Watching the Chilean Miner Rescue

As I sit in front of my computer watching a live feed of the rescue of the Chilean miners I am awed by the simplicity of the scene. A simple trapezoidal steel frame supporting a large traveler wheel. A steel wire that first was descending into the hole and is now ascending from the hole, with a miner inside the cage.

Five or six orange clad men with hard hats clustered around the shaft opening just watching while the capsule descended. Drinking coffee, pacing, chatting, kicking something near the opening. But now the capsule is coming up and more people cluster around. The orange clad men are closest to the opening and appear official but others gather in more casual clothing – all with hard hats. I don’t know where the VIP’s are but I bet they will appear as the capsule gets closer. This is the 16th man, I believe. Half way through the 33.

The machine on camera is simple. Oh, the siren goes off. The capsule is near. A feed of a woman hugging rescuers. I guess the mother or wife of the man coming up.

Now there is a close-up of the shaft opening. It is tiny. The woman is crying as she waits. No news reporter interference. Just simple human emotion as rescuers and family experience the moment. Here it is. Slowly. It is quiet. The a round of applause. It is up. They talk to the rescued as he waits patiently inside the capsule and the rescuers detach him. A young man. The woman is his mother. They hug and she doesn’t want to let go. He hugs and greets the rescuers. As he lies on the stretcher to go get medical attention he has a huge smile.

And now the capsule is checked over and prepared to return to the depths for the next. The 17th.

A crude elevator is the final chapter of this rescue. The intervening chapters are a slurry of humanity and technology. As is much of our modern life.

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On Growing Up

I started this post in August and merely entered a title. Obviously I thought the title would be enough to stimulate my memory of whatever idea I had. Didn’t work. I have no memory of what I was planning on saying or why. While trying to remember, though, I started thinking about the creation of ideas. Where do they come from? Why are they sometimes ephemeral?

I have been trying to write down notes when I have an idea for this journal. I don’t have them often because I don’t think about this journal often. The ideas tend to come in bunches. Often I will have an idea which, upon reflection, turns in to an opinion. An opinion must stand up to a more rigorous test than an idea, I think. As I wrote in the Ignorance entry, my opinion doesn’t necessarily have to be expert but it must have some special insight from my experience. At least special to me, if not to you.

But, back to ideas. Thinking aloud (that is with not great depth) it appears to me that ideas come from some conflation of experience and stimulus. That is, some current physical or intellectual or emotional stimulus catalyzes prior experience and thinking. Or it might complete a chain of experiences. Ideas are, by definition, products of inductive thinking. Not necessarily conscious induction.

So if an idea has come to me and it seems worthwhile enough to write down, why can’t I remember it? Is it a function of my particular memory failure or is it a reflection on the worthiness of the idea? Or is it a result of not fleshing out, there and then, the insight that I had and thus losing the connectedness of experience and stimulus. I suggest the latter, at least in this case.

An idea or insight is usually the “tail of an elephant” as one of my old bosses would say. To internalize it and create value with it, I must push and pull and twist the idea to make it concrete in my mind. With the idea that is the title of this post, I did not do so. So losing the insight can be laid at the feet of sloth. Of that I am often guilty.

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The Right of Ignorance

As I think and write about things I often ask myself why do I think I have something to say about a particular topic. Have I studied it? Not usually. Have I researched it? Rarely. Have I experience in the topic? Sometimes. Have I thought about it? Always.

So is thinking about a topic sufficient reason to write about it? Do I, or anyone for that matter, have the right – not the first amendment right but the intellectual right – to venture opinion on subjects on which I am not expert. And by expert I mean that I have not necessarily read or researched extensively or, even, at all what others have said, written, thought.

In some ways, writing, like talking, is a form of thinking. By writing we are forced to form sentences and paragraphs, we must try to form a logical narrative of our assumptions and conclusions. If we edit our own writing we even must come to some conclusion about whether what we say we think actually makes sense. Of course I am talking about expository writing, not polemics or apologetics where one crafts arguments to support a forgone conclusion.

Although we can nitpick about what is polemics, it is easy to spot in practice. It normally contains no doubts, no alternatives and, generally, sarcasm in generous helpings.

But back to my initial question. Is it intellectually okay for me to venture an opinion and throw it out into the public on a subject I do not have a PhD in? I am not asking if it is wise. It may very well be foolhardy if I am thin skinned. I am asking if it is okay.

My answer is yes. I don’t need to be an expert. What I need is the ability to think about something and then to articulate my thoughts. It is okay to be ignorant about a topic and still have an opinion. It is just as reasonable to do that as it is to live life without knowing how everyone else is living theirs. It is therefore reasonable to have an opinion about something in the context of my own limited life experience and intellectual breadth and depth. That does not mean that it is okay to be irrational, illogical or vindictive. As in life, an honest, hopeful and truth seeking approach works best.

Having said that, can I then assume I have something to contribute? No. I probably have nothing to contribute but I have, nonetheless, gained something – greater insight into that topic for myself. Practice at thinking and then writing what I think.

So, despite my abysmal ignorance I grant myself the right to write. About economics, family, public policy, good and bad, sports, government, philosophy, God and other sundry topics as the whim takes me. I suggest that you pray for me.

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Customer Service Surveys

There are a few websites I use regularly that constantly send email surveys asking me to rate my most recent experience. Generally my experience is good, but if it isn’t then I will contact someone. But the one thing that is degrading my experience is the constant survey requests. Stop already! I don’t need an email every third time I use your site! The survey request is the most annoying and least efficient part my experiences.

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Ayn Rand – The Philosopher Queen of Teenagers

In his recent blog on FrumForum, a writer talks about Ayn Rand and how she influenced him. He begins with

“As for so many alienated sixteen-year-olds, the works of Ayn Rand granted me solace. She heralded the primacy of ideas in a culture that seemed impervious to them; she dared to tell me that my accomplishments were valuable when the world seemed to be telling me that everything I did should be in the name of self-sacrifice; she promised me that truth and rationality were achievable. And, best of all: she told me that I didn’t need an omnipotent government or a god to do this.”

He proceeds to back away gingerly from Ms. Rand but defends her thought and conclusions while blaming her style. Too bad. I also was swayed by the writings and philosopy of Objectivism when I was very young. In fact you will probably find nobody, who discovered her in their 30’s or later, who were influenced by her writings. Why is that you ask? Because Ayn Rand’s arguments about the Rights of Man were philosophically grounded on the Wants and Desires of Man.

As we all see in immature young adults, the demands of the life we live with other people bring out our essential selfishness. We have rights! We have feelings! We have wants! What about me! Do you recognize those demands? Were you a teenager? Or a parent of one? That is the basis of Ayn Rands’ Objectivism – not cogent argument but self-referential whining.

I walked away from Ayn Rand when I read “The Virtue of Selfishness”. It was a collection of articles that purported to show the consequences of her philosophy in action. It disgusted me. It made me realize that selfishness as an ethical basis is the road to madness for the individual and anarchy for the society that embraces it.

I do not recall in the discussion of Rights by Ayn Rand that there is any discussion of responsibility. Of obligation. Although she fondly quotes the Declaration of Independence as a foundation document, she ignores what it says about who gives us certain unalienable political rights and concludes, off hand, that solely by reason of our existence as thinking animals we have absolute individual rights that include political and economic rights. These absolute rights were just recently discovered apparently, by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden. This argument that Man has innate rights because He is a thinking animal is as close to profundity as she gets.

As we grow up we recognize (most of us) that we live in a group of people to whom we have mutual obligations and with whom we have mutual interactions. There are two main groups – family and society. I remember an argument in “Selfishness” where Ms. Rand said, to paraphrase, that it is insame for a functional, productive adult to risk his or her life for anyone else – especially a child. It is irrational. That conclusion about risking one’s life is inescapable if one is a rational Objectivist. But it is unbearable if one is a complete human being.

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Our Stories – Our Selves

Everyone has a story. The closing narration of the late 1950’s police drama The Naked City said, “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” I was a teenager then but I still remember that thought.

In my last post about narratives I discussed the human need for a story. About the need for a narrative of events, tragedies, our lives, the past. This need for a narrative is almost genetic. And I shared the conclusion that stories are purely historical and that they end in the present time with the next chapters unknown and unknowable. Maybe the future path of a story is predictable from a probability perspective but that path is not knowable.

Despite a story’s uselessness in guiding our lives they do describe our lives and, to a great extent, they describe us. We are our stories. Have you ever quizzed your parents about their pasts? Have you been surprised by what you learned? Do you think they told you everything? Do you wonder about the past lives of the people around you? I do. I love stories. I like other people’s stories. I like your stories.

I don’t know what we can learn from life stories but we can be excited, puzzled, awed, disappointed, educated and surprised by people’s stories. But we cannot have those experiences if we do not ask or if we do not listen. So ask. And listen. And when asked tell your story. But do not be too quick to tell your story, you will learn the most and be entertained the most by others.

Of most interest to me are the stories of the outcasts – the street people, the criminals, the quiet iconoclasts. If I know the story then I learn that they are human. I can recognize our commonality. Not in a banal sense of Let Us All be Brothers – gag! But in the real sense of seeing a little bit of my thinking and my behavior in that person. That could be me. That really could be me if just one thing had been different in my life.

Look for your weakness, your character defect in that failure that you read about. Learn the story of someone you barely know. Ask. People will talk about themselves gladly. And more openly once they know you. So I learn about you and I learn about me.

Knowing our stories is not necessary for knowing our future. Because they do not help us to know our path for the rest of our lives. But knowing your story helps me to know you. And knowing my story lets me know me.

There are over 6 billion stories being lived right now. Think about it. I mean really think about it! And then look at the stars on a clear night and tell me the difference.

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Narratives and Power

Much of my world view is shaped by my experience in a 12 step program. I learned to look at my life and the world in which I live in a different way. That new way of looking was an important part of my recovery.

Lately I have been reading about the human propensity for and attraction to narratives. By narratives I mean the need to place events into the context of a story; the search for cause and effect; precedent and subsequent. It appears that we need to understand our lives and our place in the world in terms of a story. But there is a problem with stories. They are descriptive but not predictive. They are constructed after the fact so as to flow as logically as possible. But they are impossible to construct before the “story” is complete. Thus history is a story.

One of the great truths that individuals, families, nations are told to live by relates to learning from history. Without quoting all the familiar aphorisms we are warned to use history (the back story, if you will) to guide us into the future. But is our history any kind of predictor of our future? I think not because everything is different this time. By living our lives, individually and communally we change the circumstances of our existence. When the circumstances change, the same actions will have different results.

How does this relate to a 12 step program? The first step in a 12 step program is “We admitted we were powerless over (name of poison) – that our lives had become unmanageable”. Powerless! What is power? If it is anything, it is the ability to control our present and future circumstances. In the first of the 12 steps we must admit we are powerless over some aspect of our life. But this is just the first step. As I learned a new way of living and seeing I realized, along with many others, that I was powerless over massive swaths of my life. I learned that my future was not in my hands and that I needed to accept that and live a life that prepared me for what was put in front of me. Because as soon as I tried to control what life gave me, I failed. I was powerless.

Of course I mean powerlessness in a macro sense. Not in a micro sense. We can control what we eat and what time we get up and whether we are groomed and a thousand other details of daily life. But these details do not control our future unless we fall outside our societal norms. For example if we stay in bed for the rest of our lives, or never shave again, we have limited our future. But we have not determined our future.

What we cannot control are the larger things. Traffic on the day of our job interview. The chemistry between me and the interviewer. Whether I fit the preconceived notions of the interviewer for the job. Thus no matter how certain we are that the job is perfect for us, we do not control the conclusion of the story. But once the story is concluded, favorably or not, we create the narrative and look for the rationale.

Ask each of your friends and acquaintances over the age of 25 or 30 if their life now is what they expected it to be when they were 18. The older they are, the more emphatic will be their response – NO. Not even close.

So if each of us has a narrative, but it is a historical story that has little or no use in predicting our future and minimal use in guiding our future, why do we do it? And if we cannot control our future, why bother planning and preparing for the future. I don’t know the answer to the first question. Although I speculate that we create stories because without them we would not be able to justify our continued existence.

We plan for the future because we must be prepared to handle the unknowns we will be presented with throughout our lives. We cannot guarantee our success but we can guarantee our failure by not being able to deal with our life challenges.

Kind of a trite conclusion I suppose. But it was profound to me when I became aware of it. It changed my life. When I understood that my failures and successes were not solely a result of my actions and that the results were not under my sole control I was freed to concentrate on improving my efforts rather than evaluating my back story.. So my story was not a train running down a track. My story was, and is, the same as your story. Unknowable.

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I was funny once but young*

I just read a letter I wrote to my oldest daughter about 15 years ago. She had just met her future husband and I was giving her a hard time about it. It was pretty funny I thought. I am not sure how she felt about it. I will send it to her and see how she feels about it now.

When I started writing this blog I thought that I would try to reawaken my sense of humor. My intent was to be funny more often than not. I have failed so far. I do have a sense of humor, but it is more often a cynical and sarcastic attitude in conversation. Sometimes it borders on offensive and I have to apologize. I was told many years ago that I could write funny stuff and I did.

Somewhere in the intervening years as I wrote less and talked more my humor came out in bon mots rather than in clever writing. Not Churchillian bon mots – more like Don Rickles bon mots. Unfortunately conversational humor is more fleeting and often takes the form of teasing or clever critical comments rather than insightful or absurdist humor.

There is much absurdity in the world today. But there are tens of thousands of commentators who take absurdity seriously. Thanks to the internet absurdity can no longer be punctured with a couple of jokes on late night TV or in a classic Dave Barry column. No, an act of absurdity can no longer be dismissed but must be dissected and discussed until none of the nonsense is left in it.

I think I have contracted that disease and find it difficult to write about absurd acts without straying into the socio-political analysis that pervades much public discourse today. I will try harder but there are no guarantees.

* With apologies to General Howard Moore (We were Soldiers Once, And Young)

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Making

A duct fan powered shopping cart and a clock that knits are two of the many concepts presented today on one of my favorite blogs Make:Online. The blog and its magazine celebrate a pastime as old as humanity – invention and creation. But they call it Making which I think is really cool.

Have there always been this many inventors and creators and tinkerers in this country? Or indeed in the world? I don’t know. But the existence of all these people doing all these things gives me hope for all of us. Not hope that one of them will cure cancer or invent cheap fusion, but hope that the joy of creative living is widespread and will rejuvenate our culture.

Perhaps I spend too much time reading the swamp-literature of political blogs. Where water cats and mud dogs splash around making noise and spreading disease. Where nothing is solved but everything is wrong. Emerging from this swamp and finding islands where people build cargo bicycles, or a giant Buck Rogers style spaceship is a joyous discovery. There is life after policy discussions or ad hominem attacks on rascally pols of whatever stripe. Not all intelligence is political after all.

It is a joy to create. I have tried my hand at invention with mixed results from a successful loft bed for my pre-teen daughter to a disastrous computer holder for an exercise bike. But those have been sporadic efforts often made with practical problems facing me. I do not find myself motivated to build fancifully. But maybe writing is creation and if the writing creates practical results then perhaps it is also Making. And I do try to write Daily Posts. Of course, sometimes I fail.

Maybe Making also involves ideas. Not opinions, not reflections but hard edged, practical ideas for solving real problems. Or maybe it also involves fanciful, impractical ideas that bring joy and escape from life’s hard edged realities! I guess I don’t know for sure but I sure like the idea of Making. I smile just thinking about it.

So go and Make something – anything at all will do.

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Disasters – and the blame game

In a story by AP here Bob Bea, a professor at UC Berkeley, is quoted as saying “Disasters don’t happen because of “an evil empire,” Bea said. “It’s hubris, arrogance and indolence.’ ”

May I suggest that hubris and arrogance are also on display with Professor Bea. The study of disasters by experts seems to imply that with proper preparation they are predictable and preventable. This is the typical hubris of an engineer. I know – I grew up with one as a parent. If we study and prepare and analyze and meet and discuss and study again and computer model and … and … so on, we can avoid disaster. But I disagree. For my side of the argument I say – Professor Bea I would like to introduce you to the stock market.

The same hubris afflicts journalists and attorneys – the idea that if we are careful nothing bad will ever happen. Conversely if something bad happens then we just weren’t careful enough! It is simple. Someone, somewhere was negligent and screwed up. The argument that it was a mistake at the wrong place and wrong time is rejected by these seekers of perfection. Perfection in others, of course, not in them.

How often do each of us make a mistake each day? That is rhetorical because I have never counted my mistakes each day. But I bet there are several. In all these years none of my mistakes have killed me or someone else. Am I lucky? No, I am the norm. Every person out there makes mistakes every day and I’ll bet some of them involve driving a car. Every day one or more people die or kill other people because they made the same mistake you did but at the wrong time and the wrong place. But because their mistake had a consequence, it becomes a story.

This all too human desire for a story (or a narrative) is delightfully discussed in Nicholas Taleb’s first book “Fooled by Randomness”. We look at a bad (or good) result and find, sometimes quite artfully, the story line threaded through the history of the event. And, thus, we have a Story with a Cause and an Effect. We are all quite good at this. It is more satisfying to say that the engineer and quality control checker were arrogant and negligent which is why the critical part of the bridge failed than it is to find the true story. A restless night with a toothache led to a fatigued misread of a routine calculation. The QC checker was interrupted by a question about his son’s graduation while doing the review and skipped over that part of the work.

With hindsight it might have been predictable. We have an old saying – “20/20 hindsight” – that proves that we recognize this phenomenon of creating a story to explain an outcome. But, humans that we are, we recognize the absurdity of hindsight criticism and then ignore it. In truth we cannot predict the future. We can only analyze the past. And even that we do imperfectly because we cannot know with certainty all of the events that impacted the outcome.

Maybe accidents happen because we are human. Maybe hubris and arrogance (or pride and self confidence) are not hallmarks merely of Berkeley engineers and large oil companies but also of all human beings to some extent. What drives ambitious and creative and daring human beings but hubris and arrogance to a great extent?

One of the great lessons that all creative and innovative people learn is that failure is the best teacher. If we avoid failure then we cannot innovate. We cannot know the future and we cannot, with any certainty, predict the outcomes of our behaviors. Danger is an integral part of the future. But we must risk possible death and destruction to avoid certain death and destruction.

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