1.11.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 106

https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1375006308l/18007102.jpgHere's an excerpt from a book I recently read, "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?" by Jared Diamond.



Despite the excitement and the prestige of tribal fighting, tribespeople understand better than anyone else the misery associated with warfare, the omnipresent danger, and the pain due to the killings of loved ones. When tribal warfare is finally ended by forceful intervention by colonial governments, tribespeople regularly comment on the resulting improved quality of life that they hadn’t been able to create for themselves, because without centralized government they hadn’t been able to interrupt the cycles of revenge killings. Anthropologist Sterling Robbins was told by Auyana men in the New Guinea Highlands, “Life was better since the government had come because a man could now eat without looking over his shoulder and could leave his house in the morning to urinate without fear of being shot. All men admitted that they were afraid when they fought. In fact, they usually looked at me as though I were a mental defective for even asking. Men admitted having nightmares in which they became isolated from others in their group during a fight and could see no way back.” 

That reaction explains the surprising ease with which small numbers of Australian patrol officers and native policemen were able to end tribal warfare in the then-territory of Papua New Guinea. They arrived at a warring village, bought a pig, shot the pig to demonstrate the power of firearms, tore down village stockades and confiscated the war shields of all warring groups in order to make it lethally dangerous for anyone to initiate war, and occasionally shot New Guineans who dared to attack them. Of course, New Guineans are pragmatic and could recognize the power of guns. But one might not have predicted how easily they would give up warfare that they had been practicing for thousands of years, when achievement in war had been praised from childhood onwards and held up as the measure of a man. 

The explanation for this surprising outcome is that New Guineans appreciated the benefits of the state-guaranteed peace that they had been unable to achieve for themselves without state government. For instance, in the 1960s I spent a month in a recently pacified area of the New Guinea Highlands, where 20,000 Highlanders who until a decade or so previously had been constantly making war against each other now lived along with one Australian patrol officer and a few New Guinea policemen. Yes, the patrol officer and the policemen had guns, and the New Guineans didn’t. But if the New Guineans had really wanted to resume fighting each other, it would have been trivially easy for them to kill the patrol officer and his policemen at night, or to ambush them by day. They didn’t even try to do so. That illustrates how they had come to appreciate the biggest advantage of state government: the bringing of peace.

1.10.2018

Place Matters

I went to a very good public school in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Silicon Valley, and ran with a very intelligent and high-achieving crowd.  (Not that we didn't do our share of stupid stuff, but thank God YouTube didn't exist back then or we'd all be unemployed now.)  So when it came to college, my friends and I set our sights high.  We wanted to get into the very best schools, and did everything we could to get into them.

"Best" is of course a subjective thing, highly dependent on what each of us was looking for in a school.  But, by and large, my friends and I took our cues about "best" from national rankings such as the main one at the time from US News & World Report.  I was into business, and Wharton's undergraduate program was #1 so that was what I was gunning for.  (I also looked at Berkeley, Michigan, and MIT for the same reasons.)  My engineering friends had their sights set on Berkeley, CalTech, and Rice.  And so on and so forth.  Accordingly, we digested every piece of information possible about these institutions and worked every angle to position ourselves to get accepted.

You know what didn't do?  We didn't think too much about where these schools were actually located.  Obviously, there's a big difference for a suburban California kid to stay local versus fly out to Philly or Boston or Houston for school, so we thought about to what extent we wanted to be close to home or go far.  But we didn't think about Philly or Boston or Houston as cities we would be spending formative years in, let alone the specific neighborhoods that these universities were located in.  In other words, for us the physical setting of the school wasn't a factor in determining where we wanted to go.

I don't think anyone thinks like this anymore.  Today's aspiring college kids (at least the ones who have choices) think long and hard about the community context of the campus they will be spending several years of their lives.  This importance of place can come from one or more of the following (somewhat overlapping) factors:

1. Part of my college experience and my growing up is about connecting with a real place with real people, so I want to get to know and interact with the immediate neighborhood around my campus and with the city and region as a whole.

2. I want my first experience living on my own to get me out of my childhood bubble and into a place where I can get involved in matters of civic engagement, social justice, and community building.

3. Every neighborhood and city has a distinct character, and part of my thinking about where I want to go to school is which place resonates with my values and interests.

4. There is a specific amenity package that I need from a quality of life standpoint (e.g. retail, outdoor recreation, built form, transportation options), so I want to choose a location that will satisfy those needs.

This shift in how universities are selected and then how the university experience is consumed has a number of implications for universities.  For one, there is the need to invest in resources and marketing to scratch these itches, so that prospective students know they will get the amenities, access, and support they are seeking in a location.  It also shapes universities' relationships with their host communities and municipalities, as there is a shared sense that part of what the university is promoting to prospective students is the place in which it is located (with all of the attendant resources and services).  Philosophically, universities are shifting dramatically from ivory towers to engaged campuses, with implications for everything from curriculum and student life to real estate investment and facilities management.

Looking back on the 26+ years since I first left for college, I am struck by how much of my college experience (and, because I stayed in the neighborhood adjacent to Penn, how much of my post-college life) was shaped and continues to be shaped by the physical setting of my university.  Place matters, and I'm glad that today's aspiring college kids understand this far better than my friends and I did way back when.

1.09.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 105

Here are two excerpts from a book I just read, "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World," by Adam Grant:



Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It’s an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it. But acquiescence also robs us of the moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work.

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. I’ve spent more than a decade studying this, and it turns out to be far less difficult than I expected.

***

But don’t day jobs distract us from doing our best work? Common sense suggests that creative accomplishments can’t flourish without big windows of time and energy, and companies can’t thrive without intensive effort. Those assumptions overlook the central benefit of a balanced risk portfolio: Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another. By covering our bases financially, we escape the pressure to publish half-baked books, sell shoddy art, or launch untested businesses.

1.05.2018

2017 Car Usage

This is the ninth year I have tracked car usage, so I think it's safe to say this has become a habit. As has the nerdy tracking and graphing of it in Microsoft Excel. (You can check out 2016 here, 2015 here, 2014 here, 2013 here, 2012 here, 2011 here, 2010 here, and 2009 here.)

As before, the Philly totals represent, in order, number of trips, number of legs represented in those trips (i.e. going to and from my in-laws, making one stop to get gas, counts as three legs), and number of legs in which I was driven (rather than driving).

The other city totals represent, in order, number of times I was in that location, number of days I was in that location, number of trips, number of legs represented in those trips, and number of legs in which I was driven.  (Note how unnecessary a car is in northeastern cities like DC and Wilmington, vs. how often I drove in other cities like Richmond or Williamsburg.)



Jan 8/29/2 DC 2/2/0/0/0 Wilmington 1/1/0/0/0 Allentown 1/1/1/2/0 Miami 1/4/4/10/2 Chicago 1/1/0/0/0
Feb 8/39/0 Atlanta 1/2/0/0/10 Wilmington 2/2/0/0/0
Mar 19/60/0 Phoenix 1/1/0/0/3 Wilmington 1/1/0/0/0
Apr 19/58/2
May 11/41/2 Pittsburgh 1/1/1/6/0 Richmond 1/4/6/22/0
Jun 9/24/1 Baltimore 1/1/0/0/1 Atlanta 1/2/0/0/2 Wilmington 1/1/0/0/2
Jul 12/34/2 LA 1/2/1/4/0
Aug 5/18/1 Williamsburg 1/7/13/36/0 Wilmington 4/5/2/6/2 Hershey 1/1/1/3/0 DC 1/1/1/3/0 NYC 1/1/0/0/0
Sep 9/30/0 West Coast 1/8/6/17/5 Wilmington 3/3/0/0/2
Oct 13/40/0 State College 1/2/1/4/1 South Bend 1/1/1/6/0 Long Beach 1/2/0/0/2 Miami 1/4/4/8/2
Nov 15/47/0 Bethany Beach 1/1/1/3/0 Wilmington 1/1/0/0/1 Allentown 1/3
Dec 7/19/0 Las Vegas 1/2/0/0/3 Trenton 1/1/0/0/2 SJ 1/8/15/44/1



So my Philly total is 135 trips involving 439 legs, plus another 8 legs in which I was driven.  So that works out to about 13 car trips and 37 legs a month.  Slightly up from last year, so we are at a new equilibrium as a family due to our older kids' more complex extra-curriculars (gymnastics in Conshy, out of town swim meet).  Note also that 439 legs for 135 trips is about 3 and a quarter legs per trip, which means a lot of bundled trips.  (As opposed to an average closer to 2, if all the times you drive you go somewhere and come back and don't do anything in between.)  'Tis an interesting thing to track over time, to see how my life has evolved and my travel changes accordingly.

1.04.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 104

Here are a few excerpts from a book I recently read, "The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World," by Peter Wohlleben:



But why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. 

Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance. When thick silver-gray beeches behave like this, they remind me of a herd of elephants. Like the herd, they, too, look after their own, and they help their sick and weak back up onto their feet. They are even reluctant to abandon their dead.



In the symbiotic community of the forest, not only trees but also shrubs and grasses—and possibly all plant species—exchange information this way. However, when we step into farm fields, the vegetation becomes very quiet. Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb—and therefore they are easy prey for insect pests. That is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides. Perhaps farmers can learn from the forests and breed a little more wildness back into their grain and potatoes so that they’ll be more talkative in the future.



Students at the Institute for Environmental Research at RWTH Aachen discovered something amazing about photosynthesis in undisturbed beech forests. Apparently, the trees synchronize their performance so that they are all equally successful. And that is not what one would expect. Each beech tree grows in a unique location, and conditions can vary greatly in just a few yards. The soil can be stony or loose. It can retain a great deal of water or almost no water. It can be full of nutrients or extremely barren. Accordingly, each tree experiences different growing conditions; therefore, each tree grows more quickly or more slowly and produces more or less sugar or wood, and thus you would expect every tree to be photosynthesizing at a different rate. 

And that’s what makes the research results so astounding. The rate of photosynthesis is the same for all the trees. The trees, it seems, are equalizing differences between the strong and the weak. Whether they are thick or thin, all members of the same species are using light to produce the same amount of sugar per leaf. This equalization is taking place underground through the roots. There’s obviously a lively exchange going on down there. Whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help. Once again, fungi are involved. Their enormous networks act as gigantic redistribution mechanisms. It’s a bit like the way social security systems operate to ensure individual members of society don’t fall too far behind.



But why don’t we see leaves as black? Why don’t they absorb all the light? Chlorophyll helps leaves process light. If trees processed light super-efficiently, there would be hardly any left over—and the forest would then look as dark during the day as it does at night. Chlorophyll, however, has one disadvantage. It has a so-called green gap, and because it cannot use this part of the color spectrum, it has to reflect it back unused. This weak spot means that we can see this photosynthetic leftover, and that’s why almost all plants look deep green to us. What we are really seeing is waste light, the rejected part that trees cannot use. Beautiful for us; useless for the trees. Nature that we find pleasing because it reflects trash? Whether trees feel the same way about this I don’t know, but one thing is for certain: hungry beeches and spruce are as happy to see blue sky as I am. 

The color gap in chlorophyll is also responsible for another phenomenon: green shadows. If beeches allow no more than 3 percent of sunlight to reach the forest floor, it should be almost dark down there during the day. But it isn’t, as you can see for yourself when you take a walk in the forest. Yet hardly any other plants grow here. The reason is that shadows are not all the same color. Although many shades of color are filtered out in the forest canopy—for example, very little red and blue make their way through—this is not the case for the “trash” color green. Because the trees can’t use it, some of it reaches the ground. Therefore, the forest is transfused with a subdued green light that just happens to have a relaxing effect on the human psyche.

12.29.2017

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 103

Here's an excerpt from a magazine article I recently read, "Prophet of Prosperity," in the November/December 2017 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette:





Back across the Atlantic, another man was thinking along the same lines. Joseph Wharton was a savvy Quaker who had parlayed his early training in chemistry into an industrial empire stretching from fertilizer and zinc oxide works to Bethlehem Steel. He believed that the development of American industry required jettisoning the free-trade theories that had lately taken root in England—and that justified American dependence on British manufacturing on the basis of Ricardian notions about economic efficiency and comparative advantage.


“The prestige universities like Harvard and Yale were all pro-trade,” says economic historian Michael Hudson, a research professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “They were affiliated with the trading interests. And there really wasn’t any manufacturing industry, apart from Pennsylvania, to push its own interests.”



So Wharton, perceiving what he dubbed an “intellectual hiatus in the business life of the nation,” endowed an entirely new kind of college at the University of Pennsylvania. The Wharton School of Finance and Economy would train a rising elite in “business management and civil government.” He envisioned a new class of virtuous administrators with explicitly civic-minded values. Whether they chose to “serve the community … in offices of trust” or manage private enterprises according to “sound financial morality,” they would focus on solving “the social problems incident to our civilization.”



Aside from those generalities, the industrialist had a specific pedagogical demand: that the “fungus” of free trade economics be stamped out in the classrooms of the new school. “No apologetic or merely defensive style of instruction must be tolerated upon this point,” he admonished the trustees in 1881, “but the right and duty of national self-protection must be firmly asserted and demonstrated.”



“Essentially,” says Hudson, “the Wharton School was the think tank for American industrialization. … [Its founder] was saying: Look, if we’re going to industrialize, we need a whole theory of how to get a trade policy and a government infrastructure policy to support industry.”
 



12.28.2017

Respect Context

Picking up on a post from earlier this week, let me continue on this thread of "context is everything."

Consider the topics of gentrification in particular, or social justice more broadly.  We can speak, even eloquently and thoughtfully and precisely, from a place of contemplating the current dynamics of economics and criminal justice and human behavior and race, and yet ring hollow to many in the conversation.  How can that be?  It can be so if we do not pay some respect to the historical context in which such issues have emerged.  If we have not acknowledged the injustice and the violence that preceded and created our current times, and the state-sponsored complicity of it all, then for many we have missed the thing right in front of our eyes, and our interpretations and interventions are of no good.  Past motives and actions may not baked into present ones.  But to ignore them is to have no validity in the eyes of many to be able to speak to present ones.

I think about this a lot as a Christian, and not just because it is my hope that I can speak to issues of gentrification and social justice in a way that is eloquent and thoughtful and precise and also that is respectful of the injustice and violence that preceded and created our current times.  But I think about this a lot too because I think about what is an effective Christian witness in today's society.  And I worry that much of what passes for Christian witness in today's society is ineffective, because it comes across as intolerant, tone-deaf, and privileged, and I am particularly pointing a finger at myself and others who are well-educated and affluent Christians.

Sounds harsh, no?  But think about it.  When we describe the Christian life, how often do we speak of a closed community within which we have adopted a set of norms that work for us but provide no grace or goodness to others?  Would our prayers offer any point of connection to people different from us, or are they the sickly sweet petitions of someone who has never faced any real kind of adversity or oppression or want or pain?  Do we even have any real intersection with "the world out there"?  We describe "the world" as dark and lost and needy and dead, and we conceptually understand that it is not "out there" but all around us; and yet when do we actually connect with it, dine with it, really talk and touch with it?

The terrible irony is that it isn't actually that much of a stretch to provide that sort of context in our Christian witness.  After all, we follow and represent a God who is "well acquainted with sorrows," who wept over a lost city, who lost His only son, who endured betrayal and injustice and violence and abandonment.  And, many of us, even those who live in upper middle class comfort, are not strangers to sorrow.  We have lost loved ones, made terrible mistakes that have visited ruin on ourselves and others, and struggled with unspeakably dark emotional issues.

And yet in much of modern day Christianity in affluent communities, our outwardly lived life is one of near-perfection, our only "flaw" being how hard we are on ourselves for striving for such near-perfection.  Do our Christian circles accommodate people who are falling apart, whose marriages are fraying, whose prayer requests are the ones that cause people to step back and say "whoa"?  Again, the terrible irony is that our pride keeps us from living in this way, and from creating Christian communities that are this welcoming, and yet it is this very sense of deep imperfection and resulting desperation that is the best and most context-laden witness to the world around us.

When those who do not believe in Jesus see us parade around like some well-choreographed country club, there is disinterest or even disdain.  But when we are our true selves before each other and before our God, and when we speak of a God who was mocked and whipped and railroaded through a dubious trial to suffer an outrageous and publicly humiliating execution, then we may hold some relevance to their real pains and their real issues.  Let's hope for that kind of Christian witness today, the one that is true to the context of the God we worship and the flawed and broken condition in which we worship Him.