Monthly Archives: September 2013

It’s the end of the world as we know it (I feel fine)

My high school English teacher told me that when Ray Bradbury was growing up, he, like many people, tuned into the famous War of the Worlds broadcast by H.G. Wells.

She said that he, like many people, thought the broadcast was real. Thought that aliens were invading the planet. Thought that we were all going to die.

So, she said, he gathered up his younger brother, packed some sandwiches, and walked up the hill. To watch the world end.

He would have been 18 at the time, but beyond that, I have no idea if the story is true.

There’s something else I associate with this story, though truth be told, I’m not totally sure where this came from.

As I recall, my English teacher told me that later when recounting this story, Bradbury explained his calm acceptance of the end of world by saying that – reality only exists insofar as we perceive it. When I die, my reality dies, my world ends. Just as death is inevitable, the end of the world is inevitable. So really, there’s nothing else to do but to sit back and experience life, even in its destruction.

It certainly sounds like something Bradbury would say.

And there’s something very logical about just accepting the inevitable. About accepting things you can’t change. About experiencing what you can, when you can.

But, I think my English teacher missed something in this story (or maybe I did at the time).

Bradbury’s short story, The Last Night of the World, explores a similar situation. The story captures a couple’s last day as they calmly accept that the world will end that night. “I always imagined people would be screaming in the streets at a time like this,” one says.

And how is it that everyone, knowing they are doomed, stays so calm?
“Because there’s nothing else to do.”
“That’s it, of course, for if there were, we’d be doing it.”

 But the point is just the opposite. The world is ending. Every day.

Through war, environmental destruction, and the senseless snuffing of individual lives, realities and worlds. The world is ending.

And we calmly accept it as inevitable. As if there is nothing to be done. As if we faced our own death and shrugged. So it goes.

The world is ending. And most of us are just watching it end.

“We haven’t been too bad, have we?”

“No, nor enormously good. I suppose that’s the trouble. We haven’t been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things.”


Civic Street Games

So…you know those games where you’re driving and it’s like…5 points if you hit a mailbox, 10 points if you hit a street light? (I was going to say pedestrian, but that would be terrible).

I mean, I don’t think people really play these games. (I hope). But people joke about them. You know what I mean?

Well, anyway. It’s a thing. Really.

So, as I walked around town this morning, I starting to think about what you’d get points for if the game was more civic – or perhaps, I might say, more neighborly.

Here’s what I’ve got so far. What would you add?

Civic Street Game – Scoring Rules
5pts for saying hi to a stranger
5 bonus points if you can do it without being creepy

5pts for sharing your umbrella with a stranger during a rain storm
(No bonus points because it’s impossible to do this without being creepy. I’ve tried.)

5pts for picking trash off the side walk

5pts for (safely) removing sharp or otherwise hazardous debris from the street while you cross it

5pts for mailing random mail you find on the sidewalk (because apparently that happens)

5pts for volunteering helpful, relevant information to a stranger (eg, “Just so you know, if you park there, you’ll get towed. Yeah, I know the signage is terrible!”)

10pts for helping someone who’s slipped/tripped/fallen
New England special: 5 bonus points for pretending to ignore someone who is clearly okay. Nobody saw you look like an idiot. Everything’s fine.

1pt for telling someone they’re still wearing a name tag from some event they went to

1pt for telling someone you know that they should stop standing on the walking side of the escalator

1pt for giving someone accurate directions
5 bonus points if you admit that you honestly don’t know and while you’d love to be helpful, you’re probably better off if you find someone else to ask. Sorry.


Saying No to Yes Men

Many of my friends and colleagues are big proponents of deliberation and dialogue – conversations where diverse community members evaluate and address community problems.

At it’s root, deliberative processes assume that the best outcomes come from the most voices. That groups make better decisions than individuals.

It sounds pretty good in theory, but there are many complications to making this work.

The one on my mind today is the risk of ‘yes men,’ as it were.

This can take many forms – from deliberately surrounding yourself with people who agree with you to incidentally ending up with a network of people much like yourself.

Whether intentional or not, being surround by people who generally agree with you limits the possible outcomes of any process. The resulting outcome may be okay. Or it may not be. But it will almost certainly not be as good as it could be.

Conversations with disagreement can be hard. But, that’s okay. That’s good.

Disagreeing doesn’t need to mean table flipping and shouting matches. Reasonable people can disagree in reasonable ways. Share view points, explain motivations, evaluate impulses.

But often we don’t get to have those conversations.

Socially, we seem to be trained to just go with the flow. Agree with whomever is in charge or has the most social clout.

And sometimes that makes sense. Sometimes it’s just not worth the fight.

But I get nervous when no one disagrees with me. Who’s holding back? Who doesn’t feel comfortable sharing their view?

Having those divergent voices is critical – to us as individuals and to the societies we live in.

So ask yourself – do you create welcoming space for different view points?

When was the last time someone disagreed with you?


A Good Job is Hard to Find

I spend a significant amount of my time talking and thinking about good jobs and worker’s rights – primarily through my work as a member of Somerville Community Corporation‘s Jobs for Somerville.

We all know folks who are working two or three jobs just to get by. And that’s not okay.

It’s easy to blame it on the economy – these are rough times and we all got to tighten our belts. But when I see no change to the status quo anywhere in the future – that’s not okay.

(Also, while the recent economic downturn has doubtless made things worse, let’s not pretend it was all rainbows and roses before.)

I’m not content to sit around and wait for the economy to get better. I’m not content to imagine that someday, just so long as I shop enough, there will be jobs for everyone. I’m not content to let the market sort itself out.

And when I talk about jobs, I want to be clear in differentiating between “a job” and “a good job.”

It’s not enough to create crap jobs that pay nothing. It’s not enough to build a system where people are forced to scramble for whatever scraps they can get. It’s not enough to create temporary jobs that are gone in a month or two.

We need more. My community needs more. My neighbors need more.

I’m no economist, but we must find a way to fix this system. We need to find ways to create, good, sustainable jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage, are safe, and have opportunities for advancement.

That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

There’s an effort getting started in Massachusetts to raise the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour and to require employers to provide earned sick time to employees.

Those are good efforts that deserve good consideration and, I believe, support.

But let’s not stop there.

The system IS broke – and we should fix it.


We are the Masses

People have a tendency to generalize.

Well, they may or they may not. But it always makes me laugh inside when I hear someone say, something such as, “Well, you know people these days, they’re not very smart.”

Or maybe it’s that people are lazy.

Or maybe they just don’t care.

It’s always something.

If there’s something wrong in the world, or in your little corner of it, it’s easy to blame it generally on the populace. It’s easy to shake your head and sigh, “Ah – people. What are you going to do?”

As if an unfortunate outcome could have been easily predicted from the fact that people were in charge of the decision in the first place.

Stupid, fallible, biased, corrupt, people.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I regularly quip that I “hate everyone.” But even as I direct my undirected anger at the vast horde of the nameless, the faceless, The People, I try to remember that I’m just as bad (or just as good, if you’re an optimist) as any of them.

We’re all stupid, fallible, biased, corrupt individuals and sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we make mistakes as individuals, and sometimes we make mistakes en mass.

And that’s okay. Maybe we just have to accept that and move on.

It strikes me that professionalization is an attempt to protect us from the masses. Because having well educated, specialized, idiots is preferable to having some random idiot off the street.

But seriously, how many times have people in high-level, professional positions messed up big time? I don’t have a number, but go ahead and Google “scandal” and see what comes up.

There seems to be a certain mythos around professionalization – as if by carefully accruing specialized knowledge and experience, an average Joe can transcend into some infallible existence.

And there’s something appealing about this vision, as we each see ourselves as infallible (well, I don’t know about you, but I am always right), and we each see Others as screw-ups.

But the truth is, we’re all just people.We all have our faults. And we need to figure out how to work together.

Blaming our problems on generalities and looking for solutions from specialists is not going to help us. We’re all generalists in the world, and specialists in our own experience. We are the masses.


It’s All in the Tag Line

My new hobby is coming up with marketing catch phrases for academic departments.

Some of you may recall the words of the irreverently inspired Tom Lehrer when introducing his song Oedipus Rex:

“But, a few years ago, a motion picture version appeared of Sophocles’ immortal tragedy Oedipus Rex. This picture played only in the so-called art theaters, and it was not a financial success. And I maintain that the reason it was not a financial success was that it did not have a title tune which the people could hum, and which would make them actually eager to attend this particular flick.”

He then, of course, goes on to perform a catchy Oedipus Rex theme song.

I’m no Tom Lehrer, but it’s with that spirit that I found myself trying to come up with ridiculous, but appropriate catch phrases for fields of study. Not at all to imply, of course, that these fields aren’t already successful. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
Economics: The market proves it’s valuable.
Chemistry: Learning by exploding.

Civil Engineering: Learn to build it, they will come.

Communication: That’s what I’m talking about!
History: It just never gets old!

Philosophy: A good thing to think about.

Physics: Who doesn’t want to study the physics of two bodies in motion?

Psychology: You know you want to.


Here Be Dragons

I don’t really know much about mapping (though I did take a history of geography course as an undergraduate), but I really like maps.

I feel like maps are generally considered to be very factual. This mountain is x kilometers high. This river is located at (x,y) coordinates. This border is here. Greenland is…about the same size as Africa?

But maps are not really factual at all.

Okay, maybe they are a little factual – but taking them as unquestionable truth conceals deeper issues. Maps can say a lot about a socio-political environment.

For years in school I remember teachers saying, “Just ignore the USSR on this map. It doesn’t exist any more.”

Not to mention the challenge that comes from border disputes. Or from rivers moving over time. Or of which direction is “up.” And of course, there’s the well documented argument over how the globe should be projected two dimensionally.

Side note: Africa is almost 14 times the size of Greenland. The contiguous United States are about the same size as Australia. If you’re interested in other size comparisons, check out MapFight.

My favorite are older maps which clearly show, “here is civilization, out there are the barbarians.”

I’m pretty sure every part of the world has maps like that in their history.

While apparently only the Lenox Globe is documented to contain the phrase”hic sunt dracones” (here are dragons), there seem to be plenty of instances of dragons or other wild animals appearing on the outskirts of maps.

So next time you look at a map, ask yourself where those borders came from, how they were measured, and what when into making those determinations.

…Then let me know, cause I’d be interested to find out.


Science with the Stars

Someone told me today that Bill Nye the Science Guy is going to be on Dancing with the Stars.

So I have a proposal for a different reality TV show.

Something of a “Bill Nye” meets “Dancing with the Stars.”

12 pseudo-celebrities are paired with science advisers, then go head to head in a series of science related competitions.

In week one, celebrities compete in a classic egg drop – using limited materials and strict guidelines to construct a container that will allow a raw egg to survive a one story free fall.

Week two ups the ante to see which celeb-scientist pair can build a trebuchet that launches objects the furthest. (Hint: it’s all in the counter-weight.)

In the finalist show down, contestants must design, implement, and explain their own science project.

And amidst all the science, there’s drama, angst, and broken allegiances. Maybe a table flip or two.

I’d watch that.


Secret Lives

If you’ve never read any James Thurber, do.

I’ve personally always been fond of his drawings, particularly his characterization, from A New Natural History, of the Hopeless Quandary:

But, Thurber is perhaps better known for his short story the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Mitty is an average man who dreams of heroism. He imagines himself saving lives as a surgeon and taking on daring missions as a member of the military.

The story is generally read tragically.

Mitty imagines himself a hero, but he is no hero. He’s just a quiet man regularly berated by his wife. Like another tragic hero, Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman, Mitty just can’t seem to catch a break.

But I like to read it differently.

Yes, Mitty is an average man, but he refuses to be defeated by his averageness. He imagines himself a hero and he is a hero.

He will not be cowed by the mundanities of modernity.

Like many classic heroes, he accepts his fate, embraces his fate – tragic though it may be – and faces it resolutely.

So next time you find yourself day dreaming, imagining a world where you’re saving lives or defeating bad guys, remember Walter Mitty.

Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.


Going to the Pullman Hell

In the States, yesterday was Labor Day.

Many places in the world, “labor day” is celebrated on May 1 – International Workers’ Day. But, International Workers’ Day is a little too Communist for most Americans’ taste, so we celebrate in September instead.

While there had been several efforts to make an official labor holiday in the U.S., the idea didn’t really take hold until several workers were killed by U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike.

That’ll do it for you.

The Pullman Strike, for those who don’t know, was a watershed moment for the U.S. labor movement. There’s a reason they hardly talk about it in school.

Workers for George Pullman’s train company were essentially indentured labor. They lived in Pullman towns and bought produce from the company store. But they didn’t get paid enough to settle their company bills. So they had to keep working until their debt was (never) paid off.

One of my favorite quotes from the Pullman Strike came from a laborer, in 1883:

We are born in a Pullman house.
We are fed from a Pullman shop,
taught in a Pullman school,
catechized in the Pullman church
and when we die we shall be buried in a Pullman cemetery
and go to a Pullman hell.

Incidentally, on the one page my American History text book devoted to this strike, the editor elected to remove the last line of this quote. As if going to a Pullman hell was the most unspeakable part of the whole ordeal.

After workers went on strike, the U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney obtained an injunction saying the strike was illegal. President Cleveland sent in federal troops, and things got pretty messy from there.

People died.

But I got Monday off.

Ultimately, the strike was crushed. Many strikers were blackballed. Gene Debs, founder of the American Railway Union (ARU), was sent to prison. It was a huge victory for the ruling elite.

But something shifted. People across the country started to ask – why aren’t workers treated fairly? What’s so wrong about wanting to feed your family? How is it okay for our own government to attack citizens just trying to get a decent wage? Something was broken.

The days of the Pullman Strike and rough and tumble union politics seem distant and ephemeral. But never forget what those workers did for you. They risked everything – and sometimes lost everything – because it needed to be done. Because the system wasn’t fair and something needed to be done.

Something still needs to be done.