that even very small babies had a way to intuit who was kind and who was not.  This has clear evolutionary advantages for babies, but might it also be a sign of the deep need for compassionate social interaction- that lasts until we die?  Critics of the technological revolutions of the 20th century claim the worst that has happened is that our humanity has been diminished, that we have become even less communal and more isolated, reduced to cogs in machines, or passively vegetated in front of one.  While this is certainly true to some extent, it has also offered new ways to connect to people.  It is not a balanced picture, and not in a vacuum, separate from the bigger context of what has been happening on a global scale.  We in the US have of late bought into innuring ourselves from criticism or self examination with desperate exclamations of “fight for freedom”, “we are the free world”, and lots of other catch phrases intended to salve the fears of struggling people, reduce complexity to simple ideas, and most importantly, obfuscate any ability to show self-examination or self-knowledge.  We are, as it has been said, entertaining, or “Amusing ourselves to death” (Neil Postman, Penguin, 1986). 

When we crawl out from the barrage of media, objects, and activities we immerse ourselves in, what do we have left?  Do we surface, heads above it all for a moment, and see family members?  Good and true friends?  Do we feel hope, a shifting quality about life that is not immediately tied to anything in particular, but is a force in our lives we can’t live without (Hope dies last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, Studs Terkel, New Press, 2003)? If we see or feel none of this, then it is a desolate horizon we turn from, sinking again into the obfuscating madness. 

How do I value, encourage, and nurture the ability for kindness in my son?  This thing which comes so easily to him now, and is only beginning to cost him emotionally?  How do I help him feel connected when he is inevitably rejected, when he is discouraged, and when he is lonely?  How do I remind him that accepting kindness is often one of the kindest things we can do? Who will be there for him when I am gone?

Perhaps if anyone had asked these fundamental questions early on about the children who perpetrated the Columbine massacre, it would not have happened.  It is just an idea, and the backlash can already be heard.  We don’t want to think about preventative medicines, preventative social efforts, or the what if’s that implicate us all in what we do.  We want to toss change into the pickle jar for the cancer victim at the gas station, make the donation to the United Way, wave a driver in front of us in traffic and let that suffice for kindness, and feel good about it.  We don’t want to think about these actions as less than the very baseline of action we ought to have in order to live real kindness.  We don’t want to risk that fuzzy place in the social order we fight for every day, risk being seen as weird or unacceptable, or weak.  We don’t want to ask why we fear these things, or think of them as risks at all.  Self knowledge is scary, and sticking your neck out is dangerous, right?

Who hugs the old man who waits for his free Monday breakfast outside the Co-op diner, alone and set apart from the cluster of chain smokers huddled at the other end of the walk?  Who runs up and asks the woman waiting at the bus stop if she is ok, and why is she crying?  Who helps the old couple stuck on the highway in the snow to change their tire?  Who asks the little boy playing by himself in the sand what he is doing and what he likes?  Who helps the little girl with the funny eyes struggling to put her shoes on?  And WHY AREN’T WE DISCUSSING THESE QUESTIONS?

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will live as one

–John Lennon, 1971