Last weekend I was in Washington D.C. visiting my cousin and attending a good friend’s wedding. A cohort took us to the Old Ebbitt Grill, a historical bar/restaurant in the city. The walls are adorned with stuffed heads of big game animals and we sat at the back bar immersing ourselves in the scenery. A naked woman lay stretched out in a painting on the wall and well-dressed patrons chatted while nibbling on fancy food. While pondering a painting of a young Ulysses Grant in a Union uniform we sipped cocktails. When we had finished our meal we walked down to the White House, past the Treasury building, I was strangely surprised to see Bank of America across the street. Staring at those banks near the national treasury made me consider of the orgy of corruption in Washington and I was left thinking that I was duped as a child.
Upon visiting the White House you will find it surrounded by a wrought iron gate, but I guess you don’t just walk up and ring the doorbell. My friends and I joked about getting an audience with the President, something that seemed particularly inane at the time. However, I soon remembered reading about how Abraham Lincoln would often sit and listen tirelessly to hoards of average citizens who had requested an audience, which was something that he felt obligated to do. Although the Old Ebbitt Grill was serving drinks when Lincoln was in the White House, the political system has drastically changed.
The White House lawn was perfectly manicured and the only thing that seemed askew was an empty water bottle that someone had thrown into the lawn, which seemed like a fittingly American act of lazy defiance. Across the street sat a petite, lone woman in a tent surrounded by placards concerning U.S. conflicts. She had a picture of Edward Snowden that said he was an “American Hero.” In front of her tent sat a cup out for a “peace fund” so I gave her a dollar and she scrutinized at it as if she was nearly certain that it was laced with anthrax. I looked up at the light-posts and noticed cameras, hiding behind little tinted globes. My friends joked that I would be added to the “list” for contributing to this suspicious pacifist’s fund, but I assured them that my involvement in Can the Man had long ago solidified my place on any number of lists held by government spying programs.
As we walked through the national Mall past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, I thought more about how this place continues to change. It was different since I was here as a child and different again when I had visited in college a decade earlier. I too was different. I looked at all the monuments with less reverence, all these structures built to inspire patriotic pride now instilled a certain sarcastic pessimism. I saw several new monuments since my last visit such as World War II and Martin Luther King Jr. and I wondered if these were as much about attracting tourism dollars as they were for serving a deeply important purpose. Also I thought about memory, how these monuments were placed there to reinforce certain images of how the United States has been shaped throughout its history, forming a national identity. The nation’s capital, like our government, is constantly changing. I realized that I had been changing too.
“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”
Think about the last extended journey that you took. Chances are you were on an airliner, in a car, or maybe you even boldly chose the fading options of sea travel or railway. When you think about it, the way we travel hasn’t really changed all that much in the past fifty years. Automobile standards have improved and air travel has become more common, but we haven’t taken that next big step. For some strange reason the jetpacks and teleporters of the world have never really come to fruition. In fact, many people working at NASA would probably argue that we have taken steps backwards in our capability for travel. The shuttle program has been scrapped, and there hasn’t been a manned moon mission since the early 70’s. Despite possible missteps in the way we move around the world and beyond it, there is some recent evidence that may indicate hope for the coming future. In 25 years you may be able to take a routine trip into low earth orbit (LEO), or be rocketed from New York to Los Angeles in under an hour.
One of the drastic ways our transportation may change in the near future is coming (unsurprisingly) from Google. News of their driverless car over the past several years has been encouraging, but it seems to me that the average person still considers the possibility of autonomous cars quite remote. Perhaps it is because so many of us love the driving experience, the feeling of working with a machine in order to accomplish something that would otherwise be impossible. With a driverless car there is none of that, it would feel completely detached, satiated, boring. While many of us may be putting the possibility of robotic chauffeurs into the back of our minds, the project (among others) has now reached a practical testing phase.
Patrick McLoughlin, a transport official for the UK, has stated that by the start of next year there will likely be autonomous cars performing trials on British motorways.  Along with tech companies like Google, carmakers such as Nissan have begun field testing self-driving vehicles that could soon make their way onto public roads.  The hope is that with the advent of driverless cars, problems like congestion and pollution can be ameliorated in heavily populated urban areas like London.
We may have all pondered the driverless car of the future, but I doubt that many of us have seriously considered the possibility of what is now being called a “hyperloop”. Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and Space X has recently stated his intention to reconfigure human transportation in the coming years. Musk is now planning to research and develop a system of ultra-highspeed magnetic levitation vehicles that would (theoretically) shoot you across the country in under an hour.  The plan is to utilize existing bullet train technology in conjunction with solar power and pneumatics to create a sustainable system of global high-speed travel. On July 15th Musk informed the world via twitter that he plans to formally publish an “alpha design” for the technology by August 12th of 2013. 
In addition to these intriguing advances to earthly travel, there has also been encouraging progress in the development of extraterrestrial transportation. Just several days ago the British government disclosed a new joint venture with Reaction Engines Ltd. The project will be funded by a 60 million pound investment from the UK, and aims to develop a space plane utilizing Reaction’s Sabre rocket technology that could allow new LEO planes to reach speeds in excess of 15,000 miles per hour.  The hope is that the new type of rocket motor will make refueling and sustainability possible for passenger spaceflight, and allow manned space travel to finally become feasible for a large number of people.
There is also a great deal of interest being generated from NASA’s coordination of efforts with the University of Washington to develop a spacecraft motor using nuclear fusion. The new type of technology is still under development, but could hopefully be used to trim the time of a Mars trip down to a month.  All of this progress and visionary achievement shows us just how fascinating a time we live in. One hundred years ago you may have been astonished by the sight of a car traveling amongst horses, and now look where we are. Our species is like an infant that has slowly learned to crawl, then walk, and is just now pushing the boundaries of movement. In twenty years we may have crept up to a slow jog, but I’m excited to see what happens when we hit a dead sprint.
Depending on who you talk to, the death of Trayvon Martin could mean one of two things. While the events that lead to Martin’s death remain uncertain, the issue has been fractured into two staunchly opposing viewpoints. One side considers the shooting by George Zimmerman to be an act of justifiable personal defense, something to be commended and even encouraged. The other perspective adamantly believes that the shooting was the result of prejudice and vigilantism, a crime that should merit years in prison or worse. The incident and subsequent trial have polarized Americans like so many other high-profile cases before, with each side obstinately rooted into their version of what transpired.
After speaking with people who believe their opinion of the Zimmerman case issue to be unequivocally correct, I have come to a conclusion. If you think that you are infallibly right one way or the other, you most certainly are not. The problem is that when the majority of people look at a case like this (one that is politically and culturally charged), they respond immediately based upon their own predilections. There are individuals who know people that have been assaulted or murdered by young black men, and on the other side of the coin there are those who have been the victims of racially motivated violence. Seldom does the average citizen approach an issue like this with any sincere objectivity, despite what they would have you believe. But this is what we must strive to do—rise above our petty individualism and think clearly.
The truth of the matter is that the series of events that lead to the death of Trayvon Martin are only privy to one person, George Zimmerman (who did not testify in this case). Without a polygraph test or corroborating testimony, we cannot know one way or the other what transpired on the fateful day when these two men crossed paths. This fact has been pointed out as a major weak point in the argument presented by the prosecutors, and the primary reason that the jury found Zimmerman not guilty. The burden of proof is in the hands of the state, and without clear evidence of wrongdoing, there can be no justifiable conviction. So why do we see such staunch opinions of a case that was clearly ambiguous? Because people make of the world what they please, they see what they want to see. This case has routinely yielded hateful claims from both sides of the fence. One group cries: “Trayvon Martin was a pot smoking gangster who attacked an innocent bystander.” The other responds: “George Zimmerman is a racist vigilante who was looking for trouble and negligently murdered an innocent boy.” These opinions may sound like satire, but they represent the real dichotomy of this issue.
I am not condemning the perspectives of one side over the other, but I am dissatisfied with the ignorant assumption of correctness that each side has cultivated. Go speak to someone from either side of the issue and see what you find. Try to make heads or tails of the opinions that you hear, I sincerely challenge you. Is it possible that the negative characterizations of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are true? Absolutely. But what actually happened is most likely somewhere in the middle of all this conjecture and cultural affectation.
In the aftermath of the recent verdict, I witnessed some peculiar reflection on the case from the media savants at CNN. Strangely, the focus of the post-verdict coverage was on the immorality of the decision. The legal analysts all pointed out the ambiguity of the case and the lack of clarity that lead to Zimmerman’s exoneration, but at the same time they completely condemned the verdict as immoral. Words like tragedy began to fly around with increasing regularity, and a somber mood glossed over the faces of the anchors. I found this curious. If the legal system worked as it should and the jury made the proper decision based upon evidence, what exactly is your issue? How can you agree with what the jury decided and yet find Zimmerman guilty of some wrongdoing in your own mind? After all, this is the reason that we have juries, so that crimes can be evaluated not only by evidence but by individual citizens. You cannot maintain any credibility if you look at this case and say to yourself, they made the right decision but they shouldn’t have. The logic implied by CNN following the case was that the verdict was “correct”, but somehow still wrong. In truth their response seemed to be nothing short of a complete indictment of the legal system and a validation of extrajudicial judgment. One thing was clear from the recent coverage on CNN—they pander to the affectations and emotional outrage that have made this case such a volatile issue. They stir the pot and have no desire to objectively address the topic at hand.
A case such as this is a perfect litmus test for America as we move foreward. Issues like the shooting of Trayvon Martin prod and poke us like a sharp stick, teasing out the weak points. They expose us for what we really are, cogs in a wheel that would rather be told what to think than how to think. People need to stop for just a moment and think outside of themselves. They have to realize that radicalized opinions and unsound judgements only perpetuate gaps in our society, they do nothing to remedy them. Let us all learn something from this unfortunate dispute. Let us learn not to think what is easy, but what is wise.
In the midst of my all too common Sunday night insomnia I came across the 1975 classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (based on the Ken Kesey novel of the same title). After studying each version thoroughly in both high school and college, I still learn something new with every read or viewing. During my recent encounter I began to draw some interesting comparisons between the work and the “loony-bin” society we find ourselves immersed in today. Of all the memorable characters, I was drawn back to the two most famous, Nurse Ratched and her antithesis Randle P. McMurphy.
The story of Cuckoo’s Nest is not a happy tale, but it contains many layers that take the reader on an unforgettable journey. Kesey wrote this after spending time in both mental hospitals and undergoing psychoactive experiments in the secret government program MK-Ultra, which tested numerous psychotropic substances on human beings. Cuckoo’s Nest is however, a story of good versus evil, of control versus chaos, and the battles we fight every day to maintain the delicate balance between.
The scene which has stuck out most profoundly to me was near the end, where the veil of control that Nurse Ratched wears so well comes crashing down to the inevitable forces of chaos. After a night of carousing and drinking, the patients are rudely awoken by a very pissed off Big Nurse, whose blood boils at the very hint of disrespect or unruliness. When she asks for her paper nursing cap back, she receives it dirtied and defiled. The pure absolute white that once shone proudly has been fouled and spoiled by chaos. This for me marks the first of two comparisons that can be related to our current society. All around the globe oppressed people are rising up against unfair governments and tyrannical leaders. The masses are challenging the control of their governments, leaving stains on the absolute whiteness of their power. Much like Nurse Ratched, these governments are afraid to lose control with the fear that their power will crumble and subside.
We, meaning the collectively perturbed society, represent the Randle P. McMurphy of Cuckoo’s Nest. We’re inciting challenges to authority while constantly pushing our peers and equals to new heights. Where the many patients of mental ward find strength in McMurphy, we find strength in the Edward Snowden’s, Bradley Manning’s, and Julian Assange’s of the world. When McMurphy rises up in that final moment of cataclysmic rage against Nurse Ratched, I see the protests of Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil. The immense frustration with authority is palpable in those final minutes of the film, and that is becoming an almost universal sentiment throughout the world. We are sick of the Nurse Ratched’s controlling our reality, invading our privacy, and manipulating us into brainless beasts. With everything going on in the world, I too have begun to feel the ethereal “fog” encircling my mind. I wonder who will rise as the face for this sentiment; we’re all waiting for someone like McMurphy to surface and show us the way. After all it could be you, or it could be me, but someone has too, otherwise we’ll all be trapped inside the confines of a controlling society.