On Corporate Personhood (Finally)

On September 12 I headed over to Goergen Hall on the University of Rochester Campus for a panel discussion titled "Block that Metaphor? Corporate Personhood Before and After Citizens United". The panel consisted of Lynn Stout from Cornell Law School, Greg Urban of the University of Pennsylvania, and Elana Shever from Colgate University. It was moderated by Robert Foster at the University of Rochester.

Lynn Stout studies corporations from a legal perspective. She started off by emphasizing that corporations are real, not a metaphor. The term "personhood" refers to a set of legal rights that allow a corporation to, for instance, have the right to own property in its own name. She's enamored of the idea of corporations which give people the ability to perform long term projects that human beings would never do.

The key to this is the ability to lock up capital assets — the ability to hold money indefinitely, and prevent any stakeholder from reclaiming any part of jeir investment. As such, they need some first amendment rights to protect their property from expropriation. But, she added, corporations should never have the right to vote, for instance, and should not have a right to privacy.

As such, it is not simply an association of people: it is a separate kind of entity. And being a unique kind of entity, it does not have the same rights as an association of people.

Greg Urban brought an anthropologist's view of corporations. To him, they are cultural constructions that look like tribes or social groups and act as powerful agents or actors. They are part of a broader human tendency to form groups such a guilds, universities, and towns. He agrees, therefore, that a corporation has a right to exist as an entity unto itself.

Historically, corporations were once chartered which required political clout. And like other kinds of human groupings, they have rituals — business meetings, for instance.

Viewed from the outside, social groups appear as agents: things which exist in perpetuity. This is similar to things like family groups (i.e. family names) or clans which are comprised of — but separate from — their constituent human beings. Precedent exists for treating a group in place of the actions of an individual, for when a group acts, we do not look to the individuals in that group. They are agents with practical efficacy. And for any of these groups to move, it must be done so by discourse and agreement.

Economics had a hard time dealing with corporations what with being a new and separate agent, and in finance they are commodities with assignable values. In neither model are corporations considered persons. The concept of personhood is only in the popular culture and in the legal culture. And the corporate metaphor is dangerous when it is comprised of a single person rather than an aggregate for how would such a corporation exist separate from its sole constituent?

Elana Shever began by noting Michael Polan's work on examining himself as a group of organisms rather than a single entity, coining the term "first person plural". For what is an individual? Theoretically it is that part that remains constant in an ever-changing group. Thus, we can think of both humans and corporations as "ecologies" that contain organisms as well as goods and byproducts. As such, it's a false belief that shareholders define corporate action. Stout responded favorably to the "super-organism" model, adding that it is damaging to think of corporations as the property of shareholders.

Urban spoke of the Shell corporation in Argentina. Internal to Shell's management, there is a belief they are doing good, but many layers away, the people who operate the plants see the external populace as a nuisance. There are actually a series of separations — divisions between managers and workers — that cause this. It is an efficiency in the system that makes good business sense but it is not allowing Shell to work towards a unified goal.

Activists opposing Shell were often strongly reinforcing the idea of it as an individual citizen, and this popular idea is influential in increasing corporate power. So to take a different tack, could it be politically beneficial to rethink "personhood" as it relates to humans?

He said that there must be some kind of communication and common goals within the "divided corporation" model, adding that corporations should benefit society.

People from the audience had a chance to ask questions. Would more regulations be helpful? It seems that corporations are like a "monster that will devour the planet": do we have a super organism that can combat it?

Stout responded, noting that it's common to blame problems on the misbehavior of human beings, but we behave differently inside a group, and institutional environments create bad decisions. Government is probably more broken because lobbying can buy a corporation new rights yet the government needs to be a check on power.

The event organizers began taking questions three at a time (which I thought to be a mistake). I asked, given the way people's behavior changes inside a group, is there a way to make better members of corporations? Another person asked about ontology: if a person is an actor, then what about thinking of functional assemblages, since the parts may change but the unit endures. It seems transparency is key, but giving free speech rights to groups inexorably creates obfuscation. And finally, another person noted that it's less about rights than about responsibilities: how far does responsibility go?

Stout noted that sometimes an individual commits a crime as part of a group, but often it is the organizational design that causes an undesirable behavior. We need to view them as assemblages. How do we keep the useful ones? Should we have a corporate death penalty? Currently, if you want to sell stock, you need to disclose certain financial information, but we should add a requirement to have political disclosure as well.

Urban responded that he is not so excited about laws. For instance, rating agencies (forged organically) work well, but once the quality of the ratings become law, the goals change and the ratings companies just sell good scores.

Shever added that thinking of corporations as "assemblages" means it can easily become disassembled which is dangerous.

The final question that because of discussion of corporate personhood, are people are starting to think of themselves as little corporations? Urban noted that medieval Italy saw families this way. Stout noted that any thing before the law is some kind of person, and a corporation's property and the human agents that represent it are not invisible.

This discussion certainly offered some new information, but I found it lacking.

Stout expressed a belief that corporations let us make great things like railroads and bridges — things that would be impossible if it were attempted by human beings. I was skeptical that the corporate landscape is dominated by such beneficial behavior. And even when something is a benefit overall, it still has numerous negative repercussions.

In an ideal world, when a corporation is founded, it would have a specific benefit to society that serves as its operating goal — and "to make a profit" is not a concept that should be part of that goal. Making a profit should simply be a side-effect of providing a benefit, or a means to an end where providing the beneficial behavior necessitates continued existence.

Also, it seems to me that the only way to circumvent poor behavior of groups is to have a very shallow hierarchy. It seems necessary to have a small group of people whose sole function is to disseminate and clarify the goals of the corporation. The minimal case beyond that would be an anarchistic group that would organically form around tasks to achieve those goals. As layers of management are added, the communication of the goals is necessarily muddied.

Afterward, Stout encouraged us to look into the American Anti-Corruption Act. Echoing Stouts explanation, I'll quote the website:

The Act was crafted by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter in consultation with dozens of strategists, democracy reform leaders and constitutional attorneys from across the political spectrum.

The Act would transform how elections are financed, how lobbyists influence politics, and how political money is disclosed. It’s a sweeping proposal that would reshape the rules of American politics, and restore ordinary Americans as the most important stakeholders instead of major donors. The Act enjoys support from progressives and conservatives alike.

It is an impressive list of ideas that appears to have been vetted by legal experts to ensure it can be passed. If all the line items are passed, it would indeed mean a tremendous positive shift in the way elections are held and how the country is run.

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Police Chief Sheppard Takes Tiny Steps to Improve Cycling in Rochester

After running some errands, I biked over to the Rundel Building of the Rochester Public Library and headed to the Kate Gleason Auditorium to hear what Police Chief James M. Sheppard had to say about what the police can do to support bicycling in Rochester. I arrived with a bias that police care nothing for cyclists and treat them as nothing more than a recreational nuisance. I had hoped to be surprised with progress.

The event was sponsored by the Rochester Cycling Alliance. Alliance Vice President Bill Collins gave a quick introduction, saying the meeting would mostly involve the audience asking questions of Chief Sheppard. He said there was a similar meeting about a year ago, and there have been a lot of changes, particularly involving infrastructure. He introduced Erik Frisch, who identified himself as the Transportation Coordinator of the City of Rochester.

Frisch gave us some stats: last year there were 16 bicycle lane-miles, and there will be 45 lane-miles at the end of the construction season this year; the city plans to add at least 10 lane-miles per year. At this point they have "Bronze" status as a bicycling-friendly city, awarded by the League of American Bicyclists in 2012. He went on to say they will be adding green "Bike Boxes" at selected intersections: at an intersection, the stop line is moved back, and the space created is for exclusive use by bicycles. He also noted the addition of a contra-flow bike lane on Troup Street, and that part of the federal funding surrounding closing the inner loop from Charlotte to Monroe is the addition of a physically-separated bike lane. A few other notes: the addition of a two-lane cycle track near UofR, several one-way cycle tracks downtown, and they are targeting 100 lane-miles by 2018.

Chief Sheppard was introduced, praised the bicycling community for its strong advocacy for safety, and set to answering questions. Here are some highlights.

Karen asked about what the Rochester Police Department (RPD) is doing with the Rochester City School District (RCSD) "Safe Routes to School" program [perhaps referring to this mini-grant program]. Chief Sheppard said nothing is being done. He said he met with School #2 and planned with elaborate program, but the principal was moved to another district so the program was canceled. At present, there are only crossing guards.

Theresa Bowick of the Conkey Cruisers said her group wanted police traffic-maintenance support for where the El Camino Trail crosses Avenue A through Avenue D. Chief Sheppard said nothing further could be done. "Police resources are like gold," he said, adding that some officers on bicycles will occasionally give support.

Scott Wagner said he was following up on a letter he sent on September 17 concerning bicycle theft, and Chief Sheppard was probably anticipating the question. In the past year, he felt there had not been any improvement in the situation of bicycle theft. Reports of theft are disregarded by 911 and viewed as an annoyance by the police. Since he's a bicycle commuter, his bike is just as important as a car (which clearly would be treated more seriously by the police). He asked how can the Police Chief, the RPD, and the community improve this situation? He went on to relay an anecdote about a bicycle thief who was caught by citizens, admitted the theft, and had the tools on him, the police ignored the situation. [The description matched pretty close with this one which I heard about.]

Chief Sheppard joked that he hadn't anticipated the question. He said that there were several things that could have been done. First, if there was an issue with the service, call 911 and ask to speak to a supervisor. Second, in the case of bicycle theft, the RPD will not send an officer. Rather, one should call 311 and get the theft documented. He added that one suggestion from the community has been to go back to registering bikes, despite that nearly all bicycles already have a serial number.

He did not say the RPD would change anything.

Jon Schull followed up on the "Safe Routes to School" program. He asked if there were any concrete goals at this point — anything specific? He added that kids ride all over the place, violating the rules of the road, because they don't have a good route to school. Can the officers assigned to each school offer assistance?

Chief Sheppard said there are 12 officers in the secondary schools, and they won't likely handle those additional roles. He pointed out that things like "Bicycle Rodeos" help students, but suggested that the bicycling community make a safety video and share it on YouTube since young people of today would watch a video but would not read a pamphlet.

Another cyclist said that enforcement and safety is not just for children. One of the biggest risks to bicycle safety is the cyclists own behavior, noting that particularly downtown, people ride on the sidewalk and engage in other illegal behaviors, yet the rules should be enforced. [Note: the NYS DMV does not forbid riding on sidewalks, per the NYS Drivers' Manual, Chapter 11, only to say it may be prohibited locally. City Code §34-6 states, "All persons over 12 years of age may ride bicycles upon any sidewalk except in the Central Traffic District". The Central Traffic District is "the area bounded by the Inner Loop".]

Chief Sheppard said that officers change their focus seasonally, and they do occasionally stop bicyclists.

Harvey Botzman of the Rochester Cycling Alliance said the RPD does very little to train officers in bicycle laws, how to ticket, or how to advise cyclists — is there any officer training? Chief Sheppard said there was one officer who did train other officers, but did not commit to making any changes.

Scott MacRae of the Rochester Cycling Alliance noted that when he lived in Portland, Oregon, enforcement is becoming more important: the police organize "sting" operations for providing information to people (both cyclists or pedestrians) who break the law — particularly when public safety is a concern. Chief Sheppard didn't commit to creating such a program, noting that pedestrians are not required to obey the rules of the road and often surprise drivers. Even new crosswalks mid-block are troubling to drivers, despite signage that New York State law requires them to stop for pedestrians in any crosswalk.

I asked a question about the occasional egregious driver — one who endangers the safety of a cyclist. I had hoped for better enforcement, but Chief Sheppard instead suggested the cyclists organize a ride with a police officer included who can presumably issue tickets.

Jon Schull said that at last year's meeting, Chief Sheppard said we'd have a police liaison — formerly, Officer Dave Smith. Chief Sheppard said he would definitely find a new officer to fill that role.

Richard Reed noted his own experience with problems with the infrastructure (drainage grates, potholes, etc.), preventing cyclists from riding in the appropriate area of the road. Eric Frisch answered, suggesting that anytime we find a problem on the road, call 311 or go to the city website. He added that if it's reported by the public, it'll be fixed in 48 hours. You'll need the specific street address or, if that is not available, the light-pole numbers.

Jack Spula, a "daily bicyclist and city resident" asked about enforcement concerning commercial traffic. He said that large commercial vehicles on residential streets are traveling too fast: can we get more enforcement on commercial traffic? Chief Sheppard didn't commit to making any changes to such enforcement.

Harvey Botzman noted that on streets with many walk-in establishments (like Park Avenue), double-parking of taxis is substantially dangerous, especially to cyclist. Ticketing or providing information to taxi operators may help. Chief Sheppard said the taxis get their permits through the RPD, so this is possible.

In all, I was surprised that cyclists tended to prefer stronger enforcement of cycling laws over stronger enforcement of motorized-vehicle laws. In all, about 15 people showed up, so it is by no means a thorough cross-section of all cyclists.

Chief Sheppard concluded by stating his action items from the meeting: replace police liaison Officer Dave Smith, explore the possibility of bike registration, and get better data to track thefts of bicycles.

I approached Chief Sheppard afterward to mention my Bike Info Card project from a few years ago as a way to avoid the hassle of creating a formal bike registration. He very much preferred the idea of registration as it would ensure officers responding could get necessary information with as minimal an interaction as possible. He took down Officer Brian Bannerman's name who I had worked with a little bit, but excused himself for a phone call and left the library.

It appeared to me that Chief Sheppard charmed the audience and promised to do nothing. It largely affirmed the bias I entered with: that the police consider cyclists nothing more than a nuisance that should be ignored.

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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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Dominic Barter on Restorative Justice

I headed to RIT this evening and attempted to find Golisano Hall. I went to Carlson by mistake (and partly out of habit as that's one of the locations of the Caroline Werner Gannett Project lectures). I tried to get on the open WiFi to find a map, but the WiFi wasn't actually accessible — a metaphor for RIT's anti-community, pro-police-state, lets-all-live-in-a-bunker philosophy. I finally found a map and (as I suspected looking at the building behind it) I was standing in front of Golisano Hall: "you are here" on so many levels.

I was there to see Dominic Barter will present a lecture titled Toward Conflict: A Conversation about Restorative Justice. He began by talking about how there are no outsiders in a community. Often we think of conflict as being between two parties, but there is always that group affected by the conflict, and (by nature of being part of the community) complicit in it.

But "conflict", "community", and even "group" are pretty potent words that need some refining to understand what's meant.

Conflict is at its core, a disconnection of communication. The presumption is that all people think they are doing good with their actions, so everyone behaves in a way that is somehow beneficial. But an action does not benefit everyone. The conversation can stop there with each party assuming the other is mistaken, confused, stupid, evil, etc. Or one party can state its objectives, and the other (while hearing the words) may not be able to empathize with that position and be unable to understand.

Conflict remains as long as that disconnection of communication remains. And it demands to be addressed; it demands to be dispelled by reconnecting communication — all because the self of each person longs to be recognized, understood, and respected. This desire for communication is so strong that, if left unresolved, leads to animosity and eventually violence.

On community, let me back up for a minute. I'm often bothered by the word "is". It has this nebulous double-meaning as a way to describe a measurement ("the sky is blue"), and as a way to define an equivalence ("one plus one is two"). So I get flustered by "you are part of the community" because "community" can simply be a measurement of place, but it can also be a definition of behavior.

So rather than define community as a set of behaviors, Barter (if I remember correctly) sees it as the people and shared places — you, everyone you speak with, everyone you interact with, everyone you see.

He also doesn't like referring to "groups" involved with a conflict — as if there are literally two teams, each with common ideas that disagree with the other. Rather, it is simply individuals, each one with jeir own ideas, some of which are shared with others. Conflict resolution, then, involves every individual in the community — everyone who interacts with those "central" to a conflict are effected and necessarily involved.

Another way to look at conflict is an imbalance of power. So Barter's process — called Restorative Circles — is literally a circle of people which, by its nature, equalizes power. He tries to work from a perspective of being part of the community rather than as an outsider, and in that manner attempts to keep himself from being part of a power imbalance.

He says it always happens in three phases.

First, people reacquaint themselves with how to communicate. He has observed people not talking to the target of their statement — as in looking away, or at jeir own supporters. And people are inarticulate and flail about with words. He reminds himself to be confident in the ability of people to communicate, so he tries not to interfere, but when someone cannot fathom another's rationale, he asks jem if jee can explain a "good reason" for the misunderstood behavior, knowing that people think they act benevolently.

This phase always takes longer than he thinks it should and he starts to panic. But it inevitably does, and eventually people start communicating with one another.

Next, everyone starts to identify humanity in others. Each realize that everyone is human like jem — that there is benevolence behind everyone's actions. And they empathize with one another, and begin to see the source of the conflict.

Finally, they start creating possible actions. Barter says he's amazed to see the creativity of solutions that arise. And because the whole community is involved, the likelihood of those possible actions being implemented is dramatically improved.

I had to ask about anxiety and control. I like to be in control, and I at least feel most comfortable when the logical part of my mind can offer possible likely outcomes. But when it breaks down and is unable to formulate any likely outcomes, I feel anxious — that old "fexcitement" reaction that's the physiological fear/excitement response. And that's unpleasant and I try to avoid it. So to enter a situation like this — where I have no idea what solutions exist, what the conflict is, and even if it will work — is extremely difficult.

Barter said he experiences that as well and has learned to rely on a support network (either other people being present or readily available by phone). For him, support takes the form of people reminding him who he is. I presume he means to regain focus on his goals and methodology.

I thought it perhaps most fascinating that he described himself as an extremely impatient man. He knows how ineffective it is to rush the process, so to ensure it is successful and robust, he is willing to invest a lot of energy in making sure it is done right.

These Restorative Circles happen start small with just a few people each, then grow, and eventually can include as many as several hundred people at once. In all, it's an amazing process that we need to reacquaint ourselves with.

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The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the MuCCC

I was tired of running all around and today I had a full afternoon and evening of events to try and attend — heck, it's Sunday and I don't feel like leaving the house. Alas, I did go to just one thing: I headed to The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) for a reading of The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I really didn't have much background (despite curating the events calendar on this site, I don't actually read much into descriptions) and I only recalled a passing interest in attending.

It is a monologue written by Mike Daisey and performed/read by Spencer T. Christiano which is a first-person account of how a fan of technology (and especially products of Apple) became disillusioned by visiting a factory in China. Christiano did a fantastic job voicing Daisey, who interweaves three tales: one is his own, personal relationship with technology, the second is the story of Apple, and the third is the story of his visit to Shenzhen, China. I found his style fantastically conversational and personal. The way he writes about technology demonstrates a deep understanding, and he genuinely seems like an eyes-wide-open kind of guy who is willing to lay any judgmental views right in the open.

But you don't have to take my word for it: you can go to his site and download the whole monologue as a PDF and read it for yourself (it's licensed with his unique open-source-like agreement).

I was drawn in to the story quickly. I grok the lust for technology, and his description of that experience fits with my own (for an example, one of the things he loved about his first computer — an Apple IIc — was that the keyboard was in Garamond; if that makes no sense to you, then you might not fully appreciate his geekery.) I have a fairly good understanding of the origins of Apple, and Daisey's details fully corroborated my own. And when he began describing the "retail" side of Shenzen, it fit with what I had heard, such as when SparkFun visited there (although I far more appreciate his description, "Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself. LEDs, neon, and fifteen-story-high video walls covered in shitty Chinese advertising: it’s everything they promised us the future would be.")

So when he started talking about what the "manufacturing" side of Shenzen was like, I could only assume it was just as accurate. I realize it's a logical fallacy — a twist on the "ad hominem" fallacy — where I believe a fact to be true solely because I found other facts true.

He then outlined the conditions in the factories which were different from, and, by my gauge, worse than what I had envisioned. I had an impression of workers on an assembly-line putting together and testing electronics.

But I didn't expect it to be in gigantic rooms where absolute silence is enforced. I didn't expect such a lack of machinery (it's cheaper to pay a Chinese worker to install a screw than to make a machine to do it, presumably until some astonishingly large scale.) I didn't expect there to be suicide nets on the outside of the building. I didn't expect regular working hours to be so extreme (although the government-approved union-busting and blacklisting would naturally make that so). I certainly didn't expect these factories to employ the "best and the brightest" — a college education in China gets you a job assembling iPhones.

But then, like I say, you can read all about this yourself in a far more engaging and entertaining form.

So stepping out of the writing, and stepping out of the monologue and the performance, there's an interesting twist to the story. NPR radio show This American Life had Daisey perform an abbreviated form of the monologue for the January 6, 2012 show. But then they did something unprecedented: on their March 16, 2012 show, they retracted the episode, claiming that Daisey lied.

Now this is unique, first because it's the first time This American Life actually retracted an episode. But more important, it's not a retraction because the facts of the account are false, it's because they didn't happen to Daisey personally as he had claimed. According to the after-performance discussion with Spencer T. Christiano, producer John W. Borek, and director Kelly Webster, Daisey does not dispute the fabrications and says it is a work of theater, not journalism. On the Star Wars Modern blog titled What Mike Daisey Did Wasn't Fair – It Was Right., John Powers puts it better than I can: "when did Ira Glass graduate from being a talk radio Casey Kasem to NPR's Dan Rather?"

I'll briefly mention that there's a flurry of activity about this. My take [I'd add, "as if you care", but you, dear reader, are indeed reading this, so I'll meta-self-referentially say it parenthetically] is that journalists like to believe the rules of journalism produce a work that is closest to reality. The truth is, no writing is remotely close to the truth. No account of any event — be it written, photographed, filmed, or recorded — has ever been an adequate substitute for reality. However, it is a new truth, just as this blog entry is a new essay that's about a new performance of a new monologue by Mike Daisey which is a new transcript based on new performances of Daisey which is a new account … umm … etcetera.

But what I think is so valuable about The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the way it paints a picture of the hierarchy that exists. A journalist could play by-the-book and quote a business person, and a worker, and a technology geek, and a Foxconn liaison, and Steve Jobs — and they could never manage to put it together to describe the chain of events. For instance, here's an attempt to explain the hierarchy I'm talking about:

  • An evangelical Apple geek eagerly awaits the newest product from (although having never met the man)
  • … Steve Jobs whose staff designs a new version of their latest product and sends a representative to Foxconn in Shenzen, China to meet (a group of strangers, both in relation and in culture)
  • … the representatives at Foxconn and they all go to dinner and mingle and go to the shiny factory meeting room and discuss the product when the Apple representative asks to see the factory floor, so the Foxconn people make a call to (knowing they should show an idealized version)
  • … the factory manager who sets up (not wanting to lose work and get fired)
  • … a mock factory — well, a real factory floor with real products, but with the child labor replaced by their oldest workers who (desperate for employment)
  • … go along with the charade and work hard and say all the right things so the representative can report back about the great working conditions (all the while wondering why American workers can't be so happy for work).

So go back in that list and find the bad guy — find the person who caused the dangerous working conditions, or the child labor. This is where journalism falls down: there is no person who is at fault.

Those parenthetical phrases are key: they describe the gaps that are filled in by the systems we have. Ergo, it is the system itself that is the problem. The system rewards people for making small lies to preserve its own profitability and we humans have created this new life form.

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Tom Richards Budget Cuts "Voice of the Customer"

Today in Lake Riley Lodge at Cobb's Hill Park (Norris Dr. at Culver Rd., although the City claims it is at 100 Norris), Mayor Thomas S. Richards was on hand to discuss the City budget and take requests to cover a deficit at Voice of the Customer 2012 meeting with for the Southeast portion of the city. I had trouble getting Tieson to behave so I left late, then went to the wrong lodge, and finally arrived a bit late. And then I had to leave early on top of it! But at least I got to say my piece — whether it's heard or not is out of my hands.

Richards and his staff outlined the situation and attempted to lead the audience to avoid cuts to police (e.g., paraphrasing, "the school budget is out of our hands, and many people say, 'don't cut the police force' so we can consider those two biggest bars on the graph off-the-table.") He also avoided mentioning the millions of dollars of tax exemptions on certain commercial properties in the city — but thankfully Alex White was there with a brochure describing exactly that. Relatedly, there didn't seem to be line items for equipment costs for the police (e.g. how much does a patrol car cost for a year?) except for the mounted patrol which, I guess Richards wants to eliminate. I also noted that there was a budget item for the pension fund in addition to paying for pensions in the cost of individual employees.

So I migrated to the Public Safety table and made suggestions that the extreme surplus of police officers should be reduced. I attempted to outline a system that used conviction rates as a benchmark: officers who arrest people who are then convicted of those crimes are "good cops" (who we should keep) and officers who, say, arrest people in a park illegally and don't get convictions are "bad cops" (who we should let go). Another person at the table brought up the security cameras, and I dovetailed jeir suggestion that we eliminate them unless there is proof they work (specifically: being admitted as evidence in court, since we were sold them on the claim that if someone commits a crime, jeir face is on camera and jee can be arrested.)

But my genius suggestion was that we could create a health plan that any city resident can buy into (expanding from all city employees) which, since it's a larger pool of participants, will further reduce costs. And it will provide a valuable service to citizens (and particularly small-business owners in the city) as an inexpensive, quality health plan.

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Paul Chappell at the Interfaith Chapel

I was inspired to see what Captain Paul K. Chappell will discuss had to say in a discussion titled Why Peace is Possible and How We Can Achieve It. I heard rumors that — as a graduate of West Point and having served in the army — he had concluded that it was possible to redirect the efforts of the U.S. military toward true peacekeeping rather than the delusion of using war. He spoke at The Interfaith Chapel at the University of Rochester (Wilson Blvd.) and the lecture was recorded by C-SPAN. (If I hear about a link to the recording I'll note it here.) I was quite inspired indeed.

Chappell grew up being taught that world peace is a "naïve idea". Central to the argument is that human beings are naturally violent. But is that true?

According to him, the greatest problem of every army is getting soldiers to be willing to die, and it's even hard to get people to fight. An effective technique is to instill the notion of a "band of brothers" so everything becomes self-defense. For instance, West Point teaches to treat your fellow soldiers as your family.

Second, no war has ever been fought for money or oil — at least not officially. In fact, people desire peace so much that every leader claims to be "fighting for peace". War is traumatizing because people are naturally peaceful.

An army study conducted in World War II (specifically Combat Neuroses: Development of Combat Exhaustion by Roy L. Swank, M.D.; Walter E. Marchand, M.D.) showed that after 60 days of sustained day and night combat, 98% of soldiers become psychiatric casualties (the 2% that can go on indefinitely already aggressive sociopaths).

Chappell spoke about how reading On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society gave him new hope for peace. Like other animals, humans have an innate aversion to killing one's own kind. All of military history supports this and uses three techniques to thwart this instinct:

  1. Create psychological distance such as derogatory name-calling — everything from "barbarian" (which comes from Greek interpretation of foreign language sounding like "bar bar bar") to a more subtle term like "illegal alien".
  2. Create a moral distance by declaring your enemy to be evil.
  3. Create mechanical distance (physical distance). For instance, the Nazis switched to gas chambers because shooting was too traumatic for the soldiers — they were protecting the executioner from psychological damage.

Chappell asks, "why would this be necessary if humans were naturally violent? If we are not naturally violent, why is there so much war?"

We're told we need war to stop war, violence to stop violence violence. Most soldiers want peace but that is not the means they are taught to use.

Chappell notes that at West Point he learned that the nature of war is drastically changing. It's now about "winning hearts and changing minds". This leads most directly from media coverage, since "collateral damage" is no longer acceptable: you can't kill any civilians. Yet, historically, the most people killed in past war were civilians.

So how do you win hearts and change minds? The masters of this were peaceful like Ghandi: someone able to transform an enemy into a friend; someone actively waging peace. This includes peace marches such as were used for civil rights or for attaining voting rights. (From Chappell's example, consider that prior to the 1830's, only a small percentage of tax paying people could actually vote, and it was through peaceful protest that we now take for granted that "no taxation without representation" is the bedrock of our country.) These peace movements of our country should be taught in schools as being at least as important as the wars.

Waging war or waging peace share many needs: people, strategy, unity, tactics, and winning hearts and changing minds. However, Chappell points out that there are tremendous differences as well:

  • Peace has truth on its side, war has myth.
  • War is about killing people versus peace which is about making a friend.
  • All war is based on deception. (He pointed out that in all cultures, the fundamental behavior of the "devil" is that of a deceiver.)
  • The people who perpetuate war control lots of wealth and power — just as the enemies of the civil rights did.

So what does being "pro-military but against war" look like? Well, pretty much like Star Trek in a lot of ways. For instance, what if the army was chartered with disaster relief and we had the worldwide reputation of arriving to help then leaving?

Chappell said that Eisenhower was the first to ask why the Middle East dislikes the U.S. He found it was because our policies block democracy and instead support or install dictatorships — they are angry that we don't live up to our ideals. As such, we need to hold our politicians accountable to change foreign policy so it is in line with the ideals we profess.

Chappell concluded by saying that war is not inevitable, and world peace is possible. Consider that 200 years ago, the only democracy in the world was America and even it was only fractionally so. And we don't need to convince everyone — for instance, the Civil Rights movement succeeded with only 1% of the population actively participating.

During the question-and-answer, some evocative questions were asked.

First off, can the world be united? Chappell noted that in the United States, we have moved from state-identity to national-identity. And consider Europe: can you imagine Germany declaring war on France today? This progress can be expanded to all nations.

I asked about how, prior to the Iraq war, 250,000 people marched to protest it yet it happened anyway, so is protesting dead? He said that people romanticized the past: while the Vietnam War was being debated, it was not uncommon for students to try and attack peace protesters. To my specific example, he said that the government learned how to defuse protest from what happened in Vietnam: to avoid risk of a draft, they censor the media by embedding journalists in military units, privatize the military, and by propagandizing "if you don't support the war you don't support the troops". As such, protest needs to evolve too.

In a later question, Chappell was asked what techniques should we use? He said we have lost our way to positive change. Consider how the Tea Party movement called attention to issues that were the same everyone cares about, but liberals were too busy calling them stupid. Remember to never demonize your opponent: identify with your opponent. In many cases the problem will boil down to hatred and ignorance. Remember that the government retains control of people by dividing them. So start with common ground and don't reinforce divisiveness.

In another question, someone asked, given that peace is an active task, what would non-violent passion look like? Chappell said it's easy today to isolate yourself today in peer groups and reinforce demonization of others. To be passionate is to defeat ignorance and to defeat hatred.

Another question had to do with conscientious objection: that by paying taxes, we are actively participating in and supporting war. To that, he said we should focus on how war makes us less safe, and how preparation for war is economically destructive. Consider Eisenhower's "Cross of Iron" speech where, in the central argument against "the way of fear and force", and what would be the worst- and best-case scenarios, he says:

The worst is atomic war.

The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms in not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Chappell echoed this, reiterating that our infrastructure is hurting because of war. He suggested we seek out the works of Douglas MacArthur and President Eisenhower as he had.

The concluding question asked if peace is based in truth, yet battle and conflict is a fact of nature, how can we be truthful? Chappell said the language of "waging peace" is accurate. We are trying to defeat ignorance and hatred, but the person is not the enemy. So ask yourself: how can I most effectively attack ignorance and hatred without hurting the person?

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Attending TEDx Rochester 2011

Today was the third year of TEDx Rochester, held at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) TED is a lecture series that originally focused on "technology, entertainment, and design" (providing the words for the acronym) but shifted to simply, "ideas worth spreading". "TEDx" lectures are independently produced, but attempt to mimic that theme. This year, TEDx Rochester featured sixteen live discussions, two video presentations, and a proper video lecture from TED itself.

Adam Walker kicked things off talking about a project he's involved with: The Kosovo Wind Gardens. The idea is to create small electricity-producing windmills all around countries without infrastructure for a reliable electric grid. Kosovo is one example, as it has very few power plants (their largest is a 1950-designed coal-burner with disastrous emissions) and simple things like dairy milk production are hampered by unreliable power. The windmills are designed with "appropriate technology" in mind: not just something from an industrialized nation, but a design that relies on simple materials and manual labor (rather than efficiency of mass-production) to better suit local self-sustainability. I was impressed with Walker's presentation and the keen sense of appropriateness and a focus on the people being assisted.

Next was Andrew Perry who discussed Visual Literacy and Graphic Narratives. His thesis was an attempt to show that the means of storytelling and communication are changing — whereas the poem was central to literature prior to the 16th century the novel became the dominant form starting around then, and now we are seeing a new form that integrates text with images and diagrams (in a creative, literary way, not solely for factual reference). There is a new manner of storytelling that goes with it and, while I'm not sure it will become a dominant form, it has definitely come into its own as a rich and complex literary form.

Ashley Aberg then spoke about the difficulties of changing medical thinking when it comes to gender. She centered her talk on what medicine calls "intersex" — neither dominantly male nor female. It is because the male/female binary-gender system influenced the medical community that the medical community considers it worthy of "correction" that typically involves surgically modifying the appearance of a child's genitals. Aberg's point is that there is nothing life-threatening or unnatural about intersex, and as such, it is society that should adapt to it. In some ways a radical concept, but in others, it is solely habit that keeps society's view of gender from matching what nature produces.

Next, Christopher Azzarra spoke about Improvisation: Musical Literacy Beyond the Page. As a music teacher, he observed that formal musical training does more to hamper individual music development than it helps. Since the measurement and analysis of music is so mathematical and sterile, it is hardly the place to start. Instead, he provided some examples of how natural it is for children and for professional improvisational performers to communicate with one another purely with music. Music touches us deeply because it is a fundamental part of our being.

Next was a video presentation of Raymond McCarthy Bergeron's La Lune et Le Coq — an amusing animation wherein the moon and rooster compete at the end of the night.

Dr. Tim R. Mosmann, Ph. D. gave a presentation on the complexity of the immune system. He gave a depth-first tour of immune response and how astonishingly complex it is. At each of a half-dozen levels (from the body to the lymph nodes to the chemistry of the lymph nodes to the cellular interaction to sub-cellular and so on) a huge amount of information is known on how it all works. But then we can extrapolate the exponentially large amount of information, since each specific example was only a fraction of the interaction at that level. In essence, the amount of information is too large to aggregate, so we need new tools to handle it.

In another radical turn, next was Jim Maddison who gave a case for building the The Roc City Skate Park under the eastern terminus of the Freddy-Sue Bridge. Like the shift to accept graphic novels or intersex individuals, skateboarding is a perfectly acceptable leisure activity that offers a mix of exercise, creativity, and accomplishment. Maddison and his team have been working to break down the entrenched view of skateboarders as ne'er-do-wells and hoodlums.

Xanthe Matychak presented Make Better Stuff: the rise of social business and distributed manufacturing. She sees a major shift in manufacturing where it will be possible to build on-demand at nearly anywhere in the world, alleviating the need for the manufacture/transportation cycles we have now. I tend to agree that these new technologies are a game-changing development. But I don't think it will have as nearly a large impact as she thinks or hopes, unless we see a major change in how people view money and cost that would permit local artisans to overshadow the desire for cheap mass-production.

Emcee Howie Jacobson presented his own project: Vote Be Heard. The gist is to encourage primarily poor, primarily black, and primarily inner-city people to vote in major elections to make their world better. Although I think the effort was valiant, it did not strike me that much care was given to the voices in those communities. In other words, it seemed like some comparatively wealthy white people got together and made what they thought would be powerful messages for a group they largely do not interact with. As I see it, the inner-city poor (like the Occupy Wall Street movement) have little idea what they can do to improve their situation without the benevolence of the wealthy people who keep them there. Because of that, voting has comically little effect, and the oppressed are wise enough to know that.

Theresa B. Mazzullo followed that talking about a group she's involved with, $eedNY. They have financial resources to fund start-ups and other technology ventures. I spent her entire talk trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I was seething as I wondered why people with great ideas and people with the ability to produce things (and often some of both in one person) were not already rewarded with great wealth — and those who have great wealth have neither ideas nor means? Further, I seethed at the whole "venture capital" concept where a person with an idea presents it to those with money, and if they are given money to proceed, either they fail and the gambled capital is lost (and they probably have to pay off crippling debt regardless) or they succeed and the bulk of the profits go back to the investor, reinforcing the cycle.

In another topical twist, Jon Schull presented a history of transportation, paying particular attention to bicycling and human-powered vehicles. Although his talk was interesting and sometimes enlightening, it lacked a call-to-action punch. Rather, it seemed to advise going along for the ride and to be prepared for things to change in the future. Having lived a zero-automobile lifestyle for 4 months now, I feel deeply relieved that I need not worry about all the maintenance owning an automobile brings. I tend to work from broad goals — even in 1994 when I bought my Civic, I was already thinking about rising gas prices (which never hit until 10 years on), and since then, I tended to steer my life toward eliminating the need for a car. Having finally achieved that, I feel well positioned for the future. I advise people to do the same: it's much easier to plan to live close to work 10 years from now than it is to try and achieve next week, so start now thinking how to adapt to our world in 10 years.

Mark Noble presented some recent developments in stem-cell research. Again, an informative lecture, but pretty much just that. And again, part of me gets annoyed that (in America, at least) this lifesaving technology is reserved for the rich people who can afford it. It's kind of disheartening to know that I'm less valuable as a person than someone else.

Triggering more irritation was Hasan Elahi's video lecture from TED titled Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am!. In this case, I was annoyed with the totalitarian police state we live in, not in Elahi's lecture. He talked about how he was interrogated by airport security because of a name mix-up and how he now lives his life under constant government scrutiny. His solution was to publish the minutia of his life: he uses his smart-phone to periodically (and frequently) document his whereabouts along with other things like photos of his hotel rooms or the urinals he uses. In the end, it's a clever redirection of energy that is resulting in a surreal art project on surveillance.

Prove Your World was next: a group of people who are working on a science-based program for children that tries to be better than either dry lecturing or vacuous demonstration. By that, they mean that (like Christopher Azzarra said about music) exploring the theoretical side of something first turns people's interest away, yet by simply offering a flashy demonstration without explanation leads to no learning (or, for that matter, curiosity) whatsoever. Their technique is to start from a simple question (in their demonstration it was, "what's a supernova?") and use demonstration as a tool for learning. Of all the lectures, this was the one I want most to get involved with. Of course their pilot episode is about how airplanes fly, and I cringe that they will reinforce the "equal-transit-time myth" of the airfoil.

Jim Gresko and Dave Vogler paired up to talk about how design is similar to jazz improvisation. I thought it was an innovative approach to discuss the concepts and it worked well.

Next was a discussion of Empathy in Education by Timothy Cottrell. He runs a program called The Center for Mindfulness and Empathy Education which pairs high-school students with people in Hospice care. Students' own testimonials revealed a surprising maturity for people in young adulthood.

BELIEVE/Visual Intervention is a film by Ian Wilson and Philip Night that documents a street-art project bringing in international talent side-by-side with Rochester's own on projects on Troup Street and the Union Street railroad bridge near the Public Market.

Relatedly, closing the show was Joan Hildebrand — "the Voice of the Public Market". She had simple, straightforward observations on adapting to change, as she went from a mid-time TV personality to being nearly unknown in this small town, but rather than harp on what she lost, she found new vitality in her work with the Market.

Overall, I found this year's TEDx Rochester to be an even and varied distribution of good discussions. I found it a little heavy on money and products in that many lectures centered on either an existing or future product or project, or gave significant focus to money and profitability. Of course, that may be more my own bias as I tend to seek TED lectures that are more philosophical or human-centered, and tend to ignore those that highlight a new technology or product. I find it a little off-putting, though, that in their re-cap blog post, they note that they "partnered with RIT & U of R to help us recruit new talent for the stage" and add that in the coming year they are "looking to also partner with groups like The Entrepreneurs Network and High Tech Rochester to expand our net." To me this means even more focus on money, product, and project rather than ideas and exploration.

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Discussing Anarchism Against Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia

For the past three weeks or so, people have been meeting at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) to discuss anarchism. Having not attended the earlier meetings, I can't really tell what constitutes anarchism (e.g. self-rule? using the self-organizing facet of humanity? not having a government?) but I couldn't help but attend the seemingly unusual topic of "Anarchism Against Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia".

I'd say there were about 15 people there, and most of them had attended the other meetings and read the associated articles — it's something of a free-school model. I think everyone expected a more lively discussion because the topics were so emotionally-charged, but the ground we covered between was fruitful and interesting.

In short, Capitalism depends on exploiting value to gain more than is spent. Through that, it seems to demand an underclass: a group of people who are considered lesser and therefore are free to be exploited. (In fact, the only way great wealth and power is achieved is by exploiting others.) And the way to identify the underclass is to tie the "underclass-ness" to a defining characteristic: woman, gay, black, Irish.

Anarchism, by eliminating the presumption of authority, denies the creation of an underclass. In other words, anarchism (when considered "self-defined rule") does not permit the creation of people having authority: it is up to each individual to grant that authority. So there is no way for an authority to declare that you are X and therefore shall be exploited; rather, you as an individual would have to grant an authority that power, and permit yourself to be exploited. Presumably you would never volunteer for that.

The trouble is that the system I live with (that is, in America) will always find a new underclass to exploit. Lately it seems Hispanic people and followers of Islam are the newest targets (not that they were ever considered equals). Although we have also exploited the Chinese in their own land to that end, and I suspect the next source of cheap labor will be on the African continent. I find it a distasteful cycle that I'd like to see end sooner than later.

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Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton Discuss Their Book "Picking Cotton"

A few months ago I attended a film screening sponsored by Restorative Rochester. Since then I signed up on their Yahoo! Group and have been lurking for a while. The group's goals revolve around "restorative justice" which — as I understand it — involves bringing victim and perpetrator together to find a sense of closure. The U.S. legal system is a correctional and punitive system that seeks to find a way to punish a perpetrator in a manner proportional to their crime — yet it ignores the wishes of victims in its rigidity.

Last week I decided to introduce myself to the group. I mentioned that I wanted to refrain from contributing in conversation as I want to try and give my legal-system thinking time to adapt to the possibilities of something else. In other words, I'd probably ask the same questions as anyone, starting with, "if you offer an alternative to punishment, won't that give criminals free reign?"

Anyway, lurking lasted all of a half a day. Kit Miller sent out an message that they were looking for additional people to join the group for a dinner with Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and Ronald Cotton, co-authors of Picking Cotton at The Asbury First United Methodist Church (1050 East Ave.) I had intended to go to the lecture and discussion anyway, so I immediately agreed.

Ronald and Jennifer have the most awkward answer to "so how did you two meet?" In 1984 Jennifer was raped in her apartment. She had the presence of mind to study her attacker and memorized his face. Through the course of the investigation, the closest match was Ronald Cotton, and she confidently believed he was her attacker. He went to prison for 11 years until he was granted permission to have the DNA evidence tested and, as he had claimed all along, he was not the man who raped her. Eventually Jennifer sought to meet Ronald to resolve her fear that he was steeped in resentment toward her. As it turned out, she was mistaken, and they became friends as both were victims of the actual perpetrator who was later convicted of Jennifer's rape and six others after hers.

The first time I heard their story, I thought, "that's wonderful" (albeit in a heavily qualified way). A more common reaction is to be incredulous that there can be any healing and forgiveness. But what alternative to forgiveness is there? And in this case, it was neither Jennifer's nor Ronald's fault, so it seems obvious to me. I don't mean that I'm holier-than-thou, but even when I'm angry at a transgression against me, I cool very quickly and generally conclude that staying angry — or generally believing in the winner/loser model — offers less value than forgiveness and resolution. That said, I'm less amenable when the other party stays remorseless and confrontational. Thankfully that's usually not the case, especially when I can genuinely offer a solution through forgiveness.

The things that resonated most with me were about the ways our justice system failed. Racism and prejudice aside (not from Jennifer or Ronald, by the way), I was once again jarred by the unreliability of eye-witness evidence, I reinforced my opposition to the death penalty, and I am saddened that people justify the bad things they do by believing that they have some kind of credit for being a "good person".

On prejudice, I'll just note that the police, after hearing Jennifer's description and seeing her composite sketch, probably swayed the whole case by presenting Jennifer a 3-year-old photo of Ronald that better matched her description.

Having watched things like The Selective Attention Test, I'm amazed at how bad my perception really is. Like everyone, I live every day with the persistent, tenacious illusion that what I perceive is a perfect reflection of reality. Yet when I'm presented with something like that video, I'm always astonished. I keep that knowledge close at hand, however, and even if I fully believe in my perception, I deliberately apply uncertainty to the way I express my perception to others. Yet nobody teaches us that fact — that our perception is lackluster — so our justice system is still rooted in an ancient belief that an eye-witness is proof-positive. Thankfully, I think this is changing (even lawyers who claim this is true are not considered as deceitful as they once were).

Relatedly, would this not be the kind of case that warranted the death penalty? What if the real rapist had gone on to kill his other victims — and Jennifer was the only one who survived? It is far too big a risk to potentially kill an innocent person. In addition, they had mentioned in the talk that the DNA evidence from the case was slated to be destroyed 3 days before Ronald requested the test, so had the justice system acted at its normal geologically-scaled rate, Ronald would still be in prison, and all the good that happened wouldn't have.

And finally, my favorite topic: religion bashing.

Ok, actually it's only tangentially related. The fundamental problem is believing in the possibility that a person can be good or bad. It's as illogical as claiming a glass of water is happy or sad: it is not the kind of assessment that makes sense. Only individual actions, taken in isolation, can be considered good or bad. And even then, the moral judgement is largely based on the observer.

The trouble in this misattribution is that belief in morality within a person dilutes the perception of morality in their actions. And I'm talking about belief in the self: if I believe I'm a good person, then any action I do must necessarily be good (or at least better than a bad person who does the same thing). Likewise, if I think I'm a bad person, then it's in my nature to do something bad.

So how does this relate to religion bashing? Well Jennifer mentioned that when she doubted herself — when she doubted her actions were the most right thing to do — she remembered her religious upbringing and reinforced her belief in her inherent goodness, ergo the goodness of her actions. I think that the failing of religions is teaching "you are a good person". As I said, the nature of that statement is in error.

A better teaching would be that your past does not dictate your behavior — that there is not inherent good or bad in people, but that whatever you do or don't will benefit some and harm others. I get stuck at this point because no guideline is adequate. Everyone desires to do good (that is, for ones actions to have beneficial consequences): it's at the heart of what lets us as individuals and us as a society survive. Any attempt to codify that dilutes what it is to be human.

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