My day job involves working for an organization whose mission is: “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”
Those are the words and vision of inventor Dean Kamen, founder of the U.S. Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, better known as FIRST. FIRST engages kids in elementary through high school grades in competitive robotics competitions that provide youth with opportunities to work with professional mentors and learn science, math and engineering skills in fun, enduring and rewarding ways, with over $16 million in scholarships for participating high schoolers.
“The assumption that drove the creation of FIRST, “ Kamen said in an interview with PTC last year, “ was you get what you celebrate in a free culture, and the reason America was slipping compared to a lot of its peers around the world—particularly in kids getting involved with and mastering science and technology—was not bad teachers or bad schools, it wasn’t what we don’t have. It was the fact that as a rich country we have so many distractions that have created for kids role models that prevent them from working hard at things that matter.”
In the last few weeks, I was so immersed in working with students , their mentors and the local business community supporting kids in “working hard at the things that matter,” that I almost missed an equally important debate on things that matter to us here in Tampa Bay involving a big box retailer and the substantive public tax payer incentive that county officials want to give the store to open shop in our community.
The Tampa Bay Times reports that the Hillsborough County Commission is considering contributing $6.25 million (down from $15 million, initially) toward road improvements around “The Estuary”, an enormous, ironically named shopping plaza planned between Falkenburg Road and Interstate 75 – currently the site of Florida pine scrub, and a good 15 miles inland from any chance of an “estuary”, which is by definition a partially enclosed body of coastal water where freshwater from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean and actually does something physically, biologically, environmentally and even economically useful, by virtue of the recreational opportunities our coastline offers.
Besides the sad fact that “The Estuary” shopping center is going to completely destroy anything remotely natural – estuarian or otherwise – in the area of planned development, developers predictions of “ annual sales of $61.8 million, generating state and local sales taxes” and “property assessment climbing to $16.4 million, boosting taxes on land now used for agriculture” ring hollow in light of the facts, and misleading in light of “things that matter.”
Bass Pro’s track record and the history of big tax incentives for major retailers suggest assurances that “ Hillsborough could break even on its $15 million investment by 2018” are probably more than a little inflated. More important, though: Do we truly believe that subsidized shopping offers a real return on our investment towards our collective future?
Bass Pro projects it would create 369 permanent, full-time jobs in addition to 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years, and the entire shopping plaza development is project to create 1,327 retail jobs.
But the fact is, says a report by the Public Accountability Initiative that examined such claims (Fishing for Taxpayer Cash), “Bass Pro often fails to deliver on its promises as an economic development anchor and major tourist destination – promises which were used to reel in government subsidies. Its stores successfully attract shoppers, but often do not produce sought-after economic benefits associated with major tourist destinations,” and taxpayers in places like Cincinnati, Harrisburg PA, and Bakersfield, CA “ have been left with high levels of debt and fiscal stress as a result of Bass Pro Projects.”
“Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., told The Atlantic Cities in an article last summer . ”All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”
Larry Whitely, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops, argued in the article that their stores “should be viewed as an amenity being added to a community — much like one might view a park or a library. …”These aren’t just stores – they are natural history museums. Every store is designed to reflect the unique natural environment of the area in which it is located.” “
Aside, again, from the basic fact that the store, by virtue of its construction, would be destroying a unique natural environment in the area in which it is to be located, $6.5 million would buy a lovely real natural history museum , park or library with a far greater return on the investment, socially, aesthetically, academically, environmentally and economically. $6.5 million dollars could also address food insecurity, make a serious impact on homelessness, pay for new teachers, finance school improvements, or make a nice deposit on a light rail system.
From a purely personal perspective, $6.5 million could fund a couple or three FIRST robotics STEM education robotics teams in every one of Hillsborough County’s nearly 160 K-12 schools for years, helping create the type of scientifically literate people Florida needs for a truly economically successful future. Because the real path to future prosperity in Florida and nationally, economic development experts are saying, is growing a knowledge based economy,not a consumer based one.
A knowledge based economy is one that is “driven by research, ideas, innovations, and technical skills to generate high-impact economic benefits and high-wage jobs. Strong sustainable knowledge economies
- Are able to sell goods and services at a higher profit margin than others;
- Earn average wages up to $25,000 more than non-knowledge-based communities, and;
- Are able to perform and execute business through more cost-effective and efficient relationships.
In the “New Economy Index” report of states by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which evaluates states on a similar “knowledge based” formula, Florida ranked 21st – and dropping.
“Some have argued that, given the economic downturn, now is not the time to focus on innovation,” observed the report’s authors. “rather, our chief concern should be job creation. Yet, fostering innovation and creating jobs are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, most studies of the issue have found that innovation is positively correlated to job growth in the mid- to long-term.”
By a correlation factor of 0.87, notes one author – ” in fact exponentially proportional to KEI (Knowledge Economic Indicator) , ie higher the KEI, higher is the per capita income of that country and vice versa. Highest KEI is of Denmark at 9.58 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the lowest KEI is of Myanmar at 0.96 at rank 145.” (Express Tribune-)
Among the key findings in Change the Equation’s Florida Vital Signs report, “Florida needs a world class education system and seamless talent supply chain to meet workforce demands at all skill levels. STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is of the utmost priority if Florida is to achieve its long term goal.”
Nowhere in that report is there a call for more consumer opportunities or retail jobs.
“Before handing taxpayer money to Bass Pro projects, ” concludes the Public Accountability Initiative report, ” public officials should consider what some other cities are going through as a result of Bass Pro-anchored projects that have fallen short: high levels of debt and fiscal duress, lackluster development, vacancy and blight, and lower-than-expected tax revenues. Considering the potential consequences, it is imperative for public officials and taxpayers to take the proper steps to ensure that they are not subsidizing an underperforming development: ask straightforward questions of Bass Pro and project developers, demand transparency and data, secure contractual guarantees that limit cannibalization, and, above all, consider alternatives. There is no good reason to subsidize development that sells cities short and leaves taxpayers on the hook.”
Public officials – and the public – should also consider what really matters to Florida’s future and help us build a Knowledge economy that will serve us and future generations far better, and make us far more productive and competitive than any retail chain store ever will. If, as Dean Kamen says, and as I fully agree, we get what we celebrate, and the best we can do is Bass Pro Shops , then that’s all we’ll get.
If, however, we choose to celebrate creative productivity and scientific and technical literacy and achievement, we’ll get so much more than we could ever have imagined!
Let’s take back Black Friday to be mindful of the way we spend our time and money. BlockFriday.org
Tee shirt and wallet company Holstee , in what may be considered a commercially and fiscally ironic move, is leading the “Block Friday” effort.
According to CoExist, Holstee co-founder Michael Radparvar said the company elected to “create something participatory, by renaming Friday, November 23, as “Block Friday,” a day to “block off” for something meaningful, whether it’s hanging out with friends and family or being outside.
““The goal is to get as many people as possible to consider one question: ‘This Thanksgiving, what are you blocking Friday for?’” says Radparvar, who plans to use the day to see old friends in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. “There’s no wrong answer.”"
Yesterday, our family set the tone for the weekend with some remarkably nice family time capped off by a little silliness (see above). Today we’re hanging out, reading, writing, talking. It’s quiet and peaceful. I’d rather be here with a handful of loved ones, than in a crush of shoppers buying presents no one will remember after Christmas. That dancing photo above? We’ll all remember and talk about that for years!
Is staying home today bad for the economy? I don’t think so. I think we need to find a new economic model based less on ”stuff” and more on knowledge and creativity. That’s another topic altogether, of course, but for today at least, maybe we can take a holiday from the onslaught of commercialism and enjoy the gift of meaningful living.
Want to play along? Share your Block Friday plans and pics on YouTube and Twitter with the hashtag #blockfriday and #holstee to add your declarations to Holstee’s digital archive.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
I’m just back from a personally perspective setting visit to South Florida, a trip which took me through the old haunts of my youth in Miami and the neon lit art deco district of Miami Beach, to the Everglades, the River of Grass, my original wilderness muse.
We can run but we cannot hide, nor should we, from the sources of our being – some good, some bad, some indifferent. For many and varied reasons I have avoided for many years, the city of my childhood, the Magic City of Miami; the place where, in the 1970s, I swam with manatees in the Tamiami Canal and pedaled for miles on a rusty old bike, from our tiny terrazzoed apartment on the final approach to Miami International Airport, to the elegant ruins of the Biltmore (since restored) to the tropical jungle of Alice Wainwright Park, through Little Havana and Coconut Grove and all parts in between.
The language of youth is gone – or at least broken, the Cuban half of my heritage shoved under the Caucasian camouflage of my other half. But I found I still love the sounds and smells and tastes of my original culture – the scent of cigars and pipes, the hot sweetness of cafe con leche, the rich fragrant jumbles of meats and rice and fruits, the music, the omnipresent chatty effusiveness and easy camaraderie of a people – my people – who wear their hearts brassily on their brightly colored sleeves.
The natural landscape of South Florida, which persists through even the most determined urban construction in Miami was the catalyst for my love of the outdoors; a veritable botanical Eden populated with the ubiquitous palms – coconut, royal, date, queen and more, giant ixora, hibiscus blossoms of every color, massive Bougainvillea, heady banks of jasmine, walls of bamboo. Everything that can grow here, does, erupting in verdant abundance through sidewalks and stone walls and even from cars parked too long in one place.
And at the edge of it all, that massive River of Grass, the place where all roads south of the urban landscape of Miami fall away, one by one, until only a narrow handful venture past the fields and sawgrass prairies of Homestead and the Redlands and enter the stark, beautiful inevitability of the Everglades, a wilderness which so few understand and upon which so much depends. The Everglades is the place where I cut my hiker’s teeth, along the Gumbo Limbo and Anhinga Trails, and later went stargazing with my pivotal South Miami High School Astronomy Club, and later on photo safaris and adventuring with my would-be husband in reaches far outside the tourist trails.
We are the sum of our parts – the depth and greatness of our being determined largely by the degree of our receptiveness to the influences and experiences – focused, incidental, accidental and peripheral – of our lives. Turn our backs on any one of our parts, and we are lessened by a commensurate degree.
Life is a series of lessons. Every experience is a required course, prerequisite to the experiences to come. The test of lessons well learned is to be able to revisit the past not nostalgically nor with bitterness, but with understanding and appreciation, using the past as a ladder to a hopefully more enlightened future; a future in which, in my case, my family, friends and cultural heritage will always be an integral part.
Throughout the summer,my spiritual home, Spirit of Life Unitarian Universalists has been welcoming guest speakers and religious leaders from a diversity of faiths and backgrounds, to give members and guests an opportunity to better understand our religious and spiritual neighbors. On Sunday, September 2nd, at 11 AM, I’m one of those guest speakers.
I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the agnostic value of embracing uncertainty and how, in the spirit of a Unitarian Universalist hymn, “even to question truly is an answer.”
Drawing on some of the reflections I shared in “Delicious Ambiguity,we’ll be exploring our ” imperfect efforts to create order out of the natural chaos of life and living, ” and how that tendency toward narrative unity sometimes “paints us into a corner, or leads us down blind alleys” that only lead to more confusion and chaos.
Sometimes, there simply aren’t any answers to the problems we encounter. Sometimes, especially if we’re honest with ourselves, our narrative boils down to an essential and enduring unknown.
Adult Discussion and youth programs begin at 10 am, at Spirit of Life. In Adult Discussion, I’ll be helping facilitate discussion on the topic of ”Neil Armstrong and American Heroism”. Neil Armstrong was “ happy to become a professor of engineering in his native Ohio in later life, and in no way vainglorious. That was an admirable side of the American character of which we have lost sight as the bogus cult of celebrity has taken hold. It is, of course, the antithesis of the ancient world’s vision of a hero.”
Learn more about Spirit of Life UU at www.SpiritofLifeUU.org or call 813-792-1622.
“Miller said she was walking along, paying more attention to her phone than where she was going…Her companions heard, “”Oh God!” And then a splash.”
ABC News, St. Joseph, Michigan
I’m torn about perpetuating these strange popular stories – Chicken Nugget Girl, Baby x , the guy with the homemade bird wings hoax. But they say so much about our culture, our ways of being. Woman-Who-Fell-Off-Pier-After-Texting-While-Walking also falls right into that “strange but true” category, as much for the wonder of her story being covered as an “exclusive” news piece by her local media, as anything else.
Although Woman-Who-Fell-Off-Pier was “quite embarrassed” about the whole thing , she was still willing to heroically go on the evening news at the scene of her clumsiness to talk about the experience which, from the seriousness of the reporters covering the piece, suggests it was so much more than a case of not looking where you’re going.
“I couldn’t let pride stand in my way of warning people to not drive and text, or walk and text. It can be dangerous,” Mrs. Miller told the reporter with equal gravity.
Besides the rescue circus of pier walkers who included Miller’s husband, son and a by-stander, fire fighers, police and the coast guard also showed up, no doubt at great expense to tax payers, amused or otherwise. Oh for the days of swimming and wading ashore (Miller fell into just six feet of water), or simply climbing up the ladder attached to the pier, and waving off undue attention.
What a strange new problem.
The dangers of texting while driving have become abundantly clear, if for whatever reasons they weren’t obvious in the first place. But walking? We have become toddlers in a strange texting land! Consider the following Fast Facts from the US Office of Compliance (who knew there was such an office?):
- A teenage girl in New York City fell six feet through an open manhole while texting, sustaining minor injuries but, more problematically, exposed to raw sewage.
- A Florida teen died from injuries received when he stepped into the path of oncoming cars as he crossed a busy city street while texting.
- A university exchange student stepped into the path of a bus while jogging and listening to an Ipod in North Carolina.
- A man sustained a broken finger when he tripped and fell while talking on his cell phone.
- At least three people in the Washington D.C. area have died in accidents recently while wearing headphones.
The report goes on to say, “A study conducted at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington by psychologist and professor Ira Hyman and his students noted that
talking on a cell phone takes a toll on cognition and awareness. The study showed that pedestrians using their cell phones often did not notice objects or people in their path. They also found a type of preoccupation called “inattention blindness,” meaning that a person can be looking at an object but fail to register it or process what it is. “
More stats, from the report, these from a study conducted by the University of Birmingham that focused on children using cell phones. The study found:
- Students using cell phones took up to 20% longer to cross the street than children who were not using a cell phone;
- Slow-crossing students with cell phones were up to 43% more likely to be hit by a vehicle while crossing the street; and
- Children looked both ways 20% fewer times when crossing the street while using cell phones
In a 2009 study published in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Pediatrics journal researchers found that children whotext or talk on a cell phone while walking near or on a street are 40 percent more likely to get hit by an automobile. Digital Trends cited a recent study by Stony Brook University that found participants texting while walking “consistently veered away from walking a straight path by a 60 % deviation. Wandering to the left or right could easily explain how Bonnie Miller found herself falling off the edge of the pier. The amount of distance traveled by people within the study increased by 13% and participants took approximately 33 % longer to reach a destination when texting while walking. The research team also found that walking while talking on a cell phone increased travel time by about 16%.”
Have we finally reached a time in our history where we’re so busy talking with our thumbs we can’t walk with our feet? Have we become sidewalk potatoes -sometimes mashed with a side of gravy? Will helmets and knee pads become accessories to smartphones?
As disturbing as it is entertaining, London, which is apparently among the most text-accident prone places in the world, went so far as to cushion all the lampposts on the evidently aptly named Brick Lane, a particularly hazardous stretch of pavement that in 2007 alone had a reported 68,000 texting accidents. Cameras were installed to “capture pictures of people running into these obstructions and record incident frequency.
I looked for some evidence of any resulting report, but couldn’t locate anything. Perhaps they’re just too embarrassed to release it.
Some of the finest minds are working on solutions though:
“For consumers with Android-powered smartphones,” notes the Digital Trends piece, ” an application developer named Sascha Affolter has created an app called Transparent Screen that uses the camera to show what’s directly in front of the user while walking. The transparency effect can be adjusted by the user and works when texting or using other applications like Google Maps.”
Great – a heads up display for the inattention-blind to further enable a bad habit – when you could just put your own darn head up and see where you’re going. Hate to go all Luddite here – I mean I’m organizing a Mini Maker Faire and everything! – but technology without common sense is just a waste of resources, potential and the human experience.
Casey Neistat is more inclined to counsel some tongue-in-cheek texting etiquette, instead…
I’ve been at dinners, on outings, and walks and otherwise hanging out with friends and family who feel compelled to answer every text chime, and to tap away about where they are, or where they’re going, or what they’re going to do next week, completely missing their immediate surroundings, head down while the world goes by, always somewhere else and rarely where they are. We ‘re not only taking a lot longer to reach our destination if we’re texting while walking, or while being with others, but we’re seeing commensurately less along the way.
And it’s not just that we fail to see the edge of the pier or the looming lamppost; we’re missing each other, the company of the people we’re with, their features and expressions, their gestures and touch, the nuances of their words and thoughts. We’re missing the scenery – trees, flowers, grass, birds and animals, the landscape of neighborhoods and cities, the play of shadows, the swirl of leaves or even paper in the wind– all the things that make up the texture and tapestry of our immediate surroundings in the present moment, an instant in time we pass through only for the briefest instant and never have again.
Long ago, the answering machine was this great invention that freed us from having to answer the phone every time it rang, or from having to wait around for important calls. We could leave home to do things and listen to the messages when we returned, disregard unimportant calls and return important ones as needed. Now, oddly, “smart” phones have enslaved us again, more deeply than a corded phone ever did, to the ball and chain of instant accessibility. Now instead of waiting at home for important calls – which were really far and few between – we’ve elevated every minute piece of communication to the realm of “important.”
But freeing ourselves is easy. Turn off the phone. It’s smart. It takes messages. Need to send or receive a truly important message? Then stop, pull over, sit down, excuse yourself briefly from your company– and then send or read. And turn it off and rejoin life, previously in progress.
And look up. It’s a 3D world out there –enjoy it!