Enter The Young

AlbMFOL-11.jpg

Here they come, yeah
Some are laughing, some are crying
Here they come
And some are doing, some are trying
Some are selling, some are buying
Some are living, some are dying
But demanding recognition one by one

Enter the young, yeah
Yeah, they’ve learned how to think
Enter the young, yeah
More than you think they think
Not only learned to think, but to care
Not only learned to think, but to dare
Enter the young

“Enter The Young” – The Association

Among the many amazing things about this past Saturday’s “March For Our Lives,” one thing that stands out to me is its genesis. Only four days after the school shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School  in Parkland, Florida, a group of the surviving students announced the march on Washington, DC. Only 34 days after that, over 1,000,000 people participated in the Washington march or in one of about 800 other marches in every state of the country and every continent except Antarctica.

School shootings have been occurring in the United States ever since November 12, 1840, when law professor John Anthony Gardner Davis was shot at the University of Virginia by student Joseph Semmes, However, for over 120 years such shootings have generally involved few people and were precipitated by some kind of beef between the shooter and the victim(s).

However, on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman randomly shot and killed 16 people and injured 31 more in what became known as the “University of Texas Tower Shooting” in Austin, Texas.

Such random school shootings have subsequently taken place with an alarming frequency, including Columbine on April 20, 1999 (12 dead, 21 injured; Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 (33 dead, 23 injured); Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 (28 dead, 2 injured); Umpqua Community College on October 1, 2015 (10 dead, 9 injured); and – of course – Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018 (17 dead, 14 injured).

In addition, there have been numerous other random mass shootings in the US, including the Orlando nightclub Pulse on June 12, 2016 (49 dead, 58 injured); the Sutherland Springs Church on November 5, 2017 (26 dead, 20 injured); and Las Vegas on October 1, 2017 (58 dead, 851 injured).

After every mass shooting, calls for stricter gun control have been deflected by gun rights advocats’ unctuous offers of “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. As the death toll from gun violence of all kinds (school shootings, other mass shootings, and the steady stream of other shootings), frustration has grown over the lack of change in policies and laws to address this problem. Even advocacy groups like Everytown For Gun Safety have been unable to make headway on this issue.

And then suddenly, in the space of 38 days, students from Parkland and many other places around the country have created a groundswell of support for addressing gun violence. While it’s too soon to say how successful they’ll be in the long run, it’s hard to deny their effectiveness at mobilizing a great number of people for this cause.

How they’ve done it will be a subject of study for many. But I think part of the answer can be found in their time in history. I’ve written before that many people in power today came of age and gained power in a different world – before modern technology revolutionized so much of our daily lives. As I noted eight years ago in “Failing Institutions”:

“…many institutions are failing because they haven’t adapted to the ways our world has changed. One thing that’s striking about many of the big institutions finding themselves in hot water these days is that a big part of their problem appears rooted in a mistaken belief that they are able to tightly manage/control the information about problematic issues. Toyota had problems with car defects; it tried to hide them. The Church had problems with perverted priests; it tried to hide them. Goldman Sachs had problems with very risky investments and very shady dealings to get rid of them; it tried to hide them. Tiger Woods had a thing for cocktail waitresses; he tried to hide it.”

In all cases like these, the inability of those in charge to recognize and adapt to today’s world just made things worse.

“However, they apparently didn’t realize that in today’s hyper-connected world it’s almost inevitable that bad things will come to light – whether it’s vehicle flaws, priests behaving badly, devious investment strategies, or adulterous affairs. And now when the news DOES come out, the impact is likely to be much greater than it might have been before the Internet and global communications – especially if it’s apparent there was a cover-up involved.”

For years we’ve been witnesses to the growing incompetence of many in power. We’ve also seen an increasingly frantic reaction by many to the ways our world has changed. There’s a sizable subset of our society who would like to turn back the clock to the 1950s – or even earlier. They’ve been like King Canute vainly ordering the tide not to come in. If we are going to continue to be a dynamic, vital nation, their wishes are impossible to fulfill.

But the tide will always come in of its own accord, and a healthy society will always be changing. The solutions for our current problems will come from those familiar with today’s world. As I noted in 2010: “When the times are changing, the ones who understand and adapt to those changes will be the ones who thrive in what comes.”

The young people who have brought us so quickly to a possible tipping point in the gun control debate have always known today’s world. The Internet, social media, the tricks and quirks of the modern news media – these things have been a part of their lives since they were born. While many of us have been stuck in the past, they have only known the present.

What these young people have done in the past 40 days may be just a foreshadowing of what they might accomplish going forward. For me, being at the Albany march on Saturday and seeing the spirit of the young people there gave me the greatest sense of optimism since 2016.

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“Walking Up” Is Nice – But It Won’t Stop School Shootings

In the wake of the student protests against school shootings, a new meme has come up: #WalkUpNotOut. According to ABC News:

Jodie Katsetos, a sixth-grade teacher at Arcadia Middle School in Oak Hall, Virginia, wrote a message on a large poster board in her classroom that read, “Walk Up Not Out.”

The world first found out about her action when she posted a photo of that message on Facebook. Her post went viral, which then led to ABC News paying her a visit.

The “Walk Up” idea arose in response to the national student protests, in which students walked out of class on March 14th and then observed 17 minutes of silence to honor the 17 people killed in the Parkland school shooting. Katsetos told ABC her suggestion was to augment rather than replace the student walkout:

“I am adamant about it staying positive,” she said about the dual messages of the walk out and walk up. “I’m not pushing either. I made those suggestions as alternatives to walking out and just an everyday reminder to include others and be considerate, which is something that I talk about with students each day.”

While Katsetos may not have been pushing either option, some others apparently view the “Walk Up” movement as a way to deflect from calls for stricter gun control. According to an article on Quartz, retired Texas teacher David Blair, who promoted the idea in a February Facebook post, said: “Gun control or more laws is not, and will not, be the answer.”

Quartz also noted that the Walk Up idea has been spread by groups who support the NRA:

The message is also being spread by adult groups with links to gun manufacturers. A post has been featured on the Facebook page of “One Million Moms Against Gun Control,” which has about 75,000 members, has an NRATV set as its main photo, and is affiliated with “Red Legion Tactical,” which sells military-grade weapons and gear, according to the group’s webpage.

Hmmmm…I wonder if that’s why the idea is “WalkUpNotOut.”

Regardless of where this “Walk Up” idea came from, I can go along with the idea of being nice to fellow students. We live in an interconnected and interdependent world, and making an effort to get along with others is generally a good idea.

However, I do have a problem with the idea that simply “walking up” will somehow prevent school shootings. For one thing, it sounds like victim blaming: if somebody shoots up a school, the inference is that the students must have somehow bullied or been unkind to the shooter. This kind of thinking can lead to the outrageous idea that the victims in a sense were responsible for what happened to them. I’m not saying that’s what “Walk Up Not Out” advocates are saying; but that’s a logical implication.

Beyond that, I don’t believe walking up to people will have much effect on school shootings. I base that belief on personal experience.

Many years ago I worked for the New York State Employment Service, which helped match employers with job seekers. It also served as a mandatory resource for able-bodied people collecting unemployment insurance or welfare, who were required to visit on a regular basis.

I remember one client in particular who was on welfare and visited regularly. She was generally well-dressed and appeared intelligent. She also exuded a certain strong emotional intensity. While she was usually cool and remote, on occasion she would erupt in anger, yelling and at least once slamming a chair against the side of a counselor’s desk.

Our dealings with her finally ended when – for reasons unclear – she threw a neighbor’s baby into a creek. Fortunately, others saw this action and the baby was saved. But her time in the welfare system ended with an extended stay in the corrections system.

Whatever inner demons this woman was dealing with, our being nice to her wasn’t going to make much of a difference. Some people just have such inner demons, and there’s little an untrained teacher, student or some other person can do to “fix” them.

Keeping AR15s out of their hands would be a great idea though.

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Things Have Changed – 2017

Like many people of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was and how I learned about President Kennedy’s assassination. However, my experience of that event was very different from most other Americans.

That day I was in my sixth grade class at Balboa Elementary School in the Panama Canal Zone. It was shortly after lunch, and I was still cooling off after playing outside in the tropical heat. Our school principal, a slight, middle-aged woman, came to the door of our classroom. She spoke briefly with our teacher and then announced to our class that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. I remember the boy in front of me rather dramatically snapped his pencil in two on hearing the news.

Over the next four days everyone in the U.S. was glued to their TV sets. For the rest of that Friday, they learned what the President and First Lady had done before the tragic event and followed news about the search for and capture of a suspect. On Saturday they watched reports on the investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald and saw preparations for the President’s funeral in Washington. And on Sunday they watched in horror as Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas jail.

In Panama, we didn’t see those events and reports on TV. That is because in 1963 there were minimal satellite transmissions of network TV signals. Those of us living in Panama at that time had never seen live television from the States.

Without live TV coverage, the Canal Zone’s Southern Command Network (SCN) did the next best thing: it broadcast the radio coverage over their TV network. However, without live images to offer, they placed on the screen a static image of what looked like a gravestone: a granite-looking background with President Kennedy’s name on it, underneath which were his dates of birth and death. So we spent the time watching TV but hearing radio reports while looking at a mock-up of a headstone.

Television coverage of that event was the first of its kind. While it would be years before I ever heard of the “global village,” I sensed then that something unique and important had happened. And those of us overseas had not been a part of it. We were “out of the loop.”

Fast-forward to the present and things are very different.

In today’s world everyone is in the loop. With the Internet, satellite communications and cell phone networks, anyone can know what’s going on anywhere else in the world. And everyone sees events happening at the same time. When Barack Obama was declared the winner of the 2008 presidential election, celebrations in front of TV screens broke out simultaneously all around the world. Given what I experienced back in 1963, I found that amazing.

President Kennedy once said, “In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power.” Today, everyone has access to that power. In many ways this dispersal of power has overwhelmed the world as we have known it. The old world order has collapsed as borders fade, things spin out of control and many familiar institutions appear incapable of effectively reacting to the problems they face. Today individuals and tiny groups can wreak havoc all out of proportion to their apparent size and influence.

It all feels very unsettling and disturbing. The old rules no longer seem to apply, and many people question what the new rules are. Faith in traditions, institutions and political parties has fallen greatly. People are worried; some of them seem to be freaking out.

Rather than blaming one group or another for what has happened, perhaps our first step to address this new world is to simply recognize and acknowledge this change. We can start by noting it has taken place at all levels: for individuals, for governments, for businesses and for cultural institutions. This change is rooted in the revolution in technology that we have been experiencing since at least the 1950s. This revolution in technology, in turn, is rooted in the revolution in scientific knowledge that began in the early 20th century.

To succeed as individuals, businesses and governments, we need to come to terms with the way things are now, rather than the way they were in a warmly remembered past. We can mourn what we’ve lost by this change, much as we once mourned the loss of an inspiring young president. But we must recognize that the past is gone, and it’s time to live in today’s strange new world.

Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness
that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.” Why not try addressing today’s problems by borrowing concepts from the modern science that has been the source of so much of this change?

  • Physicists tell us the building blocks of our world manifest both individual particle and collective wave qualities simultaneously; the only difference comes from how they are observed. Perhaps we humans are also always both individuals and members of collective groups at the same time. Maybe we’re not either individualists or collectivists, but both simultaneously.
  • Physicists tell us that particles have two basic qualities: location and speed. According to the Uncertainty Principle, the more we can pin down one of those qualities, the less we can pin down the other. Perhaps in a similar way the more controlled and constrained people feel by businesses or government, the more likely they are to rebel against such restraints. Instead of mandating good behaviors, maybe we should focus on inspiring them.
  • Complexity scientists tell us that complex organisms and systems can emerge out of basic ingredients – producing things like a woodland ecosystem or our modern economy. In such instances, the properties of the system emerge from the bottom up, within the context of that system’s environment. (A woodland cannot develop in an arid desert environment, for example.) Might we consider that the qualities and energy of any organization also emerge from the bottom up rather than the top down? And isn’t this what makes democracies more sustainable over time than the reign of any single individual – be they benevolent dictator or tyrant?

These are just three examples of how drawing ideas from modern science can offer us new ways of viewing the problems that so often stymie us today.

Thanks to modern technology – and the science that underpins it – it’s true: the rules have changed. However, thanks to over a century of study and exploration, scientists have been refining a deeper understanding of what the rules really are. Perhaps it is time for us to begin learning these new rules and considering how they might be applied to today’s problems.

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Building Holistically

Architecture is a field that has numerous examples of the benefits of taking a holistic approach to design. Rather than the traditional method of inflicting one superstar architect’s “brilliance” on a community whether the residents appreciate it or not, some architects today view themselves as facilitators of relationships. These professionals investigate the “ecology” of the community in which they’re working, solicit suggestions from the residents and future users of the space, and then develop designs that reflect what they’ve learned. Jeanne Gang – a superstar architect in her own right, who has some fascinating ideas for holistic projects – recently talked about this at a TED conference.

Here in Albany, NY we have a preeminent example of non-collaborative, non-holistic modern architecture: the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. While I enjoyed working in the Plaza for 19 years, it was reviled by some critics, including the charge that it is “fascistic architecture”:

I wonder what Jeanne Gang’s group would have come up with for that space.

Perhaps, beyond the critiques of its design, comparing the Empire State Plaza today to Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower gives us a sense of how much the times have changed. Such a comparison might even inspire a little hope for the future.

AquaTower

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“The Fascinating Physics of Everyday Life”

I just came across this great TED talk by Dr. Helen Czerski, in which she drops the equations for a moment and talks about how physics helps us understand the world we live in.

There is so much about today’s changing world that can make us feel helpless. However, Dr. Czerski suggests that physics provides us with a framework for understanding how things work. With that framework we can get beyond that sense of helplessness and actually have fun exploring our world.

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Fury (There Will Be Blood)

Last weekend a mélange of various white nationalist hate groups – including the KKK and neo-Nazis – converged on Charlottesville, Virginia. While they were there to ostensibly protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the all too predictable result was chaos and bloodshed.

Given the times we live in, nobody should be surprised by the events in Charlottesville. As I’ve noted before, technology has changed our lives in many ways – helping to empower those who had previously been marginalized while the resulting changes threaten those who had benefited from the previous social order.

Over the past 50 years or so the anger of those who are part of the fading old order has grown, often egged on by various politicians, media personalities and others. The presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump stirred things up even more. Trump’s rhetoric, often tinged with intolerance and hints of violence, invoked a mythical glorious past in which “true Americans” (mainly white and male) were in control and not threatened by “others” either within or outside the country.

In addition to further inciting the anger of his predominantly white base, Trump’s campaign and election has been seen as a signal for fringe right-wing extremists to come out into the open and push their white nationalist agenda. This has led to a gathering storm of unreasoning anger against contemporary society and its values, and against those who embrace them.

Given the huge divide in our country today, as well as the rising passions and anger of those opposed to change, the question arises: how will this end? The answer, I fear, is: there will be blood. Once a mob gets going, it is not open to reason. All too often, the only thing that quells the passions of a mob is some event – to which it is a party – that is so horrific that people are shocked back into reality.

Fritz Lang’s movie Fury offers a powerful study of mob violence.

It tells the story of Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), an innocent man who is accused of murder simply because he was a stranger passing through a small town shortly after a murder had been committed. Agitated about the crime and suspicious of this stranger, the locals soon turn into a crazed mob that gets so worked up they storm and set fire to the jail. In the conflagration that follows, Wilson is apparently killed. The mob’s passions subside with the flames, and in the cold light of the following day the shock of what they’d done fills the perpetrators with shame and denial. Nobody wants to acknowledge what they had done; they just want to go back to their normal lives. Events in the rest of the movie show that isn’t possible.

I personally saw something similar happen when I was living in Panama and going to school in the Canal Zone in 1964. To keep peace with Panama, President Kennedy agreed in 1963 to fly the Panamanian flag wherever the US flag was flown in the Canal Zone. After his death that November, the Canal Zone governor decided to mollify Zonian anger over the Panamanian flags by limiting where US flags were flown. That further angered the Zonians: demonstrations by Americans in the Zone broke out, passions rose, some Panamanian students appeared wanting to symbolically raise their flag, a scuffle broke out, and the end result was 4 days of rioting, millions in property damage and at least 28 dead. After those riots Zonians acted as if they never wanted to acknowledge what had happened, and minimal resistance was put up to the Panamanian flags flying with American flags throughout the Zone. Eventually, canal treaty negotiations opened because of that episode led to the dissolution of the Canal Zone all together.

Finally, another example of how mobs can be radically shaken back to reality by the horror of the results of their actions is Germany. Many Germans became passionate followers of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and embraced his vision of the Third Reich and the Aryan master race. However, since the end of World War II and the revelations surrounding the Holocaust, most Germans want nothing to do with Nazis and their beliefs.

Last weekend’s events in Charlottesville were very disturbing, and the sight of that car driving into the crowd was horrific. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have been horrific enough. Those involved in the extreme rightist rally don’t appear at all shamed by what happened; instead at least some of them are branding it a “success.” They’re also making plans for more rallies and marches. It also appears Trump has not been shocked into completely renouncing the extremist groups involved in that rally. Although he eventually issued a statement condemning those groups, it did not convey any of the passion of the many criticisms of others he is known for.

Sadly, it appears events have not yet shaken the extreme rightists – or Trump and his loyal followers – back into reality. I fear something much more horrific is yet to come.

♦ ♦

=== Fair use for January 24, 1964 Life Magazine cover ===

The image of the Life magazine cover was taken from Wikipedia. Though this image is subject to copyright, its use is covered by the U.S. fair use laws, and the stricter requirements of Wikipedia’s non-free content policies, because:

# It is a historically significant photo of an historical event
# It is of much lower resolution than the original. Copies made from it will be of very inferior quality.
# The photo is only being used for informational purposes.
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Science is more than just an opinion

On this Saturday I will be joining with thousands of people around the world in the March for Science.  While many will be in Washington DC, I’ll be at the one in Albany, NY.

There are many people today who believe – erroneously – that science is just a matter of opinion. As a result, we see popular arguments against scientifically-based matters like evolution, vaccinations and climate change. Thankfully, there are groups pushing back against false science. An example is Climate Feedback’s reviews on news and opinion pieces about climate change, like this dubious Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

The trouble many have is they don’t understand the essential feature of science that differentiates it from run-of-the-mill opinions. Fortunately, Nobel physicist Richard Feynman offered an excellent explanation of this feature in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech, drawing on the experience of cargo cults in the South Pacific:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. … It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science. … It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

As usual for Feynman – he was a very interesting guy – his whole speech is entertaining and I highly recommend it. Early on in it he says

…even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO’s, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.

I wonder what he would think of today’s world of “alternative facts!”

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