Saturday, December 29, 2007

yes, meek adjustments

I want to write here explicitly about Meek Adjustments, not my blog but the general idea, capitalized in the way of Arundhati Roy in the God of Small Things - indicating an large, established, almost personified concept.

For Meek Adjustments have been all I can muster since I entered the stunning vacuum that is post-graduation life. Life.

Meek adjustments are my only ammunition against despair.

They are a very vegan concept: that through small changes one might approach a large problem. Upon graduating I felt myself so beset by problems that I could not live with myself if I did not address. They are enumerable, but each is impossible: (1) environmental degradation, (2) global poverty, and (3) my participation (via taxes and complicit citizenship) in the American Empire. I believe that's it. Three problems.

One could dedicate decades to solving any one of these problems. I spent a summer researching possible avenues. Join the coalition for the Peace Tax (3)? Accept a job offer with Digital Study Hall (2)? Use my technical education to pursue a career in alternative energy or environmental consulting (3)? Declare bankruptcy and become a full-time activist living on the streets (1,2,3?) ?

I have done none of these, and every day feel some guilt for that.

The fact is that I want too badly the refined privileges of being an American citizen with good credit standing and plenty of horded financial resources: I want a warm room in which to read Whitman, sketch lines of poetry on a large monitor, and fall asleep deep in the valley of one of Infinite Jest's long sentences.

I refuse to accept the notion, however, that this means I can change nothing. For me it is the meek adjustments we all make, our daily cultivation of actions, however small, from our beliefs, that constitutes the movements that constitute a movement. I hope it will be illustrative for me to share how this figures into my life:

  • As an environmentalist. I simply cannot live a sustainable life in this society. I consume fossil fuels. I purchase gasoline. For those things I am deeply ashamed, on so many levels. But I may choose to adjust in spontaneous moments, to ride my bicycle to the grocery or wake up early to take the train to work. It is a constant effort. I buy gasoline from Arco (BP) and not Exxon Mobil or Shell or Conoco Philips. These compromises are literally my only hope.

  • As a human rights advocate. I don't purchase clothing from sweatshops, which means I purchase almost no clothing. I wear hand-me-downs to a job interview. I choose not to eat animal products, to alleviate animal suffering and labor abuses on humans.

  • As an anti-imperialist. I wish that I could avoid paying taxes and funding guns. (I could, if I revoked my US citizenship and joined the Lakota Nation. Perhaps that will be the next meek adjustment.) Instead I'm pursuing alternative media, KPFK, Democracy Now, Mother Jones, and the Nation, so that I might cultivate an anti-state position from which to speak out against American hegemony and war.

  • As a friend, a co-worker, a roommate. This last thing is perhaps the most important. I am learning how to talk about my convictions with others. Is that an embarrassingly simple and conventional struggle? I don't find dissent easy. But I have to try, in pedestrian and unimportant conversations, to speak honestly, despite enormous pressures to conform.

For me, a meek adjustment happens in the moment one is confronted with an easy, usual choice, and a harder, more deliberated choice. I.e. turn the water off while soaping, or leave it on? I.e. finish the leftovers and redirect waste, or go to In-N-Out? I.e. nod and smile, or object? Each individual choice does not encapsulate a dichotomy between right and wrong - that is not what I mean; but the aggregate of all the choices is a slow approach toward what's right. And for me the conceptual shift from an all-or-nothing framework to an all-day-every-day framework has been a lifesaver.

No, I am not in the picket line, I am not on the streets campaigning, I am not renouncing all my worldly possessions. But I am actuating a certain consciousness that is at once progressive, anti-state, pro-poor, pro-indigenous, pro-environment, feminist, queer. I am actuating it in a world that constantly discourages me from doing so. As New Year's resolutions approach, I say let's seize the reminder that its what you do habitually that counts, it's what you strive for daily, not once-a-yearly.

I know that many are resisting, meekly, as I am. Some are resisting boldly: going to prison or sacrificing their reputations or even dying. Despite these differences I still think we resist together. I claim that our collective actions, our shared amalgam of conscious choices, constitute a movement. I hope that we keep struggling.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

6 ideas for kids with disposable income

I went to a prep school that, let's just say, qualifies me for entrance to facebook groups like "I went to Private School, Strumpet!" (which is a witty response to groups that I'm unqualified to join, like "I went to Public School, Bitch.")

And having afterwards gone to pretty-expensive and pretty-prestigious Harvey Mudd, many of my friends from both high school and college are now in control of significant amounts of cash. (Though I have to note that a significant fraction of my friends from college made conscious choices not to go into money-making industries, and are now teachers, activists, or grad school students).

Lately I've been struck by a lot of ways I would give away money if I had a ton to give away. In the Christmas spirit, I thought I would give them to everyone reading this. Anyway, most of these suggestions are dollar-value-flexible: you could target these organizations with $1 as easily as you could with $10,000.

1. Your local YMCA. They need new weight machines, I just bet. And they need funding so that more kids can learn to swim and so that more adults can get fit in a non-corporate, non-body-image-obsessed atmosphere.

2. Your local Head Start program. Head start has suffered under flat funding for the last couple years, and out and out funding cuts under the Bush Administration. Head Start gives early childhood education as well as medical, dental, and mental health benefits to kids younger than 5. They teach parents how to prepare affordable and healthy meals. And to qualify, you have to be below the federal poverty line. Basically, Head Start is the longest running effort to fight poverty in America.

It was just reauthorized this December, and the Bill requires all Head Start teachers to have Bachelor's degrees by 2013. As you can imagine, more-educated staff are going to cost more money, and the bill did not provide an increase in funds.

3. The rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

4. Good old UNICEF. I'm skeptical of most money flows from rich nations to poor (i.e. I think that in many cases first-world "charity" is either an analgesic for first world guilt or else a way for capitalists to sell more goods or own more infrastructure), but this organization has a long history and broad international support, and a commitment to solving immediate crises.

5. Politician of your choice in local political campaign. This represents an opportunity to educate yourself about the less-publicized elections that affect matters right under your nose. And if you are anything like most Americans, you are very uneducated about the issues in your local election. I recommend that even if you are broke, you set aside $10 bucks and figure out who deserves it the most.

5. Public radio. Also always broke, and provides clear public benefit to all. I was unable to get good information on the secession of the Lakota Sioux from anywhere except KPFK and KPCC. (Type "Lakota" into Google News and you'll get short articles from Le Monde and BBC, and almost nothing from a major American source. The fact that a large and historically important group of Americans can SECEDE and barely raise an eyebrow shows how much news media serves the interests of the State, again confirming Noam Chomsky's thesis in Manufacturing Consent.) Other alternative media sources like The Nation, Mother Jones, and Democracy Now are also always broke. And so necessary.

6. (In order of increasing expense): Drought-tolerant shrub; Light bulb retrofit; astroturf; sweet bicycle; train ticket; windmill. Also, if you have the option to pay your utilities company a premium in order to obtain all of your energy from renewable sources, put that on your 2008 plan.

Happy Holidays!

Here's links for expedient online donating once you've made your choice:

4. you go girl
6. you know

David Barsamian, founder of Alternative Radio and regular contributor to Z Magazine, once explained that when he speaks to American audiences about Imperialism or corporate media consolidation or labor movements or any of his other specialties, they always ask him, "So what can we do?" They want to know how they can make a difference; it is a reasonable question. But, he notes, when he speaks abroad to incredibly poor and voiceless audiences, no one asks him that question. Zapatistas in Mexico, hydroelectric dam protesters in Gujarat, anti-sweatshop activists in the Philippines, they don't need direction or advice. Out of necessity and often with their very survival at stake, they're already acting on their own behalf. Only the world's privileged are at a loss for what to do; only they have that luxury. So, he answers: I cannot tell you what to do. You must ask yourself that question and find an activism that feels authentic to you. There is nothing wrong, he points out, with donating money to a good cause. Some will want to do more. Still, taking a moment to make a conscious donation can be an authentic, positive act.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Critic's Manifesto

So, a friend of a friend's blog is the 7th result when you google "Berkeley Eclogue."

I am jealous. Could I blog in such a focused and disciplined way, so that my views appear when a poem is searched?

I read through the Time-out New York extended features on the "everyone's a critic" phenomenon.

Turned it all over in my head for a couple hours.

And then, over dinner, the TV in its ever-ambient state, I heard Andy Rooney blasting off irritatingly about... something... His tone sounded eerily similar to that of a KIIS 102.7 morning radio jockey yelling about how stupid the caller's girlfriend is... and I realized:

That's the critic I don't want to be. The Andy Rooney, Don Imus, Bill O'Reilley, I'm-yelling-over-you-critic. More thoughts on the kind of public critic I'd like to be coalesced into the following manifesto.


1. I will react immediately, viscerally, and honestly. Jargon, bullshit, and over-thinking are my enemies. We don't consume art so that we can form beautiful opinions. We consume art because it touches us and this "touch" can never become obsolete in criticism.
2. There is no right; there is only a conversation and the hopes of a revelation.
3. More discipline.
4. More consumption of work.
5. More respect for the artist.

Friday, December 14, 2007

I am more afraid of AmSec than I am of a theft

These little white AmSec security cars are always driving in and out of the cul-de-sacs in my neighborhood, "patrolling" to prevent crime. Or something like that. I cannot even conceive the need for such a service when we already live in the nicest part of the #1 Safest City in the Universe, Simi Valley. I know we all learned in like Suburbia 101 that whitey in the suburb is afraid of some colored folks stealing his freshly mowed lawn or his picket fence or his children inside...

But do we really need to add to the laundry list of ways that this neighborhood screams upper middle class!? Let me list them:
  • rustic neighborhood names like "Autumn Ridge" and "Sycamore Heights" and then super special names for the more expensive box mansions neighborhoods, i.e. "Legacy Estates"
  • a golf course! and a country club with "PRIVATE" written on the entrance gate
  • windy streets, their windiness perfectly planned I'm sure, to give you that "driving in the country" feeling
  • if you live somewhere like "Legacy Estates," gates and gatekeepers in uniforms
  • a very effective and worthwhile "Homeowner's Association" which doles out money to AmSec and matching aluminum fences (that are technically illegal because the bars are so easy to bend that they don't prevent small children from breaking into backyards with pools and drowning) and color consultants who ensure that all homes are earth-tone

I can thank the Homeowner's Association for, among other things, the drab color of my parents home, which actually had to be repainted after we (gasp!) painted it blue. I can also thank the H. Ass. for the recent investment shift away from green technologies and towards defense contractors and private alarm systems. Sweet guys. Lets pay some people to drive around all day and all night on wastefully windy roads.

Wood Ranch, Simi Valley - this is where I live.

Could we get security dudes on bikes? I would take that job.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The speech I gave at Senior Lunch

Dana Mohamed pumped me up to start this blog; I think she would like this.


I want to start with a modest estimate, a crude mathematical model if you will. Excluding labs, we all took 22 semester-long classes in the core, plus about 10 classes (more or less - this is a model, remember) in our major. Assuming about four problems a week for each class, that means that in our time at Harvey Mudd, in technical classes alone, we solved 1,232 problems. It's difficult to quantify how much work on top of that we did for non-technical classes, but let me just say that as a representative sample, I counted how many pages I wrote in the humanities and social sciences while I was here, and it was 405 pages. 1,232 problems. 405 pages. To top it all off, Thesis. Clinic. There is no one that can tell us that we are not accomplished.

But all of this education means little if we do not put it to good use. And numbers like 405 and 1,232 are not adequate to count the problems we will encounter as graduates, in a world where, for example, 3 million people a year die of AIDS, and where a Hurricane like Katrina can incur $81.2 billion dollars’ worth of damage. And so I want to seize this moment to interrogate what it actually means to leave here with these diplomas in our hands - what responsibilities this entails for each of us. And I want to investigate those responsibilities by asking our class a simple question, "Do we dare?"

Four years ago, after we received our acceptance letters to Harvey Mudd, each of us may have stopped and asked this question: "Do I dare?" For coming to this school is in some ways a small act of bravery. We knew we would face intense scrutiny in a school with little over 700 students. We knew we would be pushed by our enormously talented peers. And finally, we knew the cirriculum would be truly tough. We understood all this coming in.

And despite all this, each of us answered the question, "Do I dare?" in the affirmative. And in the four years that ensued, we saw some of the consequences one can invite when one chooses to take a risk like that.

We failed tests. We slept through classes. We forgot appointments.

But we were lucky to be surrounded by role models who understood our failures. Fellow students experiencing the same pressures. Faculty, staff and administration who continued to operate a model of education that is a little different, a little eccentric, that privileges collaboration over competition. We were surrounded by people who dared to believe that a community could operate successfully under something like the honor code. People who dared to trust that much. People who sustained a five-college model. And finally, people like us, who chose a school where we would examine the “impact of our work on society.”

Four years later, we have experienced the rewards that come from an educational model that is daring in these various ways. So leaving this place, we go forward into situations where we will also confront the question, "Do I dare?" And I charge us to answer yes in the following three ways.

First, let us dare to question. When we came to Mudd we were told constantly to "Ask for help," and "Ask questions." We must not stop that asking. We must interrogate the society around us, and in turn interrogate ourselves. We must ask ourselves questions like, Do I dare speak out against unethical practices at my company? Do I dare refuse when asked to design a weapon? Do I dare hire an unconventional candidate? Do I dare to teach others rather than simply practice what I have been taught?

And every time we dare to question, let us dare to find the right answer even if it is the difficult one.

Second, let us dare to struggle. Let us fight to make science, engineering, and mathematics accessible to all people. Let us fight for technology that empowers people, that enriches their lives. Let us struggle against those who alter and erase accurate science only because for them it spells bad politics.

And every time we dare to struggle, let us dare to win.

Third, if these words can even be uttered without sounding like a platitude, let us dare to dream.

If you dare to dream that we will engineer sustainable fuels and transportation systems, then say with me, I dare.

If, like me, you dare to dream that our generation will finally understand gravity, then I ask you now to say it with me. I dare.

If you dare to dream that we will make computing technology accessible to more people in the coming years than ever before, then say with me, I dare.

If you dare to dream that our generation will prove or disprove the Riemann hypothesis, then say with me, I dare.

If you dare to dream that we will engineer AIDS treatments that are affordable and effective, and that we will find a way to make those treatments reach the millions of people that are dying from the disease, then say with me, I dare.

If you dare to dream that our generation will cure AIDS, then say with me, I dare.

And for every time we dare to dream, let us spend our waking lives making those dreams come true.

As scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, we have an authority and a voice in a global society where too many are voiceless. To use that voice effectively, we will daring, we will need courage. It will not always be easy.

In a world that constructs notions of race and gender completely removed from biological fact, we will need courage. In a world reluctant to face what chemistry says about styrofoam, we will need courage. In a world that forgets that groundbreaking physicist and mathematician Noether was a she, we will need courage. In a world where computer science skills are used by some for fraud and harassment, we will need courage. In a world where engineering skills are used to make war more devastating, we will need courage.

In a world where Larry Summers states publicly that women are intrinsically less proficient at math, we will need courage to drown out his voice with the names of our counterexamples: Maria Klawe, Weiqing Gu, Mae Jemison.

As Harvey Mudd students, we redefined the boundaries of what is achievable, what is possible. Each of us knows well just how much effort and intensity it takes to push those boundaries. Now let us realize that the educational arena in which we struggled for the past four years was always, whether we noticed it or not, a subset of the world we lived in. Let us here and now erase the boundary between "scientific" concerns and human concerns, so that the perserverance we acquired in the classroom can become a selfless perserverance directed towards positive change.

As students, we lived the consequences and rewards of daring to come here. As graduates let us continue to invite challenge into our lives. Do we dare? We dare.

Yes, I quoted Hart Crane's "Chaplinesque" to title my blog

Just want to be open about that.

This blogging thing is strange. I hesitate about it because I'm afraid it's pompous to share my random thoughts with the world. But: 1. the world isn't reading; I bet only my friends are, and 2. I DO have things to share.

Like, if even one person reads Crane's Chaplinesque because of this post, I'll be satisfied.

Like, my new found love for the world "like" in print.

Like, the fact that even though David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest quite often uses the word 'like' in a colloquial and valley girl sense, I actually don't like it because it always seems tongue-in-cheek - a way to safely deflate potentially over-reaching sections.

That book, by the way, is teaching me that there is no new sentence; virtuosity in sentence writing is obsolete as far as I'm concerned. What matters instead is insight; what do you see and what do you have to say? Not whether you can eliminate passive voice and bind many phrases together into a grammatically correct sentence. I can read 10,000 of Wallace's beautiful sentences and still feel completely uninterested. He seems reluctant to say anything real. It doesn't help that Infinite Jest is peppered with misogyny and gender bullshit: stereotypes of athletic women as mustached wanna-be men on hormones; glorification of males who sleep around; winking comedy at the thought of cross-dressing!

I am persisting, trying to finish it, trying to give it a complete chance, but it is difficult. I constantly feel I am wasting my time.

Whitman, on the other hand, is redundant, over-reaching, mystifying, and real. I save doses of Leaves of Grass so that I can swallow Infinite Jest.