Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 570:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 570.

Today, our search for the inventive mind takes us to the seamy side of things. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Dope is scary stuff. We watch with an awful feeling of impotence as it corrodes our society. The drug trade seems invisible. We have no clear idea how to fight it. We don't know how it works. We don't know how addicts think.

Enter Ansley Hamid, an anthropology professor at John Jay college in New York. He's no conventional academic. Hamid wears a beard and beret. He looks like a beat poet left over from the '50s. We catch up with him in Harlem, talking to a young woman -- half strung out on crack.

Hamid offers her a little money for conversation. She says "Come on in." A cynical sign on her refrigerator says, "Just say NO to drugs." Hamid asks a few questions. She opens up easily. She's 25. She tells about her work as a hooker.

Hamid wonders where she spends her money. Where does she shoot up? After half an hour, he knows a lot about her. He knows things about her world you'd think were deep, dark secrets.

But Hamid has learned to look just like the peeling wallpaper of that world. He knows you don't mail questionnaires to people on the other side of the law.

And what's he found out? First, these aren't smooth operators. They're people who've never had anything and have no idea how to manage money. A dealer might keep $25,000 in a sock under his bed and never think about going to the bank. He'll pay cash for fancy suits and cars. The users are a captive market. Dealers keep crack prices high with little market influence.

He's found that sex is a commodity here. Crack increases sexual interest, but it dampens virility. Hamid studies the sordid details of sexual behavior to see how AIDS moves through this nether world.

He studies the mechanics of family dysfunction. He learns what role rebellion plays in driving kids into this life. Finally he takes off his mask of membership, and he talks to us:

". . . you see how individuals are formed," he says, "how they end up being channeled into the drug world. The next step is to figure out what kind of interventions can be designed to work with these people."
That's the 64-dollar question. That's what we need to know, and it's what this fascinating man is in a peculiar place to tell us.

The search for the inventive mind takes us to strange places. Here, it's brought us to a cool visionary who can observe without obtruding his person. Creativity is, after all, recognition. Creativity is the mystic ability to see things as they are -- not as we fear them, or as we wish they were. And that's what we need -- to cope with this chamber of horrors.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Burdick, A., Looking for the High Life. The Sciences, May/June 1991, pp. 14-17.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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