Nothing for Humanity

Our society has made a u-turn. Our democracy has left behind the vision of the Founding Fathers. Our obsession with the moral fibre and hard work of the individual has morphed subtly into a passion for making as much money as possible.

In today’s column, Inequality is a Choice, Nicholas Kristof reports that the Wall Street bonus pool in 2014 was roughly twice the total annual earnings of all Americans working full time at the federal minimum wage.

Perhaps it is time to ask about the purpose of our work. Is it to make as much money as possible? Enough to feed our family? Or should there also be a non-financial component to our work? Should we, as in friendship and love, be thinking about how our work might benefit others?

Oh, I know. I am naive and an idealist. I have enough money to live on, so I have the luxury of having such thoughts. But I have never forgotten how, as a young man, I felt embarrassed and even shamed when a much-respected older friend asked, What is your exit strategy? That’s the only way you’ll make money out of this.

We were speaking of a venture I had started, and of course he was right. But his cynical realism hadn’t appeared overnight. A sickly youth, he had used his time bedridden with rheumatic fever to read the entire library at the British estate where he was put up. He remained an autodidact and became an inventor. He left us many innovations, but as a pilot, what is important to me is that in the late 1920’s he successfully flew the first inertial navigation system. The accelerometers were weights and springs. The integrators were vacuum tube circuits.

He never saw a penny from the invention. It was too soon, and nobody understood it. A generation later ICBM’s provided the motive power for the idea. There was no other way to steer the missiles.

He made a modest living by designing and building devices which were the spawn of more modest ideas. According to the doctors, he was living on borrowed time because his heart had been damaged by the rheumatic fever. He lived into his nineties. He did sell his company. I believe he had a good death.

I am not the first to point out that Wall Street, which began as a legitimate instrument for capital formation, now produces nothing that benefits society. Nor am I the first to ring alarms when CEO’s make four hundred times the average wage at their companies. But perhaps there is method to this madness. Perhaps this Wall Street bonus pool and these CEO salaries are the heroin which blunts the pain of uselessness. These rich folk, for the moment, are in a pleasant haze of denial. But truth settles on us all, sooner or later. Many of them will not have a good death.

What is Not Politics

The New York Times, Sunday, December 7, 2014

Two articles in today’s New York Times caught my eye: Energy Firms in Secretive Alliance With Attorneys General, and Thomas Friedman’s column How ISIS Drives Muslims From Islam. The first describes how State Attorneys General submit to Congress letters written for them by energy  executives, and the second how a growing number of Muslims, sickened by ISIS, are turning from Islam to Christianity or atheism. In the latter, Friedman describes how Dr. Alyaa Gad, an Egyptian doctor living in Switzerland, started a hashtag which translates as why we reject implementing Shariah. She said, I have nothing against religion, but I am against using it as a political system.

Bingo, I thought. And the energy people are using capitalism as a political system.

Quebec, Canada

I have lived in Montreal for most of my life. Quebec politics are interesting, although they are perhaps slightly to the left of the mean in the USA. We have single-payer health care, for example. But what I wanted to bring up was that René Levèsque, the founder of the Parti Québecois, was instrumental in bringing in some of the best campaign finance law in North America. We felt the benefit in last April’s provincial election, when Pauline Marois, the Premier and head of Levèsque’s Parti Québecois, was ousted in a drubbing that surprised everyone. She had become demagogic, and no amount of money could save her from the voters.

Don’t get me wrong. Quebec is not perfect, nor is Canada. A leftist, government knows best system breeds an entrenched civil service. It is sometimes not pretty, and it gets really nasty when it comes to software. Hint: Obamacare liftoff. But on the whole, I am content – or at least resigned. Because politics is politics.

Back in the USA

My wife grew up in the USA. Our kids and grandkids are there. Even I spend several months of the year there, visiting them. I am the only one in my family who is not a citizen and can’t vote down south. But that doesn’t stop me from stupefaction when I consider that in the USA, thanks to Citizens United, a corporation is, in effect, a super-citizen. Capitalism is great, and I love the openness to innovation it makes possible, but it is not a political system.

A Gift for Humanity

Messiah

My wife and I went to a performance of Messiah last night, as we have done every year for the last forty or so. This year it was Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, at the new Montreal Symphony Hall. Perhaps it is the forty years, or my age, or my familiarity with the words after all this time. But I have never seen four soloists tell the story as these did. They were consummate actors as well as musicians and singers.

Or perhaps the evening was more emotional than usual because we learned right there in the hall that Bernard Labadie, the founding director of Les Violons, has been ill and would not be conducting. Instead Trevor Pinnock is leading the group for the rest of the year. Maestro Pinnock made a short announcement about how we have all come to love Messiah, about how something special happens when we gather like this, about how the work is a gift to humanity, and about how tonight we are all here celebrating it together for Bernard as well as for ourselves.

Perhaps that was the context for me: listening to the story, the great words and the sublime music, and musing on why this gift of George Friderick Handel (1685-1759) is so loved and so important to us.

Comfort

Comfort Ye, my people. Your warfare is accomplished. Your iniquity is pardoned. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

These words, of course, are from Part 1 of Messiah. The librettist, Charles Jennens, took them word for word from his beloved King James Bible.

New Testament? No, Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who lived, scholars believe, in the eighth century B.C.

Forgiveness

He was despised and rejected of men. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows!

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn.

Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort Him.

He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of Thy people He was stricken.

Who is this man? Jesus of Nazareth?

No. Once again the text is from the Torah. Isaiah and Psalms. Hundreds of years before Christ.

Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? Let us break their bonds asunder; and cast away their yokes from us.

He that dwelleth in Heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

Psalms, once again.

Halleluia!

OK, this last is from the other end of the Bible: Revelation.

Death and Resurrection

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Surely now we are in the New Testament? No. This is Job 19:25-26. For some reason I think of how a Jewish friend described a seder:

People wanted to do bad things to us. We were in great danger. Somehow, with the help of God, we survived. Let’s eat!

I admit that Comfort, Forgiveness, and Death and Resurrection are my names for the three parts of Messiah. And here we are at last, at the last of the three. Can there be such things as death and resurrection?

From now on most of the text is from Corinthians.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

What does that mean? Does it matter? Why does it give me such comfort?

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

I do not think of my self as religious, as a believer. I think of myself more as a doubter, someone more like my five-year-old grandson, who says, Oh, why?

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.

I don’t know what the words mean, but they are great words, comforting words, words that have survived because they have meaning for humanity.

Oh death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Straightforward enough. But then:

The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.

Don’t ask me. But I’ll think about it, as I do every year.

Mon Pays c’est l’Hiver

As we emerge from Place des Arts, it is snowing. When we came downtown it was 15° F and blowing. Now it feels like 30°. It always feels warmer when it snows. The city, my city, the one I have known since childhood, is beautiful.

I don’t know about immortality. But wait – in a way I do. Handel may not be here in the flesh, but I have just spent three hours with him, and I feel wonderful.

Fact and Story

Then and Now

Story is as old as language. The ancient bards sang the stories of heroes. Oral tradition mirrored the world to our ancestors, allowing them to find meaning in their rough and difficult lives. The written word was in the future.

Fact in those days was immediate, personal, and deadly. I slew the beast. I slew the aggressor. I am slain.

Today what passes for fact is omnipresent. The internet gives us access to a store of data that is growing exponentially. It follows us around on our smartphones. There is, it seems, no escaping all this. But is it fact?

Books

The Gutenberg Bible was the internet of its day, enabling a rapid expansion of knowledge, both fact and fiction. But printing presses are slower than the net. Scholarship and education grew along with libraries and the number of books. A critical intelligence questioned: Who is the author? Is this a story? History? Science? Philosophy? Fact? What is fact, anyway?

The Net

The internet is not yet a generation old. It followed fast in the footsteps of television. The written word is, one could argue, only a minor part of today’s vast trove of accessible data. Photos, audio and video, often edited for maximum punch, saturate our perception and shorten our attention span. We search for data that corroborates our worldview. Critical intelligence is rare. There is a new oxymoron: reality TV.

Worldview

Every human being has a worldview. Consciously or not, we apply meaning to our lives. It is a human skill that is necessary for survival. We tell a story about ourselves.

But the rub is this: we expand our story to embrace the world we know. We assign good guys and bad guys and even suppose that conspiracies are the reason behind this and that. Then we are surprised when others have different views. We feel threatened and go to the internet to find “proof” for our theories. Is it any wonder our politics has become dysfunctional?

OK,  So . . .

I am as guilty as the next person. I feel road rage. I harbour a grudge. I am rude, sometimes without meaning to be. Sometimes I rage (usually inwardly, but not always) against someone’s convictions which I think are JUST WRONG!

On the other hand, I love my friends and family, warts and all. Their shortcomings/eccentricities/weaknesses are part of who they are, just as mine are. How do I square love  with intolerance?

Story

I have known my friends and loved ones long enough to know their story. Not the story of their lives – their story. The one they tell themselves, as I tell myself mine. And since we are alive, these stories are evolving. Like the songs of old, they change subtly with each telling.

We could do worse than to listen.

Open Net Letter to Sir Richard Branson

Condolences

Dear Sir Richard,

I offer you my heartfelt condolences on your loss: a life, a spacecraft, money, and momentum. The life and the aircraft will be missed. The money and momentum can be made up. But as in every disaster, there is also opportunity.

I have been a pilot for nearly fifty years, and in my trade accidents are fodder: nearly always, there is something vital to be learned. The accumulation of this knowledge is what allows us to hone our skills and make our missions safer.

Spaceship Two awakes powerful echoes from the past. We have been here before and moved on.

Disclaimer

The following is fiction. I look to the net for facts: what I find there may or may not be true. Using what I find I make up a story. My hope is to get everyone thinking about the way forward while we wait for the NTSB. Please accept my offering as help, and as hope for the future for this very special project.

Test Flying

One pilot friend has given up test flying. Another still does it and has flown an amazing number of types. His preparation method is simple: know and prioritize the systems. Knowing means finding everything you can and studying, asking questions in a practical way. Prioritizing means asking the question, what is going to kill me first?

Often it is the fuel system. But Spaceship Two’s rocket motor was designed to be simple. Sure, it’s new, and could kill us, but is it first in line?

Look instead at the flight envelope: subsonic atmospheric flight as an airplane or glider. High Q, high G, supersonic flight as a rocket plane. Ballistic flight as a near-spaceship. Re-entry as a badminton bird. Subsonic glide to landing.

Then look at configuration. Airplanes have flap and gear speeds. Maneuvering speeds. Spaceship Two is a chameleon: an airplane/spaceship/shuttlecock. Combine flight envelope and configuration and you have a whole world of limitations.

The Flight

Our pilots have trained in the fixed-base simulator. The clever helmet G sim has added realism to the profile. They are ready for the high G during the acceleration and pullup after rocket ignition. They are confident in their ability to glide to a landing at Mojave after re-entry.

But the real thing is frightening. It is more than training can prepare you for. It is like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The discipline required to stay exactly with the aircraft is huge. It is like learning to fly instruments in IMC and turbulence, believing what the panel says and ignoring what the body says. Only it is magnified by several factors of ten.

Pilots know that their IQ is cut in half the moment they strap in, and in half again under fear or stress. They prepare carefully, rehearsing in their heads so the real thing will not freak them out.

Our co-pilot was overwhelmed. Somewhere in his consciousness was a fear of forgetting his tasks. His mind left the present and moved ahead, rehearsing. He knew that at some point he would have to unlock the tail feathers.

The pilot was hanging on to his awareness for dear life. His field of vision had narrowed to a tiny cone centred on the Flight Director. He didn’t see the co-pilot’s hand reaching for the unlock lever. But he hung on to that thread of awareness and understood the ship was breaking up around him. He managed, though injured, to undo his harness and get free of his seat.

Crew Co-ordination

I am reminded strongly of Air Canada 621 in June 1970. Not in the pilots’ behavior: our Spaceship Two pilots were not arguing. They had a good understanding of the ship and her systems.

No, the echo has more to do with the novelty and design of the systems and configuration. The DC-8-63’s spoiler system was an early one, imperfect in its ergonomic design. The line between arming and deploying was not as sharp as, say, the later system on the DC-9, where up was arm (for landing), and up, back, and up was ground spoiler deployment (for a rejected takeoff).

Spaceship Two’s feather system is an excellent mechanical and aerodynamic design. The lock can hold the feathers in the airplane position even at high Q in a high G powered pullup.

But crew co-ordination and Standard Operating Procedures are just as important. Our pilot did not see the co-pilot’s hand reaching for the unlock lever. There was no communication:

Ready for Feather Unlock.”

Our pilot had no opportunity to say:

Negative. Standby.”

or

Get your $#%* hand off that f#%# lever!

He just saw the result: the breakup of the ship from aerodynamic forces.

Moving On

Let’s go flying again as soon as we can. But designers, remember: it’s not your ass strapped to the machine. It’s the test pilots’. And they have to understand the implications of any action at any point in the flight envelope.

No, you don’t have to design software to limit when the feathers can be deployed. You have to keep the pilots in the loop, not take them out of it.

But communication is all. And respect for each others’ work. Bernard Zeigler designed the Airbus to be “pilot proof” and “un-stallable”. We know what happened there.

Aware of the past, analyzing accidents, we are wiser. We will respect everyone and expect the best from everyone. We will prioritize and rehearse. We will use all available means to communicate and to share information, hopes, and doubts. There will be Standard Operating Procedures. There will be verbal calls followed to the letter to eliminate misunderstanding. And there will be the joy of success.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Former Captain

 

p.s.

Sir Richard, how about – every once in a while – offering a seat on Virgin Galactic to a prominent climate change denier?

There is No Alternative

Success!

Philae landed today!

Rosetta achieved orbit around Comet 67P after a ten-year flight. Last night there was the decision to go – to separate Philae and begin descent to landing with an unserviceable thruster. So much excitement!

With millions of others I watched it live. Or as live as it can get when, at the speed of light, the signals take 27 minutes to reach us.

Congratulations to ESA for their accomplishment and their gutsy decision to stream live from the control room. There has been nothing like this since Neil Armstrong set foot on the  moon in 1969. My sons are all too young to remember that, to say nothing of my four grandsons. Space is back! And thank goodness for that!

Co-operation

It was (if I have got his name right) Daniel Neuenschwander, the head of the Swiss delegation to ESA, who, among all the speakers after the landing, got my attention. Regarding getting into space, he said, there is no alternative to co-operation.

(Now it appears the harpoons didn’t fire, or haven’t yet. (See ESA for details). That keeps the excitement going. I (and humanity) hope Philae can cling to the surface in that meagre gravity and keep sending us information. But this is already a major achievement, whatever happens.)

Think of the history: the USSR orbits Sputnik, and then Laika (the dog). Then a human person, Yuri Gargarin.

President Kennedy leads the USA into the “space race”, and NASA achieves the goal he sets: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

In 2004 Burt Rutan (financed by Paul Allen) designs and builds Spaceship One and wins the X-Prize.

In 2013 China lands an (unmanned) rover on the moon.

In 2014 SpaceX (Elon Musk) soft-lands a rocket booster in the ocean.

In 2014 Spaceship Two breaks up when the wing/tail feather deploys prematurely.

There is a space race here, but it is a competition of ideas, not ideologies. A communist country pulls ahead into orbit. A democracy provides leadership and technology to land a man on the moon. A generation and a half goes by. Private entrepreneurship invents and demonstrates the badminton bird re-entry. Ditto the re-useable booster. Bravo Burt and Elon! And today a loosely joined bunch of nations has landed on a comet, opening a window onto the formation of our solar system and perhaps life itself.

Diversity

What is the takeaway here?

For me, it is what Daniel Neuenschwander said. There are huge challenges facing humanity. Will we address them adequately before our planet joins Mars in its fate?

There is so much to do.

Can Burt Rutan’s badminton bird re-entry be extended/combined to handle the much higher energies required for a recovery from orbit? Can we invent self-sustaining environmental systems? Can we move beyond the rocket – incredibly wasteful as it throws mass out the tail, accelerating through Newton’s Third Law?

I am an optimist. I know we can do it. But it will take everybody. Not just this or that system of government. Not just private enterprise. Not just one visionary human.

Mr. Neuenschwander got it right today: there is no alternative to co-operation.

Money is the New Religion

The Mall

The upscale mall near us occupies a huge contiguous tract north of the freeway. Its enclosed Main Streets have two levels, open to the non-sky, as if each building had a balcony upstairs connected with its neighbours. At the end of each street is a gussied-up big-box store – two-story of course – opening onto the mall. Stairs, escalators, and flyover bridges connect levels and balconies, so the penitent can wander in wonder through the architecture of the age. Light filters in overhead through cloudy glass. Along the streets and balconies gaudy alcoves harbour treasures and artifacts. Seen from above, the two streets intersect, forming a cross. Soon after it was built, my wife said, That’s our Chartres.

History

The great cathedrals embody all that was noble and profane in the Middle Ages. Although Chartres was built with remarkable speed, it was a product of several generations. Begun in 1194, it was mostly complete in 1250, by which time many of those involved with the heroic effort were second or third-generation. The stained-glass windows, miraculously preserved through centuries of war and weather, are narrative art for a time when few could read.

But there is more: the cathedral was also a free-trade zone outside the purview of the feudal lord. Merchants set up their stalls in the zone and even in the nave itself, although wine-sellers were occasionally banished to the crypt. Taxes on the stalls were payable to the clergy.

So far the activity is merely profane – that is, secular, or not connected to religion. (Profane is from the Latin pro and fanum: before the temple.) But as human custom tends to, the commercial practices proliferated and evolved, until by the late Middle Ages indulgences had become the Wall Street of the twentieth century or the indiegogo.com of the twenty-first. The Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral was capitalized by selling pardons for the use of butter in Lent.

Belief

It seems that mystery is the father of faith. The architects and artisans of Chartres responded to the beauty of the world by doing their best to compete with it. Their homage to God was an artifact and a space that educated and inspired wonder and ascribed God as the author of all. The cathedral was the railroad of the nineteenth century and the airline of the twentieth. Man as artisan constructed huge works from technologies on the edge of human understanding. Did the traveller on the Orient Express understand the physics of the steam engine? Does today’s passenger understand the physics of flight or inertial navigation? Do the viewers (or the makers) of the film Gravity understand orbital mechanics?

Where am I going with this?

I admit I am groping. But we are again today in an age of indulgences. We know that capitalism and free markets are the foundation of democracy – or at least that’s what everyone says. They say that we should bow to the market, should let it decide everything, or else we are threatening freedom and democracy.

Today’s received wisdom is the same as is was in the Middle Ages – only the object of faith has been changed. We understand the market about as well as we understand orbital mechanics. We are invited to have faith in matters beyond our understanding. So we bow not only to technology, but also to the market and the almighty dollar.

The Range of Human Endeavour

We humans span the noble and the profane and continue into the ignoble and the self-serving. It happened with religion after Chartres was built. The practice of indulgences took a few centuries to moulder and spread, but it was one of the principal motivations behind Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther said, Wait a minute – this is not what Jesus meant at all. Thus came the Reformation and more wars and Protestantism and Christianity without profit.

Not much has changed in five hundred years. The noble – the making of art and the building of large, co-operative works – is still followed by the profane – normal commerce. But inevitably – and today is no exception –  the profane is followed by the self-serving, and the whole process is debased. We are once again at a crossroads like the one Luther faced down in 1517.

Inventive mankind has gone from barter to money to lending to banking to capital formation to finance. The average man gropes along behind progress, believing in what he cannot understand. Meanwhile elite MBA’s twist the corporation (human co-operative effort) into re-structuring for maximum stakeholder value. (The definition of stakeholder is left to the MBA’s). Banks no longer turn savings into investment capital but instead operate for maximum profit and market share, extracting their cut not as interest but as fees. (There is no interest rate connected with fees, so there is no appearance of usury.) Investment banks invent financial products which they peddle to pension funds and then bet against in the market, making huge profits at the expense of their customers.

These shenanigans depend on our faith and our ignorance. They twist the institutions of our society so they work not for mankind but for a small elite.

This small elite no doubt believes in itself. That, too, is human. Like all of us, they construct a world-view. They are smarter and work harder, and deserve their spoils. Their efforts are a natural winnowing.

But that is their world-view, not the Word of God. There is no reason for us to believe it.

I also understand why we believe in money. It is a matter of survival, and is getting more so every day for us, the great unwashed. But let us not worship money. That can only lead us to suckerdom, as P.T. Barnum famously observed. We would do better to open our eyes and learn and not lose the hope of human co-operative effort toward great things. Perhaps we might even tape a thesis to the door of the mall.

As inspiration we can remember Job, centuries before Christ and millennia before today’s selfish deeds. Covered with boils and tempted by cynicism, he could still say:

I know that my redeemer liveth;

and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

and though worms destroy this body,

yet in my flesh shall I see God.

 

Job 19:25

Learn or Die

The Race for Survival

It is time to stop fussing over religion, money, and politics, and to ponder instead what we must do to survive. I am not speaking of selfish, individual survival in the mean marketplace of today. I am speaking of the survival of the human race.

I have long felt that our fate comes down to a race between space travel and managing our planet as a closed system. Which will we learn first? Will we learn in time to survive?

We have become cynical about space travel since the triumphs of the 1960’s. Why should we spend money on frills when we have more pressing needs here at home?

Why indeed. What are these pressing needs? Are they more important than survival?

Ebola

It is encouraging that the USA is mobilizing doctors, nurses, and soldiers to help with the Ebola threat. It is good that we recognize that this threat knows no borders. What is less good is that we are not prepared with medication to fight the disease. The marketplace had decided that a few thousand deaths would not constitute a clientèle worthy of research. Belatedly we must mobilize our resources and make medicine.

Climate Change

Think about the contrast: Ebola strikes fear into our hearts; Climate Change is our recent euphemism for Global Warming, in itself an understatement. But Ebola is the rehearsal, the sign, the foreboding. It is undeniably here – now – in spite of the stigma and denial that encourage its spread. Is it not also a metaphor for the larger puzzle that faces us? Do we have to individually travel to the Arctic to see ice melting? Or head south to Miami as witness to the spring and fall tides backing up through the storm sewers and flooding the streets? Or perhaps this year some will instead head south to Arizona. They will see flood damage in the desert.

Odile, Polo, and now Simon, the 13th Eastern Pacific hurricane of the 2014 season, mark the profound change in the weather. Or the Jetstream sitting in Northern Canada for the last two weeks of September, cuddling an unseasonable bubble of warm air half a continent wide. In my forty-five years of flying and weather-watching I have never seen anything like it.

Change and Learning

As a label Climate Change has something right. The world is indeed changing. And as any teacher must, our world is challenging our assumptions. It is saying, I am not static, I am alive. And indeed, what is life but change?

Is our universe alive? The more we learn, the more evidence we find that everything we see is in flux, in living change; and every discovery further displaces mankind from its center. The universe is not about us.

But we can learn. The human race has the ability to learn, communicate, and record. Galileo could read Aristotle as well as observe the planets. Newton, born the year Galileo died, could continue his work forward into the Calculus, the Laws of Motion, and the foundational equation of gravity. Cannot this gift of learning lead us toward our own survival?

All Hands

The problem we face is not insurmountable. It would be embarrassing if we did not prevail. But neither is it a sure thing. It is a call for all hands on deck. And all hands does not mean the privileged, the connected, the fortunate. It means use the gifts of every soul aboard.

It does not mean indoctrinate our children with our certainties. It means lead our children out of ignorance into the fullness of their gifts, wherever it may take them.

Education takes more than a curriculum and a system. In the end it is a communication between human beings. It is a two-way conversation where the goal is to move the student beyond the teacher, into an understanding where only he can go.

So let us use our fear constructively. Let us not sit, afraid, trying to hang on to the present. The world has already moved beyond our understanding. But our gifts have not expired. Let us use them, such as they are, to encourage the gifts of others. And if every soul is engaged we will will survive.

Who Wins the Race?

It doesn’t matter. Managing the planet and space travel are essentially the same problem: reversing the great frontier mentality and approaching our environment as a closed system. We can cut down the forests we grow. We can eat the food we produce. And we can breathe the air we replenish.

Teaching, Learning, and Navigation

Motion

It’s not getting there, it’s the journey. The saying is so hackneyed we tune it out. It’s so 60’s, so hippy. But think of how we perceive motion.

I am looking out a motel window. It is raining. If I hold my head still the frame doesn’t change but I am aware that the leaves in the trees across the street are moving and that rings are coming and going on the puddles as the raindrops hit. My brain does the differentiation, the time-lapse photography, the video recording. I’m not aware of all that. I am only aware of movement, of change, in the leaves and the puddles. They are alive.

Learning

I recently watched a video of an interview with Elon Musk, the man behind PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. He was asked how he learned rocket science. He thought for a second or two, and answered with a complete absence of irony. He said he read a lot of books on the subject. He said he sought out and hired many people who had experience in the field. He said together they worked on and solved many problems.

Then he paused, and said, You know, that’s how I hire people.

How so? asked the interviewer.

Elon Musk said he would ask the candidate to describe some difficult problem he or she had solved. He said someone who had worked the problem through could discuss it to any depth; those who were on the periphery or along for the ride could not.

Check out this wonderful short video from Sal Khan: You Can Learn Anything. Knowing something is not a state. It is a history of struggle and failure. It is experience in the most alive sense of the word.

I recently met a young man new to teaching. His field is transportation, and has years of experience, much of it driving big rigs. I asked him how he was enjoying teaching. I love it, he said. But sometimes I go home frustrated. How so? I asked. Well, he said hesitantly, some of the teachers, they’re good people, but they went from grade school to high school to teachers college and then right into the classroom. They’ve never been anywhere but a classroom.

We were both silent for a while. I thought about how that applies to my trade, flying airplanes. About the pilot shortage that is upon us. About how a lot can be learned in the classroom and on the internet (look at the Khan Academy!) and in simulators and even in airplanes. But something is missing: the struggle and failure of flying a real airplane in real weather and wind.

How can I even speak of failure in the same breath as flying?

Because I had the luxury of learning by doing and stumbling and failing under the guidance of vastly more experienced captains who had flown Sabres or Starfighters or Clunks. I was an apprentice. I learned from masters of the trade. Their lessons stayed with me because we solved problems together. I learned judgment. I learned to respect the airplane’s limits and my own. I learned that sometimes you just don’t go.

I also thought of how the world changes. I thought of how I flew the fly-by-wire Airbus for nine years and even instructed on it. It was a state-of-the-art machine. And yet we never did a GPS approach. They weren’t ready yet in 2004. Now I have been retired for a decade and I am seventy years old, I am flying mostly GPS approaches. These approaches did not exist when I was flying the line.

Navigation

When I was a First Officer on the DC-8 in 1979, INS had just replaced the Navigators. INS (and later, IRS) imitates the human body, specifically the semi-circular canals in our ears. They are miniature accelerometers (one in each of three axes) and among other things they help us to walk upright. INS uses the Calculus and integrates acceleration: what is the sum of all these accelerations over time? GPS does the opposite: with its ability to rapidly calculate positions to within a few meters, it goes  the other way with Calculus: differentiation. It asks, if I look at how my position has changed over time, what does that say about my velocity? About my acceleration?

In essence, navigation is describing dS/dt.

What does all that have to do with learning?

Well, learning is change of ideas. Remember the video, You Can Learn Anything? “Because the most beautiful, complex concepts in the whole universe are built on basic ideas that anyone can learn; anyone, anywhere, can understand.”

Learning is change. Change of mindset, change of assumptions, changes in your idea of yourself. It is a journey of struggle. It is navigation. It is hard work.

But the destination is not static. It is a moving, living thing: the apprehension of a beautiful concept. It becomes a beautiful tool you can now use to bring your talents to bear on the problems facing humanity. It is joy.

Teaching

What does all that say about teaching?

How shall we teach? How shall we pass on what we know?

How shall we learn as a people, a civilization, a species? Will each generation have to learn anew how to rub two dry sticks together? Or will Galileo read Aristotle, and Newton read Galileo, and Einstein adapt Newton to the scale of the galaxy?

That is not for me to say. But having in small measure experienced the joy of understanding and the joy of helping others understand, and having experienced the joy of change in myself over years and decades, I will not willingly let it go.

Bring Back Doubt

Certainty?

Is there nothing that needs to be fixed in today’s world? One might think so from some reaction to recent events. But if you look closely at today’s New York Times there are clues:

So does religion makes sense or not?

Religion

Critics look at the blood shed in the name of religion. Indeed, our history is littered with holy wars. But there must be something in the quest for the unknowable and unnameable: our ancestors have found it impossible to live without it. And the diverse religions in world history have much in common. What do they preach? Four paths to peace of mind:

  • Wonder
  • Gratitude
  • Communion
  • Acceptance

The words are different, but the concepts are the same. We find peace by getting outside of ourselves. We start by being amazed at the beauty of all creation. We continue by being thankful for being alive and having a place in this beauty. Then we join hands in recognizing our common humanity (Christians would say we share one bread, one cup). Finally, we try to accept what we must: our own mortality, for example.

Doubt

The ISIS recruit is rightly troubled by our society’s reliance on money, wealth, and markets to bring meaning into our lives. They will not, and somewhere we know that. But through history we (and especially the young) grab new and different certainties as solutions. They are right in seeing the need for change. But history, and especially the history of religion, show us that no sudden truth stands as the eternal panacea.

There is a fifth path: doubt.

What is education, after all? Why are we endowed with intelligence in the first place? What is free will, and how can it be reconciled to God’s will? Or that of Allah, or Buddha, or Vishnu, or the Great Spirit?

The Latin educare means to draw out that which lies within. A young child has a natural bent toward learning. If Dad answers a question with a fact, a certainty, the child will ask back, “Oh, why?”

That is doubt, a natural quality that we extinguish at our peril.

Clues

Of course maintaining rule of law and the social contract requires order. We must respect one another and our need for a safe social milieu. But let’s not blot out or deny the clues:

  • Protesters persist in Ferguson, MO
  • Putin shuts down MacDonald’s
  • Children push through the U.S./Mexico border

Are these just bad things? Signs that the world is going to Hell in a hand-basket? Or do they have something to say, something to teach us? Do we have enough of the child left within us to take a moment for doubt? A moment to learn, to be drawn out, away from certainty? To be educated?