Help Me Save the World

There it was. It happened just now. It happens millions of times a day, on every continent, in every culture. In the time since you began reading this is has happened thousands of times and it will continue to happen, every moment or every day. It has the potential to unmake humankind. It is dangerous, it is continuous and, I have realized, there is nothing we can do to stop it.

People are having bad ideas.

Everything of substance that has ever occurred in human history, both good and bad, began as a single though, an inkling, an inspiration, an intellectual tick in the back of someone's brain. Every work of art, every scientific discovery, every act of exploration, every religion, every symphony, every engineering marvel is the result of a person's conception made real. Likewise, every atrocity, every act of cruelty, every machination of corrupt government, every war, every scandal, every lie ever told is also the result of a single embryonic thought that gestated in a human mind.

I used to think that we could eliminate these bad ideas, these thoughts, these inventions that corrupt society, that erode human achievement and that ruin or end so many lives. I believed that we could educate ourselves, that we could see past our ambitions, our egos and our own plain stupidity and put an end to bad ideas But, I have realized this is not possible. We all have bad ideas, probably a lot of them. I've had half a dozen bad ideas since breakfast, I'm sure. There's simply nothing one can do to stop them; they come of their own accord.

I then realized that it is not the idea, per se, that is dangerous. Bad ideas erupt in our brains constantly, spiraling up from the eddies in our thought flow like sea serpents and then fading away back under the waters of our intellects. No, bad ideas aren't the problem. The problem is that, though most bad ideas pass away unheralded, a scant few get spoken aloud. Most of these are recognized for what they are, bad ideas, and are addressed as such, immediately or in due time. For a small section of these, a fraction of a fraction of the world's bad ideas, someone else hears them and says, erroneously or maliciously, "that's a good idea."

That person is dangerous.

Bad ideas may never stop but the people that agree with them, those people can be dealt with. I don't know exactly what method we should use handle these people. I suppose it depends on the nature of the idea, how vociferously the extolled it or how far in action they carried their support. I suppose it also depends on whether the second person legitimately thought that the bad idea was a good idea, in which case they need to be educated, or whether they deliberately pushed an idea they knew to be bad, in which case they need to be punished.

I will grant that not all ideas are fully understood when they first germinate. Some bad ideas may seem legitimately good at first examination, "Boston will be so much prettier if we put all the highways underground," while some good ideas initially seem bad, "Nobody's ever going to pay two dollars for a cup of coffee." I'm not so sure what to do about those, unless of course someone advocates for too many good ideas turned bad. In which case, they can be held accountable for consistent lack of foresight.

Someone said, "Hey, we should build civilian Hum-Vees that get three miles to the gallon."

Someone else said, "Sounds like a good idea."

Tell that guy to shut up.

Someone said, "Let's use injected botchilism as a beauty aid."

Someone else said, "That's brilliant!"

Slap that person.

Someone said, "I've got this idea for a TV show about a girl named Hannah Montanna."

Someone else said, "You might be on to something."

Fire them.

Someone said, "Look what I invented. It's a flat piece of metal that becomes a bracelet when you slap it on your wrist!"

Someone else said, "I wanna order ten thousand."

Tell that person how stupid they are.

Someone said, "We can end world terrorism if we invade Iraq."

Someone else said, "You might be on to something there."

Lock that person up.

Someone said, "I think we should change the formula for Coke."

Someone else said, "I think that's the future of soft drinks."

Shoot that guy in the head.

I'm not saying that we can make the world perfect but I'm sure we can make it better. Who's on board?


A Confession - I Failed High School English

"It doesn't matter what you think the definition is. It matters what it says on your syllabus," she said, "It matters what it says in your student handbook." She was smug, way too smug, at least I thought so at the time.

I'm often struck that I didn't do as well in High School as I probably should have, that I didn't care much about my grades. I got B's through all four years because I had so much talent. That's not bluster. I sat in class every day, read next to nothing that was assigned, did next to no homework and got A's on virtually every test I took. In contrast to other members or the "if only he applied himself" clan, I really did like learning, so I coasted through all of it without much inconvenience.

Here's my bit of shame. My sophomore year, I failed out of honors English. I got an F, one of only two I've ever gotten between kindergarten and college graduation. I will grant that I underperformed. I tried to coast through that class just as I had through every other class I had ever taken. The first semester I was lucky to have a teacher that rarely assigned homework and put a premium on written understanding and class participation, both strong points of mine. The following semester I landed a teacher who was precisely the opposite. The grading scale was skewed towards busywork, minutia and extensive take-home projects that barely interested me. By the end of the term I was anticipating a low C on my report card. I was in danger of being dropped from the honors program.

We were assigned a final project, a massive (by high school standards), literary analysis. I remember very clearly the moment that I realized that I would fail the class entirely unless I really kicked ass on this paper. So, for once, I read the entire work in detail rather than just skimming it. I took extensive notes. I researched legitimate academic analysis. I turned it in on time. Altogether, I think I put together a second-to-none English paper, at least as much as one can when one is fifteen.

I got an "F".

I don't mean that the teacher found it lacking, that she had some major beef with the substance of the paper. I mean that she gave me zero out of a hundred possible points.

"Mrs. Lehrer," I asked after class, "I don't understand why I got this grade."

"Simple," she said, "You got a zero for plagiarism."

This hit me pretty hard. While I confess that I was a piss-poor student, I did take being smart very seriously and was offended at the suggestion that the work might not be my own. It's one thing to be lazy, which I was. It's quite another to be dishonest, which I certainly was not.

"Beg pardon?"

"You did not turn in a works cited page. That's considered plagiarism."

"But, the definition of plagiarism is stealing, taking someone else's writing and saying that it's yours. I didn't do that. I wrote this." I was still trying to understand that she was gutting me on a technicality.

"It doesn't matter what you think the definition is. It matters what it says on your syllabus," she said, "It matters what it says in your student handbook." Like I said, smug.

The truth was that I had a works cited page. A very detailed one that I'm sure I had turned in. I explained to her that the entire paper, with the citations, was all one computer file that would have printed all at one time and that I was sure it was all there when I stapled it and turned it in to her. She was unmoved. I offered to run to the library and re-print the missing page right then but she would not accept it. I pointed out that I had made dozens of citations in the text of the paper and that I would not have done that without a works cited page to refer to but she didn't care. I'd come to the well without a rope or a bucket.

I appealed to the school administration and my mother met with that teacher's superior but nothing came of it. While the head of the English department thought I was brilliant, I was correctly known to be the kid that turned everything in late, that had a knack for gaming tests and that never did a lick of homework. Moreover, I was absolutely unrepentant in these regards. Despite all my pleas, when that teacher brought her fist down and said, "It matters what it says in your student handbook." no one came forward to be my advocate.

The "Fail" stayed on my record. I was booted out of honors English and had to take "Intermediate Grammar & Literature," the standard sophomore class, as a Junior. Then I had to take two English classes the second semester of my senior year rather than having early release. Ultimately, it didn't affect the arc of my life overmuch. The rest of my grades were still strong enough to garner me a state scholarship to the university I'd always planned on attending and the replacement class, "International Literature," was much more interesting than the class that I had failed. Despite this, it still sticks with me that, the one time I did everything just right, I got fucked over.

Maybe that's why I hate by-the-book types so much.


From the Mouths of Decadence

I'm not big on bitching about the Main Stream Media, largely because I don't claim that my blog contains anything resembling "news" and because and because I think that media, as an enterprise, is currently in such a state of flux that making any kind of statement or prediction about it is simply a waste of breath. That said, unemployment statistics have been in the news quite a bit for the last two years or more and, despite this, most people on the street don't seem to really understand what the "unemployment" rate really is.

They seem to think that is' some sort of job-debt or a basic arithmetic expression. Contrary to popular understanding, "unemployment" is a fairly complex statistic. The DoL doesn't simply take the population of the US and subtract how many jobs are available. One is only counted as unemployed if one meets a certain set of criteria. Notably, these criteria include being available for and able to work but do not heed the type of work that one is able to do. The be counted one must also apply for unemployment assistance.

If you've decided that your spouse is going to be the breadwinner and you're just going to stay home with the kids, you are not counted among the unemployed. This is true even if you'd rather be in the workplace than the home.

If you go back to school, you are not counted among the unemployed.

If you have a PhD in nuclear engineering, a culinary certification from Le Cordon Bleu or an Olympic gold medal but can only get a gig passing out flyers on a street corner, despite the fact that your skills are being radically under-utilized, you are not counted among the unemployed.

If you are on full disability or a pension, you are not counted among the unemployed even if you would like to have a job if one was available.

If you are in jail, you are not counted among the unemployed.

If you have started your own business but are not yet seeing profits, you are not counted among the unemployed (in most states).

If you are over the age of 62, you are not counted among the unemployed.

If you are under the age of 18, you are not counted among the unemployed (in most states).

If you are on unemployment assistance until the end of the maximum term and your benefits run out, you are not counted among the unemployed, even if you're still looking for a job.

The "unemployment rate" as so often reported in the news is only one of many economic indicators that can be used to parse out the state of the nation and it is mis-used by both politicians and pundits, to the detriment of the country at large. If we needed one metric, we would be better off with something that reflected standard of living, quality of life or general wellbeing. Unfortunately, those things are fairly hard to quantify and don't seem relevant to a nation bent on profit.

Be careful with who's advice you buy is all I'm sayin'"


To the Desert, Just to Lie Down Beneath this Bowl of Stars.

I didn't feel it.

Everyone told me that I would but I didn't. They speculated. They questioned. They dared and they told me that all would be revealed to me once I got there but it wasn't. It wasn't.

I argue with religious folks of all stripes on all occasions and I can put one single supposition to rest. The Grand Canyon does NOT make me concede the existence of a single and all powerful god.

Though I've heard it many times and in many incarnations*, I've never understood this particular argument. "How can you look at the Grand Canyon and not believe in god?" The argument, and a poor one, is that the scale and the beauty of the Grand Canyon is so overwhelming that one becomes instantly in touch with god and understands that all of their atheist leanings were self-aggrandizement.

What bullshit.

I spent most of this past weekend becoming intimately familiar with the Grand Canyon. I rode down one of the only passable road to the canyon floor. I floated a soft bottomed boat half way to Lake Mead. I explored one of its waterfall caves. I rode its rapids. I climbed its sheer sides and then dove into the tepid and opaque river below. I rode a helicopter out of its depths and drew hard breath at the scope of it from both below and above.

And, not once, not for a moment, did I feel compelled to concede the existence of god.

What did I feel? I felt very, very small indeed. I felt very young and I understood, if only barely, the transience of my own life in comparison to six million years of geology. I was confronted with the insignificance of my own deeds against the pulverization of a billion tons of stone by the driving force of one of the continent's most powerful rivers. I was dazzled by colors and dwarfed by the rim, some four thousand feet above. I was entranced by the sheer, unadulterated glory of it. I was humbled by nature.

But, I see no reason to invoke a singular god. Is it not enough that this place exists, carved from hundreds of thousands of layers of sedimentary stone in the Colorado plateau by millennia of pure, hydro-kinetic force? Does it not cheapen nature's glory to infer that this place must have been imagined, created, by some force of will rather than by the pure happenstance of geology and climate? Is there not enough wonder in the knowledge that this place is the result of laws of nature and that those same laws of nature can also result in the Amazon, the Himalayas, the Tundra and even in self-sustaining, motile, sentient organisms like us that can then parse out those selfsame laws?

I love this place and I will go back but I certainly will not go back to pray.

*And the Grand Canyon is just one example. Any awesomely large natural formation or sufficiently frightening natural phenomenon can be used to posit this same argument and none of them make it particularly convincing.


Buildings & Bridges Are Made to Bend in the Wind

The world can be, sometimes, so hard. There is so much to balancing the realities of today and the assumptions of tomorrow, the hopes, the dreams, the expectations of who we once thought that we once might be.

Were we really made to fight like this, to struggle each moment of our lives, the work days, the abbreviated weekends, the ignorance of our own needs, the subservience to money and to people that wield it?

As children, we see adults as invincible. As adolescents we lick our chops at that rapidly approaching moment when we will become something important. As young men and women we are clueless as to our place in the world. Sometime between nineteen and thirty the world comes crashing down and, like miners deep within a mountain of our own making, we're helpless to extricate ourselves from the crush of everything above us.

The truth is that adulthood is not freedom. It is not authority. It is not everything for which we were waiting. Adulthood begins the moment that you realize that you probably don't matter, that the expectations you must meet might be beyond you, that nothing of import will ever be easy. Adulthood is anxiety. Adulthood is ambivalence. Adulthood is compromise. Adulthood is duty. Adulthood has consequences.

I freely admit that I'm not terribly good at being an adult. I want to be the grown-up that the eight year old version of me imagined, the one that stayed up as late as he wanted and that drank as much chocolate milk as he pleased, both of which I do. I want to be the adult that never tolerated a discouraging word and that never followed a directive with which he disagreed, both of which I also do, sadly.

Sometimes I wish being a grown-up was more like kids imagine it to be.

There's more to this thought but it's past my bed time.