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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

The Mammoth in the Room


Was it natural selection, maladaptation, or human greed that killed-off the woolly pachyderm? It's not critical now because the species is gone, and I bring it up only as a metaphor to set the stage for this article.

I don’t like to explain an analogy in advance. There may be implications or reverberations from the imagery that might trump the reference. Suffice it to say, this great and noble beast, who roamed these very hills and valleys is no longer around to give direct evidence of what went wrong.

Which brings me to the topic at hand. Lately I’ve been wondering about the predicament of our elected officials. To whom are they ultimately accountable? Whether the scale is the local school board, or Congress, we see without any deep investigation, affinities to the establishment, or private interests, or the sitting administration, that conflict with those of the voter or constituents.

These elected officials are no doubt well meaning people, who give of themselves, but have inherited an institutional bind. Individuals with differing viewpoints, who more or less embrace or resist this problem of the vested interests of the status quo.

When we see such things as voter disenfranchisement, or practices in our own town’s modes of governance that inhibit a direct and effective response from concerned parties, it makes me think that methods which have evolved organically may not be in the best interest of everyone, saying nothing of threatened parties, or endangered species.

The answer surely is not in having any and all creatures attend more meetings, or adhere to already problematic protocols. And when there are tendencies afoot which label those who merely question, or advocate for themselves as troublemakers, or worse, I’m forced to ask what kinds of methods will be useful for present and future generations who may want to stick around, despite the changing climate?

It’d be a terrible fate to solve a big problem only after it’s too late.

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Megafauna

This cold weather provides a good context for what our Neanderthal ancestors faced everyday, for a stretch of nearly half a million years. Their settlements in this area were probably constrained by many of the same forces and forms we face; the river, steep enclosures and pitted roads. Decent shoes and wicking undergarments were also unknown to them in all probability, or least not widely available, as Homo Sapiens don’t arrive on the scene until 50,000 years ago, and the first Sam’s outlet was not established until well after the primary thaw of the glaciers and ice sheets that covered much of the continent.

The overhunting by our ‘wise’ forbearers, suspected cause for the Mammoths’ extinction, can be attributed to a taxing excess, and a scarcity of decent game. Early Man can be understood in this regard, but hardly condoned or forgiven.

In much the same way, we trudge along the ridges of our territory, occasionally raising an eye or cocking an ear for trouble, hoping it all works out.

 
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Search the parks in all your cities, you will find no statues of

Running things by committee can be very difficult. Usually the first thing a new board member does is learn how to be like the other board members. There are rules to follow, committees to join, and issues the board is already working on. It takes a while to get oriented and usually by the time you've become an active, well-meaning, helpful board member you've also assimilated into the system.

Some of us are gluttons for punishment and don't mind trying to change the way things are done. It might take years of being "broken record" to get something done.

It also might be that the board one joins is a bit dysfunctional in some respect. In that case, one has a better opportunity to make big changes, but the longevity of those changes might be in question if the organization isn't stable.

I'm currently reading about the beginnings of Celebration, FL, a Disney-built town. The company had some swamp land to develop and decided to take the best ideas from modern urban planning and put them to use. They created a downtown that everyone could walk to, for example, and many parks. Pedestrians and bikes were favored over driving. Apartments were mixed in with purchased homes. Porches were close to the front road and parking was in the back. It was meticulously designed and thought out, and those moving there expected a high quality living experience.

The school was the focal point of the community and was to be created using all of the latest educational theories. They employed some great educational thinkers and realized that they could make big changes to the entire system when starting from scratch, so they did.

Here are some of the principles they used - students of different grade levels would work together so older kids could guide younger ones, students would use a portfolio system, students would follow their interests and teachers would be guides, there would be a heavy reliance on technology and computers, and so on. Everything that had shown promise in alternative schools was considered and many things adopted.

Sounds great, but it was a mess. It resulted in a single K-12 school with class sizes of about 100 students in 5,000 sq ft class spaces. There were no books. Kids coming from regular public schools were both annoyed at being in the same classroom as little kids, and had no experience in self-guiding their own educations. Many just sat, without doing much at all, for weeks on end. No one got grades - just evaluations.

There was political infighting. One group of teachers and parents defended the system as others took their kids out and moved them to other schools. Those who questioned things were seen as being against the children, or against education. The supporters had control of the PTA and newsletters.

I'm not to the end, but I did look online to see if the schools had changed and they have. A decade later they have split into two schools - a K-7 and a high school. Classes have dropped in size. They are now proclaiming a curriculum aligned with Common Core, and measuring their yearly progress like other schools.

….

One of the things Disney didn't do right away was give control to the people who lived in Celebration. They signed up and were expected to have read the fine print. There were no elected representatives - just a company-paid town manager type position. Schools were under the watch of the state school system and county school board, but Disney paid for lots of people to work with them. When residents had issues, there weren't many options for what to do.

Right now, Celebration is looking more like other Florida developments. There have been foreclosures. They've had crime. House values (inflated) have fallen. Divorce rate is high. Good intentions and even a well-designed system can have flaws.

I think representatives of the people are an old-fashioned concept that will stick with us for a while. It sort of works. We do, however, have the ability to let everyone have a say via phones and computers. Everyone could vote on everything. There's no compelling need to have others sit in for us.

 
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Intelligent Design

Let’s think about this:

We can bank online, pay bills online, but we can’t vote for civic issues online. We can file our taxes, we can submit our weekly unemployment data, we can purchase just about anything, we can find all our ancestors going back to Adam and Eve..but we can’t vote.

But we can vote for who is the best singer, or we can vote for the endings to the movies and shows we watch, we can vote for all-star teams… and we have made voting electronic, but easily accessible suffrage for all is elusive.

Our license plates tell authorities in nano-seconds what we purchased where and when, we can drive through tolls at full speed and have our fees registered and collected…We can collect all conversations, messages, and even map information that predicts what we think, feel, and do…GPS tells exactly where we are at every moment, but voting in the civic arena is not able to be done.

Is there something inhibiting the crafting and passing of legislation that might jeopardize what legislators are exclusively able to do? Hmmm...

 
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We can do it.

Our poll system here allows for us, if we wanted to, to limit voting to a single vote per registered person. (We don't use it this way… we let you lurkers vote).

So, for example, if we built a voting site for the town using this polling system, everyone of voting age could sign up for an account with real ID's, certified by the Town Clerk) and be given a single vote on any issue. All related materials could be available as well, so everyone would have access to the proposals, budgets, and so on. The Town Manager could still offer advice.

Should we accept and appropriate this grant money for this program? Login in to the secure server and vote before Friday at 5 pm.

Voting could be set up as an advisory system for the first year or so, then gradually we'd shift it to allow for actual approving of grants, repairs, and so on. It would free the Selectboard from undone tasks and allow them to lead.

Our polling system here allows for traditional up and down votes as well as ranked voting (like this week's NSA poll) that allows for multiple selections and gives points based on whether it is your first, second, or third choice.

 
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If it's not by design...

Since the means are available to have a greater degree of non-mediated democracy, it must mean we lack the will to face the changes. Or, we are fearful of the ramifications of taking this degree of responsibility over our own lives.

 
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Well, Andre, My Actual Response Is Get a New Remote

This reminds me of Wally and Andre discussing fortune cookies and deciding if planes were safe.

Wally (all of us) just wants what he has and can't imagine wanting more or doing things differently. Wally lays into Andre, telling him he's basically nuts. By way of explanation, he says that if he got a fortune cookie before an airline flight that said "don't go" he think it was interesting, but deep down he knows that a baker in a cookie factory has no knowledge of the plane he would be getting on, or the flying conditions. He likens it to sending ships to war because a turtle's egg fell a certain way, and laments basing the decision to go to war on something so meaningless.

Andre - "We'll what information would you send your ships to war on? Because if it is all meaningless, then what's the difference whether you accept the fortune cookie or the statistics of the Ford Foundation. It doesn't seem to matter."

Wally -"Well, the meaningless fact of the fortune cookie or the turtle's egg can't possibly have any relevance to the subject you are analyzing. Whereas a group of meaningless facts which are collected and interpreted in a scientific way may quite possibly be relevant."

I think most people like to settle in and have a daily routine they can rely upon. Changes mean work, and that can be hard. Of course, anyone who has moved from one location to another knows that the hard work and scariness of an upcoming move is almost always offset by the fun of settling in to something newer and better.

If we can buy new TV's and learn new remotes, or upgrade cell phones and features, we can adapt to other things, too. We learn the new remote because we want to control the picture we see. We could create a voting "remote" and learn to control the lives we live in a new and different way.

 
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People and Institutions

We might have over-hunted the wooly mammoth and we might have killed off Neanderthal since most of us are Cro-Magnon genetically. Where did Neanderthal go?

But about institutions being made up of people but not serving people, that has to do with the self-perpetuating nature of institutions. Once an institution is formed (government, organization, government organization) it does seem to develop a life and personality of its own. So by the time anyone has joined, it's become impossible to change, almost as if it's carved in stone. I don't know why that is or how to fix it.

 
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On the cusp of Something

When I suggested this morning that Neanderthals roamed the Green Mountain, I was just being flip.
I read recently that one third of Americans don't believe in evolution. I wonder how many people
thought I was being serious? You'd think it would be part of our common core of knowledge, when and where our heavy-browed kin made their last stand.

Now we're at a juncture when stewardship of our own planet is seriously in question, yet scientists are considering cloning Woolly Mammoths, even bringing back Neanderthals. (Most of us of Indo-European ancestry have significant Neanderthal DNA in our genetic code)

I have no answers either to the question of institutional accountability, or keeping systems functional. But it can't hurt to ponder where we've come from, and where we might be headed.

 

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