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?”

Privilege

There is that fizzy sensation when one opens a can of soda, it gently pops around the nostrils as a drink is taken.  The CO2 slides down the throat with sugar and gives opportunity for spectacular burps.  I don’t usually drink soda.  At restaurants it is usually very flat, and I don’t particularly like the taste.  But the re-release of “throw-back” products (Pepsi, Dr. Pepper come to mind) made with real sugar (not corn syrup) got me to try soda again, if just for a moment.

The pop of the can and the fizz took me back, and gave me a very strong sense memory of Pepsi in odd green plastic glasses at my great-grandfathers house.  I smiled.   I recalled when soda was a treat on a hot day, a cold fizzy thrill to a small child. 

It’s strange the things we take for granted.  This fizz, this tickle of the nose is a privilege in a country that takes so much for granted.  To have the cash to buy a box of throw back soda cans, stick them into a refrigerator that will reliably keep everything cold, and then grab ice from the freezer icemaker to pour it over is truly a privilege I take for granted most days. 

We do not own a large house, and the mess that accumulates so fast from toys, dirty laundry, clean laundry, papers, and dishes overwhelms me.  But I forget that the lights turn on when I need them, the washing and drying machines have worked for a long time, the water out of the tap goes through a filter and is as clean as we can ask for.  The toilet flushes; the shower provides enough hot water for us all to shower (if we don’t stall!).  We have a large yard, several garden areas, fully grown shade trees, a play-tower and privacy fence around it all.  We truly live here and we take for granted the infrastructure that makes all of this possible.

I have gotten annoyed lately at all the vague grousing about government.  The lack of civics courses in schools seems to have lead to a general stupidity about what government does and what we take for granted.  I watched our local city council meeting last night on the local government access channel.  It was both boring and fascinating.  The minutia, the need to consider several different points of view, just to get a visionary plan for roads on paper is amazing.  There are people who go to work everyday to make sure our garbage is picked up, our roads fixed, policed; our children schooled, firefighters, water plant persons, electric commission folks, the list goes on and on.  Is there corruption?  Sure.  From my time spent in Chicago I learned that the machine that makes a complex city possible is also a self-aware machine; there is an unspoken cap on what greed can take place.  Step out of line and the machine will slap you down.  In well functioning bureaucracies, there is a larger measure of working for the greater good than greed, and the baseline for what is acceptable is low and functional.  I understand the massive anger at the out of control greed easily observable to the citizenry, but in our anger let us not forget that most of our civil service workers are just people who do a job the best they can, and make our infrastructure possible. 

I lobbied in state government for several years and saw many things.  Most of what I observed I was surprised and depressed about.  The I grew up a bit and merged that experience with living in urban areas; I took a longer view of what is possible, necessary, and what is a privilege as a citizen.  I keep at arms length from politics now, but still vote.  I give credit to those who are willing to be representatives at the local level, the least glamorous of political levels.

Do I expect better? Sure.  Am I aware of how lucky we are, in the smallest of ways?  Yep.  I didn’t say there were no incompatible ideas in my head, or anyone’s for that matter.  To be an adult is to live with paradox, and make peace with it as best we can.  When I was out in L.A. recently everyone I talked to was annoyed at the cell phone service breaks that are constant in the area.  One can not reliably make a call and expect it to go through, or stay connected when it does.  It is incredibly annoying, disruptive, and dangerous.  It is an infrastructure issue.  We are at a point where we must, I believe, take measure of what we need- what infrastructure means- and apply our governmental power to that with vision and speed.  No more bridges falling down (think Wisconsin), no more abuse of our water sources.  As a citizenry, we must collectively recognize what the baseline for a civil, functioning society means and pursue it with our taxes and voices.

The fizz is slowly dying in my glass.  What a treat today, to have a soda.  No food to complicate the experience, no noise or competing activity.  Sun, a break for a soda, and some tunes on the stereo.  It is a privilege.  Cheers.

Community seeding

I suggested an idea to a doctor I know.  “No way anyone I know would do that”, she said.  She went on to explain that people going into medicine wanted to make decent money, and their insurance was so high they had to make a lot of money, and the only way to do that was to go to urban and regional areas.  But, I asked, what if?

What if insurance companies, in programs under-written by the government, agreed to create special rates to cover doctors and nurses who agree to open small local clinics in rural areas?

Think about how the country functioned 150 years ago.  There are so many small towns, especially those in the Midwest and West (that are now dying).  Some have tried financial incentives to get people to move to these places, and it did not work out so well because there was no connected, concentrated effort to “seed” the community with the services and professionals that serve as the infrastructure first.

Think of teachers: what if student loans were forgiven if professionals spend a certain number of years providing such infrastructure services in small towns?  How about schools that have multi-year classrooms?

Think about who makes the basic infrastructure in a community and make it bloom:  Electricians.  Plumbers.  Doctors, nurses, teachers, a lawyer or two, then shop keepers, maintenance persons of all types.  Seed the community with infrastructure first, and invite creative small businesses to open next (think organic farming, small scale grass fed animals, etc.).  You’ll find, I think, that people will be drawn to such small communities very quickly.

The sprawling suburbs with insane commutes are in decay.  Inner cities are experiencing gentrification, but only by those with the money that can afford to do so.  There are many young people who see the future and think there will be no place for them but starting groups who choose to seed communities together, it might work on so many levels.  Take this to your think tanks and see what happens. . .

Connect the dots

I really enjoy statistics.  I studied stats under a very kind, bright man who was dogged in his love of seeking out statistical errors and finding mathematical problems in analyses.  I wish I had paid better attention in all the classes I had with him.  Simply put, statistics can be a way through a forest of data, a way to see how “best” to draw conclusions- how to connect the dots.

Present day data mining is a hot way to do the same thing.  Vast amounts of data stream through super computers and different sifting programs are constantly developed to connect the dots and help humans analyze and draw conclusions.  I find this pursuit fascinating.  Not only where data is drawn from, but also how it can be thrown together at any given moment with other (often seemingly disparate) data and voila!  Conclusions about how large groups of people or chemicals or systems behave can be made.  Are the conclusions always accurate?  Probably not (back to statistics- the probability issue).  But then the conclusions themselves get treated as data to be shifted, grouped, and analyzed. 

There is a micro level of such investigation I’ll call case study (also a formal term).  This is the science and art of seeing the big picture within the single case, thinking of a case as a somewhat self-contained system (good doctors frequently do this).  All the data that can be derived from looking deeply within what is often treated as a single data point- a single person, or even business, or family- can be amazing.

One thing we know about systems (I won’t credit the long list of popular books currently published on this topic), say the human body for instance: when a cycle of feeding off of itself to survive begins, the system is in the last stages of existence.  When the human body (as is the case with long term anorexics, and cancer patients) starts consuming it’s own muscles and flesh to survive, it will die not long after.

I do not think it is a stretch to apply this idea to economics.  Whether one looks at the macro level of systems, or the micro (single families and businesses), these systems have begun to feed off of themselves.  The structures that would allow for the solving of problems in creative ways, of offering relief for corrosive stressors, of shifting problematic function points, have all worn away.  The cycle of feeding upon core bones and muscles, the very things that drive the system(s), has begun.  It takes time for these tings to wear away, but wearing away they are.  There seems to be nothing to alleviate these processes, so the spinning within spinning of these cycles, the feedback loops they create, continues and grows in corrosive power as the micro systems interact at a macro level; and the macro level systems themselves are caught in the same corrosive cycles of core decay.

Is this pessimism?  Some might call it that.  Some still hope that an outside force, something called God, or the possibility of drift that creates a sudden set of alternatives not previously imagined or seen that can throw the health of a system into more positive order may happen.  This may be hope, it maybe foolishness born of desperation. 

Some would say this is the natural outcome of systems- this decay into chaos, and that at the furthest point out from organization, from order, when chaos is as crazy as it can get, systems start to reorganize again organically.  Maybe so.  But how much decay and dying has to happen first?  This is a question no economist, no social theorist, no statistics genius, no physicist, and no computer scientist can answer.

So as each of us has a brain, an elegant machine if you will who’s very design is to connect the dots, to make connections between data, input, and then experimentally react, then analyze the results making more data and input that creates new connections and makes stronger pre-existing ones; we try to problem solve and forecast in order to survive. 

Some of us throw those nets of possibilities so far, then connect dots so strangely that we create paranoid loops for ourselves, seeing only information that then shores up what we believe to be connections of the most “real” or true.  You know people like this; you have been tempted to think like this.  Some of these folks will say that everything they experience is due to God being angry, or chakras being out of whack, or a comic book boogie man pulling all the strings of power in the world; or aliens.  Fear is a powerful motivator, and when the complexity of everything individuals face is so overwhelming, the impulse to simplify kicks in, and to react.  Thus we connect dots, and draw conclusions.  Even when we may know better, the comfort of sometimes whackado conclusions and the simplicity of them temporarily puts a stop to the fear, the stress, and the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness we experience.

Then sometimes, even when we try to be as open minded as possible, when we know our own error rates for our conclusions, our own foibles, our own ignorance and holes in knowledge, when we try to see as broadly as we can, what we see can seem damning.  So many experts on climate, economics, and politics- they very people we trust to see broadly- are feeling powerless.  Their sense of desperation transfers to others, and they get pilloried for being pessimists or crazy when they may be doing the best they can while trying very hard not to be “Chicken Little”.

Imagine again connecting the dots.  Taking that huge box of lenses, and pulling one magnifying lens out.  A small one, which will show you only your family.  See all the dots- your current bank balance, your debts, your possessions, your needs, your wants, your strengths, your weaknesses.  This system overlaps other systems, the businesses you run or are employed by, schools, communities, states, nations, geographic regions, on and on so much so that if you try to use all the lenses to see, the information gets overwhelming.  You may use well-developed tools for analysis- borrow from those classes you have taken to help chunk the data, to help index and analyze. 

But if you are like me, you may still be feeling overwhelmed because of what you currently observe through any particular lens:  the knowledge that the system you observe, and the other systems overlapping it, seem to be feeding on themselves.  Businesses cooking books, cheating, lying, creating new rules that feed off of customers in ways that destroy healthy interaction and hide it in language to try to stave off the customers reaction.  Individuals selling off anything they can, cutting back in ways that “go to the bone”, or throwing “caution to the wind” (forgive the mixed metaphors) in anticipation of collapse.  Government at multiple levels reduced to corrupt self-preservation, or feeding off of core muscle to keep going.  I don’t see where these cycles of decay end, I only see consequences of the decay that provoke more decay, more chaos.

As a parent, I feel despair.  Where can we go?  What can we do?  What will be the best decisions- even on a micro level, day to day basis- to take care of my family?  I wish I could write off these feelings as just something all parents experience, or as some floating midlife crisis.  But as I connect the dots, I am starting to wonder if we need to plan for something bigger than laughing off stereotypical angst.  If the smart, educated people I trust (including my husband) are feeling the same way, and seeing the same things when they connect the dots, by taking them into consideration am I just reinforcing my own patterns of belief?  Or should we really be reconsidering the very foundations of where, who and what we are to better plan for the future?  I don’t know and it scares me.

I think if we are honest, all of us are scared.  No amount of knowledge, hope, or power seems to be able to change the course of current systems decay.  What happens now is both a topic of speculative fascination (game playing) as well as pessimistic reaction (greed, violence) and in some cases altruistic exhaustion (volunteering time or money we don’t have for causes that give us a feeling of having done good, or hope).

I hear people saying do the best you can right now.  It makes us feel like we have some control over the moment.  It’s not bad advice.  But now is always connected to later, and some of us can’t help connecting those dots.

Stuck in the middle with you

It has been said that describing the American experience as being at the mercy of anything is to give in, to invite patriarchy.  To believe that forces larger than the collective of the citizenry control our fates for good or ill encourage hopelessness, and metaphors of parents (which conservatives and religious leaders seem to like overly well).  This may be generous- because feeling powerless and recognizing forces larger than oneself are also a form of realism, grim as it can be.  Also, it seems these are the first steps to action, to reacting, and to resisting.  Not just in the ways of adolescents, but in ways that are methodical, well thought out, and effective as resistance.

It seems in our current moment most of us are caught between descriptions and forces of extremes in politics, economics, and other facets of life.  We have become again faceless masses others like to speculate about, and use for their purposes.  Even, it seems, with a new populist media/technology of tweets, Face and Space ramblings, and blogs- have we become still more invisible?  It sounds like a paradox, but it is not.  Listen to several different objects at once, and it all becomes white noise.  When a stronger signal breaks through, it is all we can hear.  That a limited amount of people control stronger signals is simply fact.  That we can become seduced by the plethora of information, disappear down rabbit holes of specificity that appeal to any current emotion and interest is the new soma.  George Orwell had the date and substance wrong, but in general I think he was right.

The film The Matrix comes to mind, a metaphor for waking up from our collective pervasive delusions.  Is revolution truly fomenting as some of late have claimed?  Or are we the stepchildren of warring parents, ostensibly being protected and shut into rooms, not seen, not heard?  The uber rich dine with religious extremists; if an apocalypse is coming they simply hole up, drink up, and toast to the end.  What becomes of anyone else is not their concern, and justifiable by pointing blame out to those they refuse to see.

We do not seem to feel a basic strength that would help make positive change- our very collective humanity.  Kinship with people different than we are by nationality, class, or any other category seems antithetical to the current paths of anger, mistrust, defensiveness, and blame that are popular.  Workers who fought for unions at the height of the most egregious corporate abuses knew that kinship was key.  Humanism is a force for good, not to be vilified.  Without it, we fracture and fall.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew this.  The figure known as Jesus Christ knew this.  Mohammed knew this.  Buddha knew this.  Mother Theresa knew this.  Artists, musicians, poets and philosophers have known this.  Scientists know this.

When will those of us in the middle recognize it, stop talking about it, and actually act collectively on this knowledge for a greater good?  I think expecting elected leaders, business moguls, and celebrities to do it is not only passing the buck, but will only frustrate.

What this means can be manifested in multiple ways.  Maybe they will not all be strictly compatible, maybe we’ll see a cobbled together set of actions that overlap, a messy vision in action that is dramatically different than what we have now.  Driven by collective humanity that is not drugged, not locked away, and willing to broker a different reality.

Hope must spring eternal.

Mental space

“Gimme some space damn it!”

This is a thought I have often around my kids and my husband.  I have been thinking about what this means.  On the surface, it means “pick up the toys, clothes, dirty dishes and detritus of daily living that clutter our shared physical space and make for constant random picking up in the effort to make space” (or at least orderly space).   This constant demand to clean is a distraction and irritant, making anything else productive difficult.  Just walking, as anyone who has stepped bare footed upon a lego can tell you, can be interrupted.  If I had several hours alone to crank the tunes and clean, that would be different.  I could organize my time, react to unexpected issues (needing to pretreat a shirt here, address the bill that was found in the Dr. Seuss book), and Get Things Done (capitals intended).  Usually though, it’s a constant barrage in which one small gain here or there gets accomplished, and the macro level of the problem remains a mystery. 

So too with mental space.  In order to be creative, I have learned I not only need to be self-disciplined (that’s where procrastination guilt occurs- when I know I could have been self-disciplined but have not), but also need “head time” to let ideas “cook”.  Head time can even come when I am Getting Things Done- because the mental is uninterrupted.   Then there is the creative need for “doing” time.   This is most pointedly putting down thoughts and ideas into the computer without interruption (writing).  It can also be creating objects, or seeking out and taking in stimuli without interruption (“feeding the head”).  All of which I rarely get, and the consequential outcome is depression and irritation. When I have time in a span of a week to create, I am a much happier and a nicer person to be around.  Husband has noticed this about himself as well.  I also believe there is a long-term additive effect.  We are also more productive people if we can create on a regular basis. These observations are also borne out in creativity research.  

I recently stumbled across Jonah Lehrer’s book “Proust was a Neuroscientist” (2007) and the accompanying book reviews.  I agree that he over-reaches a bit; with many underlying assumptions about the shared positions his readers must have to imagine where he is going with his ideas.  He also blogged about the use of Modafinil, wondering if it’s use and established ability to help concentration and focus was a deterrent to creativity.  I wrote him a response to that blog.  What I found most useful about him is he is a good example of a new breed of thinkers.  Young, smart people who are continually learning, from every experience be it academic or something as plebian as a line cook.  They are taking in what they experience and try to create a framework for understanding that works better than the overly specialized units we currently know.  They want to bridge the macro and the micro, and synthesize areas of philosophy that have been said for hundreds of years to be completely incompatible.  They do not postulate any dogma, and seem to have extremely open, mature minds- and are willing to acknowledge when they are wrong, or need to reframe something they have conjured.  I like the things I read from this new wave of thinkers, even if I don’t always agree (Steven Pinker is not one of them, his framework of reference and definition being clearly and unapologetically hierarchically organized according to scientific principles and the culture of high science). 

To do the things Lehrer and similar writers are doing requires a high degree of creativity. I hear myself shouting “ARRGGHH”, knowing I will never be free of the research subject area I started investigating a long, long time ago. The areas I was synthesizing formally as a graduate student were seen as arcane; when people were being kind, they would say rather esoteric.  But I know them as red-blooded, living ideas.  It is good to know people smarter and younger than me think so too.  When I mentioned all of this to Husband, an accomplished artist in a complex culture, he replied ” A lot of what I do requires creativity.  Not just my art.”  I nodded.  Sometimes the partnering in a marriage is to remind us of what we already know, and even have already discussed in a different time or place.

Note to Lehrer:  mental crowding can also come from too much immersion into a culture and topic.  Me? I gasped for air and got out for a while.  Now I get back in from time to time, and make much better use of the knowledge and information I find.  Virginia Woolf had it right– in order to do that, I have to shout “gimme some space damn it!”; and pick up those sharp little legos.  

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?