Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Challenge for Public Work

I am generally in favor of the idea of public work – people co-creating communities through their work.

It’s a very romantic idea. Revaluing the workers, the creators, the doers who literally shape our world every day.

We may be accustomed to appropriately thinking of teachers as civic workers. But what about the architects who design our schools or the construction workers who build our schools? What about the custodial staff or others who work tirelessly to make the school run? Is their work civic, too? A lens of public work would say it is.

Perhaps what I find most alluring about the framework of Public Work is that it genuinely values the work that every person puts into an effort. It doesn’t so much matter what you bring to the table, but Public Work acknowledges that everyone brings something of value to the table.

But while I find Public Work appealing, I have a hard time appreciating what this ideal would really look like in practice.

For example, I attend a lot of civic events of various types. Sometimes I’m a guest, sometimes I’m a host, and sometimes I am staff.

I’ve noticed over the years that I participate in the work, the content of the event, very differently depending on my role. As a guest I enjoy and engage, as a host I make sure everyone’s having a good time, and as staff I’m focused on the logistics of three steps ahead.

I may be the same person in every mode, but my work is not equal nor, perhaps, equally valued.

I’ve generally attributed this to my own archaic view of social roles. I did, after all, spend much of my childhood in a Victorian-area historic park. So, as much as I am passionate about worker’s rights and respecting all types of workers, I have to admit there is a certain part of me which still defaults to Downton Abbey-type norms.

There’s a certain propriety about the class hierarchy. A certain seemliness which, as much as I may fight it in society, I tend embrace in myself. There’s just a certain way one ought to behave when you are The Help, I suppose.

But as I’ve noticed my own effortless transitions between different roles – an honored guest, a gracious host, a silent staffer – I started to wonder if there was a deeper challenge here.

Don’t get me wrong, class divides are a deep challenge and I fully recognized that not everyone has the same experience as me in this regard. After all, not everyone has the luxury of walking between these roles.

But there is a challenge even deeper than ingrained social roles.

When I am in a supporting role, my biggest challenge may not be that I don’t feel welcome to participate as a guest – it’s that I don’t have the capacity for it.

I am so caught up in the logistic details, so exhausted from the effort so far, and so focused on completing the last few miles that I honestly would rather not participate more fully.

Perhaps this is only a challenge for us introverts, but when I am working an event, I honestly don’t want a seat at the table. I want a seat in the back where I can have a moment of silence of and relax my smile.

If I attended a replica event in the role of a guest, I would have few qualms about chiming in or speaking up. But the very role of staffing – social norms aside – diminishes my capacity to engage in this way.

And this to me is the challenge for Public Work. It is great to say that everyone’s work is valued. It is great to say that everyone’s role is important. That’s the right ethic to strive for, and fully support that view.

But while every person might have the capacity to contribute equally to the work, every role does not. Every worker does not. Someone’s voice will be left out.

And I don’t know the solution to this challenge, because I’m not sure I want to attend an unstaffed event. Really. That would be chaos.

You need people who will make these event run, who will make them go. And those people contribute greatly and importantly – and essentially – to the work. You should, of course, thank them for their efforts, but the challenge remains –

They haven’t been able to contribute all they could contribute. Possibly because of social norms, but also because their work simply didn’t allow it.

Civic Learning in Higher Education

I had the honor to spend the day listening to an engaging conversation with university leaders, policy makers and advocates from around the country. Tisch College, where I work, hosted the White House’s Civic Learning and National Service Summit – a day long conversation focused on validating, elevating and integrating civic learning in higher education.

A lot of critical issues – and stories to celebrate – were raised throughout the day. I’m afraid I haven’t quite synthesized these into a concise and compelling format, but here are a few of the ideas that I am walking away with –

Civic learning is more than civic engagement. It is broader and it is deeper. It’s not just about engaging students in civic work, it’s about preparing students and educating them to be continually engaged in civic work, to the best of their abilities.

It is about embracing higher education, not as something which can propel an individual to success, but as something which can fundamentally strengthen our democracy.

And embracing civic learning isn’t just a program shift, it is a culture shift. It means creating environments where faculty dedicated to civic learning can thrive. Where staff can dedicate their careers to helping young people and communities flourish.

There is much work to be done – in higher education as in other sectors. But there are many successes to celebrate and many allies deeply engaged in this work. Nothing gets solved in a one day meeting, but the conversation is important.

And the conversation continues.

Scaling (not) Up

When people talk about “scaling” they seem to generally mean “scaling up.” This is often used particularly within the business context – how can we scale up our business model to serve more customers? Or, as perhaps the more skeptical add, to make more money.

“Scaling up” is also prevalent within the non-profit sector – how can we broaden our reach? How can we connect more people with our services or convince more people of our message?

Scaling up is, perhaps, a litmus test, which divides strong companies from the weak. Great idea, I’ve heard people say, but will it scale?

It is, perhaps, nice to do something at a small, local, level, but if you can’t effectively scale up, conventional wisdom seems to say, there’s not really much point. Or at least, the conversation then turns into a (worthwhile but secondary) debate over whether it’s okay to improve one life rather than many.

But is scaling up really the only way to go?

I’m not intrinsically opposed to scaling up, but I question the assumption that it’s the only way to go – that success and upwards scale are inextricably linked.

As someone recently commented to me, perhaps some efforts could benefit from scaling down.

I am particularly intrigued by what I can only describe as scaling laterally – connecting local work in one place to local work in another place.

Scale, I suppose, is at its essence a navigation problem. How does information, or perhaps commands, get from one place to another?

The typical model of scaling up tackles this problem more or less effectively. Some centralized governing body oversees a network of smaller entities. A well articulated company brand or character can greatly help in making sure that all the pieces are working together, but it tends to be a very vertical solution.

Perhaps that is the easiest solution, and perhaps it is the best solution – I am certainly in no position to judge.

But it is not the only solution.

A central governing body is not inherently necessary. A vertical structure is not inherently necessary. What’s necessary is that information can get from point A to point B. And this information needs to flow in a timely enough matter that the two can truly communicate.

…But what kind of scale is that?

Celebrate a Local Harvest

Join Somerville Local First on October 18 for HarvestFest, a fun celebration of all things local and fall! The festivities will take place at Arts at the Armory in two sessions: 2:00PM-5:00PM and 6:00PM to 9:00PM.

As board member of Somerville Local First, I will be there all day long – so stop on by any say hello! And, of course, don’t forget to buy your tickets before the event sells out.

This years HarvestFest will feature tastes from these local brewers and restaurants:

Beverages
Aeronaut Brewing
Bantam Cider
Berkshire Brewing Company
Blue Hills Brewing Company
Far From the Tree Cider
Harpoon
Jack’s Abby
Mystic Brewing Company
Mayflower Brewing Company
Rapscallion
Tower Root Beer

Food
3 Little Figs
Bibim
Brass Union
Daddy Jones Bar
Dave’s Fresh Pasta
Eat at Jumbo’s
El Potro
Foundry
The Independent
Kirkland Tap and Trotter
Olde Magoun’s Saloon
Qs Nuts
Riverbar
Saloon
Scoop N Scootery
Taza Chocolate

Throughout the day,  entertainment will be provided by Somerville favorites:
Red Square
3D and the Greaseballs
The Hospitality
General Motor

Morning

I love a good, quiet, fall morning.

When the air is crisp but heavy coats not yet necessary. When the morning light slants through the changing leaves, painting the world in a mix of autumn colors.

The wind whistles, the leaves rustle. It is quiet and still, but not quiet at all.

The squirrels are panicking, the birds are chirping. The world is so very much alive while calming down for the quiet death of winter.

I love a good, quiet, fall morning.

When it feels like the world could just be still forever. A smooth pond cherishing the tremor of a falling leaf.

The rich morning sun keeping the darkness at bay.

The coldness approaching but a touch of warmth still in the air.

That moment of indecision, a penny in the air, waiting with baited breath for the season to turn.
I love a good, quiet, fall morning.

Internal Dissonance

Modern man loves to torment himself.

As Nietzsche argues in On the Genealogy of Morals:
It was that desire for self-torture in the savage who suppresses his cruelty because he was forced to contain himself (incarcerated as he was ‘in the state,’ as part of his taming process), who invented bad conscious so as to hurt himself, after the more natural outlet for this desire had been blocked…

While claims of the universality of this state might be difficult to prove, it certainly seems reasonable to imagine that it is not entirely uncommon for a modern person to occasionally feel guilt at some of their baser instincts.

And guilt certainly has a way of turning into self-torture, as anyone who has ever called themselves a terrible person can attest.

But how are we to solve this internal dissonance?

Is it truly sensible to inflict such pain and torment upon ourselves for acts or thoughts which are entirely natural?

Nietzsche calls this crushing guilt, “the most dreadful disease that has yet afflicted men.”

This suggests we should perhaps release ourselves from the “incarceration” of the state. We should refuse to be tamed by man or man’s God and pursue whatever acts we choose. There is nothing to feel guilty about. No punishment we should inflict upon ourselves. No bad conscious which should hold us back.

Well. That might sound good to some people – freedom and individuality being utmost concerns – but that doesn’t sound so good to me.

Perhaps I should not punish myself to the point of desperation for every passing thought I regret. But I should feel guilty for the mistakes I make. I should regret those misdeeds and aim to do better in the future.

So, no, I am not comfortable saying that man should no longer torment himself for perceived sins. Indeed, I would argue the opposite – I am in favor of self-flagellation.

Because, here’s the thing – in my experience, it is those who worry about being a terrible person who are the least terrible people.

Perhaps it is hard, perhaps it is torture, but the moment you stop questioning your own morality is the moment you have become immoral. If you are not concerned that you’re a terrible person, you probably are.

But this dissonance does not have to be torture. Nietzsche sees this pain as the mad hope of a modern man driven to unreason in the name of reason. As a desperate grope towards an unachievable and nonexistent salvation.

There is a middle ground here. The choices aren’t simply to abandon all moral pretense or face a life of despair.

Dissonance…for some reason is generally frowned upon. Perhaps it is too complicated, perhaps is too hard, I don’t know.

But I find myself at home there.

Yes, I’m a terrible person, and yes, I’m not a terrible person. Both those states exist at once. They aren’t mutually exclusive. And their coexistence isn’t something to fear. It doesn’t have to be a state of despair and self-torment.

Both those states exist at once, in a beautiful, elegant, balance in the universe.

When a Mountain is No Longer a Mountain

Many years ago I ran across the koan:

Before you study Zen, a mountain is a mountain
When you study Zen, a mountain is no longer a mountain
Once you master Zen, a mountain is a mountain

While my memory has no doubt mangled the wording, the sentiment has long since stuck with me. Like many koans it makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense. It needs no explanation, yet could never be explained.

And perhaps my gaikokujin sensibilities distort the saying’s true meaning, but I would interpret that particular koan as something like this –

If life makes sense, you are not thinking hard enough. If you are looking to truly understand the world, you never will. All that’s left is to embrace that you know nothing, and to find the knowledge in that.

I’ve never had a the privilege to formally study Zen, but I read much of it’s works in this spirit. Koans are intentionally nonsensical.

As I child I would assure myself that somehow they did make sense, that I could see their deeper meaning. But that is indeed a simplistic, childlike view. Koans make no sense and you can only understand them by embracing that they make no sense.

And that may seem a futile exercise, but life is a futile exercise. And life makes no sense until you embrace the that it makes no sense.

In the West we call this the absurd – another apt description of existence. As Camus describes:

At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of [man’s] gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this “nausea,” as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd.

In the West we have fought against the absurd. We have called it nausea and godlessness and feared the immorality and unreason that would tumble down upon us if we admitted the existence of the absurd.

Those writers and thinkers who have embraced this approach are often seen as dark figures who stare into the abyss and scorn all that is Good.

And perhaps they are.

But a mountain is no longer a mountain, and it is only by embracing that, by embracing the absurd, that a mountain can become a mountain again.

A Muse of Fire

People often ask me where I get my inspiration for blog posts.

I don’t really have a good answer to that.

Being somewhat prone to melodrama, when I’m in desperate need of inspiration I think of the opening words of Henry V – O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention.

But those words, calling for the type of inspiration that could set the world ablaze, seem, perhaps, too much for my every day needs. Would my words could call forth the vasty fields of France – but some days such art is not in the cards.

Some days showing up is about all I can muster.

And that’s the best part of blogging every day. Committing to writing every day means accepting that not every post will be a masterpiece. (Quite frankly, it would be miraculous if, after decades of blogging, I managed to summon one masterpiece from this abyss, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Blogging every day is a commitment to being publicly imperfect everyday. Of course, we are all of us publicly imperfect every day, but I generally would prefer to try to be imperfect only in the privacy of my own home.

The most challenging thing about blogging is figuring out just how imperfect to be.

Sometimes, I just sit down and write whatever is in my head. Those are the best posts, I think – where I can be somewhat stream of consciousness and somewhat coherent simply by articulating something that’s been knocking around in my head for awhile.

But I have several topics in my head which aren’t quite…baked. I think about writing them and suddenly I’m hit by a flood of things I need to know or understand before I can write about them.

Most of the time, this challenge is easily surmountable. For many of my posts I look up specific facts and figures – information I know generally in my head but which I can’t reliably cite.

But sometimes even that doesn’t feel like enough.

So then I’m stuck with an interesting quandary – try to articulate some half baked idea I don’t know nearly enough about or wait until I’ve had time to learn more and perfect my imperfections.

When I started blogging I didn’t worry about this too much – I wrote on whatever topic caught my fancy and simply acknowledged my many shortcomings as I went. But more recently I’ve found myself with an increasing number of topics which I want to write about – but which I don’t quite have the brain space to process.

And all this has left me wondering – just how imperfect should I be? Perhaps one day I’ll know.

O, for a muse of fire…

A World with no Friction

In physics, it is common to tackle complex problems by starting with a simplification of the scenario.

Want to understand how an object move along a surface? Start in a world with no friction. Assume a standard downward force, g, and understand the simplest version of what is going to occur.

Once you have a simple formula for the simple situation, then you can add friction and other real-world complications. Little by little you can expand your simple model into a complex model, slowly but surely adding the detail that’s needed to understand how things really work.

This is one of the beautiful things about the mathematics of science. When you truly come to understand the equations, you can see how clearly g, the force of gravity on Earth, is derived from G, the gravitational force of the universe. You can see how the formula for an object traveling at the speed of light is actually just the same as an object moving at an every day speed – it’s just that for every day purposes the complex factors become so small they are irrelevant.

There is nothing wrong with the world without friction. This model is a crucial first step for deeper understanding. It’s the place you have to start, the model you have to truly understand before you can move forward.

It is not uncommon to criticize the social sciences for their lack of a predictive model. Physics can describe the future trajectory of a moving object, why can political science describe the future trajectory of a government.

Frankly, I don’t find that concern all that compelling. I am rather relieved that social sciences can’t predict my every move, and I am dismayed as a matter of principle at big data analytics which seem to move in that direction.

But, from my vantage point far outside these fields, the social sciences do seem to be stuck in – or perhaps, slowly moving out of – a world without friction.

I’ve been glad to see the growth of network analysis within the social sciences. Still in its nascent stages, perhaps, but slowly adding the complexities of reality onto social science models.

People interact with each other. Organizations interact with each other. Organizations, governments, and yes, even corporations, are made of people interacting with each other.

A government doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is – as we well know – friction within our society. Using network analysis to get at these more subtle interactions is a critical step in moving social science understanding beyond the simple – but valuable model – of a world with no friction.

Probability and Free Will

I am not, I suppose, a good person to debate free will with, because I am heavily biased in its favor.

I expect there is little anyone will ever say, do, or discover that will shake my opinion. A world without free will is a world I cannot abide.

To be fair, I imagine that no one will ever really know if free will exists. It is one of many deeper truths which elude our control. But, in the absence of true knowledge, I have to choose – if I may – a paradigm to operate under.

And I chose free will.

Benjamin Libet’s study of neural impulses famously found brain activity before the conscious decision to move. This arguably proved free will was a myth – the brain makes an impulsive decision and our consciousness efficiently rationalizes it.

While there are neuroscience reasons to be critical of this claim, more generally, I don’t find it compelling to argue that advanced brain activity proves a lack of free will.

I suppose, though, that this is much in the definition of free will.

I don’t think of free will as a carte blanche dictum that allows a person to act in any imaginable way regardless of their context or experience. Rather I think of free will like this –

If you flip a coin, there is a 50% chance it will land heads and a 50% chance it will land tails. No matter how many times you flip the coin, this probability will remain the same. The coin doesn’t care. Every flip will have the same odds.

Free will is the ability to affect that probability.

Perhaps a person has, if you will, factory settings. Default rules that govern whether you are more prone to fight or to flight. Those deep instincts can be difficult to overcome, but, they can be overcome.

Perhaps you can’t change every instinct you have, and perhaps you don’t always take the path you would have liked. But you have the ability to effect the probability of the outcome. It doesn’t have to be a 50/50 split.

And that’s free will.