Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Digital media navel-gazing at its most profound

For a while I’ve been bouncing between different writing projects including this blog, Twitter and, well, my job. I’m still in the metaphysical tweeting-about-tweeting phase, much like the nascent blogosphere of the early 00’s was filled with navel-gazing posts about what it meant to be a blogger and the future of journalism. And for a while I’ve been trying to be freer in the things that I put on my blog, to avoid writing essays every time I post. So here we go: instead of Tweeting about Tweeting, I’m blogging about Tweeting.

I initially had this idea of Tweeting about the process of meditation. So I tried it out on Twitter, and it seemed kinda cool. Just the sheer 21st century absurdity of it seemed so appealing to me, the marriage of absolutely irreconcilable opposites. And it reinforced the idea that, yes, Tweeting really can be a cool repository for stray thoughts I don’t have much else to do with. Maybe someone else will appreciate them.

And then there’s the idea of creating your digital space, which bloggers have pretty well figured out. Back in the day (I mean way back, when the famous Talking Points Memo was one guy in DC coding HTML and reading wire stories) blogs were for the most either glorified journals or hyper-political commentary forums. It didn’t take long before people found their niche, such that now you can find blogs out there on just about any subject, country, dispute or cause a person could think of. The nice thing is this is actually much more valuable than everybody repeating the same things over and over again.

My point. I’m getting there.

When I started trying to take Tweeting seriously, I saw this space for a guy who could tweet about how meditation is this truly practical, functional thing people can improve their mood, get more done, be more focused and enjoy things more. And of course the very forum of Twitter makes it logical to do this live. AND – there’s nobody else out there doing this. As far as I can tell. Most of the meditation related tweets I find are people repeating passages by spiritual gurus ranging from Sai Baba to Buddha, or heartfelt messages about discovering inner peace (in 140 characters). And there’s actually quite a bit of Bhudda and spirituality linked commerce that enters the picture, but I won’t get into that.

I wanted a narrative about the experience of these things. Because I do come across thoughts during the day related to the practice of meditation that I’d like to be able to publish. Of course I’d love to be able to debate about all manner of things – the US debt crisis, fossil fuels, alternative energy, monetary policy, the future of Brazil – but I just can’t sit here and tell you what I really think about the things that matter. That’s a no-no for reporters in today’s digital culture – just ask Octavia Nasr what a careless Tweet can mean for a career.

But it turns out my career does allow me to talk about meditation. And the whole point of Twitter is that you stir of interactions and create connections and build communities by sending out messages about the things that are important to you. So I had envisioned something of a gym locker room for people trying to get their own brains in order, or to build up their concentration level. A set of meditation mechanics collectively kicking the tires of Mindfulness (or maybe #mindfulness). I haven’t gotten that because I’m not seeing people out there with the same concept.

And, yes, it was harder than I thought. It turns out that Tweeting – surprise! – actually does distract from meditation. I found myself, at times when I wanted to be winding down, thinking of ways of Tweeting without saying the same things over and over again. So, I was breathing and concentrating, and I forgot about other stuff #meditation. Or maybe Wow, it’s really hard to #meditate after work. It was like a reporter trying to keep a dying story alive, trying to turn nothing into news long just long enough for something to happen. And it got to be another *project* of which I already have too many, and even more that were once projects that I’ve walked away from, leaving me unable to focus, which was the point of the exercise to begin with.

And I was getting a few concerned messages from college friends that went something to the effect of “Dude, you OK over there? Not going off the spiritual deep end, are you?” And I can’t really explain this level of detail on my @brianpablo10 account (that’s why we’ve got Off the Wire). The imminently public nature of Twitter makes it very, um, public.

So I crawled away from the idea of being the enlightened BuddhaTweeter, and told 49 followers I wasn’t gonna do it anymore. But I actually feel like I don’t want to give up on it yet. Granted the experiment is only three days old. I’m just holding out that there is some way to dump stray thoughts out into the world in a productive way, that could eventually be useful either for me or for someone else out there. And because unlike kids today I can’t just float right into new technology, dinosaurs like me I need some kind of gimmick to plug ourselves in. I thought this would be the one. We’ll see. And so will my 49 followers, who are waiting with baited breath.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My meditation redux

 I’ve tried to get more serious about meditation over the last couple weeks, and it’s been an interesting experience. Part of it is because considered doing a 12-day meditation retreat with about 14 hours a day of meditation interrupted only by light meals and some chats about spirituality. It appeals too me. I’d like to figure out where that would take my brain and how it would change my behavior.

Meditation has given me more focus, and helps me clean out some of the junk floating around in my head. But it generally only does so for about 10 or 15 minutes after I’ve finished the session, which I usually try to do for at least 10 minutes every morning. What I’ve come to realize is that many activities in life are chances to do something similar to meditation. Walking from my house to the bus stop is a chance to observe what’s around me instead of listening to the incessant rattling that’s going on my head. Sitting on the bus is a chance to watch what people are wearing and how they carry themselves, or gaze out at the park and the guys playing morning soccer or look at the beautiful old buildings along the side of the road.

Once I’m on the bus on the way home in the evening, my brain is usually so drained that I can’t do much other than let my conscious run around however it wants. I’ve tried to do some meditation after coming home from work and I generally find it’s the absolute most difficult time to do it.

And meditation does have its limits. About a year ago I was so enthralled by its power that I came to think, possibly without realizing, that if practiced with enough depth and consistency it could be the solution to any emotional problem. But I realized there are lots of moments when greater clarity and focus are not by themselves going to solve a problem. Mindfulness does not help you make decisions, even if it can help you understand the process around the decisions or make it clear that you need to make a decision. And it does not force a person to confront things that are difficult for them. It is not a substitute for courage, dedication, or hard work. It can at best illuminate the need for these things.

And meditation digs up a lot of stuff out of your psyche, which is a double-edged sword. It can put your mind into a state of relaxation that lets you enjoy the things you want to do. But it can also dig deep down and pull out that bad mood that was lurking below the surface that you weren’t paying attention to because you were distracted by other things. When you break up the layer of clutter in your consciousness, you’re not always going to be happy with what you find below.

I’ve tried to spend a good chunk of today, a lazy Sunday that I’m spending at home, to really do some serious meditation. Part of this is in preparation for someday being able to do a longer “boot camp” so to speak, because I figure if I’m going to make it 12 days I should be able to make it a couple hours. I worry about whether the experience would simply be isolating. A person all by themselves trying to sort out what goes on in their own brain, with no distractions, no books, no music.

It always surprises me how little training we get in understanding our own minds. Of course this is difficult because each mind is so different – cada cabeza es un mundo, as Venezuelans like to say. But most of my friends and family have jobs that are almost entirely focused on their mind, which makes it strange that we don’t try harder to understand our minds the way athletes get intimately familiar with the functioning of their own bodies. I think meditation offers a window in. But knowledge is only part getting what you want from life. In the end there are no answers, which is simultaneously daunting and liberating.

Blog and be free

More than six months after starting this project, I’m happy to feel like blogging has done what I was hoping it would. I do feel like I’ve restored a sense of freedom in the things that I wrote, and reconnected with the physical sensation that writing used to give me back in the old days. Writing a long post, culling it, editing it, filling in the links, and sending it off, ultimately leaves me with the sensation of having gone for a run or done a workout. There’s something about grabbing the hyperlinks off the web browser and adding them into the text, or taking a link and running it through Bitly before sending to Twitter, that remind of what it was like to edit ambient sound for radio pieces. It’s work keeping up a blog, and there’s lots of days when it doesn’t feel like it’s worth all the hassle. I suppose it wouldn’t be if there were never days like that.

Monday, September 5, 2011

How to escape the bubble economy: build an education economy

Fifteen years ago we had an economy spurred by the dotcom bubble. Ten years ago it was the housing bubble. Today it’s being driven by the free-money-from-central-banks bubble. Unfortunately there’s no one talking about the one thing that would be a serious response to our current economic troubles.

The fact that the debt ceiling song-and-dance was mostly smoke and mirrors was not lost on most Americans. It was not a discussion about how to revive economic activity or create jobs. But most of the other proposed solutions right now – fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing, shovel-ready public works projects – are also ducking around the fact that our principal economic problem revolves around education. America cannot become more competitive without increasing the productivity of its workers, which means ensuring they have a basic education and improving their workplace skills. This simply does not enter into the discussion about our current economic predicament.

I can remember few occasions in which education has become a major issue of national debate on the level counter-terrorism, foreign wars, economic policy or housing prices. With the possible exception of the fracas over school vouchers, debates over education that splash onto the front pages in fact tend to be debates about something else. The early 1990s clash over voluntary national education standards was mostly of a dispute between liberals and conservatives about how to understand American history. The discussion of Ebonics, which I remember take up a huge amount of media bandwidth when I was in college, was so racially charged that the educational component was almost entirely overshadowed. The continuing disputes about teaching intelligent design in public schools are, in my opinion, about our religious beliefs and our understanding of separation of church and state. None of these examples involve a serious debate about the situation of our education system and how to improve it.

I’ve been thinking about this issue lately for a number of reasons. The first is my friend Rachel Levy’s phenomenal blog about education and education policy that I’ve found one of the most worthwhile out there. She’s a former teacher that is increasingly looked to as an informed voice on what’s happening to education today. 

The second was a brilliant piece of reporting last year by Reuters’ Nick Carey looking at how America for the last four decades responded to the stagnation of its manufacturing sector by simply borrowing money – first from the Japanese, now from the Chinese. The result is we did not improve education and workplace training to move workers out of failing industries into new and more competitive ones. For a while we were able to put people to work by building millions of houses that nobody ever planned on living in. That obviously isn’t working any more.

The third is that I’m now reading Diane Ravitch’s book about the state of education in America. It’s been influential in large part because Ravitch was for years a high-profile advocate of using standardized tests to increase accountability and a proponent of using charter schools to create an environment in which neighborhood public schools had to compete for students. She was a major backer of No Child Left Behind, until she realized that the data simply did not confirm it was working. Her book has prompted me to write my first-ever post about education, though I would clarify I do not consider myself an education expert, and what follows is an extremely stripped-down synopsis of exceedingly complex arguments.

Ravitch’s core criticism of the current system is that the country has failed to create a cohesive curriculum that outlines what a students do and don’t need to learn. The only effort to do so was the aforementioned 1990s voluntary standards debacle, in which a group of education professors in California proposed what was probably (from my reading) a left-of-center revision of American history that was quickly attacked by conservative Republicans as indoctrination. Whoever was at fault is less relevant than the end result: after that incident, no local, state or federal official wanted to risk saying what children should be learning.

Then came No Child Left Behind, which requires standardized testing to determine the performance of both the teachers and schools. With so much on the line for both teachers and principals, schools began changing their curriculum to focus on those things that were going to be on the tests – math and reading – with many of them substantially cutting back on social studies, science, art and literature. The result, Ravitch says, is that schools have replaced education with test-taking skills, and in the process have allowed testing companies to determine what kids need to learn. This leaves them making the decisions that politicians and society at large are simply too afraid to make.

She is also highly critical of the way charter schools have evolved over the last decade. Their original purpose, she says, was to find ways to educate those kids that were the least likely to succeed. Instead, she says, they have been magnets for the kids that are most likely to succeed by offering motivated parents a path toward quality education paid for by the state, something that neighborhood schools frequently do not offer. Parent make a bee-line for the charter schools, leaving the neighborhood schools filled with kids that are most likely to have problems, pushing down the quality of those schools. And nobody can blame those parents – who is really going to sacrifice their kids’ education for the sake of improving their local schools? But charter schools simply don’t have capacity to meet demand, meaning families that don’t have the means to pay for private school and don’t win the lottery have to put their kids in a set of steadily declining neighborhood schools. 

I believe that is at the heart of our economic troubles -- and fixing that system is the only real long-term solution. But it is a long-term solution. We are several generations behind the curve when it comes to getting workers the skills and education that they need. I do not believe there is any quick-fix solution to these problems, which is exactly what politicians most want to propose – a new round of injecting money into the economy, more interest rates cuts (this can’t really happen because they’re almost at zero), or some silver bullet that Obama will be expected to produce in his speech this Thursday to make the malaise go away.

This is not to say all Americans need to get the liberal arts college education that I did – I don’t think many of them need to or want to. But I don’t have the slightest doubt that an auto mechanic or a construction worker or a plumber will be a better entrepreneur and more capable of starting their own business if they have a highschool degree. I do believe people are less likely to get in over their heads in dodgy home loans if they have basic math skills. And I don’t believe we can truly strengthen our economy as long as education is treated as a second-tier issue. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The world's biggest and most powerful Banana Republic

Last month’s absurd and embarrassing political shoving match over the debt ceiling, befitting of the most backward of Banana Republics, got me thinking – will the United States evolve into a Third World economy?

Looking on the bright side of things, as I’ve been trying to do these days, I realized that I’ve got a fair amount of theoretical and practical experience in that world. Living in an economy with an unstable currency and galloping inflation forced me to invert many of my basic conceptions about money and finance. Maybe the most illuminating example was the story of my mother-in-law buying a house.

She had to scrape together every last penny she had to buy a small place outside of Barquisimeto almost fifteen years ago. Being one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met, it doesn’t surprise me that she managed to get the down payment together by selling empanadas and working odd jobs. When she moved into the house things weren’t immediately much easier, because she had to keep working dawn to dusk to make the monthly mortgage payments. For her budget it was a heavy burden – a whopping 60,000 bolivars per month.

Today, you’d have a hard time buying lunch with that much money. She and her husband invested to expand the house, putting on a big comfortable back room and a second floor that now serves a lounge. All these years the value of her house has risen along with inflation – which for the last five years has clocked in between 20 and 30 percent – while the value of her mortgage has been steadily eroded. She considered paying off what was left, but decided – why bother? She took that money and made additional improvements to the home. 

She did what most Venezuelans in the middle class have done – she made inflation work for her.

Is this where America is headed? I can think of a number of reasons why it might be. No matter how much the world has gotten comfortable with the dollar as a monetary base, no currency can remain perpetually stronger than its underlying economy. The US is not only in an economic bind right now, it suffers from divisive politics that are preventing it from making a serious dent in the problems that face it. These problems go way beyond the debt and the deficit; they involve much bigger issues such as the decline of public education and the lack of capacity to create jobs. Sooner or later, something may well give.

Which brings me back to houses, in this case mine. I bought an apartment not long ago in Washington (yes, I’m still planning to move there, someday). I made a bigger down payment than I had to, because I have some strand of Depression Era DNA in me that simply abhors borrowing money. Paying interest strikes me as a drain on my savings that wastes away my hard-earned cash. My instinct is to pay down the mortgage as quickly as possible to keep my housing costs as low as possible.

This logic makes sense in the America of yesterday, but I’m not sure if it fits with the America of tomorrow. Even with unemployment staggeringly high and the economy in the doldrums, the country’s inflation rate is 4.6 percent. That is actually higher than the rate of interest I’m paying. Which means it’s more profitable to let my mortgage get eaten up by inflation than to pay it down. Now, what will that look like in five years from now if oil prices skyrocket, Chinese goods start getting more expensive to import and food prices go through the roof?

It’s hard to say what the future will look like, but I’m fairly comfortable thinking it won’t look like the past. I’m guessing I’ve been given an early glimpse of what it might be.