Friday, March 22, 2013


The Titanic was a very big ship.  Its builders can be forgiven if they thought it was unsinkable.  Four huge smoke stacks reached toward the sky from its roaring furnaces.  Rows of lifeboats lined the decks.  There weren’t enough boats for all the passengers and crew, but who was counting?
The ship employed the best technology of the day.  There were still sailing vessels crossing the ocean.  Some steam powered ships still had paddle wheels.  Titanic looked like a modern ship.  
The shear size of this big boat was reassuring.  It was the biggest ship in the harbor. However it was not the biggest thing in the ocean.  There was an iceberg that was bigger.
Providing enough lifeboats for all the people who might have to use them is only common sense.  They didn’t have nearly enough.   Controlling an orderly loading of the boats was essential.  They launched some half-empty.  They had no plan for an emergency.  Keeping a watch for icebergs, a known hazard in the north Atlantic, was an elementary precaution.  They didn’t bother.
They felt that their state-of-the-art ocean liner was in no danger.  They were wrong.
This was not a failure of technology.  It was a human failure.
As the ships got bigger the cabins grew smaller.  The newest cruise ships can pack in four or five thousand paying customers.  They can drag the population of a small town from one tropical island to the next.
If the power goes off any problem is a big problem. The elevators won’t work, the food can’t be cooked and the toilets are unusable.  The ship can’t move and it can’t stay where it is.  It must be towed, and ships being towed move slowly.  Thousands of angry travelers put their lawyers on speed dial and vow never to set foot on a cruise ship again.
The sinking of Titanic was not a failure of technology.  It was a human failure.  So are the contemporary failures.  Technology won’t solve every problem or meet every need.  What it will do is quite enough.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Wait Until the Next Time

We’ve had another election in our country, and the most important thing about it was what didn’t happen.

American government is not especially honest. Illinois isn’t a good example for other countries. If there were an alumni association for Illinois politicians its largest chapter would probably meet in a penitentiary. Republicans and Democrats have both stolen votes. This is the one part of our political system that is truly bi-partison.

The things candidates say about one another bear no relationship with reality. If they did, no one would want to live in their neighborhood. All of these things are politics as usual in this country. What isn’t usual is what happens after the election.


After the election there were no crowds breaking windows. No riots in the streets. There were no bombs or gunshots. There was only a quiet and orderly acceptance of what has been done.

The outcome of the election is usually accepted. If it is not; the dispute is continued in the courts, not on the street. This post-election calm is not because there is nothing serious at stake in our political contests. There are important differences between the various candidates. The future of the nation is at stake. The kind of nation their children will live in will be determined.

The best candidates won’t always be chosen. The wrong decisions will made. The Americans will be self-serving as often as any other people. We know well the skills of bribery, fraud and political corruption. Everyone knows that our elections are not perfect, but they are too close to perfect to be discarded.

But we also know that when the election is over, it is over. We will not destroy the nation in order to impose our will on it.. The measure of our success is the number of retired rulers left alive. The mark of a mature democracy is the ability to change the government without violence.

Not many countries have ever managed to do this. We have done it for generations, not because of our virtues but because we know the value of restraint. We will be free and our government will be safe only for as long as we protect it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Unintended Consequences

When the first personal computers appeared they were recognized as the beginning of a revolution. The world would never be the same.

Some industries would disappear or shrink to occupy a tiny niche. New businesses would arise to fill new needs. Some speculated that the paper industry would join the makers of buggy whips. Filing cabinet makers would have no one to buy their products, since all the files would be digital. In the digital world paper would not be necessary.

Nothing of the kind happened of course. If anything, more paper was consumed. Computers didn’t make paper unnecessary. They made it easy to use a lot more paper. Making copies was easy and inexpensive. One keystroke was the difference between making no copies and making twenty. Everybody made twenty.

Better printers encouraged us to use even more paper. The first printers were noisy, slow and expensive. Their dot matrix print was ugly and sometimes barely readable. A machine that slowly ground out pages of poor quality could cost a thousand dollars.

That didn’t last long. The price went down and the quality went up. Soon cheap printers could produce dozens of different typefaces in colors too numerous to count. Small businesses that couldn’t afford professional brochures now could design and print their own.

The paper mills kept running. Computers changed the economy, but not in the ways we expected.

The world is always changing. It often changes in ways we don’t foresee. Fads come into view quickly and fade while we watch. Today’s new reality is tomorrow’s old fashioned absurdity. It isn’t hard to sing the latest tune. It is harder to

know when that song’s day is over and a new melody is in style.
Every generation believes that its parents are old fashioned and its children are immature. It doesn’t occur to them that their parents thought they were immature and their children think they are old fashioned. The world has indeed changed and will continue to change, but not in the ways anyone expects.

Computers did create one new industry. Nobody needed paper shredders before they had computers. Now they are stacked in the aisles at Walmart and Target.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Majorca is an island in the Mediterrnian Sea. Its main business today is tourism. (At the last count there were 2400 restaurants on the island.) But before the tourists came Majorca was famous for something else. It is the home of Majorcan pearls.

Pearls, as everyone knows, are made by oysters. They are the main industry of islands in the South Pacific. Majorcan pearls do not come from oysters. They are made in a factory. Small glass balls are coated with a concoction of pulverized shells, mother of pearl and fish scales. When this mixture has dried the balls are polished and sanded. This process is repeated thirty times or more. The result is something that looks like a pearl, but isn’t.

A Majorcan pearl isn’t a pearl at all. It is a fake. Its flawlessness gives it away. Real pearls are each one of a kind. They are not quite perfect. Every pearl is different from every other. Majorcan pearls can be made to be any size. Each pearl will be exactly like others the same size.

That is the difference between things that are created and those that are made. An ipod reproduces music that is the same every time you play it. When a performing artist creates it every performance is a distinct event. Each performance is different. Two creative painters do not produce identical views of the same subject.

In this sense the world is created, not made. There is an endless supply of individuals. Even creatures that appear to be alike are not. A school of fish is in fact a large number of unique individuals. Everyone who owns a kitten knows it is different from all the others. Your DNA sequence is solely your own.

You and I are not Majorcan pearls. We were created, not made. Nobody else is like us. Everyone who tries to reduce people to a uniform class or to a race denies their humanity.

We are more than the stereotype of our race or religion. We are more than our neighbors think we are. We are what no one else in the world is. To be human is to be unique.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Giraffes Fall Into the World

You can learn a lot from the Internet. Unfortunately, you don’t really need to know a lot of the things you can learn. For example, did you know that giraffes give birth while standing up? Does it matter?

It matters if you’re a baby giraffe. As soon as they are born baby giraffes are dropped six feet on to the hard ground. The first thing a giraffe learns is that this is a tough world. Humans don’t get this kind of rude introduction to life. The first thing we experience is the comforting arms of a loving mother.

We have to learn the things a giraffe knows from that first bounce on the hard ground. It is a hard and unforgiving world, and there is nothing we can do about it. We learn it one day at a time, in dozens of small disappointments.

There is the first day of kindergarten, when our mother is not there to kiss our bumps away. There is the first time we fall in love, and the first time we are rejected. There is college and no one telling us it is time to go to bed. There is the first time we pay our own bills from what we earn.

Giraffes pass all those milestones in that first six-foot fall. Momma giraffes don’t abandon their young. They feed and protect their newborns, stand ready to fight off predators. They can’t protect them from everything. In that first hard jolt of birth the little giraffes are on their own.

Parents want to protect their children from harm. They must decide how much protection is too much. Children have to learn to live in a dangerous world. They will certainly be knocked down by events they can’t control. Too much protection now will leave them unprepared for the dangers that lie ahead.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter why we are knocked down by this hard world. It just happens, it is part of being born. We have to get through them to reach the happy days beyond. Even a baby giraffe knows that the hard falls don’t go on forever.

Life is good, but sometimes you have to take a few tumbles to get to the good part.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Moderately Important Peopl

There aren’t any unimportant people. Some people are just important in ways we don’t know.

I levered myself out of the car at North Shore Hospital. The man who came to help was too old to be called young, too young to be middle aged. He was not particularly distinctive. If I saw him next week he might look vaguely familiar, but I wouldn’t remember where I had seen him before.

When he saw I had trouble walking he brought a wheel chair. He kept up a friendly conversation the whole time as he took me to the right desk.

After the scan that brought me there was over I saw him again. He spoke to everyone that came past, tome with a nod and a word, others at more length.
“You talk to a lot of people in your job,” I said.

“I talk to all kinds of people. Some are okay with being here. But some are not. They’re scared, or they’re worried. Bad things have happened to them, or they think they might. And I’m the first person they see when they come here. I set the tone for their visit here.”

My first thought about this was a cynical one. Whoever gave him an orientation for this job was a good salesman. He’s bought the whole idea, hook, line and sinker. But my second thought was more realistic. The reason he bought this description of his job was that it is true. What he does is important, more important than it seems.

Not everybody is lucky enough to have a job they can feel good about this way. No matter how you spin it, the world is not a better place because somebody works on an assembly line. Some times a job is just a job. The only reason to do it is that you get paid for it.

That’s okay. If other people depend on you for support it is more than okay. The world needs more saints doing socially useful jobs, but it also needs more responsible mothers, fathers, and children.

In fact, without them, there isn’t much the saints can do.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Reason There Are Dogs

There used to be just two kinds of dogs: pedigreed dogs and real dogs. Rich people had pedigreed dogs. They had papers that showed their ancestry all the way back to the Old Testament. They had strange names, like Skylock Champion of Blubbery Hill, but they were called “Cookie” or “Mimsey”. They didn’t look like they would be much good in a dog fight.

All our dogs were real dogs. Sometimes they had a recognizable breed, sometimes they didn’t. They came in all sizes and colors. They were loyal and lovable and could be taught to do a few tricks and live in the house safely. For a small boy they were the best friend he ever had. When one was hit by a car and died in the street it was the worst thing that ever happened.

One pedigree isn’t enough today. Now there are not just mixed breeds, but carefully mixed breeds. These are designer dogs. They have two ancestral lines and the breeds are called strange things, like “cocky-poo” (half poodle, half cocker spaniel), or “schnoodle” (half schnauzer, half poodle). A lot look pretty much alike: small enough to sit on your lap, curley white hair, big black eyes and nose. They too are affectionate and loveable, and do a lot to fill an empty house.

To get a real dog you have to go to the Internet or to a shelter. A real dog may be less expensive, although shelters like to get back at least part of their out-of-pocket expense. A real dog may already be through that difficult time of learning the difference between in the house and out of the house.

Dogs used to be classified by their purpose. There were herding dogs and guard dogs and dogs that pull a sledge. Most people today don’t have sheep or sledges. A dog may bark at everybody who comes near the house, but that is a nuisance. Nobody gets a dog for any of those reasons. Dogs today are bred for only one thing. Their purpose is to be loved.

This is no small thing. Faith and hope are good, but love is even better.