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The essential message of these three very different movies–all playing now–is that everything is up to us.

Interstellar and Birdman are rivals on the twinned theme of love and passion. Where they diverge is that Birdman establishes no context: there’s only the stage awhirl in the midst of contemporary chaos. Interstellar, according to the best principles of science fiction, embeds its story in the established science of our times, prioritizing the climate crisis on the scale at which it deserves, within the irrefutable consequences of species survival or extinction. Along comes Dear White People, to illustrate the sickening scope of intraspecies bigotry and pettiness which we’ve yet to overcome.

Mentoring for the Earth, Utne Reader, Mar-Apr 2014, p. 70.

Mentoring for the Earth, Utne Reader, Mar-Apr 2014, p. 70.

While watching Interstellar, I wondered at the non-representative racial composition of the slice of surviving humanity the film constructs for us to see. Tokenism reigns, unless Christopher Nolan and his band of writers aim to propose that the privileges of whiteness extend into the near-term upcoming calamity. They could, of course. Certainly the U.S. government is embattled on this linch pin: will democracy, freedom, and equality of opportunity truly be enabled for all or will special [white] interests continue to dictate law and privilege? Not that underfunded NASA seems likely to have anything to offer in the way of off-planet redemption. That’s more likely to come from the European Space Agency, having successfully landed a spacecraft on a streaking comet.

As far as media effects go (that is, convincing the world that white people, especially white men, are the main strain of the species worth caring about), Birdman is right on cue, with its agonized and agonizing straight white male Everyman. Saving Broadway! Hallelujah!

While Birdman patches together an impressively tight composition of literary layers and cultural references, Dear White People blows it out of the water with the most densely packed social commentary I’ve ever seen. (Curious to know what you think are its equals, or even in the same league.)

“Dear White People,” Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) sums it all up, “Nevermind.” Are the costs of racial fallout still too touchy to resolve? In our day and age, too many white people are playing racism as a game–and a fun one at that. People of color are still too often forced to craft lives within the omnipresence of race consciousness. (It’s time to be colorbrave.) Oh sure, Dear White People is a comedy! How else could such stunning criticism receive the light of day? Are all the characters types? Aren’t we all, each of us, out here living our real, untheatrical lives, also easily categorized as a type? The question is which types get airtime and which don’t; which types can help us reweave the social fabric and which won’t. We have to choose.

“Humans are cultural animals,” writes Mark Morey. “Our evolution continues along paths that we direct through our choices, patterns, and behaviors. Even more importantly—we pass culture along through initiation and story.” The story of Interstellar is that the bond of parents and children is a force commensurate with gravity. The science stretches into fiction here, because none of the things we need to know to pull off such a journey are within reach. The declining ability to grow food, however, foretells the end of humanity in Interstellar much as it does in actual climate science. Food doesn’t enter Birdman, and is only racialized in Dear White People.  Now, stretch with me, will you?

Just as Lionel blows when his jazz solo arrives—even though he doesn’t like jazz!—we need to be colorbrave in our daily lives, identify and dismiss noisome distractions, and alter the impelling rush of catastrophe.  Somehow, someway, the artistic and intellectual brilliance of today’s intergenerational collective intelligence must form new relationships and stories that recreate and renew society based on perennial agriculture, aka permaculture. The trio of films examined here demonstrate that social justice needs permaculture and vice-versa, if another seven generations are to prosper on the earth.

The “intersection” in this blog entry on social resilience involves computer science and brain science.

What if we gamed Twitter?

What if we gamed Twitter?

While Professor Beverly Woolf and colleagues from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst presented on smart tutoring at the Artificial Intelligence in Education conference, I listened to a webinar from Dr Dennis S. Charney, MD, from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai present data supporting his “resilience prescription” for individuals.

Stimulating processes of social resilience

Two of Charney’s eight resilience principles, however, involve other people: role models and a supportive social network. Combining the social aspect of resilience with the human-computer interface and education has potential to enhance sophisticated problem-solving around the globe.

The developing world has 4 billion mobile phone subscriptions. In Africa, average penetration is a third of the population, and in north Africa it is almost two-thirds. South Africa now has almost 100% penetration. In sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phone ownership is 30%. ~ Dr Beverly P. Woolf

The potentials for knowledge communication through savvy tele-education exceed youth. These technologies can also enable adults who care about intercultural social networking and mass organizing for social justice. Read the rest of this entry »

Springfield youth were asked to come up with ONE WORD to describe everyone in their randomly assigned group.

Springfield youth were asked to come up with ONE WORD to describe everyone in their randomly assigned group.

A Taste of College:
Youth Leadership Development Retreat

Amherst MA

Whenever I work in teams, I always mention the significance of following. It is rare, however, to be able to carry that conversation forward. I hope this time is different. Following is something all good leaders do: they understand when to follow someone else’s idea – in other words, effective leaders are highly attuned to time/timing as well as to the content or substance of conversation and group dynamics.

The “Taste of College” Retreat is over, but the dynamics it set in motion are barely begun. Will the emotions raised during those three days become a ripple that soon fades or a wave that builds to a powerful crest? Will all of those emotions simply add to past history, reinforcing understandings and relationships as they are already established within the larger structure of our society? If the emotions grow and build, what shore will the wave crash into and wipe clean?

Filling the Void of “Silence”

Silence (when you're used to constant stimulation - talking, activity, music, etc) can be uncomfortable!  <em>(Image borrowed from a tutorial on making a Prezi)</em>

Silence (when you're used to constant stimulation - talking, activity, music, etc) can be uncomfortable! (Image borrowed from a tutorial on making a Prezi)

One of the young people who attended the Retreat noticed how hard it is to facilitate when “no one is talking.” Being comfortable with silence, waiting for someone else to think of something to say, is one of the hardest aspects of leadership. Within the planning team for the event, I didn’t always do the best with this myself.

The manager in me was hyper-conscious of timelines for decision-making, as well as how much participation, input and feedback is necessary to create a quality program. In the end, on the surface, we had a successful event. The youth all got along with each other, named something significant that they learned, and many expressed the desire to come back again next year. The “Public Service Announcements” regarding their visions for the future of Springfield are creative and compelling.

Behind the scenes, however, a few things happened that did not – and still don’t – feel good. The wave – or the ripple – from the Retreat will be influenced more by how the background issues get handled than by the visible surface of shiny videos and memories of fun times.

Diversity: Tensions and Loyalties

Youth brainstorm traits, skills, and examples of leaders & leadership.

Youth brainstorm traits, skills, and examples of leaders & leadership.

Everyone always has their own perceptions of their unique experience (what I called “biography” in the opening presentation). At the same time, people share perceptions of experiences that feel common (the “social identities” part of the opening presentation). These commonalities usually fall along

  • the lines of the body (how one feels about the way they are treated by others depending upon how they look) and
  • the lines of the mind (how one thinks about the usual ways of talking and making sense of things that happen).

History (things that have happened in the past) is a kind of container for biography. “We all carry our racial identities on our shoulders,” as a friend of mine put it. Or, “Acting white in Springfield will get you killed,” as a youth in the Retreat said during the “fishbowl” activity on code-switching. “What does it mean to act white?” another youth asked in response. As I recall, there was no specific answer provided at the time. Talking about whiteness is a challenge many of the adult staff have been trying to meet for a long time.

Acting White

Since I was in a leadership position before and during the Retreat, most everyone probably noticed some of the things I said or did. In general, it is fair to say that I “acted white” most of the time, during planning (in advance of the event) and during delivery (the three days of the workshop). Let’s break it down from the outside (what could be observed by others) and from the inside (my self-perceptions and conscious reasons).

Distribution of 'agreement' and 'disagreement' activity: Do Leaders follow or challenge norms?

Distribution of 'agreement' and 'disagreement' activity: Do Leaders follow or challenge norms? (Unasked: Whose norms establish the point of reference?)

First, by virtue of my body (now, as an older white woman) and the socioeconomic class that I grew up in (new middle-class), I am in a position to be a link to the resources of a university. As an activist in a white body, I have assumed personal safety and low risk for most of the social justice causes I have endorsed. Throughout my life, I have exercised the privilege to go wherever I wanted to go, pretty much whenever I wanted to go there. This includes not going to places where I didn’t want to be – both physically (as in, certain neighborhoods) or mentally and emotionally (as in, exposing myself to the suffering of others not as lucky as me).

In counterpoint, I’ve labored hard for some twenty years to un-do the entrained attitudes of privilege and counter the desire to stay safe within the psychological space of what is familiar. Nonetheless, I am still embodied and enculturated as a white American. I tend to prefer structure, order, and predictability – even if only to push against or work around! Leave me in a vacuum long enough, and I’m going to do something! In retrospect, maybe I could have waited longer and/or done less, in order to enable others to step into the empty space and do more.

Structure: Change or the Status Quo

Here’s the thing. Structure pretty much rules. We are all caught up in a system that has roots going back centuries. The way governments, money, the military, science & technology and the arts work today is institutionalized in layers upon layers of law and custom. In practical terms, everything a person does as an individual gets swallowed up by the system. Lots of individuals doing the same kinds of “individual” things (such as, everyone trying to be a leader) is what savvy marketers and politicians exploit: they hook us around selfish needs and desires, things that make me feel good about me.

Lyrics to a rap by youth for the Future of Springfield

Lyrics to a rap by youth for the Future of Springfield

The only excuse I have for the design of the Retreat is knowledge. “I’ve been to a lot of retreats,” someone said, betraying (from my perspective) low expectations. I heard through the grapevine about someone else whose expectations were (perhaps!) set too high: that the Retreat would be “a life-transforming experience.”  My ambition was more in line with the latter. There was no reason for this not to be life-changing for everyone involved, except for the absence of adequate planning time before the Retreat, in order to forge more fundamental trust in the agreements we made with each other.

This means the knowledge I applied was riddled with things I did not know. Some of what I didn’t know I could have learned from co-organizers and facilitators in advance. Some of what I didn’t yet know was told to me both before and during the event, but I was not able to understand what it meant until after the fact. There are many more things that I do not know: either I have not yet realized the lesson or have not been exposed to enough variations to recognize the pattern. I still want to learn, so I can follow better and thus improve my own ability to inspire by recognizing when to follow and choosing to follow when following matters most to accomplishing effective leadership.

Acting into the Future – On Purpose

Between these two extremes of expectations that are “too high” or “too low” is the hard (sometimes even boring) work of co-creating new relationships based on the belief (one could call it faith) that humans can break free of the patterns of the past and become better at getting along and sharing the good things of life with each other.  If only it was so easy! I have not yet met anyone who was able to leap into the future without

  • regurgitating a bunch of past experiences  (such as, making assumptions about others on the basis of stereotypes,
    Harder than it seems: Treating others with Respect & Learning each other's Languages.

    Harder than it seems: Treating others with Respect & Learning each other's Languages.

    projecting a resemblance from someone else who wasn’t nice, etc.), &/or

  • learning that what I know as polite and respectful is not necessarily understood that way by others.

Revisiting the “commonsense” guidelines shared by youth at the beginning of the Retreat, the example foremost in my mind is about the early curfew on Saturday. I sensed widespread exhaustion in the room, and had observable evidence to support it.  I did what I would want someone to do for me: set a limit so people could get more sleep. Turns out it was the adults who were so tired, not the kids! The “evidence” I observed from them had another cause. Unfortunately, I was not able to interpret their language quickly enough, and even when I became aware of a misjudgment I could not generate a remedy as fast as would have been ideal.

Sure wish I was better at adapting instantly to the need to change me! Finding myself caught up in patterns of behavior that look like the same old white ways truly sucks! I definitely missed a couple of special chances during the Retreat when I could have broken the mold, but they were not within my awareness at the time. Hints and wisps of feedback filtered into mind, but they all required the reinforcement of repetition before they could break through to realization.

It isn’t that learning is hard – our brains are wired for this. What is hard is letting go of what we already think!

The kids kept right on, though, putting what they need and understand into terms designed to show us grown-ups that the path toward a brighter future doesn’t have to be as hard as we sometimes make it out to be:

This equation was designed by a group of youth working exclusively in Spanish.

This equation was designed by a group of youth working exclusively in Spanish.

Theoretical and Computational Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
College of Engineering
University of Massachusetts Amherst
13 December 2010

diagram of flash boilingDr Kshitij Neroorkar’s defense was so smoothly delivered you’d have thought he’d done this a thousand times already. Who knows? Simulation of Flash-Boiling in GDI Injections with Gasoline-Ethanol Fuel Blends might be the kind of hard science topic where 1000 experiments are needed before you get to defend the phd! Being the lone, non-family-member representative of the social sciences present, “How much did you understand?” was the question-du-jour, post-defense. Here comes the test, huh? At least enough to recognize that Dr Neroorkar’s subject matter seemed very similar to Dr Shivasubramanian Golapakrishnan’s dissertation topic, which I distorted metaphorically in a previous blogentry: Language is a Fluid.  A big thanks, btw, to Dr Blair Perot, who read and questioned the two-way utility of my analogy:

“Since I understand the fluids, this analogy certainly helps me understand what is important to linguists. I am less sure about if it will help the other way around. Does it really help linguists understand/describe linguistics better to think in terms of fluids?” (I like how he cuts right to the chase!)

Foundation

8 nozzle plumes merge

The site of Dr Neroorkar’s study is in the nozzle part of a fuel-injection system, so its a pretty small physical space.  Inside that wee tunnel all kinds of things are going on, one of them being flash-boiling: the violent explosion of liquid into steam (a gas). The better this explosion is controlled, the more usable energy one gets, but it is tricky to maximize the energy potential because, well, all kinds of things are going on! There’s a pressure drop where the fluid enters, certain processes that generate the growth of nucleation bubbles which start out teeny-tiny and expand until  they touch each other, and then these bubbles bursting into spray in a process called atomization. The art is to manage the rate and speed (measured by a non-dimensional number – one of those deeply held math secrets engineers bandy about like social scientists bartering philosophical theories). The particular number in this case (that describes nothing in the physical world) is quite effected by the slightest change in temperature. Changes in temperature affect the rate and there’s a whole bunch of modeling that needs to be done to get this whole puppy optimized.  Or something like that.

“Then we do some mathematical tricks”

HRM modelTurns out that with 8-hole injectors, the plumes of vapor generated from each hole merge in a way that needs to be taken into account, and this hasn’t actually been done before, or not so well/thoroughly or otherwise unequivocally established through parametric study. What is the difference, someone asked, from what Dr Gopalakrishnan did before? “Shiva didn’t couple them.”  Couple what? The nuances were definitely over my head here, but the two of them did use the same HRM model, which (as Dr Neroorker explained to me later) “assumes the liquid-vapor mixture is one substance, not separate.” Treating the fluid-gas mix as homogeneous rather than heterogeneous (as explained here right at my level) enables an epistemological framework in which the system will relax to equilibrium if given enough time. There are (apparently) problems with the assumptions of cavitation, and the degree of superheat figures in some crucial way, not to mention the influence of specific geometry (90% symmetric) and the composition of the periodic boundary conditions (sounds an awful lot like “context” to me).

I like the idea of "swirl injection" (the colors aren't bad, either).

I like the idea of "swirl injection" (the colors aren't bad, either).

Somehow, Dr Neroorkar put all that together in the first validated 3D simulation showing the geometry region, the residence time dominated region, and the vaporization time dominated region, and got a volatility distribution curve showing stuff that matters. With important limitations of course: laminar flows, empirical time scales relevant to one fluid not others, so on and so forth.

Party!

The best part (of course) was the celebration, where I got to pretend to blend in with the relaxing homogenous crowd of Indians (“convenience store not casino” as distinguished by Russell Peters) at Sneha & Kshitij’s cozy apartment. Except for Nidhi (who delivered all her laugh lines in Hindi so I couldn’t understand them), everyone stepped up to being blogged. Partha gave in pretty easy: “We aren’t cited that often.” I had a great conversation with Vikram, who informed me that “helium is helium,” and Upen, “Math is not context-dependent.” Bhooshan mildly admitted that there “are not so many more fundamental reactions to discover [in chemistry]“, which Upen amended, “until they are discovered!” I would have followed up on these topics except Ruchita chimed in, ” This is not the conversation I want to be having!” Oh alrighty then!

cutting the cakeSandeep, meanwhile, was focused: “Where is the biryani?” Pritish arrived a little late and took awhile to catch up, “She’s gonna use my name somewhere?” You know I was amused when Sneha told us “people used to think I was a boy.” And did I ever learn some gossip about somebody’s Victoria’s Secret!

The meal was awesome, the company grand, and the event momentous. Kshitij himself did the honors on the decadent chocolate mousse cake, announcing: “My job is done.”

beyond coal

Drew Grande, the State Coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Massachusetts, had some trouble fielding my question. He was saved by Mark Kresowic, the Northeast Regional Director, whose answer – while not completely satisfactory – at least suggests there is thought and movement concerning the international workforce implications of the US eliminating our use of coal by 2030.

Their talk at the UMass Labor Center was more of a mini-rally, aimed at the people who are already on board. Most of the questions and comments covered familiar ground: the organization has a mission and a proven strategy for success. In fact, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is already documented in the academic literature – an amazing feat given customary scholarly drag. My question stemmed from an important critique arising from a presentation of that article by its author Professor Robert Cox, a communication scholar who celebrates the Beyond Coal campaign as an exemplar of environmental activism.

Climate Recovery: Managing the Forest and the Trees

The problem of global warming and the urgency of infrastructural change are both real. Carbon emissions from the US must be reduced by 80% by 2050. To achieve this all coal-powered energy production in the US needs to be stopped by 2030. What the Sierra Club has accomplished is a trend that makes this incredible shift in the energy economy possible. The job is not finished yet; we are all truly needed to demonstrate the hard economic fact:

Coal cannot compete with clean energy sources without

  • federal subsidies – our tax dollars! and
  • non-enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Increasing public pressure will build enough momentum for the domestic transition away from coal. This is good and necessary: it must be done!  However, to set the planet on the path to climate recovery requires unprecedented cooperation across borders and among peoples. My friends’ critique was targeted at U.S. unilateralism.  Is Beyond Coal simply a(nother) movement by the (mainly white) middle-class so we can feel good about ourselves without giving regard to the consequences of our good deeds upon others?  (Disclosure: I am white and middle-class.)

Ninety percent of the coal burned in Massachuseetts’ three coal plants is imported from Colombia. These plants employ workers in MA and run because of the labor of Colombian miners (and shippers and other workers along the procurement, production and distribution chain). Of course their working conditions are appalling and they are underpaid.  I am not saying we should keep coal because of the livelihood these jobs afford to real human beings and their families. However, climate recovery is not going to be achieved if we do not also, simultaneously, create new ways for these workers and others like them to live in health and security.

Opening Ceremony
Communication for Sustainable Social Change
UMass Amherst
10 September 2009

Communication for Sustainable Social Change

Two years ago, Professor Cox delivered the inaugural lecture at the opening of a new Center of Excellence within the School of Behavioral and Social Science at UMass Amherst called Communication for Sustainable Social Change.  The following comments reflect two sources of critique that I participated in at the time: one involves the narrow audience drawn by the Center’s Opening Event and the second involves the content and style of Cox’s theoretical analysis.

Cox contrasted two different campaigns, a massive nationally-coordinated protest event called Step It Up (designed by environmental activist Bill McKibben and his students), and the Sierra Club’s ongoing lobbying effort, Beyond Coal. In a nutshell, Cox argues that Step It Up failed to generate meaningful change due to magical thinking, whereas Beyond Coal is having success because they are finding the means to exercise strategic leverage, rather than investing all hope in tactics. In short, Cox argued that an exclusive reliance on tactics is non-adaptive at levels of scale and time. Cox compared these two public will campaigns through a popular theoretical frame in order to criticize “our ways of talking about change in the Academy.”

Calibrating Theory and Time

Professor Cox’s presentation, “Communicating Social Change: Challenges of Scale and the Strategic,” presents a challenge to environmental activists and academics about the ways we use theories of communication to stimulate and intervene in processes of social change, particularly regarding the need for climate recovery. I was enthralled by Cox’s application of de Certeau’s distinction between tactics and strategy. Cox deploys de Certeau’s, “practice of everyday life“  to teach activists how to think about mobilizing the civilian populace to push government and business for real, deep, significant restructuring of the energy grid.

During the Q&A after his talk, most questions came from people with direct involvement regarding environmental activism. Theoretical questions were less common, such as the one my Chair wanted to ask, about the importance of place (literal, physical location). Cox had mentioned the need for a movement to create a space from which to exert leverage, but this question about “place”  came from another angle. Can theory generated from a basis in one geographic place, with a specific population and particular sociocultural & political conditions, be legitimately transported to another place, where the population and conditions are different?

If we had not argued so vigorously, I would not have thought so much about the potentials of pursuing this conversation. Other colleagues were critical of Cox’ move to generalize de Certeau’s theoretical explanation of a situated context bound by specific parameters to a generalized application that implies a form of universality across human experience. By choosing de Certeau’s frame, Cox is calibrating social activism with the emergent phenomena of transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is made possible by digital communication technologies and enables practices of collective intelligence. de Certeau argues that “in the activity of re-use lies an abundance of opportunities for ordinary people to subvert the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them.”

My friends heard Cox reifying the power hierarchy between the powerful and the weak by valorizing “strategy” as a force firmly in the hands of the powerful, with an accompanying diminishment of power in the potential of “tactics” which are “the only thing” some people have. While I agree that poor and disenfranchised people(s) have less access and resources to generate strategy, I disagree that this lack necessitates an absence of power. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate that tactics can accumulate into unstoppable force. In “History: Science and Fiction,” de Certeau writes of a “dogmatizing tendency” that he calls “‘the institution of the real.’ It consists,” he explains, “of the construction of representations into laws imposed by what is supposed to be the expression of reality” (p. 200, Social Science as Moral Inquiry, 1983).

Choosing “Realities”

Without getting too deep into theoretical nuances, de Certeau describes an “obscure center around which revolve a number of considerations” that combine into “historiography…as something of a mix of science and fiction or as a field of knowledge where questions of time and tense regain a central importance” (emphasis added, p. 203).

In other words, understandings change. Histories are re-written. While those of us alive today (participating and even trying to influence history) are limited by range of perception and and scope of awareness, we can know that relationships exist between what we do now (or fail to do) and what can come to be (or not) in the future. Cox asserts de Certeau’s challenge not to lose touch with ethics:

“It is therefore necessary today to ‘repoliticize’ the sciences, that is to focus their technical apparatus on the fields of force within which they operate and produce their discourse.” (p. 215)

Interconnecting Forests

Cox’s move with de Certeau’s theory is to politicize academics who are all too comfortable sticking within our own trees, even to the point of residing fully along a single thin branch. However, there are serious problems with Cox’s move if it motivates middle-class activists in America to engage in social change campaigns without regard for destroying established labor pools in developing countries.

If coal production for energy is halted, what of the coal worker whose single livelihood feeds dozens?  What is needed is a broader-based effort to win the alliance of coal workers around the world: what industry will be created to replace the one they’ll lose? This is the kind of resiliency-based thinking that our times and the challenges of climate recovery demand: not essentializing one-level solutions focused exclusively on selfish fear, greed, or the desire to retain comfort (motivating or even reasonable as these may be). What industry, indeed? One friend asserted,

“We need

an unprecedented outpouring of human generosity,

a massive leap of imagination,

a kind of creativity that the world has never seen.”

Resilient Creativity

Communication technology may or may not save us. It depends upon how we decide to use it.

I was disappointed at the  Center’s Opening because of a lack of diversity in the audience: it seemed to represent no particular break with contemporary hyper-specialization and narrow discipline-based segregation. It is exciting, now, to see how much the network is growing.

During his introductory remarks to Professor Cox’s talk, UMass Chancellor Holub cast back in UMass’s landgrant history to The Agitation Committee, a group that worked to broaden the University’s original agricultural focus to include larger social concerns. The latent potential of the CSSC to serve as a hub of intellectual activity for generating public will exists, but conversations must be engaged across the institutional complex of differing ideologies and disciplinary knowledges. UMass has a unique mix of traditional, radical and intellectual competence which endows it with an amazing potential to lead in designing and facilitating the implementation of solutions to today’s wicked problems.

Cultivating Public Will

In his introductory remarks, UMass Dean Mullin said he would have loved to have been present when the Center’s name was chosen, noting that each term is “value-laden.” My position is that the most important word is the preposition: Communication for Sustainable Social Change.

Let’s do it.

If you are not yet convinced of the seriousness or the urgency of climate recovery, try this sixty second video on the evolution of life by Claire L. Evans. She describes it as “a video experiment in scale, condensing 4.6 billion years of history into a minute.” Then watch Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (sixty minutes you will not regret).

According to the science in Arthus-Bertrand’s film, human institutions have less than ten years to make the deep and substantive changes that are necessary if we are to keep the earth’s atmosphere within the known parameters for supporting life. Watch Evan’s one-minute video, and you should get a feel for the requisite response time. As in now. Research about social change is not adequate – by itself – to accomplish all we need to gain.

Theoretical and Computational Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
College of Engineering
UMass Amherst

A few days before his defense, the very-soon-to-be-Dr. Shiva promised to make his phd defense as incomprehensible to a non-engineer as possible. He was teasing me, but it opens space for me to play with representing his work not only on its own terms, as I have tried to do with other friend's dissertations. In this "Part 1" post, I've selected items from Dr. Shivasubramanian Gopalakrishnan's defense that enable me to play with fluid dynamics as an analogy for language-based communication dynamics. My not-so-hidden-agenda is to attempt a translation between disciplines that might serve as an impetus to potential collaborations for addressing cross-disciplinary problems (the global type, interwoven across institutional fields, such as climate-change, grinding poverty, and widespread starvation, to name a few).

“Modeling of Thermal Non-Equilibrium in Superheated Injector Flows”

Dr Gopalakrishnan’s area of specialization is non-equilibrium phase change operations. The basic phase change he studied for his dissertation involves the change of liquid fuel into gas vapor in automobile and aircraft fuel. There are a whole ton of things that need to happen in order for a fuel to provide adequate power to an engine so that a car or plane can travel, and a fair number of things that can go wrong in the attempt, such as flash boiling and vapor lock. The engineers know all about these problems, but I had to do a bit of research. A liquid boils, for instance, not only as a function of temperature, but also as a function of pressure. Suppose one thought of a linguistic flash boil as the interaction of

    a) a word’s definition (its ‘temperature’) and

    b) the context in which the word is uttered (the environmental ‘pressure’).

Right word, right context: everybody happy.
Right word, wrong context: problem!
Wrong word, right context: just a goof.
Wrong word, wrong context:
potential domestic disturbance or international incident!

Suppose we were able to slow down social interaction to 2000 frames per second (like this water droplet) in order to perceive how a single word enters language (and thus communication) as a whole?  Most people tend not to think much about the language we use unless/until something goes wrong, and then our energies focus upon repair. If we could cultivate more consciousness about how (for instance) individual word choices merge with larger pools of language use, then we might be able to diagnose discourse patterns and even design ways of communicating that work more efficiently in developing and implementing ideas that solve real-world problems.

In terms of the analogy I’m proposing here, Snapshot 2009-11-17 18-22-14how or when do words conserve mass and momentum without changing the substance or direction of established discourse or social patterns?  When and how might particular words conform to the dictates of conservation while also accomplishing an alteration in substantive conditions that generates new forms of dialogue?

Vapor lock is not such a problem for cars anymore, but it remains a challenge for aircraft. Both issues involve the liquid becoming gas too soon. With flash boiling, part of the liquid fuel – but not all of it – superheats, leading to a two-phase (and thus inefficient) distribution of energy. With vapor lock, the bulk of the liquid vaporizes before practical use – also due to combinations of pressure and temperature. Vapor lock can cause a severe drop or even a complete stall in power. Not what you want to happen at high altitude! Nor in a conversation that you wish to proceed smoothly, for whatever reasons.

Suppose you need to talk with someone who uses a different language than you. A phase change is necessary for communication to occur. Suppose an interpreter (professionally trained, fluent in both languages) is available to transform the ‘fuel’ provided by your language into ‘power’ in the other language? This would be a phase change, yes? Keep in mind that in scientific categorization, liquids and gasses are both fluids – they belong to the same medium. Similarly, English and Turkish, Spanish and Hindi, Malaysian Sign Language and Langue des Signes Française are all examples of the medium of language. The question of efficiency in fluid phase change is comparable to the question of comprehension in interpretation: the challenge is to identify the relevant factors and manipulate the conditions so that the interaction occurs with the least loss. In fluid heat exchange, one considers the

  1. rate of downstream atomization, the
  2. starting point of the phase change – its location within the nozzle, the
  3. extent to which dispersion continues outside of the nozzle, the
  4. endpoint of phase change, and (finally) the
  5. overall emission characteristics: a comprehensive image, if you will, of what is happening when, where, and how that involves all interacting elements and environmental conditions.

Time

One can surmise that in addition to the environmental conditions of temperature and pressure, timing is crucial for effective fluid dynamic engineering! Time comes first in the list above (rate), requiring us to imagine the complicated system in four dimensions. Temporality is also one of the more obvious constituents of interpretation, as people using interpreters to communicate across language differences often express concern with the amount of time required for the interpreter to process the ‘injection’ before manifesting ‘emissions’. In aircraft, the particular mechanism that Dr Gopalakrishnan studied involved using the fuel system itself “as a heat sink to increase engine performance.”

Paralleling the practical application of a heat sink with interpretation, the question of efficiency involves the extent to which an interpreter dissipates the hot air, absorbing or otherwise deflecting excess energy that distorts the equilibrium of the relational exchange. This cooling effect of the interpreter is not intended to minimize an interlocutor’s intended meaning (a common concern), but rather, to enable the potential energy (one could say, the understanding) to be most efficiently utilized in whatever power application (voice - Blommaert: ‘the capacity for semiotic mobility’ (p. 69)) is called for: a sudden increase in speed (e.g., for emphasis), or a gradual drop in tone (perhaps to shift a debate from argumentation to persuasion).

Dr Gopalakrishnan’s work zeroed in (among other things) on the relationship between pressure and enthalpy. In terms of vaporization, enthalpy is “the energy required to transform a given quantity of a substance into a gas.” For some reason (unknown), the energy required by interpreters to transform language through a similar phase change operation seems expected not to change the substance. Liquid should not become gas! (Despite that they are still both fluids.) Put another way, the diction (discrete word choice) seems expected not to change despite the phase shift from one language to another!  This is akin to expecting, with fuel, that the molecules of the resulting gas would remain exactly the same as the molecules of the original liquid: in which case, no energy would be produced at all, as there would have been no reaction.

Based on everyday experience, language “is incompressible” (as Dr Schmidt teased when I posed my analogy to him), yet – ironically? – there seems to be widespread social conditioning about languages that presumes an interpreter is magically able to perform phase changes (interpreting from one type of language/medium to another type of language/medium) without effects from environmental conditions. Occupational health and safety evaluations, not to mention professional lore and training, reveal that communicators in a cross-language interaction do need to consider

a) the capacity of the interpreter to store extra heat/energy (technically, thermal inertia) generated by interlocutors and

b) the potential for long-term damage to interpreters (and thus, the communication system) by constraints imposed by conditions of ‘social temperature’ and ‘social pressure’ (which can show up, in fluid dynamic terms, as cavitation).

Often, when the complex realities of language-to-language interpretation are surfaced, the fallback position is to eliminate the need for interpretation. “Get everyone using the same language.” Instead, I want to suggest that there are tremendous benefits to embracing the need for interpretation as an opportunity for highlighting precisely those areas and moments of greatest difference and thus of challenge. When communication appears to fail or feels inadequate, this can be taken as an indicator to those involved that the interaction potential has shifted from a single/shared perspective to a fuller range of views – which, if utilized, may suggest greater/deeper capacities and efficiencies.

One of Dr Gopalakrishnan’s innovations was to apply two different sets of equations to the problem of fuel injection efficiency. Shiva'sLISA2By coupling mechanisms that perform distinct tasks in different domains, Dr Gopalakrishnan was able to generate new knowledge about the overall process which will likely lead to improvements in efficiency. In a similar spirit, I seek to draw on (admittedly limited) paradigmatic knowledge from engineering about fluids with paradigmatic knowledge from the humanities about language. This task necessarily involves translation between the two disciplinary languages. To be successful, co-learners will have to want to make the effort to move beyond disciplinary monolingualism. I hope the compelling problems of our time provide sufficient motivation for trying to bridge the segregation.

In a way, interpreters are always trying to apply “two different sets of equations” to the problem of efficient communication. These are the ‘equations’ of culture and language particular to each communicator. The unique aspect of interpreting (as a complex system involving the rapid combination of distinct tasks across domains with an ever-changing mix of elements), is that the people involved also have power to interpret – and re-interpret – the conditions. Unlike fluid dynamics, where the ‘temperature’ and ‘pressure’ are given factors of the environment (fixed, stable, presumedly controlled/controllable), individuals in a communication process can always choose to maintain or change the context: to alleviate or increase the pressure, to drop or raise the temperature, to decide that any word – ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ even if it generates vapor lock or superheating – can be worked with and turned to productive use. This takes effort, of course, and requires collaboration – therein lies the rub!

Coming up in Part 2: the challenge to traditional models of superheating fluids that only consider instability-based modes of breakup, the question of size vs quantity, and void fractions.

Sea of Poppies
Amitav Ghosh (2009: 391)

“It was not because of Ah Fatt’s fluency that Neel’s vision of Canton became so vivid as to make it real: in fact, the opposite was true, for the genius of Ah Fatt’s descriptions lay in their elisions, so that to listen to him was a venture of collaboration, in which the things spoken of came gradually to be transformed into artefacts of a shared imagining.”

Index: references to Ghosh in Reflexivity

Originally posted June 13, 2005

“I would produce my secret treasure, a present sent to me by a former student – a map of the sea-floor, made by geologists. In the reversed relief of this map [the students] would see with their own eyes that the Ganga does not come to an end after it flows into the Bay of Bengal. It joins with the Brahmaputra in scouring a long, clearly marked channel along the floor of the bay. The map would reveal to them what is otherwise hidden under water: and this is that the course of this underwater river exceeds by far the length of the river’s overland channel.
‘Look, comrades, look,’ I would say. ‘This map shows that in geology, as in myth, there is a visible Ganga and a hidden Ganga: one flows on land and one beneath the water. Put them together and you have what is by hard the greatest of the earth’s rivers’
(181).

internet media
journalism for change

The Fulbright Commission celebrated sixty years in Belgium and Luxembourg with a prestigious academic panel at the Palais de Academie in Bruxelles. I got to tag along with the more recent Schumann-Fulbright program that sponsors study of European Union institutions.
Professor Francis Balace complemented the education I gleaned a few days earlier at the Atomium’s fiftieth anniversary exhibition by describing the dearth of practical knowledge about the U.S. that most Belgians had until after the second world war when, he repeated several times, Belgium was “a good pupil” by negotiating specific policies regarding education in order to be included in the Marshall Plan. Two comments in particular caught my attention, both in the nature of an aside: one regarding the linguistic divide and another about war graves.
In the heat of WWII, and on the basis of prior history, no Belgians expected to be rescued by Americans; it was an article of faith that the British would prevail against the Nazis on Belgian soil. For whatever military and political reasons, part of Belgium was eventually freed by the U.S. and the line distinguishing those parts rescued by Britain and those by the U.S. “corresponds exactly,” Professor Balace emphasized., “with the Belgian linguistic division” of today. This is a matter of curiosity to me, as are the reasons why the Flemish Deaf Community dispensed with an umbrella label for all regional varieties of sign languages in Belgium that were once recognized as distinct from Dutch Sign Language, now describing a (supposedly) distinct Flemish Sign Language. Are the language politics of signed language communities being dictated by the language conflicts of spoken language communities? I do not know enough except to express sadness if this is the case. (See the last two paragraphs of this brief history by an external, non-deaf researcher.)
Someone in the audience felt it necessary, during the question-and-answer session, to expound upon Belgian reverence at U.S. military cemeteries – a theme that has been repeated at every official event I’ve attended since arriving here last month. The discussion that followed introduced some nuances, such as differences in memory and sentiment according to generation. The historical tidbit Professor Balace contributed was the fact of the United States government’s purchase (near the close of WWII) of “an extra five hundred graves in preparation for the next war.” This confirms the critique I offered of the U.S. Embassy film, An Invisible Bridge, of an underlying attitude of nationalistic preparation for institutional violence that might also be fed by the pomp of standing for both country’s national anthems. I did stand, of course, but uneasily. Such ceremonial prelude for an academic session felt awkward. (I find it similarly so at U.S. domestic sporting events.)
Professor Luc Reychler‘s topic echoed Minister of State Herman de Croo‘s introductory veneration of “fundamental connections” generated by the vision of J. William Fulbright, whose scholarships have enabled academics to reach high levels of influence in diverse communities across the globe. Professor Reychler described the network of 600,000 Fulbright scholars as an international brain trust, whose collective wisdom is needed to extract us from “the media crisis,” which, among other faults, promotes a counterproductive division between politicians and academics. The basis of Professor Reychler’s presentation concerning the present was a critique of the “unadaptive responses” of the U.S. government to a series of shocks since 2000. (9/11, evidence of our rich lifestyles adversely affecting the rest of the world, and the “inconvenient truth” of climate change – no doubt he used that phrase deliberately.) He summarized the cumulative effect as a “negative synergy” but sought to counter the inevitable gloominess of current global dynamics as “an unprecedented challenge” which can be successfully engaged.
Professor Reychler’s basic prescription includes a number of specific initiatives aimed collectively at improving relations and collaboration between academics and politicians. The usual dichotomy cannot be allowed to persist, regardless of whatever seeds of truth there may be in politician’s accusation that academics lack practical experience and academics tendency to cloister in the realms of teaching and research. (Just for the record, I’m adding a bit of emphasis to this critique of the academy, probably because I am operating right at that wall Professor Reychler described as the “talk about” transdisciplinary research and the effort to achieve it.)
Specifically, Professor Reychler described the 85:1 ratio of investment in military research versus peace-oriented research. Eighty-five to one!Peace building,” he explained, “requires a combination of multiple, coordinated initiatives.” Not unincidentally, Professor Reychler noted declines in academic freedom, a trend that is apparently not even being tracked. (Although it is certainly a topic of conversation in my graduate program and others, where graduate students are coached to adapt our actual interests to the narrow parameters established by funders in their attempt to guarantee that research results generate profitability and/or contribute adequately to their own predetermined purposes.)
The final panelist, Professor Alison Woodward, spoke with an eye toward the future, describing the juxtaposition of migration with our so-historically-recent ability to maintain intimate connections with family and friends in geographically distant places. Drawing upon work in the sociology of intimacy, Professor Woodward noted how emotions are entering the realm of political discourse: even in the formal academic setting of this talk (attended by U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox) “love” had already been mentioned. This “rediscovery of the personal” is interwoven and interactive with the new age of migration that is in radical contrast with migrations of the past in which intimate ties were necessarily cut.
Others are also showing ways in which communication networks challenge international politics, matters of citizenship, and “the larger political economy of design,” simply put by Saskia Sassen as “the work of making“. Professor Woodward argues,

Globalization is not only a macroproduct,
it reaches down to the level of bonds

- among families in particular, and (I would add) between friends. What so many feel as a threat of interdependency need not be perceived as an ill, rather, the increasing ability to keep bonds and forge bridges (the two types of interpersonal networks that compose society, as defined by Robert Putnam) bodes well for international relations.
The first question of the open Q-and-A session concerned the problem of dragging publics into policies before they understand them. The speaker was critical of European organization, describing it (presumedly the EU) as “weak and disorganized,” with “the European population 20-30 years behind events,” a condition which forces progress to be made “ad hoc without popular support.” I would characterize the phenomenon of knowledge lag as, at least partially, an element of the media crisis that Professor Reychler named. I am not a technological utopianist (however much I tend to come across as one), and there are problems with blaming social ills on the media, however the rituals we engage concerning what is produced, seen, heard, and distributed – whether as entertainment, advertising, infotainment, documentary, or incisive fact-based and contextualized journalism – are problematic. Surely we can do better than we are.

Barbara Capogrosso-Sansone defended her dissertation this summer, and I was lucky enough to wangle an invitation. What follows are the thoughts of a wannabe social scientist/activist who imagines significant connections between the languages of math (especially quantum physics) and human words as they are spoken and written in intentional conversation with one another. You may decide that the t-shirt John wore for the event describes me perfectly:

“I live in my own little world, but its ok … they know me there.”

On the off chance that I might be on to something, well, you’ll read what a mishmash I’ve made of Barbara’s quantum Monte Carlo study of ultracold bosons in optical lattices. My attention was captured immediately because she’s working with a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). Some folks have suggested that something like a BEC might be responsible for consciousness. (It can’t be an actual BEC, because our brains – let alone the rest of our rather incredible bodies – cannot live at the supercold temperature involved.)
The general thing that I’m thinking, as I mentioned to Don in my exuberance that day, is that we are all really talking about the same thing, we’re just using different languages to do the talking. “We” who? What “same thing”? Ah. I can’t quite answer that, yet. The “what” is something along the lines of spirit – but it goes by many, many names: energy, power, life, creativity, inspiration, vision, to name those that leap to mind today. Perhaps it is the answer E.O. Wilson seeks, a theory of consilience. Perhaps it is the miracle Wendell Berry argues can never, ever, be captured by any equation humans are able to devise. Berry, btw, is also a fantastic resource on living in the presence of fear.
As to the “we” – I’ve got a rather broad criteria that includes anyone/everyone trying to find solutions to the challenges that face humanity today. Specifically, though, I aim to include the people I’ve met at UMass Amherst, in all our varied fields and disparate ambitions. In the midst of Barbara’s exegesis on the dipole interaction and quantum phase transitions, she said there’s something intriguing occurring in these optical lattices:

atoms hop around

Mathematicians (perhaps more than any other kind of physical scientist?) deal with the observable, the measurable, the essentially reliable. Social scientists, on the other hand, strive for the predictable but are constantly having to engage the sheer diversity of actual human responses to living, i.e., the social implies the unbounded. There may be parameters to the “hopping” we can do, but the rules that determine these parameters are not yet known.
Honestly, I’m not sure I want those parameters defined too accurately, but I do think we (humanity) need to figure out the forces that can be used to alter the realities we live in, largely because the current conditions are frightening to those of us with relative privilege and still totally suck for the majority of the world’s population. My basic thesis is that language is the tool.
k through the trees.jpg

The secondary thesis (if you’ll just go along with the first one for awhile), technically an hypothesis, is that language is energy – quantum energy, in fact, full of potential that can be experientially realized. The energy is in the transformations created through the assignment of meaning – both to things said and to things perceived but unsaid. Barbara spoke of the Bose-Hubbard model (1989), and mentioned a kinetic energy term, “hopping matrix element” (“t”). Does it work as an analogy? Language operates within fields of understanding and mis- or non-understanding. We in the West, especially) tend to privilege “understanding,” but misunderstanding is a potent space in-and-of-itself (see Chang).
Listening carefully to the language of math (especially by teachers of math and scientists using math), I hear metaphors of social interaction: “onsite repulsion” (e.g., prejudice?) “localized atoms” (e.g., jargon, culturally-specific terminology?), “zero compressibility” (no range of possible interpretation?), superfluid state (meanings in flux?) “Each line,” Barbara explained a graph, “represents a particle, [these are] world-lines.” Sounds like discourse trajectories to me! There are “hopping events” and “periodic boundary conditions in time.” Could these be akin to particular complexities in conflict negotiation and other difficult forms of problem-solving?
What I find most instructive concerning the language of math that I think social scientists could learn from, is that when mathematicians come up against a dilemma, they invent a way to deal with it. Tell me the truth, what is the correlate in real life of imaginary numbers? Barbara’s work goes even further than imaginary numbers, she is working with imaginary time.* Her atoms, somehow inversed in temperature, move in imaginary time, then hop to their nearest neighbor even though they could go somewhere else. Now, I do not know the significance of this in terms of physics, but if I extrapolate to the ways that discourse works, I would say something is indicated to the effect that simply reversing the conditions leads to a similar effect. Am I interpreting accurately enough? Flip the dynamics of oppression, it’s still an equation of privilege/disadvantage. I know I am reaching here, so some of you that KNOW the math might explain how well the analogy does or doesn’t hold. Basically, (it seems) some attractive force remains at work and effectively reduces the range of possibility to only that which is closest, even though more distant positions are possible (and, socially at least, probably more desirable).
Ok, I admit I’m straining a bit since so much time has passed since the event. My thoughts now are based on interpreting my notes, rather than recalling what excited me in the actual moment. Still, Barbara is working with mechanisms (a worm algorithm, winding numbers, superfluid stiffness) that enable the sampling of topologically different configurations, generating “a mass in order to calculate superfluid stateness.” Again, it seems there is a calculation occurring across time and space that allows the identification of relativistic behavior, specifically, particle-hole symmetry.
Let me return to language, meaning, understanding and its opposite. What I say (these words I type) could be imagined as “particles”; they can only be understood if a suitable “hole” exists for reception. Gaps are crucial, of course, and low energy levels always seem a good idea (especially as we enter the age of conservation). Which means, as Barbara says,

We need to create particles and holes at the same time.

If I wasn’t excited before (i.e., driven to a higher energy state!), I got moreso as Barbara continued. Because even though the work begins in imaginary time, “the system of effective action” is translated into real time. Keep in mind that I am not making an atom-person comparison, but an atom-language comparison. “The transition,” continues Barbara, “is driven by adding or subtracting a small number of particles…[This is a] different physics – quantum fluctuations, at some point it becomes more favorable for the system to delocalize.” In other words (I think!), it becomes possible for atoms not to choose their nearest neighbor, but to behave in a truly alternative fashion. Amazing transformations then occur, such as the velocity of sound replacing the speed of light!
A bunch of people had questions at this point in the presentation; which was only (!) laying the groundwork for the discussion of results. Somehow along the way Barbara established a three-dimensional description of ground state properties, coming up with a phase diagram, information about strong coupling expansion, and a surprising finding concerning the critical region – which was bigger than predicted. What happens is a special kind of symmetry – based on the numbers (visible by graphing) and the relativistic behavior of sound itself. The symmetry is the crux (if I’ve got this right) of the transition from the mathematical world of the imaginary to the real, physical world.
WHAT IS INTERESTING?
The math and physics proper implications are far beyond me, but the pieces I grasp for language involve the importance of temperature (emotion may serve as the social science equivalent?), the changes from a homogenous to non-homogenous system (monocultural to mixed/multicultural?), and this discovery: “two bosons cannot occupy the same site.” Again, a reach, but no two words – even the same word – can never occupy the precise same spacetime with exactly equivalent momentum. “This model,” Barbara concludes, “is different than before, [which was] hard-core = only one (_____?) per site, and the interaction is long ranged.” The gist I took away from the presentation is that added dimensionality matters. The parameters of various electric fields (imagine the matrix of social/cultural factors that generate belonging or identity or community) can be tuned independently, via this knowledge about the hopping matrix element, such that “there is only a three-body repulsion…. [in this] system, meanfield predictions show the system undergoes a solid-superfluid quantum phase transition, [which effects the]
• Charge density wave, and the
• Bond order.”
Stick with me – or rip me to shreds! We’re witnessing (and probably participating in) huge “charges” of social density in waves (dare I say) of anti-Palinism (to give the most prominent current example). A transition resulting from this wave would be most welcome, would it not? (Well, if it goes the way we desire – I’m not sure the model provides the tools to predict which way a wave may break, yet.) But such a transformation will alter the social order – the relational bonds that tie us into certain elemental states will be disrupted, allowing the possibility for new and different bonds to form.
A Footnote:
*Stephen Hawking describes imaginary time as a “kind of time in the vertical direction,” which is “not the kind of time we normally experience. But in a sense, it is just as real, as what we call real time.” The Beginning of Time, a public lecture by Dr. Stephen Hawking.

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