09 April 2007

07 April 2007

A Glimmer of Hope

The previous two posts have been oriented more towards me venting some ex-patriot steam than anything that could be construed as productive. To get away from that trend, I have to share something that I have discovered that I've found to be immensely interesting and believe represents a real glimmer of hope for human progress.

Imagine if you could take a university course entitled "The World, the Universe, Everybody and Everything in It." As you might expect from the title, this class hits on all major subjects from economics, to philosophy, to religion, to third world development, to astronomy, to... This course is taught by not just a good professor, and not just a great professor, but everyday by one of the leading specialists in the various fields under the broad umbrella of the course. Better yet, these professors aren't allowed to self-gratify by speaking at length about the topic of their choice, rather they are required to get the point across in 18 minutes or less in non-specialist language. Sounds pretty good right? So good, it might even be worth paying a fair dollar for it. In fact, about 1,000 people pay $6,000 for this invitation-only course, even though it lasts for only four days. What injustice, right? That's where the democratizing effect of theinternet comes in.

This wonderful thing, enchanting as it seems, goes by a rather lowly name. It's called TED. It stands for Technology Entertainment Design. It has been going on since 1984 and, from what I can tell, has been gaining considerable steam in the past few years. It's goal is to bring together creative, successful people who are interested in making the world a better place. It's greatest benefit is that it brings these great minds together for some serious problem solving and networking. A substantialancilliary benefit is the publication of what have been dubbed TEDTalks, online videos of some of the talks. I've downloaded several to my iPod and have been watching them on my way to and from work. By and large they are fantastic, enchanting, inspiring, and sometimes breathtaking.

The suggestion from TED is to watch at least three at once to get a sense of the cumulative effect of the conference. Here are three that I found particularly spectacular. I've embedded the videos from various sources because the TEDTalks site doesn't provide embed code. I would suggest watching them at the original site. Here is the link to that: TEDTalks Main Site

(Note of warning: TEDTalks are sponsored by BMW and I can't help but notice an incredible desire to go on a cross-country blast on a BMW R 1200 RT. ...can't...break...marketing's...grip...)

Here is journalist and author Robert Wright talking the arc of human history and the solution to the "clash of cultures" that everybody seems to think is inevitable:

Astrophysicist Sir Marin Rees looks at our position in things from the very large and very small perspective:

tedtalks TEDTalks (video) - TEDTalks : Sir Martin Rees (2005) video

Finally, here is Jeff Han showing off a new multi-touch interface that could significantly change human-computer interaction. This is to show that not everything at the conference is super heavy, some is just super cool:

I've watched about 15 of these and have really been impressed, I'll be sharing and offering commentary on more from time to time, though you should really check it out for yourself. Here's the link again if you don't want to scroll back up to the top: TEDTalks

06 April 2007

The Other Side of the Coin


Seriously though, maybe we bring it on ourselves. In the previous post I argued that people in general tend toward a habit of victimization and egoism. I wrote about this in the context of the bevy of anti-American sentiments that I've encountered here.

Naturally there's another side to this coin. To put it mildly, I've been less than impressed by the comportment of my compatriots. It's an unfortunate paradox that the Americans that spend the most time abroad are generally those that we would want to be represented by the least. They are a self-centered, ungrateful and inconsiderate lot. They are characterized by being, by and large, white, female, and decidedly upper-middle class. They are loud and opinionated and exude a pomposity typically reserved for old-timey oil barons. They are American university students, in their sophomore or junior years (placing them at that age of grand wisdom, 19-20), engaging in the revered ritual of the "semester abroad."

If you would like to become a member of this rarefied breed, here is a crash course:

  • Come to class about 60% of the time
  • When in class speak in English to your neighbor (of course only if neighbor is American, if neighbor is not American ignore him or her completely)
  • Make no attempt at concealing the fact that you are speaking in English (even though you are in French class, in France)
  • Repeat funny-sounding French words until you are doubled over laughing at your own hilariousness
  • Never follow along so that when the professor calls on you you have to mumble and flip through pages in an attempt to answer
  • Complain about the fact that someone else, for the benefit of the 15 other peopme waiting, answered for you while you were searching for the answer
  • Do not try to pronounce French words correctly (just because other people pronounce the French "r" differently than the English "r" doesn't mean that you have to!)

Seriously, it's bad. I regularly observe better behavior from the French high school students that I teach and they 1) aren't paying for their school and, 2) are required to be there. The worst aspect of this is that the rest of my class is filled with people who are making a considerable personal investment in terms of time and money to be in this class. They are in the 24-35 age range and have either lived in France for some time or have recently relocated here. The Americans come off as a bunch of ungrateful buffoons, seeing the world on their parents dime and getting nothing out of it. Some concrete examples:

  • When asked about traveling, one American replies that he has been to Mexico. The professor asks where and if he saw some of the ruins of the previous civilizations. He replies that he was in Cancun the entire time, didn't leave his resort, and spent the majority of the time drunk. (Remember that a good number of the other students in my class are proud Latin Americans, I imagine that his response didn't demonstrate "respect" for their cultures.)
  • An American girl who never follows along in class constantly shouting, "What does that mean?" immediately after the professor explains what something means.
  • An American girl wears a big, stupid hat to class. France has a more traditional approach to education so wearing a hat in class is looked down upon. You are expected to come to class, sit up straight, face forward, and work hard. The professor asks why she is wearing a hat and she attempts to directly translate "I'm having a bad-hair day." Naturally no one understands this idiom so she puts her head down on the table. A few minutes later she takes off her shoes and socks and puts her feet up on the chair next to her so that her bare feet hang into the aisle, obstructing the movement of the professor as she passes out papers. Not exactly appropriate behavior by American standards, let alone French standards.

Now, I don't want it to seem that I'm getting down on Americans, but the six Americans in my class are doing nothing good for our image abroad. They act according to one of the worst stereotypes of Americans, that we have no appreciation for foreign cultures and behave if we are at home even when we are guests. I don't understand why they are wasting an opportunity that such a small portion of the world would ever have the chance to enjoy. It's unfortunate for them and unfortunate for our national image. Esther told me that her university had a big seminar before she came to the United States for her year abroad. They told her to respect local traditions, be generally non-confrontational, and to work to improve the image of France. I'm not sure if the American students had anything like that before they left, if they did it certainly had no effect. Bottom line, I'm embarrassed to be associated with them.


01 April 2007

Unclear Thinking

The good news is that I've found that living in a foreign country goes a long way in understanding people, specifically what traits tend to be more universal. The bad news is that I've found people to be prone to disastrously unclear thinking and completely irrational behavior. Naturally, a few examples:

Two weeks ago I had a coffee with a woman in my French class from a Central American country. After a little bit of chit-chat about our common experiences as foreigners, she launched into a series of accusations and speculations against the United States. This isn't anything new, most people have some pretty strong emotions about the United States and I understand their desire to share them when they meet an American. When in this situation I try my best to explain that, yes, the United States has done and is doing some bad things but that it also does plenty of good things as well. Yes, there are plenty of crazy, nationalistic people in the United States but that they are vastly outnumbered by the good, normal people. Normally people grasp this and I feel that, even if they haven't changed their mind about the United States, they are a little more balanced in their analysis of it.

In this case, however, there was something qualitatively different. My classmate would concede that, yes, surely there are good people in the United States, but that it is an evil empire out to destroy the little countries and people of the world. For example, she told me that she had read that there are private citizens camping out on the Mexican border trying to "defend" it. I told her that this was correct, that they call themselves the Minutemen, that I think they are wasting their time, and that they just want to play soldier. She told me that they were actively hunting and killing immigrants. I told her that they had never killed anyone, at most they notify the Border Patrol who then arrests the immigrants. She told me that she "wasn't sure" about that, which is to say that she went on believing that the American government is letting its citizens kill immigrants because they are considered "less than human, like animals" (her words). In a different story, though in the same conversation, she told me about a friend of hers who had won a full-ride scholarship to an American university. When applying for the required long-stay visa, however, she was turned down and wasn't able to take advantage of her scholarship. Obviously that would be rough, I commiserated a bit and then said that there must have been some reason to deny the visa, that the State Department doesn't simply deny visas at random. (If they did, it would be a much cheaper and quicker process.) To this, my classmate said, "You really think so? I'm not so sure, the entire experience is designed to be psychologically terrifying. There are huge walls around the embassy, there are soldiers with automatic weapons guarding it and then they give you a scholarship and then take it away." This line of logic was simply stunning to me and I found it really difficult to respond. The whole conversation was a real mess, I got up to leave in frustration at one point, explaining that I wasn't the ambassador of the United States, that I didn't need a lecture about the bad things that my country does (there are enough easily substantiated ones that these ridiculous, half-baked theories that she was telling me weren't at all necessary). In the end, I was polite and we went away from it saying that it was a worthwhile exchange (though we haven't spoken since).

This conversation left me thinking, why was it that someone would spend so much time concocting absurd conspiracy theories about another country and then feel the need to explain them to a citizen of that country? Was it something peculiar to Latin Americans? I have noticed far more anti-American hostility from this quarter than from any other, including the Iraqis and Iranians that I have interacted with.

[Side Story: At one point the classmate from the above story along with a group of other Latin American women questioned me about why we call ourselves "American". I said that I could see why they wanted to ask this, they, of course, are "American" too. I said something about the original distinction between "American" and "European" dating from the creation of the country and that the name has just stuck. Also, it's difficult to create a descriptive from "United States of America", what else could it be, "United Statesian"? Anyway, they already seemed to know the answer and were only to happy to tell me it. That answer is, "Because you (i.e. Americans, or United Statesians) take the whole continent for yourselves." You can't really say anything to people when they confront you like this, they already have their minds made up so I just let it drop.]

Why were these people behaving like this? I get the sense that they are blaming the US for a lot of the problems in their countries. Certainly there is some support for this, the US has had a long history of not-so-positive involvement with Latin American countries that has led to a general anti-American sentiment there. But, it ignores all of the ways that the leaders of the countries have driven them in the wrong direction for so long. I get the feeling that there is a sort of victimization present, that people want to believe that somebody is out to get them. The appeal of this is intuitive, by blaming a huge outside power you get to feel that you are doing all that you can to improve the situation. Since the huge outside power is unchangeable, the most that you can do is complain. Also, there is a certain egoism involved in this too. Take the case of the friend of the classmate who got the scholarship but was denied the visa. In thinking that there is a big machine working against you you have to believe that you, yourself or a group that you belong to, are important enough to get the attention of this machine. This is almost never the case. There are huge, bureaucratic policy decisions that create these massive government machines that can chew a person up if they don't navigate it well. It's awful that it works this way but it is a reality of modern governments. If you were denied a visa, it's not because the US government is out to get you, it's because the series of bureaucrats pushing their papers around came to a systematic decision. That's all, it's not as romantic as being the victim of some terrible hegemony, but it's the ugly truth of it.

I don't want to give the impression that this tendency toward victimization and egoism are peculiarly Latin American traits, by all means they are not. In fact, that is the central point of this post. These are universal traits that people across all nationalities and cultures share that are most often, but certainly not always, expressed in relatively difficult economic times (by which I mean situations where there are close neighbors who are doing much better than you). In fact, when I was jotting some notes for this post, I overheard a discussion of some American girls. They were talking about the difficulty they had registering at the Sorbonne, that it took a long time, etc... What was their conclusion, "I think that they are purposely delaying our paperwork because we are American." Are you serious?! Why would they do that? What interest of the Sorbonne's would that serve?

The most serious problem that I see with this trend is that it leads people to misunderstand the problem which, in turn, prevents them from finding a good solution. One response of Latin American countries to the transgressions of the United States is to elect leaders like Hugo Chavez who do silly things that are almost certain to be harmful for the country in the long run. This victimization and egoism leads people to blame the bad guy next door rather than look inward and see the more serious problems therein. This misses the point and leads to only more problems in the future and sets the whole process of reform and improvement back years.

On a final note, one of the topics that came up often in the big conversation with the classmate was immigration to the US. She was arguing that the US should be more open to letting immigrants in, although she said that she understood that they couldn't let everyone in (though offered no opinion on where the right balance was). I was reminded of an interview I saw of Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST Robotics, inventor of the Segway scooter and many other vastly more useful devices, on the Colbert Report. Colbert, in character as always, asks about some water purification and engery generation devices that Kamen has invented and whether they can be used to solve the illegal immigration problem. Kamen answers yes, saying that if they can be used to raised the standard of living in these other countries, they will reduce the demand to come to the United States to have clean water, regular electricity, and to earn a decent wage. This is where I think the focus should be, helping other people get into situations where they are no longer wanting basic services or some particular luxuries. How to best do that? That's another post all together...