Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Teacher Contemplates New Year's Resolutions

Last spring I received an email from a student asking about some things we had discussed in class. At the end of the message she made a statement I was very surprised to see. She said “And some day I hope to be a better teacher than you!!” I leaned back in my chair, rolled my face upward and had a good, roaring laugh. “Well,” I thought, “at least somebody got it!”

I should explain. In class a couple of days before, I gave one of my stock challenges to my teacher candidates. It goes like this: It’s good to have role models. They get us started in our careers. But if you become only as good as the teacher who inspired you, you will not be good enough for the job of a teacher. Society becomes more complex and the challenges are greater every day. You have to aspire to be better than the best teacher you ever met. I have been in teaching for over 25 years. I have worked with teachers and teacher educators in a dozen other countries and I have developed educational materials that have been used by tens of thousands of students. But I see my obligation to Geneseo to be to prepare every teacher candidate to be a better teacher than I ever was.

From that email, I know at least one student got it.

Teaching is one of very few activities in which one might have such a goal. In business, when the management trainee becomes better than the manager, the trainee replaces the trainer. The manager has a stake in seeing that his or her charges don’t become better that he or she is. In sports, there have to be coaches, because athletes lose their jobs when the second stringers are better.

I think back on that wonderful email at this time of the year as I do my annual contemplation on leaving teaching. I was once taught a little goal-setting trick. If you want to discover the goals that really matter to you, decide what you would want people to say about you at your retirement party. I use the inevitability of retirement in a slightly different way. At the end of the calendar year I ask myself “Is it time to leave teaching?” (If I am going to leave, I have to let the Administration know well in advance so they can find a replacement.) Then I weigh out the pros and cons. This analysis leads me to make up my mind whether it is time to do something else. I know that time will come and when it does, I will go to the next phase of my life and not simply go out of teaching. I believe a serious teacher should face these questions once a year and plan accordingly. This creates meaningful resolutions.

In this analysis, I have to ask “What other options do I have?” Good teachers should always have career alternatives to teaching lined up. I know I have a couple of options available to me now and I am sure that a serious search would yield a few more. Options give the power of commitment to a teacher. When you walk to the front of the classroom, you should be able to say, “I could be doing X, or Y, or Z. I choose to be a teacher and be responsible for the development of these students.” Options equal power and job satisfaction.

One question I do not ask is “Do I still love teaching?” The question is moot. Even when the answer is yes, it only serves to cloud one’s judgment. Babe Ruth, the greatest baseball player of all time, loved baseball the day he died. But it was painful for Ruth’s fans watching him try to play out his last years. Babe loved the game, but he couldn’t play it any more. In my time I watched Johnny Unitas, Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Franco Harris and other sports heroes who loved their games so much they couldn’t walk away when they were no longer effective.

So I face the questions that matter. Do I still have the energy and commitment to try to get better next year? (The challenge to become a better teacher than I am also applies to me and not just my students.) Can I offer my community more from my classroom than I could using my skills a different way? Are there better candidates, with newer skills and greater energy who could do better than I can with my experience and knowledge of the system?

And so I inventory my energy and commitment, reflect on serving my community, and think of the young lions who will replace me one day. But not today. I do still love teaching, even if the question is moot. Clear-headed, I make resolutions to get the skills that will keep me current and to change courses so I can manage them better. I actively keep options other than teaching open so if I teach, it is by choice and not a lack of alternatives. And I recommit myself to prepare the young lions, whose pursuit keeps me driven and who will one day serve as my legacy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The debate over the use of torture

The debate on torture accelerated this week and, hopefully, something good will come out of it. On the same day that the state of California violently executed Tookie Williams, the Vatican published the Pope's message for the upcoming World Day of Peace. In his first official proclamation, Benedict XVI denounced torture as an unacceptable, unnecessary way to fight terrorism and invited all world leaders to respect international humanitarian principles. The Nation dedicated its special issue published this week to an examination of the "sweeping moral seriousness" of violence and especially torture and the potential damage that "the torture conspiracy will do to America and its democratice institutions." At the same time that Nobel Prize winner for Litterature, Harold Pinter was lambasting the US for years of abusive foreign policy, Condoleezza Rice was trying to reassure European leaders that the US did not hold prisoners in secret offshore detention centers in order to extort information from them outside of its borders, therefore skirting its own offical policies against the use of torture. This selective use of policies is "cleverly" manipulated through strategic use of language, says Katrina vanden Heuvel in her recently published book, Dictionary of Republicanisms. According to the author, the book examines in a satirical way the "Orwellian doublespeak" of political leaders. In spite of its humor, the book sounds like a sharp critique of the dance around the definition of what constitutes torture and, of course, who can be tortured and where! I look forward to reading it.

What does this all mean? Can we hope that the disaster of Abu Ghraib, the recent revelations of abuse of prisoners in Iraqi prisons, and the reports of torture of Guantanamo detainees are hitting home and calling us to really examine our actions? A sign that people are listening and do care is that President Bush, bowing to pressure no doubts, finally agreed to support Sen. McCain's legislative proposal that the US would officially condemn all forms of torture and "the inhuman treatment of prisoners in US custody."

As a nation and as members of the global community, we cannot accept that human beings can be executed or tortured in the name of justice, and in our name. Justice cannot be served and neither can peace be achieved through the use of violence or any actions that degrade human beings.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The battle for à la carte cable is resumed

One of the more interesting media developments in recent weeks is the resumption of the debate over cable pricing. FCC chair Kevin J. Martin has come out in favor of "a la carte" pricing on cable systems. In other words, cable subscribers would be allowed to pick and choose which individual channels they would like to pay for (beyond a basic tier of broadcast and cable networks). This is a sharp reversal of the FCC's previous position, which was to support the cable industry's desire to retain the current system of bundling channels into ever larger cable packages (this is of course very profitable for the cable operators). The motive for this new initiative is, as ever with the federal government these days, a desire to protect children from indecency and violence on television. (It seems that, in terms of regulation in the "public interest," the cry of "indecency" is the only call to action that federal regulators pay attention to anymore.) Martin now thinks it would in fact be a good thing to let viewers block--and not have to pay for--"edgier" basic cable offerings such as Comedy Central and MTV. Martin now seems to have concluded that the best way to protect the children is to allow subscribers to pick and choose their own channels. Cable operators argue that if this was mandated by the government, consumers would end up paying more for fewer channels.

The FCC has no power to mandate a switch to a la carte pricing--that power is left to Congress. But Martin is certainly in an influential position to get the debate moving. As for the cable industry, it has little public support for its current strategy, that could be construed as price-gouging unhappy cable consumers. (And big cable Multiple System Operators such as Time Warner and Comcast are now scrambling to head off any possible regulatory moves.) But for years the cable industry has blithely added more and more channels to their cable lineups. Most viewers only watch a fraction of these channels--typically 17 channels out of an averagge of 88 available to subscribers, according to a 2004 FCC report (cited in USA Today on Nov 30). Yet since cable was deregulated in the mid-1990s, cable subscription rates have increased at well in excess of the rate of inflation. Many subscribers wonder why they're paying so much for scores of channels they never watch.

And now AT&T is backing the move to a la carte pricing. AT&T was for a while one of the biggest MSOs (Multiple System Operators); it got out of the business in 2001 when its cable operations were bought up by rival Comcast; but the company is now looking to get back into the game through promoting its own a la carte programming services.

(For a fuller insight into both sides of the argument, USA Today runs a pro- and con debate over a la carte pricing in its Dec 1 edition -- see here for the pro-pick and choose position and here for the leave-things-as-they-are argument.)

Lastly, it's interesting to see how this debate mixes up the ideological debate over free choice, consumer rights, regulation/deregulation, and the public interest. Those on both the left and the right seem to be divided over whether a la carte - and government moves to mandate and regulate a move to a la carte - would be a good thing. The more interesting debate, if only because it involves the people who are actually in charge of everything these days, is within the right - between, on the one hand, social-cultural conservatives operating from an indeceny-morality frame, and on the other, economic conservatives who favor leaving the market alone. The latter position is summed up by the Wall Street Journal's Holman Jenkins (thanks to a faculty colleague for pointing me to this), who notes in a WSJ commentary piece (taken from the Benton Foundation Comm Policy listserv - original requires subscription):
    What about this "à la carte" debate? Supporters prattle about consumer rights, but consumers don't have a right to anything except that which somebody is willing to sell to them (without force or fraud). And everything we buy is really a package deal. Buy a garden hose at Wal-Mart and you're purchasing both a manufactured good and a service (Wal-Mart's logistics chain). Don't listen to any ninny who tells you that, because you're entitled to buy ketchup without buying mayonnaise, you should be entitled to buy ESPN without buying CNN. You can buy ketchup without mayonnaise because somebody is willing to sell it to you. In turn, you've demonstrated a willingness to make it worth his while. Today's basic cable package represents a complex set of bargains involving not just cable providers and subscribers, but two other parties: advertisers (who help pay your cable bill) and programming suppliers (who use the bargaining clout of their popular networks to get their niche networks on the air too). It's a solution that works: Everybody pays the same basic rate for channels they mostly don't watch, which is no different from saying they pay the same basic rate for the few channels they do watch -- but a lot more tastes are satisfied.

As I say, this is an interesting wrinkle on the traditional left-right bun fight over free choice, consumer rights, etc. The "solution that works" referred to above sounds surprisingly communitarian to me (at least insofar as it dovetails with commercial interests). In any contest between what individual consumers want and what big business wants, it's clear where Jenkins' loyalties lie. But one thing that Jenkins says is likely to find more general agreement: "Technology is likely to render the whole issue moot. The concept of a 'channel' is an eroding one. Internet TV will be more akin to a library, in which you order up for instant viewing the fare you care to receive."

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The 85%: Are You a Christian?

I remember the conversation this way:

Me: Well, if this is a Christian country, I’d like to see some Christian beliefs put into law, like abolishing the death penalty, giving women the right to choose, gay rights, and especially, that Mormon belief in polygamy.

Bob: Whoa, wait, Mormons aren’t Christians.

Me: Bob, It’s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Bob: Well, they’re not really Christians.

In The War on Christmas John Gibson declares that 84% of Americans surveyed say they are Christians. Bill O’Reilly’s December 1 syndicated column cited 85%. It is not surprising that when Americans are asked on a survey “Are you a Christian?” 84-85% say yes. It is also not surprising when that result is used by conservative talking heads to argue that Christian “leaders” should be running this country.

But they are not so ecumenical when it comes to hearing the opinions of all Christians in social and political debate. Gibson, O’Reilly, et al would have you believe that all Christians support the same laws and social policies. When advocating for the Death Penalty they don’t mention that the Catholic Church and many other Christians oppose it.

Do Gibson and O’Reilly subtract Christians who oppose the death penalty from their 84-85%? They do not. They don’t subtract Christians who believe women should have the right to decide to have an abortion. They don’t subtract Christians who oppose putting religious displays on government property using government money. They don’t subtract Christians who say we were wrong to invade Iraq. They don’t subtract Christians who advocate for gay and lesbian rights, including marriage. They don’t subtract Christians who believe in a person’s right to choose to die with dignity. They don’t subtract liberal Christians who oppose pop culture social conservatives. And they don’t subtract the polygamous Mormons.

These self-appointed “leaders” want Christians to answer the opinion polls and then shut up. Leave the thinking to self-declared geniuses like Gibson, O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson and Michael Savage. They know when you subtract the Christians who differ in social and political beliefs from the above-named conservative wonks, there isn’t an 84 to 85 percent majority of Christians. There isn’t any majority. There isn’t even a sizeable minority.

Most pathetic of all, they don’t subtract the two men who beat Theology Professor Paul Mirecki this week. Mirecki proposed to teach a college course treating Intelligent Design as the myth that it is. He also made disparaging comments about Fundamentalists in several emails. Mirecki had the bad judgment to do all of this in Kansas. He withdrew the course amid furor over the course itself and also because of his comments. Unsatisfied, on Monday, December 5 two men in a pickup pulled him over and attacked him.

Most certainly, if those men were called by a pollster and asked, Are you a Christian? each would answer “yes.” The Faux News Channel darlings don’t subtract out the “Christians” who did this or even those who are cheering it on. What Would Jesus Do? Right. The O'Reilly-types like the kind of Christians who don't actually let Jesus' teachings get in their way.

Whether 84, 85 or 100 percent of Americans tell pollsters they are Christians is moot. When poll results are used by wankers like Gibson, O’Reilly, et al to argue that some people’s opinions do not count in the public debate, they seek to cut off the exchange of ideas essential to the democratic process.

I believe the American Democracy Project is intended to bring the tools of modern communication, including the Internet, to open discussion. And so, I call on you to participate in a poll. By clicking on the link below, you will be redirected to an on-line survey. I encourage you to complete the survey yourself, but also to send the link to others: Christians, non-Christians, liberals, conservatives, and others. I will keep the survey open for one month, until January 11, 2006. At that time I will summarize the results and report them in a blog on this site.

The survey takes about five minutes. Thank you in advance for your participation.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

Philly gets closer to wireless

Just before Thanksgiving, PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer included a segment (by media correspondent Terence Smith) on Philadelphia's ambitious (for the U.S.) plans to connect up the entire city for wi-fi, or wireless internet access. Since I was staying with my wife's family in the Philly suburbs over Turkey Day--and I sort of consider Philadelphia to be my "home" city in the U.S.--I'm particularly interested in seeing how this pans out.

"Wireless Philadelphia" is the name of a project to build a wi-fi (wireless) system for the entire city "within a year". The system follows a universal access model, based on 3,000 small antennae distributed throughout 135 square miles of the city. When complete, you'll be able to get stable wireless access anywhere in the city, indoors or out. The project, which is being pushed hard by Mayor John Street, would make Philly the first "city of its size in the nation to have wireless broadband access available to everyone, regardless of income, at below- market prices." Mayor Street sees wi-fi as an essential utility that needs to be available at affordable rates--like water or electricity. The PBS piece notes that the plan is to offer the service to all of Philadelphia's 560,000 homes and 1.5 million inhabitants, at rates between $10 and $20 per month. The goal is to erase the so-called "digital divide," which separates poor Philadelphians from their richer and middle-class counterparts, the majority of whom now have wireless internet access at home. The city took a major step forward back in early October when it tapped Earthlink to complete the network. Wireless Philadelphia is thus a public-private partnership.

Of course, other private internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon are not happy about this. These companies (and Time Warner Cable, which provides my home wi fi access in Rochester) prefer to hook people up home by home rather than provide a broad-based, public system. These companies also prefer to charge $40-50 per month rather than $10-20 per month.

A battle is shaping up between these ISPs, who see a huge revenue generator being removed from them, and cities, who see cheap and universal wireless internet access to all citizens as an essential precondition for economic growth. A recent Washington Post piece quoted Ben Scott, a policy director of Free Press, "a nonprofit group that favors the development of municipal wireless," as follows:
    Increasingly, city officials view broadband in the 21st century the same way they viewed electricity 100 years ago and telephone service 50 years ago. It's falling into the category of a necessary and essential social service. . . . Cities see this as a way to spur economic growth: on the one hand to put tools in the hands of the underprivileged and give them a leg up, and on the other to provide incentives to small businesses to locate in these cities and to expand their operations.

Meanwhile, other countries, especially in Asia, push ahead with much more ambitious national wireless access plans. The U.S. strategy of leaving braodband access in the sole hands of private commercial interests has already seriously impeded growth in this sector. The result, according to a recent study reported in ("The Fight Over Wireless"), is that "the United States has dropped to 16th in the percentage of citizens with access to broadband, trailing South Korea, Canada, Israel, and Japan, among others. There is consensus across the political spectrum that we need to go wireless—and fast." The trouble is, the federal government isn't doing much to push universal access. Most of the government impetus is coming from cities and states.

"Wireless Philadelphia" is a good start. But it's only a start. Let's hope it and programs like it don't get stymied by big cable companies and their friends in state legislatures and in Congress.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Voting on Saturday Afternoon

Even business students are surprised at the scale and pace of global trade, its surge of pervasive competition for markets and resources. How can something this powerful happen so quickly, a student once asked. I’ve found it convenient to introduce the basic answer through a simple thought experiment: “Imagine that you’ve graduated from college, found a job, and have to furnish an apartment. You need a microwave oven. Where do you find one?” Someone always suggests a big-box retailer. “Fine – you go there, and there’s a unit that does what you need it to do, nice stainless steel and black housing, $158.00. There’s another one that looks pretty similar, $146.50, and a third one that has the same specs, doesn’t look quite as cool as the first one, $117.99. Which one do you buy?” There may be a question or two – “no, they’re all safe, UL approved with a grounded plug and 16-gauge stranded cord” – but, in a dozen times of using this discussion, all the hands or paper ballots go for the $117.99 model. “Do you care where it’s made?” I ask. No, saving $40 seems far more important to cash-strapped twenty-somethings than country of origin or a union-made label.

No American business is more prominently associated with the implications of several hundred million consumers making dozens of similar decisions, with the fears, myths and disparate impacts of global trade, than Wal-Mart. Huge by any standard – in the U.S. alone, for the fiscal year ending Jan 31, 2005, the company had $229 billion sales revenue, more than 530 million square feet (about 12,000 acres) of store space and some 1.2 million employees – the company is “Exhibit A” for the massive effects created by a grassroots campaign of competitive shopping. While venerable retail pioneers such as Sears (efficient mail order delivery of products that ranged from a dress pattern to all the pre-cut lumber for a balloon-framed house) and K-Mart (one of the original Big Box discounters – “Attention K-Mart shoppers . . . New special in aisle 19”) have each staggered through financial distress (and recently merged), Wal-Mart units currently post year-over-year growth rates that range from 7.8% (Sam’s Club for 2003) to 18.3% (International segment for 2005). President and CEO Lee Scott cheerfully observes in his 2005 shareholder letter: “. . . even with the size and success we have achieved, today Wal-Mart has earned less than three percent of the global retail market share. In other words, about 97% of the retail business around the world is not being done at Wal-Mart today.”

The unspoken suggestion that “today” really means “yet” provokes a vivid dialog about the company, in the press and in the blogosphere. Activist groups (e.g. like this, or this allege various kinds of workplace abuse, while defenders such as Sebastian Mallaby in the Washington Post and John Tierney in the New York Times (The Good Goliath, Nov 29, 2005 – the text is available online through the Geneseo library page, but the link doesn’t seem to work very well) argue that the company provides far more to lower-income individuals through low prices than it exacts from low wages (and the belief that Wal-Mart imposes some unique regime of “low wages” on its workers deserves a dedicated post, a topic I plan to return to in a follow-on blog). Byron York in National Review reviews the “documentary” The High Cost of Low Price, highlighting out-and-out falsehood (the circumstances of H&H hardware going out of business) and selective reporting (see, e.g., the quote from optical supply house owner John Bruening: “The Wal-Mart came May 18, and I sat back and waited for our business to go down the tubes. But it shot up, which the movie people didn’t want to hear about. We’re up about 38 percent right now. It has been so anti-climactic.”)

While the ambition of labor unions to reverse long-term trends of declining membership (especially the United Food and Commercial Workers, eyeing a potential trove of a million-plus workers) explains some aspects of the surprising furor directed at an enterprise whose mission focuses on supplying lower-income individuals with useful [1] goods of serviceable quality at extremely low prices, I speculate that other factors also inform the virulence of attacks on the company. These may include nostalgia for a poorly understood past, an understandable fear of economic dislocation (which causes people to overlook the long-term benefits of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” – class prejudice and a phenomenon variously referred to as the Rage of Caliban or the Pogo effect.

Nostalgia for an imagined past of “yeoman retailers” seems analogous to rhetoric about the lost glories of the family farm, with the twinned bogeymen of agribusiness and big-box discounters destroying an intrinsically wholesome way of life. There are certainly pleasures and deep satisfactions in farming and commerce, but just as hoeing weeds, mucking out a barn or slaughtering some pigs will affect and inform one’s attitudes about farming, so also would waiting hours behind a counter, grappling with the brutal economics of Main St. competition or simply enduring the social tedium of working day after day with the same two or three store employees open one’s eyes to the reality of small-time retailing: it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Change happens: Junior sells the family farm and moves the family into an apartment downtown, and Fred’s Hardware goes out of business a few months after the Lowes opens. The pains and hardships of dislocation are deep, and sometimes, as in the case of middle managers laid off as American business gradually absorbed the impact of the PC revolution, the pain lasts for the rest of the working life. No one should minimize the toll. Focusing only on the tragedies, though, obscures millions of successful adaptations, including most especially the sons and daughters of farmers and retailers who pursue a college education instead of taking over the family business – a vast pool of human capital which in earlier ages would have joined the ranks of youths “to Fortune and to Fame unknown.”

New methods of organization and distribution – such as Wal-Mart’s uniquely capable logistics infrastructure – offer a comparable process of freeing human capital for alternative and higher uses. The benefits will range from a more efficient trucking system (I suspect that few of the Wal-Mart trucks that one sees all the time run empty) to the time saved for a single mother who needs to complete several shopping errands between work and picking her kids up from daycare. Certainly many of the thousands of capable young men and women who don’t go into old-fashioned retail will go on to make surprisingly useful contributions in other fields.

The serviceable quality of most Wal-Mart merchandise often does not equate to excellence or elegance, and in matters of taste there are many products which an educated sensibility would find unlovely. How should we evaluate criticism of a “tacky” printed plaid jumper or the winter coat in a “boring” color, when the price of these articles is a Godsend to the parent outfitting a little girl for school? Criticism of Wal-Mart products on purely aesthetic grounds smacks of a sensibility both elitist and indifferent to the actual needs of individuals one doesn’t know very well or care for in any specific personal sense. It also may reflect a disconnect between the experience of parents and childless adults (or small v. large families): polyester Cookie-Monster comforters and faux-walnut chipboard chiffoniers that the urban metrosexual hopes not to be caught dead with (in this world or the next) might be just the ticket for The Twins’ room (and little Sally can use the stuff they’ve outgrown). Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, experience suggests that the average shopper at the Pittsford Wegmans is thinner, better dressed and better off than his or her counterpart at the Wal-Mart Super Centers in Geneseo or Henrietta. I speculate that certain grocery chains or a big-box retailer such as Target – whose fundamental operations aren’t terribly different from those of Wal-Mart – tend to get a “good store” rating from bien pensants in no small part because of snobbery. Better produce or higher-quality design factors into why one feels one way about Wegman’s or Target and another way about Wal-Mart – you won’t find a Michael Graves pepper mill (or gourmet pepper) in Wal-Mart – but here again the instinctive preference for fashion over popular taste suggests the operation of class prejudices.

Walt Kelly’s Pogo famously observed that “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Originally a rural / agrarian phenomenon, Wal-Mart has morphed into a mainstay of America’s exurban disapora. “Sprawl” is an unlovely feature of contemporary American life (though arguably it’s less unlovely than a 19th Century America where the Adirondacks and Catskills were clear-cut for fuel and the streets of a pre-automobile city were littered not only with tons of horse manure but also scores of abandoned horse carcasses). On some level – imperfectly, and with the potential that rationalized development incentives could mitigate its worst effects – sprawl works for most Americans. It’s a byproduct of the home ownership dream, a desire to find good schools (or, at the very least, not to condemn one’s children to terrible ones) and the need for freedom and flexibility in personal transportation. Through the accretion of literally billions of purchase decisions – “voting on Saturday afternoon” as I’ve put it – Wal-Mart both embodies and empowers a host of lifestyle choices, providing a vivid reflection of the world we have made for ourselves.

Full disclosure: Though not much of a shopper, I do buy stuff at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club every year. Through my CREF retirement funds I (and virtually every one of my Geneseo faculty colleagues) have an ownership exposure to WMT (despite huge growth in the underlying business, the shares have been relatively flat in the last few years). I’m also a regular customer at Sundance Books, and remind everyone that Fred can get you just about anything you want at prices quite competitive with Amazon or Alibris.

[1] Item 1, “Description of Business” in Wal-mart’s 2004 10-K report provides the following sales breakdown:
CATEGORY                                           PERCENTAGE
--------- OF SALES
Grocery, candy and tobacco 26
Hardgoods 20
Softgoods/domestics 16
Pharmaceuticals 9
Electronics 9
Health and beauty aids 7
Sporting goods and toys 6
Stationery and books 3
Photo processing 2
Jewelry 1
Shoes 1
---------- -
100 %
---------- -

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Aeon Flux and the Future of Technology

The new movie Aeon Flux makes some interesting projections of the future of technology. People communicate by ingesting pills that send information directly to their brains. Nanobots lie dormant and then spring to life when needed. Computers use voice and visual input and output—no mice or keyboards. A 3-D hologram camouflages a research laboratory. A surveillance system inputs information from drops of water and projects images and sound in a pool. Cool stuff.

Now I’ll go nerd on you.

Movie bad guys always were bad shots, but what they’re shooting should change with the times. Future guns that shoot little bits of metal that don’t at least have some nanotechnology for when they hit the good guys are not consistent with the technologies that are used in the movie. Aeon’s little ballistic ball bearings activate themselves, move, travel around corners, line up and blow a hole in a wall so she can escape. Is it too much to ask the bad guy’s bullets to do as much?

Projected security technology is worse. Bad Guy Central is protected by visually artistic devices, which don’t do their job! Aeon and her co-assassin storm the fortress and are detected by sensors. Security devices shoot thousands of projectiles that always miss their mark. Future security system engineers should watch the movie Hero to see what one wall of arrows fired at one time can do. As the intruders approach patches of grass, sensors angle spikes toward oncoming feet—or hands if you have hands where your feet should be (See the movie.). But the spike grass is useless unless you step or fall on it. Stopping inches from the spikes avoids injury since it was designed with a three inch range.

In the movies bad loses because bad goes with stupid. Zion survives in the Matrix series because the machines are tactically stupid. Machines program the Matrix but don’t study the battle of Thermopylae before conducting a frontal assault through a narrow opening. In Solider the bad guys vow to kill all the good guys, but don’t just nuke’em, although the good guys live on a different planet. And the bad guys have all the nukes.

Why care about how technology is portrayed in sci-fi movies? Movies serve as pop culture devices to get people to reflect on various issues. Set in the last city on Earth, a sub-theme of Aeon Flux is the way that technology separates humanity from nature. In Hollywood films bad also goes with an over-reliance on technology. In Aeon Flux a wall keeps nature out using devices on top to spray poison to keep plants away. At the end of the story, one of the technology symbols crashes through the wall and people begin to venture outward. Nature triumphs.

Technology does separate us from nature. As the fire warms us, our pupils contract and we cannot see into the darkness. Fire wards off predators but smoke and crackling mask the smells and sounds of our environment. Technology is a Faustain bargain, giving us power over nature while threatening to take the soul that unites us with nature.

In Star Wars, as Darth Vader becomes more machine, he becomes more soulless. Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star by turning off his targeting computer and trusting the Force that binds all living things. He saves his father's soul by symbolically freeing him from his technological prison. Star Wars, Soylent Green (1978), Solider (1998) or The Matrix (1999) each incorporate a sub theme of “humanity versus technology.” Good triumphs in all, but it is a mistake to read these movies as humanity triumphing over technology. In every one, good guy technology triumphs over bad guy technology. The battle is not won by rejecting technology but applying it to higher purposes. Luke turned off his computer, but without his star fighter, bad wins.

Technology is shaped by the purposes to which we will put it. It can separate us from nature, but that is not inevitable. The first electric car was built in 1835. The principle of the fuel cell was discovered in 1838. In 1861 a solar powered steam engine was constructed. The first electrical generating wind turbine was created in 1888. Each was set aside as people chose cheap over nature friendly.

It is not our technologies that separate us from nature, it is our choices—individually and collectively. Technologies will continue to develop building on each new discovery and fueled by human creativity. As Stanley Kubrick represented technological development in 2001: a Space Odyssey, what goes up as the first bone tool, must come down as an interplanetary space ship. If only educators could make us wise as fast as engineers can make us powerful.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Xmas and X-Boxes: The “War” on Christmas

My grandmother first told me about the war on Christmas. She explained that “to take Christ out of Christmas,” Christmas-haters were using “Xmas” instead of the word itself. At age 10 that ticked me off. It was a relief when I discovered the X in Xmas is not X, but Chi—the Greek letter used by early Christians as a symbol of Jesus.

Now John Gibson’s book, The War on Christmas, describes the “liberal plot to ban the sacred Christian holiday.” Bill O'Reilly goes further; calling the war part of a "secular progressive agenda" including "legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, [and] gay marriage." This "liberal plot" is just like the “Christmas-haters” my Grandmother warned me about—in the sense that the “liberal plot” doesn’t exist any more than the “Christmas-haters” did.

The “War on Christmas” makes a nice catch phrase to motivate the Fox Channel faithful. By declaring there is a war on Christmas, Gibson, O’Reilly, and others call on Christians to prepare for and fight a war. Gibson and O’Reilly would happily employ the traditional tools of war that include: dehumanizing the enemy, suspending inconvenient civil rights (especially for suspicious minority groups), and bringing all resources to bear on the enemy.

Gibson claims 84% of Americans are Christians and implies all Christians are offended by hearing “Happy Holidays” at the local Wal-Mart. All Christians want to see crèches in every classroom and on the City Hall lawn. The 84% all want to hear “Merry Christmas” all the time. But he never makes the case that all Christians think alike any more than he makes a case that all liberals attack Christmas. What about liberal Christians, John?

With 84% of homes and 100% of churches free to put up Christmas scenes and sing Christmas hymns, the problem can’t be a lack of Christmas displays. The reasoning seems to be that if Wal-Mart cashiers say “Merry Christmas” Christians will start following the teachings of Christ. Perhaps if we had more Nativities on the lawns of schools and city halls, God would bless America again.

The problem is not the local school calling it a “Holiday Tree,” but the priority put on the pile of “stuff” that goes under the “Christmas” tree in most Christian homes. The problem for Christmas is that the “X” in Xmas is no longer “Chi” for Christ, but “X” for X-Box. The problem is seeking the message of God’s gift through iPods, Dancing Elmos, and Hallmark Singing Snowmen.

The Catholic League and others call for a boycott of Wal-Mart. They insist on hearing an insincere “Merry Christmas” rather than an insincere “Happy Holidays.” In reality, Wal-Mart would have its cashiers say “Free Saddam Hussein” if it would sell more crap. In the meantime, the Nativity scenes on Christian lawns have been crowded out by inflatable snowmen and Santas. It is not a liberal plot that did that.

The commercialization of Christmas isn’t even the real problem. Until recently, Christmas wasn’t the most important event on the Christian calendar. That was Easter, representing the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of others. But that’s not as much fun as a theology based on three Wise Men bringing gifts. Together, the two holidays reveal the true problem—Christians who only come to church at Christmas and Easter. Symbolically honor Christ’s birth and his death and ignore what happened in between (those aforementioned teachings of Christ).

The problem with Christmas is not what is in the hearts of anti-Christian liberals, but what is in (or not in) the hearts of Christians. But let John Gibson try to sell a book on that.

Post Script: As I prepared to post this, Bill O’Reilly’s December 1 column appeared in today’s local paper (12/03/2005). It goes through the same reasoning. “Corporate America should … thank God that the baby Jesus was born…” “Christmas… is under siege… by secular forces that want to wipe out…Christmas traditions.” (Christians are up to 85% of America.) Sears, K-Mart and Wal-Mart are “insane” for “offending millions of traditional Americans…who want it called exactly what it is—Christmas.” “If corporate chieftains are not wise enough to honor that message as well, they don’t deserve any Christmas cheer.” "That message," according to Bill is, “Three wise men once came bearing gifts…”

O’Reilly’s messages of the season? 1) Corporate America should be thankful for Christmas. 2) There is a war on Christmas. 3) “American” is a synonym for “Christian.” 4) All Christians are offended by “Happy Holidays.” and 5) It’s about the gifts.

Bill—Sears, K-Mart and Wal-Mart did the math. They see more profit in “Happy Holidays.” Forgive them for they know not what they do.

Merry X-Boxmas to all and to all a good night.