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Month: October 2020

The Rich vs. The Elite

Popular media, in whatever form it takes, is an incredible resource to analyze the aspirations and goals of a society. It serves as a mirror for its intended audience to look into and can offer a glimpse through a window into another world for those whom it’s not directly aimed at.

When I was 15, I got my first job, as a dishwasher at a pizza restaurant, and on breaks, all my conversations with co-workers eventually turned to the topic of money. We would fantasize about what we would do if we suddenly had it: vacations, cars. In high school, we’d hear rumors that so-and-so was rich, because their parents had a second house or a boat. We all thought that money was the important thing: If you had it, you were “rich” — which for us was indistinguishable from “elite.” If you didn’t, you weren’t.

This was true, to an extent. But it wasn’t the whole story. How did I learn it wasn’t? From television.

Rob Henderson

For Rob Henderson, this reflection was done through television. He spent his early life shuffling between foster homes, eventually joined the military, went to Yale, and is now a doctoral student at Cambridge University. He was able to directly experience the vast differences between social classes in the United States and beyond. This perspective is invaluable.

Like many people, he initially thought that social class was dependent on money. But, “‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ taught me that it wasn’t,” he posits. This insight into the differences between monetary wealth and “cultural capital,” as Elizabeth Currid-Halkett discusses, shows that each broadly defined social class has its own set of values that are often reflected in the popular media. The fictional stories that Henderson refers to are perhaps less fictional than they might at first seem.

Early on, I thought of television as a window into another world. I would watch it to escape the one I was in, and to learn more about others. Later, though, it became more like a mirror. The more I saw, the more I learned what I wanted; the shows I chose to watch, in turn, reflected my desire to build a better life for myself, and I took my cues from them on how to construct it. Either stay like this, I thought, as I gazed at the TV, or try to live like that.

Rob Henderson

In fact, both Henderson and Currid-Halkett have discussed similar themes in the past.

Strangely enough, as we ascend that ladder, we encounter a fork—it seems that the “elite” definition becomes bifurcated by wealth and education. Currid-Halkett attributes this to the idea of “cultural capital,” which is a separate form of wealth than monetary capital. This is where education plays a significant role.

Paul Fussell argues that the criteria we use to define the tiers of the social hierarchy are in fact indicative of our social class. For people near the bottom, social class is defined by money — in this regard, I was right in line with my peers when I was growing up. The middle class, though, doesn’t just value money; equally important is education.

Rob Henderson

And therein lies society’s strange curve. It seems that for the lower class, i.e. those in the lowest two quintiles of household income, income is the important factor. Increasingly, the middle class is less distinguished by income as it is by education. To enter, a college education—and the ideals that it instills on its students—is a prerequisite. Currid-Halkett provides an example of the English professor, who may not make as much as a self-employed plumber, but would certainly be considered to be of a higher social status. For the upper class, however, an elite college education is necessary.

In College is the New Entry to the Middle Class, I described the dichotomy between the upper class, for example, doctors and lawyers, who still ultimately “trade their time for money” and the upper echelons of the 1%, who instead have money work for them, such as entrepreneurs and executives.

Image courtesy of The Economist, 2019

Ultimately, these definitions remain murky and nebulous. I don’t think that we will ever arrive at a particular definition that works across the board. However, I do think that these definitions hint at the evolving nature of the elite who are becoming increasingly obsessed with education and cultural capital. Over time, this obsession is trickling down into the upper and middle classes, resulting in even higher rates of social stratification, and allowing “the slow corruption of American meritocracy” to “[ossify] into a formidable caste system.”

Dossier

“Everything I Know About Elite America I Learned From ‘Fresh Prince’ and ‘West Wing,’” by Rob Henderson, October 10, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/10/opinion/sunday/television-culture.html

“The Meritocracy Trap,” by Daniel Markovitz, 2019.

“In the past, America was not as unequal as it has become,” October 24, 2019. https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2019/10/24/in-the-past-america-was-not-as-unequal-as-it-has-become

Flying Sea Turtles (in First Class?)

Image courtesy of Philip Greenspun, 2017

This past January, only a few days after the first reports of COVID began coming out of China, I took part in an aviation class at MIT taught by Philip Greenspun. It was genuinely awesome being surrounded by people equally as passionate about aviation, especially in the local area.

In fact, our discussions significantly influenced the way I look at avionics. Early on in my flight training, I had a sort of “disdain” for modern glass cockpits. I wanted to learn flying on the old-fashioned instrument panel and hone my skills as a manual pilot before beginning to rely on technology later on for safety purposes. Now, I have a more nuanced opinion on the state of avionics, specifically what their benefits and their flaws really are. I wrote about this recently in the context of the new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020.

But one thing that stood out to me was the slide on sea turtles (two excerpts from the presentation below).

Apparently, critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtles journey along the Gulf Stream up the east coast of the United States in the warm summer months for food. However, as the water cools and they begin traveling south, some of the turtles become trapped in Cape Cod Bay and become cold-stunned. These turtles are rescued by volunteers, rehabilitated by the New England Aquarium in Boston, and flown by volunteer pilots to Florida where they can continue their rehabilitation and eventually be released.

I mean, what a cool excuse to go flying!

Only a few weeks later, I began my SCUBA training. While searching for diving related videos, one that popped up was the Devil’s Hole Adventure video from Jonathan Bird’s Blue World. That video absolutely captivated me, combining my interests in filmmaking, diving, expeditions, and education. Almost immediately, I was completely addicted to the show and have since watched almost every episode. It was especially awesome to find out that Jonathan had also gone to WPI and is a Massachusetts native.

Later in the year, Destin from Smarter Every Day released an excellent video on sea turtles. I’m sure you can imagine my excitement! In that video, he and the staff at the Cook Museum transported Kale, an injured sea turtle, from Virginia to the museum facilities in Alabama. In it, the whole team drives Kale, of course, taking some precautions to make sure that his skin remains hydrated and he isn’t stressed from the long journey.

In response to Philip Greenspun’s post on the subject, John V asks why use all of the resources to fly the sea turtles instead of putting them in a van and driving them. Destin and the team at the Cook Museum did something similar for Kale, so it’s well within reason, on top of saving quite a bit of avgas and the ensuing environmental impact. It certainly made me question the entire endeavor. What exactly are the pilots volunteering for?

This question bothered me. Were the benefits of saving a few sea turtles worth the emissions impact of flying? Looking into the subject in more detail, I came across an article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that explained why flying is, in fact, a preferable option than driving:

Transports can be stressful for turtles, especially those in poor health. Anything we can do to minimize transport time reduces that stress and increases the chances of successful rehabilitation. Transports can take multiple hours, depending on the destination. Traveling to southern Florida could take 24 hours by ground! That can take a toll on a sick sea turtle, so flying is preferred.

[. . .]

There are huge benefits to using flights instead of ground transportation. Flights reduce transport stress for sick turtles and, hopefully, increase their likelihood of successful rehabilitation. Flights also minimize the staff resources that would be required for a multi-day transport south by vehicle. All resources are stretched thin during cold-stunned stranding season. Rehabilitation facilities need to keep all of their staff and volunteers working on-site caring for cold-stunned turtles and often don’t have the manpower to drive turtles to other facilities.

NOAA

Ultimately, this mission is much more than a good excuse to fly a long cross country. It brings together people from all over the country to help protect an endangered species using the tools at our disposal. It seems that with each passing day, the news we hear keeps getting worse. This is a heartwarming opportunity to make the world a better place.

Getting closer to my pilot license, I thought it would be a wonderful trip to make in the near future and perhaps make it a holiday tradition—if you’re interested in doing this with me, please let me know!

Dossier

“Pilots Help Sea Turtles Take Flight,” June 10, 2019. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/pilots-help-turtles-take-flight

“Merry Christmas to the Sea Turtles,” by Philip Greenspun, December 25, 2017. https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2017/12/25/merry-christmas-to-the-sea-turtles/

“Merry Christmas (again) to the Sea Turtles,” by Philip Greenspun, December 25, 2018. https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/12/25/merry-christmas-again-to-the-sea-turtles/

“How Do You Airlift 500 Sea Turtles?” by Rebecca Maksel, May 18, 2015. https://www.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/how-do-you-airlift-500-sea-turtles-180955281/

Thoughts on Advanced Avionics

With the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator, more and more people are getting into aviation—and that’s awesome! It also means that many people, new to aviation, are faced with the daunting task of using modern avionics and glass cockpits.

And that begs the question, do these avionics actually have a good user interface? Or rather, do they simply replicate patterns that pilots are used to.

Look to military aviation, for example, and you’ll see a convergence into heads-up displays. Rather than having advanced avionics that end up distracting the pilot and forcing her to look down at the instrument panel, HUDs allow the pilot to continue keeping her eyes at the sky. The goal is to distill the information into its most useful form for decision making, to provide situational awareness, and to reduce pilot workload and let her focus on more important tasks.

Bringing this ideology into the general aviation space might have a profound impact on the way pilots train and fly.

During my flight training, I purposefully learned and used “old-school” technology to the extent that I could: standard steam gauges, paper sectionals, VOR navigation, and no iPad running ForeFlight.

Certainly there is a safety component that warrants being trained in old-school methods and techniques—and I’m all for it. Ultimately, avionics shouldn’t become a distraction from actually flying.

Dossier

MIT Ground School, by Philip Greenspun, January 6, 2020. http://philip.greenspun.com/teaching/ground-school/

The Writing Process, in Short

I can’t believe that I hadn’t seen this earlier. Genuinely a fresh take on the writing process!

At War: Meritocratic Combat

The word “meritocracy” has come into vogue lately. It seems that our societal ideals that promote ability and equality of opportunity are more so being questioned—not necessarily on principle, but in practice. Bringing these ideals to fruition in a tangible manner will always result in some controversy, because by definition meritocracy creates inequality. But how that inequality perpetuates itself into dynasties is being exposed, for example, in college admissions, among others.

More and more, a college degree is becoming a prerequisite to jobs, not because of the skills or education that it supposedly provides, but because of the cultural capital that it does.

On the tyranny of meritocracy, Michael Sandel summarizes:

We should focus less on arming people for meritocratic combat, and focus more on making life better for people who lack a diploma but who make essential contributions to our society.

We should renew the dignity of work and . . . We should remember that work is not only about making a living, it’s also about contributing to the common good.

Michael Sandel

This is made more true each day that the COVID pandemic drags on. It is increasingly clear that society is completely dependent on people that we would otherwise like to sweep under the rug. Instead, let’s take this opportunity to reward them with more than just recognition as “heroes” that keep our world turning.

In The Economist, it is noted that Markovitz believes that “the idea of meritocracy has validated inequality, because rich and poor alike “earn” their position. Success depends on educational achievement beyond the reach of many, but winners feel they deserve their spoils, while losers are asked to accept their fate. Restoring dignity to workers at the bottom may require the sort of organization and activism that improved their lot a century ago. For some Americans, that upheaval could prove uncomfortable.”

Dossier

“The Tyranny of Merit,” by Michael Sandel, September 15, 2020. https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_sandel_the_tyranny_of_merit

“Rising Education Levels Provide Diminishing Economic Boost,” by Josh Mitchell, September 6, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/rising-education-levels-provide-diminishing-economic-boost-11599400800

Generating Powerful Logos for the Worcester Free Care Collaborative

Recently, during a meeting with the Worcester Free Care Collaborative, it was announced that the organization is looking for new logo submissions to overhaul their current identity branding. Though I haven’t done anything like this in quite some time, I thought it would be great to write about my artistic endeavor and perhaps hearken back to my original posts here on this blog. After all, this blog has thus far been called “Visual Rhetoric.”

Being familiar with the work that the organization does is certainly a major benefit in designing an identity that fits its mission and communicates its ideals in a simple and clear manner.

The first step, of course, is to come up with a list of important concepts or ideas that might be included in the logo. One of the first logos I had come up with for the newsletter, “Dispatches from the Worcester Free Clinic Coalition”—back when the organization had that as its name—I used the letters as is. This was a look inspired by Proto Magazine, which has a similar style.

  1. The letter “W” and potentially the others as well
  2. Something to tie the logo to the City of Worcester
  3. A “softness” that represents a welcoming connection to the community
  4. An air of “authority” to represent the organization as a center for health

I searched Dribbble for inspiration, and most of the inspiration examples are from various artists that uploaded their work there.

I really wanted to include a heart as a motif that symbolizes the City of Worcester and its place as the “Heart of the Commonwealth.” I first learned of this at WPI, where it is also featured in the school seal. The symbolism of the heart lends itself perfectly to the medical nature of the Worcester Free Care Collaborative, which will hopefully make it easy for patients and the community to make the connection to health care. As a result, I settled on having a heart in the logo quite early on. This helped narrow my focus when doing research into other designs.

The second design was an attempt to recreate the clean “wfcc” logo above, but integrate a stethoscope into the letterforms. However, it was thrown out pretty early on, simply because it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. I think it would have been challenging to make the lines flow well without having an area where the lines extended beyond the unconscious limits of the logo shape. It just didn’t work well.

Initially I was hesitant to go with a vibrant and colorful logo because I wanted it to seem somewhat reserved. This is a medical organization after all, and it’s important to communicate its serious nature. Simple lines can help with this, but go too simple, and it becomes “minimalist.” This type can easily be associated with tech startups—not something that I necessarily wanted.

However, I liked the idea of including a stethoscope. It succinctly introduces the idea of medicine, even to those who are uninitiated. It’s a common trope, but in this case, works well. When playing around with it a bit more, I immediately recognized the potential power of a stethoscope and heart combination. The heart, obviously represents the physical human heart, but it also represents the City of Worcester. Double symbolism there! Totally on purpose!

I realized that the stethoscope could form the other part of the “W” when layered on top of the heart. However, I felt that the “W” part wasn’t as easily visible, so I decided to fill it in with a contrasting color.

My final logo submission is shown below.

A Review of Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes is a rare example of a film in which having a female protagonist is genuinely essential for the the strength of the film.

Frequently, modern films have “adjusted” their protagonists for the obsequious purpose of “wokeness,” and unsurprisingly this type of film always falls flat.

In stark contrast, Enola Holmes showcases a counter example, where Enola has a depth of character that easily rivals any other adventure film. In fact, I think that her character is the entire reason that this movie works so well. And it does so masterfully, against the grain of the typical style of female protagonist:

Enter, stage right: the Strong Female Lead.

She’s an assassin, a spy, a soldier, a superhero, a C.E.O. She can make a wound compress out of a maxi pad while on the lam. She’s got MacGyver’s resourcefulness but looks better in a tank top.

Acting the part of the Strong Female Lead changed both who I was and what I thought I was capable of. Training to do my own stunt work made me feel formidable and respected on set. Playing scenes where I was the boss firing men tasted like empowerment. And it will always feel better to be holding the gun in the scene than to be pleading for your life at the other end of the barrel.

It would be hard to deny that there is nutrition to be drawn from any narrative that gives women agency and voice in a world where they are most often without both. But the more I acted the Strong Female Lead, the more I became aware of the narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths — physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power.

Brit Marling

Certainly, Enola Holmes still leans into the trope of the strong female lead. She has an unconventional upbringing that imbues her with the skills necessary to fend for herself—most definitely at odds with the traditional limitations of a feminine education. Despite this, I can understand why the filmmakers decided to do this. From a dramatic perspective, the limitations of women in society prevent female characters from easily—and key to this is, without suspension of disbelief—going on the classical dramatic adventures.

It’s difficult for us to imagine femininity itself — empathy, vulnerability, listening — as strong. When I look at the world our stories have helped us envision and then erect, these are the very qualities that have been vanquished in favor of an overwrought masculinity.

Brit Marling

Enola Holmes, however, is not just a man in a pretty women’s body. Instead, her femininity is central to her ability to accomplish her goals.

We as the audience are treated to her authentic perspective. We are treated to her emotions—a glimpse into her thought process. It’s well executed too, breaking the fourth wall that really helps bring the audience closer in a way that feels very modern, despite the period genre.

The inherent limitation that society imposes on women become obstacles that drive the plot forward and provide unique challenges to overcome. But the way she breaks free isn’t through brute force. Holmes, at times, operates within the limitations, using them to her advantage.

Enola is at least partially the stereotypical “strong female lead.” But her character is well-balanced with strength and intellect in a way that is uniquely hers. Still, in popular American cinema, there is a dearth of films that represent female characters without the unconventional upbringing and masculine strength. This is an area where Bollywood does an exceptional job—Gunjan Saxena and Shakuntala Devi are good examples of this—where a female lead highlights her personal struggles in a way that is entirely unique to their character. It would be nearly impossible to substitute those characters with men and have the story work.

This is the type of filmmaking and storytelling that I think modern films should aspire to.

Dossier

“Enola Holmes,” by Harry Bradbeer, September 23, 2020.

“I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead,” by Brit Marling, February 7, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/brit-marling-women-movies.html

“The Drama of Flight, One Radio Call at a Time,” by David Mamet, February 1, 2019. https://www.flyingmag.com/drama-flight-one-radio-call-at-time/

Where Dark Skies Matter

Dossier

“The Clear Night Sky Over India and China’s Hostile Border,” by Raghu Karnad and Anmol Tikoo, September 19, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/the-clear-night-sky-over-india-and-chinas-hostile-border

“How I Took a Picture of a Galaxy,” by Johnny Harris, August 3, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKDe094o-Q8

“A Primer to Astrophotography, by Destin Heilman, n.d. http://www.stellarsolace.com/primer.html

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