Monday, October 27, 2014

Food in the news

Quite a few longer-format news sources have covered food lately.  There's been National Geographic with its series on feeding the world all this year, and recently a [rather weak] Time magazine that had home cooking as its cover story.  Now I see that the NYT magazine devoted an issue to food.  From that issue, I only got to see this photo essay on what kids eat for breakfast in different parts of the world.  I am proud of my sons for their relatively grown-up eating habits.  They aren't quite as adventurous as the Japanese girl eating pickled fish and fermented sludge for breakfast, but we don't do a whole lot of processed starches or sugars.  Certainly none of the squeeze-suck organic astronaut mush that is the latest craze among a particular demographic of well-to-do parents, which reminds my wife of low-grade jam sold in the same type of plastic envelope in Colombia.  Our breakfast routine is ever-changing, but usually involves some bread, eggs mixed with rice and/or vegetables, apples and grapes, orange juice, and a homemade but admittedly sweet hot chocolate.  Sort of a middle ground between the European diets shown in the essay with lots of jam and animal products, and the more starchy, fiber-y breakfasts from other parts of the world.  Which about describes Colombia culturally.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Work ethic in the US ghetto

This essay by a former Baltimore drug-dealer discusses the relentless work ethic of the black poor living in our country's ghettos.  He describes a childhood spent around people working multiple jobs, both formal and informal, paid and unpaid, legal and sometimes illegal, to get by and often to look out for the rest of the community, too. 

His description squares with my observations living and working in different poor black neighborhoods in Chicago.  I was often surprised at seeing this constant, tireless activity, in part because it was so different from the more leisurely pace of street life in other neighborhoods I'd known, and also because it goes so counter to the popular image of the supposed laziness of the marginalized urban poor.  I see a similar resourcefulness and a high regard for work among many of the poor in developing countries.  In the US and abroad, the poor are innate hustlers, creative entrepreneurs, and committed laborers, not necessarily because their character is better than other people's, but because circumstances demand they be so in order to take care of themselves and of the people they care about. 

Quite frankly, today's economy in the US and the world at large is such that we would all do well to learn from the hustling poor.  Steady jobs are hard to come by, and often you need to work side gigs even if you are lucky enough to have a decent job.  The secure, assured prosperity of the 20th-century US middle class is firmly a thing of the past, if it ever really did exist that much to begin with.  Today, we've all got to be hustlers, working hard, keeping an eye out for opportunity, and perhaps even skirting what society considers respectable.  The inner-city has a lot to teach us about the 21st century, if we'd just pay attention.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

More grain, less destruction

This is a new research article about agricultural yield potential in China based on a wide, very rigorous range of data.  Essentially it says that by using a judicious mix of modern inputs and locally-adapted agronomic management practices, China's current farmland could produce enough rice, wheat, and corn to meet its projected 2030 food needs.  The article argues that, even in an intensive, high-yielding agricultural setting like China, farmers are currently far short of obtaining the maximum yields possible from their local growing conditions.  Agronomic research is rightly criticized for naively assuming that the high yields obtained under ideal research site conditions could be fully replicated in real farmers' fields.  The lack of similarity between research field conditions and farmer conditions is always a danger with any ag research, but what fascinates me about this article is the sheer number of sites and years the researchers looked at.  The widely varying conditions of their experimental sites, and their explicit consideration of four different types of management regime, make their conclusions much more robust.  If they're right, it looks like the future may be a little less grim than it could have been.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fair free trade?

Here is an article about the creation of free-trade zones by Nicaragua's left-wing, anti-neoliberal government.  I think the article does a good job in a limited space of exploring the conundrums and trade-offs faced by any small, poor country trying to balance the opportunities for economic growth offered by the global economy, with the necessity of ensuring social justice for the poor.  Some may see Nicaragua's policies as a sell-out, but I am intrigued by the possibility of harnessing the obvious power of free trade while insisting on certain basic protections and dignity for workers.  And NIcaragua's tripartite collaboration between government, businesses, and labor reminds me of the similar agreements that fueled the USA's unprecedented, well-distributed prosperity in the post-War years.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Jihad as new international anti-establishment cause?

Here is an article that posits that young Western men who go to join the ranks of ISIS are perhaps following the same impulse that led an earlier generation of Westerners to join international leftist movements.  It follows the same line of thought I've begun to trace out, linking the fall of global socialist revolutionary movements to the rise of political Islamist terror.  The author of the article summarizes some of the reasons and passions that may at least in part explain the seeming need for certain young men to join such radical anti-establishment movements:  "abject suffering in the world or examples of injustice... [also the] impulse for escape, radical purity and justice of an often disfigured sort".  The author ventures that a "radical ideological [sic] of opposition" responds to or arises from some profound, inherent human trait.  This might be true--I for one have often felt disgust at the state of the world, and dreamed of acting decisively to fight against injustice.  Though I don't know if the ideology of opposition, which seems to be a natural part of any human, must always be radical or violent.  I myself have an almost innate drive to oppose, probably because I agree with the author of the article that it is not a viable situation to have just one dominant, unopposed ideology driving the world.  But at the same time, I personally have come to appreciate the importance of a steady, concerted, uncompromising, but nonviolent fight against injustice. 

Somehow, though I can't sympathize with their means or even agree with much of their philosophy, I can better understand the international Leftist terrorists of the past than I can understand or relate to ISIS and their ilk.  International Marxist groups were fighting for something that was at least in theory inclusive and constructive.  The cause of fundamentalist political Islam is inherently exclusionary, and often destructive.  That said, let's be clear about the similarities.  Groups like the PLO or Bader-Meinhof explicitly advocated on behalf of the disenfranchised; ISIS doesn't explicitly seem to do that, but effectively they are feeding into feelings of disenfranchisement and an urge to resist the hegemon.  At the same time, while ISIS seems to glory in barbarity, Leftist groups often were wantonly destructive of human life, regardless of their humanist rhetoric.  So in terms of both their effective constituencies and their immoral, violent methods, 1970s international leftist terror and 2010s international jihadist terror don't seem that far apart.  But still, to me there is a difference between a group that sees its end-game as the betterment of humanity's lot (even if they are often incoherent in pursuing that goal), and a group that has no such long-term aspirations, and seeks only to utterly destroy those it regards as "other" (which ends up being most of humanity).  There is a difference between strident militancy in favor of a viewpoint, and total destruction of any opposing viewpoints and their bearers.

My cousin sent me this article precisely when I happen to be in El Salvador for work.  It's a very interesting country, and I've enjoyed getting to know it a bit these past few days.  But what strikes me as an odd coincidence is that in this country, and in many other places in Latin America, the apparent drive toward radicalism, the drive for puritanical solutions to injustice, seems not to be at play right now.  It can be argued that Latin America is the part of the world where violent ideological struggle has had its most prolonged, savage, and ecstatic expression, even long after the Cold War had supposedly ended.  But in El Salvador, site of massacres and torture and disappearances and radical puritanism for the better part of two decades, right now social injustice is being addressed (with varying degrees of success) through the mainstream state bureaucracy.  The party in power right now is the former left-wing guerrilla movement, now looking more like a mainstream social democrat party than fiery radicals.

Of course El Salvador is still home to bitter political discourse and differing opinions on how to address society's problems.  But I think that here, as in Colombia and the Southern Cone and Nicaragua and surely other places, the leftist voice is becoming a staid part of the establishment, and there is not much of a popular support base anymore for the ferocity and savagery that have so long defined the region--people are sick of it. 

The scars and the new wounds of violence still plague us, but it is a different violence from the puritan political terror of years past.  In fact, in some ways today's violence is more fearsome, since it has no cause to advance, no collective it pretends to represent and advocate for.  There's no reasoning with a criminal commercial gang, at least not in the same way as with a right- or left-wing armed movement. 

Admittedly my musing on the end of political, militarized radicalism in Latin America has its limits; the Latin American insurgent Left never attracted non-Latin recruits the way that ISIS does today, or even the way that the PLO or Bader-Meinhoff-type groups did back in the day.  And leftist guerrilla groups in Latin America were never as wantonly violent as ISIS or the PLO in its 1970s heyday.  Statistically, most of the bloody massacres and the torture in Latin American history have come from right-aligned governments or shady paramilitary operators, and even the criminal groups plaguing the region today often have their roots in these right-wing berserkers.

But the example of Latin America should at least give pause to those who think that a cause or an ideology can die so rapidly or so completely.  Hopefully this is a good thing, because it means that any valid aspects of yesterday's radical ideology might be rescued to inform today's debates, or even to replace or override the more destructive ideologies that might have arisen since.  For much of the 90s and 2000s many people thought that socialism in its many guises had definitively lost the war of ideas, that the loud, oblivious chant of neoliberalism had won the day.  But look at the political map of Latin America today, and you will see that leftist ideas and even the actual people leading leftist movements twenty years ago or more, are very relevant to daily life and the political discourse.  I don't know what this says about al Qaeda (another ideology we'd thought had been consigned to the dustbin), or ISIS, or Baathism, or Pan-Arabism, or any other political line of thinking in the Middle East.  But if the author of the article I cited is correct, there will always be people looking to fundamentally oppose the uglier aspects of the current status quo.  Let's hope that they can find an ideological framework that isn't even uglier than the status quo it pretends to oppose.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mesh wireless networks

This is an article about mesh wifi internet networks.  If I understand correctly, a mesh network consists of one connection to the larger internet, and then that access is bounced from wireless transmitter to wireless transmitter, such that many households can access the internet, but using just one connection between them.  Or households can forego the internet connection, and just mesh amongst themselves to communicate with one another.

I had heard about this technology as a potential way to bring internet access to remote rural areas in poor countries.  In places like India, there are certain bandwidths of electromagnetic signal (like the MHz numbers on your radio dial) that are in the public domain, and so different community groups set up wireless transmitter towers that connect to the internet and then bounce that signal to other users and other transmitter towers, such that areas without fiber optic cable or other commercial connections can use the internet. 

But this article is discussing use of mesh technology in populated, developed areas as an alternative to commercial internet connections.  I like this idea--it diversifies the options for accessing the internet, and allows individual citizens to be less dependent on commercial companies.  As the article points out, it also grants some anonymity to users, since one IP address is now serving a lot of people, and some of their activity even occurs off-line but within the mesh.  I don't know enough about technology, or have enough social connections in the area where I currently live, to try to set up such a mesh.  But maybe someday...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A few links from Facebook

For the past two months my wife and kids have been back in Colombia, so I've been spending a lot of time alone.  Despite my best intentions to make productive use of my time, I do often find myself too tired or simply not in the mood to embark on some new, thoughtful undertaking in my free time.  So instead of catching up on blog posts or other writing that I've been neglecting for months or even years, I often find myself browsing what my facebook friends have posted.  I guess it says something [positive] about my circle of friends that few of them post anything, and for those that do, it's mainly articles, political commentaries, or petitions for a cause (other than the Ice Bucket Challenge).

Here are three things that sparked my interest from my Facebook friends' recent posting:

This is an article about meaningful commitment to a cause, beyond dumping a bucket of ice on your head.  The author is the creator of the old, silly website, "Stuff White People Like".  He has long been a critic of "awareness-raising", because it usually doesn't entail much actual effort or action on the part of those who do it, and more importantly because we are already aware of most of society's major ills.  In this latest essay, he argues that one of the few pressing issues that many of us are not yet aware of (at least not in a visceral, empathetic way) is the profound injustice felt by black citizens who are constantly hounded and sometimes even killed by the police and the neighbors that are supposed to be looking out for them and protecting them.  He proposes a silly ice-bucket-challenge variant that could ramp up awareness of this cause.  I've been thinking about the same thing.  What about throwing an ice bucket on a militarized, overagressive cop that's about to shoot an unarmed civilian?

Following on this same topic, here is an article whose author tries to illuminate the meaning of white privilege through biking.  As a white biker myself (that also has a lot of non-white friends and family that I don't like to see getting trampled on by others), this little essay struck a chord with me.  In many spheres of life, what hurts us most is not when others are outright aggressive towards us, but rather oblivious of the harm they do us.  When society is set up such that some can be constantly damaging to others through their oblivious actions, then you have a situation of privilege and its correlary, marginalization.  And that's not good for a society.

On an unrelated note (or maybe not), here is a TED talk by a well-spoken, thoughtful young man who is in a nontraditional schooling setup.  He describes his experience of learning through internships, outdoor living, and a loose alternative para-school institution that organizes some of his education.  It sounds like a great way to learn in most respects. 

However, one of the major concerns I have in bringing up my own children is finding a balance between maximizing their opportunities and self-fulfillment, while instilling in them a sense of belonging to, and duty to, the larger collective of people around them.  It is a delicate balance.  A person (and a society) is not in good shape if they unthinkingly follow orders and prevailing cultural norms.  But without some sense of commitment to others, self-sacrifice, and yes, subsuming your own absolute liberty to other people and ideas, I think that not only is a society doomed to failure, but even the individual is sure to feel incomplete, not fully realized.  Ironically, in seeking self-fulfillment as an ends in itself, we feel profoundly unfulfilled. 

I don't mean to pick on this young man.  He and the adults educating him are obviously acting in good faith, and they may very well be right in their model for the ideal education.  What I am questioning here though is that model.  Does such a free-form, alternative learning model serve kids better than the traditional, mainstream mass-schooling model?  More importantly, is it better for our society as a whole, for the resolution of our most pressing problems?

First off is the question about the individual utility of the alternative schooling model.  As a white, presumably middle-class kid, the speaker will probably be okay economically whatever his schooling model (though the borderline-middle-class kids I've seen in alternative schools in Colombia have had lots of problems adapting to college and the adult labor market afterwards).  With the alternative education model, it sounds like this young man will avoid the trap of mistaking mere economic security and obedience to pre-established cultural norms as the route to happiness.  But will a young person brought up in this way be more or less of a boon to society than one who's passed through the traditional, oppressive school system? 

I worry that some of what is laid out in this TED talk does not bode well for this last question.  When you are ensconced in a system that is explicitly outside of and even contrary to the rest of society, there is a great danger that you will live a life apart from, and not in contribution to, the mass of your fellow people.  You may be enlightened, but everyone else isn't, so how do you deal with those lesser thinkers spawned by the standard educational system?  Do you spurn them?  Help them?  Ignore them?  Raise them up?  Understand them?

Furthermore, despite the apparent heterodoxy of an alternative school system, its organizers are usually firmly embedded in the prevailing model of economic advancement of certain social classes at the expense of others.  If you are already isolated from much of society by your economic class, and now think yourself superior to them due to your better model of schooling, you risk becoming an oppressor, even if unconsciously.  Will you be committed to social justice, to fighting society's ills, if you don't see yourself as part of that society?

Most importantly, I see a drive to self-fulfillment as the ultimate metric and goal of the alternative education that is presented in the TED talk, and this worries me.  Of the eight principles for happiness enumerated in the video (exercise, diet and nutrition, time in nature, contribution and service, relationships, recreation, relaxation and stress management, religious and spiritual), all but two or three are self-centered.  And even the three non-self-centered pursuits (relationships, contribution and service, religious and spiritual) are valued here because of their potential contribution to self-fulfillment.  This of course sort of defeats the purpose; if you enter into relationships, or perform acts of service, or become religiously affiliated, expressly in order to become happier, you will have crappy relationships, unproductive service, and insincere religion.  Plus you won't be any happier, if you're honest with yourself.  It's precisely in denying our own pursuit of happiness, in forgetting for a moment about self-fulfillment, that these things, and that life in general, fulfill us.

My interpretation of the alternative schooling model being presented as a fundamentally self-centered one (and thus ultimately a superficial one) is bolstered by the allusions to "hacking" life (ie finding more "efficient" shortcuts).  I certainly value the ideal of life-hacking in many respects; often the existing societal or physical infrastructure is not set up for what one wants or needs to do, and so you must figure out innovative ways to get around existing limits to be able to do what you want.  I try to live this value when I salvage good groceries from dumpsters, or when I take a more efficient route to work, or even when I line-dry my clothes instead of paying money to burn natural gas to dry them.  But I try to be circumspect with this attitude of "hacking" life, of using individual ingenuity or simply might to circumvent the rules.  For what happens when you run up against something that you can't hack, and you just have to buckle down and get it done through honest hard work?  Will you know how to do this if you've been educated only in an individualized, iconoclastic pursuit of your own path?  I have seen this in coworkers at many jobs who spend more time trying to figure out an "easier" way of doing something than it would take to just go ahead and do it.  In this context, it's called laziness, and is less efficient, not more.  If everything in your education is left to your [still-developing] criteria, how will you ever obtain the wisdom gained by things you didn't want to do initially but were forced to do, and whose value you only saw afterwards?  Finally, what happens when your hacker shortcut as a privileged member of society ends up harming others weaker than you?

My misgivings that alternative education can easily lend itself to a privileged, self-centered way of thinking are also confirmed by other incidentals of the talk.  First off, that it transpires in the TED forum, that self-congratulatory ritual for bourgeois, ahistorical, quick-fix techno-kleptocrats.  Second, the references to things like Starbucks and skiing place the talk firmly within the realm of the high-income pursuit of consumption and entertainment.  In this same line, highly-personalized outdoor living classes or private schools are not within the economic or social reach of most of our compatriots, so how viable is this education model for any but a select elite?  Lastly, the presenter gives as "hacker" role models such megalomaniac techno-hucksters like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who have probably done more to undermine solidarity, human interaction, and general work productivity than just about anyone.

Again, I want to stress that I don't intend to tear apart this young man who presented.  I think he spoke for all the things that can be good about an alternative education model.  I just want to consider some of the downsides to such a model.  Which begs the question of what I would advocate as an ideal educational model.

My thinking is that the ideal would be a middle ground between the absolute free-form philosophy that I've seen in the alternative schools I've come into contact with, and the stifling conformity pushed by many mainstream schools.  I feel that my own basic education, in a special program within the larger framework of a [somewhat militarized] inner-city school system, was a great combination of the two extremes.  We had to pledge allegiance to the flag every day and form quiet lines to go anywhere, but we were also free to explore the bounds of our intellect and of the great thinkers that lived before us.  Furthermore, the aspects of conservatism and conformity that were forced on us gave us something to fight back against.  See for example a collective test-flunk coordinated by some fellow CPS students of my generation.  Without some adversity, you can't learn how to exist in a world that usually isn't tailored to your desires and idiosyncracies.  Fighting against force also gives kids an idea of how to be strategic, how to pick and choose their battles.  Again, this must be moderated, lest in the face of an overwhelming oppression, kids just learn to be docile and not to fight back.

My grammar school program was billed as one for "gifted" children, so as such it would seem inherently elitist and wouldn't be an option for everyone.  But frankly, I feel that most kids, "gifted" or not, would have thrived in such a setting with the right mix of clear boundaries and free intellectual inquiry.  I think most of us in my class weren't so much intellectually gifted as gifted in having parents with the means and the motivation to get us into that program.  If all of Chicago Public Schools were organized along the lines of promoting real intellectual inquiry among students, of giving them the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming they're just looking to cause trouble--in short, if schools treated children as the inquisitive, wondrous, sincere people they are (and their parents collaborated by getting rid of the damn TV), then I think we could vastly improve our mainstream school system, without devolving into a disorganized free-for-all.