A social scientist vacations in Lana’i

I recently came back from spending a week on the Hawaiian island of Lana’i (my 2nd visit to the island). It is as beautiful and remote as all of the tourist PR claims – the snorkeling is excellent, the local village is friendly and laid back, and the landscape is breathtaking. Oh, and there is a feral cat sanctuary with 400 residents. That is, 399 residents – don’t ever visit a cat sanctuary with two middle school girls and expect to go home empty handed.

What really piques my interest, though, are the unique circumstances the islanders find themselves in, how they got there, and (in particular, as a social scientist) the limits of the islanders’ ability to consent to how they’re being experimented on. You see, Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle) owns 98% of the island, and as the last lines of the Lanai Wikipedia page describe, Ellison owns 98% of Lanai.[18] Ellison has stated that he wants to make Lanai into “the first economically viable, 100 percent green community” That little footnote [18] points to a NYTimes magazine article that is well worth the read if you’re intrigued by what I write here.

A brief (recent) history of the island: It was owned by the Dole fruit company and served as a pineapple plantation, supplying virtually all of the world’s pineapples for a while. Workers lived in a company town on the island. By and by the owners of the island changed hands, the pineapple industry went away, and Larry Ellison bought all of the company land just a few years ago.

Now, the island has a population of about 3,000 regular residents, about a quarter of whom work in a business that directly depends on tourism (running the Four Seasons resorts) and maybe another quarter working for Ellison’s construction and development company on a variety of building projects. But virtually all of them depend on tourism for an injection of money to the economy. All food and supplies need to be brought in from nearby Maui (a freight barge runs back and forth a couple of times a week), and the island produces virtually nothing for export (well, except feral cats, but those are given away).

So far so good. When Ellison bought up the island he did some basic needs analysis and ended up building a sports center for local youth (there was nowhere for the local school to have a home basketball game) and engaging in other community-minded projects. He also bought the Four Seasons hotels (with both a beach side and up-island location) and went to work renovating those buildings. Unemployment on the island has virtually disappeared since Ellison arrived. That’s the good news.

Here is where the story gets interesting, and more nuanced than one might expect. This is not (simply) the tale of an overlord riding roughshod over a local government, although some would tell it that way. Nor are we witnessing the Great White Savior flying in to civilize the poor natives and uplift them from their misery (again, some might allude to that narrative, too). I can’t claim to tell “the truth” in this blog, either – I haven’t spent enough time getting to know the locals and really investigating the history and circumstances. Again, I strongly recommend reading the above linked NYTimes article for both background and more in-depth reporting.

What I do want to focus on – the perspective I bring to the table – is the idea of social research and informed consent. You see, under a network of regulations and customs in the U.S., if you want to run a social experiment involving people, you have to obtain informed consent – the people you’re studying have to affirmatively agree to participate in your research after having been informed of the potential benefits and risks. Clearly, for some sorts of light-touch, observational research informed consent isn’t necessary – one can hang out in a public park and take notes all day long without ever obtaining consent, as people are just going about their daily lives. But once you start changing people’s circumstances, whether in a laboratory or in the real world, the ethical issue of consent arises.

But wait, one might think, corporations and governments change things all the time! Neighborhoods are transformed by new development, school systems are reorganized (sometimes at the whim of distant politicians)… where is the “consent” in that? And the short answer is:  for the most part, we consent through our elected representatives, who in theory exercise some control over private developers, school administrators, and the like. Clearly, in some communities the government is weak – oil refineries continue to be built in low-income communities of color, for example.

In Lana’i, the local government has (as far as I can tell) extremely limited power relative to Ellison. Consider this: Ellison not only controls all of the tourist beds at the Four Seasons, but he recently bought the only competition (a small in with maybe a dozen rooms). He controls all of the overnight tourism. Just last year, he completely closed one hotel, ostensibly to house workers who are performing construction on the other hotel (which is also now half closed). Perhaps coincidentally, this also demonstrated to the island what happens when your tourism is cut by 50% or more at the same time Ellison was negotiating for the rights to build a desalination plant – the one project the local government has some legal authority to regulate.

Hmm… okay, this sounds like industry-community hardball, no different than any corporation coming to a depressed town in the US and offering to supply jobs and a tax base in exchange for some favorable regulatory relief. It’s an offer the local populace cannot often refuse.

But Lana’i is different, and I’m struggle to convey exactly why. I think it’s the totality of the control Ellison exerts on the economy. If there is no tourism or construction there is no income – period. The people living there know that their livelihood depends on one person (his delegates, actually) keeping the taps open on the money pipeline. They live on an island – there is only one small airport and a barge and ferry to Maui. There is almost literally no escape. Furthermore, there is no economic competition to Ellison. It is literally impossible for another tourist company – or any major employer – to set up shop in Lana’i without renting Ellison owned property.

Now add to that Ellison’s vision for transforming the economy of the island – here is where the Great White Savior meets Communist planned economy. One example is his investment in the local wood shop – he’s paid to send furniture makers to Berkeley to learn the latest in green construction techniques and advanced manufacturing, so that the Lanai shop will be able to build furniture for a network of hotels Ellison operates. That is, Ellison is the sole customer for an industry he’s funding on this island. Ideally the shop will become self-sustaining should their reputation for quality green furniture become widely known.

Now, multiply that example by a dozen. I recall hearing about agricultural experiments and plans, but can’t remember the details. The hotels are being re-made to suit Ellison’s taste in accommodations. There were plans to build a larger runway at the local airport to accommodate bigger planes (passenger and cargo)… you get the idea.

The problem I have with this is that – as far as I can tell – the locals have had very little say in the direction this development is taking. Plans call for doubling the island’s population over the next decade or so. That’s a huge shock to the culture of the community (that doubling is coming from immigration, of course).  News reports (again, see the NYTimes article) tell stories of major political schisms on the island that were previously unknown, as the islanders tended to practice “aloha” (think communally-oriented sharing and support) to get buy in chronically dire economic circumstances.  Great white savior types point out that the islanders don’t have the perspective or capacity to even know what they would need to bootstrap the economy – sometimes you have to bring in outsiders with a “vision.” But then, it’s not clear to me that there was a “problem” to solve in the first place.

Fine – bring on the vision. But let the locals have final the final decision authority.  This doesn’t have to be a black-and-white, either-or scenario: it’s not a choice between reversion to economic hardship and high unemployment on the one hand, or serfdom under a benevolent overlord on the other. I can also imagine, though, how frustrating it might be for a benefactor to come into this situation, knowing they can help in all sorts of ways, and having locals say “whoa there!” So tempting to brand them as “backwards” or “ignorant” or to treat them as errant children. But then, that’s the history of colonialism throughout the world.

It’s one thing to read about colonial adventures in textbooks, it’s another to see it playing out in real time in front of one’s eyes with an English-speaking American population.

So go to Lana’i. The hotels are crazy expensive, but the climate is gentle enough to permit camping year round (overnight camping is limited, but available). If you’re staying in nearby Maui you can take a day trip on a ferry – just make sure you get up to Lanai City (the central village) to chat with some locals.

And think about what you would do differently if you owned 98% of the land and all of the hotels on the island.

Learning how to practice

After practicing my guitar this evening, my partner asked how I actually go about practicing. It was a good question – what is it I focus on? With the 30-day challenge cycle I’ve been picking two pieces I make sure to play and work on every day. “Working on” means learning from scratch (as in the Prelude from BWV 1006a) or re-learning some different fingerings (the Ponce prelude in E). But I also have to mix in some “fun” playing as well, with pieces that are more polished. These are like visiting with old friends for a chat.

I’m still contemplating acquiring a teacher, though. In the realm of “knowing what I don’t know,” I know there are holes in my performance that I could use some coaching on. Then there are the “unknown unknowns” – what might a teacher see that I haven’t even considered? The hard part right now is time – work has been in overdrive since the start of the year, and I’ve also had some demands at home that make it difficult to commit to a longer term project.

But I want to get better; I can feel myself starting to hit plateaus in terms of the artistry of performance. I’m getting better at some of the technical skills (my sight reading on the higher frets has improved tremendously with daily practice), but I feel like I could take a leap to a new level of expression with the right coaching.

It’s late, and I just wanted to get this idea and “intent to commit” down on e-paper.  In spite of time feeling like a precious commodity I miss my daily blogging from November and may return to that shortly, too.

February’s challenge, and music of the month

January’s 30 day challenge was a great exercise in small, enduring habit changes. I committed to touching two guitar pieces every day for 30 days. I ended up playing about 6 out of 7 days overall, and am okay with that. It got me into the habit of practicing every single day, and that made practicing more of a joy than a chore. If I’m not playing frequently, every time I pick up the instrument there is a fairly unpleasant hump to be surmounted as my fingers remember how to work properly. Daily practice ensures I can essentially pick up where I left off. My sight reading has progressed noticeably, too, something that needs daily repetition for learning.

Now, what to do for February? I’m sorely tempted to set a physical activity goal, say 30 continuous minutes of activity – even walking – every day for February (okay, it’s a 28-day challenge). This goal is more on the “it’ll be good for me” end of the spectrum. I bicycle for pleasure and fitness, and there are days when it just doesn’t work to ride. Can I get a half hour walk or (shudder) gym workout in on those off days?  I guess I’ll find out.

Meanwhile, I’m going to set musical goals for each month, under the assumption that I’ll continue to practice every day. I pretty much learned the shorter of the two Back preludes that were January’s focus, and the longer of the two is pretty close to under my fingers.  I’m picking two more preludes for February, a relatively short one by Ponce and a longer piece by JS Bach (BWV 1006a – originally for harp). I’ve played through the Ponce before, but took a lot of shortcuts with the fingering – I want to relearn it properly and fix some of the mistakes I’ve memorized along the way.

The Bach is long – 139 bars. I’ve been wanting to pick up a joyous piece, though (I’ve been gravitating to the darker regions of the emotional spectrum) and this fits the bill. I’m essentially starting from scratch on this one, so it’ll be a good test of how far I can come in a month. (I’m only learning the prelude of the video below, not the rest of the movements).

In related news, I’m seriously considering picking up a guitar teacher to keep me on track. I’ve got a little too much on my plate currently, but if I keep playing consistently I’m going to start hitting a plateau pretty soon, and will need that nudge to break through.

I missed my wood shop time this weekend – family illness took precedence, so the necks are still in the same shape they were a week ago. I’m hopeful my work commitments will be slightly more relaxed this week and I’ll be able to take an evening or so at the bench.

That’s all for now – nothing deep or profound, just an update on activities. I do have some more ideas floating around (remembering some threads I started back in November for NaBloPoMo) that I’ll want to write about, but again need to find the time and space to do so.

PS. Dang, the video below is the 1st place winner of the Guitar Foundation of America International Youth Competition, Junior Division. I believe he’s 13 years old. This piece is on my bucket list.

Physical feedback

Saturday was neck carving day – I planned on spending some quality time at a workbench with a sturdy vice and sharp chisels, carving the heel of my guitar neck (that part where the back of the neck joins the body). I’ve actually got two necks built in parallel, but one has quite a bit of tear-out from some sloppy router work on the headstock, so that’s become my “practice” neck. Free-carving the curve of the heel will take some practice.

It was a bit frustrating at first. One book I’ve been following as a guide suggests using a very wide chisel for the broad shaping. Good idea in practice, but force = pressure x area. I have to use twice as much force on a 1″ chisel as I would on a 1/2″ chisel, and that means I’m more likely to slip (there’s a clean slice on the side of my index finger from both pushing too hard with the right hand and not remembering to keep the left hand out of the path of the tool). It’s also just bad form to “force” a tool – I just don’t have as much control. My chisels are reasonably sharp (although I could probably improve in the sharpening department, too), so I was surprised at how difficult this was.

I ended up eventually shifting to a narrower chisel, and life got a lot easier. There was still a lot of trial and error – the main shaping strokes are across the grain, which is an odd direction to pare wood. I eventually broke out my cabinet maker’s rasps (and boy, can I tell the difference between a high quality rasp and a cheap Big Box store tool) and learned how they work in this particular application. I got to the point of a rough shape with the practice neck, and then stopped to take a break.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Reading about the carving operation ahead of time was helpful – I knew roughly the order of operations I wanted to execute. But there was a lot I had to experience first hand – literally. The curve of the heel is concave looking from the headstock to the body, but convex looking up from the back of the instrument. Carving each of these with flat chisels took some thinking and experimenting. The wood also behaves very differently when carving across vs with the grain. In one of my first (too heavy) cuts I tore a good chunk out of the top of the fingerboard – had that been my “real” neck it would have been difficult to glue back into place without a cosmetic blemish.

I know this is glaringly obvious, but this sort of knowledge and skill can only be acquired through practice. Reading is helpful to a point, but what I found surprising is that after trying this for a few hours, I could re-read the texts and better understand the logic of certain operations. The book was quite clear, for example, about never carving along the curve all the way through to the end of the workpiece – that guarantees some tearing out (which I proved). Now I see why that advice was given, and through making the gut-clenching error myself the lesson has stuck.

This week looks to be a bit busy, but I’m going to try to carve out (no pun intended) one evening to return to the wood shop this week.

Meanwhile, the 30 day challenge continues along. I’m managing to average about 6 days out of 7 of solid guitar practice, and I’ll call that a win. I’m finding it’s a lot easier to keep up when I have a basic expectation of daily practice, and allow myself an occasional “miss.”  If I’d set a goal of every other day, on the other hand, I think it would have been a lot harder to keep up as a habit.  In an ideal world I’d probably adopt the same “every day unless there’s a good reason” approach to exercise, too. Maybe that will be Feb’s challenge…

Wow, only a week in? (30 day challenge 2015.01)

In my last post I started a 30 day challenge – to get two Bach preludes under my fingers within 30 days. The basic idea is that New Year’s resolutions are really hard to keep, but shorter-term goals are much more tractable.

During tonight’s practice I played both preludes through around 70% tempo. There were lots of glitches still, but I was pleasantly surprised that only a week of sustained effort made such a difference! Yes, I’ve read that advice from countless musicians: practice every day, even if you’re not in the mood.  This is probably the first week I’ve practiced every single day since… college? It shows.  My sight reading is getting sharper, too, as I revisit other pieces I haven’t touched in a very long time.

That’s all for now!

Mini-resolutions: 30 day challenges

Around the New Year I came across this Ted Talk suggesting that instead of grandiose New Year’s resolutions (which tend not to last more than a month or so anyway), perhaps we could think of smaller experimental episodes in our lives: 30 day commitments. (It turns out, there was a reality TV show based on this same concept about ten years ago: 30 Days. No good idea is ever completely original, right?) Back in November I tried the National Blog Posting Month challenge, and I think I wrote something here on all but 2 days of the month. Clearly my writing has dropped off since then, but I have a distinct memory of what it was like to plan on writing ever single day, and know what I’m getting into if I want to keep that commitment longer.

I’m exited thinking about 12 distinct possible challenges in 2015 – and I don’t have to think them all up on January 1!  I’ve often found that if I’m not growing or learning something new or pushing myself in some way, I feel stagnant. I’m curious to see what ends up “sticking” as a lifestyle change, and what is simply an interesting experiment that doesn’t need repeating.

So what shall I do for my first challenge? I’ve been a bit frustrated with my music lately – I seem to have a lot of pieces that are about 80% learned, but I’m not putting in consistent enough practice to actually get any to the point of polished performance. So for January I’m going to try a dual commitment: 1) practice the guitar every single day, even if only for 10 minutes, and 2) learn and polish two Bach preludes (BWV 998 and 999). The first prelude is part 1 of a 3 part suite (followed by a  fugue and allegro). The fugue is just not my cup of tea (it’s feels like an interesting composition exercise, but goes on for far too long), but I’d like to eventually tackle the allegro to play as well. First things first.  BWV 999 is a popular stand-alone prelude that’s also good right hand appregio practice.

Maybe this is all the 30 day challenges will entail: clean up a piece of two to the point where it’s memorized or approaching performance-ready, and by the end of the year I’ll actually have a set list for an open mic. :-)

Fictional Aspergers

In an earlier post started to lay out some of my misgivings about deriving too much “insight” from reading fiction. My point at the time was that one could write an entirely plausible piece of fiction based on some awful societal prejudices. If the author is careful to not write too heavy handedly, s/he could persuade otherwise innocent readers to take on some ugly (and untrue) opinions.

Today my partner just finished reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This work of fiction features the protagonist Don Tillman, a geneticist with Asperger syndrome. Asperger’s is “an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests” (Wikipedia). Tillman is high functioning – he has a job as a research professor and teaches university courses. The author allows us to see the world – and in particular other people – through the curious thought processes of Tillman.

The book is a hilarious read (I’m inferring from the frequent guffaws bursting from the bedroom). One might believe they are truly getting an “insider’s look” at what it’s like to live with Asperger’s. But toward the end of the story there are hints of some implausible twists. For one, the protagonist more or less is deciding he could learn to change and be less “odd” if he really wanted to. From my limited understanding of Asperger’s and other autism-spectrum disorders, one can learn to control certain behaviors and one’s social interface to the world, but the inner thoughts/feelings stay locked in their patterns.

Now, clearly this is a work of fiction – the author is not trying to deceive us in that regard. And (again, only hearing this second hand) I’m willing to bet the author gets a lot right about Aspergers… but I really have no way of knowing for sure. Yes, I could find books by Temple Grandin, a well-known autistic scientist and advocate, if I wanted to gain some insights from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

But my point is that a lot of people won’t follow up with non-fiction sources – they’ll read The Rosie Project and perhaps assume that Asperger’s sufferers could “snap out of it” if they only wanted to. This is the pernicious side of fiction I worry about. I don’t know what to recommend, other than to take things with a grain of salt, but it does call into question the value of the “insights” gained from fiction. Having cross-checks – trusted teachers, perhaps, who recommend particular works as illustrative, and advise against consulting others – might help. But the pull toward group think can be strong.

I should note, too, that I may be libeling Graeme Simsion a bit – I haven’t read The Rosie Project myself, and I am not in a position to judge the verisimilitude of his description. I am simply raising the possibility that he gets it wrong as a cautionary tale.