Detroit decline

There was another story about the slow demise of Detroit, though this time it was in the context of how the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has fought back from the brink of disaster, with help from the suburbs.  Does the relative success of the DSO mean that Detroit city will also climb back to its former glory?

Sadly, no.  The story itself, reported incompletely as it was, touched upon the real reasons why Detroit will fail.  Not only Detroit, but many other older US cities that suffer the same structural defect.

As students of behavior, we must look upon the political entity we call City as a form of living thing.  And we must know how all cities are constructed, politically speaking.  The most successful cities, both here and abroad, are those that have become their own political kingdom.  Essentially, they are their own state.  Manhattan is one.  Columbus is another.  Shanghai, Paris, many others follow this formula.  In this way the city managers have greater resources to use for planning and execution of grand plans.

Not so for Detroit.  Poor Detroit, and many other US cities that were created in the 1800s, have many political entities to deal with.  Detroit is in serious problems because the “inner city” is desolate, without jobs or decent infrastructure.  The “suburbs” are in fact different political entities – they are not Detroit.  Yet, for you and me, when we look at the map, we are quite happy to call the entire thing Detroit.

And so should they.  The suburbs should be absorbed.  The larger metropolitan area should become its own county.  The suburbs have enjoyed the benefits of the city without having to shoulder their share of the burden, and now they are reaping the rewards of their neglect.

But will they?  This is the fun part of being an impartial student, a scientist.  Part of me wants them to succeed, and I know exactly how they should proceed to succeed.  Follow other successful examples.  But will they?  Can all those entrenched politicians and small suburbs commit political suicide for the greater good?

The bets are on!


et tu, Neal?

Cosmos 2.0 has begun, and like the Olympiad, it heralds a new dawn of entertainment.  Whether it also ushers in understanding is another question.  On this day that we celebrate and respect religious worship, does it seem odd that Neal deGrasse Tyson should appear just before the altar?

Now that 34 years have passed, Dr. Tyson is taking up the mantle of Carl Sagan and teaching us about the wonders of the cosmos.  In so doing, he’s touching upon some significant events in our intellectual history.

A tragic character chosen in Episode One is a priest named Giordano Bruno.  Now poor Mr. Bruno didn’t do well as a priest, ostensibly because he had a great revelation about the infinite cosmos.  He tried to tell others, but the Catholic church took offense.  Somewhat unwisely he returned to Rome where the church gave him a warm welcome – and goodbye.  They burned him at the stake.

It’s not quite true, unfortunately.  The stake part is, but let’s say that the show took poetic license in telling the story.  You can read the details here.

The details aren’t quite important for today’s post, because my question is this; why do you think the Church felt threatened by Bruno’s crazy ideas?  That they were crazy is beyond doubt, because any idea that isn’t shared by more than “a lot” of people has to be crazy.  That’s the whole definition of crazy.  The fact that he would eventually be proven right, centuries later, isn’t important.

There’s a good chance that you, too, have a deeply held model of the universe.  It might have a god, or a GOD, or a whole pantheon of gods.  For all I know it may center around a black hole.  However, I ask you, why is it that (for most people!) it’s such a sensitive topic?  If someone comes along and says “Your view is wrong!” what does it matter?  Why do you care?

Why DO you care?



Report your assumptions

Reporters have a tough job.  They are generally idealistic youngsters who place the public good ahead of their own accumulation of wealth and safety.  They are part of a new profession that changes rapidly, especially in our hyperfast information age.

Yet they make the job even tougher on themselves when they take a large amount of baggage with them in their travels.  It’s best to travel light so that you can move quickly, get all the angles, and then get out to report the story.

I’m not talking about baggage as in a change of clothes.  Goodness knows they probably can’t afford them.  I’m talking about assumptions.  Reporters, and their editorial teams, carry a lot of those around with them without even realizing it.  It may be the single greatest reason why some reporting networks attract highly specialized audiences – because of the unvoiced assumptions.

Here’s a case in point.  A story today on NPR talked about how great Finnish children did in school based on standardized tests, compared to other nations around the world.  As soon as the reporter opened her mouth, I knew that the story was already heavily biased because the statement was “Every child gets free preschool.”

Now, in all fairness to the report, this may be the magic answer to the unasked question, what can the USA do better?  However, it already biases the story.  There are so many other factors that go into school success that focusing on any one says all the other factors aren’t as important?

Not important?  What about parental expectations and assistance?  You know what I’m talking about, Tiger moms.  What about limiting other forms of child based advertising and entertainment?  What about the fact that the Finns have a very homogenous society.

I haven’t even gotten started on the statistics part of this, yet.  It’s one thing to say they score the best, ON AVERAGE.  What about the range of variation?  Is it possible that the best in the US easily reach or outdistance the Finns?  And what about components of education that can’t be measured by today’s standardized tests?  Creativity.  Ingenuity.  Resourcefulness.  Curiosity.

Reports are in our face, telling us stories.  To tell the whole story takes a bit more work, but we’re also going to get a more accurate picture of reality.  And in the end, isn’t that what we really want?

At least, that’s what I’m going to assume.



Show me the science

On the last two Funday Fridays I noted how science, the process of learning, could be fun by using thought experiments.  I declared that there are professional science fiction writers who regularly use this exercise to entertain us.  But exactly where in their science fiction is the ‘science’ part?

It’s in the stretch!  For instance, take a story that has humans floating around in outer space.  One of the things the writer has to account for is how the people will deal with vast distances – time and space itself.  Everything they do will take a long long time to execute, whether it’s going from point A to point B, or even painting a room.  How do these fundamental changes impact other ‘laws’ of behavior?  How does it impact relationships?

Or, taking the same scenario, what does the fact that everyone is going to be living in super-close proximity to each other mean to their mental health?  After all, they aren’t going to be building huge barns for every person.

Then again, if the story has them acting just as if they are still on Earth, then the fact that they are floating in space is irrelevant.  And it’s a poor writer who doesn’t take advantage of that fact.

What about robots and our bodies?  What happens when I take my brain and put it into a machine – a perfect, strong, large, machine?  Did I mention my machine is always connected to the internet?  And that it never sleeps, or needs to be plugged in?  What happens?  Will I become power-mad and try to take over the world?  Will I lose my capacity to love another human, forgetting my wife?  Or will I become a better lover, being able to wait patiently for eons to service her every whim, like a refrigerator?

And what happens when you bring dinosaurs to life, or introduce a space-based killer virus, or build a house that folds into multiple higher dimensions?  So many possibilities, and all of them really explore our behavior.  Not science as technology, not even science as knowledge, but science as a way to learn more about ourselves.

Science.  Fun.  Who knew?

Yoga is Behavior

What you choose to do is behavior.  Anything.  Go ahead and choose.  Right now.

There.  Whatever you did, even if it was nothing, was a choice.  And that expression of your choice is your behavior!  Not complicated.

One of the many things I love about yoga is that it represents very fundamental behaviors, with a twist.  These are behaviors that emphasize our bodies.  Yoga has been called slow dance, and it is.  But this is a dance I can do throughout the day, at any time.  Even now, writing and typing, I can roll my shoulder blades back or tuck my tailbone.  Remember to breathe!

As individuals, as a society, we choose how to live.  Those choices are shown through behavior.  When we settle into our easy chairs to watch the super bowl, do we think about our hips or back?  When we’re older and our hips hurt, do we think back on those easy chair days?  How many hip replacements and bad backs do you know?  And how many older cultures, without the luxury of easy chairs, have as many hip replacements and bad backs?

Yes, yoga is behavior.  And we’re going to start studying it in more detail.  As students of behavior, everything has to be on our plate.  Economics, politics, anthropology, to mention a few of the more acceptable disciplines.  But we should also study yoga, etiquette, and the arts.

There’s one more great reason why studying yoga has great benefits.  Long term thinking.  When you stand in mountain pose (tadasana) and turn your thoughts inward to your breath, your feet, knees, hips, and hands, you are also quieting your mind towards all the other influences in our lives that can cause stress.  At the very same time you are also reminding your body about the skills it’s going to need when you are 80, 90, or 100 years old.

Behaving in ways that keep us healthy till we’re 100.  That’s long term thinking.  That’s prevention, not prescription.  That’s saying no to surgery, and no to drugs.

Anyone, care to slow dance?