Saturday, January 7, 2012

Rebuttled to a Cynical, Irresponsible Article

I found a link someone had posted on Facebook to an article written by a Professor of Physics from the esteemed Washington University. The title was "Don't Become a Scientist!" I found it to be greatly misleading and informed from too narrow of a perspective. I felt obliged to make my e-mail rebuttal public lest his article be successful in shying away students from the sciences. His article:

Don't Become a Scientist!

Jonathan I. Katz
Professor of Physics
Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.
[my last name]

Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Do you want
to uncover the mysteries of nature, perform experiments or carry out
calculations to learn how the world works? Forget it!

Science is fun and exciting. The thrill of discovery is unique. If you are smart, ambitious and hard working you should major in science as an undergraduate. But that is as far as you should take it. After graduation, you will have to deal with the real world. That means that you should not even consider going to graduate school in
science. Do something else instead: medical school, law school, computers or
engineering, or something else which appeals to you.

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and
curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly
be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another

American universities train roughly twice as many Ph.D.s as there are
jobs for them. When something, or someone, is a glut on the market, the price
drops. In the case of Ph.D. scientists, the reduction in price takes the form of
many years spent in ``holding pattern'' postdoctoral jobs. Permanent jobs don't
pay much less than they used to, but instead of obtaining a real job two years
after the Ph.D. (as was typical 25 years ago) most young scientists spend five,
ten, or more years as postdocs. They have no prospect of permanent employment
and often must obtain a new postdoctoral position and move every two years. For
many more details consult the Young Scientists'Network or read the account in the May, 2001 issue of the Washington Monthly.

As examples, consider two of the leading candidates for a recent Assistant Professorship in my department. One was 37, ten years out of graduate school (he didn't get the job). The leading candidate, whom everyone thinks is brilliant, was 35, seven years out of graduate school. Only then was he offered his first permanent job
(that's not tenure, just the possibility of it six years later, and a step off
the treadmill of looking for a new job every two years). The latest example is a
39 year old candidate for another Assistant Professorship; he has published 35
papers. In contrast, a doctor typically enters private practice at 29, a lawyer
at 25 and makes partner at 31, and a computer scientist with a Ph.D. has a very
good job at 27 (computer science and engineering are the few fields in which
industrial demand makes it sensible to get a Ph.D.). Anyone with the
intelligence, ambition and willingness to work hard to succeed in science can
also succeed in any of these other professions.

Typical postdoctoral salaries begin at $27,000 annually in the biological sciences and about $35,000 in the physical sciences (graduate student stipends are less than half these figures). Can you support a family on that income? It suffices for a young couple in a small apartment, though I know of one physicist whose wife left him because she was tired of repeatedly moving with little prospect of settling down. When you are in your thirties you will need more: a house in a good school district and all the other necessities of ordinary middle class life. Science is a
profession, not a religious vocation, and does not justify an oath of poverty or

Of course, you don't go into science to get rich. So you choose not
to go to medical or law school, even though a doctor or lawyer typically earns
two to three times as much as a scientist (one lucky enough to have a good
senior-level job). I made that choice too. I became a scientist in order to have
the freedom to work on problems which interest me. But you probably won't get
that freedom. As a postdoc you will work on someone else's ideas, and may be
treated as a technician rather than as an independent collaborator. Eventually,
you will probably be squeezed out of science entirely. You can get a fine job as
a computer programmer, but why not do this at 22, rather than putting up with a
decade of misery in the scientific job market first? The longer you spend in
science the harder you will find it to leave, and the less attractive you will
be to prospective employers in other fields.

Perhaps you are so talented that you can beat the postdoc trap; some university (there are hardly any industrial jobs in the physical sciences) will be so impressed with you that you will be hired into a tenure track position two years out of graduate school. Maybe. But the general cheapening of scientific labor means that even the most talented stay on the postdoctoral treadmill for a very long time; consider the job candidates described above. And many who appear to be very talented, with grades and recommendations to match, later find that the competition of research is
more difficult, or at least different, and that they must struggle with the

Suppose you do eventually obtain a permanent job, perhaps a tenured
professorship. The struggle for a job is now replaced by a struggle for grant
support, and again there is a glut of scientists. Now you spend your time
writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are
judged by your competitors you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your
effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on
solving the important scientific problems. They're not the same thing: you
cannot put your past successes in a proposal, because they are finished work,
and your new ideas, however original and clever, are still unproven. It is
proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal; because
they have not yet been proved to work (after all, that is what you are proposing
to do) they can be, and will be, rated poorly. Having achieved the promised
land, you find that it is not what you wanted after all.

What can be done? The first thing for any young person (which means anyone who does not have a permanent job in science) to do is to pursue another career. This will spare you the misery of disappointed expectations. Young Americans have generally woken up to the bad prospects and absence of a reasonable middle class career path in science and are deserting it. If you haven't yet, then join them. Leave graduate
school to people from India and China, for whom the prospects at home are even
worse. I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D.
in physics than by drugs.

If you are in a position of leadership in science then you should try to persuade the funding agencies to train fewer Ph.D.s. The glut of scientists is entirely the consequence of funding policies (almost all graduate education is paid for by federal grants). The funding agencies are bemoaning the scarcity of young people interested in science when they themselves caused this scarcity by destroying science as a career. They could reverse this situation by matching the number trained to the demand, but they refuse to do so, or even to discuss the problem seriously (for many years the NSF propagated a dishonest prediction of a coming shortage of scientists, and most funding agencies still act as if this were true). The result is that the
best young people, who should go into science, sensibly refuse to do so, and the
graduate schools are filled with weak American students and with foreigners
lured by the American student visa.
My rebuttal:

Dr. Katz,

Although you make some interesting points, my personal experience
contradicts several of your claims. You make a great case for predicting
struggle in the PhD route to an academic position, but you greatly underestimate
the possibilities in industry. The hastily thrown in statement, "there are
hardly any industrial jobs in the physical sciences," is just ludicrous.
If you've stayed in academia for your career and had no intentions of
leaving, it's understandable that you're not aware of the plethora of
opportunities in American industry, but it's irresponsible to make these claims
in an article that very well may shape what a young person decides to do with
their lives without offering at least some data to add perspective.

Personally, I obtained a bachelor and then master of science in
physics. I then chose to stop because I wasn't interested in academia for
many of the reasons you highlighted (post doc trap, bulk of work writing
proposals and scrounging for funding...) as well as the fact that I was not
passionate enough about any single area to devote the next few years of my life
to, which in turn might pigeon-hole me in the job-search. After all who
would pay the salary of a PhD scientist for thin film work if their thesis was
on Lithium boro-hydride complexes for use in hydrogen storage, or some equally
as obscure topic? So you get the advanced degree to show you're capable of
more than bachelor work and get your name on a few research papers from a
variety of subjects to show you're adept at solving a broad set of complicated
problems. I was immediately approached by a high-tech company, told to
look at the three positions they had open, and apply for any and all that I was
interested in. I found out later that these three positions had been open
for around 8 months and they were having trouble filling them. I took one
and it's turned out to be a fantastically rewarding experience.

While I agree that there are many problems that stem from a broken funding structure that tinker with the supply and demand of educated people, physicists and other scientist also get a great advantage that you've overlooked: I have graduated
with my two degrees having zero debt. I didn't go to a university as
highly regarded as WashU (for this reason among others), but I learned from the
same texts, had ample opportunity for funded research at even the undergraduate
level, and the department that was desperate for good students picked up the
tuition costs of all graduate students and a portion of many undergrads.
Their desperation for students had disadvantages, mainly in that they
lowered standards to insure that even poorly performing students passed, but my
friend in law school will have between $100k-$200k in debt at the same age.
If you were to calculate our live-time earnings, especially given that my
extra stock/retirement contributions get the benefit of time to compound, I'm
sure I will come out even or significantly ahead. Also realize that lawyer
income distributions are heavily bimodal and many law students are unlikely to
get the lucrative jobs that skew the averages yet they'll have comparable debt.
My particular situation may be an unrealistic expectation for all
students, but there are ample opportunities to graduate with advanced science
degrees with minimal debt in comparison to non-science degrees.

You are correct that there are many possible dead-ends and one must be aware of them when making such far reaching decisions, but they certainly
aren't unnavigable. If one hopes to carve a niche in industry, they
merely need to keep the perspective that their college experience is meant to
train them in a skill set that an employer would deem desirable and isn't
necessarily an outlet just for intellectual curiosity. If one makes a
decision to focus their time on some spin-off from general relativity, then they
shouldn't be surprised when the industry jobs they're qualified for are less
than the material scientist. My job title doesn't contain the word
"Physicist, " and I'm not solving deep mysteries of the universe, but I'm in an
intellectually stimulating environment surrounded by very bright people, have a
vast landscape of interesting problems with the autonomy to choose among them,
and a healthy salary at a young age that might discourage my hypothetical wife
from leaving. So please, be careful in discouraging young people from
going into a potentially highly rewarding field just because challenges exist.
Although discouraging them from trying is one route, a less cynical
alternative is informing them of these traps along with ways around them to give
a healthy perspective.
Judge for yourselves...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A New Form of Cyber Warfare

Although I haven’t done any research, my research tells me a new form of cyber warfare was invented on January 2nd, 2012 by a flash e-mob incited by comedian Doug Stanhope. Witnessing it unfold left me feeling awestruck, a bit fearful, and incredibly entertained. Mr. Stanhope and the mob that self-assembled in his service accomplished their mission in about 12 hours. No blood was shed. Their goal? Use the web to mass-insult an individual to a degree never achieved before on as many fronts as possible.

The natural question: why? The poor bastard’s name is Troy Holm. I would link you to his Facebook page, but it has been destroyed. Troy Holm is a douche bag, let that be clear. But he isn’t just a douche bag. This particular ass hat created a blog that claimed something along the lines of “All of this material comes from my personal journals,” (I would provide the exact quote but his blog was also destroyed). What did his blog contain that made him briefly the most hated man on the internet? Verbatim comedy routines of Doug Stanhope, passed off as if they were his own thoughts from his own journals. You may be thinking, “Hey, that’s not so terrible, perhaps he was paying homage?” The depth of his douche-baggery was found in things like responses to readers’ comments where he tailored more Stanhope material to give the appearance that these were his true life stories. As if that weren’t enough to deserve ridicule, there was a huge stream of pictures of this shit sack human being with a countless number of women along with posts about cheating on his wife, tricking women into sex…etc. Coupled with the fact that these women were often obviously hammered and sometimes appearing under-age, one couldn’t help but think this guy was every father’s worst nightmare. In a string of adjectives, he is a balding, lying, plagiarizing Tucker Max with a penchant for taking photographs that beg for hilarious caption.

If there is one demographic that you wouldn’t want captioning hundreds of your photos on Facebook for the whole world to see, it’s Doug Stanhope fans. Take one look at some comedy clips on YouTube or the things his fans post on the forum and you’ll see why. Although some fans are satisfied with merely using shock language, many of them are quite clever and have a well formed ability to provide stinging and funny insults. This should come as no surprise given that they are willing servants to a legend that masterfully blends razor sharp social satire with dick and fart jokes that both mock this absurd world and provide an outlet from it by giving a glimpse into a perspective that has been honed presumably by laborious independent thought and mind-altering substances.

In a world of frivolous lawsuits, snail-paced judicial systems, money-hungry 3rd parties, and douche bags no one likes, Stanhope’s fans took it upon themselves to restore social justice by ostracizing the thief. They assembled in a Facebook page entitled "Occupy Troy Holm" that has received about 1200 subscribers in less than 24 hours. Collectively, Stanhope and his fans hold few things as sacred, but his/their comedy is on that list. There will be debate on whether this mass attack was deserved, just, went too far or was even funny, but no one will question whether it was effective. This guy’s blog hadn’t been posted on since July 2010 until Stanhope caught wind of it and posted a single Facebook update: “This fuck stealing my stuff verbatim and passing it off as his own writing. Please ruin his day.” The shit-storm that was immediately unleashed ended up shutting down his blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, and who knows what else in about 12 hours. This may not be a big deal to some, but for a younger generation that increasingly relies on social networking as a means to navigate their world, this could be quite the hassle. Stanhope himself used Troy’s social media against him by observing the restaurants/bars he frequents and then posting comments on those business pages saying things like, “T[r]oy Holm says he drinks here. Keep an eye out if you dont want him to steal all your shit.” Although I’m not sympathetic to this guy, I wonder where else this form of warfare might be waged. This isn’t the first idea Stanhope has had in using terrorism to solve non-political problems (see his bit on the egg sandwich at Subway), but it’s the first execution of it I’m aware of. Although it’s easy to pass this off as a perfect storm of circumstances that led to a fluke of highly motivated fans doing the harmless bidding of the man they respect, I can’t help but wonder if this was a mere glimpse of people using modern technology to empower themselves. Perhaps next time the effect will be greater than teaching some shithead a lesson he will never forget, if anything greater than that exists.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Swarm Music

I'm currently reading a book called The Perfect Swarm, by Len Fisher. It seems to mainly be about how individuals, be it ants, bees, humans...etc, can follow simple rules to achieve things that individuals could not alone. It is a grand example of the total being much more than the sum of its parts.

Ants use such swarm logic to find the shortest path from home to food, for example. Simply put, success demands reinforcement of good choices, penalty for bad ones, and a tendency for newcomers to prefer good ones. An ability to learn from the past helps the optimization.

Given our highly interconnected age due to digital communication, the concept begs for application. One in particular comes to mind that could be both scientifically interesting as well as entertaining: using the swarm to create music.

This may be overly ambitious and the details would need to be hammered out, but here's a first pass. Assemble an online collection of musicians to act as the swarm. Establish a means of giving positive or negative feedback on aspects of the music by individuals. Encourage listeners to contribute creatively to the evolving system(s).

It might happen something like this. I write a simple guitar part, record it and host it on a group-accessible page. Another guitar player decides it should hit a B chord instead of a C on a particular part and uploads his own recording. People like this version more and hence judge it as an improvement, which contributes to a higher rating for the version. When another person views the page, the best-rated version is at the top and successively worse versions descend along the page.

Now suppose a third person is a more proficient guitar player, but isn't necessarily as good at creating new music. This person re-plays the same part but with higher skill. This version gets an even higher rating. Now maybe someone adept at mixing music downloads the piece and tweaks the EQ or adds reverb. Adding new instruments could start new pages and then those more complete songs could evolve independently. If participation was active, the piece could naturally assemble and optimize to the tastes of the group.

A sort of modularity is built-in. By this I mean that those proficient at particular deeds are naturally used for that deed; i.e. if a person is good at playing guitar, then when they do so the rating is likely to be higher for their recording than that of a less proficient player, or than if they tried to play drums. It is conceivable that the group would fragment into interconnected modules that specialized in particular aspects, much like the human body is fragmented into organs and appendages that cooperate to serve the same purpose.

There are of course practical hurdles. For instance, how many people would be needed to allow self-organization given reasonable demands of contribution? For instance, ants could not find the optimum route to a food source if the chemicals they released evaporated more quickly than could be laid down. Or, in reference to the tale of Hansel and Gretel, if the trail of cookies are being eaten, you'd better be quick in returning if you hope to follow them! In the context of this project, the contributions have to be numerous enough to keep the project alive and growing and individuals can only be expected to contribute so much.

A condition for the success of swarm behavior is that there cannot be competing goals. This is a bit qualitative and though one can conceive of goals more easily when it comes to obtaining food and not being eaten in the process, it's more difficult in the context of making music. Sure, we all want a great collection of songs, but great is defined differently for each member. Further, as the system evolves, so might the members concept of great; i.e. we may agree that the three guitar parts are independently great, but you may like them strung together in order 1-2-3 and I may prefer 2-1-3; in this way, it might be said that the goal evolves with the system. However, since the goodness is determined by the collection of ratings from the group, we might be able to say that the group goal does not change.

The benefit/penalty might be dealt out in points to your ranking as a musician depending upon how much better or worse you've made changes. It is common for such arbitrary point systems to affect the behavior of online community members. Higher ranked changes could be more easily accessible than lower ranked ones, perhaps being on the front page or at the top. These simple rules might satisfy the three requirements highlighted above of reinforced goodness, penalized badness, and bias towards that which was found to be good.

How could such a concept get started? Or better refined? Suggestions welcome.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Wasted Majority?

An oft-heard criticism internal to America is that we consume far more than our share, relatively speaking. Perhaps a good consequence/symbol of this was illuminated in a documentary I watched recently that noted America's second largest export is scrap metal. If this level of consumption is undesirable, it might be worthwhile considering potential causes.

Our society seems to dictate that most of us spend at least eight hours a day at our jobs. Otherwise, except in probably rare circumstances, it's difficult to survive as a normal member of society. This structure only works, of course, if the products being manufactured are being purchased/consumed. If levels of individual time are categorized as: self-preservation, partner/friend outreach, family nurturing, workgroup participation, cultural participation, and shared-knowledge contributions, is it any surprise that the balance of community focus might be obstructed when society typically demands that half of our waking hours are spent in one of the six categories (workgroup)? If our survival is largely based on our ability to produce consumables, is it a surprise that the American landscape has become a big shopping mall, as George Carlin has criticized? The choice doesn't seem to be that you work as much as your needs demand (as you define them), but that you either work a full time job and survive, or you do not.

What would economists have to say about a world in which people had the freedom to choose how many hours a day they worked? Does the 80/20 rule offer any insights? For instance, if 20% are by far the most productive and are responsible for 80% of production, could the remaining 80% be better served focusing on other layers of organization, like child-care or community services? In other words, can their efforts be measured in a way that don't necessarily involve dollars and cents? For instance, what of a person that can sit at home and play with abstract mathematics and physics, contributing to the shared knowledge category? Although it might be difficult to ascribe a monetary value to their theoretical contributions or set up an institution for supporting them financially, it's probably a good idea to have people doing what they do best. Companies are known for not financially supporting pure science as much as applied science since the short-term payoffs are likely to be less. This is reasonable from a business standpoint and funding from government attempts to fill the gap, but is there no other way for society to operate that takes advantage of the people that are willing and capable to do such things? Obviously a complete restructuring of societal mechanisms is an idealistic and romantic notion, but there might be benefits to being skeptical of the capitalistic/democratic presumptions that have done wonders for the world so far, but may not remain sufficient to keeping our communities healthy in ways that are measured by means other than economic productivity.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Question for Cosmologists

The following thoughts were prompted by trying to figure out what the question, “Is the Universe infinite?” is really asking. “How could it be?” I ask. If we know the age of the Universe is finite, and we know that the fastest anything with energy/information can travel is the speed of light, isn't the “size” of the Universe merely the age multiplied by the speed of light? But how is the Universe defined? Some say that space is infinite and that the matter is expanding into it. But, if my limited understanding serves me, wasn't there no space before the Big Bang and the existence of matter? Also, there has been much work done on particular periods of inflation. Is this not the Universe starting from a smaller size and getting larger? If so, at what point did the Universe go from being finite to infinite? Is the theory that precisely at the Big Bang, space was made infinite, and then inflation caused it to be more infinite? I'm not even sure the word “infinite” has much meaning in this case. If there is a boundary of any kind which cannot be exceeded, how can one call this infinite? Because it always has the possibility to keep expanding? Perhaps they are saying, “The Universe will be infinite in size after an infinite amount of time.” Well, so be it. This is more a statement of the future of the Universe than its current state; a statement that the Universe will forever expand.

Maybe I'm simplifying, but it seems to me that the entity which includes all the mass and energy created in the Big Bang should be called the Universe; and if current time and maximum speed are finite, so its size must also. What am I missing?

So what of this boundary that marks the edge of the Universe? If you've read about General Relativity at all, it's likely you've seen the expansion of the Universe analogized to the following. There is a balloon with an array of equally spaced dots drawn on its surface. Now, blow up the balloon further. If you look at any single dot, all of its neighboring dots are moving further away. If you do the same analysis to one of the aforementioned neighboring dots, all of its neighboring dots are also moving further away from it. It's a beautiful demonstration of how all things can be moving further apart from one another simultaneously.

But our space is in three dimensions, whereas the surface of the balloon is in two. Ask yourself: what is the “boundary” in the case of the balloon? Is it the surface of the balloon? In the analogy, if each dot symbolized something like a galaxy, then the entire surface of the balloon would be the whole universe. So is the question, “Is the Universe infinite?” actually asking how much the balloon can be blown up? Assuming a balloon that doesn't break, maybe the concept is that we are blowing up this balloon in our living room and once it gets big enough to hit the walls and ceiling, that's it: the Universe is finite. In that case, however, the “Universe” not only consists of the surface of the balloon (which represents all the galaxies and space), but also the room in which it's being blown up. This is a higher dimension than that which the surface of the balloon exists.

In the case of our 3-D space expansion, that would mean the “room” exists in four dimensions. When we ask if the Universe is infinite, are we really asking about the size of the room in four dimensions? If so, there's no wonder why I was confused!

I would venture to make an educated assumption that our fourth dimension in this case is time. Just as saying that the size of the room being infinite suggests the balloon can become infinite as well, is it not equivalent to say that the Universe being infinite is equivalent to time being infinite? Once again, this seems like a statement about the potential of the future, not about a current property of the Universe.

Just to confuse matters more, let's think about what it means to be on the surface of this 3-D balloon. Aside from small fluctuations, everything is moving further away from us. Check. It's common knowledge that as we look into space, we are in a very real sense looking back in time, due to the fact that it takes time for light to travel from the object to our eyes. So everywhere we look, it happened in the past. The location of the “present” is right here. But of course, “right here” is different depending on if it's you, me, or some being in a different galaxy. We're all simultaneously in the present and past, depending on who you ask. I guess it becomes a question of “whose present?” and “whose past”? I always imagined the edge of the Universe to be some source of light, hauling ass at 300 billion meters per second “outward”, as if I was in the middle of the balloon watching it's surface expand outward. But this is not accurate. It seems we are all simultaneously on the “edge” of the Universe, which is defined by the present time and we are being propelled “outward” into the future.

In sum, I still don't think I understand the question: “Is the Universe infinite?” It seems to me, with my limited knowledge and probably faulty logic, that it is equivalent to asking if time is infinite. But that seems to depend on the fate of the Universe and isn't a property of it in the same sense as “total energy” or “total mass”. Whether the Universe collapses into the “Big Crunch” or expands forever is an interesting question, but if that is what's meant by asking if the Universe is infinite or not, please clarify!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Furious China

Comments made by Dr. Phil Fraundorf are responsible for my thinking along these lines, but the point he made is a good one. Is it not ridiculous to have a news title of “China is furious over...”? What information does that convey? I suppose it lets us know that at least some one in China is upset. They certainly don't mean the entire country. The title reads as if the country of China, not the people within it, have the emotion of anger. It assigns an individual feeling to a land mass and government. It might help us identify with an emotion in a knee-jerk kind of way, but is this not misleading? By merely accepting the title, we've accepted a huge simplification. It seems to me that this is somewhat dangerous. It is not as simple as “do A and China is happy, do B and China is furious.”

What harm could come from such absurd, though commonly accepted statements? Perhaps most immediately, it might discourage the reader to ask certain questions. It seems to appeal to the emotions first without being processed by the brain. For instance, if there were a similar news title about Iran being furious, we might never consider what that actually means in terms of consequences if we don't know specifically who is furious. Is it crazy old Ahmadinejad, the Ayatollah, or some portion of the population? The difference would be rather significant!

By glossing over these details and wording a title in an absurd, but easy-to-sympathize-with way, it might actually be more harmful than helpful to the person's understanding. To accept the wording is to deny the complexity of the power structure and it's relevance to the situation. I'm not suggesting that the title should be so in-depth that it become the article, but something as minor, but significant as, “Some Chinese leaders are furious over...” adds only two words. The reader might immediately wonder who and why, which eliminates the simplification and also adds the question of “who?” to the reader's mind. Once that is answered perhaps, “And what might that mean for the rest of the world?” will come next. A subtle change in phrasing may have the power to encourage the audience to read the article from a vantage point that nurtures the complexity of the world instead of disregarding it. And in an era where information is disseminated at the speed of light through a huge network of inter-connected minds, nurturing complexity may be our only hope of satisfying the vast needs of the network's members.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Observations on Homes

Why are they the way they are? Economic reasons? Blind adherence to traditional ideas? A reflection of our values?

The rooms are isolated from one another and subdivide a bigger space. Walls give the illusion of privacy and trick us into believing we are alone. If we are in a room by ourselves, we are alone, but if we knock down the walls, then we are exposed and among company. People say they need "my space". A space to call their own. A space which when outsiders are inside, they realize their wishes are secondary. A house within a house.

The most well-off among us tend to have individual bedrooms for each inhabitant, except the male-female heads of household that bed together. Each child has a room and then a separate room for particular activities: an office for working; a dining room; a sun room; a laundry room. We arrange our rooms with regard to our priorities, conscious or not. Our living rooms are arranged around the TV, giving everyone as good a view as possible. The television is the glowing star of the room and we all give it our complete and undivided attention. This is no place for small talk, unless it's during commercials. Our dining rooms hold a big platform that presents us with our feast and we circle around like a pack of animals. A meal prepared with such care and made to look so appealing, it warrants a prayer in thanks. The office has a large desk with a computer atop. We surround ourselves with books, reminding us of the work we've done in the past and can do again. A desktop lamp is present in preparation of working until the wee hours of the evening. A paper shredder for our mistakes. The kitchen is large enough for two people to cook, but rarely used as such. There are pots and pans of every size. Only 4 people live in the house, but there's 15 plates each of 2 different sizes. 10 bowls. 25 forks, spoons, and intentionally dull knives. A block of steak knives that have a couple butcher knives, a pair of large scissors, and something I cannot identify. This is only half of the kitchenware since the good China isn't used. There's usually a basement that has a storage area. A place to put a bunch of stuff you'd rather not throw away but can't find a place for: trophies, photo albums, old clothes, outdated electronics. Proof you lived in an earlier time with something tangible to show for it. Then there's the stuff that you'd sell if you had the chance, but no body wants it. But it's worth
something, you can't just toss it out.

Your old stuff cannot be among your new stuff, however. This would be cluttered and tacky. In order to not be obligated to apologize to guests before they enter, we must have vacuumed, dusted, wiped up, scrubbed down, washed, dried, polished, plunged, disinfected, and deodorized. Things must be put away. Trash goes in the trash can. Dirty clothes go into the dirty clothes hamper. Plates go into the plate cabinet and silver wear into the silver wear drawer. The magazines in the magazine rack and the coffee table book on the coffee table. Everything has its place and it's up to us to put it there. Complete control and knowledge of our surroundings. We are the Gods of our homes and impart our own divine plan of which only the inhabitants know the code. It is our decision where the forks belong. This is what makes it
our home. It is our material possessions that hold proof that we were successful in our lives. These possessions are validation of our memories. They assure us that our interpretations of the past are correct, no matter how distorted they become. The memories that are attached to our belongings whither and decay with them, as do we. Inanimate objects are alive in this way; in their ability to die and lose all meaning and value. Therefore we cherish them and store them and build rooms for them and organize them. We define them and in turn they define us.