El Gringoqueño

All a man needs out of life is a place to sit ‘n’ spit in the fire.

Category: Culture (page 1 of 7)

The Way Things Fail

Back in engineering school, we were taught all sorts of things, materials, statics, dynamics, math, factors of safety, design, even a little bit of public policy. We were taught to look for causes of failure, whether human (design, operation), fatigue, or even an act of nature. We walked through case studies of engineering disasters like detectives.

The takeaway: you can’t engineer away failure, and the cause of failure is rarely one thing.

In these case studies, there were usually small errors compounded by something unforeseen. Perhaps there was a bureaucratic process, a cost cutting measure, an edge case condition, and bam! you have achieved critical failure. How did it happen? Well, the pilot feel asleep. No that’s not it. The pilot fell asleep and there was a freak storm with tropical moisture at high altitude. No that’s not it, try again. The pilot fell asleep, there was a freak storm with high tropical moisture, which caused the air speed sensor to ice over and the junior pilot wasn’t able to deduce the problem with sufficient time to avert the tragedy of Air France Flight 447. We’ve got design flaws. We’ve got training flaws. We’ve got procedure flaws. We’ve got acts of God, all mixed up in a delicious failure soup.

The consistent commonality in these case studies was the fact that things go wrong. They will go wrong, and you should expect them to go wrong. See Murphy’s Law. Armed with this new knowledge, engineers must now ask themselves how they want fail. The engineer of the product or solution, must consider the modes of failure, how a thing may fail. It seems strange to plan for failure, doesn’t it? But you must, because you need to be able to control whether it will it fail gracefully or blow up in your face?

Take the design of cars, for example. In the mid 20th century, cars were built as steel behemoths. No seat belts. Limited crumple zones. No air bags. We built cars, and we expected them to be rigid and sturdy. Engineers, unfortunately, underrepresented the driver and passenger systems, and the systems of other cars and drivers in their designs. What happens to a car when comes into contact with another? Engineers should have taken a holistic approach to the automobile, considering it as part of a complex and unpredictable system. They should have considered that cars were going to crash and crash badly. Just because a car’s intended mode of operation is not impacting other cars, doesn’t mean you don’t design for it.

The result in 1972 was almost 55,000 traffic fatalities; 55,000 people dead because cars were under engineered for failure modes.

Fast forward to mass shootings in these recent years. “It’s mental illness!” “It’s family values!” “It’s right-wing extreme ideologies!” “It’s video games! It’s toxic masculinity!”

Many of the mass shootings touch on these characteristics, and it would be easy to blame one thing. Maybe all of them and things we hadn’t considered are to blame for the desperate and aberrant outcomes we have witnessed recently. You are not wrong, but you’re hand waving. Remember our friend Murphy? “But but, cars aren’t supposed to crash! The driver was drunk. The driver was inattentive, going too fast. The road was poorly designed. The car was unsafe.” All of those things may be true, and yet still you’re addressing the accident as preventable instead of probable. American drivers experience on average one accident per every 165,000 miles driven. It’s probable that a driver will experience one or more accidents in their lifetimes. We can work to mitigate risk factors, but like an ashtray in an airplane lavatory, we have to assume some people are going to do the wrong thing.

But back to mass shooters – Maybe we have areas of sickness in our society. Certain facets of personal liberty and individualism create easy targets of isolated individuals looking to belong to something.

Whatever it is, I ask the following question: If you can’t stop car accidents from happening, shouldn’t you still look to control how they happen?

If mental illness, distressed individuals, violent video games, social isolation, and childhood abuse can lead to desperate acts, don’t you want to control how they happen?

We know weapons are not the cause of these terrible tragedies, but they do increase the severity of the failure. When things go wrong, there are no crumple zones. There is no air bag. There is no seat belt. There is only an AR-15 style weapon with a extended magazine.

Hope in the Face of Inevitable Loss

I tear up when “En Mi Viejo San Juan” is sung or played. I don’t know why. The song is a nostalgic lamentation from the point of view of a Puerto Rican living in the diaspora, far away from their beloved homeland, a reluctant refugee from their true love, their home. They hope one day to return to their beautiful isla, Borinquen.

Pero el tiempo pasó | But time passed by
Y el destino burló | and destiny mocked
Mi terrible nostalgia | my terrible nostalgia,
Y no pude volver | and I couldn’t return
Al San Juan que yo amé | to the San Juan that I loved,
Pedacito de patria | little piece of my land.

Mi cabello blanqueo | My hair whitened
Ya mi vida se va | and my life fades away
Ya la muerte me llame | and death calls for me,
Y no quiero morir | and I don’t want to die
Alejado de tí | away from you
Puerto Rico del alma, adiós | Puerto Rico of the soul.

My son, Jaimito made an observation after he had played it in a small ensemble recently. “Daddy, it’s funny, you’re not even Puerto Rican, and you have not left or plan to leave.”

“I don’t know what it is, Jaimito. You’re right. Why does that song hit me so hard?” I laughed, wiping my tears. “Damn these onions.”

I’ve reflected, and I think I’ve come to a few conclusions. First, I get emotional because everybody else does. This song never fails to impact a group of Puerto Ricans especially older. I cannot, not be impacted by the emotions of others. Like a contagious yawn, I think of all the scattered families, the years and distance between them, the struggles of making it in a new place, the worry of those in the mainland when calamity befalls others on the island. We will return, they say, and they hold out hope that we will be together again on their beautiful island.

And that leads me to the second and perhaps deeper significance in the song. An essentially hopeful and spiritual people, I can’t also help but reflect that the song touchs at what drives us all forward, keeps us going.

Hope.

Although, we know in our rational mind that the outcome is hopeless, our heart, our spirits will that it be not so.  This song captures it perfectly – hope in the face of inevitable loss.

Technology, Culture, and Knowledge Ownership

I’ve written about this topic before, that owning and using a technology is more than just purchasing it, but I’d like to delve further into this general topic using the Boeing 737 Max as a departure point.

But first, a little bit of backstory.

When Laura and I lived in the Basque Country I learned an interesting concept. An euskaldun is a person who has the Basque language, Euskera. The morpheme -dun connotes ownership, to have and to own, but it goes deeper than that. It’s an intrinsic “have” that is more than simple acquisition. It’s the kind of ownership an inventor has, or someone who was born into something. English speakers might use the word, “native” to communicate a similar sentiment. The Basques have various words for describing those who are new speakers of Euskera, those that are fluent, perhaps even perfect, but were not born to it. The -dun communicates an intrinsic knowledge that cannot be separated from the person. You know it, you own it, it is a part of you.

The term helps us, I think, when we consider how to design technology exported for use outside of whatever culture. It would also be important to consider the hidden biases and assumptions baked into a product whether it be software or a jet aircraft or software on a jet aircraft. No matter how much we try, exported invention and knowledge will always contain unexpected challenges to those that use it outside of its native context.

Let’s put this all in the context of commercial aircraft operation in the US. The US has the largest military air force in the world. The US has the highest quantity of pilots and ex-pilots. The US invented the airplane. There are certain assumptions that go into aircraft operation, like there’s a good chance that the pilot has spent some time in the air force, has flown many types of air craft, is male, is white, and is older and more experienced. But it also goes without saying that the aircraft was probably designed for him by people that look like him. Engineers have long struggled with biased assumptions in design.

I have confronted numerous challenges trying to integrate technology knowledge in Puerto Rico among non-native English speakers. There are cultural and social factors that play a role in how a person sees and uses the object. If it wasn’t birthed from their values, their assumptions, and their social construct, there will always be unexpected gaps. The best they can do is to learn to adapt themselves to its construct and its context. The Puerto Rican people are very adept at context switching between two cultures and languages, but it’s still a band-aid solution.

Back to the Ethiopian Air 737 Max crash. Boeing has said, that “…experienced 737 pilots needed little training for the new Max 8.” What is an experienced pilot? Is Boeing basing this recommendation on what it knows about American pilots, that they are generally more experienced and older?

Boeing engineer says, “Yeah, if it gets dicey, flip the switch and turn off the MCAS system. It’s really not necessary anyway, Bill, it’s mostly to make you feel better about the new handling characteristics of airframe.”

We now know that there were incidents where the MCAS system had responded adversely in US airspace. The pilots turned the system off and filed a complaint. No crashes, but it pissed off a few pilots.

It may also be the case that US manufacturers all ordered the optional second redundant sensor model. Other carriers around the world may have less money or may interpret “optional” in a different way. Optional may mean unnecessary to them. How optional is it? Well, apparently it’s only optional if you don’t care if your plane stays in the air.

So we go down the list, how well written was the training manual? Was it translated properly into Ethiopian? What was that person’s cultural knowledge? Was it not translated at all, relying on the Ethiopian engineers’ knowledge of English? I can tell you first hand, that no matter how well you speak/write in a second language, there will always be gaps. I have done a master’s degree in Spanish, have lived in Puerto Rico for over 20 years, and there are still things I learn every day, things that my kids already know at a high school level. So, in order for our Ethiopian pilots to have the same performance characteristics as our American native pilots, they would have to have complete and total ownership over the culture of flying, American specific cultural nuance, all the tacit and implicit meanings of the terms found in technical manuals, and the assumptions made in order to achieve parity. It’s a tall order, and even if our Ethiopian pilots were twice as talented, twice as smart, and bilingual they are still hamstrung by a technology they didn’t invent and they don’t own. Their knowledge no matter how spectacular will be degraded by a context and assumptions that are not their own.

Los Sabores del Amor, The Flavors of Love

I had been wanting to share this for a while. It’s what I’ve been listening to for the past year, and I love every single song. They are songs of love, passionate, yearning, sweet, sentimental, and loss. They can be deep and abiding, carnal, lighthearted, irreverent, and unconditional. It’s all the flavors, all the facets, wrapped into an interesting blend of Caribbean and Latin rhythms.

If you’re not necessarily into Latin music, I hope that these may just pique your interest.

And yes, Despacito is there. How could I do a lista de los grandes éxitos and not put on Despacito. Shutup. Haha.

American Exceptionalism – Wealth as a Signal for Virtue

Recently I’ve been immersing myself in so-called right wing media and thought. It started with watching Fox News, and it’s culminated finally with reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I must say, I have enjoyed the journey of discovery, of shedding pre-conceptions, erring on the side of the defense of conservatism, and seeking the Right’s best and purest argument. Forget the jingoistic, the dog whistle appeals to racism, isolationism, and misogyny. Forget name-calling. Forget caricature.  I sought out what were the noblest of their ideals among people of good faith. These people are not found on Fox News. Fox News is caricature.

What do earnest people on the Right seek for individuals? What do they seek for society? Well the short answer is purpose and productivity – noble aspirations to be sure, but it’s slightly more complex than that and leads us down the path of how American society has been constructed.

I bought the book, Atlas Shrugged, nearly twenty years ago on a whim. I had been hungry to go through the classic science fiction giants. I stocked up on Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, among others. I chose Atlas Shrugged because I had heard of it. I can’t recall exactly, but it and Fountainhead called my attention. I had no idea of its political or philosophical tone in its promotion of Rand’s Objectivism. In fact, I knew nothing about her or her philosophy.  The book was a multiple reprinted classic, featured prominently among others in the Science Fiction section. Atlas was also the thickest, so I intended to read it last.

By the time I got to Atlas, I probably had run out of steam, but I couldn’t get into it. Barely 25 pages into the novel, I put it down and didn’t touch it for twenty years.

Bringing us forward into the present, I have chosen to revisit Atlas Shrugged in part because I wanted to understand what all the hulabaloo was about and because Ayn Rand’s Wikipedia page seems unnecessarily personal and hateful, that is, the attacks against the book and against her personally seemed illogical. Here was a woman who published two acclaimed novels, with Atlas Shrugged featuring a woman as a classical heroic character in a time when women’s roles were on the sidelines. I’ve got to give this another chance, I thought. And look at how I’m equivocating about my choices. It’s embarrassing that I feel the need to explain why I read it. Don’t be afraid to read Atlas Shrugged. It’s a good book. You’ll enjoy it. Just don’t treat it like a guide for your life choices, okay?

And I am glad I did. I enjoyed the book. I don’t agree with objectivism, but I think I understand where it is coming from, and I now see why it makes so much sense in American culture.

That an individual’s highest aim in life is purpose, is to work, is to create, and to do so without malice, greed, or malfeasance, embodies the American Protestant ethos, the molecules of social DNA sown on the shores with the discarded Puritan refuse of foreign lands. Max Weber defined the confluence of the virtues of noble work in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a series of essays latter bundled together, expressing economic output within a Protestant religious framework.

Ayn Rand, seems to draw unwittingly from Max Weber, but perhaps more deliberately from Benjamin Franklin who wrote of the virtues of industry and frugality, based upon his Puritan upbringing. Wealth is a byproduct of a moral life dedicated to purpose and productivity. Take your five shillings, he said in letter from An Old Trademan, and multiply it by working it. In short, wealth is never the point, but rather a measure of God’s favor upon you.

Wealth is a signal for virtue.

America was founded on these principles, and they are deeply embedded in the social construct, for Left and Right alike, and this framework defines public policy as implemented in social programs, economic management, personal and corporate taxes, and in a myriad of ways that just “make sense” to Americans. That there are makers and takers, those with virtue and those without is unquestioned, and informs all expressions of socialist programs through stigmatizing those collecting disability, food, unemployment, etc.  At the same time, corporations are now people. I probably could just stop here. Just cut out the middleman, and wash away the individual failings, and put all our virtue signaling in the aggregate of corporate entities. People are generally good, right? So a corporation must be generally good and virtuous. We know it is so, because – look at the stock price. Forget the fact that malfeasance is still individual and now hides behind the cover of the Inc.

We fall victim to this virtue signaling by falsely identifying it when there is none but wealth, when virtue is bankrupt but dollars still flow. To have been in God’s grace, your path to wealth must have been virtuous, but it is so difficult to see it when some people won’t release their tax returns. So those of low virtue hide among the faithful, wolves in sheep’s clothing distorting, gaming, and manipulating for their own glorification and not the glorification of God.

But I get it, it’s tough to call them out, so entrenched is the signal of the almighty dollar. I also understand how decent Americans can vote Republican. It’s that hard to admit the brokenness of the signal.

America’s Protestant virtue social construct, I believe, creates resistance to recontextualizing achievements in the face of new information. Global Warming – How could our industrial development and progress have doomed us all? Those who achieved, the greats throughout American history, the railroad barons, the steel magnates, the developers – all of them were unquestionably virtuous because of their wealth. They were rewarded, and how could they have been rewarded if they weren’t virtuous. God bestows his blessings upon the just and the just are the makers not the looters and the moochers. What if those that extracted from the ground, mined wealth, laid track, build sky scrapers instead of the virtue they professed, were actually marching humanity toward an unmarked mass grave? Can you wonder why there might be resistance to such a concept?

Recontextualizing the achievers of a past age runs the risk of nullifying an American core value, perhaps THE core value, that wealth and production signal God’s grace. Manifest destiny’s final outcome signaled grace upon the nation – no matter how we got there, and if there be messiness, it would come to matter less and less as the generations passed, as textbooks excluded diverse viewpoints and left the dirtiness buried in a mass grave with virtue as the only artifact.

Why the Story of Your Food is Important

Food isn’t just sustenance. Food is experience. Food is sharing. Food is community and culture. Without the story, your dish is just a powerbar slammed to get you from point A to point B with no appreciation for the deep connections we share as human beings. And if I may, perhaps there is a cultural component to “food as means to an end” vs “food as an end in itself.”

In many places in the world, people share a deep special bond with the histories and stories around their shared dishes, secret recipes passed down through the generations, peculiar rituals surrounding the preparation of the ingredients, etc.

We don’t come together merely to stuff our faces and satiate our bellies. We’re really filling our souls.

There Are Two Kinds of People in This World

I was watching Fox News today, well, not really Fox News News, just the talking heads that seem to love being hysterical. There are certainly a lot of them, I am finding. It is surprising what passes for critical thinking on that network.

For example, I was surprised to learn that hoards of Honduran and Guatemalan people were streaming into our country in “caravans” of chaos and lawlessness. The gist of the breathless and hysterical “reporting” was grab yo’ money, grab yo’ wife – they coming for your way of life!!! All of it was unsubstantiated by the way. The “report” showed some footage of hundreds of brown people traveling along a road, some walking, some riding in trucks. We don’t know when this was. We don’t know who they are. All brown people look alike, don’t they? We don’t know how many there are. No facts were cited. No credible reports by any organization. Nothing. The talking heads slid easily into “people say” and “reports indicate that” and then hissed the conclusion, “there are thousands of these people streaming into our country every day, and they have been coached by socialist leftest organizations to claim oppression and danger in order to gain entrance.” And as Dave Barry used to say, “And I am not making this up” the talking heads speculated as fact that these migrants are kidnapping or borrowing children to facilitate their entry in the United States. Seriously? Truly you have a dizzying intellect!

Do people really buy this shit? Do people really believe these ignorant, uneducated, careless talking heads?

Let’s say for the sake of argument that there really are hundreds of poor people (now they are saying thousands… THOUSANDS of ILLEGALS ) from Guatemala and Honduras trying to seek asylum in the US, and that they have been told that if they have suffered persecution, that they should say they fear for their safety. I’ll give your factless reporting the benefit of the doubt. I’m naive, I know, but bear with me.

When you see these people, mothers, fathers, teenagers, children, grandmothers, grandfathers…

Do you see them as mouths to feed?

Or do you seem them as hands to help?

Because that’s really what it boils down to, doesn’t it?

Do you see people as takers or makers?

Your answer really says more about you.

White Privilege – A Clarification

Hey, I get it. You don’t feel privileged. You’ve worked hard to accomplish something in your life. You’ve faced some hard knocks, but you’ve persevered and you have achieved. You might hear “white privilege” and dismiss it as offensive and racist; somebody’s trying to take away something from you that you earned.

I hear you, but I want to clarify something.

White privilege is a group phenomenon, a larger social issue rather than an individual one. In fact, I’ll equate it to climate change. Human driven climate change isn’t weather change, as certain U.S. Senators would like to imagine. Climate change works on a global level and is manifested as an increasing global average temperature. Yes, there are local fluctuations, but OVERALL the planet temperature is rising. White Privilege is a social phenomenon whose effects are felt in aggregate as asymmetric incarceration rates, greater income inequality etc. Yes, there are fluctuations. There are some suffering white folks just as there are some affluent black folks, but overall, there is a general social and economic advantage in America to being white.

I will concede that perhaps “white privilege” is a term that is probably unnecessarily antagonistic and when launched as a rebuke certainly isn’t building bridges. Still, I would exhort people who would classify themselves as white to attempt to understand where it comes from and own the concepts behind it. Try to see the collective position of power not as privilege for oneself, but as a duty to correct the sins of the past.

Information Technology Marginalization

It’s been twenty years, and I keep observing it, in all places, and at all levels. It doesn’t matter your education. It doesn’t matter if you are an employee or upper management, Puerto Rico has a problem with information technology marginalization, made worse by all the status, power, and access issues associated with its colonial status with the U.S.

I looked over the shoulder of an employee editing a document in Microsoft Word. She was proudly showing her boss the changes she made. She dutifully highlighted her changes and created a legend to mark deletions, insertions, and changes. She had carefully thought through the problems related to sharing her work, and cleverly developed a system to communicate it.

After her boss left, I gently showed her the track changes features of Word. I have never interacted with her in English, and I don’t imagine she speaks even a word of it, but her version of Windows 10 as well as her office suite, Microsoft Office were entirely in English. In fact, every single computer in the organization was the same way. I don’t doubt that there are people there that speak English, but no one has it as their first language, and no one wouldn’t benefit having their computer system presented to them entirely in Spanish. Your native language invites discovery, ownership. Your non-native, opacity and confusion.

I know this, because I always use unfamiliar systems in English. Even though I am perfectly fluent in Spanish both reading and writing, there is a distance from the words that is a challenge to overcome, and I don’t pay a social cost for choosing my native language.

The people of Puerto Rico pay a social price for choosing their own native tongue.

“Oh, no, these things are understood better in English. I’m accustomed to it that way.”

I commonly hear this, and I always shake my head internally and I have never been successful getting people to switch to a Spanish interface. There is no way that you are benefited by using it in its native tongue. Us it in your native tongue.

The resistance, of course, is due to issues surrounding status. English is seen as the language of the elites, those richer folks who put their kids in bilingual or English schools, vacation in the U.S. and send their kids to American Universities. If you admit you don’t speak English well, then you are effectively labeling yourself as lower class.

If you choose Spanish, you stigmatize yourself. You buy into the imposed narrative that you are less. Lesser politically, of lesser intelligence, a lesser human being. This young woman clearly showed both intellectual and emotional intelligence. She had successfully thought through the problem domain of how to track changes in a text document, and then placed herself in the shoes of anyone who would see it after herself, making sure that they could follow. And yet, she is held back, relegated to a second-class status because of her lack of access to English. Forget about English, I say, make the computer YOUR servant, and leave the idea that you must interact with it in its language in the past.

By the way, I later showed her boss how to turn on “track changes” as well.

 

Post María Calm

I approached the counter at the DMV smiling and said, “Good morning!” Well, actually, “Muy buenos días.” or VERY good morning. I asked the clerk how she was. Did she have electricity? Water? No, no electricity, only water. “Gracias a Dios,” I said. At least. That makes me happy. I told her that I hoped she’d get electricity soon. I was still smiling. I explained why I was there, what I had, and what I needed.

I have to be aware how I come across. I am impossibly physically large for Puerto Rico. I look like a big white American gringo federal agent, and that can immediately put people off for their assumptions of how I will act based on how I look. I don’t want to traumatize anyone. Yes I speak Spanish, no you don’t have to go find someone who does.

I slouched to make myself smaller, fumbled with my papers, and dropped the pen. I filled in the wrong field and then made a self deprecating remark about not being good at following instructions. She chuckled, and told me not to worry about it. When she finished with the computer, she passed me my activated RFID sticker, and I paid the small fee. I thanked her profusely for her time and wished the people in line a good morning as I made my way to the parking garage. I waved at the parking attendant and thanked the cashier for taking my parking fee, paying with exact change.

I queued up a gentle string quartet on the car stereo, nudged the car out onto the street, and waited at the non-functioning traffic light to let some cars pass. They were in a hurry. I wondered what their lives were like, how they were, what they were feeling, what they were going through. No aggressive moves. There is no hurry for me, just go with the flow, be in the moment. Let others go first.

Puerto Rico is a nation in crisis. We are a people in crisis. Every individual is in crisis. We are all aware of how delicate our state is, and there seems to be some sort of tacit understanding that we must treat each other delicately, because we could lose it at any time. We are all broken, held together by a revisited gentility post María.

But we know we may crack and shatter at any moment for the loss of our livelihood, a loved one, the care for elderly relatives, for living without electricity, and worrying about the future. In the dark after the sun goes down and the hum of generators drowns out the night creatures we find ourselves alone. What about our hopes and dreams, our utility, our self? Where will I go? What will I do?

Maybe tomorrow, when the sun comes up, it won’t seem so grave. Things will seem brighter, more hopeful. Muy buenos días. ¿Cómo se encuentra? Very good morning to you. In what condition may you find yourself? or How are you?

Perhaps we can hold each other gently enough and for long enough that we may not fall to pieces.

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