Monthly Archives: August 2013

Data transfer

These days it’s so easy to transfer information from one device to another.

You know, with smart phones, you can transfer data just by tapping two phones together.

I think about this sometimes when I’m having a hard time understanding what someone is trying to tell me.

Would it work, I wonder, if I just walked up and banged my head against their head?

*Bam*
Oh, now I understand, thanks.

That would be even cooler than the Matrix-style download. Yeah, it would be awesome to plug into a machine and be all, “whoa, I know kung-fu,” but head-banging data transfer would allow us to understand each other on whole new level.

I love watching people explain things to others.

It’s such a translation process.

Even when both people share the same native language, there’s a lot of repeating information back. One person states a point, then the other restates it in their own words.

On and on and on, with more details and clarifications added at each level.

When the conversation ends, both parties feel like they’ve come to an understanding and have successful transferred information.

But really, each has just translated the other’s points into their own understanding. For simple topics, that may be sufficient, but try understanding another person’s fundamental view of the universe and all the conversation in the world won’t get you 100% data transfer.

But, maybe it’d work if you just banged your heads together.

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Social Capital and the Ol’ Boys Network

This morning I got to thinking about two possibly conflicting ideas.

Social capital, made famous by Robert Putnam, is essentially the idea that communities where people interact a lot – know their neighbors, participate in social associations – have higher social capital and therefore better outcomes. Less crime and the like. Conventional wisdom says social capital is good.

The old boys network, made famous by everyone’s brother or cousin, indicates a community where you get ahead by knowing the right people, by having the right connections, and by having membership in some type of exclusive group – whether familial or not. Conventional wisdom says old boys networks are bad.

But from my experience, it seems like these two go hand in hand. Unless your community is so small that you literally do know everyone – communities with high social capital, it seems, are likely to have small, strong networks.

And when someone in your small, strong network is running for office or qualifies for a job opening you just happen to have, it seems somewhat natural to support that person.

While I have no data to reference on the subject, it seems, for example, that people running for office have strong regional advantages. At the national level, you may chalk this up to very really regional variations – someone from my neck of the woods is perhaps actually more likely to understand and fight for my issues.

But when I see this on a city level, or a neighborhood level, this seems like a social capital issue.

If people generally support the candidate who lives on their own street rather than the candidate who lives a quarter mile away…that almost feels natural, because supporting your neighbors is what good community members do.

And because communities with high social capital tend to have several overlapping networks, if people tend to support the candidate in their own networks, the most connected candidate will win. The one with the most infrastructure behind them. The one supported by the machine. By the old boys network.

If anyone’s seen any studies of candidate support on hyper local level, let me know – I’d be interested to see it.

But in the absence of data I’ll still ask – does having high social capital necessitate the perpetuation of old boys networks?

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Divine Dissatisfaction

Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 during the March on Washington.

And on this occasion, I’d like to quote from another of Dr. King’s speeches, delivered 4 years later – August 16, 1967 – to the Southern Christian Leadership Council

During his life, Dr. King eloquently stated many inspiring, thought provoking, and important truths. But this has always been my favorite:

And so, I conclude by saying today that we have a task, and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction. 
Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. 
Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.
Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.
Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.
Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.
Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied. 
Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol will be housed by a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy, and who will walk humbly with his God.
Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. 
Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.
Let us be dissatisfied, and men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. 
Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, “White Power!” when nobody will shout, “Black Power!” but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.
I know I’m dissatisfied.
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The Crazies

I have a lot of respect for crazy people.

In my world, we’re all crazy. Some of us are secretly crazy, carefully containing the crazy inside in the hopes of presenting a non-crazy exterior. Some of us let our crazy all hang out, forwardly flaunting it for all to see.

Many of us are somewhere in between.

I take mental health issues very seriously, so I want to be clear that as I cavalierly throw “crazy” around, I mean something different than mental health. To me, “craziness” is…something like a lack of control over your public perception.

Some people are overtly crazy because of mental health issues, while others are overtly crazy because they choose to be so. And again, many are in between.

One of my childhood heroes, Emperor Norton, almost certainly had serious mental health issues. For those of you not from California – Norton, a gold-rush era San Franciscan, proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States, continually called for congress to be dissolved, and printed his own currency.

He was totally crazy.

But, his currency was accepted by the businesses he frequented and he was well respected by the colorful characters of San Fransisco. When he died, it’s said, 30,000 people attended his funeral.

Norton is something of an icon for crazies, but I think (with respect) a lot of activists are crazy too.

Another hero of mine, who as far as I know didn’t have mental health issues, is Raphael Lemkin.

Lemkin was a human rights lawyer. He coined the word “genocide.” He drafted, and basically single handedly passed, the UN convention on genocide.

And he was totally crazy.

When everyone wanted him to shut up and go away, he kept pushing. When governments wanted to go back to their own affairs and maintain their sovereignty from human rights concerns, he kept fighting to ensure that genocide would be denounced around the world. Facing a problem that continually makes the world’s most powerful institutions throw up their hands and say, “well, what are you going to do?” Lemkin presented a solution and never stopped fighting for it.

When he died, 7 people attended his funeral.

It take a lot of guts to choose to be crazy. It takes a lot to stand up and say what you believe – and to keep saying it whether it’s popular or not. In theory, people want to be that person, but really…no one wants to be that person. No one wants to be the crazy. It’s so much easier to be part of a crowd.

So, my crazies, this one’s for you. Thanks for all you do, and you go on – keep being crazy.

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Or it didn’t happen

I’ve just gotten back from a wonderful week of reading, playing games, and eating ice cream.

And I don’t have a single picture to prove I ever left home.

I only have memories. Memories of my adorable nieces, of the lovely weather, of the book and a quarter I made it through, of the games, of the ice cream.

And there’s something nice about that.

I do like photos. I like documenting. I’ve taken many fabulous trips where I’ve visited landmarks and museums, meticulously documenting every sight I saw and every fact I learned.

But sometimes it’s nice to sit back and experience. To accept that this too shall pass. That even as specific memories fade, their essence will somehow remain – the most salient details integrated into that amorphous thing I call my experience.

It’s like a sand mandala.

So beautiful. So intricate. So brief.

And that’s okay.

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Offline

My sister’s coming to town tomorrow, so I’m signing offline for a week and half. I won’t promise not to blog, but I won’t promise to blog either.

Anything could happen.

I’m wild and crazy like that.

See you on the 26th!

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The Imaginary of Shared Experience

I’ve been reading Susan Ostrander’s Citizenship and Governance in a Changing City.

Susan and I work together through The Welcome Project, a great Somerville organization, featured in her book, which seeks to build the collective power of immigrants in Somerville.

I must admit it’s a little weird to read a sociological study of my own community, but it’s been an interesting undertaking nonetheless.

Also, spoiler alert.

I’m really taken with what Ostrander calls the “immigrant imaginary” and the “working class imaginary.”

Essentially, she argues, there are these narratives we tell ourselves, ways we present ourselves, that while perhaps not inaccurate…are also not quite accurate. That disconnect creates a dissonance in atmosphere – an environment that’s simultaneously welcoming and ostracizing.

The immigrant imaginary, for example, manifests itself when we describe the U.S. as a ‘nation of immigrants.’

It can be tremendously welcoming to proclaim that the United States has always been built by immigrants, that immigrants have always been a core piece of our national identity, and that immigrants should always be welcomed as an integral part of the community.

But there’s something disingenuous about that as well.

While I must admit to having been relieved when my mother called to tell me I could tear up my (imaginary) Mayflower Society membership, many parts of my family have been here for generations.

I had relatives among the founders of Hingham, MA. I’m related to Mary Todd Lincoln. Even my Somerville roots run deep – my cousin 100 years ago served as the superintendent of Somerville Public Schools (Source: my mother).

So, to compare my ‘immigrant experience’ to the modern immigrant experience lacks a thoughtful understanding of the issues currently faced, and – perhaps worse – masks those issues under a pretense of commonality.

Ostrander also describes a similar “working class” imaginary, which I personally find particularly compelling. Having grown up in a working class family, I very strongly identify as a working class, though common measurements would generally categorize me as middle class.

I am not sure that there is anything wrong with this disconnect – with seeking understanding and common ground through different, but similar experiences.

But I do thinking it’s something of which we all need to be self-aware.

When you claim membership within a group, how does that self-identity impact those who are around you?

In what ways does your self-perceived group membership impact the way you think or the way you present ideas? Is it clear to your audience where you’re coming from?

Is it possible that, in trying to create a welcoming environment you are unintentionally creating a space where genuine inclusion is not possible?

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Pants!

By request, today I am blogging about pants.

I’m actually a pretty big fan of pants.

I find them very practical, and I of course love all those wild women who dared to wear trousers when it was undignified.

Pants, I would say, have truly made a difference in the western world.

Why then, I ask, is it nearly impossible to find a decent pair of comfortable, properly fitting pants in our industrial, modern age of unbelievable wealth and technology?

Well, it may have something do with the fact that the women who serve as models for how clothes should look and fall are routinely hospitalized as a result of self/industry imposed starvation.

That would certainly explain why they never quite fit right.

When a friend shared her dread about going pants and shorts shopping, I was struck by how pants – which once signaled a woman’s strength and independence – have become, perhaps with other garments, a source of anxiety, discomfort and dread.

Women’s pant sizes don’t make any sense, they aren’t consistent across brands, and they always seem to be too tight in one place and too loose in another – making pants shopping a surprisingly stressful undertaking.

There are many more knowledgeable of the fashion industry than I, so I will leave it to them to dissect the cycle of ever-shrinking models and clothing standards and what it means for self-image and self-confidence.

But, my friends, I will leave you with this:
An Amazon woman wearing pants, ca. 470 BC. And man, that warrior looks comfortable.

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Hell Unleashed

This week saw two powerful anniversaries – the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 followed by the bombing on Nagasaki on August 9.

As an American who studied physics and Japanese, I spend a lot of time thinking about these two horrific events.

Following the bombing of Hiroshima, President Truman released a statement saying:
Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.

What he didn’t say is that people were vaporized and you could see their shadowy remnants imprinted on broken walls.

That many who survived that initial blast walked for miles, futilely seeking salvation from the desolation that had become their home. But there was no escape. They died in the attempt.

Many more died in pain and agony days later as radiation slowly poisoned their systems.

Sixty eight years later the wounds are patched but unhealed.

As a human person, I feel an overwhelming horror at the events of those days.

As an American physicist, I feel a responsibility.

Genbaku Dome, the only building left
standing near the epicenter.

When I lived in Japan, I made a point of visiting Hiroshima. I saw the Peace Museum, the thousand cranes, the deformed trees, and the one building that still stands – a testament to the past and a monument to the future.

And I wondered.

If I was an American physicist earlier. What…would that have meant? (Gender issues aside for the purposes of this conversation.)

In 1895, at the age of 16, Albert Einstein famously imagined chasing a beam of light. That imagination led to his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905.

That theory included the understanding that a large amount of energy could be released from a small amount of mass (E=MC^2).

And from there, it was a small jump to imagine releasing a large amount of energy as a means of war and distruction.

And all from an idea.

From a man who thought big. Who imagined at the boundaries of human thought. Who did what he loved. Who only sought to understand the universe.

That has always troubled me.

There can be a real danger in striving too close to the edge. To pushing the boundaries. To seeking more understanding.

You never know where those thoughts will lead. How they’ll be used beyond your control. How they will change the world. Forever.

My senior year of college, I got a letter from the DoD. As someone graduating with a degree in physics, they wondered if perhaps I would be interested in working for them.

I politely declined.

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Time for Reflection

I’ve spent the last two days in Salem, MA, contemplating with my colleagues the challenges and opportunities we face in our work.

Retreats and strategic discussions always remind me of the first time I participated in a strategic planning process.

When I was in high school, I participated in a strategic planning process for Canyon Elementary School – the K-8, 3 classroom,  75 student school in a Redwood forest which I had recently graduated from.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the process.

I remember people talking in big, grand, terms about what the school’s mission was, should be, and whether it was being met.

I remember thinking it wasn’t that complicated. We wanted to teach people to love learning.

We spent two or three days hashing over the topic. Talking about the importance of a strong academic grounding. Questioning whether it was worth sacrificing a passion for learning in order to instill the recollection of facts that were considered to be needed for high school and therefore future life success.

Talking about what was needed to educating students successfully.

Asking what it means to educate students successfully.

Drafts, poems, and critical dialogues later, we emerged with consensus on a completed, wordsmithed mission statement.

We didn’t solve all our problems, but we dove into them in a deeper way than I’d ever known to happen.

We didn’t all agree, but we reached understanding and compromise.

And it made me realize just how important it is to take time aside for reflection and planning. For deliberation and dialogue.

To not just do the work, but to think about the work.

To always ask how we are doing. And how we can do better.

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