On the nature of water and houses

Wimbledon Champions Park underwater. Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

As I write this, the city of Houston, and for that matter most of south east Texas, is getting hammered by tropical storm Harvey. Thousands of people have lost their homes to flooding, which is a terrible tragedy. Mind you, this is not a new thing. Floods have been hitting this region of years. There are reasons why Harvey could be seen as especially bad, but flooding is a way of life for some parts of the world, and it will always remain so.

Rather than talk about the tragedy of flooding, or attempt to point my finger in an area I know little about and understand even less, what I want to do here is offer a view towards a new and different future. A future in which I think has room for everyone, regardless of where you live, or the color of your political stripe.

One of the things we learned from hurricane Katrina, and we will learn from Harvey, is that flooding a house is expensive, Once water has reached the walls of a house, the cost of rebuilding it is staggering. Water is absorbed by almost all modern building materials, and once that material has been saturated it will either warp, become susceptible to mold, rot, fall apart, or do a variation on all four. On many houses, once it has been dipped in water, the costs associated with repair are so high that is it cheaper to simply tear down the home and start from scratch.

Now I’m not talking about shacks here, but houses. Homes that were, until the moment the river got a little too high, worth an appreciable amount of the owners net value. Literally, it’s like taking out $100,000 in bills from the bank, and tossing them in the river. Only multiplied by thousands and thousands of homes. The cost alone for replacement is enough to bankrupt most countries, and this from just one part of Texas. And this is not even taking into account the personal tragedy of people losing their property, mementos, and sadly their lives.

But what of there was a different path? What else can we do?

The single largest problem I see is that these houses were not built to be submerged. I’m not talking about the ability to face storm surges like what ripped out a lot of homes on the gulf coast from Katrina, but just being dunked for a few days in water. As long as the current forces aren’t all that high, and in a lot of flat areas that is all the kind of flooding most will see, a house that can withstand 4-6 feet of water, for 2-3 days, and can be livable again with just a few hours of repair, would be a huge cost saver for the state. Sure some of the items in such a house might be damaged, but replacing them is a small cost compared to loosing everything, and with a little planing could be easily remedied. For instance, if every room had special floats designed to hold furniture and equipment, one could inflate them, load them up with valuables, and let them ride out the storm high and dry.

Now this is not a new idea, flood proof homes have been designed and built for millennia. Do a google search for “flood proof houses” or see here, or here. What’s needed is not knowledge, but political will. What if the state of Texas offered a premium on houses rebuilt with flood proof materials or techniques? What if flood proof houses received a huge break on flood insurance? These are just a couple of ways to link the free market to less government costs.

Another idea would be to offer an X prize for flood proof houses, with the winner awarded a contract to rebuild homes in certain flood prone areas. Model homes could be built and tested, with all the data available to the public. People could see what works and what doesn’t, and the total costs would be pennies when compared to what we’ll be spending the next time this disaster happens. Because believe me, we’ll be seeing flooding in America again. There’s a long history of it.

Right now as I write this members of Congress are talking about passing a multi-billion dollar relief package for those effected by Harvey, so we’re sure to see a lot of money spent. Why not take the time and learn from our mistakes? Some places in Texas are going to flood, and there’s not much you can do about that, short of spending billions of dollars in large scale drainage systems, which themselves are likely to fail. Why not instead build houses with nature in mind? House that can be dunked, and then used over again without damage, mold, or loss. Why not spend a little now to ensure later success? That would not only be financially wise, but would also save lives. And isn’t that what our country should be about.

Lets be smart people. Lets spend our money well.

 

On Dreams and Robust Systems

Last night I had the strangest dream, one that I think has a lot to tell us about the U.S. healthcare system.

I dreamed I was leading a team that was developing a robot. I don’t recall the purpose of the robot, but I do remember there were several teams competing for the same prize, and that my team was succeeding where the others were not.

Now, what you need to understand is that way back in the day (we’re talking the early 1990s) I came up with the idea of a robotic vacuum that I called the Yarn Shark. It was very similar in intent to a modern Roomba. I did a lot of booking up on robotic systems and architecture back then with the idea of making a sellable product. That robot never came about, but the knowledge remained.

So in my dream one of the things we’d done was run a string of LED lights along the inside of the wheels and mount opposite of the lights a single light sensor that could count them as they passed. This was an old school solution to help your robot know where it was at, what its speed was, and in what direction it was traveling. To give you an example, if the wheels on your robot are 3″ in circumference, and there are 8 lights along its edge, then if your sensor “sees” 8 flashes of light, it’s fair to guess your robot has moved forward 3″. Pretty basic stuff.

All of the robot teams in my dream had been using these LED lights to help them navigate. The main difference was that the other teams had very carefully wrapped their lights around the wheels so they were all spaced apart uniformly. But on our robot, we wrapped the lights any old way, not caring how exact the lights were spaced. Now that inexactness of our spacing should have lead to less accurate navigation, as you can imagine, and the other teams assumed. However, the opposite was true. Our robot consistently navigated far better than the others. This was not because randomly spaced lights are better than uniform ones, but because our software design was different.

The other robots relied upon their accurate spacing, and were programmed with the assumption that every flash of a light was a reliable indicator. Our system, by way of contrast, was designed from the get go with the idea that you could not trust what the sensors were telling the processor. In effect, our processor did not trust its sensors to be reliable, and therefore computed its location differently.

BTW this is largely true. In the real world a wheel moves forward and backward in ways that can be surprising, For instance, when a robot is turning the outer wheels roll a longer distance then the inside wheels. Which leads to the question, wheel is the reliable one? If a robot happens to back up and turn, then its possible a light will trigger the sensor while the wheel is going forward, and then backward. Your processor, not being able to know anything else about the wheel, might assume those flashes indicate consistent motion in one direction or the other, when in fact the wheel had gone both ways.

Our software was based upon the assumption that things could go wrong, and therefore it needed to ask itself more questions to be sure of its location. What did the other wheels indicate? What does the forward radar say? Etc. In engineering, this is called a more robust system. It assumes up front that things can go bad, and it reacts accordingly. Mind you, more robust systems are not perfect, among other things they require much more programming, and they take up more processing time than more simple systems. But they have one decided advantage, they’re not easy to surprise. Errors, in such a system, are expected. And this last part was the key to our robot’s success.

And now we get to the point of this essay. You see, I think Healthcare systems need to be designed more robustly. They need to assume from the get go that people are going to screw up, and have a solution at hand when it happens.

Mind you, I don’t go around assuming people are all screw ups, but when it comes to healthcare I think it fair to say us humans, even the most careful thinking of us, do not fully appreciate the inherent problems. For instance, one can be fully insured for medical problems, but if you’re in a bad auto accident, your health insurance will not cover your house payment that you cannot make because you’re lying in a hospital bed instead of at work. Or what happens if you meet the love of you life, get married, and then you both discover your partner suddenly develops a medical problem so severe it requires a transplant? (this is not an idol question, it happened to a family member) And most people do not worry that if they lose their job they will drink themselves to death, but this is happening so much that the life expectancy for white males of middle age has actually dropped in recent years.

Back before Obamacare our medical insurance system simply cut people off if they cost too much. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, eventually the person cut off would usually qualify for medicare. The problem is that last step was pretty steep, because medicare requires you to be broke before its cuts in. In realty, what happened is your insurance would stop making payments, while you continued to need medical care. Next, you’d go through your savings like poop through a goose, and eventually medicare would kick in right about the time you declared bankruptcy. So you would get your medical care, but only after you lost your house, your kid’s college fund, and your car.

This is stupid for more reasons than I care to count, primary among them is the loss of a good tax-paying citizen, replacing them with a tax liability. And all for a cost that would have been simple to fix at the time of the problem. It used to be that upwards of 60-100k people a year went through medical bankruptcies. That is 100,000 tax payers were reduced to welfare recipients, every year! Not only were we still footing the bill for their medical care, but then we all but insured that these people would never help pay for their bills out of their own pocket. Poor people being notorious for not paying taxes like the middle class do.

This is what I mean by not being a robust system. If your healthcare requires you to go bankrupt, it’s not really caring for you, is it? It’s just keeping you from dying. We need something a little more robust than ‘keeping us from dying”. That is not a good standard for healthcare.

And this is where I get back to my dream and robust systems. As we debate our future healthcare system, I think it imperative we keep in mind that humans get sick in unpredictable ways, and all of us need healthcare for the day when the unpredictable becomes the real. We know the unpredictable will happen–we know people will get cancer, or get in car accidents, become an alcoholic, or suddenly need a new pancreas–the problem is we don’t know who. Even worse, us humans are notoriously bad at assessing our needs. Every healthy human you meet between the ages of 16 and 30 are sure they don’t need medical care, which is true for all of us, but especially the young, right up until the moment that it isn’t. And when that happens, when young adult suddenly needs healthcare, should we penalize them for acting in a way that every healthy person does at their age? That seems pretty counterintuitive to me, and yet it’s a part of the proposed new healthcare.

A better system, that is a more robust system, would assume that they young are going to act like the young, and plan accordingly. Like the lights along the rim of the wheels, we can assume they’re all correct, or assume they are not. Which one is the more likely outcome? Well 90% of the time it will be that they are correct, but it’s that 10% error rate that is the most costly. The same thing applies to healthcare. Humans will mostly pick wrong, and mostly they will be okay. But when things do go south, because we know it does happen to somebody, if there is no system to cover that, then the person without coverage goes from an asset to a liability. A liability in which we all foot the bill.

The most important thing to remember while looking into changes to our healthcare, is that at the end of the day we all pay for everyone’s medical care. Something I think the Republicans are not fully aware of. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your skin color is, or what side of the tracks your family came form–at some point if you don’t foot your medical bills, then we do. We meaning ALL Americans. The cost either comes out of medicare, or it comes out of higher premiums for the healthy, but we do pay for it. Ironically, this is perhaps the single most egalitarian thing we do as Americans, we pay for each other’s healthcare.

Knowing that, doesn’t it make sense to pay for medical care in the lease expensive manner? I ask because emergency medical care is a lot more expensive than preventative care. We’ve all know this. It’s far cheaper to supplement a poor person’s healthcare, and have that care be pro-active, than it is to pay for their care in a hospital emergency room. It’s far cheaper to lightly supplement a middle-class family’s healthcare, than to wait for them to become bankrupt and pay for all of their healthcare. In terms of outcomes, one is far more expensive than the other. In other words, one is far more robust than the other.

And when it comes to tax credits verses subsidies, which is the more robust system? Speaking for my family I can say we’d do far better with a tax credit. But I run my own business and we’ve been playing the tax game for years. We’re used to setting a certain amount of our income aside, setting aside more for healthcare is not an issue. Bear in mind, we are very much the exception here. Most people, who are not used to setting money aside with every paycheck, absolutely suck at it. Every time I talk to a new freelancer I hear the same thing, they know they need to set money aside, but they don’t do it. When I first started freelancing I sucked at it too, up until I ran into problems with the IRS. So what’s the likelihood that people are goring to budget for their healthcare sufficiently for a tax credit to be helpful? Just about zero. Again, like the lights on the wheels, is it safe to assume this is going to work, or is it better to assume that people are going to fail, and plan accordingly?

And that doesn’t even take into account that the two systems (tax credits and subsidies) are simply using different words to describe the same thing. Both of them are the government giving money to the people. Sure one can argue that tax credit favor those who are contributing to the economy, but it completely ignores that it also greatly favors the wealthy and those who are good at managing their income, over the poor and those who are poor at income management. Moreover, it penalizes the poor, the very ones who can least afford the cost. That is a system guaranteed to fail.

I’m not trying to sell everyone on Obamacare, or on anything for that matter. What I’m trying to do is look at healthcare like a problem that can be solved, and then asking what the is more efficient, and failsafe way to accomplish it. I think worrying about things like whether healthcare is an entitlement is a poor place to start. If we’re paying for everyone’s healthcare anyway, and we are paying for it, then worrying about which bank account the money comes from seems rather silly to me, especially if it costs us more. Why not instead look at  the problem from the point of view of what areas are going to fail, and then plan accordingly? Why not ask for, and demand, a more robust healthcare system?

Isn’t that best for everyone?

The Importance of Crashing

Over the holidays my mother was kind enough to gift me David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. This week there was an opening in my “to be read” schedule and I picked it up. I got about half way through last night, far enough in that I got to and past the major event at Kitty Hawk in December of 1903 (the first powered flight of an airplane) and past the conclusion of their testing the next year of their second powered plane, this time flown in a large pasture just outside of Dayton, their home town. McCullough is a talented writer of history, he is wonderfully good at taking you into the details of a figure’s life–in this case the Wright Brothers–without bogging you down in them. So I now know about Wilbur and Orville Wright, their family and friends, and roughly how they went from successful bicycle manufacturers to become the first men to crack the problem of powered, heavier-than-air flight.

If you are a fan of history, or of airplanes–I happen to like both–than this book is more than sufficient to warrant your attention. However, this isn’t a book review, in the strictest sense, there are plenty of those to go around upon this book and/or this topic; this dear reader is something different. You see, as I read of the experiences of the Will and Orv, as they liked to be called, I was struck by something really remarkable: The famous Wright Brothers of historical fame crashed their planes a lot.

Their first glider, which they flew out at Kitty Hawk, NC, crashed and was rebuilt several times. By the time they were done testing with it that fall the glider was so abused and rebuilt that they gave it away, it was literally in pieces by then. Their second glider flew worst then the first one, at least until they rebuilt the wing, but it crashed and was rebuild several times afterwards. Their third glider crashed once so bad it took two weeks to rebuild, and it eventually crashed so often it was all but discarded. Even their famous Flyer, the first powered plane ever, crashed on its first major test flight, bending the propeller shafts so bad Wilber had to travel back to Dayton and have them rebuild. The reason why they didn’t make their historic 1903 until December was because they had so many crashes on the Flyer’s delicate frame that the plane could not get off the ground until then. Once it had flown, making three flights, each one successively longer than the last, it was picked up by the wind like a kite at the beach when they stopped for lunch and toppled over forcefully several times, almost injuring a man who was tangled in the rigging. The first powered airplane in the world came back to Dayton in pieces and was never flown again.

The Wright’s second powered plane was a slightly different design than the Flyer, and was test flown practically in their own back yard. But even this plane crashed so often that it needed constant repairs. By this time Wilber was keeping a diary, logging each flight, so we know for instance that they once went for three months with nothing but crash after crash on this airframe. When they learned to turn a plane around, they crashed. When they learned to launch it with their ingenious catapult, they crashed. When they learned to fly higher off the ground, they crashed. In fact, the place was so cantankerous, the flights so short, the crashes so often, that their friends and people from the press simply gave up all interest, thinking them mad men because their progress was so slow and so littered with repairs. By the time their third Flyer was constructed, the first truly reliable aircraft, the two brothers had done hundreds of flights with a health proportion of those ending in destruction. In short, the Wright Brothers were adept at the art by this point they could have been rightfully called the Kings of Crashing.

The reason for all this crashing is not unknown. To their credit the Wright Brothers knew going in that they were attempting to do two very difficult and interrelated tasks; they were trying to discover the laws of aerial mechanics, that is to discover how to design and build a plane than can repeatedly fly through the air, and they were also learning the art of flying such a plane, both at the same time. Neither of these things had ever been done before, in fact many of the leading scientists of their day proudly proclaimed that heavier-than-air flight was impossible for humans. So not only were they blazing two different trails into the unknown simultaneously, they were doing so with no certain knowledge of their success. There were no maps, no methods, and even the most learned men of their day were completely wrong in their theories, which the Wright Brothers discovered to their chagrin.

This is the nature of doing something truly new. It doesn’t matter if it is working at the leading edge of science, or something so prosaic as falling in love, once you step foot down the path that no one else has trod before, you enter the world of the unknown. And the unknown has a lot of pitfalls.

Now the point of all this is not to claim the Wright Brothers were losers. Obviously they became a household name for a reason, and it wasn’t for their many spectacular failures. In fact I’ll bet that up until you read the above you had no idea how often they crashed. Until I read McCullough’s book I certainly didn’t know, and I’m a serious history buff and n airplane buff. I guess if I had thought about it at all it would have been obvious. I mean, there’s no way to learn how to fly and what is flyable, without making a lot of errors. Anyone who has ever designed or learned to fly a radio controlled airplane can tell you that, and I’ve done both. It’s a process the is fraught with trial and error. If I had thought about it at all I just sort of assumed “they figured it out.”

Which leads me to another point: the people around you, what Christians call “the World”, they do not care about your crashes. To them, your crashes, no matter what the cause, are not all that important. What they want to see are your successes. Turn on any news channel and you can see hundreds of examples of people who have succeeded at something, rock stars, movie stars, lottery winners,and  CEOs of large corporations. What you will not see on the news are the many and spectacular failures, crashes, that each of us, all of the time, are doing. If you take the wrong exit off the freeway, it’s not going to be on the news. Neither will be dating a person not suited for you, or failing to miss your stop on the bus. Make a spectacular success and you might make the news, make a mistake and you won’t. Crashes it seems aren’t newsworthy, they’re not important, because they’re too common.

What it comes down to is this: like the Wright Brothers, each of us will find ourselves at some point powered by an inner passion. Maybe it’s to be an actor, a musician, or an artist; maybe it’s to be a wife, or a husband, a mother, or a father; maybe it’s to be a mechanic, or a theoretical physicist, a nurse, or a salesman. It doesn’t matter what the path is, only that it is new (at least to us) and it is difficult. To accomplish our goals we’re going to have to walk over new ground, we’re going to have to claim new metaphorical lands for our purposes, climb new mountains, seek out new ideas, and try on new opinions.

All of these attempts, of course, are going to be ripe for failure. There is an absolute certainty that we’re going to make mistakes, some of them quite large. We’re going to crash. Crash and crash hard. Perhaps even crash fatally. We risk injury and ridicule at every turn. We’re traveling into the unknown and the only truly known thing we can count on is that it will not come without a cost. Pain is certain. Crashes will happen.

Not only will they happen, but when they do we will have no control over them. Think about it, if we knew they were coming we would avoid them, right? The only thing we can control is how we react to them. A crash could mean you’re a terrible person and are never going to amount to anything, or it could mean you made a minor mistake and you need to correct for that. When the Wright Brothers crashed, they got right up, and immediately began repairing their plane. Oh they talked about the crash, believe me they did, but only from the point of view of discovering the problem so they could avoid it in the future. They were learning a difficult task, after all, and mistakes were bound to happen. They just didn’t think those mistakes were based on their own moral failings, nor did they think each crash was a sign that God didn’t approve of their direction. In short, they didn’t think the crashes they caused were a reflection of their own shortcomings. That idea seemed to have never entered their heads. They saw them for what they rightly were, small mistakes on the road to understanding. To them each crash was a way to discover a new problem and thus reduce their ignorance.

As we can learn from the Wright Brothers, crashes are not good indicators of failure, only the inevitable. The only way to truly fail is to either avoid crashes, or even worse to assume the cause of the crash is something other than what it is. Failure doesn’t come from crashes, failure comes from not learning what went wrong when you did crash. And you will crash my friend, indeed you will.

And not only will you crash, but when you do crash you will discover that no one cares. Friends, family, etc. not a one of them is going to be interested unless they are directly involved. Its interested to note that while the Wright Brothers were testing their second aircraft, just minutes away, a short trolly ride, from downtown Dayton, not a single reported from either major newspaper came out to investigate. The Wright Brothers didn’t hide what they were doing. They were flying in plain sight of a trolly line. It’s just that they crashed so much no one was interested. The man who finally broke their story, Amos Root, was an eccentric who had made himself a name by selling bee keeping equipment. The Wright’s first real exposure didn’t come from the press, didn’t come from their friends, it came from a newsletter called Gleanings in Bee Culture. Think that one through for a moment. The only reason Amos was able to write an accurate story about the Wright Brothers experiments was because he was patient enough to visit them several times until they could demostrate to him a reasonable success. In fact they first flight he saw was done by Orville because Wilbur has been in a wreck so bad he couldn’t fly for a month. Very few people are going to be patient with your crashing process. Hold on to those that are. They’re worth more than gold.

My advice to you my friend is to crash and crash often. Only its important to learn from your crashes, don’t make the same mistakes over and over. And remember, no one, except a very rare few, are going to care about your crashes. Ignore what others think or do. They’re not the one’s risking their neck in the crazy contraption that you are. Hell, they probably don’t have the first clue what you’re trying to do, so ignore them and focus on the task at hand.

Happy landings.

 

The thing about the Sequoias.

IMG_4693_cropThe thing about the Sequoias, or why you cannot photograph the Sequoiadendron giganteum.


Recently my family and I spent a delightful few days of vacation in California’s gold country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. While there we took a day trip up to Calaveras Big Trees State Park where we hiked the less visited South Grove trail. Thanks to some intense activism this grove of Giant Sequoias is entirely unlogged and remains largely in its wild state. It is, with the exception of the trail and a few signs, almost exactly like hiking in a virgin forrest. I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time in the Sierras, but this grove is to my knowledge singular. What follows is my attempt to capture the experience of hiking the trail in words. I highly recommend you do not take me at my word, that you do not believe what I have written here. Rather I would prefer you hike the trail for yourself.

As you wander down the trail, the low woods, mostly dogwood and small pines, keep your horizons close. There are a large amounts of dead trees scattered about the forrest floor and plenty of new ones working their way up from the decaying material. The ferns and bushes dot the ground, but do not fully cover it. The whole effect is one of a forest that grows no more than three meters above the ground. It’s not unlike walking through a neighbor’s garden that has been left unattended for years until it’s shape has pushed past any human convention into a wonderful random jumble.
 IMG_4638
No sooner than you seen this, you start to notice that this “garden” is underpinned by dark vertical columns. These are the mature pines, sugar pine and ponderosa mostly, with the occasional lodgepole pine added for splash. In about equal measure with these pines are the cedars which grow in clumps like nurseries with large parents overlooking tiny rivers of baby trees, most of them shorter than a man.
 __
So now your view becomes used to these columns shooting darkly upwards through the light green forest floor. As your eye traces their vertical lines upwards you notice they branch out at around three meters and point their way upwards in long thin triangles. The tops, some of them 200 feet or more above your head, can be seen only from a distance. But these are not unfamiliar trees. These are the taller more wild cousins of the Christmas trees that have been decorating our homes every winter for millennia. We know these trees, we live with them for a few weeks to a month every year. True they are quite a bit larger than the ones in ours houses, but they are essentially scaled up versions of what we know. Scaled up the way 100 tables at a wedding reception are not all that different from the single table you use at home. It is simply more of the same.
  __
But then, as you wind your way along the trail, you start to see still larger shapes looming out of the forest floor. At first they look like normal trees, but then as you approach them they start to get wider and wider until your mind is so startled by the impossibility of a tree at those dimensions that it forces you to pay attention. These are trees so large they trigger that part of our brain we use to warn us of an incoming threat. Trees that are so large they literally scare you into seeing them. You’ve now arrived at the Giant Sequoias.
 __

IMG_4690

Approaching

IMG_4691

Closer still

IMG_4692

Getting bigger

IMG_4693

Holy Cow!

When you get up close to one, you notice a Giant Sequoia doesn’t look like the other trees. They stand like some weird alien creature that has been imported to the forest. They resemble the other pines pretty much the same way that an elephant covered in fur could be mistaken for a wolf.
  __
These trees are so large that you cannot fit them into a single photograph. They simply will not fit. If you shoot one up close all you get is a trunk. These shots look just like a regular tree only shot much closer. If you add a human in front for a sense of scale the tree takes on the appearance of an amusement park model. Its so large it looks more like architecture than nature. If you point your camera upwards then the top will be hidden behind the bottom branches (some of which are as large as entire trees nearby). If you step back far enough to capture the entire height then the sequoia resembles an ordinary large tree, reducing the apparent height of the huge pines around it to the size of seedlings. If you add humans to this shot they appear too distant for the eye to scale, or they’ll be so small as to not matter. Another pixel lost in a sea of pixels.
  __

 

IMG_4715

IMG_4716

IMG_4718

IMG_4706



No matter how far back you get or what lens you use, you cannot capture a Sequoia in a single shot. They are so large they can only be pieced together by the mind of the observer. Its about then that you discover they’re not as much a tree as they are living geology. To stand next to one as it extends upward into the heavens at that impossible height is to stand next to a million years. It’s not a thing. It’s too big for that. It’s a living metaphor. It’s a rock wall that lives and breathes. It is a battleship made of living wood, set adrift in a remote and arid sea.
  __
As you come across them on the trail, sometimes alone surrounded by a coterie of lesser trees, sometimes in dense clumps of two or three, you start to run out of superlatives. Each tree as it is revealed to you is so impossible that you simply run out of words. As with photography, these trees are so huge you cannot capture them language. They will not fit within a single sentence. And after a few tries you realize even whole paragraphs won’t do. Finally you get to the point were all you can do is stand at the base of such a tree and stare upwards in mute and lensless wonder. Every attempt you make to describe these trees will fail. They simply can not scale down to human size. Even a holiday as large as Christmas cannot contain them.
  __
No wonder the first white men who saw the Giant Sequoias were not believed. They had to cut one down to prove they existed, and then they tried to cut the rest down because trees that large are a threat. They’re too big. They don’t fit our mechanized world. They’re not just tremendously old, they are time itself. Many of them were born long before Jesus walked this earth, and they come from a race as ancient at the dinosaurs. You can beat against one with your fists a thousand times and they will not notice. They are too old, too indifferent. No wonder we chopped them down. These trees don’t know we exist. Nothing makes a white man’s blood boil faster than irrelevance.
  __
Finally, this is what you take with you as you walk out of the forest with a camera full of impossible photos that no one will believe; your irrelevance. You have gazed upon a thousand years. Everything you do in this life will be as nothing to these giant creatures. Short of destroying one, you will never gain their notice, and you will never find their approval even if you searched a thousand years. Such a thing does not exist. You are irrelevant. You are nothing. You are a part of the great and beautiful forest we call life, but you are not the biggest part, nor the most important.
  __
And in the end this is what the Giant Sequoia teaches us; our rightful place.

IMG_4749

Bad Writing Advice #1 On setting goals for your characters

Rule #1 in a non-existent series of bad advice for writers.

When you (as a writer) introduce a character to a reader, it is like introducing them to a new friend. But that character won’t really become your reader’s friend until you give that character a goal. Once you give him or her a specific goal to direct their actions–they need to avenge their father, they need to kill a monstrous whale, or even they need to get home to their family–it is at that point that the reader will start to anticipate that character’s actions. And that is the point of stories. We live to anticipate.

For example: If you are playing a game of chess only a few minutes of your game time is taken up with the physical movements of the pieces. This is true even of a game that lasts for hours. The vast majority of your game consists of watching your opponent and anticipating both their moves and your own. And it is in this watching and predicting that we take our enjoyment. In short, the enjoyment of the game comes from the anticipation.
In the same way, a reader will enjoy your story as long as they can anticipate your character’s direction. It doesn’t matter if they anticipate wrongly (indeed there are many good reasons to mislead your reader) what matters is if they can. Objects and obstacles only enhance the experience of the reader. They love to see the impossible pulled off. But they need to know what to anticipate, and if you don’t provide that (in terms of a clearly defined goal for your characters), then you’ve failed.

 

Skepticism as an Anitivirus

I went to a movie with some friends the other night and afterwards we fell into a discussion on alien life on our planet. One of us brought up that an ex defense minister of Canada believes there are E.T.s living among us. What’s curious is I found myself taking up the position of the skeptic. Apparently something I do. A sort of devil’s advocate to friendly discussions. Perhaps this is because of the way I was raised, at least in part, but I think there more to this going on.

We live in a world of belief. We see things and apply belief to them. If you’ve read Michael Shermer’s rather wonderful The Believing Brain, then you’d know that belief is our default mode to understanding. Rationalization comes later. We literally believe things, and then rationalize them, not the other way around. And this is true for everyone from the most ardent scientist, the the most delusional religious zealot. The only difference between them is not the way they approach what they believe, but how they prove to themselves the things they believe.

Let me unpack this a little bit. Both the scientist and the zealot will disbelieve things that run contrary to their understanding of the world. This is understandable. If I tell you the moon is made of green cheese, you will disbelieve me, because this information is counter to what you already believe. But what if I tell you something that is untrue, but is similar to what you already believe? That’s where we run into trouble. Again, its not just you or me, but all of us. When we get information that is similar to what we already believe to be true, we are far more likely to accept it as true. And, heres the important part, when we get information that proves false something we believe to be true, we ignore it, or we try to tear it apart, usually via a whole host of false arguments. We say the author slept with his cats (which is called an ad hominem), or the author obviously didn’t consider the intergalactic aliens (a red herring) or we claim the author cannot be correct because no “real” scientist would make such a claim (a no true scotsman), or a whole host of other logical fallacies.

My problem isn’t that people believe in things, or that belief is dangerous (belief can be dangerous, but it can also be helpful). Its that we believe too easily the things we like, and believe too dubiously the thing we do not. Belief than becomes a way to keep our ideas consistent, but not necessarily correct. There’s no built in system to determine if what we believe to be true is actually true. From the inside our own heads we cannot tell.

Worse still, when we’re exposed to information that is close to what we belief, then we are prone to spread it around. Think of an idea as a virus, and our brains as their hosts. If you’re brain is infected with the belief that X is true, you will pass on this notion to other brains. But only those brains who believe similar ideas will be susceptible to your virus. So brains that believe X is false will probably not get infected, but brains that think X might be true could get infected. Again, this is not bad in the main, but there is no way to determine if what we’re spearing is true of false.

(as an aside, this is the whole idea behind the concept of memes. The idea was that ideas spread like viruses, passing on their information. Since ideas don’t have genes (that is, they don’t replicate with genetic material) the way to explain them was to develop the ideas of memes. A meme being the genetic material for ideas, sort of like dna.)

So what we have are all these beliefs being passed around, with no way for the those infected with these beliefs to tell if their beliefs are true or false (or in-between. Assuming everything has to be true or false is yet another logical fallacy called a false dilemma).

What’s interesting to me is what doesn’t get passed around as easily: Anti-belief. By this I mean the entire logical structure needed to eradicate a belief. For instance, If I say Global Warming is a hoax, I’m not passing around the proof that climate change is not real, rather I’m passing around my belief that it isn’t. In other words, I’m nearly passing on my belief. Anti-belief does not come in an easy to digest packet that is readily consumable. Moreover anti-belief is highly specific to the individual. The information that may cause me to no longer believe that X is true will more than likely be different for you.

So what does one do when presented with belief? Especially when we are constantly bombarded with belief, and have to work hard to find anti-belief. The only solution I can think of that we can do as individuals is to attempt to disbelieve every belief we encounter. That is, to be skeptical. Mind you, this is much easier to do when we’re exposed to things we don’t believe already, and much harder when exposed to things we’re more susceptible to. But still the only way to stop being infected with some beliefs is to attempt to not be receptive to any belief.

Does this work? What do you believe?

Democracy: War by another means

In case you missed it in the news, Scotland has apparently decided to stay with the U.K. a little longer. To my mind this election was a resounding success. I’m not talking about the decision to stay with the U.K. Frankly I’m so ignorant of the whole thing that I really could not give you a compelling argument for either side. Never the less, I think the election was a resounding success. I say this for one particular reason; a great political decision was reached, and nobody died.

Can you imagine how this would have been settled 400 years ago? How many people would have died (either by civil war or military conquest)? How much industry would have been lost? How much harm would it have inflicted? How many people would have starved to death? This is unsettling idea, but an important one. We used to solve political problems by killing people. Sometimes we still do. But we’ve also learned to solve them in a way that is bloodless. In the western world, this is perhaps our finest achievement.

Way back in November of 2008 I wrote a short piece about the election process for a group of guys who liked to discuss politics on the internet. I was struck by the use of language from both sides as they talked about the election. It seemed like there was a strong reliance on military metaphors, and it didn’t take much of an imagination to conclude that either side was more interested in a coup more than election. Fortunately this has never happened here in the U.S., but it did make me wonder, “where do these militaristic ideas come from?” In fact, the real question should be, “where do these democratic ideas come from?” For militaristic solutions to political problems predate democracy by thousands of years.

The piece can be found below.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

from 11/2/2008

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election going on. And this one, especially as evidenced in the race for the Presidency, is proving to be formidable both in terms of the piles of money spent, and the heat of overblown rhetoric. Watching all the recent news specials and polarizing images on FaceBook reminded me of an idea I had the last time Obama was running for office.

You see, I believe that a democratic election is a war, albeit one with no weapons (save words and money) and no death. Its not like our modern wars with our vast and impressive professional military, but more like the kind of war that was invented right alongside the birth of democracy. Its my belief that this was no accident; that democracy and hoplite warfare were both born out of the same need: to solve political problems quickly and at little cost.

The practice of democracy, and the word, both originated on only one spot on the Earth, and at one time. The time was some 2500 years ago, and the place was a little peninsula sticking into the Mediterranean Sea we now call Greece. This was back before the golden age of Athens, and well before Socrates (a famous solider in his day), Plato, Aristotle, or even Alexander the Great.

The practice of democracy started amongst the many Polis, or city-states. These Polis were poor enough that they couldn’t collectively support a large monarch, but rich enough that they could support a broad middle class of yeomen, or small farmers. Because of this, defense of each Polis necessitated the use of the local people banding together to form a militia. Political problems with neighboring Polis were often settled with their respective militias.

There’s a problem with this, though; farmers make lousy militia because they can only be away for a short period of time between sowing and harvest. So if a Polis had to use farmers in their militia, they were forced to fight their battles on an accelerated time-line. They didn’t have time for draw-out campaigns, or long sieges because the crops had to be harvested.

To solve this problem, the Polis developed hoplite warfare. A type of warfare that is essentially a giant shoving match.

Both cities would line up their hoplites a short distance across from each other. At some point they would charge into each other, shields interlocked, and with multiple rows of men, pushing towards the enemy. Think of the front line in a football game (American style), only the line would 5-10 men deep, and extended 1/4 mile long. The combination of armor and interlocking shields meant that almost no one would be injured, at least at first. At some point, one side or the other would fail, their line would crumble, and the victors would give chase. Most fatal injuries were to the back, and even these were fewer than you’d think.

What’s important about all this is that only one battle would happen, and both sides would agree to some kind of political resolution depending upon the outcome of that single battle. Much like having a lawsuit settled over the results of a football game. The best part is, the enemy never had to actually take over your land to win, (no Sherman’s March) they only had to win the battle.

So the farmers would come out, line up, smash into each other, patch themselves up, and go back to the harvest.

What is fascinating is the similarities between hoplite warfare, and democracy. Both require a middle class society of free men, both revolve around a single event to effect a political solution, and finally both allow for rapid political change, but in a manor that conserves precious resources.

For those that like to read, Victor Davis Hanson has an excellent book about Hoplite warfare, farming, and how the western world developed the concept of winning a war by winning a single battle. Its called “The Western Way of War“.

Even though Victor was the one who taught me where the word democracy comes from, and more importantly, why, I can’t recall him ever characterizing democracy as a kind of warfare.

Anyway, I posted this because these past few weeks have gotten pretty interesting around here, and I noticed the behavior has gotten pretty hostile. In fact it looks more and more like two opposing sides in the midst of a war. Which isn’t all that inaccurate a description, if one thinks that we are in fact at war; fighting to determine which side will get to set the political agenda for the next 4 years.

Oh, and the thread title is a spoof on Carl von Clausewitz.

Thoughts?

The other side of the creative process. The one they don’t tell you in art school.

There’s a thing about art that they won’t tell you in school. What they don’t say when you’re getting a degree in creative writing, or in a performance art. There’s something that happens between the tour busses and the ballet barre, between the late night ads and the morning coffee shops. There is a price for pursuing the creative process, and that price is fear.

Imagine if you will that we live on a world perfectly divided in half at the equator. On the north side, there side where we live, there are plants and trees, houses and apartments, cites and farms. It is light and sunny, exactly like our world, with one small difference, the best fruit, that is the fruit that everyone wants to eat grows on the fabulous trees near the equator.

Now the south side of the world is dark and populated with monsters, horrible and terrifying ones that will happily chew you up and spit you out. We are a delicacy to them. These monsters mostly keep to themselves, but they like to come over to the other side now and again to get a nice snack of human. So what they do is hide near the fabulous trees at the equator, waiting out of sight for the humans to come and pluck the fruit.

A few other things. The fruit from the fabulous trees grows sweet just about everywhere, but it is sweetest the further south you go. It needs a certain amount of darkness to be sweet. Also, the trees you first encounter, that is the trees furthest to the north, have fruit that is already very sweet. From there the amount of sweetness increases slowly as you travel south, the difference being more and more subtile the further you go. So when you first step up to the fabulous trees the fruit is wonderfully sweet, but you cannot get too far south until you’re not sure if the fruit from the next tree is going to be as sweet, or sweeter then the one before. Eventually you find yourself having to pass 3, 4, 8, or more trees to find fruit noticeably sweeter then the previous. And all the while it is getting darker and darker.

And of course, the further south you go, the more likely you’re going to run into a monster.

For me, being a retoucher is like picking fruit right near the beginning of the fabulous trees. The fruit is sweet. Sweet enough, and I make a good living selling it to the people who have neither the inclination or ability to reach the fabulous trees. The nice thing is it is a fairly safe place to pick the fruit. The monsters have to travel a long way to get you, and you can usually see them a mile off. There’s plenty of time to pick up your bags and run. Also there are a lot of fellow pickers around you. This makes it easier as you can watch over each other like a herd, and gang up on them if they come. Mind you, there are retouchers who pick their fruit further south than me, some of them much further, but the difference in price they get for their fruit is not all that much higher than mine, and of course they work at a greater risk.

This is not the only time I’ve traveled to the fabulous trees. I’ve been there before as a musician and songwriter. Back then I was too scared to go very far south, and too ignorant to know the difference between the sound of an approaching monster and that of someone picking fruit a few trees ahead. This ignorance was costly, and eventually convinced me to give up fruit picking all together, at least as a musician.

What I didn’t realize when I started writing stories is that I’d be working much further south than before. And I’d be working alone. And this is the price that you pay as a creative. Sure my appreciation for the fruit has grown stronger. I can now detect the subtile differences in flavor that used to baffle me before, but I got that way by picking fruit closer and closer to the monsters.

The people who never pick the fruit know all about this of course, but their knowledge is perforce limited by their experience. They think the line between the safe side of the equator and the other side is a clear and distinct. Like its a line marked on the ground with one side being light colored, and the other dark. But those of us who travel deep into the trees will tell you there is no line. The world does get darker the further you go, but the differences eventually become so subtle that it is almost impossible to tell. Worse, the change is so subtle that its easy to get turned around, and head the wrong way. You can think you’re walking home, and instead head straight for the monsters.

Sometimes when I am out there I can hear the monsters. The ones I fear the most are depression, paranoia, and schizophrenia, but there are other ones nameless to me further in. Depression I’ve battled so many times he almost counts as a friend. Sometimes he captures me, sometimes I kick his ass. But he’s a devil I know, so I fear him, but I also understand him. Its the other two that really scare the shit out of me. And I swear to you, there are days when I can feel them out there. They are just over the horizon. I can smell them. Hell, I can point to them. Sometimes, to pick the fruit of a particular nice fabulous tree, I find myself up on a rickety ladder, my body extended way past what is safe, clinging to the tip of the tree with nothing but thin branches to break my fall if I should make the slightest mistake. And all the while I’m up there with my back turned to the monsters. When I up high like that, I can feel them. I can hear them slithering around just beyond my vision. And I know If I make a mistake, they will drop on me in and instant.

But the fruit….

On the value of knowing your history

Today, while reading down my Facebook newsfeed I ran across this article by Bob Lefsetz at Variety. In it he bemoans the loss of the album as a musical format. Then he links the demise of the album to the demise of musical artistry. I agree with him that album sales are dropping, but disagree with his conclusions based on that data. He is forgetting that the album is not the natural form of musical distribution, but is an artificial construct created under certain conditions. Conditions which have now largely passed.

To me this is a classic example of not knowing your history. So please allow a slight digression.

For starters, up until about 120 years ago there was no widespread music industry. Music before this time was controlled and consumed only by the very wealthy. The poor and even the middle classes did not have the means, nor the available time to enjoy music outside of small gatherings, or public concerts. Short of church music, most people did not listen to music unless they played it themselves.

What altered this status quo were two major changes, both of which were dependent upon the other, 1) the advent of the printed sheet music industry, and 2) the widespread knowledge of reading sheet music for the piano and other instruments. Sheet music allowed songs from vaudeville to be consumed at home and for friends. It was not a particularly fast way of spreading music, nor was it easy to share as one needed to have a requisite level of musical ability to play sheet music. Still an industry grew until there were songwriters in New York, many living in an area called tin-pan alley, who did nothing but write songs for the sheet music industry.

What eventually toppled the sheet music industry was the advent of a new technology, the vinyl record. Prior to vinyl records, recorded music was expensive to purchase, and unreliable. Vinyl records changed all that. Vinyl allowed for inexpensive mass-produced chunks of music that could be played on a machine which required almost zero technical skill.  Suddenly one didn’t need to spend years and years practicing the piano just to hear a song. Even the least knowledgable musician could crank up the victrola, drop the needle and start dancing. Moreover, recorded music brought not just a single instrument, but the entire band. Before this time, if you wanted to hear a band you had to be especially rich, or lucky enough to be nearby (and have the extra cash and time) to attend a concert. Now, a concert could be held in a home, for the price of a victrola and a single vinyl disc.

On the whole vinyl was a boon for the average consumer as it lowered the bar to hearing musical performances, especially for entire bands. However, vinyl was not a benefit for others. Lost in this musical struggle was tin-pan alley, and its many songwriters. Also losing out were musicians themselves as the value of knowing how to play an instrument dropped dramatically. Having a reputation as the best piano player in town was a boon either financially or socially, but the widespread adoption of vinyl records decreased that value considerably.

Mind you, vinyl records did not entirely kill-off sheet music sales or piano playing. There will always be a niche market for such things. What vinyl did do was make these activities unprofitable for the mass market.

Because of the shape of vinyl records (a flat disc with a hole in the middle), and because of how they are manufactured, it was reasonably cost effective to sell two songs together, one for either side of the disc. This was a departure from sheet music, which sold songs individually (the only “true” single).  As the popularity of vinyl records increased, and its speed decreased, it became technologically feasible to sell more than two songs per disc. It was only at this point that the vinyl album as we know it, The LP record, that is a collection of songs totaling under an hour of time, was born.

Albums were cost effective for a few important reasons. 1) they distributed the high cost of recording music over several different songs, 2) likewise they distributed the high cost of distributing music over several different songs, 3) they allowed a consumer to purchase a variety of songs from a single artist all in one easy package, and 4) they were highly profitable for music distributors if sold in large numbers. But for almost all artists, albums themselves did not sell on their own. Album sales were almost always leveraged via the traditional ways of music promotion: Playing singles on the radio, and concert tours. It was radio play and touring that drove artist awareness and thus increased album sales, not the other way around.

This is because the single largest problem with musical artists is, and has always been, awareness. In the case of small or unknown artists, most people simply do not know who they are. In the case of larger artists, most people do not know they have a new album out. The only way to make consumers more knowledgable is to reach them. Traditionally this was done vis radio play and concert tours. Now the internet allows one to circumvent some of this process. Its possible to substitute internet downloads for radio play. Its more difficult, but feasible to substitute internet downloads for live concerts. Certainly, the internet allows an artist to have direct contact with their fans, and allows them to be in complete control of their music’s distribution. Alas this direct control doesn’t automatically convey expertise. The skills one needs to write and perform good music are not the same skills it takes to sell the music and generate awareness for the artist.

At the same time the computer has been changing the way we distribute and market music, it has also had a huge impact on making of music. Not only are the ways we write and create music massively different that the past (can you imagine Duke Ellington remixing Cab Calloway, or what Miles Davis would have done with cheap, high-quality sampling?), but most importantly the cost of recording high-quality music has decreased hugely. At one point to record an album you needed a recording studio (with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment) and the technical expertise of a recording engineer, a mixer, a producer, and a mastering engineer. All of these people occupied high-paying positions, which cost a lot of money. Ad in the cost of studio time, and you can see that an album could easy cost 100 grand or more to make. Today, all of these things can be done in one’s bedroom using a laptop. Mind you, the quality of today’s bedroom music may not be as high as that which is done in a recording studio, but generally the quality will be higher than was done 40 years ago in a studio, and that is significant.

Taking all this together we can clearly see a few trends: 1) The cost of recording music is so low that it no longer needs to be distributed over several songs to be cost effective. 2) Likewise, the cost of distributing music is so low that it no longer needs to be distributed over several songs to be cost effective. 2) Unless they are recording specifically for vinyl, an artist is not limited to this format for sales. 3) The internet of today sells and promotes singles better than it does albums.

Add these things together and its easy to see that albums are on the demise. Musical artistry however is not. Moreover, neither is the music industry. Albums were never the
“perfect” medium, but merely a way of selling music that is slowly fading away. Like the 8-track tape player, albums represent a particular technological trend which came up under certain conditions, and will eventually go when those conditions leave. Will the music made 100 years from now be different than it is today? Certainly. The music industry evolved in the past to technological trends, there is no reason to assume it won’t in the future. Will the musicians of tomorrow be just as good as those today, or of yesterday? You can bet on it.

The inadvertent racist

I am not the hero of this story. Not even close. But its a true story all the same. This really happened.

I was coming home from work.
I was standing on the Expo line platform at La Cienega and Jefferson. The station there is elevated a good 30-40 feet above the traffic below. It offers a nice view of the lights of Culver City, especially at night. Its also a short block away from a Sees Candy factory/shop. When the wind is right you can smell them making chocolates.

A young african-American man approached me and stood nearby.
He looked to be in his late 20s. My height. Well groomed. He had on slacks, a long-sleeve button down shirt, and a tie. A coat as well, but I can’t recall exactly what kind. Not a suit jacket, more like a trench coat or a rain coat. It was dark, and cold (what people on the East Coast would call cool). The elevated station not only offers a excellent view, but it also exposes you to the on-shore breeze, the Pacific Ocean being only a few miles away. It was cold enough people were wearing gloves, stamping their feet, moving around, and standing instead of sitting on the concrete benches. So we stood.

I was dressed like a person of privilege.
I don’t recall exactly what I was wearing, but this is how I dress for work. Jeans and a fitted t-shirt. On warmed days, tan dockers, but more than likely it was jeans. The t-shirt was colored, and might have been long-sleeved. I buy them at Target because they’re cheap, and because they look good on me. I was probably wearing my skating jacket which is bicycling jacket: comfortable, lightweight, stuffs into a small pouch, is 100% synthetic, and is amazingly warm. The jacket looks like something a cyclist would wear on a windy day because that is precisely why it was made. It was a gift from my in-laws, is the perfect coat for anything but a serious downpour, and is easily hauled around in my back-pack.

All this to say I was dressed like a person who doesn’t give a damn about how they dress. That’s because I don’t. My day job is being an artist, a pixel-pusher, a photoshop expert. A great job for people who like to dress like they don’t give a damn. My outfit has evolved to this point as being the perfect blend of comfort, ease of use while skating, and just professional enough to give the appearance of confidence. As such my outfit is strictly utilitarian; clothes I put on to accomplish the task at hand, and nothing more. The uniform of a slightly socially awkward artist.

But its also important to point out I dress this way because I don’t have to dress better. No one expects me to prove my worth based on my dress. Quite the opposite in fact. No one has ever questioned my value to society based solely upon my clothing. Or at least not since I was in college. And it would be considered rude for someone to do so. Its not something I ever have to worry about.

We started talking.
Possibly because he was friendly, but more than likely because I like to talk to strangers. I try not to be too pushy, but almost anyone will engage in casual conversation. “Sure is cold tonight,” that sort of thing.

I asked what he did for a living.
I do this with everyone. Its a great way to get a stranger to talk about something they’re comfortable with. Since I collect stories, like some people collect butterflies, I use this question, among others, as a method of exploration; a way to dig deeper. Everybody has good stories tucked inside somewhere, and I am shameless in my hunt for them. Up until a friend posted something on Facebook, I didn’t realize that asking someone this particular question has another meaning in the black community.

He told me to “guess.”
I thought this a funny response, a bit like a girl who is flirting with you might want you to guess her age. Only we were definitely not flirting. So I looked at his outfit, at the way he carried himself, noted the other passengers (remember I ride the train and busses all the time, so I’m familiar with the clientele), and took a wild guess.

“Are you a security guard?” I asked.

“I work in a bank,” he said. “As a loan officer.”

He may have said something more about his job. He may have not actually been a loan officer. I don’t recall. All I remember is that he worked in a bank, and not just as a teller.

He was angry after that.
Not sneering angry, not growling angry, not “ball up a fist and punch someone” angry. Nothing so overt. It was more subtle than that. More of a “slight tightening of the jaw” angry.  That, and he all but stopped talking with me.

I won’t pretend to be the most observant guy in the room, but I can tell when someone is done talking with you. They turn a shoulder. Ignore the next question. Don’t say or waive goodbye. They are done. Period. And this guy was done.

He walked far away to another entrance to get on the train.
That is to say, he made it very clear he wasn’t going to sit near me. Now I talk to people all the time on the bus and train, like I mentioned before, so I’ve learned a thing or two. I knew our conversation was over, and I had a pretty good sense the man was angry at me, but at the time what I didn’t get was why. I didn’t know if I had done or said something wrong, or if he was over-reacting. He didn’t have any of the signs of mental illness (I know, I talk to those kind of people all the time), and there was nothing about the conversation that I could see that would make someone upset. Sure I had guessed wrong at his occupation, but so what? I mean he asked me to guess. He could have just told me what he did, and we could have gone on from there. Hell, I would have loved to talk to him about his job. I’ve never worked in a bank, and I could easy have asked a hundred questions. Everything from, “do you still keep banker’s hours,” to “do you get any play with the ladies?”

He probably went home thinking, “what a racist asshole.”
He probably was right.

So that’s the story. Now, I’m going to turn the conversation over, and try to present it from his point of view. He was coming home from work. He was dressed well, dressed better than 95% of the people at the station. He works in Culver CIty which could mean anything, but probably meant he worked at a bank in the nice part of town–and the nice part of Culver CIty could give Beverly Hills a run for its money. He stood for his train, and was approached by an old white guy who dressed like a bum. They talked for a bit, and then the old gut started pestering him about his job.

I’m going to stop here for a moment because I want to talk about this specific topic. Its worth mentioning because its possible the white people in the room might not get all that is going on here. I know I didn’t at the time, so feel free to go to school on my mistake.

There are rules about how society functions. These rules are not written down, nor are they in a real sense enforced, yet they do exist, and they do come into play in public. For instance, if you are out in public late in the morning on a school day, and you see a couple of pre-teens out on the street, you will probably note them, especially if you are a parent. A child out of school sticks out. If you’re a teacher, you will probably say something to them. Anything from, “How’s if going,” to “Aren’t you suppose to be in school?” If you know the kids personally, you definitely will say something to them. “Billy Jones. Does your mother know you aren’t in school?”

There are two things to this example that are important. The first is that perfect strangers in public, who normally do not talk to each other, will speak out at kids who they think should be in school (whether they need to be in school or not, as my friends who have have home-schooled their kids will tell you). Its a social function. A protection. The social equivalent of white blood cells attaching themselves to a virus. Its not done to attack the kid as much as to preserve a perceived order; in this case having kids in school where they belong.

The second important thing about this example is that the person speaking will do so from a perceived place of authority. A kid on the street on a school day will not be enough for most people to overcome their natural inclination to not speak to strangers. But if that person is a parent, they will have more of an emotional stake in the issue, especially if they have kids near that age. They understand deeply what a kid out of school means. For a teacher, this is doubly true. They have first hand experience with kids and their motivations. They also have, what my sister (a long standing middle school science teacher) calls “the voice”. In others words, they know how to be effective. And if the stranger actually knows one of the children and their family, they will almost certainly say something.

In each of these cases, the person doing the talking is doing so from a place of authority. They know something, or feel something and are compelled to act. They do this from a place of privilege. This is what privilege means, having a raised point in a social experience.

So this social system, this method by which people of privilege speak out in public to correct a perceived flaw, also happens to be the very same method by which racism is carried out, and perceived racial divides are maintained. The equivalent of weeding in the racist garden.

I think most of my readers can imagine themselves in the dim dark past, out in a small town somewhere deep in the south, and see how white strangers might have have asked a black person what they were doing out on the street in the middle of the day. Especially during the time of slavery, where free blacks were as rare as kids not needing to be in school. This is what I like to think of as “safe” racism. Its somewhere deep in the past, doesn’t involve us, and doesn’t match or present social context. I mean, after all, no one today would ask a black person what they are doing out on the streets, right?

Well yes and no. You see, I don’t see white people doing anything of the sort, and as a general rule they don’t. But what they actually do is not all that different from it. If you’re like me, you probably won’t notice until its pointed out to you, but these kinds of things often still go on. All you have to do is ask enough people of color. They’ll tell you.

Go to a university and see how often the black students are asked, “are you here on scholarship?” compared to how often the white students are asked. Go around your neighborhood, especially a nice neighborhood, and see how many times a black person is asked, “do you live around here?” compared to a white person. Or go on a public train platform and see how many black men are asked, “what do you do for a living?” compared to the white men. If you are white, and confronted with these questions it doesn’t bother you because the questions will be few and far between, and the answers do not reflect poorly on you. But what if you got asked these things all of the time? What does it mean when every white person you see, even the well meaning ones, ask you the same questions over and over? And why these particular questions?

Are these questions just a part of the friendly banter between strangers in public, or are they analogous to the, “aren’t you supposed to be in school?”? If you’ve only experienced these questions once or twice, I’d guess the former, but if you hear them more often, they start to look an awful lot like the latter.

Which is how I accidentally ended up a racist. See I wasn’t trying to subtly tell this young man he didn’t belong in my world of white privilege, I was genuinely curious what he did for a living. Only its hard to tell sometimes the polite question from the pointed, and intent–as any competent trial lawyer will tell you–is damn hard to prove, and easy to mistake. Asking a young black man if he has a job (which is probably how he took my question) is no joke. The unemployment rate for men of color, especially young men, is incredibly high. Only a few short times since the 1960s has it dropped below twice as high as white unemployment. I’ll say it again. The average is more than twice as high.

So if I had had to work twice as hard to find a good job, and then was bugged about it by someone who looked as if he had been handed their job on a silver platter, I can imagine I would be a little bit testy. Because men, especially young men, often measure their self-worth by their jobs and the money they make, this is a topic that is rife for misunderstanding and hurt feelings. Few things can make a man feel insecure faster than questioning his financial virility. This is true for men of any color.

Since that day I’ve learned to by more circumspect. I’ve learned that if someone talks about their work as being “a little of this and a little of that,” what they are really saying is either they’re unemployed, or they don’t want to talk about their work. Older men tend to be more sanguine about this, then the younger ones. They’ve found other ways to measure their own value to society instead of, or in addition to, making money. But it wasn’t until my friend posted something on facebook the other day that I realized I needed to find a different topic to bring up, or find a more socially acceptable way of asking. That, or I needed to acknowledge that my current style of questioning could end up with me being labeled a racist asshole. Again.