Terms of Withdrawal

The other night, trying to fall asleep during a podcast hosted by two Millennials (probably in their mid-20s), I sat up taking notes on something they called “the enforced flexibility” of smartphones.

What an intriguing term! I know that addiction to smartphones is a serious problem, but these two weren’t concerned about user activity. They focused instead on the unseen consequences that haunt us long after we put the phone down.

So. Enforced flexibility, the young man said, is the act of texting right up to a meeting or a decision. The texting person gets to go with the flow of unexpected changes in timing and planning. People who receive the messages are forced to be just as “flexible” as the sender.

I had read about the transition from calling on your cell phone to texting (furiously) on your smartphone. And, silly me, I’d assumed those crowds of pedestrians obsessively looking down at their smartphones were reading books.

Here again the two hosts were less concerned about content on the tiny screen than  “schizoid geography.” This is the sense of living in a three-dimensional world but attending to the squared-off flatness of that thing in your  hand.

And while we’re absorbed by smartphone content, the woman added, we risk the “manhole cover experience.”  We don’t see mistakes coming, so we don’t learn how to correct them.  In an era of There’s an App for That, we’re all falling for “the ideology of convenience.”

The Deeper Problem

Then the young man said something I thought I’d never hear from a young man: Generally speaking, “Apps are created by an homogenous, mostly white, mostly male, mostly Bay Area startup community that’s automating the hassle of life out of existence.”

Wow, I thought.  Is that true?  (It’s probably true. I feel as though it’s true.)

He even quoted Marshall McLuhan, the famous media critic of half a century ago who declared that  “every extension is also an amputation.” Gad, I loved that guy. McLuhan might have been talking about the hidden dangers of television in the 1950s, but he meant that every labor-saving/brain-saving device reduces our power of doing/thinking for ourselves.

TV and smartphones are examples of this runaway technology. The medium itself is the message, McLuhan famously said. It doesn’t matter what we watch, or which little screen.

The hosts said they’re not the only ones who feel railroaded by the Silicon Valley notion of technological “progress.” The young man has started his own anti-Uber/anti-Lyft movement because he thinks it’s too easy to hire a car that three minutes later whooshes you out of your discomfort in one place to bring you to a “better” experience in another.

At this point the woman wondered if even younger Millenniels listening to this podcast will  laugh “at the two Gen-Xers waxing nostalgic over buying a bus ticket.”  (I think Gen-Xers are really old, like nearing 40.)

We all chuckled at that, despite the hour (3 a.m.), but the young man agreed. He wanted to put out a call to bring back boredom. When you’re waiting in a dentist office or bus stop, he said, don’t play a game on your smartphone or check your messages or send a text. “Make the brain fill in those empty spaces.”

(Of course if the waitees have downloaded a book they’re reading, even if it’s tiny 8-pt. type on an iPhone, I’d say that’s a happy compromise.)

Anyway, two admissions from me:

1) I couldn’t find the name or App for this podcast, and I’m so sorry.  These two brought enlightened discourse to a subject that needs deep and thoughtful discussion. If I ever hear them again, I’ll send word out. (BTW they are not, as far as I can tell, the hosts of Two Millennials, One Podcast).

2) Of the millions of podcasts exploding onto the cyberscene, I find most dumb and amateurish, thus my habit of using them to fall asleep. But here was the irony: I listened because it was a podcast. Had it been an opinion piece in the New York Times, I might have skipped it.

2a) Remember when Steve Jobs said, “Listening is the new reading”?  I loathed him for that (all the while “reading” hundreds of audiobook versions since the Books on Tape days back in the 70s.) He was too glib, too righteous, too….maybe right on about a big part of the population.

Neither of these two remarkable young hosts suggested that podcasts have replaced opinion pieces or reporting or other kinds of print journalism.  But appreciating their tough questions about smartphones in the wee hours, I began to wonder if we’re in an era where talking is the new writing.

The Amazing History of the Amazing Richard Kirschman, Part VII

Dear Readers: Richard Kirschman died peacefully at home in Point Reyes Station on November 6, a dear friend to many and a voice in West Marin that will never be silenced. I miss him already. — Pat


Word from Inverness journalist Mark Dowie adds yet another adventure to the six-part posting about Richard Kirschman of Dogtown and Point Reyes. I called that series Changing the World, One Idea at a Time, but Mark’s suggestion reflects just about everybody’s awe, so here is Part VII, and it is amazing, as Mark explains below:

Richard circa 1970

If one more chapter were to be added to your recent series, which might be renamed The Amazing History of the Amazing Richard Kirschman, it could be about the lawsuit Richard filed in the early 1970s against the US Navy.

Richard was a retired Navy officer and knew from his years of service that when Navy ships entered urban ports around the world, they unloaded their human waste into harbor waters.

So he sued, hoping to force the Navy to install sewage treatment plants or gigantic holding tanks on all Navy ships.

When he traveled to Europe, Richard asked me to keep an eye on the litigation. I didn’t have to do much more than call his lawyers from time to time and ask them how the case was proceeding. I nonetheless regarded myself, and still do, as an informal co-complainant in the case … WHICH WE WON!

The most memorable vignette I recall from this time was a comment Richard made when he appeared on a popular morning radio talk show (Dan Sorkin’s?). Asked about the lawsuit, he observed that any aircraft carrier sailing through San Francisco Bay with a full crew was the equivalent of the entire town of Sausalito flushing all of its toilets directly into the Bay, every day. (more…)

Richard Kirschman: Changing the World, One Idea at a Time, Part VI

I started this series wanting to describe only one thing about Richard Kirschman because it fascinates so many — that is, his role as creator of the now-legendary $3 Coin Project in West Marin.

The $3 Coin: Strength in Community

The “gold” coin (actually made of brass) is a beautiful $3 souvenir that has generated more than $50,000 for good causes without anybody spending a dime. (I explained how it works in Part I and still can’t believe it.)

But that was only a gate opener. The ingenious projects that Kirschman has launched over the years have been the subject of constant delight and surprise, especially in West Marin. Many account for all Parts II through V, yet they offer only a glimpse of an imagination so fresh and original that it’s been percolatin’ well into Richard’s 80s.

Hark the Herald

So now in this final post let’s turn to Richard Kirschman not as inventor or activist but as a modern-day harbinger. Very often, he’s the guy who notices some key thing the rest of us don’t see. He questions, he investigates, he provokes. He suggests, he teases, he inspires.

Sometimes he passes out buttons he’s made himself to stimulate public consciousness. People laugh, but they get the point, and on to lapels and jackets they go.

And many times he sends out an alert.

In the 1980s, when it seemed smart and liberating to switch to decaf coffee, Richard was among the critically thinking few who warned consumers (in Medical Self-Care magazine) to be on the lookout for carcinogenic solvents used in most decaf processes. (more…)

Richard Kirschman, Changing the World – One Idea at a Time: Part V

Part of the fun of writing about Richard Kirschman lies in discovering an entrepreneur of a half a century ago who might be unrecognizable today.

The young Richard Kirschman was a clean-shaven, sharp-dressin’, up-and-coming entrerpreneur, considered so cool in the 1960s he might have walked out of the pages of Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine. As the society writer for the San Francisco Examiner realized in 1967, he was quite a catch with the ladies:

Richard in the ’60s (standing, second from right) with local movers and shakers, including restaurateur Enrico Banducci (in beret, right) and visitor Woody Allen (left)

“At 34, real estate developer Kirschman is hardly up to his ankles in the San Francisco financial waters, and he finds them very inviting. Socially a debonair, sought-after bachelor, he’s a fast-thinking, clear-eyed entrepreneur … the young executive who sails, skis, flies, glides, sculpts, bags and cooks his own ducks.”

Yes, a man who couldn’t have been more romantic for his time, was Richard K. Did he know the 180-degree turn his life would take soon afterward? As it happened, he was right on the edge of “the good life” all along.

The Question Always Out There

Richard grew up on Long Island in the post-World War II era, when it was possible to have liberal Republicans for parents. In 1946, his mother noticed a fledgling organization called the United Nations moving into a former weapons factory near their home. Peace was in the air, so she walked over to the nearly securityless building and offered to help as a volunteer. Soon the UN depended on her to run tours as one of its first official docents. (more…)

Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part IV

“Thus began Richard in West Marin: He had ideas, he invented, he petitioned. He studied, learned, asked questions and offered pragmatic ideas, always with a smile and good humor.” The Point Reyes Light

I love the above reporter’s description of Richard Kirschman as a person who invents new things as well as petitions for acceptance of new ideas. He is an activist who’s been impatient and frustrated with bureaucracies all his life, yet he believes in the power of local community and what it takes to introduce the possibility of radical change. Plus he’s a persistent SOB when you come down to it.

Richard in his 40s

Let’s look at three remarkable examples:

GIVING THROUGH YOUTH: Teaching Kids Philanthropy

For some years, Richard had this Great Idea to do more than send personal checks and other contributions to charities he believed in. Instead, he wanted to give money to children in nearby schools and let them decide what to do with it.

At first he asked teachers to set up a curriculum in which students could learn about philanthropy. The kids wouldn’t just read about it; they’d contribute actual cash to a cause that they themselves had investigated, argued for and eventually voted on. That level of engagement would invite a personal understanding of the value of charity, a word that could use a little updating, inspiration-wise . (more…)

Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part III

“Every now and then, a person will have a good idea for an invention, but the concept rarely goes beyond idle speculation and cocktail party chatter. Richard Kirschman is not one of those people.”

So wrote a reporter for the Marin Independent Journal about 20 years ago, and no, Richard Kirschman has never been a person to hide his ideas behind “idle speculation.”

A Bolinas fire fighter for 20 years

For half a century he’s been known in West Marin as the everywhere-at-once First Responder, activist, inventor, farmer, letter-writer, real estate developer (the good kind), philanthropist, self-publisher and all-around Great Idea guy.

It’s the inventor with a sense of humor I’d like to follow here, the guy who looks at society’s complexity and notices something so obvious that everybody’s missed it. Typically he can’t stop thinking about it until a solution appears in his mind, and then he’s filled with excitement, and off and running he goes.

That was the case with the $3 Coin Project and Ten Thousand Words You Already Know in Spanish, as we have seen in previous posts. But the range of ingenuity and good humor in Richard’s many inventions will always astound. Here are a few examples:

The ‘Rickshaw Ring’ Project

I bet every Westerner who’s traveled to India has had this thought: How do they do it? That is, how do rickshaw drivers do the back-breaking work of peddling tourists around on soft (not paved) roads? All day, every day, and then, when a hill approaches, they have to get out and pull the rickshaw, with you and the kids and the luggage sitting there, adding weight. And they charge you the equivalent of U.S. pennies for the service. (more…)