To the Central African Lakes and Back, Vol I by Joseph Thomson
I need an easy post this week, so I shall revisit the creative output of my past. Back in high school I drew a webcomic called Rocks. It was about rocks. The precise reasons for this escape me but a friend of mine had sent me a list of things webcomic artists shouldn’t do so I did them. I wound up drawing well over a hundred of these comics, so only a fraction of the total output is represented below. This was the point in my life where I looked forward to Friday night because I would watch Stargate SG-1 and drink a lot of caffeine and stay up all night coding HTML and PHP for my website which back then, much like today, nobody read. I had a lot of fun. Here’s the cast of characters for my little comic:
Our #1 rock, the star of the show, is Rocky. He came unto the scene as a former pet rock, abandoned by his master on the side of the trail. He’s a little irregularly shaped, but that just adds to his infinite charm.
To Rocky’s far left is his fine friend Shale. Shale’s pretty regularly shaped, but as he explains, that’s because his dad was a quartz. We don’t know exactly where Shale has been, or how he came to be here, but he does have a penchant for scaring hikers.
Finally, smack dab in the center, is Chad. Chad is semi-circular, and wears glasses. Where he got the glasses, no one knows, but he wound up in the bunch after a bird mistook him for something edible. Plus, with a name like Chad, you can’t go wrong.
Rocks started out with a episodic storyline:
After that the episodic nature of the comic petered out. I tried to do a lot of different things with my three panels and three characters, but looking back it really shined when it leaned into the fact it was about rocks:
At various points however it just went fully surreal:
And then finally one day I drew my very last Rocks and never again picked up my webcomic pen:
Sometimes I consider revisiting Rocks but I never have. I just repost them on the internet every once in a while to relive my long-haired glory days of webcomic almost-fame. I think I mined the very depths of rock-based webcomic humor the first time around, but Hollywood loves a reboot so maybe there’s a chance to tread new ground. Only time will tell.
This post is just a comment on the wide wide world of logo design for Africa-focused organizations. Although I am nonetheless going to publish this call-out post, I do have to offer a pre-emptive apology to the world of logo designers for Africa-based organizations. You see, I used to think that there was only one Africa logo in the world, and that logo was “put the name of your organization in the Gulf of Guinea.” And like look, I get it. It’s just so enticing. It is yearning for your organization to fill the gap left by South America all those 140 million years ago. And, you know, maybe you’ll spice it up a little, you can draw a stylized version of Africa that really conveys the nature of your organization. That’ll be fun. Maybe if you’re Google and therefore have access to all the resources in the world to really come up with an original logo, you’ll think to yourself, “What is really the most significant thing about Africa?” and drop an elephant in there:
But back to the apology bit. You see I look at the logos of a lot of different Africa-focused organizations. So I notice these things. And I eventually realized there wasn’t just the one Africa logo, there was at least two. Besides sticking your logo in the Gulf of Guinea, you could also stick your organization name in the Indian Ocean:
So sorry for my assumption, to all the logo designers for Africa-focused organizations. But come on guys. Start looking at these logos and it is quickly obvious that the only type of logo anyone likes to do for an Africa-focused organization is draw a stylized version of Africa and stick the organization’s name somewhere around it. There has to be a more creative approach than that out there somewhere and I encourage anyone taking a stab at it to try to think outside the box. And no, putting the name of your organization across your stylized picture of Africa doesn’t count:
That’s all I got on this one. Maybe I will continue to update this page with more logos. One final thing to think about: when designing your logo, how many of the African islands do you include? Poor Madagascar getting left out all the time. And if Madagascar can’t always make it in, what chance does Mauritius have?
This is my 300th post on this blog! I will therefore do the very self-indulgent thing and do some personal reflection. Of course this whole blog is self-indulgent, as I think most blogs are, so we’re right on theme.
I am extremely pleased with having gotten to 300 blog posts. That wasn’t a particular goal or anything, but I like to think it shows some commitment. There have been ups and downs. I think for a while when I first started I was shooting for two blog posts a week, but that was unsustainable. I just wasn’t doing enough stuff. Once a week, however, I think is the perfect amount. It is regular enough to keep you honest but not too much that it is a burden. I chose to publish on Sundays because I read a lot of other blogs and not many publish on Sunday so I figured I would have a bit of a niche. Plus it gives me most of the weekend to scramble to publish something (I like to publish at noon). But even after settling on once a week there were some long stretches there where I didn’t write anything but now I am pretty dedicated to it and that feels like a good thing.
In my memory, the main reason I started a blog was as a creative outlet. At some point during my time at the Naval Academy I discovered that I needed some sort of creative outlet to keep myself from going crazy. Just doing schoolwork all the time didn’t work for me. Back then my creative outlet was writing for The LOG. But reviewing my aptly-named First Blog Post, I told the world my primary reason for writing this blog was to push myself to go out and do things and look at places. I think I have been pretty successful on both fronts. This blog gives me a way to put something out into the world, even if no one reads it except for my super amazing girlfriend, and it has definitely pushed me to go out and do activities I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have done because getting blog material was the reason I needed to push myself out of inactivity. So that’s great!
In each of these posts I shoot to write about 750 words. This number comes mostly from the site 750Words, which I used to use. They explain that 750 words is about three pages of hand-written paper, which is what you are supposed to write everyday to become a better writer, or at least get in the habit of writing. I think I also read somewhere that 750 words is about the ideal blog post length because people will read it, or something. It hasn’t catapulted me to the top of the SEO ranks, I can tell you that (except for some very particular and very obscure topics), but still that’s what I go for, though some posts fall far short and some posts far exceed that goal. I explain all that to say, if I am somewhere near my goal of 750 words on average, and I have 300 posts, then that is over 200,000 words, which is a book! A book! I effectively wrote a book! A very disjointed book that will require a lot of editing but a book nonetheless! That’s pretty cool and I am proud of that.
In order to celebrate my 300th post, I’ve mostly done some backend stuff I have been meaning to do for a while. A big thing I did is go through and make sure every post had a picture (except for the very first one, just to be idiosyncratic). Some of these posts maybe didn’t need pictures but I added one for consistency’s sake. I have also fixed some errors I had been meaning to for a while, but since some posts needed it more than others and 300 posts (well 299 besides this one) is a lot to go through not every post got gone over with a fine-toothed comb. Nonetheless, there were some glaring errors that I have now corrected. There were other, minor things that were only for me like removing some pictures I had double-uploaded. Turns out editing a blog on your phone in a mud hut in Zambia is not the most technologically smoothest thing to do and will create some errors. But those are now fixed!
However I think for the average reader of this blog the most significant update is that every post is now in one or more categories. This is handy because it makes it possible to group say, all my London Missionary Society (or Chronicle thereof) posts in one place, or link together all my posts from travel to a particular spot like the DRC or Guatemala. I had meant to do this for a while but as the number of blog posts pile up it just gets to be a more and more monumental task but now I have tackled it and only hope that I remember to keep categorizing posts going forward. Here’s to hoping.
How I have I changed over the course of this blog? My life has changed a lot, that’s for sure. In my first blog post I was still in the Navy, and then I had a whole Peace Corps and then Grad School experience, and now I am back out into the “real” world doing a job. I have also met the most fantastic person in the world, my super amazing girlfriend. But most of that would have happened without the blog I think. As for blog-induced change, I have definitely developed more of a “voice,” as I said I hoped to do in my first blog post. Sometimes this has been a hindrance. In a blog post I will simply link to something as way of explanation but when I was in grad school this technique did not work in term papers and I had to adjust. And sometimes I worry when I am out and about in places I am spending time mentally writing a potential post instead of taking in all the beauty. But at the same time thinking about a blog post makes me think about the narrative of a place I am visiting and to be able to reflect and articulate what is significant about that story. So maybe pros and cons there.
I guess it’s not a great conclusion but moving forward I don’t think this blog will change much. By far my most well-read blog posts are the one about Joe Biden’s ties (I found it linked by a Russian blog for reasons that are inscrutable to me, and sometimes I wonder if people are searching for metaphorical ties and find my post about real ones) and the one where I mentioned a strip club on Saipan (as I linked to before in this very post). One move would be to chase these successes but I don’t think that is the direction I want to travel. I will instead continue to focus on obscure interests (that so far evidence shows interest only me) and the many many many more adventures I plan to have with my super amazing girlfriend. To any and all of you who read this blog thanks for coming along with me. Hopefully someday I will in fact write that real book and then when I become a rich and successful author people will all flock to this blog but you will be able to say to yourself that you were there the whole time, reading as he invented cool new KitchenAid attachments or looked at some dirt.
Look, this post is for me. I mean they are all for me but in this post I am trying to manifest some stuff into the world. The picture up top is of my super amazing girlfriend’s KitchenAid mixer. It is one of her favorite things ever, right up there with me, Tink, and, uh, I’m struggling to come up with a third because I think everything else is so far down.
The most interesting feature I think of the KitchenAid mixers is the power takeoff. It’s got a technical name that I am unable to Google right now, but you can attach accessories to the KitchenAid and the motor in the mixer will spin ’em. I have been thinking a lot about KitchenAid accessories lately because we have recently gone through a process to get the pasta roller and cutter attachments as cheap as we could, and frankly we did pretty good. They haven’t arrived yet but already we are extremely excited to make pasta. After some I was going to say quick back-of-the-envelope calculations but in fact they were took-a-while-and-involved-a-spreadsheet calculations, I can say they’ll have paid for themselves after we make pasta only 245 times (this is 1471 servings of pasta, though my super amazing girlfriend paid for them so I personally am in the money already. By the way, since my super amazing girlfriend is the only one that reads this blog, I am in fact very excited about the attachments as you can tell, the homemade pasta will be way better, and I was just curious. Math!).
Anyways though I gotta say I am pretty disappointed with the range of potential KitchenAid attachments out there. If you do some more quick Googling you will find like, top 10 lists of best KitchenAid attachments, but these are stupid lists because there are only like 10 attachments out there. Which boggles my mind, personally. The KitchenAid has been around for a century, which is longer than like, spaceflight and, uh, waterskiing. That is ample time to have invented some really super cool attachments! I mean the ones they got are nice, but they could do better.
I will provide some historical perspective, courtesy of this CNET article I will link to several times. There have been attachments that have come and subsequently gone. When I was brainstorming possible attachments, I kept thinking of workshop equipment, because it is funny to think of a drill press powered off the KitchenAid. But they were already close actually, with both a grinder and buffing wheel in the form of a knife sharpener and silver polisher. So that’s neat!
But the point of this blog post is that I have brainstormed some KitchenAid attachments people should bring into the world. Someday I may bring them into the world, and they would not be my first kitchen invention, because one time I put together a toaster with a functioning battleshort switch, making me the only person in the world with tactical toast. The only thing stopping me right now is the fact I lack a metalworking shop, which might change someday. In the meantime, I beg any and all adventurous inventors out there to bring my dreams into reality:
The first accessory I thought of was a butter churn. I couldn’t believe these didn’t exist yet, though it was likely undermined by all the different cooking websites telling me you could just make butter in a KitchenAid, no attachment needed. But I still think there is probably an opportunity to make an old-timey looking butter churn powered by like a fly wheel coming off the KitchenAid and I think it would give anyone’s kitchen a wonderful rustic charm as well as providing endless fresh butter the instant my super amazing girlfriend lets us get a cow to keep on the patio.
The KitchenAid Taffy Puller is still in my list of plausible inventions I can’t believe don’t actually already exist. I mean sure, who is pulling taffy that often in their kitchen, but my counterpoint to that is the number of new never-used KitchenAid accessories on eBay makes me think that all these attachments are niche and rarely used, so what’s one more? Plus I hear taffy is hard to pull so the sheer horsepower in the KitchenAid is going to make this a winner.
Honestly this is another one I can’t believe doesn’t exist already. Trying to think of reasonable kitchen gadgets, there both are and aren’t a bevy of ones that spin. Like, what’s the difference between a food processor and a blender, really? In fact there is a KitchenAid food processor, but it looks kind of gangly dangling off the end there in space. But as I was thinking of spinning things, I came up with this brilliant idea, because who (besides like, a large bevy of people actually) doesn’t like meat roasted by slowly rotating it over a heat source? With that in mind, I bring you the KitchenAid rotisserie. Here is the fully-enclosed version, but you could also imagine a version that just did the rotation while the chicken was kept over a handy indoor grill.
Of course, why just think about food when using a KitchenAid mixer? Hence my next brilliant idea: the KitchenAid vacuum. This would be especially handy for kitchen cleanup, when you could finally get all those little crumbs that fall between the oven and the cabinet. Oooh ooh now that I am thinking about it this could double as a vacuum sealer for food. Jeez I am so brilliant.
Of course, what really got me thinking about all this was that the KitchenAid power takeoff was pretty similar to those ones you find on tractors or Land Rovers. Some follow-up research led me to be very disappointed in the limited range of accessories to attach to one’s Land Rover power takeoff (winches seem to be the only real idea, which would also be great for the KitchenAid frankly), but luckily I found a backhoe attachment for a tractor. Brilliant! When I showed this picture to my super amazing girlfriend she asked “what would you do with that?” But what wouldn’t you do is the question. I mean, probably anything that didn’t involve digging, but I think this would be endless fun for the whole family as they gathered around the KitchenAid backhoe and dug up the kitchen linoleum, or something. If I had a metal shop and probably a YouTube channel and more time and also knew anything at all about hydraulics, this is the one I would build for sure.
Other Free Ideas
I got tired of expertly photoshopping all of these (my super amazing girlfriend when I showed her these pictures, reacted with a slightly exasperated “this is what you’ve been working on for hours with a look of concentration???”), but I have a bevy of other ideas. These are all free for anyone to make and implement, but you have to email me a picture and if you become rich and famous please say nice things about me.
Salad spinner. Gone are the days of spinning salad by hand, like it’s 1800.
Water pump. For uh, spraying things I guess. For watering plants from across the living room.
Fan. Because if you can’t stand the heat, instead of getting out of the kitchen just install your KitchenAid fan.
Hand mixer attachment. This is supposed to be ironic but I think you could use a drain snake-like mechanism to connect the power to a hand mixer and that could be handy for things.
Speaking of which, drain snake. To unclog the kitchen sink. Incredibly handy!
Cake decorating stand. Instead of having to spin the cake around by hand, it’ll spin it for you, cutting effort dramatically. Could also work for pizzas to ease putting on toppings, or double as a potter’s wheel.
Winch. This is an homage to the LandRover, but could be useful for putting things in high cabinets.
Combine Harvester. Like the kind you pull behind a tractor, but smaller. Useful for houseplants in the kitchen.
Automatic pot stirrer. When I suggested this to my super amazing girlfriend she was like “the KitchenAid is already a stirrer” so this should be easy, but in this case it is like an extension that juts out over your stove and into your pots.
Toothbrush. Like an spinning electric toothbrush, or the kind at the dentist. Get your teeth really clean. You’ll have to brush your teeth over the kitchen sink, obviously.
Milk separator. Clearly now I am thinking about my future self-sustaining ecofarm that is off the grid but still on the electrical grid, specifically.
Paint mixer. Like the kind you see at hardware stores to mix up your paint where it shakes it around real good. Clearly could also double as a cocktail shaker, and I think it would also be fantastic for un-separating non-homogenized peanut butter.
SodaStream. Presumably those just have a pump which pumps air? If so the pump can be run off the KitchenAid. Could also be good for inflating balloons or air mattresses/pool toys.
Hot Wheels set. Great for brand synergy and keeping the kids entertained while you are cooking.
When I want to remind myself to do something, I either open up a tab and type in a google search or else send myself an email. This blog post is mostly for my own benefit (all these blog posts are for my own benefit), because writing it will let me close a tab I’ve had open for I think about a year now. As documented elsewhere on this blog, I think about international development a lot, and in this post I am working through some thoughts on program effectiveness vs. a program’s ability to raise money.
Evaluating the effectiveness of development programs is a something I find to be quite fraught. In my limited experience, you very quickly wind up doing something like trying to put a dollar value on quality-adjusted life-years, and then find yourself trying to weigh the relative effectiveness of improving someone’s floor or buying them HIV meds. If you get too wrapped up in effectiveness, I also think you wind up in a bit of a moral conundrum: what if you have a program, but then find some other program is more effective? Aren’t you obligated to transfer all your funds into the new program, lest you are wasting limited resources and letting people die? Then again, if you don’t try to evaluate effectiveness of programs, you will do ineffective programs and waste even more of the limited resources and that is even worse! Not an easy business to be in.
There is of course an ongoing movement to just give people money instead of doing almost any other sort of development project. Giving people money is pretty darn effective in a lot of cases, which should be intuitive. Development projects come in and try to identify a needs gap, and then fill that gap. They come in and go “man these people could really use a cow” and then give them a cow. Instead of trying to identify people’s gaps, you could instead just give them the money and let them fill their own gaps. This makes sense. If someone offered me a cow, I would probably take it, and then just go and sell it and spend the money on whatever I actually wanted (just giving money, I want to say, is far from a cure-all, and there are ways to make the impact of direct cash transfers more effective, but still).
On the other hand, the gigantic advantage, I think, of running a give-people-cows charity is that it is much easier to solicit donations. If you go on the website for Heifer International, they give you a whole “gift catalog” of different animals you can buy for families. As yet another caveat, this is actually misleading, when you “buy” a “cow” from them for a family, they actually just use your $500 to fund their programs in general, though some of those include buying cows for people. But let’s pretend they’re exclusively in the business of buying people animals, because that is what their website wants you to think. Heifer International clearly thinks that people are much more willing to cough up donations if they can believe that they are buying a cute widdle baby goat for a specific, photogenic family in a picturesque but nondescript developing country. Contrast that with GiveDirectly, which firmly believes in direct cash transfers. If you go on the website you really gotta kinda poke around before you find any picturesque families!
The thing I was thinking about when I opened up a tab a year ago is the balance between program effectiveness and funding raising effectiveness. To wit, if my program is half as effective as yours, but I can raise twice as much money, aren’t we doing equal good in the world? What I really wanted to do was come up with a donor discount rate, a reasonable quantification of exactly how much less money you raise when you’re like “hey we’re just gonna give cash to people, they need that $20 more than you do” instead of saying “wanna buy a chicken?”
After thinking about it off and on for a year, I realized that was going to be hard. There are too many variables for me, personally, to figure out. Are there people that will only donate money if they can buy a chicken, or if they can’t buy a chicken will they donate to direct cash transfer charities? Are the different chicken charities competing with each other? How do people pick which charities to donate to anyways? Beats me! Plus market forces have probably already revealed the answer: there are more “donate things” charities than “donate cash” charities (I think), so charity world clearly thinks one method is more effective than the other.
Nevertheless, I will do some pointless math on Heifer International and GiveDirectly. According to the abstract from this decade-old study, for every $1 Heifer International spends, they cause somewhere between $1.19, $1.25, or $2.35 of benefit to a household. Let’s average those and say $1.60. Meanwhile in the year ending June 30, 2020, they raised just south of $108 million and spent about $94 million, doing I suppose $150 million “worth” of “good” in the world. On the other hand, according to this only couple-year-old study(‘s abstract, as I understand it), for every $1 GiveDirectly transfers, the community benefits $2.60 worth. Meanwhile, in 2019, they raised about $42 million and gave about $33 million in grants, doing, by my hokey system, $85.8 million “worth” of “good” in the world. So there ya go. Except in writing this post I have learned that in 2020 they raised $300 million and spent at least $210 million, mostly it seems because MacKenzie Scott reallylikes whatthey do. I guess that answers that debate.
Jeez I love what MacKenzie Scott has been up to. If you’re hiring, MacKenzie, I will work so hard at giving your money away.
A matter of weeks ago now I started a job with the US Department of State. Pretty neat! This explains why these posts haven’t been going up at their normally appointed hour. The working life is tough! This is why I avoided it for a little over four years. But a strong desire to have a salary once again has driven me towards the 9-5 life. Oh, capitalism.
At any rate working for the State Department has been pretty interesting so far. Over the course of my grad school experience I spent a large chunk of time thinking about how things actually get done, and the thing that was usually getting done in this thinking was US engagement in Africa. There are a lot of people who are very passionate about international development and international engagement one way or another, and as a former Peace Corps volunteer and a grad student in a Global Affairs program I know a sizeable chunk of them. These people, and remember I am one of them, have a lot of strong opinions about what should happen and their zeal is focused of course on the delta between what they think should happen and what does happen.
I want to caveat that it is far from universal, but I think a lot of the time this delta is attributed to something along the lines of a lack of vision of the people doing the work. They don’t quite share the same passion for involving the people they’re trying to help in their development projects, or they don’t quite understand a cultural nuance on the ground. What I have generally discovered is that the people doing the work got into the work because they in fact hold all the same passions and zeals as my strawmanned critics. Unfortunately, this makes the delta between the should and the is more complicated to explain, but now I am perched in the perfect spot to figure out what that is.
One thing I haven’t quite fully figured out is who actually makes policy happen around here. More caveats! So far, for me, the State Department is very small. I talk to a handful of people at the embassy, and I have one or two counterparts in different bureaus and divisions. Relatively speaking, my sense is that there aren’t a lot of people in the Africa space. I hear in other bureaus multiple people will cover a single country, instead of a single person covering multiple countries, but those other countries are outside my purview so I’m not very sure. The caveat I’m building up to here is that I don’t really know how things work, and in fact I just don’t know a lot of things. I’m pretty new. But there do seem to be a lot of people at the State Department who talk to other people in the State Department, and who monitor things and who write reports and who tell those things to other people, but who actually makes US policy happen in, to, or around a foreign country?
Stunningly, I’m starting to think that person might be me. I’ve sent emails and made phone calls to counterparts in foreign countries and, stunningly, things happen? Nothing earth-shaking yet. I haven’t sent enough emails to get world peace yet, though by golly if my sent folder is anything to go by I am trying. Still, I feel like there must be something more.
One model I have of the State Department is that there is in fact a very small number of people who have the ability to affect anything. The rest of the State Department is therefore geared towards getting a certain concept across their eyeballs as often as possible. If you want to affect policy in so and so country, you try to make a lot of noise about so and so country, so that the people who can affect things read reports and the like about so and so country pretty often. Then, when it comes time for some event, or they have to decide something about policy, since they have thought about so and so country so often that they default to that course of action.
I don’t know if that model is accurate but I’m excited to refine my theories as time goes by. One thing I hope to avoid is losing any zeal I have. One unfortunate part about knowing how the system works is that while you learn why things are the way they are, that might convince you that things are the way they are for a good reason. You gotta keep a keen eye out for where things can change. I don’t know if I’ll pull that off, but I’ll let you know how it goes.
I’m going to backdate this (I’m on vacation, which has involved a lot less free time than I anticipated and so I am behind on posts), so I think this post will “officially” come out around Memorial Day but I will note it is “actually” several weeks later. I wanted to talk about what I think is a particularly pernicious sort of attitude I tend to see around the holiday. I wish the following paragraphs were more elegant.
The attitude is that every single right you have as an American or even as a person is because a veteran fought for it and, especially on Memorial Day, died for it. Maybe it doesn’t pop up on your Facebook feed but it pops up on mine. A quick googling brought me “It is the Veteran,” a particularly direct and all-encompassing version of it. Credited there to Sarah Palin’s uncle (?), I’ll quote it here:
It is the veteran, not the preacher who has given us freedom of religion. It is the veteran, not the reporter who has given us freedom of the press. It is the veteran, not the poet who has given us freedom of speech. It is the veteran, not the campus organizer who has given us freedom to assemble. It is the veteran, not the lawyer who has given us the right to a fair trial. It is the veteran, not the politician who has given us the right to vote. It is the veteran who salutes the flag, who serves under the flag and whose coffin will be draped by the flag.
I think I first heard some version of this sentiment during my Plebe year at the Naval Academy. Even then I didn’t like it, but that might have been because I’m just a contrarian instead of some precocious political awakening. I don’t quite get why military veterans and their fans are so eager to claim every good thing that’s ever happened. Veterans are already pretty well lauded, why not let some of the love be spread around?
I think “It is the Veteran” is wrong, and so wrong that it is a full 180 degrees out. I don’t think you get rights because a veteran fought on the battlefield. I also don’t think you get rights just because someone says you have them or because they’re written down on some piece of paper. I think rights come from exercising those rights. Freedom of the press comes from the press writing about politicians that don’t want to be written about. The freedom to assemble comes from assembling when someone doesn’t want you build a movement. And the right to vote comes from voting when vested interests do everything they can to keep you from being heard.
More importantly, the attitude isn’t pernicious just because it is wrong. It is pernicious because it implies that people didn’t really earn their rights. The majority of people aren’t veterans and never will be. Saying that rights come from what veterans did means that the majority of people didn’t earn their rights, but owe their rights to the actions of this very small minority. Their rights are therefore far from being inalienable but instead have been granted.
The eagerness to claim that all rights stem from veterans is therefore I think an eagerness to be able to claim who does and doesn’t get them, or how people get to use them. If rights come from the sacrifices of a group most people will never be in, then it’s valid to say that freedom of speech doesn’t apply when supporting Black Lives Matter. It makes it valid to say that the freedom to vote is only really for people who vote the “right” way. It makes it valid to systematically deny whole groups of people their rights because in your eyes they simply don’t deserve them.
I suspect most people that share the sentiment that we should thank veterans for our rights aren’t thinking about what that actually implies for their rights or for the rights of others. But it is another part of an American way of thinking that allows us to say we’re the greatest nation on Earth without thinking about for whom that is and isn’t true. We are still in an era where people have to struggle every day to attain those rights that Sarah Palin’s uncle would say veterans already granted them. When those rights finally come, it won’t be because they shot enough people. It will be because they broke through the forces holding them down to stand up and exercise those rights.
An informal survey of the dates associated with the google search results (and I guess some trend analysis) indicates there’s been a recent uptick in sandwich-related scholarship. I’m not going to claim to be treading new ground here. But I have a blog to fill and I haven’t been able to travel lately to bring you more colorful stories), so I wanted to talk about sandwiches.
The first time I thought seriously about sandwiches was when my Spanish roommate Francisco brought them up. Our senior year at the Naval Academy, my buddy Tom and I had grandiose plans for a two-man room, a privilege earned by our several years of continuing to exist at the Naval Academy. Lo and behold, when we went to go move back in for our final year, we discovered we would be placed in a three-man room, which as you’ll recall is one more man than Tom and I put together. Our mysterious new roommate, who neither of us had been consulted about, was… “Spain.”
Or apparently only that country’s representative. The Naval Academy has international exchange students, and Francisco was one of them, from the Spanish Naval Academy. He was quite the character. He was 29, and back then, in my youth, therefore unimaginably old. He was married, which is prohibited for American midshipmen, and so was quite an exotic status to have. The first night we were together, when we had barely known each other for a few hours and our biggest adventure together had thus far been finding Francisco a blanket, he was telling us the many stories of his worldly travel when his eye adopted a particular glimmer.
“Ah yes, Rio,” he said, “how do you say – I fell in love with Rio.”
“In Rio,” he explained, “you can fuck a girl for twenty dollars. For the whole night.” And, he emphasized, “including the hotel.”
Our most heartfelt moment of cultural exchange was probably his birthday. He had mentioned off-hand I think that he was missing olive oil, so I managed to track down a bottle of “Spanish” (so said the label) olive oil, and presented it to him as a gift from me and Tom. A few days later, Francisco pulled me aside. He wanted to thank me for my thoughtfulness and generosity. After I had given him the olive oil, he had gathered all the other Spanish exchange students, and together in King Hall they had all had salad – with olive oil. I think the man was nearly in tears, he missed olive oil so much.
In return for my gift, Francisco shattered my entire world. I don’t think he knew what he was doing. It was simply that one day, he said to me (apropos of something, not exactly out of the blue) “Americans – all you eat is sandwiches.”
And with that my world was quite simply ruined. The curse of knowledge was downright unbearable. He was right! I think the very next day, the Naval Academy served us breakfast sandwiches, followed by roast beef sandwiches for lunch, and then with hamburgers for dinner. I began to count the sandwiches in the weekly meals. Seven days in a week, three meals a day, for a total of 21 meals, and out of those, 15 or 16 – or more! – would be sandwiches. This is why you get to know other cultures, people.
I mean, I love sandwiches, but once you think about your tongue, you know? After the Naval Academy, in honor of Francisco, and to buck the trend, I scrubbed sandwiches from my diet. Scrubbed them! Sorta anyways. I would avoid making a sandwich. I packed my lunch most days to go to nuke school, and whatever I made, it would never be a sandwich. I would, however, happily go to East Bay Deli (my favorite Charleston deli) all the time, typically getting the Reuben. But… I would think about Francisco.
The next time where I wound up thinking about sandwiches a lot was probably Prototype. After nuke school, which is classroom stuff, comes Prototype. “Prototype” has long been a misnomer, but it is where you spend six months operating a real nuclear reactor. Very little of the second half of that last sentence is true, but the important part here is that Prototype (in Charleston anyway) has a very large building in which you spend much of your time. I spent a total of eight months at Prototype on rotating shift work with 12-hour shifts, largely unmoored from rational time or normal conventions. This building is no ordinary building. It is a half mile away from a weapons loading dock that is rated to have I think half a kiloton of explosives on it, or something like that, and so the building is built to withstand the blast from half a kiloton of high explosive from a half mile away.
This renders the building in a very literal way fortress-like. It is large, it is beige, and it is windowless. You arrive and after parking your car trek you to this government fortress and to enter you heave open these heavy not-quite-blast doors that lead to a small lobby. Forward through the lobby is the building proper. Once you enter through these doors for your shift you are not supposed to leave for twelve hours. Like I said, I usually packed lunch, but not everyone did, and I didn’t always. So, how did they feed us?
If you ever enter the building, the answer will be obvious. Every single day as you show up for your shift, lugging your nuclear-strained propium to this ominous citadel, dragging open the weighted gates, it’s the first thing you smell, and on your way out, as you ooze your mashed lucidity back to your car, it’s the last thing you smell, the smell which is to me one of the most recognizable smells in all of these blessed United States: the smell of a Subway sandwich shop.
That’s right, at Prototype in Charleston right inside the building the only option to obtain anything resembling nourishment during your many many many hours there is Subway. It’s open very nearly 24/7, closed I think only on Christmas and New Year’s. Your only respite from the world of neutrons and pipes is the jarring green and yellow color scheme of the sandwich-based universe that is Subway. I ate a lot of breakfast sandwiches while I was at Prototype. It was the only solid excuse for a break. I didn’t really mind at all. But for years, and even somewhat to this day, when I walk by the open doors of a Subway, catching just a hint of that smell, I get shivers.
But what is the moral of this story, a story very loosely held together with the thread of sandwiches? I made an egg salad sandwich yesterday. It’s pictured up top. It wasn’t perfect, but I thought it was pretty good. It had olives. And that, my friend, is the story I came here to tell.
The prompt for this post is that yesterday, as I am writing this (you won’t see it until later), I received the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. My super amazing girlfriend pointed out that it was the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. The reason it is causing me some internal angst is that I only got it because I am a veteran.
Here in Connecticut, they’re deciding vaccine eligibility (at least at the time of this writing, which is gonna be the caveat for this whole post) based purely on age, which I think is probably the best way to go about it. Given my youth and vigor, that would have made me eligible May 3rd at the earliest (at least until President Biden bumped up the time table slightly). However, turns out the Connecticut VA was providing vaccines for any veteran enrolled for health care, regardless of age.
I fretted about whether or not to go get it. I’m very enthusiastic about vaccines in general, and will take just about any I can get. However, during this particular vaccination drive we’ve seen wild disparities in access to the vaccine. As usual, people with money and resources have been able to get vaccines no problem while marginalized communities (I gotta figure out less sanitized language for those groups) have been turned away and maligned despite being eligible. So it felt very weird to me to be able to just waltz in yesterday and get it without even waiting in line.
The level of privilege we afford to veterans in this country is absolutely wild and it has always seemed that way to me. The photo at the top is me as a young Midshipman and it all started there. Even back then I was thanked pretty constantly for my service, despite never ever actually done anything besides go to school. I went to the Naval Academy from 2007-2011, so that was still in the era when 9/11 was a fresh memory and anyone tangentially related to the military got all sorts of free stuff. I think every single one of us felt weird about the whole thing, but I mentally justified my free tickets to Busch Gardens by imagining that one day I would actually do something.
Now, post my military service, I constantly wonder what was so special at military service at all. This hedging might be moot, since no one ever reads this blog, but I know I lived a very particular brand of military life. I never had to face down an enemy trying to shoot me and all my friends, nor did I ever feel that I was in real danger anytime during my service. I was also an officer, which meant that not only did I get eggs to order even when our ship was on a “mission vital to national security” (as the parlance goes), but that I also got to jump right to the front of the waffle line. Even given that, whenever I am afforded a privilege like getting to jump the vaccine line, I’m forced to wonder why I’m so special for this job I used to do.
Military life in many many ways was not a whole lot of fun. We spent a lot of time out at sea away from the world, we worked constantly, and there were a lot of different ways it was potentially dangerous. But is any of that all that special? Long-haul truckers spend a huge amount of time away from their families, but they don’t get the GI bill. Amazon warehouse workers are worked so hard they’re barely allowed to pee, but they don’t get discounts all over the place. And there are tons of dangerous jobs in the world, like loggers and septic tank servicers, but those people don’t get preferentially hired for government jobs and contracts.
I wonder what effect all the privilege granted to veterans has on both them, and currently serving military members. There is plenty of reason to provide veterans with extra resources when you consider that, as a group, veterans can have higher rates of homelessness and suicide than non-veterans (to caveat the other way, I also worry about even bringing that up, because there is another negative stereotype of veterans that they’re unstable and PTSD-riddled, which isn’t true either). My specific worry is that providing all this privilege to veterans is a way to avoid looking at the root cause of many of the problems that military members and veterans face.
The above meme caught my eye early in the pandemic. Even outside a pandemic scenario, I really hate martial metaphors in any discussion that doesn’t directly tie to actual warfighting, and even then I don’t like a lot of the terminology. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was especially queasy about all the “front line” language, and it wasn’t until I saw that meme that I really figured out why. The meme criticizes equating health workers with soldiers because it implies a certain number of health workers are going to die and that’s just something we should accept, instead of it being something avoidable.
In the same way, I think we need to interrogate how all the hero worship of veterans and the military implies about what we expect them to put up with. Another friend of mine from the Navy visited me the other weekend, and we were swapping sea stories when she told me that they recently figured out only at the last minute that one of the sailors she supervised had been planning to murder his entire chain of command (including her) and kill himself on his last day at work. This is a very normal story, actually. One night when I was on duty our topside watchstander (who was armed with a handgun) was talking about wanting to kill himself. I did not handle this situation well (no one was harmed in the end), but frankly it was just like, one of the many annoying things that happened that night. We had a number of suicidal sailors, and like my friend a sailor that I supervised who was armed seriously threatened to shoot a number of people. This event was too mundane for anyone to even tell me directly; I found out about it when it was mentioned in passing in the wardroom.
Suicide is the extreme end of the scale, but there are a whole lot of things that people in the military are just expected to put up with and are somehow considered just the normal and perfectly fine way of going about things. I think because we view military members as heroes that are making a sacrifice, and who will gain benefits for life for these sacrifices, we have no real motivation to actually make their life better. Or, at least, it keeps us from conceptualizing a world where we should do that. Every time I think about the terrible parts of Navy life, I think about the sailors on merchant ships, who do stunningly similar jobs to sailors in the Navy but somehow can also get months off every year just as a matter of course.
There are a whole lot of other things I’m not going to be able to eloquently weave in here that should also be interrogated on this subject (race and class are the obvious ones, but other things too). I think the progressive dream for America is in fact currently being implemented, at least in many ways, albeit it only within the confines of the veteran community. If the progressive dream is good, then it must be good that it is at least being partially implemented, right? But since it is framed as something that veterans “deserve” for their “sacrifice,” I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to work on making military service less of a sacrifice, or more importantly really remember why we granted veterans these privileges in the first place (veterans deserve a lot of things, but since when has what people deserve ever been a basis for governance in the United States?). Until we do the work of figuring out as a nation why we venerate veterans so highly, and importantly what effect and implications that has for every other American, I don’t know if we’ll be able to judge whether it’s more toxic than good.
Be forewarned! Today’s post is largely me whining. I think there may be a point to my whining, but that is largely irrelevant; I gotta get a post out and this is the only thing I’ve been really thinking about. What am I whining about? I am whining that the world has not heeded all the wonderfully amazing advice I gave in my post Zoom Pedagogy.
As you are probably well aware, unless you are from the future and haven’t learned about it in school yet (or I guess a time traveler from the past just getting their bearings and for some reason using my blog to do it), there is a pandemic on and that has forced many schools, including the one I am currently going to (Yale, nbd) to shift to largely or entirely to remote classes. I am not fundamentally particularly upset about this. I would prefer that classes be in-person and that we could all jostle together and discuss deep thoughts while huddled around tables (or whatever it is we used to do here at Yale, it all seems so long ago now), but it’s vastly better we take measures so that we don’t all die and/or suffer the long-term consequences of COVID. And also while this isn’t the Yale experience I was expecting, I didn’t actually know what to expect anyways before I came to Yale, and I am taking it all in stride as an experience that isn’t necessarily better or worse, but just different. I’ve also gotten very used to not having to run around campus to get to my classes and can instead just open up a new browser tab to get to my next class and being remote makes it much easier to play Pokémon during class. This is not really the point I am trying to make!
What I am here to whine about is the fact that we are somehow not all phenomenal at teaching online. Here at Yale, we have recently begun the spring semester. It will be my second-and-a-half semester of taking online classes (half of the Spring 2020 semester, all of Fall 2020 semester, and now Spring 2021 semester), and I gotta say, we don’t seem to have gotten any better at this. When all of our classes suddenly went online over Spring Break last year, I was very sympathetic to teachers that were struggling to make the transition to online. Teaching online is a very different beast than teaching in a classroom, and it was a hurdle that they were not expecting and is not easy to overcome anyways. But I feel that whatever consensus method we had achieved by about late April last year is just what we’ve been doing ever since.
And lemme tell ya it is not great! That last sentence lacks nuance, so let me put some in. There is a lot of variability in the quality of classes, which comes down to both the fact that some classes lend themselves to the format more, and also a difference in ability between teachers. But as far as I can tell there does not seem to have been any concerted effort to figure out the best way to teach an online class and disseminate that among all the professors. Given that literally every professor here at Yale is taking a stab at the online thing, you’d think it would be a great opportunity to very quickly identify the best practices and the ideas that work and make sure literally everyone knows about them. I don’t seen any evidence of that happening.
I’m getting increasingly frustrated at the little things. I actually have one “hybrid” class, where I am attending in-person (masks, testing, social distancing, all that), but some people are online. The first day of class, the professor was somewhat flummoxed because he had intended to use a white board to keep notes but hadn’t figured out an elegant way to let the online students see the board as well. Then, he wound up walking around holding a desktop microphone because the online students couldn’t hear him. These are little things, and my condemnation here might be a bit harsh, but on the other hand, how do we not have something like a standard package for all of this? That is, as soon as a professor decides they’re gonna teach a hybrid class, why does Yale not have myriad resources that tell them exactly how to do it? “Ah, hybrid class I see. Here is your lapel mic! Were you planning on using a white board? Excellent, here is what we have found is the best way to go about doing that. You’re going to be splitting the students up into groups occasionally? Yes, that is a great learning tool, other professors have found a lot of success using this method…” Why do we have every professor reinventing the wheel for themselves?
There are larger problems as well. My most frustrating experience this semester has been my Spanish class. Again, here I have a lot of sympathy. I struggle to imagine how you could do a really effective online language class with 15 people in it, like we have. If there is a way, however, the Yale Spanish department has not figured it out. One of my biggest frustrations is their decision to go from five days a week to three days a week. When we were in-person, and then last spring when we suddenly went online, we had class for 50 minutes five days a week. Then, in the fall, and now again this spring, they have decided to teach only three days a week for reasons that are mysterious to me. This hasn’t been an unpopular move; it’s kinda nice to free up that block of time on Tuesday and Thursday. However, they still expect the students to do the same amount of work to the same standard. This seems ridiculous to me. If you operate under the belief that teachers add something to a class, then having less time with a teacher is going to make that class less effective. I have to imagine this is especially true in a language course. But instead of cutting out 40% of the work to go along with cutting out 40% of the teaching time, the students are just supposed to do the lessons on their own twice a week. I have found it difficult to teach myself Spanish, which is not surprising, because I do not speak Spanish.
Last Spring, when we all suddenly went to online classes, the school made a huge effort to acknowledge that it was a difficult transition. I realize they were also responding to the pandemic in general, but students were given a lot of leeway in how they managed to achieve the requirements of the course. Professors were told to be very generous with extensions and allowing for Temporary Incompletes with the classes. Every student could change their classes to pass/fail with no questions asked up until the very last day of class. As soon as fall semester hit, however, I guess it was decided that This Is Just What We Do Now, and all that extra leeway was taken away. I understand the need to keep a rigorous standard when it comes to student work, but on the other hand I don’t see that same rigor being applied from above to make sure the classes are effective in the online format. I am floored that a year into online school we all aren’t phenomenal at it, because I feel like we could have been. Where are the numerous online thinkpieces about effective online teaching? Where are the Wikis to cover every conceivable online teaching scenario? Where are the virtual conferences about Zoom pedagogy? Am I just missing them? My super amazing girlfriend, who has thought deeply about education for years, figures that the answer is research universities like Yale just don’t actually care about teaching quality. Let’s hope she’s wrong.
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