Seeing and Knowing

Or, you might be thinking, “seeing is believing.”

Any survey of Politicolor quickly reveals a certain fascination with SEEING. But, here, seeing is not constrained by our…

but is something of another (grey) matter. Our posts have asked what we know from what we see and how seeing changes how we think about what we know. That sentence could make you dizzy but that’s the point. There is an inextricable bond between what we see and what we know.

Our previous investigations have involved reference to Cicero and Scipio’s Dream or Carl Sagan and astronauts. And sometimes both.

We have another name to add to the list.

In 1994, this guy had an asteroid named after him, 13123 Tyson, and, six years later, People Magazine named him the Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive. This makes Neil deGrasse Tyson is more of a modern thinker who suggests we “consider the category” before making too much of that last honorary. He has sparred with Colbert and is a regular favorite on WNYC’s RadioLab.

Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to inspire. He wants us (and the U.S.) to innovate.

In this 2013 commencement speech at Rice University, he works his way through our history of space exploration to focus on a familiar image, Earth rising over the moon’s horizon. Taken from space by the Apollo 8 Mission in 196, Tyson demonstrates how that image empowered us to take action. Seeing the Earth “as nature intended” gave us a reason to think about new and different questions.

In what Tyson describes as a “cultural response” to this image that Apollo 8 made possible for us all to see, a country at war was transformed into an “innovation nation.”

Tyson explains that we went to the moon to explore it but discovered the Earth instead.

*Tyson starts discussing the image at 11:00 if you don’t have time for the whole video



The Ballad of Detroit

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jerod Diamond makes an interesting observation about peninsulas: the landform, much like an island, isolates a people.

Peninsulas act as a force multiplier, granting a space easier defense, so that a polity might survive invasion by a much more powerful culture.  (Think: Hot Gates and Isthmus of Corinth.)  Conversely, a spit can bring the closed-culture of the Spartans.  (“Mommy..?  What is art?”  *SMACK!*  “Get back to your jumping-jacks!”)  It’s no coincidence that Europe retains hundreds of cultures as well as claim to the most devastating wars in history; the continent’s chock-full of peninsulas.

I live on one.  In fact, Michigan is two; we call them the Upper and the Lower.  Surrounded by the Great Lakes, I’ve felt the isolation when hitting the freeway.  To get eastbound and down, I must first head to Ohio; to go west, I drive cross-state, then dip into Indiana to catch I-80.  Because of our geography, a lot of people have never passed through.  We’re not on the way to anywhere, really, unless you’re coming here.  As a result, even our own people buy into what they hear about Detroit in movies, avoiding a downtown still pulsing.  That and they rarely leave.  I have friends who have never been out of the state: content with Michigan’s bounty alone.

Our isolation makes us strongly anti-federalist.  Free trade becomes a four-letter word in the blurred vision of a people caught up in yesteryear.  Once, Detroit was called the Paris of the West for its vibrant theater scene and bustling trade.

We looked to the Car as one looks at a sun.  It warmed us and brought our people riches, so why not worship it?  But our piety came with a cost.  The Automobile was not a fixed source and it came crashing down: a mere shooting star.

Touring Detroit, one walks through the crater.  Fire, brimstone, carnage, debris, ruins: they’re all here.  Thousands yet suffer from the heat and fallout.

Much of the population flew to the suburbs on impact; but it’s historical fact that it’s easier to fly when you have money to afford the wings, and so the diaspora was largely white.

In the hole, many survived and they grew hungry.  Some lived in a state of nature, preying upon one another.  Many resented those living on the crater’s rim.

While on the outside, the fortunate looked in once in a while and wondered why those people chose to live like that.  They shook their heads, then resumed worship of their fallen god: sure that The Automobile would again light their sky.

In the meanwhile, new auto companies arrived.  Smaller cars and better quality.  Smarter and snappier designs.  And, most of all, improved fuel economy.

Technology granted the U.S. autos the same opportunity.  But, in true anti-federalist fashion, the Big Three viewed the opposable thumb as more fist-shaker than tool-maker.  Security began to heavily outweigh freedom.  And, as usual, this imbalance brought stagnation rather than innovation.

Unable to refocus, recenter, and remake themselves, many in Detroit vilified the Japanese.  A pair of Automobile “extreme fundamentalists” attacked Chinese-American Vincent Chin, first exclaiming “It’s because of you…that we’re out of work”, then beating him to death with a baseball bat.  The murderers went free.

All hoped that life would get better.  SUVs and cheap oil brought a fresh influx of warmth.  The Big Three had seen many changes, but they were still around.  And as long as they were around, Detroit would be.  Because what was good for GM, was good for America, right?

But the foreign cars got even smarter, snappier, and more efficient.

Subconsciously, we clung to our city’s motto: “We hope that better things arise from the ashes.”[email protected]/1593515518/

The dreamers rose.  Thornetta Davis, Della Reese, The Winans.  Jazz and Gospel.  McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Aretha Franklin.  John Lee Hooker.  Blues and Rhythm.  Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Jackie Wilson, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder, and too many other Motown acts to name.  Del Shannon.  The 70’s rockers: Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, Glenn Frey, Bob Seger.  Then Hard Core Punk, Death Metal, Techno.  Eminem.  And, the reinventor herself, Madonna.

But most had one thing in common: Get the Hell Out of Here.  Go where the action is.  Get off the peninsula and somewhere cosmopilitan.  Move toward the energy, and away from the rubble and the embers.  Because they understood that hope is not enough.  Action is needed.

This isn’t a eulogy, though.  This is a ballad.  A story.  And it’s not over.

Because of advances in technology, geography limits us less than ever.  Exchange of ideas flows as mountain rivers, when we don’t dam it.

Detroit owns great hubs of culture and vibrance and many are merging.  The spokes designed by Augustus Woodward lead back to a waterfront, and by returning to our first principles, we can rise again from the steam, to make our slogan real.  We just remodeled the Detroit Institute of Arts and saved our zoo.  There are signs of a diversifying economy, and we possess one of the greatest concentrations of engineers in the world.   Most forward-looking of all, Michigan controls a vast supply of the world’s freshwater.

There is a survivor’s spirit here, which I haven’t felt elsewhere, but we have to reconcile that the suburban, white-flight of the 70s wasn’t flying.  If we can harness that to move past our segregation, into a regionalistic wholeness of Indianapolis, Minneapolis, or Portland, we can breathe new life into our city and once again spread our wings.

What we have yet to realize, though, is that any one “solution” is but a false idol.  It is only We who are the phoenix; We who are the sun.

The American People and an Incredible Machine

With gadget fans across the country talking about the new 3G iPhone, it’s hard to argue about the innovative spirit of the American people. It’s a fact. We love our machines whether they’re speeding down the highways or probing the surface of Mars.

I wonder, however, if there’s more to this particular characteristic of the American people. Imagine you have just encountered the world’s greatest invention, what do you want to know about it?

What does it do?

How does it work?

Perhaps, where did the idea came from?

Now imagine the world’s greatest invention is the federal constitution proposed by James Madison. It may have looked like a Rube Goldberg machine to the AntiFederalists, unnecessarily complicated with too many opportunities for something to go wrong. As they review the many components of the system, the answer to “what does it do?” seems more and more obscure. The banner at the top of the Rube Goldberg page might even serve as a powerful AntiFederalist argument:

Imagine an AntiFederalist staring at this contraption. We know what we want it to do. We want it to protect our independence and protect our liberty. We know how to do this. We have several simple machines in our state constitutions doing exactly this. Why make it so complicated? It’s too much work and leaves the whole endeavor vulnerable with each new level of detail. It doesn’t have to be this hard!

Now, back to imagining the greatest invention in the world, would you be satisfied in simply knowing what it does? What almost always happens next? Someone makes a newer and better version. It is, after all, the iPhone 2.0 we’re all talking about and tech news regularly celebrates the next “iPhone killer.”

When acquainting ourselves with a new machine, few of us are ever satisfied with simply knowing what it does. We start there but next ask how it works and often inquire about the origin of the idea itself. We seek the “maker’s knowledge” Will referred to as he opened this week’s NEH seminar at Montpelier. The operating instructions often aren’t enough to satisfy our American ingenuity.

I’m thinking of a friend’s son who “pimped” his ride. An owner’s manual illustrating how to shift gears, turn dials, and light signals wasn’t useful for long. The Ford Explorer his parents had given him needed several improvements before he was willing to park it in the high school parking lot! He soon spent countless hours entangled in the car’s wiring, digging through the components of the engine, and super-sizing its performance in every way imaginable. If we know how an invention works and how it is constructed to do what it does, we have a system for evaluating its performance as well as a platform to improve upon it.

The American people aren’t simply interested in the invention. They’re a people interested in the ongoing progress of innovation and a people who believe we can all be a part of designing the next big thing.