Quick Hit: From the Files of “You Just Can’t Win”

As I was reading the Eric Schlosser book Command and Control this summer, I came across the unusual story of a Cuban citizen named Eduardo Guerra Jimenez.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Eduardo Guerra Jimenez with Mug Shots
He’s still in Cuba, Probably. (from FBI dot gov)

In 1969, he flew a Soviet built MiG jet from Cuba to Florida, landing at Homestead Airfare Base. Schlosser was mainly interested in this event as an illustration of how poorly prepared and trained the Air Force has been at various times throughout history – Jimenez landed the plane not far from Air Force One, which had just brought President Richard Nixon to town and was refueling. No alarms sounded, no one saw the MiG on radar (apparently, he made the entire journey flying quite low over the ocean’s surface), and no one seemed to notice Jimenez’s arrival. But this story also points to other important issues in the US that are still pertinent, mainly those of immigration, extradition, and the war on drugs.

When Jimenez arrived in the US, he was initially hailed as a political dissident, although he later admitted he came to the US more for “personal reasons” having to do with a recent breakup rather than political reasons. Only in his mid-20s and having served in the Cuban military, Jimenez was ready to start a new life as a pilot in the US, but no airline would contact or hire him.. Later, he told The New York Times that although “the United States Government had provided him with a total of $4,000 during his first months in this country, he had never been able to find a ‘permanent, decent job’.” He did a series of jobs from dish washer to factory work to try and support himself and his dog, but ultimately couldn’t make ends meet. So he starting selling marijuana and got arrested by NYC cops in 1971. He maintained that he never sold harder drugs, only marijuana, and the charges against him were dropped because the police search that turned up the weed was deemed illegal.

Eventually, the lack of opportunity for Jimenez in the Land of Opportunity became too much for him to handle. In 1979, he hijacked a Delta flight to Fort Lauderdale and diverted it to Havana, Cuba. He surrendered to Cuban authorities once there. No one was hurt during the hijacking. The US decided not to seek extradition in 1979, but the FBI apparently still considers him a dangerous terrorist, to be considered armed and dangerous. Jimenez’s status remains unknown to the US, as far as I can tell.

This story just strikes me as a profoundly sad one – a young man risked everything to come to the US and despite years of struggle, ultimately made the equally risky choice to go back to his home country which he had once found impossible to live in. And because of our lack of resources, Jimenez sold marijuana to get by. And then we took even that away from him. How much better might his life have been had we helped him get meaningful work and find community?

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/1971/08/22/archives/cuban-pilot-who-flew-mig17-here-in-1969-is-acquitted-of-marijuana.html

https://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/13/archives/us-believes-hijacker-in-custody-in-havana-is-pilot-who-fled-cuba.html

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White People: We Don’t Need to be Everywhere

Classic red & white street sign reading "DO NOT ENTER"
To my fellow whites:

This is a post directed at fellow white people – I want to talk a little bit about spaces created expressly for people of color (POC), and why we need to stuff any objections to these kinds of spaces. I know this is a tall order. After all, as white persons, we are pretty much able to go anywhere we want without worrying about racial harassment or police violence. And yet, that is precisely why we need to be understanding, sensitive, and even affirming of spaces that deliberately exclude white folks: because we don’t know what’s it’s like to exist in US society without this privilege of movement.

Before I jump in here let me make the following obvious disclaimer: I know white people can be victims of violence (particularly gun violence, which happens daily), and can thus be afraid of certain spaces. But, I think we both know that’s not relevant to this particular discussion, so let’s move on.

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Daily Writing Achievement Unlocked!

I didn’t make this goal public, but last weekend I determined that I would write 5 blog posts this week, one each day, to jump start my writing habits for the summer. And while making the 5th blog post a reflection on this week is clearly a bit of a cheat, I am still celebrating reaching this goal. For a long time, I was very good at blogging every week, but work projects and general life slowed me down so much that I really put the blog on the back burner. I am hoping that with the start of the new school year in the fall, that I can be better at writing more often, and more effectively integrate my blog writing and other work.

I’ve also been thinking about what ideas I have that could be pitched to general audience outlets, and thought that some blog practice would help me think through ideas for pitches, but truthfully…I can’t think of anything. Yet. Also, I know I am something of a wordy writer and I need to find a bit more pizazz in my style if I ever want to interest non-academics in anything I have to say. So part of this week was about trying to focus a bit on that aspect of my writing. I don’t think I’ve cracked this particular problem, but I am going to keep working at it. (I’m sure that with fewer adverbs, fewer emdashes, and more active verbs, my writing would instantly improve.)

So at the end of this week of blogging, I feel like I succeeded at what I set out to do, even if I didn’t magically become the more versatile writer I hope to ultimately become. Practice still has benefits, even if it’s more like investments than instant win scratch offs.

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#CiteBlackWomen

As an academic, citations are a major part of my work and take up a significant amount of my writing time. There are different styles to adhere to depending on the publication venue for the work, checks and double checks to be made regarding page numbers and author names, and carefully considering how much to direct quote, how much to paraphrase, etc. Citations are work! But for a long time, I never considered the political and social impacts of the practice of citation. Who and what you cite is important, after all. What scholars are you relying on to support your argument? Whose arguments are you pushing back on? What texts represent the best examples for your analysis? These questions reveal that we tend to think of citations as a reflection of the “quality” of our work. In other words, we cite those scholars and texts which we think will make us look good and enhance our credibility. But we ought to think in the other direction, as well: who can we cite in order to bring attention to their work? How can we shine a light on the scholarship and art of others so that there is a reciprocal relationship between our work and theirs? Enter the philosophy and praxis of Cite Black Women, a movement that has encouraged me to think more carefully about citational politics.

girl reading book; painting with clean white name logo
Reading Toni Morrison’s _The Bluest Eye_

The organization formally got started in 2017, with t-shirts that said “cite black women” and has grown to include social media accounts, a hashtag, a website, and a fantastic podcast. According to citeblackwomencollective.org, the purpose of the movement is simple: “to motivate everyone, but particularly academics, to critically reflect on their everyday practices of citation and start to consciously question how they can  incorporate black women into the CORE of their work.”

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What’s a Process? Let’s Experiment.

What is your process for creating whatever it is that you create? What’s my process? Truthfully, I have no clear idea, which might be why I struggle with productivity so much in my career. (Teaching a 4-4 load as a contingent faculty may actually have more to do with it, but that’s a blog for another day.) When I teach writing-specific courses or just writing lessons in a literature course, I don’t talk too much about process, except to say that everyone has their own. Do you like outlining? Great, do that. Hate it? Okay, just starting writing whenever you’re ready. This may sound haphazard, but it’s not a great idea to force students into a process they don’t like, just because it might work for you, or because the writing textbook suggests it. But how do we learn best practices? Where can we find practical advice or inspiration? I’m glad you asked, because there’s a new podcast for that!

Podcast Art for "The Art of Process" with Aimee Mann & Ted Leo - black & white sketch of woman with long blonde hair & glasses, & a man with brown hair
I like Aimee’s glasses here

“The Art of Process with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo” started up on the Maximum Fun podcast network earlier this year, and I was a bit disinterested at first. I thought it sounded like a show in which smart, successful people just talked about how great they were so that I could then feel bad about myself. It’s not that.

Mann and Leo are longtime friends and music legends (especially Aimee Mann, in my personal opinion) and they have a relaxed approach to interviewing artists of all kinds and talking about how they get things done. The conversations are not strictly about success, but about failure and frustration, as well.

The most recent episode with Emily Nussbaum has been really enlightening for me. I sometimes consider myself a writer, so hearing Nussbaum discuss her inability to get a column exactly the way she likes it in less than 3 drafts was heartening. The first interview on the podcast was with Wyatt Cenac, who discussed his process of writing comedy on paper, in longhand, and why that is the most effective way for him to write jokes. Other guests have included Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe, and former speechwriter for Al Gore, Eli Attie. In many ways, these conversations demystify the process of art and creation, which is essentially the mission of the show – to investigate how creative people go about the work of creation. I’ve enjoyed it so far, and I’m hoping to get a bit more inspired with my own writing going forward. For now, though, I’m going to try a writing exercise inspired by something Emily Nussbaum said in her interview.

Nussbaum said she writes columns of 2 lengths at The New Yorker: 1350 words and 1650 words. She also said that 1350 words can really only support 1 – 1.5 ideas, and the 1650 words can handle 2 -3 ideas at most. I think, like her, I tend to get off topic and find new ideas while I am writing that then get stuck in the piece, whether it was part of my original idea or not. That can sometimes work in longer (MUCH longer) academic writing, but as I blog and look toward writing for a more general audience, I think it’s good practice to work on more focused writing with fewer ideas. In fact, Nussbaum, a one-time graduate student in poetry herself, says in the interview that “the way that you write as an academic is a trap, if you want to communicate with people more broadly.” Whew! I felt that deeply.

So I am going to try to make my next few blog posts around 1350 words, and force myself to stick to 1 idea (or 1.5). This already sounds hard, but I think it could be a great, frustrating challenge. And who knows? Maybe I will learn a bit more about my own process – or perhaps a new process will emerge and lead to positive changes in my writing. But first, let’s give it a try.

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Terrace House & the Promise to Work Hard

White and Green Logo with "Terrace House" in black print, and Japanese translation below.
It’s quietly captivating

I’ve been somewhat captivated by the Japanese reality show Terrace House over the past year or so, and its popularity here in the US seems to keep growing. Since a few of the seasons dropped to US Netflix, lots of media coverage has discussed the endlessly mundane and yet fascinating ups and downs of the 6 housemates who live together in a beautiful house provided by the show.

While this description sounds like a lot like The Real World or Big Brother, in fact Terrace House is intensely different. It separates itself with a few specific changes to the typical US style reality show. Cast members come and go as they please, often working their part time jobs and visiting family, and they can choose when to leave the show entirely. Over the course of a season, cast members will rotate in and out several times. Each episode is also broken up into small narrative chunks interspersed with a group of celebrities who function as commentator on the action. Like a comedic Greek chorus, they stand in for the viewer and dissect everything that happens, poking fun, making predictions, and generally being petty viewers. It’s by far one of the biggest appeals of the show.

Yet the aspect that perhaps distinguishes Terrace House from nearly every other reality show is its quiet display of the mundane in addition to the larger peaks and valleys of romance and friendship that develop among that house members. The show doesn’t shy away from the back and forth of members making plans to go out, or going shopping to get ingredients for dinner. One scene from the season “Boys and Girls in the City” in 2016 was literally one cast member walking into the living to find another one studying, the two discussing where the AC controls were, and then saying goodbye. Perhaps not riveting, but these smaller interactions give the viewer a sensation of deeper relationships and character development that is nearly cinematic. By sitting through these (very) small moments, the house members reveal themselves over time in ways that feel more satisfying than simply watching them yell at one another. One way these relationships develop is through peer motivation and the encouragement to “work hard.”

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Sending Congress Underground

A turquoise colored book cover for Schlosser's Command & Control. It has lines drawings of missiles and illustrations of redacted documents decorating it.
A really, really great read!

Did you know that there used to be a giant underground installation that was meant to house all of Congress – the Senate and the House – in the event of a likely Soviet nuclear attack? It was housed underneath the Greenbrier hotel and resort in White Sulphur Springs, WV. I read about it in Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.

This ridiculous underground structure was built in the early 1960s, peak “bunker” era for the United States. We tend to think of the bunker panic of the 1950s and 1960s as a bit silly, especially since we now know that the Soviet Union had nowhere near the weapons capabilities we were told they did during the Cold War. But as Schlosser points out, nuclear annihilation was assumed to be the next step after the US used atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the US stockpiled and developed even more destructive weapons, the USSR was trying to do the same. The US military and government were so concerned about future world wars that several plans for dropping hundreds of nukes on the Russian republic itself were drawn up. Add to these conceptual fears the very real Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and perhaps we shouldn’t look back with such disdain on the bunker builders – death from above (which is still not totally impossible for us today) was an everyday worry.

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Enough with the Balloons, Already!

Image of a multi colored balloon release into a blue sky
It’s not pretty, it’s destructive!

An article about the preparations for this year’s Indianapolis 500 race caught my eye last week. In the story, Indy Star reporters check the claim made by the organizers that the balloons they release every year to celebrate the event are biodegradable and thus pose no threat to the environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reporters found this claim to be false. At the end of their tests, “all of the balloons were still well enough preserved to pose the types of risks feared by wildlife officials.” In other words, the balloons aren’t really biodegradable, and even if they were, they are still dangerous for wildlife.

Balloon releases have been a pet peeve of mine for a long time – it’s just sanctioned littering, except the trash doesn’t clutter up the area where the balloons are released. Instead, some other community, whether human or animal, has to deal with the (literal) fallout. It is truly one of the most environmentally irresponsible things we can do, and it is in no way a crucial component of life here on earth. No one dies if you don’t release hundreds of balloons into the atmosphere, but wildlife will die when your sky trash falls back to earth. From the article: “Emma Nelson, a biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that some species, including sea turtles, mistake debris from balloons and plastic bags for food. The animals either suffocate to death or starve with a belly full of plastic.”

In the months leading up to the Indy 500, a billboard appeared in Indianapolis about a mile from the Speedway that said “BALLOONS POLLUTE AND KILL. #StopLitteringIMS BalloonsBlow.org.” The media company that owns the billboard took it down early, supposedly due to pressure from the Speedway organization, although a spokesperson denied this. The media company, Outfront, claimed the billboard mistakenly slipped by them and should not have been put up because it was “an attack ad.” Apparently, attacking pollution is too bold a stance for outdoor advertising.

There was one other element to this story that I found interesting, in the article about the balloon testing: “Even the Balloon Council, which represents the industry, changed its stance on balloon releases last year from neutral to opposed. The group now recommends that balloons be weighted or tied down, and then popped and disposed of after they’re used.” Wait, what? There’s a “Balloon Council”?

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Organizational Cultures – a Matter of Life and Death Part II

For Part I, read here

Radiation Warning Symbol in Black & Yellow
Image by Catalania Catalino from Pixabay

Last time, I was discussing the lessons that could be learned and applied from organizational problems at NASA and its contractors which led to the Challenger (and Columbia) disaster. This post builds off of some of those same lessons, but I want to talk about nuclear power and the ways organizational failures parallel those at NASA.

There have not been very many nuclear power plant disasters since nuclear power became possible in the post-WWII period, but the disasters which have occurred were pretty catastrophic. This is one argument against the use of nuclear power; despite its ability to provide “clean” burning power (unlike fossil fuels, for example), any accidents tend to be extremely bad, both for humans and the environment. In the very compelling book, Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters from the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima, James Mahaffey notes the relatively few deaths that have occurred as a result of a nuclear power accident in the United States. There have been deaths of Americans, some during the early nuclear reactor concept testing years and others in an accident in Idaho, but generally speaking, nuclear power has been fairly safe, especially when compared to the human costs of mining for coal or the environmental degradation of natural gas fracking. And yet, there have been several nuclear catastrophes that put the entire concept of nuclear power into question – but most of these catastrophes can be blamed on organizational failures.

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Organizational Cultures – a Matter of Life & Death Part I

Shuttle Discovery launch Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

For a few years, I’ve been interested in the formation, sustaining, and analysis of organizational culture. This refers to the ways in which organizations – be they corporations, universities, government agencies, charities, etc – operate. This operation necessarily includes both official guidelines and behaviors, such as training manuals, employee workspaces, emergency plans, as well as unofficial procedures, such as employee communication habits. Sometimes these phenomena are collectively referred to as “corporate culture,” a misleading name that nonetheless captures the significance of both the letter and spirit of the “law” in any organization. At best, a functioning culture can create a positive environment for workers and theoretically lead to better products/events/services. At worst, a non-functioning culture creates both a negative employee environment and can potentially result in disaster. There are two fields which have captured my attention in this regard: the space shuttle program at NASA and nuclear power plants. Both fields emphasize technical expertise and process as keys to the safety of their work, but both fields have also proven to be rife with the kinds of culture that can lead to real tragedy.

I became interested in this after reading Diane Vaughan’s 1996 book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. It is a fascinating analysis of the problems within NASA’s organizational and technical processes that ultimately led to the tragedy that was the Challenger shuttle accident. Vaughan’s thesis is that the accident was the direct result of many smaller issues that caused the technicians at both NASA and the associated shuttle contractors, most notably Morton-Thiokol, to downplay the potential for errors in the preparation to launch. There are two aspects of her argument that I find particularly fascinating and which hold lessons for other organizations, including academic ones.

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