Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Me and him, Ferguson and Baltimore

He sits and talks to me about the stress and anxiety he feels trying to keep his business running during these changing times.  He feels it was much easier when his father ran the business, and I have to agree with him. His father had it easier sending him to college than it is for him to send his daughter.  Finding employees who are reliable and sophisticated is difficult he says. I don't quite agree with him on that because I don't pull away from everyone who speaks with an accent.

Soon we are talking about Ferguson and Baltimore the Black Deaths, the protests, and the riots.He agrees that many police people misuse their power.  Sometimes enforcement seems almost arbitrary.  And the court system is a mess.  He knows; he's been sued a few times on matters even he and the judge couldn't understand. But it still cost a lot of time, money and aggravation.

But what about those kids in the streets. That's a mess too, he says.  It drives people away, he says, even those who feel sympathetic to the cause.

Would anything change if they stayed quiet? I asked.

He gave me a look that said "Oh my God, you're one of those!"

Maybe it's really a good strategy. It certainly gets attention." I said, feeling that I had overstated my case and gave the kids too much credit for actually having a strategy.

Then I didn't ask what he thought about so many Black men being in jail, most of whom for things white men don't go to jail for.  And while you're in jail you can't be with your family and be a role model for your son.  And when you get out of jail you can't get a job because you've been in jail.

So then you stay mad at the white cop who arrested you for smoking a joint, or for giving him attitude, or for just being big and Black on a dark night in the city. And you son gets angry too.

While I wasn't saying all of those things my friend asked me why these kids didn't just take advantage of all of the new educational opportunities being offered to them.  Why didn't they stay in school and get good jobs.

I asked him how many would somehow get $70,000 to go to NYU with is daughter. I didn't bring up my concern about new studies which show that if kids are undernourished, impoverished, abused or neglected their brains don't grow as fast or develop as completely.  And how Black children face the same problems in school that they do on the streets: they get suspended and expelled for things that white kids are made to stay after school.  I did say that in those elite, often privately funded special city school that have small classes. long days and a lot of structure, many of those inner city kids do very well.  But most inner city public  school are underfunded and poorly equipped. They have large classes. That's because the wealthier white kids are down the block in private schools and their parents don't vote to expand the school budget.

It's all complicated.  It all goes in circles. It's difficult to sort out cause or effect.

Then he asked me why these kids end up in gangs and sell drugs to their neighbors and ruin their own neighborhood.

They like to be in groups, I said.  Most of us do.

Those are the wrong groups, he said.  And he left to join his friends for dinner at the country club where he paid $100,000 to join.  It's good for business to be a member.

I told him to hire someone with an accent.  Isn't that what "job creators" do?

Monday, April 27, 2015

We Build Machines

            Part of what makes humans special is that we build machines.  There are a few other creatures that make tools, but only humans make machines.  We’ve gotten better and better at it over the last two hundred years; and really super at it in the last thirty.
            These machines have helped us build even better machines.  They have helped us explore all the fields of science in ways that could not even be imagined forty years ago.  Think about all we’ve learned about genetics, or how the brain works.  The Super- Collider; that’s kind of special.  I’m impressed that this post will be read by people all over the world.  I even get a map of where they live as Google tracks us all.
            It’s amazing stuff to a guy like me who once had to climb up three stories on a fire escape and sit outside a window to watch a new device called television, and be able to see a little puppet sing that it was “Dootie Time.”
            Is there a downside?
            Of course there is.  We all have learned that there are always trade offs in life. Even the best medication has side effects.  Every change brings unanticipated consequences.
            I’ll take two examples that I read about in yesterday’s paper.  The first was a review of the new movie, Ex Machina.  I haven’t seen it yet, and it may not be the kind of thing I want to take my wife to, but it is a highly over-dramatized version of what people are becoming afraid of: that machines will begin to be smarter than we are, psych us out, replicate themselves and being running our lives.
            That movie seems to get all involved with the sex thing, which is kind of creepy but will certainly attract a crowd.  I am also not really as worried about  “Ava” or HAL becoming President as I would be about Ted Cruz, but there are other real fears.
            One fear is the one I got when I read Nicholas Kristof’s column that described how badly American kids do at math.  Mr. Kristof didn’t talk about machines; he just said that most Americans can barely make change, and that we are terrible when dealing with more complex numerical situations (Boastful Disclaimer:  I solved all of his problems, even his last one, and I’m proud of being good at 8th grade math).
            Bit I relate America’s lack of numerical skills to its accessibility to machines for a few reasons.  First, doing math requires people to think slowly.  You have to add this, divide by that, watch out of the signs, think about the ratios, and check to see if the answer makes sense. Yes, many people can do it really quickly, but those are people who do it a lot and have developed all the good habits.
            Most people, partly because of machines, are expecting everything to come with one flash and one click and don’t have the patience to think slowly.  Also, we all have access to those kinds of machines.  I just asked “Siri” for the square root of 6789. It took literally two seconds for it to tell me 82.39538822.  I could have done it the long way and actually gone to the calculator app, but why go through all that trouble.
            Also, the same phone (hand held computer) has a GPS system.  That gives me pretty exact directions to almost anywhere that has a road to it.  I use it often.  But I try not to use it if I go back again.  I want to know where the place really is and have that in my mind.  I want to know how it is attached to the rest of the world.
            I know, from recent developments in brain science, that if we don’t learn and use these skills, then certain areas of our brains just won’t develop and the skills not only won’t be there when we need them, we will limit the way we think about almost every thing we do and almost every situation that confronts us.  If we don’t know ratios, and connections and locations, and relative strengths, and causes and effects we won’t be very successful at feeding ourselves, finding a safe place to live and getting along with a mate.
            If we can’t do that very well then machines will do it for us. Then we may reach a state in which we won’t even be able to tell if the machines are doing a good job.
            That may still be better than following Ted Cruz, but not much.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Changing History?

I am still thinking about my trip to Israel and still trying to figure out what upset me so much.  What is slowing becoming clear to me is that I have been deeply affected by learning how often the land upon which Israel now sits has been invaded and overtaken.  All of these conquerors came, raped, pillaged, and slaughtered the inhabitants, often enslaving those they didn’t kill, or else ruling them strictly and taking away a lot in taxes and restricting freedoms.

When the inhabitants rose up against whoever was the ruling power, sometimes, for a brief period, they drove them away.  But most times, and always eventually, the power came back stronger and raped, pillaged and murdered even more savagely. The Romans were especially good at that.  

Yes, this was history, but what is most troubling is that it is the present, and it seems to be the future.  It makes me wonder if there is really too much of a genetic basis that makes humans easily vulnerable to fear which leads to hate which leads to violence.

It seems to be so much easier to destroy than to build, or to stir up fear than to create understanding.  It is happening in Israel; it is happening in the U.S.  In many states, recent examples of which are Maine and Missouri,  the war on poverty seems to have turned into a war on the poor.  People who are broke and hungry are being demeaned, humiliated and even prosecuted.

The sense that someone who is different, or someone who makes us uncomfortable is evil and must be feared, has taken over our politics, or economics, and our worldview.    This should not be surprising because, in truth, as we can see from Israel, it has always been that way. 

What makes me sad, is that with all of our new technology, and all of the new knowledge that it has brought us, these more basic, primitive behaviors,  still so easily and quickly, become dominant. 

Yes, in some ways, there have been real improvements. While we have all these local, horrendous civil and religious wars going on, but the world seems to have learned to avoid the huge wars of the 20th century that killed millions of people.  Technology has given us a much greater awareness, and a much stronger reaction to some of the injustices that are happening. Abuses of power are being called out, and that will, eventually, lead to change.

So perhaps the tide is turning, and much of what is happening is the frightened reaction to those who are feeling left out or left behind.  Yet, as the tide moves out very, very slowly, it leaves so much wreckage behind.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Holy Land, Holy Sh....Moley

We went, we saw, we certainly didn't conquer, although it seems that almost everyone else did, and many are still trying.

I have been back for over a week now, but my travels still reverberate through my mind and body.  I had a dream about being in Jerusalem again last night, so I can see how emotional the trip was.  It was not only emotional, it was confusing and my ideas are still not resolved.

It was fascinating, yet depressing.  The country of Israel is thriving.  It's people are friendly, for the most part, industrious, proud and scared.  Yet, it seems to me, that they are confronted with a huge problem and their solution, so far, has been to ignore it.  What makes it worse, is that the problem is not really of their own making, and they cannot solve it by themselves, yet they are making it worse.

We travelled all over the country.  We saw many, too many, ancient sites.  That piece of land has had 4,000 years of invasions.  The ones I can remember include the Canaanites, the Hittites, Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans,the Byzantines,  the Muslims, the Crusaders, the Muslims again, the Crusaders again, the Muslims again, The Ottomans, the British and the Israelis. I am sure I am leaving some out and probably got some of the order wrong.

Jerusalem is an amazing city, but to me it seemed to be taken over by salesman selling schlock to the millions of touring pilgrims who come from all over the world.  Three major religions fight over the square mile of the Holy City, and there are many soldiers with automatic weapons who have to keep the peace.

I will write more in a couple of days as I have more time to think about all I saw and felt, but I am left feeling a bit sad.  We were able to talk to many different people, mostly because of the tour guide, who was marvelous.  We spoke to a Christian Arab, who is an Israeli citizen. We spoke to some Orthodox Jews.  We spoke to a Druze family.  We spoke to Palestinian who had no passport and no country.  We spoke to a Bedouin, who is an Israeli citizen.  We spoke to other Israelis on the street.  I was left with the feeling that the Jews have about seven different sects and positions and they have a great deal of trouble agreeing.  The Arabs have about eleven different sects and opinions and they often resort to killing each other.  There are huge differences between the Arabs and the Israelis and they hardly talk to each other at all.

Everyone is dug in.  Everyone feels they have been wronged.  Everyone feels they have history and God on their side.  Everyone is right to some degree

But my feeling is; "So What?"  What are you going to do now.
No one knows.
So things go on.  There has been tension in the region since the British took over at the end of the first world war, a hundred hears ago.  It feels like it can continue for another hundred years.