“PowerPoint is a distraction”: The Shining Kids of Carl Hayden High

I’ve been busy and happy in private but in an incredible funk about the larger world over the last few weeks. Actually, I’ve welcomed the pressure, because it distracted me from whatever the malaise is that has been sifting through the news and blogs.

The feeling reminds me of “Two Cities,” my favorite poem by Mark Doty sometimes:

I had grown sick of human works,
which seemed to me a sum
and expression of failure: spoilers,

brutalizers of animals and one another,
self-absorbed until we couldn’t see
that we ruined, finally,

ourselves – what could we make?
An epidemic ran unhalted,
The ill circumscribed as worthless and unclean;

the promises of change seem hollow,
the poor and marginal hopelessly marginal,
endlessly poor. I saw no progress,

and the steeping ink of this perception
colored everything, until I felt surrounded
by weakness and limit, and my own energies

failed, or were failing, though I tried
not to think so. I awoke
in Manhattan, just after dawn…

And then something trips my attention.

Today it was in the current copy of Wired that I rescued from Middle Guy. It told a story that’s our story: Winds’ story, America’s story, humanity’s story:

On West Roosevelt Avenue, security guards, two squad cars, and a handful of cops watch teenagers file into the local high school. A sign reads: Carl Hayden Community High School: The Pride’s Inside.

There certainly isn’t a lot of pride on the outside. The school buildings are mostly drab, late ’50s-era boxes. The front lawn is nothing but brown scrub and patches of dirt. The class photos beside the principal’s office tell the story of the past four decades. In 1965, the students were nearly all white, wearing blazers, ties, and long skirts. Now the school is 92 percent Hispanic. Drooping, baggy jeans and XXXL hoodies are the norm.

The school PA system crackles, and an upbeat female voice fills the bustling linoleum-lined hallways. “Anger management class will begin in five minutes,” says the voice from the administration building. “All referrals must report immediately.”

Across campus, in a second-floor windowless room, four students huddle around an odd, 3-foot-tall frame constructed of PVC pipe. They have equipped it with propellers, cameras, lights, a laser, depth detectors, pumps, an underwater microphone, and an articulated pincer. At the top sits a black, waterproof briefcase containing a nest of hacked processors, minuscule fans, and LEDs. It’s a cheap but astoundingly functional underwater robot capable of recording sonar pings and retrieving objects 50 feet below the surface. The four teenagers who built it are all undocumented Mexican immigrants who came to this country through tunnels or hidden in the backseats of cars. They live in sheds and rooms without electricity. But over three days last summer, these kids from the desert proved they are among the smartest young underwater engineers in the country.

Go read the story about four kids given nothing but talent and the thinnest break, and how they walked through it. It is, in some way the manifestation of the uniquely human spirit: we make things.

Doty saw it:

The dawn was angling into the city,

A smoky, thumb-smudged gold. It struck
first a face, not human, terracotta,

on an office building’s intricate portico,
seeming to fire the material from within,
so that the skin was kindled,

glowing. And then I looked up: the ramparts
of Park Avenue were radiant, barbaric;
they were continuous with every city’s dream

of itself, the made world’s
angled assault on heaven.
The city was one splendidly lit idea –

These kids (with the help of their advisors, Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi – more about them later) make a remotely piloted submersible they name “Stinky” out of PVC pipe and salvaged electronics. “The made world’s angled assault on heaven,” indeed.

They built it – four high school students – and they beat MIT’s team.

Then Merrill leaned into the microphone and said that the ROV named Stinky had captured the design award.

“What did he just say?” Lorenzo asked.

“Oh my God!” Ledge shouted. “Stand up!”

Before they could sit down again, Merrill told them that they had won the technical writing award.

“Us illiterate people from the desert?” Lorenzo thought. He looked at Cristian, who had been responsible for a large part of the writing. Cristian was beaming. To his analytical mind, there was no possibility that his team – a bunch of ESL students – could produce a better written report than kids from one of the country’s top engineering schools.

They had just won two of the most important awards. All that was left was the grand prize. Cristian quickly calculated the probability of winning but couldn’t believe what he was coming up with. Ledge leaned across the table and grabbed Lorenzo’s shirt. “Lorenzo, if what I think is about to happen does happen, I do not, under any circumstances, want to hear you say the word ‘Hooters’ onstage.”

“And the overall winner for the Marine Technology ROV championship,” Merrill continued, looking up at the crowd, “goes to Carl Hayden High School of Phoenix, Arizona!”

Lorenzo threw his arms into the air, looked at Ledge, and silently mouthed the word “Hooters.”

Cameron and Ledge haven’t taken Lorenzo to Hooters, nor have they retired. They hope to see all four kids go to college before they quit teaching, which means they’re likely to keep working for a long time. Since the teenagers are undocumented, they don’t qualify for federal loans. And though they’ve lived in Arizona for an average of 11 years, they would still have to pay out-of-state tuition, which can be as much as three times the in-state cost. They can’t afford it.

I don’t want to debate immigration policy, or tuition. And I’ll probably delete any comments that do.

This post isn’t about the new barriers that their success unveiled – about the new mountain face that you see when you top the ridge, having climbed the last one.

This post is about the bottomless pool of human talent. And about the fact that it’s everywhere – sprouting up even when it’s not tended and nurtured as deeply as it should be in some places. People long to create, they long to make, they dream of improving the world. We just have to look, and be willing to see it. We need it. It’s this capital – the capital of imagination and work – that will sustain us and that we need to grow.

If we’re about anything at Winds of Change, I think we’re about that capital, about the spirit that creates, that restlessly looks for new paths – whether through the historic hatreds and distrust that we are all subject to as humans, the gridlock of modern interest-group politics, the problems of energy, of the environment, of poverty and oppression.

Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi did something unexpected to pull together that capital and nurture the spirit that makes it. I can’t imagine how good this must feel for them, and I’m kind of jealous because I don’t know that I’ll ever accomplish something as wonderful as they have done with this.

Wired, to their credit, has set up a scholarship fund for the kids.

Click here, and be generous.

I’ll close with Doty:

That city’s coherent only from this distance,

a fable, a Venice not merely
because it is built on water,
but because it is built,

even though it is the capital of inwardness,
built and erased and drawn again
as surely as Manhattan is:

liquid avenues, archives of all
we’ve imagined, our haunted, interior architecture
“Venice,” Nietzsche said,

“is a city of a hundred solitudes.”
New York is a city of ten million,
And my American Venice

– phantom boulevards rippling
and doubled in the dark – a city
of two hundred and fifty million

solitaires, the restless dreamers’
dreamed magnificence: our longing’s
troubled mirror, vaporous capitol.

*the quote is from the article. The team was asked why they didn’t have a Powerpoint deck for their technical presentation.

“PowerPoint is a distraction,” Cristian replied. “People use it when they don’t know what to say.”

Mormons, Missions, Skyboxes

Sorry for the lack of free ice cream (inside blog joke). I’m busy as heck, all the stuff I want to blog is complex and long, and to be frank the (U.S.) news is too effing depressing to keep me very motivated. Between Jocko, Terri, and the news from Red Lake High School I’m having my fill of human frailty.

I’ll comment on them as I find time (and if they’re still of any interest to anyone).

But I saw something interesting I wanted to make sure people saw, and then something else that I think ties neatly to it – and summarizes a lot of my frustration – and hope – in domestic politics, anyway.

First, an article by Christopher Hayes called “How to Turn Your Red State Blue.”

It’s a paean to ground-level political organizing, and advocates, simply, that liberals copy Mormon youths on their missions. Literally.
I love it, in no small part because I believe that it would be transformative for modern liberalism – it would force liberals to get out and talk to their fellow Americans, and it just might result in some opened eyes on both sides of the ideological fence. It would, more than anything reaffirm the connection liberals have – and ought to have – with their fellow Americans and with America as a whole. I may disagree with some small parts of his program, but on a macro level, bring it on.

Hayes points out the struggle for relevance within the labor movement as an example of why his kind of ground-level organizing is necessary.

Then I read Dan Weintraub’s column in the Bee, on the defined-benefit pension plans in San Diego County.

But if San Diego County is a model of success, I would hate to see what failure looks like.

The county’s pension fund is facing a $1.2 billion unfunded liability. The shortfall is the result of generous benefit increases awarded when the stock market hit its peak earlier this decade, followed later by investment losses. The deficit has grown even though the county has borrowed money three times since 1994 – in increments of $430 million, $737 million and, most recently, $454 million – to help keep the pension fund afloat.

San Diego taxpayers, meanwhile, are paying about 23 cents on top of every dollar of county workers’ salaries to provide these benefits. And those taxpayer contributions don’t even reflect the money it takes to service the county’s debt, which is accounted for separately.

It’s relatively easy to keep a pension fund solvent if you are willing to borrow unlimited amounts – obligating future taxpayers – and pay one-fourth of the cost of salary in premiums to the plan. But that’s not evidence of success. It’s just the opposite.

What happened? The powerful local unions took the county for a ride – one that many other public agencies are taking as well.

And it gets worse.

Worse because, as Weintraub points out in his blog:

One interesting item I came across in my research but didn’t fit into the column:

Since San Diego County increased pension benefits by 25 percent to 35 percent three years ago, the average salary of county employees has climbed by 23 percent.

Doesn’t this call into question the argument that sweet pensions are necessary to make up for the lack of competitive salaries in the public sector? If pensions and wages were a trade-off, you wouldn’t expect to see them both soaring at the same time.

But they are, and they do (I earlier noted some crude studies that suggested that public sector employees were getting paid as well or better than employees in the private sector. Their pay has certainly risen faster.)

And to go back to Hayes’ article, what has happened is that the labor movement has abandoned the low-paid employees that it ought to defend in favor of high-wage public employees who are easy to defend. Hayes doesn’t see labor involvement in the lives of average working Americans because the labor movement is working hard for those who may need it least.

We have a Skybox labor movement to go with the Skybox liberals.

The Oddest Damn Thing…

TG and I took Littlest Guy to the library today (he got “White Fang” and a sci-fi book), and I picked up a few things to read – J.L. Gaddis’ book “Surprise, Security and the American Experience,” which I’ll read this week, along with Bruce Wagner’s well-reviewed novel “The Chrysanthemum Palace.”

I started Wagner’s book and had the oddest experience…he was writing about my life. I mean literally. He talks about three episodes from my high-school years directly. It was disturbing, so I looked up his bio and it appears that we were in school together, and both dropped out.

It was just damn strange to read a novel and discover things I’d put on memory’s shelf. I put the book aside for a bit, and I’ll finish it tonight.

Off-ense and Dee-fense

Atrios quotes Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff and gets all smug ‘n stuff:

On NPR today:

But that’s why as we manage the most serious risks, we drive down the consequences of an act. It’s not terribly different from what we do with organized crime in this sense. When we attacked organized crime at law enforcement community, we didn’t eliminate crime, but by targeting the high-priority elements of where they were causing the greatest damage to society, we drove the risks down, we drove the consequences down to a level which was still bad but was not as bad as it had been. Likewise, in the era of terrorism, what we seek to on the way to eliminating terrorism is drive down, again to protect the most important, most valuable things against the greatest risks so that the consequences of an act are less serious a year from now than they would have been, let’s say, a year ago.

Gee, that reminds of something someone said once… maybe during a political campaign or something… can’t quite remember…

Dude, it’s like this. As the Lakers are belatedly discovering this season, the game is played in two spheres: offense and defense. No defense is perfect, nor can it be. That’s why you have an offense.For the Homeland Security Secretary to say something like this is not only appropriate, it’s smart. He’s dealing with half the equation – fielding what’s incoming, preparing for the worst, and minimizing the damage. For a President to say something like this is stupid and wrong because it’s his job to stop it from coming in the first place.

By, say, triggering civic revolutions in the countries likely to attack us or support those who would. Sadly, the guy Atrios liked in November was more concerned with opening more fire stations here in the U.S. and getting the troops home soon, with honor.

Proof Of A Capricious Deity

I really didn’t like the movie ‘Sideways’ very much (as I noted below), so there’s a kind of cruel poetic justice in this story…

TG and I went to a community art show and auction last weekend; I love things like this, even though the quality of the art can be uneven. Sometimes you discover a gem, and you always get the feeling that you’re watching fermentation happening…you’re just not sure if what will come out is champagne or biodiesel.They had a raffle, for a ‘Sideways’ weekend in the Santa Ynez Valley – a nice B & B, a private winery tour, and dinner at the Hitching Post. They had pressed some young children to wander around the crowd and sell the tickets – each being shadowed at a respectful distance by someone who I’m guessing was a parent (I know the feeling all too well – “Go ahead, Junior, you can do it!” as I skulk along hidden, making sure that he’s OK…).

When the little girl approached TG and me and offered “a chance to win a Sideways trip”, my response wasn’t profane because I try not to swear in front of stranger’s children. So I launched on a quiet rant about the movie, the impact on the prices of pinot noir (which I happen to like), and the innate superiority of Jocko’s to The Hitching Post.

Embarrassed, TG turned to the little girl and bought three tickets. Doubtless out of sympathy to her, the little girl ‘rubbed the tickets together for luck’.

You know how this comes out, of course…we won the darn thing.

If there is a God, she has a truly twisted sense of humor…

‘The Era Of The Armed Liberal’… Nice Ring To It, Don’t You Think?

Austin Bay (disclosure – we’ve been talking about some stuff lately) nails it with this post about the future of the Democratic Party, something I’ve mused about recently while re-reading Theodore Lowi and via calls for a new set of theses to guide a Democratic Reformation:

Mr. Judis’ national upheaval has already occurred—we call it 9/11.

9/11 marked the end of multi-cultural nostrums dear to the Democrat’s hard left. It marked the end of welfare states as we know them –now the strategic game’s either globalize or die. The “die option” bifurcates: either shrink and die slowly, or submit to a fascist tyranny with borders closed by violence.

9/11 also marked the end of Vietnam as a political syndrome. Defeatism, cynicism, and anti-military anger don’t sell.

We have entered the Era of the Armed Liberal. The smartest Democrats know this. The next successful Democratic charge will ride a Truman-Jackson “defense Democrat” horse—and the candidate will be a populist. The candidate (he? she?) will damn the Republicans for fiscal irresponsibility.

Read it all. And we will chap their Republican asses about the trainwreck their policies represent for the vast majority of people in this country – the non-asset owning classes who live from paycheck to paycheck.

It Is The Time Of The ‘Decent People’

One of the issues I have with terrorism – as opposed to warfare (even guerilla warfare) – is that it must be corrosive to the souls of those who practice it, and I wonder often how easy it might be to step back from a position ankle-deep in the blood of innocents and rejoin the human community.

The history of the PA, or the IRA stand as good examples of that; the ‘Rafia’ tag that the IRA is now given by some in Ireland stands as a good example of how decent people – people who believe in peace, civil society and the rule of law – see them.

Much of what I’d banked my positions in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the greater conflict with the Islamists on was my belief that the Arab world was full of decent people (as defined above) who had been cowed into silence by the thugs who had taken control of their governments and streets.

Today, in Iraq, Lebanon, and Ireland, we’re seeing the decent people as they rise up.

Back In A Bit…

I’m working on a long post about the crisis in liberalism, based in part on having just re-read Theodore Lowi’s “The End of Liberalism” which I pulled off the shelf when it called to me…

…but TG reminds me that today is our 1st anniversary and we have better things to do.

So I’ll leave you with a Lowi quote:

The most clinically accurate term to describe the American variant is interest group liberalism. It may be called liberalism because it expects to use government in a positive and expansive role, it is motivated by the highest sentiments, and it posesses strong faith that what is good for government is good for the society. It is “Interest group liberalism” because it sees as both necessary and good that the policy agenda and the public interests be defined in terms of the organized groups in society.

– p. 71

There’s a lot here to work with… especially in the “Era of the Armed Liberal,” as Austin Bay puts it.

Where I’m Coming From…

In the latest blog game, bold the states you’ve been to, underline the states you’ve lived in and italicize the state you’re in now…

Alabama / Alaska / Arizona / Arkansas / California / Colorado / Connecticut / Delaware / Florida / Georgia / Hawaii / Idaho / Illinois / Indiana / Iowa / Kansas / Kentucky / Louisiana / Maine / Maryland / Massachusetts / Michigan / Minnesota / Mississippi / Missouri / Montana / Nebraska / Nevada / New Hampshire / New Jersey / New Mexico / New York / North Carolina / North Dakota / Ohio / Oklahoma / Oregon / Pennsylvania / Rhode Island / South Carolina / South Dakota / Tennessee / Texas / Utah / Vermont / Virginia / Washington / West Virginia / Wisconsin / Wyoming / Washington D.C /

Go HERE to have a form generate the HTML for you.

I’m definitely a purple kind of guy…

Something Missing?

As of 1:45 PM Pacific time, here are the topics on the democrats.org site; the official site of the Democratic National Committee:

The Bush Budget Disaster

Take Action to Protect Social Security

DNC Launches New Radio Ads to Air During Bush Social Security Tour

Listen to the ads…
Read more about “Heartland”…
Read more about “Cuts”…
Read more about “Familias”…

Today on the Blog

Your interview with Gov. Dean: The answers: Governor Dean has answered your questions.

The fight to protect ANWR continues: For the last four years, Democrats have stood up and protected the wildlife reserve from President Bush and his cronies in the energy industry.

Your interview with Gov. Dean: Governor Howard Dean is going to give a high profile interview — and it’s with you. Submit your question today by clicking here and then return on Friday, March 11 to read his answers to this online interview with our grassroots supporters.

DNC Headlines

Mar 10, 2005: The DNC Launches Radio Ad Against Bush

Mar 10, 2005: Bush Wants to Shore Up His Base…of Republicans in Congress

Mar 10, 2005: Republican vs. Republican Part II

Mar 9, 2005: Governor Dean Statement on the Election of Doris Matsui

I know what I’d like to be asking Gov. Dean.

Why doesn’t the word “bankruptcy” appear anywhere on this page?

And how the hell could you have laid down and rolled over for the bankruptcy bill? If there was ever a bully pulpit to stand behind and use to point out the corporatist flaws of the GOP, this was it.

Note that I’m not opposed to government actions that help corporations; sometimes what’s good for G.M. is actually good for America.

But this was such a clear-cut case of taking from the weak and giving to the rich with no public purpose except giving more to those that have that my head is swimming.

And the missed opportunity for the Democrats to define themselves – by challenging irresponsable and rapacious lending as much as they are challenging irresponsable borrowing – boggles my mind.

Even if their side was doomed to go down to defeat, this was a place to make a public stand, and the failure to make that stand is more than a little puzzing to me.