Sunday, April 10, 2005

Wired Magazine has a great story

The current issue of Wired Magazine has a great story. It is good on so many levels it is hard to know where to begin.

First, at the generational level, I should note that without yesterday's contact with my nephew I would never have known about it. I'm old. He's young. Even though we like many of the same things, there is a generational gap in how we find and process information. For me the world of information technology and it's impact on history and society is a breathtaking recent development. For people under, say, thirty-five - certainly under twenty - information is just another part of the landscape. They have no memory of a time when knowing about something was limited to an educated class who had been taught to read, research and coordinate knowledge in ways that are now as obsolete as making biscuits from scratch. The story that I am about to link reflects this gap in a different way.

Second, at the social level the story is about how a bunch of kids from Phoenix who had nothing going for them but street smarts and energy successfully were able to outdistance more priviliged competitors in an arena of competition that should have been "out of their league." This is the stuff that is made into movies. Think Flashdance or Karate Kid or Coal Miner's Daughter or Good Will Hunting. Or that docu-drama about the kid from Tennessee who built rockets instead of following his dad into mining.

At the political level we are faced with in-your-face excellence in the context of illegal aliens, so often condemned for sucking benefits from a social "support" system (how can I make this sound properly sarcastic?) while giving nothing in return. [What passes for social support in America is feeble in the shadow of what is trumpeted as the world's best medical system. Untreated chronic orthopedic problems, rotting teeth and mental health and substance abuse cases pushed into homelessness by a blame-the-victim mentality...don't get me started...]

At the end of the story -- you may as well get ready -- there is an anticlimax...

They hope to see all four kids go to college before they quit teaching, which means they're likely to keep working for a long time. Since the teenagers are undocumented, they don't qualify for federal loans. And though they've lived in Arizona for an average of 11 years, they would still have to pay out-of-state tuition, which can be as much as three times the in-state cost. They can't afford it.

Finally, a couple of personal observations from me.

Because it appears in a magazine for nerds and kids, readers of this story will be more interested in technology and engineering than social implications. It is revealing that my nephew was a lot more animated about the way that these underdogs were able to compete, the factual details of their inventive genius and creativity, than any social implications the story may have.

My experience with immigrants has left me with positive hope instead of the resentment that I read about so often. Whether from Asia or the Carribean or Eastern Europe or Africa my immigrant employees have been the bright spots of success and good work in a food service career that has seen several thousands of subordinates. When Mexicans came to work in my dishroom I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That was the end of fighting, broken dishes, absences and complaining. When someone decided to quit for another job or to go back home I have seen, typically, that they would bring someone to take their job. "This is my friend..." "This is my cousin..." "This is someone who would like to work here if you have a job."

Most of all I have been impressed with what most people call "family values" among immigrants. Unlike our citizens whose backgrounds are pockmarked by divorce, "single parent families," illegitimacy, day care and an exaggerated notion of creature comforts underscored by television and movies, immigrants take nothing for granted. It is normal for well-educated immigrants to go to work readily at jobs that citizens of the same educational achievement would never consider. Family connections are valued to the point that child care is rarely left to anyone outside the immediate family. It is not remarkable for people working at low incomes to find enough money to send home to the family they left behind - whether in Mexico, Kenya, Haiti, Bangladesh or Pakistan. These are just a few of which I have personal knowlege, but anyone who works with first generation immigrants can verify it to be true.

The story in Wired Magazine is about four high school students who build a robot to compete in a high level competition.

[Allan] Cameron was the computer science teacher sponsoring Carl Hayden's robotics program. At 59, he had a neatly trimmed white beard, unkempt brown hair, and more energy than most men half his age. Together with his fellow science teacher Fredi Lajvardi, Cameron had put up flyers around the school a few months earlier, offering to sponsor anyone interested in competing in the third annual Marine Advanced Technology Education Center's Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition.

Lorenzo Santillan, 16, didn't have much else to do after school. He didn't want to walk around the streets. He had tried that - he'd been a member of WBP 8th Street, a westside gang. When his friends started to get arrested for theft, he dropped out. He didn't want to go to jail.

Cristian Arcega had been living in a 30-square-foot plywood shed attached to the side of his parents' trailer. He liked it there. It was his own space. He was free to contemplate the acceleration of a raindrop as it leaves the clouds above him. He could hear it hit the roof and slide toward the puddles on the street outside. He imagined that the puddles were oceans and that the underwater robot he was building at school can explore them.

Oscar Vazquez was a born leader. A senior, he'd been in ROTC since ninth grade and was planning on a career in the military. But when he called to schedule a recruitment meeting at the end of his junior year, the officer in charge told him he was ineligible for military service. Because he was undocumented - his parents had brought him to the US from Mexico when he was 12 - he couldn't join, wouldn't get any scholarships, and had to start figuring out what else to do with his life.

...18-year-old Luis Aranda, the fourth member of the crew. At 5'10" and 250 pounds, Luis looked like Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He was the tether man, responsible for the pickup and release of what would be a 100-pound robot.

Frank Szwankowski.... sold industrial and scientific thermometers at Omega Engineering in Stamford, Connecticut. Szwankowski knew as much about thermometer applications as anyone in the US. All day long, he talked to military contractors, industrial engineers, and environmental consultants. So he was momentarily confused when he heard Oscar's high-pitched Mexican accent on the other end of the line.

That's the cast.
This is not fiction.
Joshua Davis is a freelance writer who has worked for Wired before. He loves engineering as much as writing and it shows here. I found the narrative not to be user-friendly, which is why I provided the snips above. But the substance of the tale is irresistable.



joanneA said...

Good blog again. I also have a respect and love for the folks I taught english to in several churches. They are everything you said and more. My heart always goes out to the gentlemen waiting on the street corners for someone to give them any kind of a job for the day. God have mercy on them and thier families.


Abbas Raza said...


Thanks for this, I have posted it on 3 Quarks, as well. Very inspiring for those of us engineers who never made it to MIT. Ciao for now, and best,