Cartoon Image of Justin Andersun

Foodtruckers

20 July 2015

The modern man is over-concerned with identity. It is important to a sense. Being aware of one’s socio-economic status, race, sexuality, religion, and the intersection of those identities is important for understanding issues in the world and how conflicts arise and interactions are made.

 

But personal identities have gotten out of hand. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the Twitter/Tumblr/etc. bio with the description “writer, (blank) aficionado, (blank) activist”. Note the all lowercase. Note the amount of commas, titles, varying adjectives. We’re striving so hard to stick our heads above the masses. To stand out and be somebody and show the world how different we are.

 

Foodtruckers are what I’d like to call the popular group of people who exert great effort to stay on top of trends, embrace the counterculture that is on the verge of mainstream, and think eating out of overpriced foodtrucks is a must when visiting Portland. To avoid turning this into a Buzzfeed article about “yuccies” or some other brand of cookie-cutter Millennial who refuses to believe they’re from a cookie-cutter, let me say this: there is nothing wrong with foodtrucks or even the people who like foodtrucks. The problem is that people spend too much time defining themselves by their interests for others to see than defining themselves by the disciplined effort exerted into these interests that would allow them to become interesting people. Don’t over-identify with being a painter when you spend <1 hours a week actually painting. This tendency leaves not only a stain on a generation, but our self-absorption blinds us from the very important role identity has to play.

 

Understanding oneself is essential to understanding others. Through understanding others, change can occur. But when we become obsessed with personal identity and use our knowledge of other people for the sole purpose of defining ourselves, we become self-absorbed. With a world of self-concerned people constantly rewriting their life stories, privilege is squandered and abused, rather than employed to make a difference.

Rugged Education

19 July 2015

Educational reform is a hot topic in politics. Yet little seems to happen. The current state of the public education system is largely college-prep. Entire courses are dedicated to standardized testing and advanced science, mathematics, and literature. We’re enabling a strong white-collar workforce, but we’re cultivating a society incapable of basic competency. That’s bad.

 

So I open a new discussion for the political theatre: rugged education.

 

K – 12 public education could benefit from a more rugged curriculum that focuses not strictly on challenging academic subjects, but on directly applicable skills and understanding. This proposal stems from a belief that publicly-available education should prepare all citizens to be informed and capable members of society. For instance, woodworking and home economics could replace biology or pre-calculus as required courses. These more hands-on and directly applicable subject areas could provide more benefit for people under the age of eighteen. For this reason, I propose the following curriculum:

 

Construction

Whether its basketweaving or small engine repair, all people should be given the opportunity to learn the basics of a craft. In this subject, students could learn about woodworking, plumbing, welding, sewing, or a variety of other physically-constructive trades. With a perfunctory understanding of these skills, students could be more confident in pursuing a trade upon graduation or making basic repairs on their property.

 

Gastronomy

Healthy diets are becoming increasingly mainstream, and most of these movements embrace organic and small-scale farming. Pupils would learn the basics of gardening and plant care as well as how to care for and raise animals. In addition to growing food, students would also learn techniques for cooking and baking.

 

Bureaucracy

This subject may be the most dull, but it could be the most beneficial (even lifesaving) for contemporary citizens. Coursework would educate pupils on navigating paperwork—from reading online content to filing taxes, leasing an apartment, understanding insurance, and saving and investing money.

 

Etiquette

Everyone has heard “chivalry is dead.” Manners, tactfulness, and the ability to hold an interesting face-to-face conversation has dwindled. The coursework and structure of this subject would be basically teach pupils how to survive happy hour. They’d learn about gift-giving customs, event management, vocal tonality, how to read people, communication, and basic psychology and sociology. There are few programs that exist to foster these essential people skills. A good example is the Art of Charm.

 

Literature & History

Without history, we’re doomed to repeat it. All citizens should be given the tools to be literate and informed. In this subject, students would read from a wide zeitgeist of classic and contemporary literature, blogs, and news articles to understand culture, history, and politics. Pupils could learn professional and academic writing, so they can later continue self- or higher-education in the future.

 

Science

This is an abbreviated version of STEM. Through hands-on labs, students would learn how to apply algebra and statistics to both hard and soft sciences; such as chemistry, physics, and computer technology. Intended to spark their curiosity and ability to problem-solve, this coursework would enable to students to pursue personal research or higher-education in a more grounded manner.

 

Art

Creative expression is important for everyone, as a means of pleasure and reflection. Whether it’s painting, music, theatre, or graphic design, all citizens of the United States should have the opportunity to explore this during their childhood and adolescent education.

 

Physical Education

Whether through organized sports or personal regiment, a subject dedicated to cultivating physical well-being and strength could have countless benefits on today’s citizens. Teaching the fundamentals of weight training, cardio, and even yoga could benefit many. In addition, providing martial arts training in a public institution could help build confidence for young people.

 

With this curriculum, all citizens could receive requisite knowledge to be informed, knowledgeable and skilled in all areas of their lives. An education that teaches not only professional collaboration but self-reliance is needed. This education system would target the breadth of education and expose pupils to a variety of industries and interests so they could spend their adult lives honing the depth of one area, creating a citizenship of T-shaped individuals.

Human Quintessence

7 July 2015

A diploma mill has decreed upon me all the rights and privileges of a B.S. degree. That means I’m officially educated in “Information.” It was a new program at the University of Michigan, and I was a member of the first graduating class. The curriculum was designed to cover the intersection between people, information, and technology. As such, I should be well-versed in human-computer interaction. Well…

 

. . .

 

After being accepted into the university, I took some tests and wrote an essay to determine my placement in first-year courses. The essay was to revolve around the ideas discussed in an Atlantic article by Brian Christian. The article was a reflection on the Turing Test—an annual competition between supercomputers and humans. Judges would communicate with humans and computers, and the test determined how “human” each party could be through language. The most human of computers would pass the test.

 

Christian, a member of the human party, claimed that humanity is defined by our ability to connect and communicate in interesting ways. The best humans and computers didn’t have perfect spelling or grammar and didn’t rely on formulaic pleasantries. They conveyed more than the average person by means that were seemingly unteachable. Essentially: language is the human quintessence.

 

So upon entering college, I believed that humankind is unique because humankind has sophisticated language. We speaks countless tongues and dialects and convey abstract thought through intangible means yet craft concrete change. It was impressive and beautiful. I studied Latin and English and spent personal time honing my language. This was the most human I could be.

 

But, as any good institution should do, the university pushed me to take a breadth of courses, most unrelated to language. Astrobiology, anthropology, digital communities, graphic design, calculus, and programming contributed to my broad curriculum. The depth of these fields was incredible, and the combined work of generations led to groundbreaking changes on multiple fronts. Without the transfer of knowledge, the information would have been lost.

 

Language was often the tool to achieving these milestones, as written text conveyed ideas across generations. But I came to realize it may not be the defining trait of humanity. Birds chirped to one another. Dogs could communicate with scent and sound. Many life-forms use language.

 

As I explored computer science and technology, I thought creation was the great human activity. The ability to plan and build and bring things to life must be our purpose. Yet again, I was wrong. We created computers to do work we either didn’t want to do or just do more efficiently. Some primates could use tools to make their lives easier, so this isn’t uniquely human.

 

. . .

 

For the latter half of college, I dated a linguist. Most of her work with language involved breaking sounds into quantifiable parts. It was fascinating and highly complex. It takes much human effort, but we are enabling computers to process natural language. Our ability to not only create a machine but to teach it sophisticated language seemed so human. Perhaps education itself is something that is distinctly human?

 

I toyed with the idea of pursuing education as a career. Passing on knowledge and wisdom to coming generations was noble and exciting. It’s a great field, but education for its own sake couldn’t be the driving force of humanity. Like language, it’s a sophisticated method of conveying ideas. Without a purpose, though, it cannot be the human quintessence. It felt close nonetheless.

 

Most of my education at the university had occurred outside the classroom. Several jobs, internships, and student organizations, taught me a good deal. Experiencing the impact of social identities, the power of leadership, and tenderness of human interaction helped me understand that humankind is both boringly simple and frustratingly complex. On its own, humankind is no different from any form of life: a collection of chemicals living on a sphere that revolves about another sphere. But given some direction, great things can occur.

 

. . .

 

Upon leaving Michigan, I hope to have left it better than I found it—it certainly has done that to me. For me, inventiveness and creativity were means to building many things—companies, student organizations, and works of art—and leaving them in good hands required sufficient education and language. These are great tools. But they aren’t the quintessence. What I’ve learned is that improvement—of ourselves, of the race, and of our world—is the human spirit. Not in a 1950s “progress” sort of way—not of mowing down forests to build puritan gardens or expedite sales, etc.—but that humans can discover underlying problems and work to combat them to improve their conditions and the state of the world. We can educate each other so that we may accomplish more as a whole. That is the human quintessence.

 

And when that spirit is aided with greater tools, more is possible. Human-computer interaction is a young field concerned with this relationship. While we have much to learn about the fruits of this labor, we can be assured that this man-machine hybrid is inline with our purpose. It will bring us to new places.

 

And I like new places.

Social Media Mortuaries

29 June 2015

What happens when Facebook has more dead users than living? Should we include Twitter handles in our wills? Does digital death deserve a tombstone?

 

There was a funny picture posted on The Verge concerning the quantified self after death. Social network stats and other numbers tell much about contemporary people. But can we be diminished to our number of tweets, Tinder connections, and Reddit karma?

 

For those unfamiliar, the quantified self is a trend that seeks to create self-tracking tools and help people find meaning in their personal data. It’s becoming popular in health and finance realms; with wearable tech like FitBit, money management applications like Mint, and dozens of other products and services.

 

The quantified self is interesting. It temporarily turned into an obsession for me. I’ve externalized some of my mind onto digital platforms—recording books I’ve read, movies and TV shows that have influenced me, philosophies I’ve grown to adopt, categorizing life events and key experiences, and the logging of my possessions former and current. It’s an ongoing project that helps me reflect. Of course, I’m not that important—most individuals aren’t—but I like to record things and think that the quantified self can provide a form of longevity that prior technologies have not enabled over human history. While the quantified self can seem extremely egotistic (to an extent, it is), I like to think that it supports the public good. I view it as the externalized mind. By making your mind available to others, you are providing them with resources that may be beneficial. The logistics of this are fuzzy, but I believe knowledge transfer, both in industry and personal matters, is the foundation of civilization. Libraries were founded under this ideal.

 

With the Internet pulling information from innumerable sources, the publishing barrier has been lifted from the masses. Now, all minds can contribute to the knowledge base. Platforms for the quantified self are means to growing this base. The number of steps you take each day are primarily useful for a select few: you, your doctor, and some loved ones. But when your data is added to the pool of millions, more publicly-useful information can be garnered. Basically all user-centric Internet services can serve ulterior purposes.

 

Facebook, for instance, would make a mighty-fine history book and ancestral log. Currently, when users become deceased, friends may contact Facebook to request that the account is memorialized. The user’s profile then becomes a means for friends to leave notes, children to look at old pictures, and so forth. While this is important to some individuals and a nice service that Facebook provides, it’s not prioritized. What if Facebook retroactively created accounts for important figures in history? Combining with Ancestry.com, Facebook could craft profiles and add pictures of deceased members of history to better showcase networks and connections. It could be a crowdsourced project to illustrate social history. There would be obvious gaps, but the project could improve with the future deceased—if their profiles were properly memorialized.

 

So I’m proposing a new startup. Since the absent penultimate -e is so trendy (probably hackneyed), let’s call it “Undertakr.” The company could be the first e-mortuary, providing archival services to the digitally deceased. It could ensure proper memorialization of Facebook profiles, manage the termination of email accounts, turn off automatic bill pays, queued Tumblr posts, and more. Since good Twitter handles are becoming increasingly rare, Undertakr could manage digital wills so children could inherit their parents’ handles or return them to the public. When new users select a handle, they could see the recorded history of all those who had held it before them. They could become part of a trivial legacy. Or maybe something more.

 

People are more than their data. From data, stories can be formed and legacies written. But without the data, people are only memories. They affected a few, but when those few pass away, they’re forgotten. The value they could’ve added to future generations is lost. Humans can do better.

 

Digital death deserves a tombstone.

Bring on the Apocalypse

23 June 2015

Zombies, aliens, nuclear fallout, cultish dystopias…

 

We’re obsessed with the apocalypse. Our obsession may be nothing more than a fad in the entertainment industry and byproducts a marketing scheme, but it’s still worthy of questioning. Perhaps we’re growing concerned for our dependent state in the first world? The disconnection from our food and resources makes us uncomfortable with our reliance on advanced systems. Perhaps it’s our lack of knowledge or skills in survival? AP Psychology has replaced woodshop in high schools. Our computerized cars are becoming less capable of DIY repairs. Or maybe we just like gory zombies?

 

Whatever the root for our obsession, I think we’re ready for the apocalypse. Our imaginations have worked to develop many possible scenarios for the world’s end. We’ve fantasized for countless hours about how we’d overcome them. Such a mental project could not leave us helpless.

 

Awareness implies safety.

 

This statement has obvious holes. Simply being aware of danger will not prevent it from happening. But awareness is the first step toward safety. Being aware of bears in a forest will help you take precautionary measures—stringing your food in trees, carrying bear spray, not walking alone at dusk—and could help mitigate the risk and increase your chances of survival. This implies safety.

 

In regards to the apocalypse, imagining how we’d interact with alien invasions helps us form strategies for if it came to fruition. Of course, implementation is more difficult than the plan in many cases, but the mental prep work is important. The ubiquitousness of apocalyptic media has more-or-less forced itself upon society’s mind. The influence of the media is a discussion for a separate field of study, but the mind work imposed upon society is useful. It is the hero’s mentality.

 

Heroes are often characterized by their imaginations. Their ability to mentally depict crises and how they’d act within them. By society depicting various apocalypses, we are preparing for one and imagining how we’d act within one. This pre-mortem technique is suggestive of positive future outcomes.

 

So keep fantasizing about dystopias—where you’d build a bunker, which weapons you’d construct, and how you’d help others—because being prepared is the basis for heroic behavior. When the situation arises, we’ll be ready to take action.

 

Enough with the zombie movies, bring on the real deal.

Poetic Ooze

17 March 2015

A few months ago, I began writing phrases and unbaked thoughts on scraps of paper and taping them to my wall. The result is a cluster of chaos. An orphanage of ideas unfit for another medium.

 

Tweet Wall

 

These things normally appear on notebook columns, napkins, and Twitter. They’re undeveloped seeds for something or nothing. I compiled a mess of them, called it poetry, and entered it into a writing contest at my university. The reader will probably think I’m an idiot, but I hope she’ll appreciate one or two of my “poems.”

 

I think its good, clearing this mental clutter. I’ve found a few gems in the mess that could be useful at some point. I think brain-dumping is good, especially for creative or artistic pursuits. Like brain-storming, it’s fun and feels good. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but there’s something about the tactile process. Rather than tweeting off-the-wall nonsense, writing on cut-up notecards and placing them on a physical wall is therapeutic. It’s fun to look at on occasion, and I may do this project again.

 

For now, the project is paused/temporarily finished. Minimalism got the best of me, so I cleared the wall to work on something else. Heck, painter’s tape can turn anything into a tabletop.

 

If you’d like to try it out, here are some self-explanatory directions:

 

1. Find an open surface.

2. Cut up some paper in a variety of shapes and sizes. I used colored notecards and scrap paper.

3. Start carrying scraps of paper and a pen(cil). Whenever you have a thought, write it down. At the end of the day, add them to your collection.

4. Keep a roll of painter’s tape, a pen(cil), paper, and scissors near your surface. As you affix ideas from the day, you’ll probably generate new ones too.

5. Consider using yarn to connect related ideas. I started, but then had this idea:

 

Yarn is a Schizophrenic Medium

 

6. Watch it grow. Don’t censor yourself: whatever comes, let it come. Don’t limit yourself to words, include sketches and doodles too.

 

Give it a try. Maybe you’ll secrete poetic ooze?

Korvodjur: An Ikean Legend

15 March 2015

On the island of Ikea, there lived a nation of furniture makers. They were a kind folk, soft-spoken and constructive—never engaging in war or drug use—and spent their time redecorating their modular apartments. They were a tall and small-handed people that lived in close proximity but enjoyed privacy behind curtain walls. They loved storing things on high shelves and having three-plus uses for every stick of furniture. Although Ikea was a small island, the Ikean village was large, so there was no logistical reason for the inhabitants to live in small apartments. But a sign of honor in Ikean culture was how little square-footage one could reside in. Their perpetual state of redecorating enabled them to generate more efficient space use. Trimming a few square feet from one’s apartment could raise one’s social class. The chief elder lived in fifty square feet.

 

Throughout the year, the Ikeans would maintain their steadfast work ethic and innovative drive in rain or shine. But they maintained a Zen-like balance of work and pleasure. Their blue eyes were never afflicted with blood vessels of fatigue. It was an easy feat when one’s pleasure was one’s work. But once per year, the work would pause. The nails and screws would be placed in small compartments beneath the sink. Schematics would be rolled into retractable curtains. Saws would be stored in an ottoman. During korvodjur season, production ceased.

 

Each autumn, before the onslaught of snow, the Ikeans would set out to kill a korvodjur. A korvodjur was a large monster. It was long and tube-like, akin to a furry salamander that stretched the length of five dinner tables. It had sharp claws and fangs and ate a wide range of animals—from pigs and goats to chickens and turkeys. Korvodjurs were not picky eaters, neither in animal nor part—whatever they ate, they finished, hooves and all. As a result, the korvodjur was meaty creature. It wasn’t the tastiest—it certainly wasn’t a delicacy to the Ikeans—but it was a staple. A korvodjur could provide enough meat to feed the village through winter.

 

Hunting the korvodjur was a tradition deeply rooted in Ikean culture. As with furniture-building techniques, parents told stories of korvodjur hunts to their children, who passed them on their children. Each year, the oral history changed, but the impact remained. It was an event that united the community and turned boys into men. For the weeks leading up to the hunt, fathers spent evenings with their sons and a knife, whittling away scraps of wood to form spears. Maps were spread across desks to plan routes and plot traps. Hunting cloaks were patched. Boots were laced. Children cast aside their plush vegetables and sharpened their meat knives.

 

Once per year, the Ikean furniture builders became monster hunters. They would set out at dawn and head toward the coast, where korvodjurs lurked in caves and grottos. Where their logging routes ended, their hunting grounds began. The young boys, in their pursuit of manliness, would run ahead of the pack and perform a dance before the caves. They’d clank kitchenette-sized pots and pans and bounce on the balls of their feet. Irritated by the noise, a korvodjur would emerge from its rocky home and swipe at the young Ikeans. Nimble and quick, they’d dodge the korvodjur’s blows. The meaty beast would writhe in confusion while the men pierced it with sharpened sticks. The korvodjur would screech and retaliate. Its tail would knock the wind out of many. Its claws would gift battle-scars to some. But when it collapsed, the Ikeans would deliver the korvodjur a quick death.

 

The men, new and old, would dance in excitement before hauling the beast back to the village. There, the women would clean it and slice the meat for all to share. It was a great festival with much joy and feasting. When the festivities subsided, the korvodjur was portioned out per living unit. Once each household had enough to sustain themselves through winter, the excess meat would be given to those with additional storage space. She who could store the most meat in her apartment demonstrated utmost space efficiency—not only could she fit her essentials, but she had room for more. It was a great honor. While square feet determined social class, economic status was determined by pound of korvodjur meat per square foot.

 

But Ikeans didn’t always measure their worth in pounds per square foot. Like any normal nation, they once used the decimal system. But as globalization struck, the English measurement system shamed their culture. A humble fifty square meter apartment became a gluttonous 164 square feet. The Ikeans couldn’t stand to be dishonored by English numbers, so they promptly reduced their spaces.

 

Trade vessels passing through the Retailian Sea noted this act of conformity. Dozens of ships passed Ikea en route to Kirkland—a mega-continent where everything came in bulk. Kirkland seemed to have unending exports of trail mix and canned chicken. It was the first nation of Retailia to sign a trade agreement with the United States. After Kirkland broke the seal, even the small island of Ikea succumbed to foreign trade.

 

Ikeans began selling their furniture to the Swedes who later opened a retail franchise. The franchise appropriated “IKEA” and grew in popularity in the U.S. The large sales of furniture allowed the Ikeans to purchase higher quality tools and materials not afforded on their island: granite, bamboo, mahogany, and more. The Ikeans began working longer and harder. They were no longer building furniture to maximize their small apartments but to minimize McMansions. The businesspeople required documentation for each piece of furniture they produced. Since the Ikeans had no written culture, they drew ambiguous drawings on paper leaflets. They became sick and weary. Bags developed under their new red, white, and blue American eyes.

 

But progress continued. Ships formed harbors along the shore. Office buildings rose out of the forest. The businessmen and women marveled at the quaint village and indulged in the culture. When the men returned with the korvodjur one year, the businesspeople joined the village in their festivities. The Americans found the korvodjur meat delectable. They placed it on a large bun and drowned it in ketchup and mustard. They told the Ikeans that it was an American pastime and insisted on sharing its goodness in IKEA warehouses. The Ikeans, not wishing to be poor hosts, obliged and offered them excess meat.

 

Business moved fast and soon jumbo korvodjur bratwursts were advertised in IKEA warehouses nationwide. They sold for a meager fifty cents. The Americans needed more meat, so they harvested as many korvodjurs as they could find along the Ikean coast. The Ikeans were alarmed by the excessive hunting practices, but an American anthropologist pardoned their concerns: ‘We’ll provide the Ikeans with enough meat for their annual festivities.’

 

As the Americans demanded more than the Ikean Island could supply, the korvodjurs and Ikean men were driven into extinction. Although the Americans preemptively created life-size advertisements—massive 30-foot bratwursts of korvodjur meat—they decided to maximize their return on investment. Instead of removing the large korvodjur billboards, American IKEAs began selling ‘beef hot dogs’ and aptly placed the ‘*not actual size’ clause in the corner of each billboard. Warehouse culture killed the korvodjur.

 

Years passed and the Ikeans transitioned from depressed to oppressed. The men took up drinking and the woman weeping, and together their productivity diminished. The people lost interest in building furniture. They curled up in their lofted beds and kicked down the ladders. IKEA suffered as a business, and the businesspeople left the island. They established provenance in Sweden and hired second-rate designers to rekindle the ashes of their home furnishings enterprise.

 

IKEA regrew as a business, using the robust Swedish culture as a backdrop to American retail. But as IKEA blossomed, Ikea wilted. Material for cribs was used to build caskets. The culture was warehoused and the people diminished to their square foot homes.

 

In the future, when Americans feel guilty for the global crimes their ancestors committed, they’ll visit Ikea. Study aboard programs in Kirkland will take a day trip to the Ikean Island and discover the source of the giant hot dog advertisement. They’ll learn that it wasn’t a hot dog at all. They’ll marvel at the tiny caskets and skeletons scrunched inside. Maybe they’ll write a sentiment to honor the Ikean people? They’ll put it on a plaque in front of each warehouse. It’ll read something like this:

 

Even in death, the Ikean affinity for small spaces lives on.

 

It continues to live on today.

 

IKEATM