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Tag Archives: Thoreau

A Star to Steer By

In lieu of being in Pittsburgh for the December holiday in the wake of my wife’s suicide in June, I am traveling to Ecuador.

The week after I arrive in Quito, I will join a trip to the jungle to a local community in preparation for a medical relief group. In return for a place in a canoe, food and place to sleep, I will take photos and write up the trip for their web site and teach community members some English. Then we will drive back to Quito.

Compass to Steer By

The Tool for the Job

After that the trip is open-ended. For several weeks I will travel and sight -see. I have no idea what I will do and who I will meet. I may visit Machu Picchu. I may go to the Galapagos. I may do something else entirely. I’m creating a new script, navigating without a map. I’m bringing a waterproof journal, my folding compass, my laptop and my harmonica — and the ubiquitous smartphone with camera. (I don’t plan to be constantly taking a lot of selfies, but who knows? You may hear from me.) It’s about being present for the journey, as someone I was close with recently reminded me.

Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes . . . Nay, be a Columbus1 to whole new continents and worlds within you… HDT, Walden

Or, since the Galapagos2 may be on my itinerary:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by… – John Masefield, Sea Fever

Our local Engineers Without Borders chapter has a water project in Curingue Ecuador, and a new one scheduled that I’m the education lead on. Our EWB contact in Quito has been tremendously helpful. I’m grateful for her and others in Pittsburgh who have encouraged me. A number of people have warned me to be careful​. Well, yes. Life is not risk-free. It’s also not a spectator sport. I got a full complement of immunizations this past week, including yellow fever and typhoid. I trust those I’m meeting. I am looking forward to , dare I say, fun after being in a long, dark tunnel. Namaste: Seek the light.– CDL

Sunset in Utah

Sunset in Utah (Photo credit: Cherie Byars, Ph.D.)

1Not the most popular explorer now in South American or anywhere else, but Thoreau was creating a metaphor.

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Voodoo ToDo

 Our age of social networking compels us to devote time, effort and attention more into promoting what we are doing than doing it. Add to this the sense that what we have done never quite measures up to the accomplishments of others1, never mind our own hopes and dreams. There be dragons, and a recipe for craziness.

My friends and acquaintances and I interact almost entirely via text and email. We seem always distracted and busy with work, undefined obligations and idolatrous demands. Our conversations – such as they are – are reduced to monosyllabic, abstract exchanges like those between dyslexic telegraph operators.2 Notwithstanding the efficiency this mode of communication offers, indulged in exclusively it shortchanges the ephemeral, non-algorithmic serendipitous aspects of fun, humor, intimacy and creativity that make human life worthwhile. What are we selling to each other and ourselves, to choose such a simulacrum3 of living?

Anyone who knows me can hear me quoting Thoreau: ‘We have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage .‘ Or perhaps, Do we run on the railway, or does the railway run on us?

Let me take a step back from this harried, hypnotic, delusional state we allow ourselves to become heir to. I spent the past few months doing fun, creative and worthwhile activities with those same friends and acquaintances. I helped organize and participated in Lawrenceville’s Art All Night event in April, and serve as education lead for a non-profit engineering group conducting a water project in Ecuador. I play harmonica with a local music group. In May I lectured on the depiction of technology in film, literature and popular culture to a science fiction and fantasy group. And I start a local arts residency this week that includes a canoe trip on the Youghiogheny River.

So why do I feel inadequate for (until now) not sharing these activities on a public forum with people who may not care to give a damn? Why do I feel constantly that there is something else I need to do? (Oh, wait. My laundry needs to go in the dryer.).

I’ll admit these activities sometimes offer displacement from the anxious, frustrating, lacking or painful aspects of my life. They tend to cost money, effort and time without any obvious or immediate financial gain. They do not advance what is euphemistically termed my career path, at least at present. They might be regarded merely as Quixotic, fanciful pursuits. Except that they represent a choice to connect to human aspects of myself and others and direct my energy in purposeful ways, if only in fits and starts. To me that beats the hell out of getting a fidget bit. HDT again:  All our inventions are but improved means to unimproved ends.

Just say ‘No’.

I recently had a birthday. I am more aware than ever of the time and energy we devote to vain tasks masquerading as productivity in our lives and work.4 There is dignity and sacredness in chopping wood and carrying water: Trash does not take itself out. Dishes must be washed. Bills must be paid (don’t they?). But when we program ourselves to press a virtual pressbar as the chief end of our humanity, who profits?5

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1 See also FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

2 Note that our texts often leave out names and personal pronouns – just saying. I cannot claim this comparison as original. Read Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet

3 A representation or imitation of a person or thing that becomes accepted as real. (Thanks to artist buddy Chris McGinnis for pointing me to this reference by Jean Baudrillard.)

5For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?, Mark 8:36, KJV

Only Connect

I walked through one of our city’s urban wild spaces several weeks ago instead of participating in something quaintly referred to as an active shooter drill. The phrase reminds me of playing army in our backyard when I was a boy. (Bang! You’re dead: now fall down.) That used to be a thing children did innocently when such a thing was possible.

20160427_093104I felt the need to disconnect from the alienating hive mentality we seem to live in increasingly these days. In an attempt to find myself, I had to lose myself high above the madding, maddening, crowd. I walked across a bridge and up a hill in one of Pittsburgh’s historic districts a mile or so from downtown and found a path. I followed it – drawn to greenness and space.

While my colleagues practiced hiding under their desks in the new workplace normal, I came upon a community garden waiting for the first shovel of earth to turned over for planting. My schedule is too fraught with change and busyness to take on a new project, but I thought I could stop by later in the season and offer to weed and hoe someone’s plot in exchange for a few tomatoes.

20160427_101444I helped in our garden as a kid. There’s something about turning over fresh soil, kneeling down and feeling the clots of dirt and clay crumble in our fingers that recalls some essential part of us.

We spend our time lately connected with people virtually near and far. Our conversations, if I can dignify these  stunted exchanges with that word, are severely attenuated. We decipher the texts and e-mails, codes of our existence, like entrails for portents of hope and meaning, anger and desire, interest or indifference. 19th-Century correspondents sent telegrams shorn of definite articles and prepositions to save money.  (Arriving 8 AM train. Hope see you. Stop. ) We do it today because we’re impatient or lazy. (LOL CU L8R.) We shout our urgencies and frustrations standing in vacant lobbies or on crowded buses among strangers over medical tests, jail sentences, kids to pick up and dogs to walk. More often, we settle for garbled, aphasic voice messages left over a bad connection.

On my sojourn I encountered a young woman walking a large shepherd -mix dog. We exchanged greetings and walked on – having observed the social niceties. I guess I didn’t look too threatening: a skinny guy on the downward slope of my fifties with gray in my beard. It was a refreshing change from days with colleagues in cubes barely acknowledging each other. At the start of work I encountered a colleague I think of as a friend. She has a small dog, a husband who recently had his hip replaced, and a singing voice that could make angels weep. She also has a chronic illness she’s afraid to tell her employer about. Her reply when I wished her a brief good morning was ‘I don’t have time to talk.

20160427_093018At the top of the hill I turned looked out over a view once obscured by smoke and flame from Satanic steel mills. The mills provided the blessings of livelihood to the people who worked in them.

The smoke and flame are long gone, banished by the demise of the steel industry and the ‘Burgh’s urban gentrification. Instead, further on, I came upon a small crab apple tree  starting to bloom pink and white.

20160427_095831Apples trees carry a Medieval symbolism related to the Fall and the gift of redemption. I saw a source of beauty and shade this summer that will allow me to sit in quiet and peace (not silence – that would be too much) away from cell phones and conference calls and a thousand voices calling out our urgencies and hopes together.

When I first encountered Tony Judt’s phrase connected Isolation1, I took it as a judgement of the many ways we have to communicate, share, like and stay in touch contrasted with the emptiness of the messages  transmitted and received. In our search for comfort and assurance, we seek to distract ourselves from the triviality, vanity and chaos around us. The messages we receive from corporate, governmental and media sources around us usually emphasize a lack within ourselves to be fixed, improved or soothed by being a better consumer – as though all can be made well by purchasing the right service, product, therapy or medication. When these fail, as they always seem to, we buy more, or different or turn up the volume. And still we still live in fear and confusion, hiding under our desks.

Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately and transact some private business. That business was himself. For someone so antisocial, Thoreau wrote a lot about society. Walden2 contains references to traveling on the Fitchburg Railway, of going into town and meeting with friends and family. Contrary to his popular role (I will not say brand) as a prophet of bucolic solitude,3 Thoreau advocated for a human and collective relationship with nature. For him nature was not something to be walled off and kept segregated from human beings and the civilized world, but a place we could retreat to and connect with a wild part of ourselves. Today Thoreau might text from his cabin, keep a Walden blog and tweet about hoeing beans in his garden. Some folks argue that he was a poseur. I think he was human. Although Life Without Principle contains snarky comments about someone in town hiring a laborer to move a stone from one location to another, throughout Thoreau’s work is a craving for company; whether of birds and squirrels or his human neighbors.

20160427_100308My solitary walk connected me to myself and the earth: the leaves on the trees, the insects on the ground – even the trash or leaves bagged up. The detritus we leave behind is not bad, but part of who we are. We live on this earth, all six billion-plus of us. We occupy space and affect the ground we walk on. How can we presume to stop global warming, reduce our carbon footprint and save the planet when we can’t save what some of us call our souls? For that we have to let go of our urge to control the world and connect periodically with that part of ourselves not for sale – talked about, squawked about, tweeted, branded, scrutinized weighed and displayed in the marketplace like melons in a grocery store.

20160427_100725Doing so requires practicing a radicalism that is actually not so radical, but part of our DNA as humans. It requires us to withstand all the slings and arrows that our society, despite our claims to embrace diversity and individual liberty, throws at its members who dare to step to their own drummer and dance to their own beat. It requires us to risk being called egocentric, self-centered and antisocial. But when we are alone with ourselves away from the noise, we can connect with who we are and decide where to put our time, energy and talent toward being part of something more. — CDL

‘Only Connect’ is a quote from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

2 Life Without Principle is Thoreau’s strident argument against, among other things, his fellow-citizen’s complicity in the war against Mexico

3And proto-environmentalist and naturalist, according to author Stephen Railton

 

 

 

Keeping the D(issent) in Digital

How many of our numbered days do we spend filling out online forms, updating our Linked-in Profile and Facebook page, dutifully presenting our online presence and maintaining our omnipresent brand? We measure out our lives in tweets and Keurig cups, following rules dictated by others supposedly to make our lives happier and more productive. 

How much human time and energy is spent remembering and changing passwords, securing our data, fearing for our privacy? This algorithm becomes the rhythm of our lives, a dithyramb of distraction. The technology designed to liberate us risks becoming our prison. We are our own willing jailers, watched over by those who claim it is their right and responsibility in a dangerous world. But who watches the watchers?

In Europe, which has experienced totalitarianism, fascism, communism (and others which may slip my mind), they have learned to be properly skeptical of the uses information is put to by the state – however ostensibly well-intentioned. But in the U.S. government and corporations claim to act in the best interests of constituents and consumers while mining our digital browser droppings against our wishes and without our consent. Perhaps it’s time to accept the roles of citizen and consumer are now interchangeable. We accept a certain conformity, a certain go-along to get along in the interest of of having our cake and eating it. There’s a tradeoff between convenience and liability:  instant shopping, news from everywhere and nowhere, having our identity follow us across devices and locations, convenient phonecalls so that we are never out of reach of being reached out to.

A phrase from the old days of IBM punchcards declared ‘Do not fold,spindle or mutilate’. A recent Slate essay proposes bringing dissent into the digital age. The author suggests people assert their agency by subversively throwing a spanner of civil disobedience into the virtual paradise of the web through such techniques as:

  • Obfuscation (through frequenting random sites)
  • Misinforming
  • Misdirecting
  • Creating False Identities

Good luck to them. This behavior adds a new spin to the notion of creative destruction that economists blithely use to describe the process of continual obsolescence that superannuates products, people and skills. Whether you might be subject to penalties or arrest for this sort of thing is an interesting question.  The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us.

Other words to inspire you include:

  • Dangerous
  • Deviant
  • Desperate
  • Defiant
  • Daring
  • Dogged

 

America has given the world a noble line of dissenters from Thomas Paine and Thoreau to Joseph Heller’s Yossarian in Catch-22. Our willingness to give up our birthright  for a mess of pottage (to cite both Thoreau’s Life without Principle and the Bible) is ironic to say the least. How easily we click the pressbar to reveal our purchasing habits, sexual proclivities, income and location to persons and institutions whose trustworthiness is unknown, in order to receive the simulacrum of individual attention: daily reminders of what we might like to buy, pontifications matching our presumed political affiliations, amusing tweets and cat videos. This tailoring of content to our personal brand is seductive and insidious. It reassures us that our every quirk, opinion, and desire is okay — and more to the point worth something. Thus the commodification of the self is nearly complete.

This automated individuation has a homogenizing effect — lulling us into conformity. Despite our celebration of Thoreau, backhanded respect for Paine and admiration for Heller’s Rabelaisian character, the dirty little secret of democracy (and perhaps all human nature) is we want to go with the crowd. Inside every non-conformist is a man (or woman) in a gray-flannel suit trying to get out. It’s exhausting (if it’s even possible) to get up every day to create and sustain your own unique brand. It’s scary as hell to chart your own course through the dark forest of capitalism with creatures red in tooth and claw.    

Immersed in our connected isolation, we become less like Thoreau than T.S. Eliot’s  J. Alfred Prufrock. (Don’t forget that Eliot was American). Rather than celebrating our own individual expression and possibility as human beings, we become afraid to wear our trousers rolled — unless trouser rolling is trending.

get-attachment-1.aspxHere’s my manifesto for today:  Step away from the social network. Take a break from attending breathlessly to crowdsourced opinion polls, received wisdom and tweets calling each to each in the virtual echo chamber. Dare to eat a peach grown in the garden of your own autonomy. – D.A.

David Abramoff Ph.D. is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies

Seeing, Perceiving, Possessing

What’s the difference between a drawing and a photograph in rendering experience? In On Photography  Susan Sontag writes about the photograph appropriating the object and becoming more real than the object itself.

I spent Labor Day camping in a nearby wilderness area. On a whim I took the sketch pad and pencils along with my Android phone. I usually leave the phone in the car, preferring my solitude without actual or virtual interruption.

I camped in a small field off an old logging road. As I set up camp, I found I brought the fly and body from two different tents, so I rigged up the fly by itself with the poles. When I went to start my stove, the pump leaked. (Thanks, MSR). So I built a small fire to cook the salmon I bought along and boil water for Ramen noodles. As I finished eating, a thunderstorm rolled in. I crawled under the open fly and put the tent netting over me to keep out the bugs. I fell asleep to the flash of lightning and rain pouring down.

Next morning I woke to mist on the field but no rain. I found some fairly dry standing dead-wood under the trees. With the help of a little stove fuel, I built another fire and made coffee and breakfast. As sun burned the mist off and dried the grass, I folded my disparate tent parts. Rusted fencing surrounded the trunks of several trees in the field. One gnarled specimen with leaves like a cherry had small iridescent red berries on the branches. I grabbed my pad and made a sketch of it, then took a photo with my phone.

chokecherrieswpid-20130903_110740.jpg

I looked this up in Thoreau’s Wild Fruits . The closest I came was chokecherry, but I’m not sure that’s accurate from my previous experience.

I spent about least twenty minutes making a sketch and adding some color, before getting impatient. I’m an amateur artist, and a photograph takes just a few seconds. If what you are looking for is an exact representation or facsimile of what is seen, a drawing (at least mine) will always come up short.

On my return, I walked along a rock face beside the trail with a tree growing from it. I stopped to make a sketch, then took several photos.

cliffsidetreeswpid-20130903_121940.jpg

The static image is snatched from the ebb and flow of life.  A person or object comes into view; we point and shoot. The next day or years later (examined perhaps by strangers), the photograph is isolated from context and experience, dependent on memory or meaning imposed by the viewer. Digital photography and other forms of replication seduce us into capturing and sharing experience indiscriminately, without even knowing its significance. Drawing (or painting or sculpture or music) requires an artist attending mindfully and working within the limits of his or her skill and perception in conveying a representation of light and color, structure and space, tonality and rhythm.

Film captures both sound and motion. Artfully arranged, these render experience that reflects (or projects) what we desire to see as much as what exists. Encountered immanently (up close and personal) with all its flaws and vicissitudes (bugs, smoke, missing tent parts and failed fuel pumps), the real often proves inferior to the image. Ask anyone who has seen a Disney nature film or met a movie star or celebrity in person. Our own expectations and others’ of how life works are set more and more by the artificial (and wholly unrealistic) criteria set by others’ imagination.

Technically, you are not supposed to alter or leave anything behind in the wilderness where I camped. Someone built a couple of rock towers (cairns) in the middle of the stream. I puzzled a bit about how to suggest water flowing in drawing these. I finally added a couple of curved lines to suggest ripples. Does it work? I’m sure a practiced artist wouldn’t think twice about this.

streamrocks wpid-20130903_132322.jpg

Behind me in the image was a good-sized fire circle. I use existing ones myself sometimes when camping. I don’t really mind them unless someone cluelessly (or deliberately) leaves glass, cans bottles and other items behind.

The Pennsylvania Conservation Corps built a number of wooden bridges on the trails in the 1990s. The bridges bounce a little and creak when you walk on them. They smell like old wood and creosote. Your footsteps sound hollow when you walk across. At high water you can hardly hear because of the rushing of the stream beneath.

footbridge

wpid-20130903_145157.jpg

You don’t get any of this from a photo, drawing or Youtube. You have to go out and experience it for yourself. In our zeal to share experience virtually and instantly with others, are we losing the ability to live life ourselves? – CDL

A Purpose-Riven Life

David Abramoff Ph.D.

As an émigré to these shores, I am familiar with the ambivalent place America holds in the hearts of those from other countries. An the one hand America represents a beacon of hope, a city on a hill to those from war-torn areas, victims of oppression and suppression or economic hardship, whose lives are less than hopeful. To these America represents the exuberant opportunity to remake one’s life and reap the reward of hard work, industry and luck.

But one person’s success is another’s excess. As consumers of 25 – 30 percent of the world’s resources, Americans have provoked the resentment and envy of others as the image of consumerism run amuck (a wonderfully evocative English word implying a pig rooting happily as well as someone gone insane).

Getting and spending precedes the Founding Fathers, of course. Entrepreneurs and settlers from the old world brought that notion with them to the new. But here it  flourished extravagantly among the purple mountain’s majesty and the amber waves of grain, becoming commingled with a religious, if not evangelical, impulse toward self-improvement.

A few years ago a colleague was going through a rough patch in life. Someone gave him Rick Warren’s book A Purpose-Driven Life. For several weeks my colleague read through the book with a group of men confronting their mid-life crises (and increasingly imminent mortality) and wondering what on earth it had all been for.

Th Greatest Showman on Earth

America is a nation which has always encouraged, if not compelled, people arriving on its shores to seek their purpose. The wretched refuse flock to its teeming shore fleeing atrocities, persecution or personal tragedy. And someone is waiting to sell them the means to making money, finding spiritual redemption or self-improvement. The great story of America is of prevailing against all odds to achieve success. It’s no accident that figures from P.T. Barnum to Andrew Carnegie are heroes. Everyone loves a winner, and to be assured by others achieving their goals that they can do the same.

And if not? Failure is not an option. For Americans not achieving one’s fifteen minutes of fame is a fate worse than death. Better to fade into the shadows like Andrew Carnegie’s father, a weaver from Scotland displaced by the relentless march of the industrial revolution. He brought his family to America in 1848 to seek a better life. By luck and pluck (combined with ruthless business practices and an indomitable will), his son succeeded. Carnegie père became an embarrassment. Since he did not fit the Horatio Alger version of the story, he was all but disowned by his own family and eldest son. Who now remembers William Carnegie’s name? He faded from the story for his failure to adhere to the proper narrative.

We are all immigrants from the existential beyond, strangers in a strange land lured by consumer culture promoting streets paved with gold and I-Phones with the latest apps and bling. We wonder what our mission-statement and goal are supposed to be. But our purposes can divide as much as unite us –from gun control to vegetarianism and global warming. Some of our causes take us to the dark side. John Brown believed it was allowable to kill in the name of abolishing slavery. Thoreau sympathized with him. What is the line between prophet and provocateur? Jesus came bringing not peace but a sword. Reverend Warren’s book describes Christ using explosives to blow open the doors of our resistance to God’s love for us.*

With A Terrible Swift Sword

My colleague called disturbed. He had seen the mayhem and death at the Boston Marathon interposed on his Smartphone between twitter feeds of celebrity gossip and Groupons for the latest products meeting his shopping profile. But there was more.

“The younger of the two alleged perpetrators is a dead ringer for my son.”

“Ah,” I said. “The young men from the family with a Chechen background.”

“Yes. Michael is in his late twenties now. When I saw the photo, I thought ‘My God, if I hadn’t just seen him, it could have been him in Boston, with dark eyes and hair, that smile.

“A good looking young man.”

“– Who with his brother did a terrible thing to innocent people.”

Who are the innocent? Thoreau might ask. Or Marx or Che. School children in Connecticut. People shot going to the movie theater for the evening. Or the mall. Too many.

I said, “They were promising young men. The older was a skilled boxer, a fighter who was contender for the golden gloves. The younger especially was talented, well-liked by his friends, winner of a scholarship.”

“The older brother said he would never understand Americans.”

“I don’t understand Americans. They don’t understand themselves.

“Their uncle called them losers.”

The worst epithet in America.

“The police caught him in that boat; the evil-doer wounded and bloodied. Everyone is cheering.” Why don’t I?”

“Perhaps they are cheering so loudly to avoid the anger and disappointment that are part of their lives and ours, and the violent feelings we all have.”

“That doesn’t make me want to blow people up.”

“The resemblance to your son disturbs you?” I said.

“Yes!”

“It’s not your son.”

“He is somebody’s son! What would drive him to do such a thing?”

Young men are impressionable. The seek a way to belong, a cause to prove themselves worthy. It’s why they join gangs. Or the army. American society does not do a good job of helping people grow up and find a purpose. How much more difficult if you are a stranger?

Dzhokar’s brother’s heart of darkness apparently influenced him. Together they found one.

David Abramoff is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies

*Rick Warren’s son Mathew committed suicide in April 2013 at the age of 27 after years of struggling with depression.

The World of Tomorrow, Yesterday & Today

Based on some of the sceptical posts here, you may think we are closet Luddites at Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies. However, if we don’t always embrace the latest technology, many of us use it. For instance I finally upgraded my Jitterbug wannabe to a new Android phone.

Out With the Old

This has not been without cost; not only in spending money for the upgrade, but learning to navigate a new device and interface. In the past two weeks, I’ve figured out how to download e-mail, sync with my online calendar and downloaded an app to track tasks; all coordinated with my laptop running Ubuntu Linux.

As my wife will attest, I’m more of a closet geek than a Luddite. I’ve built several desktop pcs and assembled my own touring bike from parts. In my consulting work, I’ve figured out what makes shiny new computing toys tick and how people can use them to accomplish tasks. Even still (or because of this), I have to make an effort not to get distracted from my own tasks — assuming I remember what they are – by the vast plethora of virtual possibilities. It’s easy to get sucked down one rabbit hole of technological extensions of our psyche and will and emerge somewhere entirely different in cyberspace, if at all. There be dragons.

I am a fan of the mindful use of technology. I resist having it preoccupy my

Separated at Birth?

existence. Thoreau warned. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Still, I am seduced like most of us by the siren song that technology can lead to a better world. This is not a new tune, and one not the sole domain of the present.

I recently made a presentation on technology in literature and popular culture. This was to a group ranging in age from their seventies to their nineties. Many of them used e-mail to stay in touch with families and friends. One woman had a Facebook page. Another maintained a web site for her church. A professional in his eighties I know has no use for computers, but downloads books like The Three Musketeers on his Kindle to read in his native French.

During my presentation, I talked about the 1939 World’s Fair, which took place in New York during the Depression on the eve of World War II. Ironically, the theme was ‘Building the World of Tomorrow’1. On a whim, I asked if anyone had a relative or parent who had attended Several people raised their hands.

One attentive woman said ‘I was there.”

“How old were you, if you don’t mind sharing.” I asked.

She smiled. “I was fifteen. We visited the GM exhibit and saw Futurama.”

I thought a minute. She had witnessed the first demonstration of television, florescent lighting, fax machines and streamlined design.

PA RR S1 Locomotive Demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair

Earlier when I listed the technology that emerged during World War I, a man with a heavily-accented voice stood up in back.

“You forgot one! My father fought in World War I on the side of the Germans. He said the British tanks scared the hell out of them.”

In a moment I had gone from talking about a subject to being with people who had lived it. This kind of interaction is gold. It’s why I enjoy giving live presentations.

Other members of the group mentioned Nicholas Tesla, who worked for Edison, followed by Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh.

One woman said, “It sounds like a small thing, but when Corningware came out [in the 1950s], it made cooking and fixing meals so much easier.”

So the future arrives accompanied not only by nebulous, overhyped concepts like the cloud or insanely great devices, but by simpler ways to get supper on the table. — CDL

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1See my friend and colleague Chris McCinnis’s Progress and the Great Productive Machine for an insightful look at the ’39 World’s Fair and the portrayal of industrialization and technology in America.

Cranberries and Capitalism

Americans are often obsessed with big dreams, economic success and getting ahead. Our history includes capitalist icons like J.D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. But it also includes Henry David Thoreau.

The Virtues of Daydreaming  (Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker)

What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel (B&N Review)

New:  Leisure and Productivity, essay by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Chokecherries & Wild Grapes on the Erie Canal

Chokecherries & Wild Grapes on the Erie Canal (Lanigan)

From Wild Fruits (Thoreau on Cranberrying):

I expected little of this walk, yet it did pass through the side of my mind that perhaps, on this very account it would turn out well, as also the advantage of having a purpose, however small, to be accomplished — of letting your deliberate wisdom and foresight, however small, in the house to some extent direct and control your steps… I have always reaped unexpected and incalculable advantages from carrying out at last, however tardily, any little enterprise which my genius suggested to me long ago as a thing to be done, some step to be take, however slight, out of the usual course….

Our employment generally is tinkering, mending the old worn-out teapot of society… Many of our days should be spent, not in vain expectations and lying on our oars, but in carrying out deliberately and faithfully the hundred little purposes which every man’s genius must have suggested to him. Let your life not be wholly without object, though it is only to ascertain the flavor of a cranberry, for it will not be only the quality of an insignificant berry that you will have tasted, but the flavor of your life to that extent, and it will be such as sauce as no wealth can buy.

…I enjoyed this cranberrying very much, notwithstanding the wet and cold, and the swamp seemed to be yielding its crop to me alone, for there are none else to pluck and value it. I told the proprietor once that they grew here, but he, learning that they were not abundant enough to be gathered for the market, has probably never thought of them since. I am the only person in the township who regards them or knows of them, and I do not regard them in the light of their pecuniary value. I have no doubt I felt richer wading there with my two pockets full, treading on wonders at every step, than any farmer going to market with a hundred bushels which he had raked, or hired to be raked.

Imagine You Are an Idiot —

Americans are great kidders. Their democratic political system has developed in them a sense of humor and irony in which they have caught up with the rest of the world. There is historical precedent for this attitude. In observing the recent brinkspersonship over the USA’s national debit, I was reminded of the famous quote by Mr. Sam Clemens (our own Mark Twain):

Imagine you are an idiot. Now imagine you are a member of Congress. But I’m repeating myself.

In this state of affairs corporations such as Microsoft and the banks (not to mention insurance companies) have more money than the USA. Are not corporations citizens of their country? In the old days of Henry VIII or Czar Ivan the head of state would have liberated money from the banks — or from the Church (not to mention brigand insurance companies who rape and pillage their policyholders) — to replenish the State’s coffers. He would have eliminated those who disagreed with his policies (as Andrew Jackson tried to eliminate the 1st Bank US in the 1830s).

But our modern democracy and a functioning free-market economy (including the creation of jobs and common sense) must sometimes be be hostage to what passes for ideology.  As we are constantly reminded, freedom isn’t free. The previous weeks have shown the price: $14.29 trillion and counting.

I am reminded of a quote by another American of Andrew Jackson’s era who preceded Twain. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience (1849):

No man for a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians and eloquent men by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among nations.

DA

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