Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Counter-intuitive Right Answer

I have a friend at work who is a student pilot, and we recently were talking about some of the challenges of flying an airplane. Anyone who has played Sega's Afterburner or Konami's Top Gun arcade games as a kid gets the general premise that when you pull back on the stick (or push down on the controller pad), you're actually causing the flaps to move in a way which points the nose upwards. So one of the counter-intuitive thing that an arcade-game-playing kid learns is that pressing down makes you go up.

For student pilots, it becomes pretty natural that, generally, when you want to ascend, you'll pull up on the controls. The one major exception to this is when your plane begins to stall. I'm probably going to screw up the true engineering or mechanical explanation here, but generally speaking, when a plane's engine begins to stall, what's imperative is to gain airspeed, and that is done by pushing the nose of the plane downwards. Gravity becomes the plane's friend, and as the plane descends and picks up airspeed, the engine will move out of its stall and hopefully restarts, much to the joy and relief of the pilots and passengers.

Talking to my pilot friend, he confesses that this is easier said than done. When you're in a plane and the plane begins to descend suddenly due to a stall, the instinct is to pull back on the controls in an attempt to ascend. That's the worst thing that a pilot can do, as this will further kill airspeed and the plane will drop like a rock out of the sky. As my friend told me, more seasoned pilots aren't immune from this, as a regional plane in 2009 crashed in Buffalo in part due to a similar pilot error, killing all 49 passengers and crew. Training helps, but sometimes instinct overwhelms the counter-intuitive right answer.

I was thinking about this recently as I consider my extremely busy life right now. There's much up in the air with my life between work and church, and the human instinct is to seize more control. But ironically, that's probably to worst thing for me to do. The desire to control, often termed euphemistically as "grabbing the reins" is often thinly disguised manipulation or obsessive compulsion. At some point, being proactive and responsible becomes an obsession to do whatever it takes to control and manipulate a situation to bring about a result that we think that we want. Judgment becomes clouded, and before soon, we are single-minded focus to achieve our goal, without any regard for the unintended consequences.

From a faith perspective, the challenge is to understand when my responsibility ends, and when to let God reveal His sovereign will. When does one, as the cliché goes, "let go and let God?" I submit that there's discernment that goes into this, and I acknowledge that every person needs to work this out for themselves, but as for me, I know where my natural instinct and inclination leans, and for me, the counter-intuitive thing - namely, to let God - is what I need to do more of.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Angry Without Solutions

I'm trying to follow the happenings of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but while part of me is intrigued, a part of me is also confused and bored. While I have no doubt that a large number of people are participating because they sincerely want to leverage an act of civil disobedience to highlight a need for economic and social change, others are largely there for less than heroic reasons, raging from nothing better to do, cheap drugs, free food and easy sex. It's clear that the reaction to the movement is polarizing. Even my friends (or at least acquaintances) on Facebook are highly divided between those who are actually participating, and those who have taken photos of the protesters camping out with the commentary "stupid protesters.. get a fu--in job."

While I don't begrudge members (however amorphous that definition might be) of the movement from their right to protest and have their voice heard, my main criticism is that after many days of protests, a number of interactions with news media and countless articles and commentaries from talking heads from all sides of the political spectrum, I still don't know exactly what they want. In other words, if the American government and business leaders would proverbially give them a blank sheet of paper, what exactly would they ask for?

Even Congressman John Lewis, who has been outspoken in his support of the movement had this to say when drawing comparisons with the Civil Rights marches that he himself participated in:
"When we marched on Washington 48 years ago we marched for jobs and freedom. But we spelled it out. We said we wanted a civil rights bill. We said we wanted that bill to contain a ban on discrimination and public accommodation and employment, and we got it a year later. But these individuals all across America are saying, in effect, that the banks and other businesses are holding millions and billions of dollars and they need to invest in the American people. They need to put people back to work."
Lewis draws the big problem with the movement in that there isn't any thing equivalent to the civil rights bill that they're asking for. If you go to the "official" Occupy Wall Street Site (by the way, this is a movement that insists on being a leaderless movement in principle), there's a massive webpage which looks more like a wiki, with hordes of people insisting on demands which contradict a host of others. It's a mess.

I get the fact that people have been adversely affected by the economic downturn. I also get that people are upset that the financial services industry has recovered in part due to a taxpayer-funded bailout, and that many people have not. But standing around wearing a sandwichboard with a clever phrase engaging in group bitch-sessions about how Wall Street sucks, how the Republicans are Satan's minions and how President Obama has failed his base aren't all that productive. Please let me know when the occupying masses have developed a cohesive objective and a feasible blueprint on how to get there. And if at that point people aren't listening or giving the ideas due consideration, get your tent and canteen ready.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Little Scholar Factory

A little more than a week ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit my son's school for "Back to School Night" and it what struck me what just what a big deal this was to the administration, teachers and most of the parents. It was quite a production, with spread of hors d' oeuvres on the back table and the principal up there with his wireless mic, working the crowd like Jerry Lewis at an MDA telethon. Actually, the analogy of President Obama at the fundraiser might have been more apt, with him punching out accomplishments of the school, each punctuated with raucous applause by parents. I was tempted to stand up and chant, "FOUR MORE YEARS! FOUR MORE YEARS!" but my wife would've kneecapped me right there in the school gymnasium.

After the general session, we walking around and trying to come up with witty and insightful questions to the school librarian and music teacher who obviously barely knew our son. During this 45 minute block, we spoke to two teachers and ten other parents, almost all of whom were people known by my wife but not me. It sort of helped me appreciate my wife for putting up with my work-related social events and the awkwardness of not knowing anybody. On the plus side, I did manage to have a chat with another husband who didn't want to be there about our respective fantasy football teams.

Eventually, we did get to my son's classroom where his teacher gave a little presentation of the typical class schedule and her philosophy of education. All of the parents nodded politely, suppressing the instinct to be provocative and argumentative and question why she would place math in the morning instead of the afternoon despite recent studies from Teachers College at Columbia making it clear that early development specialists contend that math is better retained after the kids have been fueled by an afternoon snack of juice and cookies. Okay, I made that up, but it would have been interesting to see how she would've reacted if I tried to call her on that.

My highlight was actually hovering over my son's desk and rapidly writing notes on pieces of paper and paper towels and cramming them in his books and desk so that he might find them later. Notes which said things like:

  • "Dear Son, Your mom and I love you very much and we're very proud of you. Listen to the teacher and learn. Love, Dad"
  • "Dear Son, Listen to the teacher and play well with your classmates. You only have one chance for 1st grade. Enjoy it! Love, Dad"
  • "Dear Son, Study hard. If you don't get into an Ivy League school, we won't pay for college and you're out of the will. Then you can look forward to a depressing and lonely life eating government cheese. Love, Dad"
Okay, I made up the last one. Leaving notes for my son in his desk was probably the only worthwhile part of Back to School Night. As far as everything else, I'm not convinced it wouldn't have been as effective or more convenient for me to get a newsletter. And the parent-teacher conferences where you actually get to engage with your kid's teacher for 30 minutes or so seemed to make this redundant and unnecessary. I didn't need to nibble on brie cheese while the principal held a rally for the PTO.

Granted, this is the first time I've done this as a parent (my wife had to go solo last year when our son was in kindergarten), but the whole thing struck me as a little over the top. I do wonder whether the "vibe" of these things have changed since my parents used to go to mine. Maybe I've been scarred by too many movies about education, but at my school, the rigor and pressure seems almost palpable. Maybe because I can sense that administrators and teachers are singing for their supper, convincing parents of a challenging educational path that will enable their children to get into Harvard. Maybe it's because I see so many parents taking this so seriously. Who knows? Maybe I'm not taking this seriously enough.

I just hope his day to day experience at this place is a lot more enjoyable that my three hours.