Archive for June, 2012

I read far more than I blog; lots of clever and interesting thing bubble up across the blogosphere. Naturally, I try to fit related ideas together, sometimes working them out in this space, which is the stated purpose behind my blogging. The spark behind this post is a statement that the obesity epidemic in the United States is not the simple result of poor eating habits or other lifestyle configurations but more precisely the inevitable result of overproduction of food. So rather than “if you build it, they will come,” one gets “if you grow it, they will eat.” This may well be too radically reductive in terms of true cause and effect, which has more facets than any observation about sheer quantity of available food, but like all soundbites, it fits within our limited brain capacity. In contrast, the full cause-and-effect story would fill an entire unread, unheeded book series.

As that soundbite floated between my ears for a while, I saw connections with other things I read, foremost of which was a statement that humans evolved in an environment significantly less calorie rich than the one we now enjoy. Supporting that idea, I also read of an American traveling in remote Africa who went for a jog, presumably part of a fitness regime many of us in the First World adopt (in part) to expend the excess calories we consume. An African met in the course of the jog was puzzled why anyone would intentionally run unless really necessary. From an African perspective, calories are hard enough to come by that using them up needlessly made no sense. The insanity of our First World behaviors is apparent when one goes to a gym and finds that in order to burn calories, we plug in treadmills and screens using even more energy (calories) just to burn our excess calories (fat) when we could just eat less or at the very least exercise outdoors without the artificial lighting, air conditioning, screens to keep us entertained and/or distracted, and other prerogatives made available by energy abundance. Similarly, if a standard adult diet should range around 2,000 calories per day, the typical diet of an Olympic athlete — swimmers and track-and-field athletes, anyway — requires about 10,000 calories daily, which are frankly hard to get.

Those two or three ideas together became an entire complex in my head. I prefer not to look too intently at evolutionary factors as provocations for human behavior. Evolutionary factors absolutely exist, but their timescale is too protracted to be very predictive of behavior occurring in a human timescale. However, the results of evolution are more easily observable as straightforward biology, which has a here-and-now facticity that requires only a little looking forward and backward in time. From there, it may be worth noting the five basic life functions:

  1. growth — living beings grow and develop
  2. respiration — they breathe and respire
  3. reproduction — they reproduce offspring
  4. nutrition — they eat food
  5. excretion — they eliminate wastes from the body

A more fully elaborated list goes like this:

  1. obtaining and changing materials into forms an organism can use
  2. taking in food from the environment
  3. breakdown of complex food materials into forms the organism can use
  4. elimination of indigestible material
  5. process by which substances are taken into the cells of an organism
  6. process by which materials are distributed (moved) throughout the organism
  7. release of chemical energy from certain nutrients
  8. chemical combination of simple substances to form complex substances
  9. incorporation of materials into the body of an organism
  10. increase in size
  11. process by which cells become specialized for specific functions
  12. removal of metabolic wastes
  13. process by which organisms maintain a stable internal environment
  14. process by which organisms produce new organisms of their own kind
  15. the sum total of all the chemical reactions occurring within the cells of an organism

What’s common to both lists is how living things consume and excrete as part of their very existence, and of course, reproduce. Humans are no different in those respects. Moreover, like many other species, we’re designed to reproduce to excess with the expectation that many of those offspring won’t survive to reproduce themselves. Often, newborn organisms don’t survive infancy, either being consumed by the parent (or each other), lacking nurture, succumbing to sickness or infection, or failing to secure adequate sustenance. (Those read like euphemisms; try instead being killed and eaten, being abandoned, dying from sickness, or starving.) In an era of overproduction, where human life is sanctified and privileged above all other, the equation is obvious: overproduction = overreproduction.

So the original statement about obesity doesn’t go nearly far enough. The current state of the world, with its outsized human population straining to grow ever larger (thanks, Catholic Church and fundies!), is characterized by overproduction, overconsumption, and overreproduction. Discussions of the population time bomb often connect these things, but I rarely see frank admissions that our very life functions conspire to create the dynamics that lead to our eventual annihilation. I’ve sometimes observed that we humans are a tragic species. That is so for a variety of reasons, but the two important ones (for me) are that (1) our particular biology has enabled us to exploit our ecological niche more completely than any other species, expanding that niche to include the entire planet and accordingly reducing all of it to consumable resources or commodities, and (2) despite our ability to understand our own biology at some level and its concomitant effects, we cannot overcome our own biology and turn back from destroying the biosphere and ourselves in the process. It’s part of our biological programming, an evolutionary inheritance that worked for a long time but has now misfired and leads to the destruction of our own habitat. By virtue of our inventiveness and cleverness, we have unwittingly triggered what one commentator called a megadeath pulse from which we cannot escape or turn back. The pulse may not be as immediate as a meteor collision or a super-volcanic eruption, having instead commenced with the development of agriculture and societies both fixed in place and sufficiently specialized to establish hierarchy and systems of law. The megadeath pulse really took off (a trajectory in the shape of a hockey stick) conceptually in the scientific era with its enabling philosophy and mechanically in the industrial era with overproduction of food and energy. That’s why industrial civilization and its collapse is tragic where previous civilizational collapses were not quite so. This time, we’re taking down everything else with us.

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There are lots of ways to describe a largely unnoticed continuum between winning dirty and losing clean. In many human endeavors, the righteous and virtuous are exhorted to remain above the fray, to exhibit nobility and purity in pursuit of ambitions, and to forego wallowing in the dirty, low end of the behavioral spectrum where one’s image (or self-image) may be tarnished. Even momentary lapses, such as calling someone a bad name in a fit of pique, are damning. Folks have lost their livelihoods over less (not just talk radio jocks). Meanwhile, those without guile or compunction (including talk radio jocks) operate under far more liberal restrictions — or none at all. At the extreme low end are criminals and psychopaths, though they often masquerade as good citizens and captains of industry while their dirt remains hidden from view. The difference between winning and losing positions on the continuum need not be very wide, but it should be easily observable that fortune — if not respectability — favors the wicked amongst us.

Take, for instance, one of the poster boys for badness: Genghis Khan. His name is synonymous with raping, pillaging, plundering, and marauding, yet his influence on history and genetic legacy are legion. One has to assume, however, that human motivations exceed mere biological urges, meaning that spreading one’s seed widely and using force/violence to achieve one’s aims (typically gathering material wealth but not always) at the cost of infamy can be tempered with the rational mind and a civilized moral center. In actuality, that’s a sizable assumption not borne out too well in human experience.

Sullying oneself in the process of achievement is commonplace with the political attack ad. Almost everyone agrees they would rather see another way of doing things, just like the utterly corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet the obvious effectiveness and utility of attacking one’s adversary and/or currying favor and influence through campaign donations have forestalled reform entirely. Someone made the astute assessment that to swim with the sharks or share in the lion’s spoils, one must first become the monster shark or lion, both of which are top predators. Pure, above-the-fray competitors barely even register. Similarly, reality TV encourages all varieties of fame whores to exploit themselves and lose respectability but gain notoriety and exposure. The underlying bargain is clear: sell your soul for reward, often a handsome one, unless you fail to go heavy and hard enough to make the necessary impression and are subsequently discarded or ignored in favor of some other contestant willing to do their utmost. How else can vapid, talentless idiots (names withheld, but several leap to mind) parade their lunatic antics so successfully before audiences?

What puzzles me most of all, however, is how the notion of cleanliness being close to godliness has lodged itself within several unlikely institutions and ironically ruined them in the name of purity. For me, the most egregious example is the arts. To be great, which may not be the same as being successful, artists must balance a variety of internal impulses and external influences to create something expressive and meaningful. Swing too far toward a merely salacious sensibility and the audience is offended at being goosed and thus driven away. Swing the opposite direction by sanitizing the work too completely and the audience is still driven away, though out of indifference rather than offense.

My personal frustration with soulless, expressionless art goes to the professional ranks of classical musicians in Chicago. In concert after concert, ensemble after ensemble, soloist after soloist, I continue to hear performance (recreating a work through performance being tantamount to creating it in many respects) that is respectable, accomplished, sometimes even expertly executed, yet unaccountably remote and without affect. It’s a little like meat selections at the grocery: drained of blood, guts ground finely into paste (or pink slime), and all wrapped in cellophane to render the final presentation prior to purchase completely cut off from the living source, which is obviously the body and flesh of the animal. After all, never get any on ya!

More specifically, I gave up my subscription to the Lyric Opera, haven’t heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra live in years, and been completely underwhelmed by the Grant Park Symphony, Ars Viva Orchestra, and Lake Forest Symphony. They all play with the energy and enthusiasm of a morgue. But it wasn’t always so. The CSO in particular has a rich history of recordings that often exhibit crunchy, idiosyncratic approaches to the music. But every performance I’ve been to over the past decade has failed to launch. Nothing is ever wrong, really, but it’s all just so sanitary, despite still being ferociously loud at times (big deal! who cares?). When on occasion I’ve heard CSO members step out as soloists with other ensembles, the approach has always been scrupulously safe: secure all the notes but take no risks. But music isn’t about note counting, which the expert practitioners seem to have lost sight of. In a puzzling inversion of the games played by politicians, to get the job, musicians must become performing machines. But to do the job effectively, they gotta get a little bit on them, which is to say, be willing to get dirty. Instead, they focus on clean and tidy but lose in the process, making the whole experience exasperatingly inert.

Free Fall

Posted: June 1, 2012 in Corporatism, Education
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Stacks of old Chicago Readers sit on my kitchen table waiting for my attention. It’s the only newspaper I read with any regularity, primarily because it excels at long-form journalism that’s focused on the community rather than short-form coverage of national and global ephemera. I’m an avid reader (of the Reader), but I typically don’t get to it in a timely fashion. I finally picked up the August 4, 2011, issue and was especially dismayed at what I found in an article called “The 7 Percent Solution” about the new chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC), Cheryl Hyman, who was hired to reform and reinvent the failing institution. To say CCC is failing is a massive understatement. The print article (demonstrating the superiority of paper over pixels) has pullouts with the horrible news:

  • only 16 percent of CCC students transfer to a four-year university
  • a mere 4 or 5 percent earn a bachelor’s degree
  • at least 50 percent drop out in their first semester
  • more than 90 percent of CCC students require remedial work
  • for those coming from Chicago Public Schools, 97 percent require remediation

And the fact providing the title of the article is that “The City Colleges graduation rate [presumably with an associate’s degree], calculated by following first-time, full-time students for three years, is just 7 percent.” It’s hard to know what’s to be done, since academically unprepared students account for a goodly share of those dismal stats. But according to the article, the City Colleges of Chicago, at one point dubbed The People’s College, may never have been intended to be real academies of higher learning but were instead aimed at urban dwellers, adding at some date vocational and job training to its curriculum. The “reinvention” page at the CCC website promises reform, but as the article states, faculty recall such efforts occurring repeatedly without real institutional change. Indeed, it sounds as if corporate-styled strategic planners (not educators) have done their best to rebrand the colleges, but it’s highly doubtful that effort will have much impact on those awful stats.

Adults without true education and understanding of the world aren’t limited to urban Chicago, however. In an article at The New Inquiry called “How Bad Is It?” by George Scialabba, which is actually a review of Morris Berman’s book Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline, further facts culled from the book demonstrate just how badly we’ve entered free fall and become a nation of morons:

Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.

Among high-school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War. Sixty percent could not say how the United States came into existence. Fifty percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred. Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government. Sixty percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper.

None of this can be much of a surprise to anyone paying attention. Indeed, intelligent conversations is rare these days, with everyone’s attention fixed on celebrities, screen technologies, and TV. Further, it’s quite impossible to convince anyone of anything because no one can track a rational argument, there is no common cultural heritage we all share, and mouth-breathers knuckle-draggers average folks are too easily swayed by emotional rhetoric.

It’s an obvious political issue to consider removing educational opportunity from students, but how badly do educational institutions such at the City Colleges of Chicago need to fail before being shuttered? Chicago Public School superintendents are taking that very action with public schools that are in a similar desultory state. Are the City Colleges of Chicago really interested in educating students, or do they merely take the money (from singularly vulnerable, low-income young adults with hopes and dreams yoked to higher education) and run?