A Picture from Gaza

Children killed by bombing in Gaza.

I have been haunted by this image of dead children. It appeared on Facebook on November 19. This site identifies them all as members of the Dalou family, killed in Gaza by Israeli bombs. Maybe the man to the left is their father. But whether these specific facts are absolutely true is not as important as believing that bombs kill people, and sometimes children.

What can an attacker say to that? "Oops"? This is not a natural disaster. It is not an accident. It is a direct action of human beings. People make guns and bombs to kill other people. People organize wars. People pull triggers. People kill people.

This is direct, purposeful action, and that makes me sick.

People working for peace are often accused of being foolishly idealistic. But isn't it more foolish to think that killing people is a step toward a greater good? Whether a child is killed or an adult man is killed doesn't matter: killing is wrong. Whether it's people flying a plane into a building or shooting a man and dumping him in the sea: killing is wrong.

Period.

The image also gave me perspective. I got to see what it looks like for a country to attack another country and kill people. This is what it looks like to others when America does that. And we do it often. Far too often.

But what to do about it? I pay taxes which predominantly fund military spending which cause the killing. It overwhelmingly pains my heart to be party to it, and someday I'll have the courage to not pay taxes because of that.

Until that day, I was going to try and get the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and all laws like it repealed, but after a discussion with a friend, I realize that's not the problem for it formalizes limits on Presidential power to run the military. United States military action has been a disaster worldwide with the virtually unchecked use of American killing power.

War is morally bankrupt, violently socially divisive, ecological disastrous, and economically destructive. We need to stop our country from engaging in this any longer.

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TEDxRochester 2012

I actually arrived early. I had intended to get there right around 9 a.m., but I was worried the lectures started at 9. In fact, it all started around 10, but about 30 people were there early as well. I was going to walk which would take about an hour, but I passed a bus stop and thought I'd check. In the one functioning piece of the RGRTA system, I was able to text the stop number to 585-351-2878 and it responded with the next 3 busses: the #50 arriving in just a few minutes. So I ended up at Geva about 8:15 a.m.

Finding the doors locked, I decided to go find some coffee. I walked past Bausch and Lomb up Stone Street to Main. I passed and ignored the Tim Horton's in the library but found no local places open, save for the Java Joe's by Boulder shop in the Crossroads Building (right across from another Tim Horton's — you'd think the city had some kind of preference for Canadian companies over locals!)

Anyway, I got back and into the theater. I first met Ota Unc who was giving a presentation. I told him about my Tadpole Trike project and the plan to cross the Nevada desert on it. He said to keep an eye out for his presentation but didn't want to say more as he didn't want to spoil the surprise.

First up was Carmelo Ramos who gave a nervous but pleasant start to the day with a traditional prayer to the spirits at each of the four compass points.

Andrew Phelps gave a speech titled "Rocket Jumping through the Game of Life" [mental note: write down the titles of everyone's speeches or else I'll be sure to fail to find some through searches]. He made the comparison that the way we learn in games — that there is a set of rules that are there to "be gamed" — is exactly the skills we need for real life: to exploit the rules to our advantage. The presentation title alludes to a technique in one video game where players figured out they could shoot a rocket launcher at their player's feet and fly over all the obstacles in a level rather than confront each challenge in turn as the level was designed. And while I think his thesis is essentially correct, I'd like to have seen him spend more time on the ethical quandaries of such behavior — specifically that actions that advance one's status alone may not be any more difficult than actions that advance the status of many including oneself.

Next was the presentation of a popular TED video by Hans Rosling titled "The magic washing machine". In it he cunningly implies that maybe we can do without a few fringe luxuries so many people can have some basic ones.

Ben Hayden was next to talk about his research into monkeys and gambling. I enjoyed the fact that he saw the duality of the real science that goes into his research and that it's really quite bizarre and somewhat hilarious. In short, he said that all animals are generally risk-averse, but primates aren't under certain conditions. We tend to be drawn to situations where we have multiple possibilities for random reward over situations with consistent rewards — which is essentially the preference for a slot machine over a machine that simply alternates between returning double your money or nothing at all. One of the interesting findings is that gambling addiction is a breakdown in the same areas of the brain that cause a number of psychological problems such as depression.

Next up, was a presentation about First Robotics which is a group that helps kids build robotics toward a goal. [I swear the name of the presenter was Glen Frey but I can't find proof, so I assume I must be mistaken.] By high school, they are building remote-controlled devices with modern industrial components to compete in a challenge that is different each year.

I'm often frustrated that such games end at the end of school. Half joking, I told a couple people that kids should be interviewed and find out what excites them and what they excel at, and then are told to do something else that they aren't very good at and don't really like for the rest of their lives to prepare them for the real corporate world.

When we returned from break, Nicole Corea gave an improvised demonstration of dance. I have no background in it, so while I was impressed, I had a hard time gleaning interpretation. My rational mind simply would not shut up about literal meanings.

Next we got to Ota Ulc who talked about competing in the 10,000 Mile Mongolian Challenge. He joined it in Czechoslovakia in a crappy car (which is part of the point) on their way to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (And yes, it is deliberately an insane idea.) The central point of his talk is that wherever they were, people were similar: they'd inevitably warn the team about the horrors they'd encounter inflicted by the people in the neighboring country, yet every-such warning turned out to be false, and everyone was actually very welcoming.

Next up was a video presentation of the TED talk by Abigail Washburn titled "Building US-China relations … by banjo". It's a powerful story of how our lives can suddenly change for the better in unexpected ways.

Erich Lehman — curator of the 1975 Gallery — discussed pivotal events in our lives. He starts by pinpointing the date when he received his first skateboard and how that caused him to grow from an outcast to a young man with a peer group. That one event set in motion a huge part of his entire life; had it happened differently, everything would be very different.

After lunch, One Dance Co. and The Pickpockets performed a shortened version of "In You is Home" which they presented for at the Yards some months back. The melding of fine, subdued "gypsy folk" music with metaphoric (but simple and accessible) dance makes for a great performance.

Next, Victoria Van Voorhis reiterated the gaming theme talking about her company's use of video game software to create collaborative environments for kids to learn. I felt a bit of pity that she spent so much time on obvious introductory information that she had to cut short the point of her speech.

A few friends and I talked about it afterward: it seems technology is often thrown at education as some kind of solution when the commitment of actual people teaching kids is what is really required. Human spirit is often compared to the most advanced technology of the day (as, per Arthur C. Clark's famous quote, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".) I wonder if there were attempts to include steam power in education at the turn of the century …

Dr. Ian Wilson is a radiologist who spawned the WALL\THERAPY mural project [officially with a backslash] and the Synthesis Collective. The former is about providing social space to allow public art to be created by street (née "graffiti") artists. The latter is about using technology to connect portable imaging tools in remote places with experienced radiologists who can read the results and provide diagnosis.

Dr. Craig Cypher is a psychologist who developed a tool for helping with psychological diagnosis. It's an application for ubiquitous smart phones that allows a patient to track jeir mood as it happens which can help identify problems to be discussed in therapy sessions. He is hopeful for the future where wearable sensors can help automatically record that information since depression and disruptive events are the exact moments when it is hardest for people to take the time to assess themselves.

Shanterra Randle and Doug Ackley gave a presentation on Teen Empowerment. It was a powerful message that young people — like the ones we have trapped in Rochester's inner city — are crying out to be heard; to have their ideas respectfully considered. I fear our city government is too entrenched in excluding those voices, and it will take new leadership to buck the trend of only listening to rich white men.

The Rochester Latino Theatre Group performed a play in the form of an introduction to Latino culture and an introduction to the performers (or the people they were portraying). It's familiar territory: a person is neither a sole individual nor an ambassador to a culture, but instead the product of both. I feel as if it is the nature of English (perhaps language) that prevents the concept of "person" from being adequately reflected, and in so, raising its speakers above the concepts of racism and prejudice.

Relatedly, Davin Searls spoke on the state of deaf culture in the world. Rochester is one of the best cities for it — as he pointed out, seeing a deaf person, or having a performance interpreted or subtitled is something we scarcely notice anymore. But in other places it's considered exotic and bizarre, and in some places, deaf people are not part of the society at large. The central point of his discussion, though, is that deafness is a culture unto itself, not a disability. That the expressiveness of sign language is different from the expressiveness of spoken language. Perhaps I could add that it's as much different as spoken language is from the written word.

Next they played a hilarious TED video by Colin Robertson titled "A TED speaker's worst nightmare". I'll leave it to you to watch.

Following that, Mike Governale came out to discuss his Reconnect Rochester project and how it started with a fictional schematic map of the Rochester subway system. The point of his group is to change the system we have to a place we care about — a counterpoint to Henrietta (which he leaves unnamed, highlighting in photo only) as an automobile-centric dystopia: a place we don't care about.

Finishing up was an interesting TED video by Derek Severs titled "Weird, or just different?" in which he talks about how we take things for granted as "the way things are" until we encounter another culture where things are done exactly opposite, yet equally validly.

Jen Indovina closed the day with a comment on the TEDxRochester crew's recent challenge: the Roc City 2.0 project. I had heard about it and was sufficiently frustrated finding information (like TEDx Flour City earlier in the year) that I was driven away. But they are responsible for the lamppost signs that indicate walking and biking times to nearby landmarks and neighborhoods. This project is continuing next year with the only clue being a triptych of flipbooks of a horse running.

Overall I found the day to be full of interesting discussions. I can only assume the glaring trend happened by accident: although the day's theme was ostensibly "community", it seemed more to be "games and play", as a large portion of the lectures centered on either video games or learning-through-play or both. At least this year I saw nothing that could be confused with an advertisement for a product, or a money-making scheme.

However, with all the consistent quality, no one discussion really surprised me. It may just be that I have become unfortunately numb to innovation itself. One thing I think plagues TEDxRochester is the dominance of technology — not surprising considering Rochester's tech-rich heritage — but it would be nice to be impressed by philosophy or by a substantial representation by non-technical solutions like Teen Empowerment.

I did want to give a response to the shout-out by TEDxRochester founding member Tony Karakashian. After lunch he challenged the audience to be more creative when they apply. In talking with Tony, Gary Jacobs, and Amanda Doherty, I've apparently developed a reputation for my applications, and one I try to uphold. For 2012, I tried to give them a chuckle and apparently succeeded as Tony read my answer to "Why do you want to attend TEDxRochester?":

Each year is a new adventure to attend, always with at least one amazing lecture that both fulfills my itch for something new, and infects me like an acute allergic reaction with all new itches. It's just a lot of itching and scratching leading to more itching. It's like psoriasis for the brain, only not gross-looking. Or maybe one of those weird back-scratchers that's made from a desiccated monkey paw, clutching at nothing but the agony of being cut off a monkey, and stuck on the end of a walking stick — a walking stick for a mental journey lasting ten lifetimes that, tautologically, you cannot complete before dying. Presumably of old-age, or longing. Maybe you get an infection from that filthy monkey paw. Someone will probably do a lecture on that.

Putting things convolutedly, I guess Tony could have said, "Jason upped his game, so up yours!" Ok, I probably shouldn't have actually said that. Sorry.

But I do have to up my game next year. I mentioned that I had an idea to build a temple for Burning Man in 2013 called the Temple of Seasons — an excessive, overambitious project that has little hope for success. But I gave a vague promise that I'd submit an application to present whatever happens on that project for TEDxRochester 2013. Yikes.

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A Face in the Crowd

Now I've never been one to believe the hype that the 1950s was the greatest time in American history. I think it's a shared delusion: "the time I grew up was the best". But A Face on the Crowd really puts the nail in the coffin of the 1950s being a better, simpler time. I had a chance to see it at the screening at the Dryden.

Andy Griffith plays Larry Rhodes: a hard-drinking egomaniac. We're introduced to him by Marcia (Patricia Neal) who finds him in the town jail (for being a drunk). She's there on a visit for her radio show highlighting the common man called "A Face in the Crowd." It turns out the radio audience is charmed by this man who refuses to give a first name, inspiring Marcia to improvise that he's called "Lonesome" Rhodes. And once news the radio station's ratings have improved because of that interview, they snatch him up on his way drifting out of town and give him his own show.

From there he quickly ascends to Nashville then New York and becomes a national TV presence. All the while, he plays up the act of being a simple country boy as he's courted by members of Congress and the wealthy elite to spread their unpopular and self-supporting ideas. None of it matters much to him, as it all serves to fulfill his sociopathic needs, making him a powerful voice: to the people.

The film spares no one. The entire government is predicated on elite like Senator Fuller, who believes his ideas for how "things should be" are so perfect as to usurp the beliefs of the supposed democratic masses. When Lonesome gets to judge a baton-twirling contest, he takes a 17-year-old bride home; all the while, men in the crowd leer like horny wolves at the taut little bodies and maleable young minds dancing before them. All anyone is interested in is jeir own interests: not a soul cares for another human being.

The whole thing comes off as cynical, but I'd say it's just the presentation that is cynical; it portrays an unflinching view of the truth. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the same kind of truth is told, only through a sympathetic lens: all parties are working for things to be as good as they can be, but every person is making compromises to do so.

But the joy of the film, for all its cynicism, is the details. Walter Matthau plays Mel, a writer for Lonesome's TV show. When we meet him in the writer's room, the wit is quick and clever, and the mood is of martyrdom. It's a perspective that shows a certain honesty, and implies the necessity of the environment. By that, I mean that kind of writer of that kind of show needs the alienation and martyrdom to foster the bay of solitude within the tumultuous showbiz ocean that would otherwise serve only as distraction.

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Is President Obama Responsible?

I read that David Siegel wrote a letter to his employees telling them if Obama is elected, there will be layoffs. At first I was a bit shocked — I mean here is someone with wealth (and by extension power) who is shamelessly attempting to sway an election. I know a little about him — in large part from the documentary, The Queen of Versailles which outlines the rise of his timeshare empire (Westgate) and its near-collapse after the industry-orchestrated real-estate disaster in the late 00's.

His argument is that higher taxes under Obama will cripple big business and force a loss of jobs. But scratching a little deeper, and you'll see that his fortunes were through his hard work and diligence in exploiting the absurdly under regulated real-estate market. The concept of fractionally selling a luxury apartment in a major city — timeshares — was a novel and lucrative endeavor. I applaud his resourcefulness in doing so and have no issue with money he earned that way. But his largest gains were achieved by borrowed money against inadequate collateral.

He was able to mortgage over-valued properties and take that money to build more properties. For instance, in the film, he has mortgaged his partially-built second-home "Versailles". How was that even possible? The place has no value until it's built, yet he was able to mortgage it anyway?

It was slack regulations from (at least as far back as) Clinton's presidency that allowed this all to happen. And who gets stuck with the bill? Well, a foreclosure goes to the mortgaging bank, and then into this nebulous network of sold, bundled, overvalued mortgages, and ultimately right to people who are paying mortgages on jeir primary properties — their first and only homes.

So while building an empire — and creating jobs — based on creating value by offering a desirable service at a price that affords a window of substantial profit is a noble one, building an empire on the backs of hardworking Americans is a fraud.

And the bulk of Siegel's wealth is just that: fraud. Even the seemingly legitimate sales of timeshares is based on a foundation of fraudulent lending. Now, to his credit, Siegel is playing the game well and is legally in the clear. Nonetheless, this is how the rich get rich: not through hard work in the sense of producing a desirable, quality product, but through exploiting legal loopholes.

So these are the 1%ers who are so hell bent on getting rid of Obama. Why? Apparently Obama's policies have forced them to actually create a desirable, quality product. The loopholes are being closed, and the gravy-train of free money for the rich is no longer stopping in their towns.

Maybe Obama has actually done some progressive good in the world. As someone who makes a desirable, quality product myself, I've seen no change in my own financial burdens. But if the rich slackers are crying out in financial pain, good!

Now if only we can get pro-life people to realize that even the lackluster "Obamacare" will reduce the number of unborn babies killed by 75% (with non-abortion contraception, preventing unwanted pregnancies), maybe we can make everyone happy.

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