I was recently sent this article comparing skylines of San Francisco in two of this summers science fiction blockbusters: Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation. These two matte paintings pretty much sum up the perspectives these two franchises have on the the future of human race. In one world, the human race overcomes its petty differences and silly things like armed conflict and joins together into a planetary federation posited with the task of maintaining peace and diplomacy throughout the universe; a heady and high-minded ideal indeed. In the other, not only does humanity destroy itself by it's own inventions, it's fall is inevitable. The theme of being destroyed by ones own creation is not a new one (dating back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or even the Golems of Jewish folklore) but is definitely very much the view of the future from a modern perspective. Even the production design of Star Trek evokes a "Retro" feeling, an update of the clean, geometric shape of things to come envisioned in the sixties and seventies. I've just finished reading a memoir by David Beers entitled Blue Sky Dream about growing up in post war california, the son of an aerospace engineer at Lockheed when the future (as my eloquent co-worker Sean puts it) "was shiny and new." And that's the thing, if you look at when these two series' were conceived, you will notice a marked shift in attitude towards the future. The 1960's brought us not only Star Trek but also The Jetsons and Lost in Space with images of the future as a generally happy place where technology makes our lives better. But, as Beers points out in his book, as government money for aerospace programs began to dry up, disillusionment set in. I don't think it a coincidence that it is around this time (the 1980's) we got movies like the Mad Max's, Escape From New York, Blade Runner, and a whole host of other dystopias, not to Mention The first two Terminator movies. That's not to say there weren't optimistic visions of the future in the 80's (that is when most of the Star Trek films were released) but I'd say that it is fair to argue that the 80's are when that kind of view of the future really took hold of mainstream consciousness. A view that, I believe, still defines our attitudes today. Take for example this talk by Bruce McCall: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/bruce_mccall_s_faux_nostalgia.html We laugh at these images but I think in that we've also lost something of the wide eyed gleam the future used to inspire; but why? I think part of what happened is technology has gotten away from people in the sense that, as it becomes increasingly complex, it has also gotten less and less intuitive. Part of this is surely attributable to the increasingly rapid pace at which technology is developing in the world but part of it is also due to a failing in design. I think everyone can relate to a how frustrating it is when a device or piece of software doesn't work as described or has poor documentation. But even beyond that, people don't want to read documentation. I think this is part of why apple has been so successful as of late, they're gone to great lengths to make the user interface intuitive. Naturally they have the advantage of an environment where they control most of the variables but I think that they're attempts at making the way we interact with the virtual world mimic the way we interact with the physical one are a great step in the right direction. Take a look at this TED video for more of what I mean about putting the user back into user interface. To come full circle, in Terminator 3, Kate Brewsters Dad, when General Brewster is pressed to allow Skynet full control over the military defense system he says "I'd like to keep a human in the loop". And when he finally does acquiesce, Skynet is unleashed and destroys the world. Let's keep humans in the loop.
I've been sitting on this post for a while but back in January I read an article in the SF Weekly (which I Ironically picked up off the street) about San Francisco's recent ordinance banning plastic bags.
San Francisco is a city that enjoys being scratched behind the ears by an adoring world. And the city was certainly purring a little more than a year ago when it banned plastic shopping bags, which triggered adoring headlines around the globe. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the ban's primary author, was fêted in publications from The Economist to People (which gave the photogenic supe a full-page spread). Locally, the ban was a hit: San Francisco was a national trendsetter and a world leader in the green movement.
For locals, this was change we could believe in — after all, it asked us to do nothing. The ban didn't even ask us to think. The infinitesimal decision-making of "Paper or plastic?" was simply replaced by waddling off with armfuls of default paper bags. This, according to the ban's backers, was progress. San Francisco had slain the plastic dragon, doing away with a detested petroleum product that littered our streets, endangered wildlife, and symbolized everything wrong with America's consumerist, throwaway society. That the ban — which applies only to chains or large stores grossing more than $2 million yearly — did next to nothing to alter consumers' throwaway behavior was largely left unsaid. One year later, it still is. In that time, it has become apparent that many of the rationales used to justify the ban — such as its benefiting the environment and alleviating the city's litter problems — are not playing out in the real world. Plastic bags induce a highly visceral reaction; they have been likened to "synthetic vermin," and Mirkarimi described them to SF Weekly as "unearthly things." But visceral hatred is generally not the best motivation for public policy — especially when scientific studies indicate that policy to be counterproductive.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund's "paper calculator" — and factoring in the city's requirement that bags be composed of at least 40 percent recycled material — the ecological consequences are staggering. That many paper bags weigh about 5,250 tons, which results in the felling of 72,000 trees, sulfur dioxide emissions of 91,200 pounds, the release of 21.5 million pounds of greenhouse gases, and the generation of 40 million gallons of wastewater.
In the past two decades, a number of "Life-Cycle Analyses" (LCAs) have measured the "cradle to grave" environmental impact of plastic and paper shopping bags. SF Weekly was unable to track down any that rated paper as being more environmentally beneficial overall. Again and again, paper bags were found to require more energy to create and transport, emit more greenhouse gases, generate more water and air pollution, consume far more fresh water, produce much more solid waste, and produce markedly more eutrophication of water bodies (a condition in which an excess of nutrients, often nitrogen, leads to choking algae infestations).
Several of these LCAs were commissioned by the plastics industry — yet Charles Lardner, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, said the paper industry does not dispute the studies' findings. And a number of the studies were not connected to the plastics industry. A 2004 analysis by the French retail giant Carrefour found the most environmentally friendly bag to be a heavy-duty reusable plastic sack; paper bags were found to be the worst of all. Regarding so-called "biodegradable plastic," while LCAs differ, several found it to require far more energy to produce and distribute than regular plastic. What's more, it requires the cultivation of vast amounts of corn or potatoes, which are farmed unsustainably using powerful chemicals. The West German, Australian, and Scottish governments weighed the scientific evidence to deduce that a simple elimination of plastic bags in favor of paper ones would be an ecological step backward. This conclusion was duplicated last year in Seattle. These findings do not much impress Jack Macy and Robert Haley of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, two of the longtime movers and shakers behind the city's quest to quit plastic. Haley notes that "you can always get an LCA to support your view," and brushes it off as "bogus science" irreparably tainted by its connection to industry. The two then touted a 2000 study in Sweden that showed paper bags to be more environmentally friendly than plastic ones. This LCA, performed by the firm CIT Ekologik, is something of a security blanket for municipalities hoping to justify a plastic bag ban; officials in Manhattan Beach and Massachusetts have cited it as well. It warrants mentioning, however, that this was not a study of small grocery bags but hulking, 55-pound animal feed sacks. What's more, it too was commissioned by industry: a consortium of European paper bag companies.
In 2002, Ireland mandated a fee of 21 euro cents on plastic shopping bags; within a year, its residents were using 90 percent fewer of them. This was the kind of measure the Department of the Environment and Mirkarimi originally pushed for San Francisco. It wasn't what they got. During a one-year voluntary bag-reduction program adopted by the city's largest grocery stores, the supermarkets' lobbying arm, the California Grocers Association (CGA), turned around and engineered a 2006 state law forbidding municipalities from forcing stores to charge a fee on bags. This galvanized the Board of Supervisors behind Mirkarimi — "I told the mayor, 'No more talking. We're going for the ban,'" he recalls. Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, told the media that San Francisco had no option other than the one it took. But that isn't true. Thoughtful and innovative methods of skirting the 2006 state law are being developed in the Bay Area — but not in San Francisco. While the state forbids municipalities from imposing a bag fee on stores, leaders in Santa Clara County will vote this year on whether to place a fee directly on consumers, to be collected by stores. If that idea fails to gain support — or doesn't survive the inevitable lawsuit from the plastics industry — the county could simply ban plastic bags and then charge a fee of around 25 cents on paper ones. These methods don't have the San Francisco ban's righteous simplicity, and — in a possible anathema to city liberals — they target mom-and-pop shops as well as chains. But the South Bay plans would actually reduce consumption and help the environment. While Mirkarimi likes to tout bag fees, he doesn't seem thrilled with the idea of San Franciscans paying them. The fee he proposed in 2005 would have been footed by stores, not by shoppers — a model that has never created significant reductions. He gushed about programs at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's in which shoppers who bring their own bags receive tiny rewards. While this approach makes people feel good about themselves, it doesn't produce real results. Yet when IKEA began charging for bags, consumption dropped 92 percent in the first year alone. Finally, shoppers who go the extra mile to bring reusable bags are missing the big picture — an Australian study noted that driving two kilometers (1.25 miles) roundtrip to the store burns the fuel energy it would take to create 17.5 plastic bags.
"Paper bags have a greater environmental impact than plastic bags, and therefore you would not create a policy that banned plastic and forced everyone to use paper only," said Dick Lilly, the manager of the waste prevention program for Seattle Public Utilities. After much analysis, that city spurned the San Francisco model in favor of a fee on all bags, meant to spur shoppers to bring their own — a goal San Francisco officials embrace, but do virtually nothing to promote. Key elements of the S.F. model, in Lilly's estimation, "could be a catastrophic mistake."
Now it would be easy to come away from this article cursing overzealous activists or politicians that pander to said bleeding hearted constituencies. But I think that there is a deeper lesson in all this.
With commodities, the rationale for free market capitalism is that the price that is paid for a good will reflect what goes into it. So you pay for concrete, or pipes or computer chips, roughly the total value of all the materials and labor hours put into making it. One of the problems with this system arises in what are called hidden costs, that is things like pollution that the manufacturer doesn't have to put on his or her balance sheet but still end up using some of societies resources.; eventually someone has to clean up the pollution and that usually ends up being taxpayers.
But in the case of plastic bags, we have the unique situation where the commodity that does use less resources actually costs less; that's why most stores use them. Tacking on an additional 5 cents for each plastic bag used only furthers this philosophy. Users are paying the cost of the resources they're using; a cost they are going to have to pay one way or another, whether in the form of tax dollars for pollution cleanup programs, or at the checkout counter. The difference is, at the counter, that cost is associated with the good whereas in taxes the relationship to consumption habits is much less direct.
I once heard that you should pay for the things you love. Otherwise they go away.
I believe that
I'm addicted to a number of things on the internet, some pleasures being guiltier than others, but one particularly guiltless pleasure of the world wide web is my access the videos of the TED conference.
A friend of mine recently directed me to a very interesting video from this conference by Paula Scher which, I not only found enlightening, but also reminded me of a book from my senior seminar by Daniel Pink entitled A Whole New Mind. The book is postured as a sort of career guide / business management text but don't let that turn you off from its message.
The thesis of Pink's book iss that the successful people in the coming “Conceptual Age” will need to be able to think in highly abstract forms and have a high capacity for human interaction, something computers have a great deal of difficulty with. Pink dedicates several chapters to outlining how right brain functions can be utilized to make a more significant impact; he outlines the importance of Design, Story, Symphony -being able to see the big picture and make connections- Empathy, and Play - drawing people in by making things attractive as well as embracing our innate curiosity. These things are products of right brain functions, and therefore uniquely human, that make a person more valuable.
One of the points Pink makes in his book is that humans are the only species to “play with” or tinker with their environment. Being able to "play with" new ideas and new things is a very big part of human satisfaction. It is this "curious nature" if you will, that has driven the progress of the human race. That curiosity is a distinctly human trait and the fact that we find it pleasurable is intrinsically linked to the concept of play.
Being able to innovate requires that you think creatively and understand that, in the end, people are what is important so design ability is much more valuable than manufacturing ability. Pink offers the definition of design as utility enhanced by significance; it leverages the pre-existing conditions. A device that is intuitive is far more effective than one that requires training,; feedback is immediately relevant to the user. Good design can enhance meaning beyond the straight content of the message and, because it is targeted at the emotional part of people, makes a deeper and more lasting impact. Better design makes something more useful, but in order to do this understanding the context and positioning yourself in that context is very important and that context, the history and interrelation of things, exists on such a deeper level than numbers can convey.
With all the news we've been hearing about the economy recently, I thought I'd pass these two episodes along of my favorite show along. I think alot of people are turned off at the mere mention of economics or financial markets because these sciences are not intuitive or readily observable in people's everyday life.
These two episodes do an awesome job of explaining, in very concrete and understandable terms, what is going on.
The article in my previous post What's A Business For? is talking about exactly the kind of culture that we are now realizing has gotten us into this mess. Wall street has lost sight of what the primary function of a business is for, creating phantom wealth through a system that ends up leaving a hapless public feeling swindled and dumbstruck. The economists are right when it's a problem of consumer confidence, but not just in banks but in the system as a whole.
One summer during college, I took a music history course on the elusive and esoteric art form of Jazz, "the only truly American art form" according to my professor. He (Mr. P.) was what one would expect in a music history teacher at a local community college: a white middle class male, an MFA in music at a small liberal arts college, dogged in his classifications. "Jazz" he said "is the greatest American art form for two reasons. It's founded in improvisation, Jazz music is always alive, no two performances are the same. Without that element of improvisation, it's not Jazz. Secondly, Jazz is the only music that was born entirely within the United States." Now whether or not you share Mr. P's opinion on Jazz music, one must concede that Jazz' tradition is a largely an American one; an African American one. A brief history for the un-initiated, what we call jazz music today has its roots in the funeral march music of New Orleans where the procession would march to the graveyard led by the band playing a slow, melancholy, number (the first line) and dance back to town to what became Dixieland and Swing music (the second line). As Ken Burns and others will tell you, this music came from places like the infamous "Congo Square" where African slaves would come and play, fusing their musical sensibilities with Instruments and sounds from European music. And so Jazz became the popular music of the day, thoroughly upsetting the fragile sensibilities of much of America. But the question stands, why, how for that matter, did it move out of the Black communities of the south and into mainstream consciousness? When looking at what made Jazz, both the music and the culture that formed around it, so sensational, and ultimately so popular, the newness of it cannot be denied, but I think that its roots in African American culture are often downplayed. Jazz started out as party music rooted in the cultural traditions of the south. One can only imagine how new and exciting it seemed to the generation grown up around this time, namely the white mainstream of America. Here was music un-encumbered by the traditions, conventions, and expectations of their parents generation; music that wasn't stuck trying to imitate the classical traditions of Europe. It was able to achieve this precisely because of its roots in African culture. Until then most white Americans were steeped in the ideas and musical traditions of Europe and it took the radically different paradigm that rose out of the culture of the south to foster this new sound. This is not intended to disparage classical music or white musicians in general. I think what must be understood when thinking about this is that whiteness at the time (and really throughout the U.S.'s history) meant the wealthier, privileged status quo. If we look at the larger cultural history of the United States, I think it can be argued that much of the cultural movements here have their roots in African American communities (Blues, R&B , Rock and Roll, Hip-Hop, et al.) I would argue however, that this owes more to the fact that African Americans are also the largest group that has categorically suffered the most repression in social, political, economic, and cultural terms. If you buy the maxim that great art comes out of great suffering then this would seem to make a lot of sense.
Really bummed that I missed this exhibit at the Oakland museum. Here's the exhibit in Boston and a book here's the schedule: Birth of the Cool Tour Schedule: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy February 15-April 13, 2008 Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA May 18–August 17, 2008 Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis, MO September 19–January 5, 2009 Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX February 27–May 31, 2009
I recently read this landmark article from the Harvard Business Review by Charles Handy entitled “What’s a Business for?” I don’t typically list the HBR in my regularly read periodicals but this 2002 article, pointed out to me by my professor Michael Meeks, was too compelling to pass up. It was comforting to see that a some of the most salient points of the socialist argument are not lost on deaf ears to the business world. You can read the full article here (PDF |HTML) but I’ve summarized the main points below. The thesis of Handy’s argument is that the TRUE value in a business then is in how it brings people together, it is “the human association which in fact produces and distributes wealth”. The value of a restaurant is not in the Chef’s ability to devise great recipes (not to say it isn’t an integral ingredient). If that were the case the Chef wouldn’t need the restaurant; she could simply sell her delicious dishes from a stand on the street. But if she did that, given the time it takes to prepare a four-course meal, the Chef would only be able to serve two, maybe three people at each meal. No, the restaurant allows the Chef to sell her food to many more people because it brings together the talent of several people - Cooks, Sous-chefs, Waiters - to deliver food of a high caliber to many people. And not only that, the restaurant provides an opportunity to create an experience for which people are willing to pay, one they could not recreate at home (or at least not without a concerted effort). Alone, a chef could create this for a small group of people at a dinner party. With a restaurant behind her, she can share it with the world. And this makes sense; society as a whole gets more, higher quality products produced more efficiently, employees are afforded more benefits like healthcare, and the business makes a profit. Where then, does the modern idea of the corporation fit into this with its financial reports, and margins, and stockholders? If you ask investors the primary responsibility of corporate leadership, most will tell you maximizing shareholder return. By maximizing profits, stock prices stay high allowing the company to raise money more easily stay in existence; just as an individual must make a living so must a corporation. As Handy points out though, this does not mean that the purpose of a business is to make a profit. Handy likens such mentality to a person who lives to eat as opposed to eating to live. A Corporation can have all the cash in the world, but that money is not turned into wealth without the human association that is the company. In the old days, the necessary resources for creating wealth were primarily tangible assets. Land, Buildings, Machinery all could be purchased wholly from their owner. But now as we have moved into an information economy, the primary factors of production are intangible assets. The Deep Smarts of the organization are more important than its physical capital. It is easy for your competitor to purchase the same machinery; it is not as simple for him to mimic your business processes. And this is an important reason as to why people invest. If a plant, machinery and some unskilled labor was all it took for me produce the same product as you, I would be smarter to open up my own shop than to give you my money in return for only a cut. I invest because the company has built into it something that cannot be found elsewhere. If today’s corporate culture doesn’t realize this soon, and start acting like it, they will have bankrupted public faith in the system. “Markets rely on rules and laws” warns Handy, “but those rules and laws in turn depend on truth and trust. Conceal truth or erode trust, and the game becomes so unreliable that no one will want to play. The markets will empty and share prices will collapse, as ordinary people find other places to put their money- into their houses, maybe, or under their beds. The great virtue of capitalism- that it provides a way for the savings of society to be used for the creation of wealth-will have been eroded.” But some would defend the behavior of today’s corporation, “It’s a dog eat dog world” they say, “it’s not pretty but what other choice is there?” The corporation has long been compared to a person, and is treated as such under American legal systems. In their book Built to Last Collins and Porras make the point that companies compete in the marketplace in much the same way organisms compete in ecosystems; by adapting to their environment and finding niches to fulfill. By fostering an environment that encourages creativity and experimentation a company can stumble onto a path they would not have otherwise seen. This is not the first time business has been compared to evolution but there is an important distinction between this and the frame that is commonly used in this situation. The idea behind the mechanism driving evolution, natural selection, is that advantageous mutations and adaptations allow certain organisms to survive by giving the a competitive advantage in propagating their DNA, and consequently, the advantageous trait. This is a much more nuanced view then the typically espoused “survival of the fittest” description of business as evolution. The Giraffe’s ability to reach the leaves no other animal can reach is just as much evolution as the Lion’s ability to pounce on a gazelle. So if it is true, businesses are competing just like organisms, what helps organisms evolve and survive? Science’s answer: genetic diversity. The more genetic samples that get mixed up as organisms reproduce the greater the possibility for an advantageous mutation to occur. And how does a business emulate this process? By having a free flow of ideas, by experimenting, keeping what works, throwing out what doesn’t and moving on. Businesses need to constantly be looking for a new niche where they don’t need to worry about competing. Furthermore, the picture of evolution as big guys eating little guys isn’t sustainable. Imagine for a moment two bacteria, each in an identical Petri dish, one is carnivorous and the other photosynthetic. The carnivorous bacterium eats up all the food in its tray and then dies because there is nothing left to eat. The other creates new energy from the sun and lives much longer. A shortsighted attempt at profit or an advantageous position can be ultimately harmful to everyone but a few executives at the top. To continue the evolution analogy, this is also why it is important to build businesses that last generations. The longer an organism’s life cycle, the more time it has to develop into a complex being. How much wisdom can be gained by a fruit fly that lives but only a day? Unfortunately the culture built up around today’s culture is so focused on speed, durability is forgotten. I’m reminded of a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Aventura when Sandro looks around him and says “these buildings were built to last one hundred years, who builds anything to last even ten years anymore?”
I wrote previously about a little zine I had stumbled upon called Rad Dad about "Radical Parenting" for fathers. Well I didn't get a chance to talk about what it was that I found so excellent about this zine and, I light of my last post I wanted specifically address one of the articles I found especially poignant. Below is an excerpt from the article credited only to "Cardel".
Everything I've learned about women in my adult life has come from lovers. My wife, and girlfriends. I used to konw alot from television, but it's turned out to be mostly untrue. I also had two older cousins who, four years my senior, were responsible for showing me what women were all about. Mainly that they have something that I want but can't have. I couldn't really explain what it was, but it was there when they danced to Madonna and Appallonia 6. When their boyfriends Andre and Tom came over -on chrome Mongoose bikes, in Vans, with two diagonal parts in their heads – they were every kind of man I didn’t know how to be. They were what my cousins wanted. I was what my cousins were stuck with. To me, that was what women were; beautiful, untouchable people who were nice to you because you were related to them, and because the better men weren’t home from school yet. And now this newest woman. Though we’ve only been seeing each other for 21 months at the time of this writing, we’ve grown very close. It’s like she’s known me her whole life. For my part, I can’t remember what I ever did before her. Between you and me she’s damn cute. Possibly as cute as my wife, which is a hard thing to be. … Dads look on their daughters with a kind of fear, confusion and overwhelming love that often manifests itself in a manic desire to control. It’s as if by keeping them locked away from the world, we can all undo the wrong that every man has done/ All the wrong that we have done. Kat, and Tara, Jill and Jo, Gabby, Rebekah, Kate Rachel, and Dante can all tell you that I’m not really a bad guy. They can also tell you that I’m not a great boyfriend… Have you ever looked at a picture of yourself and cried? I have. Recently. Today. I cried because Georgia is a chance to maybe right what I have done wrong. What if I make sure she knows that she’s nothing less than beautiful, that she’s nothing less than whole? What if I make sure she knows that her loving is a miracle, and how deeply she’s connected to my soul? What if I make sure she knows that she’d smart; funny, precious, tough, and capable of anything? What if I make sure she knows that she is as good as human beings come, and so strong that she needn’t fear loving anyone or anything? That her heart will be broken, but it will also be healed? What if I told her everything I should have told Kat, and Tara, Jill and Jo, Gabby, Rebekah, Kate Rachel, and Dante. I still have a chance with Jo, because she has given me the rest of her life to get it right. But the others have moved on to find men more capable of loving. I am Georgia’s first boyfriend. Scary, I know. It smacks of an overprotective father, but it’s true. I am the one who shows her how a man should love her. I think of this daily; hourly in fact. I take every opportunity to try and be right to her. How else will she know when someone is loving her well, or poorly?
Some pretty heavy stuff I know, but I think there is alot behind this. I too have had most of my education on women through relatives and lovers. The children of one of three sons, my brother and I are two of 6 grandsons; there are alot of men in my family. When Cardel says "Dads look on their daughters with a kind of fear, confusion and overwhelming love that often manifests itself in a manic desire to control." I understand completely what he means. I can barely communicate with the woman I am dating, how am I supposed to act around this woman who looks up to me and depends on me for everything. While at first the statement a daughter is "a chance to maybe right what I have done wrong" comes off presumptious at first, consider this. As children we are socialized by our environment, we form our ideas of social dynamics by watching and interacting with adults. And while there are other factors and influences than parents, they still are a big part and the first influence on a child. And so as a Father, it is your responsibility to teach your daughter what to demand from the world. To tell her that she's just as good and capable as any man out there and doesn't have to put up with anyones bullshit. And, for that matter, its a father's responsibility to teach his sons how to treat women as well. There's a quote from John Q, when Denzel Washington has taken the hospital hostage and thinks he is going to die. He turns to his son and starts giving him as much fatherly advice as he can pack into 2 minutes and tells him "Treat girls like princesses, because that's what they are." While some may object to the choice of words as mildly partiarchal, the point I think he is try to convey is "treat women with respect, always". I've often heard it said that having children is an ultimate statement of faith, in yourself and the world. In your ability to provide a nurturing place for a person to grow, and in the world to become a better place than it currently is. But I sincerly believe that the only way change actually happens is through young people. The only way high ideals we espouse like equality and respect will ever take root is through them.