Tag Archives: Community

This One Thing Communal Kitchens & Music Fests Have In Common!

Originally published as a ‘Reporters’ Notebook’ in the Ithaca Times on July 15, accompanying features on a five-day-a-week community kitchen and the GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance. Photo from a Second Wind Cottages workday, which I wrote up here.

An economics textbook would never call an organization like Loaves and Fishes or GrassRoots classic examples of “horizontal integration.”

There’s no incentive for a community kitchen to expand across the nation to control all the free lunch spots like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil eating up all the refineries in the late 1800s.

There’s far too many artists in this country for one amorphous group of music-lovers based in an office in Trumansburg’s Masonic Lodge to watch all the shows on YouTube and book all the fairgrounds. No one group can monopolize feeding the hungry, whether the nutrition they serve is soup for the stomach or music for the soul.

Yet, those who do the work for these two local institutions are very “horizontally integrated.” Both organizations have only a handful of paid staffers and absolutely could not keep going and growing without volunteer workers that come from all walks of life. And neither Loaves nor GrassRoots hold it against those who keep showing up to feed themselves and don’t take a turn at the dishwashing sink or ticket booth.

“I think the philosophy for 31 years has been we’re all in this together,” Christina Culver of Loaves told me. “We purposely don’t want to be hierarchical and say ‘Oh, here’s these great volunteers helping you, who are the needy.’”

At Loaves, that philosophy shows through as people who come there at low points start asking how they can help, and end up serving people who come in uniform or shirt and tie. And who knows how many salaried daily suit-wearers will be enjoying music and food and yoga at GrassRoots this weekend, while there are broke students and fixed-income retirees working the gates and cleaning the latrines. Taking in all comers and operating generously and freely in one place for years, this is how a daily meal or a now quarterly festival starts getting called a “sweet community,” a “tribe,” a “family.”

There’s all sorts of need in this world, and sometimes it’s dire; organizations like the Red Cross have press agents who constantly remind us that people and resources are getting sent to places around the world to help when flood and famine happen. Sending a few bucks their way via text or Facebook link is doing someone, somewhere, some good.

Every day, though, there is work to be done so that people in Tompkins County have something to eat, something to hear, something to do. Not everyone can show up to cook five times a week, or spend two weeks in July setting up tents. Looking up from the daily grind, though, surely everyone can find a few minutes to look someone in the eye and say, “What can I do to help, here, today?” •

I Feel (X) When You Say (Y)

If I say “I love you,” or say “you’re nice,” do you feel happy?
If I say “you’re ugly,” or say “this cake you made me is nasty,” do you feel sad?

If so, you have been emotionally manipulated.

The words “love, nice, sweet,” (positive) and “hurt, ugly, nasty” (negative) were, far as I can tell, the indicator words Facebook used in its “emotional contagion” study that caused OUTRAGE when it was revealed at the end of June (guessing the terms based on this table, the database that the study’s abstract says was used).

For this study, if you’ve forgotten, Facebook messed with the algorithm that decides what’s in users’ NewsFeeds to see how they reacted when a bunch of “positive” or “negative” posts showed up in front of their faces. Would they post more good or bad posts?

People were not happy when they found out they had been studied in this way; Facebook had abused their trust, they said. This is some seriously unethical research, researchers said. From this reaction, there was the inevitable re-reaction: The commentariat pointed out that businesses conduct these experiments all the time without any scrutiny whatsoever – aren’t you glad Facebook told you this time? Plus, don’t you know advertising is trying to change your mind all the time?

Read about Facebook, its NewsFeed, and how businesses attempt to make money off the network for five minutes and it’s obvious that manipulation, both by Facebook and of Facebook, is all that happens in InternetLand. Facebook wants what the user sees to be engaging, meaning, in this day, that the user should click on as many posts as possible. The “most recent posts” feed is not really that; if the Algorithm has decided the Facebooker doesn’t “engage” with a certain type of post, said Facebooker will not see that post. (This is why my many posts of writings I’ve put work into get a like or two, and a silly profile picture will get a dozen: people do not “engage” with reading anymore, at least little that I write).

Unlike those that show the beginnings of cakes or candy, How Facebook Is Made is not yet a show filling up hours on basic cable. Most folks don’t care all that much about the workings behind the screen; their kids or grandkids or dogs are on and post things that make them feel connected to those beings, and so they get on Facebook. For this group, hearing about Facebook messing around with what they see makes them feel like their social experience is being counterfeited, that someone’s impersonating a friend through the mail. Or pushing false advertising, whatever that means anymore. It’s just wrong.

Hullabaloos over stories like the survey are useful to remind us that most people don’t often step back and say “well, yes, there are outside forces working to change my mind right now and I should be aware of them.” Lots of people make money by telling other people they are capable of Taking Control (of one’s weight, finances, psyche, career). That so many people pay for these pep talks says that making conscious choices still isn’t a favorite pastime of many humans.

There is the assumption, by those who think deeply about these things, that manipulation is something that the Viewing Public cannot avoid. For example:

Today, more and more, not only can corporations target you directly, they can model you directly and stealthily. They can figure out answers to questions they have never posed to you, and answers that you do not have any idea they have. Modeling means having answers without making it known you are asking, or having the target know that you know. This is a great information asymmetry, and combined with the behavioral applied science used increasingly by industry, political campaigns and corporations, and the ability to easily conduct random experiments (the A/B test of the said Facebook paper), it is clear that the powerful have increasingly more ways to engineer the public, and this is true for Facebook, this is true for presidential campaigns, this is true for other large actors: big corporations and governments.

(emphasis added)

Or consider this quote in the New York Times (which has the luxury of taking five weeks to write about the hullabaloo) from a MIT management professor:

We need to understand how to think about these rules without chilling the research that has the promise of moving us miles and miles ahead of where we are today in understanding human populations …

Speaking of populations, the public, the masses: these words remind us that we can only be our own free selves if our actions are not actually determined by all of this modeling and engineering. If one is not predictable, one cannot be predicted. Although that “engineering,” that “understanding human populations,” is still a whole bunch of guesswork even in an age of Big Data, one can only hope we won’t get to a point where the Algorithm is all-determining of what is on our mind.

The word “hullabaloo” was on my mind from this article on “Blazing Publicity” written by Walter Lippman in 1927, and published in a Vanity Fair best-of:

The public interest works somewhat mysteriously, and those of us who serve it as scouts or otherwise have no very clear conception as to just what will go down and what won’t. We know that the best sensations involve some mystery, as well as love and death, but in fact we work on intuitions and by trial and error …
We do not, for example, know how to imagine what the consequences will be of attempting to conduct popular government with an electorate which is subjected to a series of disconnected, but in all their moments absolutely absorbing, hullabaloos …
The human mind is not prophetic enough to pursue the problem and solve it theoretically in advance. There is no use grumbling then about the character of some of our hullabaloos. They should be regarded frankly as experiments …
The philosophy which inspires the whole process is based on the theory, which is no doubt correct, that a great population under modern conditions is not held by sustained convictions and traditions, but that it wants and must have one thrill after another.

Whether we decide to take the thrill-ride, every day, remains our decision. For now.

Huffing The Cream Off Alumni Weekend

The view from outside the 2009 Reunion Party. June 6, 2014.
The view from outside the 2009 Reunion Party. June 6, 2014.

Last Saturday night on State Street, the Checked Shirts and the Sleek Dresses trotted through the drizzle, incessantly asking questions and making demands of one another.

Where next? It’s wet – Let’s go somewhere! Want another drink? It’s wet – Let’s take a cab! Tiny handbags, as usual, proved useless against hair-frazzling rain.

Outside a Walgreen’s, two long-frazzled men sat cross-legged, their shoulders swaying. Oxfords and heels, Timberlands and Nikes passed by, dozens a minute, making no pause, taking no heed. Next to the two sidewalk-sitters, wet plastic bags drooped onto the concrete. Out poked, like some rotting flower’s pistils, cap-less Redi-Whip cans.

If these two down-and-outs were, by chance, graduates of the University of Chicago, would they be welcomed in Hyde Park on Alumni Weekend with open arms? I wondered. If they, for some reason, paid up for admission to all the parties and talks, would people say ‘Hullo there, were you in my class?’

Surely, if they showed up without a ticket, they need not bother going into the Reynolds Club to get a sandwich from the Chicago Society’s hospitality table. Nor need they wander into the beer garden, nor show up for a tour of some new or renovated building. They would be avoided, then expelled, whether alumni or not.

Grant that these two huffers are alumni – are they not part of the “alumni community” I hear so much about? And if that’s so, is there no obligation to welcome them into that community, station in life notwithstanding?

These generous thoughts were sparked in part, I’m sure, by my own “expulsion” from the Five-Year Reunion of the Class of ’09 on Friday night. All was fine at first: I walked into the Reunion Tent like I belonged, which I did – I graduated with that class. I ate some dinner, saw some classmates, drank some fizzy raspberry punch.

Then I left the tent for the restrooms in Harper. Upon returning to the tent, one of the development ladies manning the registration tables noticed my lack of a red wristband to go with the white one. Another $10 she wanted for me to stay for the party’s short duration; she said she was cutting me a deal because there wasn’t much party left; she said it wasn’t fair that I didn’t pay like the others. Not seeing any sense in giving $10 more to a University I owe some $14,000, especially since I’d already had dinner, I left and posted up on a bench outside where friends provided company and some beers.

Now this whole scenario can be viewed from one angle, in which one says “Yes, there was a clear price placed on this event and they are right to make you pay it like anyone else.” And there’s another angle, where one might say “As an alumni, if you can’t pay, perhaps some consideration should be given to having some space where admission is not required.” And there’s another position which is “Man, if I paid $40 for a party where the open bar was some $8/bottle wine, Miller Lite, and some raspberry stuff that treated me worse than eating a whole pie of Cholie’s cardboard and going next door to the Falcon for a punch in the gut, I’d be pissed.”

Making alumni pay this fee and that and another for parties that pale, in selection, next to your average $20 7-to-11 all-you-can-drink slopfest on Clark Street, is stupid and not welcoming. If welcoming everyone is what the University was out to do.

What’s sad is this lack of welcome to those who can’t or won’t pay the full fee is unsurprising, if not expected. Because when you break it down, Alumni Weekend is all about getting that Alumni cash. It’s not about nourishing, feeding, or supporting Alumni – that’s what alere meant in Latin, from which alumnus is derived, if you believe Webster’s. Putting that Money-gate up on events – $20 here, another $30 here, $50 for the Big Party – ensures those who aren’t so enthusiastic about their school experience or the friends they’ll see won’t show up just to say hello.

I hold no ethical high ground on the University. I made the trip to Chicago to do my own ‘development,’ to see if I could hustle up some funding for my own work. I decided to bus out for Alumni Weekend and get in on exploiting the old boys’ network after a friend of mine, who’s usually sequestered in the woods, had the good fortune to meet an arts world high roller: a former dean at an Ivy who’s on museum boards who now won’t stop sending him invites to private clubs in NYC. I didn’t have such a good “hit,” (yet), this past weekend. I had a few decent conversations with strangers, ran into an old professor, harassed a couple ‘names.’ Yet in the spin of seeing people you know, hunting down the rooms in which they hide the older folk who have a lifetime of cash to dispose of and appreciate Youthful Energy was an unrealistic order this weekend.

If the University can’t see fit to open these Alumni Weekends up to everyone, they could at least give those who show up and are doing the arts/literature/do-gooder thing a hand with getting hand outs. The UofC is pretty good at making The Ask – if they could kick a few donors my way, it’d be Greatly Appreciated.