Solving democracy through complex systems

The United States of America is a broken country. Our dreams have been bent, tarnished, and mis-handled so often and for so long that we — the 300 million people who call it our home — have nearly forgotten what it means to live here. The government has gotten us so used to expecting solutions that we’ve nearly forgotten how to create our own. At the same time, we’re not really sure what the problems are that need solving. We know, though, that there are problems. Though nobody has a single solution; though there is no panacea or magic elixir; there is a way to approach what’s wrong: a method born out of complex systems analysis.

The following is a sketch of an idea I’ve been toying with since October, 2007. I’m sharing it in it’s draft form here for two reasons: 1) to get the idea into the ether because it’s something on which we all need to work and 2) to elicit your feedback. this document (PDF) charts out the idea, and the following few paragraphs are an attempt to get at the crux of the thing.

Complex problems require the ability for all involved in their solution to be able to think clearly, logically, intuitively, and critically. As society becomes more complex and our interactions with each other and our environment become that much more complicated, we need to be able to understand how our decisions and actions ripple out into the rest of the world.

To that end, the architects of our government intended that it be structured as a reverse hierarchy. In other words, the power moved from the people to the leaders and not the other way around. In order for it to work, the people — us — themselves must tackle the more complex issues in society: starvation, health care access, abortion, housing, crime. The proxies — elected officials — should only be allowed to address issues of a complexity relatively smaller: printing money, international relations, etc.

Current trends in education, government, and other aspects of this country seem to indicate a general dumbing down of the populace, however. This dumbing down is having the effect of giving our proxies more power than originally intended and subverting our Democratic Republic into something more akin to a modern-day corporation where strata are clearly defined. If the populace is dumb, it can’t make complex decisions.

In other words, by removing the complexity from our lives, by avoiding the difficult decisions at the state, county, and town level we are turning our reverse hierarchy upside down. By definition, a hierarchy only works if the people at the bottom deal with the easy stuff. If we’re dealing with easy stuff, then we’re at the bottom.

In other words, in order to fix what we all feel is wrong with our country, we have to do it ourselves. This is an Existential world, and there is no one to save us. No superheroes or omniscient politicians. In order to save ourselves, though, we need to be smart, savvy, calm, decisive, and willing to devote ourselves to the cause framed by our founders in the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. The foundation is there, we just need need to build upon it.

I need your comments and ideas on this. If it’s a thing, it’s not my thing. It’s our thing. Thoughts? Concerns?

The temperature this morning registered a nice and crisp 28° Fahrenheit, which is officially our first frost of the year. Having grown up in Vermont, it’s very strange to be waiting until after Thanksgiving to mention frosts. Maybe, though, it has very little to do with latitude and more to do with climate shifts overall.

Two weeks ago, there was a day in Boston where the temperature was 60° Fahrenheit. Everyone seemed so happy to be able to walk to work and along the sidewalks in their skirts and short-sleeves and baseball hats. And why not? Winters are hard in New England. Surely we deserve a break or two.

Seeing the frosted-over lawn this morning, however, reminded me that it’s been a number of years since there’s been snow on the ground much before Xmas, and last year we were hard-pressed to find any day worth playing in the snow.

I’m worried about the climate, but I’m not worried because of the fate of the earth. I’m worried for my son. What will his winter memories be? Will he have the same pleasures we had as kids? Running through waist-deep snow just to jet down the other side of an unknown hill? If climate change needs to be reversed, then we need to reverse it — not for the fate of all humanity — for the fate of those closest to us.

Ingressus brevis est

Hodie diarium meum Latine scripto. Ingresso brevo est. Donare me si sententiae meae incallidae et fatuae sunt. Hic non obvium est, et verbi incallidi solummodo sentio. Tolerentia tua interrogo. Cras, satius facebo. Vale.

My new “song”


This song represents how I feel today: a little disjointed, but thinking of Latin and strange shapes.

The technology is Audacity on OS X 10.3.9. The instruments are “C” tin whistle, an Oscar Schmidt guitar, Wheelock’s Latin, and me.

On Being a Soccer Coach

It’s for the kids.

The cold rain is blowing at an angle across the open soccer field. On the sideline, my bedraggled team huddles reluctantly in this late October maelstrom of rain and fouls and goals. Tired from the weather more than from their running, water bottles lay neglected at their feet.

As I watch them huddle with hunched shoulders in this driving rain, I wish I could tell them I know how they feel. That I know that justice is not being done out there on the field. I’m just their coach, though. I’m not here to teach life lessons on justice and fairness, winning in the rain, or why the game wasn’t called on account of the weather. I’m supposed to be here to teach them skills of side-footed passing, defensive off-side positioning, and the elegance of the goalie’s leap and catch.

Soccer has become an obsession among the suburbanly wealthy in America. More children in this country play soccer than any other sport, and the numbers in my own region are just as staggering. In a city of 30,000 people there are will over 2,000 kids ages six to 12 signed up for our program. And that’s just for teams who play in town.

With that many playing, a public effort is made at fair play, good sportsmanship, and balanced games. Players are placed on teams randomly, with the exception that we coach our own children. Coaches are given the opportunity to participate in US Soccer Association-sanctioned training sessions. We even make sure that every player plays an equal amount of time in small-sided games.

Back at our game, my goalie is in pain as he places the ball down for a goal kick. His tears mix with the cold rain on his face. He’s clutching his side and the referee hasn’t noticed. I tell him so. He blows the whistle and I run out to the box to see how he is. Elbowed in the ribs by an opposing player, I call out the substitute and help the injured 3rd grader back to the sidelines. His father runs out into the rain with a jacket. It’s the fifth or sixth uncalled foul and unsportsmanlike behavior I’ve seen today. The game starts up again and nobody outside of this little circle of coach and father, soaking-wet teammates pays any notice the injured boy.

We’re down by seven goals. Five of them were scored in the first half. During halftime the other coach comes over and apologizes for being ahead. He’s trying to play his worst players, he tells me. Trying to put his worst defenders up front and his slowest forwards in as often as possible. He’s sorry he’s winning. My team hears every word.

At practices, the coaches all try to cover the same drills and exercises. We try and teach the basics of passing and trapping, dribbling and running, shooting and blocking. Sometimes our team gets to practice on a full-sized field with a goal at either end. Most of the time, though, we’re playing on half the normal space and use orange cones to imagine where the goal might be. For the most part, the kids are good about it. We run our passing and shooting drills and work on some defensive positioning. When everyone shows up for practice, I try to run a scrimmage for the last 15 or 20 minutes of the evening. Lately they’ve been playing like friends.

During half-time, the team asks if they can kick and punch and elbow the way our opponents are. They don’t really mean it, but their frustration is palpable. Every one of them is carrying some kind of knock. A stepped-on ankle here, elbowed ribs over there. They tell me most are caused by the ministrations of just a couple players. The players I was told the other day were among the best in the league. Children of the coaches.

We left the field in the driving rain after losing 7 goals to 1. What lesson was learned here aside from those of shame, humility, and the futility of fairness?

They say the purpose of my volunteering my time is for the kids. They say that the kids are the important ones, that they are the reason for the day, that the kids are why we had gathered here in the rain. Why, then, do these kids look so sad?

A (bad) Latin joke

Two workmen are building a road on the outskirts of Ancient Rome. They can be seen working under the boiling afternoon sun, shovels and picks in hand, carving the earth while masons lay stone behind them. Their orders are to build to the edge of the Empire that has begun to collapse, and they are disillusioned.

First Worker: Quid fine laboramus?

Second Worker: Fini viae larboramus.

Get it? Huh? Huh?

All of that is behind me, and what’s left is forward

The other day I realized that I don’t really know where I’ve been the past few years. I feel as one who has been wallowing in the middle of truth and fiction; one who looks across a darkening ocean for a future, only to see the past. I feel as though all of that is behind me, though. I’ve woken up.

I’m returning to my studies of literature, philosophy, and Latin. I’ve got a career as an information architect that I’m enjoying fully. I’m working to get my dad’s poetry to the public. Perhaps the most exciting, though, is today I bought myself new saxophone reeds and am practicing again.

My saxophone is important to me, and it was the trigger for my realization above. I’ve gone for three years without ever taking it out of its case, without ever feeling the taste and rough-hewn flexibility of a bamboo reed, without ever honking out my feelings through the tube of cold brass, ivory, and wood. Tonight, though, I felt the vibration of that reed against my bottom lip and honked myself silly.

So now why does Deval Patrick have to go and ruin it? Why was it I voted for him? I’m going to write him and find out.

The last month …

The last month has been downright hectic, to be honest. I’d devoted too much of myself to too many tasks, and it shows now that I’m through with them. Soccer coaching, ghost tour in Salem, promoting my Dad’s book, and following presidential politics. Through it all, though, I learned a number of things about myself that — perhaps — will help me better focus my energy in the future.

  • I love my family more than any activity or extra source of money
  • The world of letters is a world in which I want to belong, even if it be on an ad hoc, hobbyost basis
  • The world of sports — even kids’ sports — is not one in which I excel

With those lessons learned, I believe I can venture forth in the world with more confidence and pride than before, but also with a greater humility: I know where I stand. I know in what I believe. I know wherein my battles lie.

Until next time…