From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Structure, History, and Culture (3)—Interstate Highways

[a] Time/space structure RF
This is the third in a series of posts dealing with a major set of theoretical concepts—structure, history, and culture. There is no better place to begin than the introduction to the series, and Tuesday's post (Packing the Car) took some very basic steps toward explaining how the concepts work in practice. Yesterday's post (NCAA Brackets) was really much too complicated for the baby steps toward deep understanding that I prefer in this series, but the NCAA tournament is upon us, and I cannot resist pointing out timely matters of structure, event/history, and culture. Even if you have not yet read the first few posts, here are the very basic ideas (if you find this to be simple, you either have a background in Sahlinsian structuralism or are not paying attention). We "negotiate" structures all of the time—and all kinds of them—physical, intellectual, cultural, and beyond. Each time we interact with a structure, we make choices. There is a great deal of individual choice in these matters. These choices result in an event—a particular set of choices intersecting one or more structures. Once that particular event is over, it is history. The particular negotiations of structure accumulate over time and become culturally recognized ways of negotiating those structures. 

I like to say that we are structure-negotiating animals. If you learn to think this way, it will change your life and ways of thinking...about everything.
 ***  ***
[b] Drivin' RF
On Tuesday, I packed the car. Wednesday and Thursday, I drove from Beloit, Wisconsin to Alexandria, Virginia (by way of Columbus, Ohio). Today, I'm writing about it. If that isn't structure, history, and culture, I don't know what is.

Let's start with a brief narrative of this little event (since it happened, and has ended, it is now "history," no matter how inconsequential). I was overwhelmed with work on Wednesday, and had to run errands all over the surprisingly un-little town of Beloit. By the time that the last pair of shoes was stuffed into the trunk (near the bike) and I had fed the cats and double-checked on their care while I will be gone, it was 5:00 p.m. I had already given away the vast majority of that natural structure we call daylight (along with a cultural boost we call "Daylight Savings Time"). I would soon be driving in the dark. Off to the post office I drove; there, I arranged for that M-Sa structure we call "mail delivery" to be suspended while I am gone. I then drove south toward I-90, but stopped first at a gas station and filled that metal structure we call a gas tank with fuel.

I reached the South Beloit exit of U.S. Interstate 90 at 5:44 p.m. CDT. I was on my way (and soon had to reset my watch to EDT).

[c] Choice RF
I structured the trip (using MapQuest as a guide) so that it would take me on what I call the "southern route" to the District of Columbia. If you start in Wisconsin (or Chicago) and type in "Washington D.C." or "Alexandria VA," the suggested map will take you through northern Indiana and Ohio before dipping down through Pennsylvania, maneuvering you through bits of Maryland, and landing you softly in the exurbs beyond that stone-laden bastion of "taxation without representation," our nation's capital. You will "save" an hour on your trip.

But it will also cost you about $50 in tolls.

If, on the other hand, you type in "Beloit WI" (or "Chicago IL"), but then add "Columbus OH" (or any number of central Indiana or Ohio cities)—as well as your capital destination—you will be sent down through Indianapolis, and on to Richmond, Dayton, Columbus, and Zanesville before hurling you further southward toward Morgantown. You will then spend two hours negotiating the Appalachian hilltops of West Virginia and western Maryland on scenic I-68 before easing into suburban Maryland, onto the Capital Beltway, and eventually to the current home of Newt and Calista, Pat and Rob. The tolls are minimal.

But the trip will take at least an extra hour (not counting truck delays on Green Mountain).

[d] Crow road RF
That's the structure of the trip. The beginning point and the ending point are the same. The two routes require choice on several levels. Do I have (a little) more time than money? Head south. Do I have (a little) more money than time? Stay north. What if I don't care? I still have to choose. If I'm driving, I have to spend a fair amount of time on roads. If that sounds ridiculously obvious, you still have not gotten used to the painfully slow pacing of this series of posts. Those roads are structures, and they matter. We make choices all around (and through) them. Most humans don't drive as the crow flies, no matter what truck commercials would like you to believe.

Structure(s)...and choice(s).

Interstate highways boast another kind of structuring. If you have ever traversed a quiet country backroad, you surely noticed that all sorts of little entries and exits figure in your car's workout. Better tap the brakes, you think, because that pickup ahead looks like it's slowing down for a turn. Yup. In it goes to a long driveway, down into the trees. No turn signal (oh, I hate that). On you drive. Soon you see speed limit signs that note "50" then "40," and finally "30" (miles per hour). Be careful. That sign you thought said "30" really says "25." You just weren't paying attention. On you drive through Orfordville. Once you're safely through town, you can pick it up to fifty-five again (or so). Watch out for the farm equipment up ahead with a slow-moving vehicle sign posted for you and other irritated drivers who might just need a reminder of where your food comes from.

[e] Backroad RF
That's country driving. Interstate highways are substantially different. Zoom, zoom. Interstate traffic does not have speeds as variable as you will find on a country road. In fact, these intersecting rivers of traffic (even numbers E-W and odd numbers N-S) have minimum speed limit signs. They don't allow hitchhikers...or bicycles. They come two, three, or four lanes wide (structures profoundly different from that ol' country backroad) and restrict access and exit in quite serious ways. If you miss your exit, you can't just zip into the next farm and turn around. You're locked in (and don't even think about making a U-turn—don't look away; I'm talking to you). In short, the physical structures of the roadway are a great deal different from what you would experience driving from Mayville to Finley on Highway 200 in eastern North Dakota. The feds don't allow for chance the way that loosey-goosey state governments do.

These exits are structured in another way that I will treat in more detail another day (but want to mention briefly now). What you eat, where you attend to nature's needs, and the manner in which you refuel your car—all of these are structured in a manner that you might not notice unless you spend a great deal of time driving. Did you know that there are a whole lot of McDonald's restaurants in this big country? Did you know that truckstop buffets are far more popular today than they were in, say, 1980? Yes, you have choices...but they are structured far more than you might realize.

[f] Limits RF
Finally, for today, let's consider just one more set of structures. For the most part, I have mentioned what I like to call "Level 2A" structures—roads, exits, lanes of traffic. There is another kind of structure that is unavoidable on a cross-country trip (I often call them—without usually thinking of Denmark—"Level 2B" structures). These come in many forms, but speed limits are foremost among them. These social, economic, and cultural strictures (we might call them "legal") can ruin your whole day...if you insist on playing with the margins of structure. 

I negotiated those structures on this trip with aplomb, if I do say so myself. I drove safely through town on Wednesday, and then locked in at sixty-five miles per hour through Illinois. Once through Chicago and northern Indiana, I kicked it up to seventy (that's the speed limit). It was down to fifty-five through Indianapolis, and then back to seventy. I made sure to drive sixty-five through Ohio. I have heard stories, and their truck-driving source is impeccable (thank you, Stanley). Clearly, however, many people failed to hear that message. There were plenty of lanes, though, and we were all happy. Usually. 

[g] Long, winding, structure RF
Back up to seventy I went in West Virginia, then down to sixty-five in Pennsylvania before kicking back up to seventy when it became West Virginia again (check the map). The challenge, even for a little Honda—or especially for one—was keeping it at sixty-five through the rolling hills of the National Scenic Corridor (I-68), but the real lesson was the slightly varying structures of speed limits between and among states. These structures seem more "negotiable" than paved-road structures, but what are its limits?

That is another question for another day. For now, I have to change that structure called "packed car" and make it into something along the lines of "stuff in the apartment." I have work to do, and choices to make.

In the meantime, I'll check out what happened in that big event that we call the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament and get back to you tomorrow (more structure, more basketball).

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