Archive for the ‘Society’ category

Take Your Friend To Work Day

November 28, 2011

Employment contracts should, in addition to vacation time and sick leave, apportion one or two days a year for a worker to take the day off in order to go observe someone work in a completely different job.

It could be a drastically different job within the company, or a position in an entirely different sector. There could be a very simple craigslist-like service that does a little lottery apportioning out of who-goes-where-when, making sure to spread the days out over the year so that it doesn’t cause a larger economic hiccup. Similarly, each worker should only be allowed to have someone follow them around for a couple days each year, to avoid excessive distraction.

But think about it. We might be vaguely aware of what kinds of work others do, but to actually follow them around for a day would really show you the kinds of issues other people might have. If you wind up in your client’s (or supplier’s) industry, it might give you some insights into their side of the deal.

It would also be a refreshing little educational vacation from your own daily routine. And if everyone does it a couple days a year, you would get used to the mild awkwardness of intruding upon someone else’s life.

Perhaps the more exciting and persuasive aspect would also be the potential for innovation. When people with wildly different perspectives run into each other, it can lead to insights you might not otherwise have come up with.

Think of the stories. From the mundane and annoyed, “Oh god that one time I had to go sit at an insurance agent’s desk all day…” to the fascinating, “I had no idea that’s how much coal the plant burned in a single day!” With everyone doing this, the stories of coworker’s experiences would help create even more links to other parts of the economy.

Sure some people would treat it like a chore and just fiddle around on their iphones all day, but I think a lot of people would generally get at least a little bit of the spirit of the endeavor.

Just one way to help build more connections and empathy in society.


Civic Confirmation

September 17, 2011

This op-ed in the New York Times talks about how mandatory patriotism goes against the democratic tradition of choosing one’s own way in civic society.

Which got me to thinking about how people are brought up into their country’s and community’s civic traditions and systems.

School is mandatory and, at least for me, that meant we learned “how a bill becomes a law” in fifth grade and that ninth grade social studies was all about the US government. And there was some US history scattered throughout the years. So we learn how it works, presuming we, you know, paid attention, and that every school has some amount of the same curriculum as mine did.

But there is little to no regular way that has us learn to participate. Except for the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, which we recite every day in school or sing before every sports game.

This seems to not be enough. Sure, some people grow up in more civic-minded families where finally registering to vote feels like one of those adult rites of passage. But for a lot of people, 18 is just another year, while 21 is the real milestone, since you can finally buy alcohol legally.

Churches get it. At my presbyterian church, we went through a confirmation class once we were in ninth grade, where we learned the purpose of a lot of church traditions and then at the end chose whether or not we would join the church. There was a ceremony one sunday where the community welcomed us as adults. Jews, as we all know, do it with a lot more pomp (and studying, and gifts).

But wouldn’t it be much cooler if there were a comparable “welcome to being a part of society” kind of process and celebration once you become old enough to vote? If done well and done thoroughly in all communities across the country, we would have a much more engaged citizenry. Sure, we would still have a winner-take-all system that would discourage having more than two dominant parties, but civil society would generally be more robust.

In some ways, the induction ceremony for new citizens is enviable. They also have to pass a test, which none of us born-within-the-boundries have to do. Should we all have to pass a test to vote? I think that would probably discourage more people from voting, and it’s not like people could be stopped from using public goods and free riding while not participatin.

But it would be better to have something. Therefore, I resolve, here and now, when my children turn 18, I will make it a big fucking deal. I will invite all sorts of friends and family and we will make it their biggest birthday party, and the high point will be them signing their registration form and putting it in the mailbox. I ask that you do the same or come up with another way to bring the people you know into the process of paying attention, probing for answers, thinking critically, and weighing in. Of course, it won’t just be a celebration of being old enough to vote, but the end of several years of whatever initial lessons I, school, etc could teach him to that point and to the beginning of the exploration on their own.

And if a lot of people start doing that and it catches on? Awesome. Spread de word.

My Own Philosophy Book

July 18, 2011

Calvin has his philosophy book.

It would be interesting to sit down at some point and write out my own philosophy on life. Short on “this is how the world works” and long on “how to conduct oneself in the world.” We all have some set of ideas about that sort of thing, but writing your own views down I think could help you scrutinize your thoughts and their justifications.

As part of it, you might want to trace the sources of your philosophies. Are there specific personal experiences that led you to certain conclusions? Or do you borrow heavily from texts, religious or secular? Or is it all, “my momma told me?” Not that any source is better than another, but it would be enlightening to figure out where beliefs come from, and which ones you hold stronger than others.

I think it might actually be a good exercise to have people do when they graduate high school or college. To sit down and really write it all down. Then every little while we would go back and look at it and amend it if needed. I expect that people might write down high standards of conduct and because they wrote out their own thoughts, it would be more genuine. More people might live more honestly and kindly.

Or not. Who knows. Either way, I think that at some point I’m going to write down my philosophy.

The Nearly Unbreakable Bond Between Music and Its Cultural Context

July 11, 2011

If you heard a steel drum, you would think of the caribbean. If you heard a pipe organ, you would think of church. If you heard Peking Opera, you would think of China. If you heard a Tchaikovsky symphony, it would probably not make you think of standing amidst thousands of people on a hot day looking at a huge stage with walls of speakers blasting electric guitar at you.

I have suggested before that listening to other cultures’ music can help you empathize with them and understand their view of the world.

Now I would like to explore the notion of a music devoid of culture. A music that you listen to without any bias or prejudgement. Music without a story, without a history. Tuning in your ears to something and listening purely because it sounds awesome.

Without doing so since birth, it will literally be impossible to not have some cultural references when we listen. The music we are brought up on conditions us to certain kinds of musical expectations. We get so accustomed to the V-I movement that a V-vi is a “deceptive cadence” to us westerners. Part of the joy of music is that it falls within certain expectations but then surprises us. And knowing that Peking Opera comes from China won’t make it sound less chinese.

So I guess, the suggestion is to stop caring. Well no. To stop letting that knowledge hold you back from listening to other types of music. If you hear a country song and immediately change the station, hold up. Go back and experience the textures, the harmonies, the lyrics, the emotion, the movement.

Sure, steel drums might still sound caribbean. Orchestras will probably always perform in near-silent concert halls. Either way, it’s all music. It all sounds awesome.

In Praise of Silence

May 17, 2011

Dear dynamics,

Loud is winning.

But only because we’re letting it win. We let it win when we’re young, when we cry to be heard and then fed. We let it win when we’re a little older, when we pound our chests and sing our songs, hoping to be noticed by someone we love. We let it win as we assert our way through the world, shouting to get our way. We let it win when we can no longer even hear, and raise the volume just to make things audible.

Except… there is also silence.

There is the silence of the curious child, listening to and learning about the world she encounters. There is the silence of the kind young man who cares for a young woman from afar. There is the silence of the hard worker who does not complain, even when the task is difficult. There is the silence of the peaceful passing of the old.

Then there are much more terrifying silences. The silence of the victims, too scared to speak. The silence of the victims who do speak but are drowned out by the louder events around them. The silence of the evildoer who plots inside her own head. The silence of a species when it no longer exists.

Silence will always be there. Taking a silence and making it loud might help one soul. But there will still be more silence.

For silence to win, we must simply always be searching for it. Occasionally, we must search for it so that we can make certain silences louder.

But the ones that do not need to be loud – those we must treasure. The blissfully soft, hopeful passage in a Mahler symphony. The quiet of a library, full of learning. The soundless smile on a friend’s face.

Do not even read this, dynamics. It is already too loud. Let these words simply “be.” They do not need to be read. You will keep being loud and soft and in-between in the way you always have. These words do not need your attention. They are soft enough already.


A soundmaker

Surveys and Surprise

February 4, 2011

I chose Public Policy as a college major because I liked its approach better than PoliSci’s. Instead of just looking at surveys and theorizing, public policy gives you tools to help you think about solving problems. I didn’t want to sit back and think about the world, I wanted to engage in it. Survey data always seems iffy anyway – what if the response rate was low, what if the questions were asked badly, what if they didn’t really mean those answers (I mean, I rarely care exactly what I say when I take surveys). Do people really rely on that kind of information to make decisions about the world?

Naturally, we do a policy analysis for a real-world institution as a capstone project for our major. And what do I wind up doing as part of that?

A survey.

AND IT’S SO COOL! You ask questions and get answers. And it’s new information! That no one has yet! We’re like little explorers, discovering one of the most elusive kinds of knowledge about the world – what people think.

So pumped.

I Fired an AK-47

December 21, 2010

Five days ago, I shot a gun. Several guns in fact. Two handguns (a 40mm and a 45mm), a 12 gauge shotgun, an AK-47, and an AR-15 (the military’s standard issue assault rifle). I was on road trip in the southwest US with three friends during the winter break of our college senior year. We stopped in Arizona where one of us lived and his older brothers took us out in the desert because we wanted to go skeet shooting.

The morning started at about 8AM, which was super early for the four of us who had stayed up past 2 and were still on California college-student time. We joined the two brothers and all piled into a white pickup. Driving a bit north of Phoenix, we eventually rumbled off onto a dirt road that proceeded to get bumpier and bumpier. It took us a while to find a site that didn’t have a “no shooting” sign – apparently the area was getting cleaned up. After the shaky journey, we flopped out of the car onto the dust, surrounded by low hills toothpicked with saguaros.

So there I was, about to go shooting for the first time in my life. I’m from a family of democrats, none of whom own a gun or ever go hunting, not even any of my extended family. We live on the eastern seaboard. Solid blue territory. My high school at one point had a rule that every student needed to carry a clear backpack because the principal was afraid that some of the kids in gangs from the housing projects might bring a gun to school. At one football game someone did get shot in the leg by accident. Being worried about weapons wasn’t irrational.

Except, I didn’t grow up in urban New York City, I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland. When I was younger, one of my friend’s grandfather had a display case full of guns, and another friend of mine had gone shooting with his dad. I remember them talking to each other about target practice on cans, and how  different guns kick into your shoulder. I never went shooting with them, but I wasn’t uncurious.

So for me, going shooting was a way to finally take a peek at a piece of American culture that was different from my experience. When we planned the trip, I suggested we add skeet shooting to our itinerary and everyone enthusiastically agreed. Since the assault weapons ban hadn’t been fully renewed and Arizona had pretty lax gun laws, the day turned out a bit more interesting than we expected.

First of all, we forgot to bring the clay pigeon thrower, so we never formally went skeet shooting. Luckily, one brother had a lemon tree in his front yard and had decided to toss in a bag of lemons for target variety. So we wound up throwing lemons in the air as targets, which was fine because the newbies of us had terrible aim and wouldn’t have hit a far away skeet anyways.

But then the other brother started pulling out more guns from the bed of his truck. An assault rifle first. Basically it’s fancier, with more handles and parts that move, and with that synthetic black metal/plastic look. Even in sweatshirts, you look a bit like you’re at a military training camp in the desert when you fire it. Bonus: the scope had a laser.

Then an AK-47! The only gun I remembered from the Goldeneye N64 game we all loved as kids, with its distinct shape and brown color. We laughed in disbelief when the brother pulled it out, and we took turns firing it at lemons propped up on sticks, and other debris lying around from past peoples’ target practice (a punching bag, a TV, a fire extinguisher). Firing an AK-47 in a desert, I was distinctly reminded of a certain turbaned man in the middle east…

And lastly, the handguns. Smaller, worse aim, more complicated safety switches. We all took turns shooting each type of gun, and then traded them all around for about another hour. I learned how to load a shotgun (ready for the zombie apocalypse now, hoping I find a shotguns and shells). I felt handgun bullet casings whiz over my head. And I got familiar with the smell of gun smoke, which lingered in my nostrils for a few hours afterward.

But what did it feel like for me to shoot? What did I learn, why did I go? Initially, there was the thrill of doing something unconventional – kind of like the reason people dress up. We all put on a gun costume for a couple hours and laughed at how out of character we were – liberals don’t go skeet shooting! Naturally we intended to show it off to our friends, taking pictures and videos.

Having never held or fired a gun before, I got a sense of the weight of the metal and the force of the explosions that propelled the bullets. When I watch people fire guns in movies now, I get it differently than before, kind of like when you finally fall in love and can relate to all the romances.

Plus, shooting is fun. Aiming is a challenge, so you can compete with each other on marksmanship. Or you can get into the technical side of it, and compare the engineering of the different weapons, the same way people compare cars. And it makes an awesome sound – there was a crack when you pulled the trigger, followed by a washy echo from the surrounding hills a second later.

The people I went with were very sensible about safety. Before we even started, they said to never, ever point the gun at someone, even if you’re positive it’s not loaded. Good to be in the habit. When it’s loaded and you’re carrying it, they said to always point it towards the sky or the ground. We wore earplugs for the noise. And when it was all over, we picked up all of our shells (unlike the previous visitors, who left shells and broken beer bottles everywhere).

So what’s with all the big to-do about guns in this country? Sure, they’re dangerous, but so are knives. Maybe people really do kill people, and accidents happen the same way accidents happen with any tool – because people are irresponsible or lazy. Might there be another approach to dealing with gun violence? The gangs in Annapolis are stuck in a cycle of poverty – would it be more effective to have better education and a more supportive community? I think there’s probably a lot to say for tightening the licensing we give to guns. People shouldn’t be allowed to handle dangerous instruments unless they can prove they’re responsible about it.

As for the second amendment – I’m not convinced either way. I don’t expect to ever shoot a gun again (at least, I won’t seek it out) because I wouldn’t use one to protect myself in my home, and I don’t think I’ll bother to spend the money on recreational target practice. Shooting was cool, but it didn’t enthrall me much more than, say, the bowling we did the night before. Legally, I think the constitution is ambiguous about gun rights and can be read to favor an individual right or the right of a militia. We’d do better to throw out the amendment completely and replace it with something clearer and more straightforward: The right to protect yourself from others alongside a right for the state to regulate dangerous weapons. Or something like that. Whatever. It’s not a topic I’m particularly passionate about.

In the end, I can see why people enjoy their guns. In the same way I’ve been pissed off by school administrators restricting activities, I can relate to people who think it’s not the government’s business to dictate your target practice. And if people want to use guns for self-defense, let them. But I think it’s reasonable to let them only if they can prove themselves responsible owners by passing marksmanship tests, demonstrating safe handling, etc.

To be clear, I was never a gun hater, so this isn’t a confession of a liberal who’s been converted. This is the development of a more nuanced opinion based on new data. Besides, what did my friends and I do after shooting? We tried out a different activity we rarely did and had few skills for: golfing.