The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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In Defense of Progress

I am, in general, quite the fan of Ken Liu and his (prolific) string of beautifully written and diverse science fiction. Yesterday, however, he tweeted two statements to which I take strong exception:

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 12h9:26 PM – 2 Jul 13
I don’t write scifi that tries to imagine a “better” future because I fundamentally don’t think human nature changes. There’s no “progress”.

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 9:27 PM – 2 Jul 13
The future is both better and worse because technology just magnifies our existing tendencies.

I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by many people, including friends and colleagues, in recent times. I’m not sure if its the hangover from post-modernism or just an extension of the disaffection of the times. I suspect it is a combination of both, perhaps mixed in with a little neo-liberal angst about the fact that the civil rights movement, while a momentous step forward, hasn’t yet actually solved the problems against which it arose.

Whatever the cause, I think the belief that we never make progress (moral, social, political, or technological) is not only ideologically self-defeatist, but also simply wrong on the facts.

Here were my responses to Liu:

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:52 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 I respectfully disagree. We have a long way to go yet, but think of what we have accomplished with civil rights, disease, & war.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:53 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 For example see: I am often saddened by the world, but believe in humanity and scifi’s role in shaping it.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:54 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 Discrimination, segregation, & misogyny remain rampant, but few would say that we are worse off than 1960. Visionary writers help.

I am a teacher in an urban public school. I will be among the last to say that we are even close to solving the problems of structural racism, ethnic/class/sex/gender segregation and discrimination, and economic and social exploitation. And anyone paying even marginal attention to the news around the world today may find little that is heartening.

But to claim that we make no progress denies the hard-won successes on so many fronts by brave people that brought us closer, step by painful step, to the day when we actually live up to our stated ideals.

The article I linked to in my reply tweet to Liu is about Stephen Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It makes several points that many disaffected contemporary citizens might find surprising. Chief among them is this one:

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

The trend holds true even accounting for the advancement of destructive technology:

Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.

Further, with respect to human rights:

The final trend Pinker discusses is the “rights revolution,” the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this “the worst thing I have ever done.” In 1975 it wasn’t uncommon.)

I won’t rehash all of Pinker’s arguments and supporting points here. Read the article (and really, the book) if you are curious.

My point is threefold.

  • The advancement of scientific ideas has saved or improved the lives of hundreds of millions if not billions of people through medicine and medical technology, agriculture, sanitation, informatics and data, structural engineering, civil infrastructure, and countless other applied fields, all of which rely on advancements in the pure sciences as their foundation. Science has also opened up our eyes to the big picture of who and where we are in the universe, and helped us to see ourselves as one species on a pale blue dot. It has also proven 19th century philosophers wrong by showing that human nature is essentially collaborative, not brutishly selfish1.
  • The advancement of moral, philosophic, and socio-political ideas2 has liberated countless people from slavery, bondage, discrimination, persecution, superstition, and prejudice through the spread of humanism and rational thought.
  • And last but certainly not least, the advancement of cultural ideas through the production and dissemination of art has repeatedly forced people, societies, and governments to face and analyze both the beautiful and ugly sides of our nature, and served as the catalyst for change in modes of thinking, living, and treating each other.

Of course these battles are not yet won, of course we’ve sometimes taken two steps back for every one forward, and of course many of the leading people and ideas in these movements were flawed3. But to focus on these narrow aspects with the smug satisfaction of neo-liberal hindsight is missing the forest for the mushrooms at the base of the trees.

These liberating forces (Science, Philosophy, Art) are not about individuals, but ideas — of grand movements that span generations, in which the contributions of individuals join like droplets forming a river.

Let’s bring it back around. Where is science fiction in all this? I don’t mean to unfairly single out Liu, as I think this goes well beyond any individual. And as I said before, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for Liu, his writing, and what he has done for science fiction. He just happened to tweet something which irked me and now here I am on an idealistic rant.

Liu is a prominent writer, and deservedly so, in the field of science fiction. As a consequence, I think his remarks, even off-the-cuff ones, can do much harm. These remarks can propagate the myth that science is somehow “equally good and bad” (or worse) in affecting human condition (see above, I think it has been unequivocally an overall force for good4. These remarks can entrench the contemporary negative trends of looking inward, to what is about ME, rather than outward, to what is about US and what we could accomplish together if we tried. And these remarks can encourage other science fiction writers to abdicate their responsibility to further social, technological, and ethical discourse about both the present and our shared future.

There is progress. Science fiction is a genre that has both the power and, I would opine, the moral obligation to help shape that progress. To quote a progressive warrior from decades past, I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it.

And I think Liu welcomes it too, whether he consciously admits it or not — his fiction has arguably done more to increase diverse and progressive thought in science fiction than that of perhaps any other writer of which I am aware, at least in the past couple of years. Those are welcome drops in the river.

Eyes on the prize. March on.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Though I would say certain economic structures can definitely promote selfish behavior.
  2. For the western world, this means most particularly the Enlightenment. However, there are analogs of this idealogical reformation in the history of many cultures around the globe.
  3. Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and was by many measures a hypocrite; he also helped craft the very documents and ideas that the civil rights movement used to justify emancipation and desegregation, and the inspiration for other progressive movements around the globe. Yes, Hemingway was a chauvinist; that doesn’t erase his damn fine prose and insight into the human struggle for meaning. Have we become so polarized even in thought that we can no longer handle these gray superpositions?
  4. See also my philosophy of science education for further discussion.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN at the Huntington

Life is simply a long line that reaches into infinity. And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes. And it is very odd but those who see the changes are called “idealists” and those who cannot, or who refuse to think, they are the “realists”.

— Joseph Asagai, in Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN.

Last Saturday’s show of Liesl Tommy’s production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN at the Huntington Theatre marks my first dose of the theatre drug since moving to Boston last June. It was a wonderful experience on many levels.

Clint Ramos and Lap Chi Chu delivered beautifully integrated scenic and lighting designs, respectively. The Younger’s rickety Chicago South Side apartment was constructed on a large circular platform that rotated to expose the various rooms of the house. It symbolized for me the whirl of forces that fling the family from one event to the next. Also symbolic was the fact that the whole apartment was constructed inside of a large grid that surrounded the unfolding story on the sides, back, and top with a black cage of individual warm can lights. The lights were used in patterns to great visual effect.

The actors all did a fine job, but Keona Welch’s rendition of Beneatha Younger was my favorite performance in the production. By having her character deliver potentially sarcastic lines in a naively wide-eyed and serious way, she added a nice layer of humor to the character’s poignant quest for identity.

Underneath the particulars of the production however is the brilliance of the play itself. It is the mark of a true classic that it remains perpetually relevant, and Lorraine Hansberry’s script easily makes the cut.  Hansberry’s depiction of implicit racism and systemic segregation remains an ugly self-reflection of much that is around me here in Boston, and by extension the country and our times. And the side themes of conflicted identity, the nature of idealism, the paradoxes of family, and the value of love in dark times require no particular time and place to show us something about the human condition.

Last week was the first play I attended in Boston and the first time I have ever seen this particular play performed. I am so happy about both!

A Psalm of Life

A Psalm of Life

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solenm main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Our Choice

“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours. In every one of them, there’s a succession of incidence, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet, at this moment, here we face a critical branch-point in the history. What we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilization, and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition, or greed, or stupidity we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But, we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth, to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet. To enhance enormously our understanding of the Universe, and to carry us to the stars.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos episode 8, “Journeys in Space and Time”

I used to quote things like this all the time, and I think its been quite fashionable for progressive-minded people to do so for the last several decades, at least since the 60’s. What I see far less of these days is people actually doing something. Then I realized that I had been arm-chairing about nobody actually doing anything about anything for years without actually doing anything about anything. So then I decided to do something about something.

Counter-culture hipster attitudes and a veneer of non-conformity are everywhere, at least here in California. I see a lot of the other end of the spectrum too, religious conservatives who have somehow managed to interpret the New Testament to support the idea that repressive socioeconomic policies, massive corporate profits, rabid individualism, and resorting to force are ever good things. If there’s one thing humans are good at as a species, its reconciling the irreconcilable… keeping calm and carrying on.

The fact of the matter is that the world is broken. But the beauty is in the fighting of it. We can love truly when there are so many forces struggling to divide us. We can pursue a life dedicated to the betterment of one’s fellow human beings, even in the face of so many influences delighting when we look out only for number one. See, that is the bribe; the price of our silence and inaction is the hedonism of convenience, the drug of indifference, an opiate made of jaded apathy. Life is just so much easier that way. And they know it, and they make money off of it.

In fact, the world has been broken for millenia, and we certainly aren’t the first generation to find that out. What I think is different now is that we expect someone else to do something about it, or worse, convince ourselves that the world is not actually worth fixing.

I’m tired of it. I’ve traded in a comfortable secure income and almost everything I own for a proverbial lance and donkey. If you need me, I’ll be in the inner city, charging at windmills built of ignorance, neglect, suspicion, injustice, and an institutionalized hypocrisy armored with exceptionalist hubris.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

— Steve Jobs

Easy to blog about or tweet links. Now what are you doing about it? Saddle up.

…the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable, not just adequately but well and with grace.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow.

quote from “The Sparrow”

Aside  Comment

I’m presently reading Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and came across this passage that I really liked:

He was always working or laughing or studying, and his intensity and humor made him seem ageless. She knew something of his life, having worked with him, and recognized him as one of her own kind: an eternal beginner, starting over and over in a new place in new circumstances, with new languages, new people, a new commission. They had this in common: the continual rushed confrontation with change, the feeling of being hothoused, forced to bloom early, the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable not just adequately but well and with grace.

It felt apropos.

Resignation Letter to Colleagues

From: Ratnayake, Nalin A. (DFRC-RA)
Date: Thu, 26 Jan 2012 15:03:59 -0600
Subject: saddle up

Dear Colleagues,

It will be awhile yet before this takes effect, but I wanted you to hear about this on my own terms, not through vague rumors. Today I gave notice that I will be resigning from my present position as an aerospace research engineer at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center by the end of May 2012.

NASA has been very kind to me. In my five and a half years here, Dryden has afforded me the opportunity to accrue unique engineering knowledge, a masters degree, and a life-changing leadership development experience. I also feel honored to have had the privilege of working with some of the most creative and intelligent people I have ever met. The best part about Dryden is definitely its people, and I will miss you.

Notwithstanding my gratitude for these opportunities, I have been unable to ignore a stronger calling within me, one which has been simmering for years and only recently boiled over into action. I will be leaving Dryden for the intellectual trenches – to the front lines of a social inequity that has been a thorn in my brain for a long time.

I have been accepted to, and have accepted an offer from, the Boston Teacher Residency, on a track for teaching high school physics. After a one-year immersive Masters in Education program, including a rigorous mentoring process focused on holistic urban community development and modeled on a medical residency, graduates are placed into urban schools in struggling communities with the greatest need for their skills. I have been quite humbled by the qualifications, experience, and character of my fellow inductees to BTR’s 10th Cohort.

My motivations are largely personal. I recognize that I will be taking a significant pay cut and leaving a relatively secure federal research position for a profession whose respect and security are paradoxically coming increasingly under fire, even as we recognize more and more its value to society. However, I will not pass up the chance to join this movement.

The primary motivation for everything I have seriously pursued in my life has always been social relevance. My interest in engineering was only partially about technical fascination; it was more broadly about engineering being a crossroads of people and ideas for the benefit of society. I dreamed of working for NASA as a kid because I suppose I saw it as the very bleeding edge of what was possible in peaceful research and exploration; the place where we take on the hardest things our species can imagine, and through succeeding (or even trying), we unlock the benefits for our fellow human beings.

But from a broader perspective, one need only pay marginal attention to the state of our nation to see a whole host of fronts in sore need of creative, passionate, and motivated people undaunted by the odds or the magnitude of the objective. For example, education. The students that are the majority in our urban schools are 3.5 times more likely to grow up in poverty, and subject to its debilitating effects on learning and achievement in the aggregate. In some urban districts, graduation rates are as low as 8%. The situation is even more dire in math and science, fields in which we as a nation have been particularly negligent in preparing the future of our economic and national security, health and welfare, and innovative prowess. The need for qualified science and math teachers over the next ten years is estimated to top 500,000, as roughly two million teachers retire while the student population continues to grow. Hardest hit will be the poor districts that subsist on a never-ending series of long-term, under-qualified substitutes… because there is no one else, and frankly hasn’t been for a long time. The nation that could put a man on another celestial body for the sake of a political principle can’t do better than that by our own classrooms?

To be perfectly honest, I stared at the acceptance form for days before I decided to just turn off my brain, close my eyes, and click yes. In my heart I already knew, but I thought I had to also convince my brain… but there is no way that would have ever happened, because I admit that there is no logical reason to do this. Service to an ideal often inherently entails a modicum of irrational risk; it will never “make sense” to do it in a material context. But had I turned this down, at this point in my life when I have the clear opportunity, am free of debt, and am as of yet unrestricted by any dependents… I think I would have regretted it for a long time. So, as my awareness of these injustices has grown, my individual success has taken on new context: I have decided that it is time to pay it forward, in return for all that this country has enabled me and my family to achieve.

The impending massive turnover in the leadership of private and public institutions over the next decade will soon give our generation the opportunity to make significant positive change in the world.

I hope that in the next chapters of my life I can do justice to the level of gratitude I feel to the experiences, friends, and colleagues I have been fortunate to encounter in this one. Thank you for helping to make me who I am, and for preparing me for what lies ahead. In return, I pledge to work very hard to improve the scientific literacy and curiosity of the electorate supporting your work, set an example for raising the bar on who we as a society want in our most important profession (as many in it already do daily), and to hopefully send you many intelligent, curious, and smartass interns.

I will be around for a few months yet, so you have plenty of time to attempt to inform me that I’m crazy. But this is already locked in. Soon it will be time to saddle up and see if my principles can survive the trenches of reality… time to try and build a better world.