Wednesday, January 20, 2010


At George Mason University I taught an undergraduate design studio titled Studies in Alternative Future Environments (SAFE), which I began each year with the suggestion that students might be well served by considering their academic goals: instead of working to determine what they wanted to do for a living, they could consider where they wanted to live.

We began with a framework borrowed from Ian McHarg's "Design with Nature.”

McHarq wrote that we must respect the underlying "nature" of the ground on which we live. In class, I suggested that a stable footing would increase the stability of student’s lives.

As we stare in shock and horror at the tragedy of Haiti, McHarg's work reminds me that if reconstruction is to be effective it must take into account the instability of the island.

It is too early to begin the discussion of "rebuilding" Haiti. Any energy that draws attention away from the stabilization of life there is energy misspent. But it has begun. Markers are being laid down and enormous amounts of money are starting to flow.

Discussions will be focused on the rebuilding of Port au Prince. There will be countervailing statements suggesting other approaches to the future of the Haitian people. Wyclef Jean campaigned for the evacuation of Port-au-Prince and the creation of tent cities in areas that could later be built into communities. Jean is pleading: "We need to migrate at least 2 million people," he said. "I give you my word, if I tell them to go, they will go. But they need somewhere to go. Help us work on these tents." Hopefully, wherever the survivors eventually take root, their helpers will consider the first principles of nature and locate them on stable ground.

We have had a spate of enormous disasters in the last decade and the world is trying to learn how best to respond. The Pakistan Earthquake of 2005 that killed 75,000 people and left millions homeless is the subject of an important study from The Feinstein International Center.

Within its pages are lessons regarding the critical importance of respect for the indigenous culture when attempting to provide aid. There is however no discussion of what I call "the persistence of place", the behavior of people rebuilding in the very places that have just experienced natural destruction. The evidence that the cataclysm will happen again goes unheeded. I think the concept is best exemplified by the arguments for rebuilding the ninth ward and other post Katrina zones of destruction. Occupants all along the coast argue that this is their home place and refuse to consider moving to other areas as a viable option. Worse, are the architects, builders, and developers who give in to this impulse and stage rebuilding exercises, exploiting them as laboratories for new green building, or arguing the moral high ground that they are being sensitive to the needs of the indigenous residents. This behavior and its effects are the subject of the book: The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization's Rough Landscape By Harm J. De Blij
An important excerpt is here.

Consider the fact that Banda-Aech was destroyed in the recent Tsunami
and despite the horror of that experience the rebuilding goes on and the beaches are open again to tourists.

On Sunday, scientists released an imminent warning that conditions are building for another likely Tsunami in the area.

The Chinese government have no plans to relocate the millions of persons
displaced by the Sichuan Quake of May 2008. In fact stories are emerging about new beautiful bamboo homes, built on plots cleared of rubble.

Maybe the most troubling of all examples is the response to the most recent quake that destroyed L'Aquila, Italy. The residents have a 700 year history of devastation and yet they persist in returning to the area.

Or consider the aftermath of the latest hurricane to destroy Galveston.

I lived for 5 years on the barrier island between the ocean and the inland waterway in south Florida. No amount of argument could prevent the developers building despite repeated warnings that the next storm will be devastating for the hundreds of thousands of persons who believe that they somehow will escape the inevitable. Unlike the hapless Haitian, persons who live in hurricane alley, or along the San Andreas Fault, or other highly unstable landscapes, have choices. They could move to areas suitable for human habitation. Their lack of sound judgment results in catastrophe. It is a burden that the rest of us shouldn't have to bear.

One of the more profound voices arguing for an alternative is Charles B. Perrow
Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Yale University. A lecture appears on the MIT World web site.
The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters
About the Lecture: (It runs 1:33) "It’s time to trade in the Department of Homeland Security for a Department of Homeland Vulnerabilities," says Charles Perrow. At its peril, our nation “privileges terrorism over natural and industrial disasters.”

Let his be a lesson to all of us.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Crap Detection

Recent college graduates fail to realize the promise of their education; a job.

Robert Galbraith / Reuters
Christine Chase, 24, searches for a job on her computer in her apartment in Campbell, Calif. Chase was laid off from her contractor job at AT&T in the Silicon Valley in August.

This problem is worldwide as this story will show.

Graduates scream foul when their degrees prove worthless. When this happens, you see educational institutions scramble to reform their product mix to appeal to new recruits. Then they are accused of being no more than Vocational Ed shops.

A feature in the NYT Saturday
addressed the issue and interestingly, had the audacity to suggest ten areas that look good to the writers, for job prospects in the future. The problem with these predictions is that they have no more chance of being accurate then the options that were offered 5 years ago to students who are now unemployed graduates.

The institutional response to students' demands for relevance results in one of the sorrier aspects of the process; the total abdication of any presumption that there is someone who actually knows more then the students about what it is that a student might need to know. Students may chose not to take philosophy courses but then where are they to learn ethics, values, or moral behavior?

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that economic collapse also affects the University and in tough times something has to give.

The Humanities always suffer in times like these. Courses that don't appear to have any market value are dropped. At UC Berkeley, a campus roiling in controversy, the very unpopular President Mark Yudoff commenting on students protesting raising fees, dropped classes, and reduction in admittance, said; "despite the outcry, I still don't have any money." There may be structural forces at work here. There always were for blacks, browns, and women. Now the crisis of the world's economy is being felt at the previously solid middle class level. In the words of Ananya Roy, also of Berkeley, "We have all become students of color now." If the conventional degree is proving worthless then what are students' alternatives ?

Harvard can afford to keep their wits about them and there is no pull back from their insistence on a core curriculum requirement or a new General Ed studies program. Theirs is a model of required study within the Humanities.

But for all of that, it is important to note that the Harvard graduates' record of integrity of late leaves a lot to be desired. Investigators were all over graduate Jeffery Skillings ( CEO, ENRON) for example, trying to draw out how he missed picking up ethics, or a conscience while a student. For those who might have missed it, the tapes documenting the behavior of that firm are here. It occurs to me that the unstated premise of the Business School curriculum is "how to get the suckers to part with their money".
Now we have a new set of graduates who have brought us the end of the world as we knew it.

If the best and the brightest are not being educated to be responsible leaders then it seems to me that the rest of us need a set of skills to survive them.

I am developing the following course offerings for non credit.

The Art of Crap Detection:
For academic applications consider a guide by Nathan P. Gilmour

For the more pragmatic needs of our students we have courses in:

They know nothing: experts who aren't and how to identify them.

Resistance: how to deflect the marketing strategies developed by the graduates of business schools.

NASA: Why you won't be selected to go and why you shouldn't pay for it.

Money: Folds neatly under the umbrella of Crap Detection.
No one knows a thing about how to invest for wealth.
Jobs: The myth of the nobility of work
Money Management:
Investing: How to read a 10K
What is a public stock company (what is shelf registration, what is dilution)?
How to cover your nut. What is your nut?
The truth about debt management. When is cash king? When to leverage up?

Effective consumerism: What's the better value; one 6.5 oz can Tuna @ 69 Cents, 12 oz can same brand tuna 1.60?

Group: Ending the myth of the rugged individual
Why sharing information is not cheating
How to give a dinner party

Reproduction: baby making, child care
Sexual behavior
Stimulant management
Urdu (a list of languages and the numbers who speak them)

We will keep you up to date on course development and how you can obtain lesson plans.