Friday, December 28, 2012

Is There Any Such Thing as Pure Altruism?

I say no. There's always something in it for the giver, even if that something is only satisfaction.

A few months ago, several of my friends and I were sitting around a picnic table in Atlanta, kicking around this very question. Is it possible to perform a truly selfless act of service, or to lead a life of service that is purely altruistic--you don't benefit at all, even emotionally? After thinking it over carefully, and hearing out the opinions of a considerable number of friends over said few months, I can't say that it is. (Since both I and the friends in question are engaged in national and community service work--that is what we do for a living right now--it's more than a merely academic question, like the other day's post was.)

I'll use myself as an example. If you're a first-time reader, I'm a proud member of FEMA Corps, a national and community service/disaster relief organization. When I sent in my application in the fall of 2011, I did it for a lot of reasons. I wanted to serve my country in a way that didn't involve the military, for one. I wanted to get my hands dirty helping others. I wanted to go out there and do righteous work on behalf of those whom I could help, and what's better than helping disaster survivors? But I'm not going to sit on a sanctimonious soapbox and pretend that selfless motivations were my only ones. Hell, I was going to be out of college in seven short months, and I needed a job! I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life as such (still don't, really), so I went looking for a one-year volunteer program. I didn't want money, I didn't need to get paid; I just wanted a chance to go out in the world and do good works while ducking (what I consider to be) adult responsibilities for another year.

I had a whole huge ball of reasons for joining FEMA Corps, some of which were those of the ideal volunteer, and some of which were not. Does that diminish the whole? Does it cheapen my decision to serve? I don't believe it does. And I wager if you doped up every Corps Member in or out of the program on movie-grade truth serum and made them talk, they'd come out with a similarly impure potpourri of motivation. That is completely okay. After all, disaster survivors most likely do not care (unless motivation impacts the quality of the service they receive) about my motivations, nor those of my teammates. They may admire us for what they perceive as our selflessness, but our job is to help them first. Our motivations don't enter into that, at least not the way I see it.

But even beyond that basic truth, I feel as though every act of service has some personal gain or growth or emotional need behind it. Why else is tzedakah, or charity, or zakat a religious obligation in the West? Why does our present tax code include a huge incentive towards charitable giving? There are both external compulsions and internal impulsions towards what Reform Jews call tikkun olam, rebuilding the world, and some of those are inevitably self-serving. The satisfaction I feel after a long day's work. A donor's knowledge that they have contributed towards a good cause, or even the simple knowledge that the cause is better armed and armored thanks to their donation. Pride needn't enter into it. The satisfaction of helping, all by itself, dispels the illusion of altruism; everything else is gravy.

Here's the kicker: serving oneself and serving others are not only complementary, they're bound together in the very core of this Americorps NCCC, this FEMA Corps that we're a part of.We can't help others without enriching ourselves, whether we feel it at the time or not. It's flatly impossible; they're all caught up in one irrepressible tide of motivation and service and satisfaction and good deeds. And hopefully, all of those feelings and desires and that irresistible will to serve are channeled into a place and a time where we can do some good. It's okay to be satisfied, or proud, or happy with what you've accomplished--whatever word you prefer. There's something in it for all of us, and nobody more than the people we help. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How Not To Kill Everyone Within Range of Your Planet

So I spent a lot of my Christmas Eve afternoon thumbing through the Wikipedia pages on Fermi's Paradox (if there are so many stars and planets out there that could host intelligent life, why haven't we found any yet?) and then thinking about the implications of one particular answer. If it is possible for a civilization to possess a means of accelerating objects to 90% of the speed of light or better (henceforth known as relativistic weaponry), it's quite possible that everyone is hiding out of fear of getting shot first. 

The argument for killing everything in range was originally laid out in the pages of The Killing Star, a 1995 sci-fi novel by by Charles R. Pellegrino and George Zebrowski, and expanded upon in the pages of one of my favorite nerdy sites, Atomic Rockets. The argument is that any spacefaring civilization with the ability to accelerate masses and aim them accurately across hundreds of light-years possesses, basically, a planet-killing gun. You can't see it coming until it's right on top of you (since it's traveling at near lightspeed), you can't block it and you really can't withstand a hit, since the kinetic energy of even a baseball bumped up to near-lightspeed is huge. Accelerating a boulder-size or mountain-size object to near-lightspeed is therefore a game-ending weapon. 

You see the problem. If Alien Species AAA is purely pragmatic and interested in survival, then their best option is to hit us as soon as they learn we exist, because they have to assume we're going to do the same to them if we get the chance. That's the premise of The Killing Star (spoiler alert!) and it's one that I'm trying to find reasons to work around.*

It seems to me that there are basically three strategies for a species in this situation: 

A) Kill other civilizations as soon as they appear. Also, disperse your own civilization throughout as many planets, asteroids, interstellar spacecraft, star systems, etc. as you can, in the hopes that any civilization that does find you won't get all of you.

B) Stay quiet and hope that nobody finds you. Also, disperse.

C) Attempt to communicate with other civilizations and set up an interstellar truce/balance of terror. Especially, disperse.

The Atomic Rockets page discounts strategy C out of hand ("they're aliens! There's no way you can figure out how to communicate with them!") and shoves A and B into a prisoner's dilemma game that attempts to prove the validity of A. While communication would be a huge problem, there are at least common concepts (i.e. the atomic weight of hydrogen, the speed of light, a list of prime numbers à la Contact, some other constant that would hopefully be common in spacefaring civilizations) that we might be able to establish and work from there. Ideally, you only need to be able to transmit the concept of a dead man's switch. 
In my opinion, if you're not going to attack alien civilizations offhand, the next best option is to let them know that you have weapons aimed at their home planet and won't hesitate to fire if you see their projectiles coming. (If something has already been fired and is on its way, well, the electromagnetic wave carrying your warning will ironically cross theirs in mid-space, arriving just enough ahead of their weapons for their leaders to read it and say "Haha! Oops!") I'm a fan of firing warning shots outside their solar system, although there's no guaranteed way to show that it is a warning shot and not a genuine miss or act of war. Perhaps by accelerating a transmitter carrying your message instead of a simple boulder? It's not perfect, but it probably beats the first two...

Option B, hiding and dispersing, essentially hands your species' fate over to Species AAA (for there's no guarantee that they won't find everybody on your various colonies). You may think that staying silent guarantees safety, since even an insanely aggressive Species AAA wouldn't shoot at every planet they could find (it's a big universe). However, that's not guaranteed. This entire scenario only becomes reality if relativistic weaponry is technically possible to build and fire effectively, and it's a safe bet that any Species BBB would've figured out how to exploit the electromagnetic spectrum well before that. Earth is surrounded by an expanding shell of radio and TV transmissions even now, which (at least theoretically) reveals us to anyone that's watching. I'm guessing that most species would have something similar, which puts BBB in the same position that Earth is in in The Killing Star (it's not a good place to be).

So that's not really an option. But Species AAA is in an even worse spot if it wantonly kills Species BBB. If you miss any shots, you're doomed, since the enemy will have seen you miss and can fire back at leisure before you ever know you've missed (the lightspeed limit is a bear sometimes). To pile on top of that, what happens if Species AAA shoots at Species BBB and Species C, D and E all see it? Species AAA probably has its own radio-transmission shell, making them visible, and firing off relativistic projectiles would only attract extra attention (and identify them as a serious threat to whoever saw them). It's even possible that Species PPP has decided to act as a policeman in a certain area of the galaxy, enforcing a no-relativistic-weapons ban among species under its purview. The penalty, of course, would be wiping out the offending planet. 

Meteor Earth Crash Destruction

So what have we established? Namely, that in a world of perfect relativistic killing weapons, there is really no good option to pursue. What you do depends on how paranoid your decision-making class is, how expensive your weapon is to build and fire (in terms of construction and energy used) and how good your communications skills are. Also, a healthy amount of dumb luck.

The good news is that this scenario-of mutually assured interstellar destruction-isn't guaranteed to come to pass. One of the Atomic Rockets users pointed out that relativistic weapons are far from the only method of conducting interstellar war, even in "hard" sci-fi scenarios where you're stuck with this universe's physical laws. And aiming these weapons would be insanely difficult: you would probably be firing across scores of light-years, finding yourself having to account for the motion of the enemy planet (s) in orbit, the motion of their solar system and your solar system, plus the effects of any masses (stars, brown dwarfs, etc.) along the way that might deform your missile's path. Even a tiny course-correction might cause the aggressor species to miss entirely. Such complications, plus the difficulty and expense of constructing a mass accelerator capable of reaching out and touching someone across vast distances, could help prevent this strategy from ever being used.

*(A lot of this stuff is touched upon in the Atomic Rockets page, and I'm trying not to repeat them. Nonetheless, while I didn't lift words or sentences directly from AR, credit for the inspiration of this post and a lot of ideas in it go to them.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Things I Have Learned in FEMA Corps

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

-- Emily Dickinson  (Hat tip: Kevin Seifert)

The motto of Americorps NCCC is, as I've referenced a time or two in this space, "strengthening communities, developing leaders". I interpret the latter part to mean that NCCC is not simply teaching us how to command a group of fellow younglings, or how to build and market an idea, but teaching us how to be better people: at our jobs, at being part of something larger than ourselves, at life. Looking at it this way, every little revelation and every minor lesson becomes part of something bigger, part of your own personal life journey (or whatever the buzzword is these days) that will help you out somewhere down the road. Here are a few of the little things I've learned over the past four months in FEMA Corps. 


-When going on spike, it is impossible to pack "too many" pairs of socks or underwear. 

-The physical limitations imposed by your government-issued red bag (and 15-passenger van) are nothing compared to sheer willpower and determination of the Corps Member in question.

-Having said that, when you live hermit-crab style out of a house on your back, you have to suck it up and leave some stuff at home. Taking little luxuries where you can find them on the road is vastly preferable to cramming knickknacks into your overcrowded backpack.


-Canvassing door-to-door in a disaster-stricken community is a hell of a thing to do every day. The vast, vast majority of people you meet will be either a) indifferent towards you but willing to hear you out, or b) insanely kind, helpful and tolerant (of you), given the circumstances. Other people will be c) a twisted-up ball of anger and sadness and the feeling of being overwhelmed, which is totally fine. It's your job to reach them anyway and at least provide the basic information they need to get through the rebuilding process. 

-Some people, however, do not fall into any of these three categories. They will fling verbal clods of poo at you simply because you are there and they can throw 'em at a stranger without suffering remorse or future consequences. These are what anthropologists call 'jerks', and they are a part of life. 

-Canvassing hundreds of homes that have been inundated by between one and ten feet of floodwater will make you want to never, ever ever buy a home that doesn’t have a seawall that would make Herod the Great proud sitting between it and the deep dark ocean. It will also transform you into a pipe-smoking, mustachioed connoisseur of doorknobs, door-knockers, mailboxes, doorbell sounds and a dozen other totally mundane things that will eventually comprise your entire world.

-The people at the Subway on Atlantic Avenue in Freeport who let your entire team come there to pee twice a day, without hassling you about it or making you buy anything, are the nicest people in the whole entire world.

-Tangentially, there is no worse feeling on Earth than desperately needing to pee, in a residential neighborhood with no bathroom in sight, and finally happening upon a providential synagogue only to find it locked, because it’s 11 AM on a Tuesday and no rabbi in his right mind would be there. This may also lead to a serious crisis of faith, resolved only by the miraculous (and much-delayed, I might add) appearance of a filthy Citgo toilet just four short blocks away. 


-You will not always be able to help everybody all the time, because other things will get in the way. Sometimes these are imposed by the rules and regulations of your organization(s), sometimes by storm-related conditions (i.e. roadblocks, gas shortages), and sometimes because fuck you, that's why (this may also apply to the first two items). This happens. It sucks, but it happens, and it's worth putting up with because the work you do eventually get to do is important and valuable and interesting. There will be lousy bosses and paperwork and inexplicable delays, because those happen everywhere due to vexing imperfections in the human race. I'm not saying that one should blindly accept such things, but it's worth keeping in mind that they are not unique to this particular place and time.

-You have to be willing to accept that you will probably never see the full effect of your own contributions towards a survivor's recovery and well-being. Building a house with your own hands that somebody can move into is gratifying, tangible and absolutely worth doing. Handing them a flier and telling them to register with FEMA for this, that and the other reason is intangible, frequently unfulfilling and just as absolutely worth doing. You have to take that mental step beyond your immediate efforts and recognize that what you're doing has far greater effects than you can see in that moment. (And in that sentence, I realize more clearly than I ever have the reason why Service Learning Initiators are needed, and why service learning is such a thing in Americorps: it's essentially what I just said.)

-Living with a team of fellow Corps Members is tough, because no matter how much you love your team, it's hard when there is no place to be, no one to be with other than with your team. You work together, commute together, cook and eat and clean together, even sleep together (Joe: "It's a small bed and I am one octopus of a Cornflake!"). If you don't get along with somebody, or even if you do almost all the time but not always, it still takes guts to talk to each other and work out your problems. You get to know these people as well as you know anybody, and sometimes--if you're an introvert like I am--you want nothing more than to get away from everybody. It's just something you have to learn to deal with and grow thereby.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Last of New York

"Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset..." -Alfred Tennyson

It's funny, really. After all this work, the things I've seen, the experiences my team has had... I really don't know what to say. 

It's not just the scale of the disaster that overwhelms me and leaves me powerless to express myself. I saw enough of that in Oceanside, Island Park, Freeport, Levittown, Long Beach... everywhere we went, there were flooded houses, wrecked cars, front lawns brown with spilled oil and thirty-foot boats lying cockeyed in the street. And the stories of disaster survivors, how the water went from two inches to five feet in just a few minutes, how it swallowed the road and flowed into their bottom floors? The hassle and expense that follows--the plumber, the electrician, the contractors who'll rip out floors and drywall and Sheetrock slabs, chip up tiles from the floor and hustle bags and bags of flood-drenched keepsakes out to the curb? The FEMA inspector, the insurance company's inspector, the STEP program inspector, the SBA packet to file, the FEMA letter to receive in the mail? Hundreds of thousands of people gingerly, painfully, clawing their way back. I can't count how many times I heard someone say 'I've lived here for forty years, and nothing like this has ever happened here before?' I've lost all track. 

And I'm grateful for the opportunity to help with the recovery effort. I drove here from Atlanta, was put up on the Empire State and given food and clothing on FEMA's dime, and in return I got to be an active part of the massive push--federal dollars, state expertise, local knowledge and good-hearted stubborn rebuilding--towards help and rebuilding. What my team and I did--we went to 3,477 houses, talked to something over 1,200 people, handed out enough fliers to stun a redwood, moved supplies and registered survivors and a dozen other things--changed hundreds, if not thousands, of peoples' lives for the better. And we were only one of 21 teams, which itself--~200 people--was only a small part of the FEMA force, tens of thousands strong, which itself was only a small part of everyone who came in wanting to help...

"...I am become a name; for always roaming with a hungry heart, much have I seen and known..."

All of that is true and good and I'm happy I was here for it. I just don't know what to say about any of it. This space is what I usually use to put things into some kind of order for myself, to make them make sense or to draw some kind of conclusion or lesson from them, but Sandy and my response to Sandy defy easy endings and quick analyses. I don't know if I've really grown from this, or what I've learned, other than "I'm never in my entire life buying a house on the water" or "it is impossible to bring too many socks on spike". I'm struggling to understand what the whole thing means.

And maybe there is no facile, easily digestible meaning. Maybe the meaning is that I should stop being introspective and just learn to take things as they come. Maybe the meaning is that huge, horrible disasters just happen sometimes, and all you can do is help the people who were put in harm's way fight back and rebuild their lives as best you can. Maybe it lies in the complexities of everyday life, the casual impossibilities of keeping your life together and repairing and owning a home and providing for your family when everything is a total fucking shambles around you, and the insane courage and willpower of people who have been doing that every day for six weeks now. Maybe it is nothing that I can say or figure out in this space, something I can only absorb by immersing myself in the recovery effort.

Or maybe I'm thinking too much about it. Maybe what I'm just overlooking, plain and simple, is the fact that I got to do all this, have this incredible experience, with my teammates and my friends. The way we bonded as a team when we begun to canvass in Freeport... the way we got better and better as time went on... the inside jokes, the laughs and frustrations we shared, the conversations we had and all the rest. Maybe it's the New York experience, in all its grime and all its splendor. Maybe it's plans for the future and dreams of the past, demons finally exorcised and memories that keep on coming back. Living one day at a time, cherishing each new experience and moment that comes my way, in this program and in this time that has been allotted for me. The late-night conversations, the stupid fun we had, the friends made and cherished, the feeling of standing in Times Square surrounded by happy people. 

 "And tho' we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." 

Maybe it's all these things and more. 

Maybe that's all you can really say. 

"I do what I do when I do what I do." -Malinda Probst

The soft thump you are hearing, dear reader, is the closing of the first book of the FEMA Corps story. In January, a new one shall begin. Until then, I am at your service.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Don't Be A Dumbass, Corps Members!

Well, that'll teach me to whine about not having good blog fodder

In order: if you've been following or have heard about the FEMA Bore Corps Twitter account, which has thankfully been taken down as of this writing, well... I apologize on behalf of whoever that was. The disclaimer atop their Twitter page made sure to note that their opinions did not reflect those of FEMA, but neglected to add that they certainly do not represent all of FEMA Corps. 

Now: if you were the slow-witted son of a bitch who thought it would be a good idea to set up a throwaway Twitter account and gabble stupid, juvenile garbage at the FEMA administrator and FOX News, what the hell were you thinking? How did antagonizing every single one of your bosses and making the entire Corps look like snarky twits possibly sound like a good idea?

Professionalism may be a concept attached all too tightly to the world of salaried, adult work that we're all heading towards, but it still applies when you're working for the National Civilian Community Corps and with the Department of Homeland Security. It would also matter if you were working at the local ice-cream shoppe. You don't create a scene and embarrass your entire organization (along with yourself) if you're dissatisfied, no matter what the setting. It's mortifying, it's childish, it solves nothing and it's just plain old-fashioned dumb.

This is the part where I would go into how we're supposed to be better than that kind of gibberish, how we were picked to serve as disaster volunteers in the hopes that we could actually do some good, that part of our responsibility as the inaugural FEMA Corps class is gritting our teeth and helping our parent organizations work out the inevitable kinks in the program and so on, but who am I kidding? You knew that already. All the insults I've hurled so far notwithstanding, if you made it this far in the program, surely you had to have understood that what we're doing here is not for just our class, any more than working with survivors is simply an instrument for your own gratification. Tweaking the program so it'll work better in future classes is one of our responsibilities; you knew that. How you could be so myopic as to ignore it in favor of snark is the most disappointing part of the whole stupid affair. If you're that fed up, do the rest of us a favor and quit.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

120 Miles of Toilet Paper and a POD

An average square of toilet paper is something like four inches long. There are 176 squares, or sheets, in a roll (at least the ones I'm dealing with); twelve rolls to a pack, thirty packs to the pallet, and 10 pallets sitting in a semi-trailer where John and I (plus Convoy of Hope) unloaded them earlier today. That comes out to something like 2.5 million inches, which after being divided by 12 (inches to foot) and 5,280 (feet to mile) comes out to an eerily exact forty solid miles of toilet paper. Add in the fact that it was three-ply, and we have 120 miles, roughly the distance between Pittsburgh and Cleveland and the length of a mammoth traffic jam currently underway in Russia. I was standing in the back of the trailer with a twelve-pack of toilet paper (704 feet) flying into my general zip code every 2-5 seconds, having to field it, find a place for it and get ready for the next one in that time. Preternatural reflexes aside, that was a hell of a hardworking half an hour.

The results, which probably go back at least five meters. Note how the toilet paper essentially ate those boxes to the right.

That was the highlight of my day at the Island Park Point Of Distribution, alias POD, where I've worked three of the past five days. Canvassing seems to be winding down: at long last, my team has covered Freeport with STEP (Something Temporary Electric Power? 2/4 ain't bad--Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power) fliers, and the neighboring communities have mostly been papered with the things. With barely a week left in this deployment, CR mooks like myself are beginning to wonder what'll happen if and when we return to this joint, since door-to-door canvassing is generally what we do here. 

Beyond that, life is pretty normal aboard the U.S.T.S. Empire State. Jim-Bob and Shingirai are going on an all-lemon juice and cayenne pepper diet for a week just for the hell of it, various Amerelationships are blossoming and/or dying, the (overpriced) bar up the road is slowly growing sick of our continued presence (though not our money), the new toilet in our room smells exactly like the old toilet, signifying the presence of a dead muskrat (or the aquatic equivalent--say that ten times fast) rotting in the pipes, and I have wi-fi now! The Internet shall once again be mine! 

Like I said, normal life. That's most of why I haven't been writing much lately, and why most of it hasn't been about FEMA Corps business--there simply isn't much new to say. If the blog is supposed to be about chronicling my experiences, it gets repetitive; if it's supposed to be informative for friends, family, potential Corps Members, other peoples' families, etc. it's the same deal. At a certain point, the job is the job is the job. You get some crazy people canvassing, but you get crazy people essentially anywhere; that's not fodder for blogging any more than anything else, not to mention the privacy concerns. 

So that's my current state, I suppose. I feel like a lot of FEMA Corps is in a similar place. We've had a long deployment, seen a lot of things, had our share of happiness and frustration and now it's time to make the long drive back to Vicksburg, and then on 'till morning. It's time to start looking in earnest for next year's job, it's time to get writing in earnest for this year's book, it's time to start living in earnest for this year's experience, and you don't get that on wi-fi in a belowdecks ship's classroom. Time to close the computer and go see what wackiness is going on today.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stories, Brains, Thought and Memory

Storytelling lives in the spaces between fiction and nonfiction. It peeps out of crevices and sniffs at the air, a blend of history and half-truths and details added in or played up to make things sound better. How many times have you heard a friend tell a story, then heard the same story weeks or months later with details dramatically altered or expanded? It’s part of human nature to embellish our stories, to play up the exciting or funny bits and play down the boring parts. We change the story for our audiences, paring and adding until the story is entirely different from the way things actually happened.

There’s a fascinating parallel with my research on thought and memory. Back in ye olden times of brain research, neurologists thought that long-term memory was fixed, irrevocable and unalterable. Once it had formed, it was there in the brain for good. But recently, as I’ve read and regurgitated, new studies have seemed to say that memory is actually plastic, as subject to retelling and reshaping as any one of our stories. We edit what we saw or knew, unconsciously or consciously, every time we access that memory. “If you take that to the extreme, your memory is only as good as the last time you accessed it,” said one researcher (NOT AN EXACT QUOTE, JUST A “TO THE BEST OF MY RECOLLECTION”).

Eerily similar, no? Stories and memories function the same way, one anecdotally and the other neurologically. Which raises fascinating questions in itself. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of human experience; it’s been around, as far as anyone can determine, for what must have been tens of thousands of years. Oral traditions were what legends were made of, long before the invention of writing. Could it be that our brains are actually hardwired in a storytelling manner? Is it possible that telling stories is, neurologically and practically, a fundamental part of the human experience?

If so—and I hope so—I think that’s absolutely wonderful. It’s fascinating and amazing. It lends now emphasis to the entire world of stories that everybody knows is out there, that everybody experiences but few are lucky enough to grasp more than a small part of. If what I just wrote makes sense, it’s been around since the phrase ‘being human’ meant anything, and that’s a mind-blowing concept.