Saturday, October 07, 2017
Saturday, September 30, 2017
Although our leadership is too polite to say it out loud, they’ve embraced stagnation as the new quasi-official policy. The reason is tragi-comically obvious: any real reform would threaten the income streams gushing into untouchably powerful self-serving elites and fiefdoms.
In our pay-to-play centralized form of governance, any reform that threatens the skims, privileges and perquisites of existing elites and fiefdoms is immediately squashed, co-opted or watered down.
So the power structure of the status quo has embraced stagnation as a comfortable (except to those on the margins) and controllable descent that avoids the unpleasantness and uncertainty of crisis. We all know that humans quickly habituate to gradual changes in circumstances, and that if the changes are gradual enough, we have difficulty even noticing the erosion.
So wages/salaries stagnate, inflation eats away at the purchasing power of our net income, junk fees, tolls and taxes notch higher by increments too modest to trigger protest, fundamental civil liberties are chipped away one small piece at a time, healthcare costs rise every year like clockwork, and the gap between the bottom 95% and the top 5% widens, as does the gap between the top .1% and the bottom 99.9%, productivity stagnates, the growth rate of new businesses stagnates, but it’s all so gradual that we no longer notice except to sigh in resignation.
Japan is a global leader in how to gracefully manage stagnation. Here’s how Japan is managing to maintain a comfortable secular stagnation:
Japan’s central bank creates a ton of new currency every year, which it uses to buy Japan’s government debt/bonds. This keeps interest rates near-zero, so the cost of government borrowing is kept minimal.
This also gives the government a ton of new cash to spend that it doesn’t have to raise from additional taxes. The government then spends this “nearly free” money (i.e. deficit spending) to keep the whole stagnating machine glued together.
To keep asset prices comfortably elevated, Japan’s central bank creates additional gobs of currency out of thin air every year to buy assets such as stocks and corporate bonds.
It helps if domestic and global investors are willing to buy bonds yielding near-zero, but if not, no problem, the central bank can just create another trillion of new currency and buy all newly issued government bonds. What’s another trillion between friends?
There are only two potential spots of bother in this comfy setup:
1. If all this new currency is no longer accepted as having much purchasing power by the rest of the world
2. Inflation arises despite the tender machinations of the central bank and government.
Here are some snapshots of secular stagnation in the U.S.: here’s productivity:
New business growth:
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Saturday, September 23, 2017
You might have heard that the Lyme apocalypse is upon us this year. In spring, media outlets from NPR to USA Today to the New Scientist were forecasting a black-legged tick population eruption with a consequent outbreak of Lyme disease in the American Northeast. Transmitted by tick bite, Lyme can cause symptoms such as fatigue, fever, headache, and a characteristic bull’s-eye skin rash called erythema migrans. If untreated, the disease can spread to joints, the heart, and even lead to neurological complications such as Bell palsy.
Today, Lyme is North America’s leading “vector-borne” disease—a term used to describe any disease transmitted from animal to human via live host. Despite decades of research and control efforts, new cases of Lyme in humans continue to climb. Confirmed cases reached a total of 28,500 in the U.S. in 2015 (plus an additional 9,600 probable cases). That’s more than double the number found when they were first recorded in 1995, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though the trajectory has not been straight up, and increases may be partially related to heightened awareness. The number of counties in the U.S. that are considered Lyme disease hot spots has also more than tripled in that time, though the overwhelming majority of these is concentrated in just 14 states.
The problem is not confined to North America. Europe is witnessing a rise in confirmed cases of Lyme, and the disease is extending its geographic reach in both Europe and the temperate, forested parts of Asia. Some scientists believe now that the disease originated in Europe rather than in the northeastern U.S.—based on genetic sequencing of Borrelia burgdorferi—the Lyme-causing bacteria. The only known organism that doesn’t use iron to make proteins and enzymes, B. burgdorferi is particularly difficult for human bodies to kill because our immune system often tackles pathogens by starving them of iron. B. burgdorferi also lacks many other features common to bacterial pathogens, such as toxins and specialized secretion systems, which human immune systems use to detect and fight foreign invaders.
The black-legged tick is the only organism that can transmit B. burgdorferi between animals or between animals and humans. Ticks must have a blood meal at each of their three life stages to survive, so they climb onto their hosts from leaf litter or the tips of grasses or shrubs, attach their mouthparts to the host, and suck its blood slowly for several days. If the host animal has Lyme bacteria in the blood, the tick can ingest the pathogen and become infected, transmitting it to a new host at its next feeding, when the pathogen will rise from its gut to its feeding tubes. Once infected, the ticks stay infected for life.
Much of the media coverage of this year’s professed tick-a-geddon cites the work of scientist Rick Ostfeld, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, and his wife and partner, Felicia Keesing, an ecologist at Bard College. The pair are veterans of Lyme and tick research, and have been predicting a Lyme plague in 2017 for two years. Ostfeld’s research suggests that incidence of Lyme can be influenced by, among other things, a two-year chain of events that begins with a so-called mast year, when all of the oak trees in a particular region yield a bumper crop of acorns in synchrony.
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The term mast comes from the Old English word mæst, nuts of forest trees that litter the ground, especially those used for fattening swine. Scientists have speculated that producing a large crop of seeds at once provides an evolutionary advantage to certain kinds of trees: There are enough left over to take root even after seed predators have been satiated. The trees seem to spend almost all of their resources on reproduction in a mast year, leaving little left over for growth, but flip this equation in the following years. The lean years may then help to control predator populations who consume the seeds. Scientists believe that trees synchronize seed production in response to environmental cues such as rainfall or temperature.
It turns out that 2015 was a mast year, while the following year saw an explosion in white-footed mice in the region, according to Ostfeld and Keesing. It is worth noting that in his research, Ostfeld only found statistically significant correlations between acorns or mice and Lyme disease incidence in New York and Connecticut, and not in the other five states he studied. And yet, researchers in Poland have also found correlations between acorns and Lyme.
In a mast year, the trees spend almost all of their resources on reproduction, yielding a bumper crop of acorns.
Here’s how it is thought to work: A bumper crop of acorns in the northeastern United States attracts white-tailed deer into oak stands in autumn and white-footed mice and eastern chipmunks the following summer—the animal species that are among the most common hosts for black-legged ticks. Adult ticks mate on the deer in the fall and lay eggs on the ground in the spring, which turn to larval ticks in the summer. These larval ticks feed on the mice and chipmunks attracted to the acorns, as well as small birds. The following year, infected nymphs may land on human hosts, transmitting the disease in the process. The year after that, adult ticks can feed on deer and humans, though humans are much more likely to be infected by nymphs, which are harder to detect than adults. Nymphs feed in spring and summer while adults feed in the fall.
Does Biodiversity Curb Disease?
To ward off tick bites, health officials advise keeping yards trim. Mowing the lawn, cutting back overgrown brush, and cleaning up leaf litter are all thought to reduce potential exposure to tick populations in residential areas. The irony, though, is that Ostfeld, Keesing, and other scientists believe the opposite approach may be needed for our forests if we want to minimize our risk of contracting Lyme. We should leave large forest stands intact, limiting fragmentation of habitat.
In a 2001 paper, Ostfeld argues that in residential areas forest grows in chunks that are too small and fragmented to support a wide range of species—especially species that prey on ticks’ most popular hosts. Those predators include wolves, opossums, and skunks, which happen to be poor hosts for Lyme, he says. So when we cut down forests, we end up with fewer predators and thus with more deer, chipmunks, and mice, increasing our exposure to ticks.
“If we avoid chopping it up, destroying, or fragmenting the forested habitat, then we will automatically maintain that diversity of animals, most of which serve to regulate Lyme,” says Ostfeld. He and others have come to name this phenomenon the “dilution effect.” Supporters of the dilution effect believe that biodiversity helps to lower disease risk for humans as a general rule. A recent meta analysis published in July 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found widespread evidence that biodiversity in both plant and animal populations inhibits parasite spread by regulating populations of susceptible hosts or interfering with parasite transmission.
According to Ostfeld, fragmented habitats are typically most welcoming for “live fast, die young” species that are good hosts for all kinds of disease. They can carry an infection like Lyme without mounting an immune response because it is more advantageous to expend their resources on predator avoidance than fighting an infection that likely won’t kill them before they reproduce. (In the case of Lyme, this hypothesis is complicated by research that suggests some mice do, in fact, mount an immune response while others develop symptoms of Lyme disease after infection.) Another take on biodiversity and Lyme risk was published in 2014 by Canadian scientists, who found that a lack of diversity even among tick host species—and not just fewer predators—can increase Lyme disease risk.
Interestingly, not everyone agrees that biodiversity protects against Lyme or other plagues. A 2012 paper critiqued such thinking as “Panglossian,” or blindly optimistic without regard to the evidence. Others have said biodiversity plays precisely the opposite role, encouraging disease. “The emergence of Lyme disease had to do with reforestation and increased biodiversity,” counters Durland Fish, professor emeritus of epidemiology at Yale University, who studies vector-borne pathogens and disease ecology. Just look at the Amazon, he says, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, yet a hotbed of pathogens. “At the beginning of the 20th century, there were no deer in the northeast….No deer, no ticks, no Lyme disease.” The deer arrived with reforestation in suburban areas, he says.
Did the Lyme plague spare us this year? It’s still too early to say. Thomas Daniels, director of Fordham University’s Louis Calder Center in Armonk, New York, who has been counting ticks in Westchester for decades, says it has so far been a pretty average year. “High tick numbers lead to more bites, more bites result in more [Lyme disease] cases, but as you can imagine, many things can influence that in a given year: weather, knowledge of ticks and Lyme risk, likelihood of taking personal protection measures, amount of time spent in tick habitat,” he wrote in an email. “We’re actually analyzing our data set to better understand the system we have, but, in general, we haven’t seen a steady increase in nymphal numbers over the years. Variation from one year to the next is the norm.”
Friday, September 22, 2017
Every time I say I can’t make it easier to participate in Digipo, I find a way to make it easier.
The current process involves no skills greater than knowing how to work a word processor, and (more importantly) allows students to participate anonymously if they wish, without having to sign up for Google accounts or have edits tracked under pseudonyms. We accomplish this through a Microsoft Word template and by submitting the files into public domain.
You can of course use a more complex process, sign your name to the article, and use Google Docs as your central tool. Depending on your needs and skill level you may want to do that. It’s just not required anymore.
Here’s the steps.
- Read (at least some) of the book.
- Pick a question to investigate from our list of 300+ questions, or make up your own.
- Have your students download this Microsoft Word template that guides them through an investigation of a question. Apply the skills from the book.
- Do whatever sort of grading, assessment, or feedback you want.
- Take student reports where the students have agreed to submit them into public domain, and zip up the word documents. Mail them to email@example.com. Make sure you introduce who you are, what the class is about, and a bit about your experience as I do not open zip files from random people. Also give me a blurb about how your class would like to be identified on the site (they have the option of remaining anonymous too). For verification purposes, send it from your university account. I may email back to verify.
- I’ll put them on the Digipo site in a subdirectory with a bit about your class and give you a password that allows them to edit online going forward.
- At a later point we’ll assemble a small panel of professors who will go through the student work and choose ones to “promote” to the main directory based on quality. The key question reviewers will ask is whether the document provides better information than at least one of the top ten Google results for the question.
Thursday, September 07, 2017
For example, you can now buy “premium” water that’s not only free of GMOs and gluten but certified kosher and organic. Never mind that not a single drop of water anywhere contains either property or is altered in any way by those designations.
While some labels provide useful information that is not readily detectable by consumers, others contain misleading claims that exploit a knowledge gap with consumers and take advantage of their willingness to pay a premium for so-called process labels. For example, details on a product’s country of origin are helpful; labeling a bottle of water “gluten free” and “non-GMO” much less so.
In my experience as a food economist, such “fake transparency” does nothing to inform consumers about the nature of their foods. Moreover, it can actually decrease well-being when accompanied by a higher price tag. A new labeling law set to take effect next year will only make matters worse.A side-by-side comparison shows the differences between old and new food Nutrition Facts labels after changes were made earlier this year. Food and Drug Administration via AP
Brief history of food labels
Until the late 1960s, consumers knew very little about the nutritional content of the prepared foods they purchased.
The dramatic growth in processed foods changed this and led to a system of voluntary and mandatory nutrition labeling in the early ‘70s. As we learned more about the relationship between diet and health, Congress sought to provide consumers more information by passing the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require companies to list certain nutrients and other details on food packages.
Since then, food labeling has only gotten wilder. Some labels, such as “organic,” follow strict federal guidelines, while others aren’t regulated, such as “natural.” Eggs might come from chickens that are “cage-free” (which isn’t regulated) or “free range” (which is), while your milk could come from cows that are “grass-fed” (no standard) or “hormone-free” (requires verification).
These labels are largely the result of the consumer desire to know more about the way food is produced – and the willingness to pay more for the claims, spurious or not.Healthier internet? Mr. Gray
Characteristics of a product
To understand how all this labeling drives consumer behavior, let’s turn to economics.
The economist Kevin Lancaster hypothesized that consumers derive happiness not from a product they might buy but from its characteristics.
For example, when purchasing a car, it’s the characteristics – color, brand, size, price or fuel efficiency – that make you want to buy it. Browsing online even allows us to refine searches by these characteristics. Some of these characteristics, such as size and color, are visible and verifiable to they eye before purchase, while others, like a car’s fuel efficiency, can’t be confirmed until you sign on the dotted line and collect the keys.
In other words, the company knows more about the car than you do, something economists call asymmetric information. Economist George Akerlof won a Nobel Prize for his work on asymmetric information and how it leads to terrible market outcomes.
Similarly, food has characteristics that can be observed only after purchase. You can pick up an apple and see whether it has any blemishes, but you don’t really know how it will taste, and you cannot know how many calories it has even after consumption. That’s where food labels can help.
Exploiting the knowledge gap
Unfortunately, the problem of asymmetric information can never be eliminated entirely, and consumers may never have as much knowledge as they’d like when making purchases.
Mandated labeling has helped narrow this gap, particularly when the additional information increases consumer well-being, such as knowledge that a food contains 160 calories or 60 percent of the recommended daily does of vitamin C.
Some companies, however, use food labels to exploit this knowledge gap by preying on consumer concerns about a certain ingredient or process in order to collect a premium or increase market share. One of the ways they do this is by providing fake transparency through so-called absence labels (like “does not contain”), which are increasingly found on products that could not possibly have the ingredient in the first place.
While the water example I mentioned earlier is the most clear-cut illustration of this, others only require a bit more knowledge to see that they don’t serve a purpose. Since federal regulation requires that hormones not be used in pork or poultry, advertising a chicken breast as “hormone-free” doesn’t make sense – yet doing so allows a company to charge more or help its products stand out from the less-labeled competition.
The FDA allows a business to use the phrase as long as the label also notes that “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
A new law that makes GMO labeling of some foods mandatory will likely compound these problems once it takes effect in the summer of 2018.
To understand why, let’s return to asymmetric information and a related economic theory called the signaling effect. A signaling effect occurs when a buyer receives an implicit message from an explicit cue. For example, a food labeled “low sodium” may implicitly communicate that salt should be avoided. When the government is involved in the signaling effect, such as when a label is mandatory, the impact tends to become stronger.
Thus the new GMO labeling law is bound to signal to consumers that bioengineered foods are somehow bad. While some countries have banned the use of GMOs, such as in Europe, the FDA has said that “credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marketed to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods.”
As a result of the new law, companies selling products without GMOs will likely slap “GMO free” on the label even though the law doesn’t apply to those foods.
My worry is that consumers will become ever more mystified as more businesses make increasingly absurd claims on their labels so that their products stand out from the competition in the grocery store aisle. I expect that the only thing consumers will get in return for these “fake transparency” labels is a higher price tag.
Brandon McFadden expects to soon join Monsanto's Sustainability Advisory Council as a paid consultant.
Monday, August 14, 2017
Once upon a time I had a vision in my head of what being an author was like.
I imagined that I would wake up at the crack of noon, and I would roll out of bed and then ruminate on the complexities of the past, the present, the future. I would Think Very Hard about Big Ideas, and then I would go to the fertile garden of my word processor and gaze upon the word-seeds I had left the day before, and there, they would bloom, carrying forth the fruit of my Big Ideas — fruit that whose skin would rupture and it would leak the sweet juices of my Pure Nourishing Genius across the page.
Then I wrote a story longer than 2,000 words and became immediately divested of this bullshit notion. To clarify, I don’t mean that writing is not about big ideas, or that storytelling is not a conveyance and mechanism for those ideas, but rather, that in the day-to-day, this isn’t what writing or storytelling is about.
No, it’s about resource management.
Like, we’ve all had jobs. Regular, normal-ass jobs. (Or normal ass-jobs? Hm.) Jobs where you juggle tasks and complete them on time. Jobs where you have to keep track of random shit and make sure some kind of process or production stays orderly. Maybe you put things into a spreadsheet or you arrange widgets and dongles or you make sandwiches as a sandwich artisan.
All good. All normal. No shame in dongle-sandwich management.
Life, too, is this way — my adult life is constantly about managing things. Am I wearing pants? Am I where I’m supposed to be? Have I put food in my body? Where are my pants again? Having a child only increased this, because suddenly I’m worry about a tinier, less-responsible version of me. Is he eating food? Is he eating the right kind of food? Am I committing to his physical, emotional and intellectual nourishment? Where is he? Right now, seriously, where is he? Is he under the couch? He might be under the couch. He might be in the ducts, like John McClane. Did he poop today? This is legitimately a thing you have to think about with kids. Their poop. Did they do it? Did it look okay? Are you feeding them the right amount of poop fuel and is it resulting in proper poopification? You just don’t know. But you always have to check.
Job, life, it’s all resource management. Hell, even video games are like this. Wandering around Mass Effect is a constant act of, “Well, I found another pair of space pants, what do I do with these? I found seven Krogan whatchamafuckits, will I use them to upgrade my sniper rifle or will I spend them for research points in order to build space toilets on this disreputable planet I found, or maybe I’ll just sell them for space drugs.”
Storytelling, I had hoped was different.
Spoiler warning: it ain’t that different.
Writing a story is often just an act of resource management.
What I mean is this:
I am often forced to be focused on basic logistics for a story. My questions are ceaselessly dull. Where are the characters? Can they have gotten there in that time frame? Wait, have they slept? What are they holding? Could they have that? Wait, does that character know enough about that thing to accurately speak about it? What’s today’s date? When is it? Where am I? Where are the characters’ pants? Are they space pants? Do they need seven whatchamafuckits to defeat the seller of space drugs? Did the characters poop today?
Worse, the writing itself is subject to resource management: did I use that word too many times? Should this chapter follow that chapter? Is there a jump in time that will help? Am I establishing a good rhythm, with differently-sized sentences and paragraphs nestled up against one another? Am I breaking this chapter up, or leaving it long, or what? Do I need more space drugs? ARE MY WORDS TOTAL POOP TODAY?
Storytelling has its own abstract resources, too. You want tension, but you don’t want too much of it — overuse it, and it becomes overwrought, listless, expected. Conflict can’t just be one thing, it needs to come in a rainbow of fucking flavors. You never want just one plot, you need multiple plots, driven by stories, circumstances, conflicts creating conflicts, scenes creating scenes. It all has to flow together. It has to have a narrative rhythm just as your words need a rhythm of language. More resources, more management, and more poop, probably, I dunno.
I note this for a few reasons.
First, because it was on my mind and what’s on my mind often gets frothily reduced, like a fine sauce, on this here blog.
Second, because I think it’s important to hold minimal illusions about what the day-to-day job entails, and sometimes this job entails not merely herding cats but rather, WRESTLING MANY HERDS OF THE AFOREMENTIONED CATS, meaning, it requires juggling lots of internal narrative data. We often see writing and story spoken of in this high-minded and occasionally impractical way, but that’s rarely what really goes into the nitty-gritty of it.
Third, because I think maybe a lot of big Hollywood films have actively lost sight of this kind of important resource management, and they treat the narrative resources cheaply to score a lazy impact — so sad when I watch big movies and find a hundred different plotholes or worse, aren’t sure how a thing is actually happening, all because I think the storytellers forgot to track the narrative data. They become so consumed with spectacle that they fail to remember how things need to actually make sense at the most basic level. Storytelling can be about pomp and circumstance, but the moment we stop believing in the basic reality of it is the moment all the pomp and circumstance deflate like a sad erection.
Fourth and finally because you do still need to transcend this — you’re managing resources but at the end of the day, a story isn’t a spreadsheet, it isn’t logistics, it’s something grander, greater, squirmier, stranger. You must get the data and details right, you must force it to make sense, and then you go beyond it. Only when your ducks are in their proverbial row do you transcend those details and find a way to arrange everything for maximum emotional or thematic impact.
But it’s okay that in the trenches, it’s about crude logic and basic arrangement.
Let that be okay.
Don’t sweat it.
Get it right, then go bigger.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find my pants and go buy more space drugs.
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
by Chuck Wendig, from Writer’s Digest, October 17th
A new writing/storytelling book by yours truly! All about the fiddly bits of storytelling — creating great characters, growing narrative organically, identifying and creating theme. Hope you dig it.
Sunday, August 13, 2017
We’re in an interesting political era, to put it mildly. I don’t just mean “Trump’s America,” or the specific partisan aspects of our contemporary situation. I mean also that we’ve been publicly grappling with broader issues of how individual people can feel empowered and engaged in the work of deliberative democracy, when so many of our digital tools have made us seem further away from those we disagree with than ever before. We’ve been grappling with this broad idea called “populism,” a curious debate given the basic definitions of democracy; we’ve argued over the proper role of experts and expertise; we’ve worried over bubbles, fake news, and the death of the commons.
We’ve also asked for decades how the liberal arts can be made relevant and important again. These seem to me to be two questions that answer the other. It is precisely the humanities that has long concerned itself with these questions, and it is the humanities that is best suited to answer them. We should look beyond our narrowly vocational interests in education, and recognize that STEM-mania and the obsession with technical skills have something to do with our unhealthy public discourse. A healthy deliberative democracy requires work. It requires people to go out of their way to foster discursive spaces where we can have a truly democratic conversation. Dismantling the humanities, despite what you’d read in the average magazine article, has consequences, and we’re living with them.
A college class, obviously, is a little thing, and doesn’t have much impact on the national conversation. But I am naive enough to believe that teaching and learning still matter, and so I’m laying out a vision for a class I thought up that is designed to address precisely the crisis of conversation we’re seeing today. The liberal arts are constantly based for their supposed impracticality, but it’s hard for me to imagine a task more practical than that of teaching young people how to be engaged, involved citizens.
Seminar in Public Writing: de Tocqueville’s America
The class I’m proposing here I envision as a 400-level seminar in English or Writing programs, entitled “Seminar in Public Writing: de Tocqueville’s America.” The class will be a seminar revolving around Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal text Democracy in America, and using the text as a lens to consider public writing, public formation, and deliberative democracy.
Public writing is a field concerned both with writing objects designed for public consumption and with the theoretical and practical structures within public writing. It foregrounds the role writing plays in various types of political power structures, with an emphasis on its generative potential within a deliberative democracy. Public writing is ideally designed to produce effects within the world. Those effects may be as passive as mutual understanding or as active as generating concrete expression within the political process. In every case, public writing looks out from the individual or small group concerns of the creator of the writing onto a larger public to which it is addressed.
Dr. Linda Shamoon, Professor Emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, once described the process of public writing creating social change as such:
In our democratic society we ordinary citizens (as well as professional writers and those in leadership positions) who encounter a problem we consider to be public in nature may use many kinds of writing to arouse the concern of others in our community. Some in our society say we are obligated to speak out—or write—about such problems or issues. Initially, we may get little or no response to our demands for a remedy to the problem, but those of us who track an issue and seek or develop forums for our voices to be heard may find ourselves involved in many different kinds of public writing in support of our cause and working with others for solutions we had just begun to understand when we started.
Public writing assumes various stages of success. Generally, we see public writing succeeding in four stages:
Recognition— the work of public writing is read/heard; the argument is recognized as having been made.
Inclusion— the person or persons who produced the writing are recognized as valid members of the public, permitted to make public statements.
Discussion— the piece of public writing is legitimately and openly debated in good faith.
Action— the public writing produces those effects it was designed to produce.
Note that any piece of public writing need not be successful at any of these stages for it to be considered worthwhile by the person or persons writing it. Political dissidents and other out-group members often participate in public writing with no expectation that their writing will be recognized, included, discussed, or will generate the action they desire. We should still see the effort involved in public writing as beneficial and worthwhile even if it satisfies none of these stages. Democracy involves failure as well as success.
The tendency for public writing to be created but to be denied entry into the space of public discourse concerns the second stage of success, inclusion. Public writing is deeply concerned with the question of who has the right to speak— that is, who is allowed entry into a particular public sphere. Publics formation is one of the key theoretical areas of public writing, and it is here that we intersect with Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy in America.
De Tocqueville’s text is one of the seminal works of early political science and a definitive statement on early American democracy. De Tocqueville, a traveling French nobleman, was deeply intrigued by the still-young American republic of the 1830s. Commissioned to examine the American prison system, de Tocqueville and his traveling companion sojourned across the United States and into parts of Canada, documenting many aspects of early American life that were in contrast to the practical and political norms of continental Europe. De Tocqueville’s text is a useful historical account, but it is must valued today as one of the most important evolutions in the history of political science.
A pressing question animates de Tocqueville’s text: why had republican representative democracy succeeded in America when it had seemingly failed in many other parts of the world? As an intrigued and sympathetic observer, de Tocqueville catalogs the unique elements of American democracy and civic participation. Concerned particularly with the intersection of religion, citizenship, and democratic duty, Democracy in America attempts to understand the particular American equation for successful repesentative democracy.
Of course, the success of 1830s America was success predicated on a system of brutal and oppressive inequities in power and quality of life, which de Tocqueville does not ignore. (It is relevant to point out that de Tocqueville’s view on American democracy grew much darker in his later years.) Indeed, the question of slavery haunts the book. De Tocqueville does not ignore the fact that slaves, women, and native peoples were written out of the very democratic processes he praised, and neither should we. Rather, who is included and who is excluded from democracy is of central importance to the theories of public writing. De Tocqueville’s text remains relevant to a 21st century audience in part because it is so insightful about how democracies have always excluded as well as included, with the backdrop of 19th-century America providing a host of examples of how a public is formed and how marginalized people are excluded from it.
The following syllabus describes the course, its readings, and its goals. Students will learn basic theories of publics through philosophers like Habermas, discuss what it means to write for a public, consider the impact of the internet on publics formation, and read through Democracy in America, using the text to give the course shape and structure. They will participate in creating a journal of their own writing, to be hosted online as well as bound, printed, and distributed on campus – because it’s still a thrill to see your words in real print, especially for young students.
public writing and DIA syllabus (editable Word document)public writing and DIA syllabus
Drinking in the morning is no longer a sign that you have a problem with alcohol; it’s mandatory for getting through the day without committing a series of grisly homicides, then going on the run. The single problem with getting a little liquor in your system to face the daily grind is finding the time […]
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Wednesday, July 05, 2017
Dr. Amanda Visconti retweeted: What if we stopped trying to save so much digital shit? Big data is not just a huge fossil fuel suck, it's increasingly taking up land
Friday, June 30, 2017
Friday, May 19, 2017
Another classic challenge, of which I am a fan.
Way this works is, below you will find two tables — X and Y! — and you will pick (or randomly draw) from those tables. That will leave you with a set of X versus Y — and from there, you will write a piece of flash fiction based on that parameter set. You can even use the match up (SKELETONS VS. SCIENTISTS!) as the title to the work, or come up with a new title.
Length: ~2000 words
Due by: 5/26, Friday, noon EST
Post at your online space, link back here so all can read.
- Time Travelers
- Interdimensional Floating Jellyfish Creatures
- Serial Killers
- George Washington
- Artificial Intelligence
- Swamp Monsters
Thursday, May 04, 2017
Yet another chat app has been made available for download, but unlike most regular chat apps, this particular one puts emojis to the forefront.
14 Google Hangouts Hidden Animated Emojis
Google Hangouts is one of the best ways to continuously stay connected on smartphone and desktop either via…Read more
Developed by the Italian arm of Samsung, Wemogee is a chat app that is made to help people with aphasia communicate. What is aphasia you ask? Aphasia is a complex neurological disorder that is triggered by injury to the Broca and Wernicke areas of the brain.
Those affected by aphasia often suffer from difficulties relating to the production, comprehension and expression of speech.
The way Wemogee works is pretty straightforward: users will be able to chat with each other by selecting one of the more than 140 phrases that can be currently found in the app.
These phrases are depicted as emojis in Aphasic Mode, as well as standard text in Non-Aphasic Mode. To make finding for a particular phrase easier, all of the phrases have been sorted into six different categories.
On its own, Wemogee proves to be a rather easy to use chat app. The selection of phrases are large enough to carry out a simple conversation between two people. However, at the time of writing, Wemogee suffers from a weird bug that prevents the user from receiving an authorization SMS.
Seeing as an authorization SMS is needed to start using Wemogee, and so, not being able to receive said SMS means that you won’t be able to use it at all.
Wemogee is now available for download on the Android Play Store. The app will also make its way to the Apple App Store sometime soon.
10 Chat Tools for Better Communication in Team Projects
When building ideas together in a team environment you need a reliable means of communication. The people you…Read more
Tuesday, May 02, 2017
Some of you may remember Microsoft’s Academic Search, a research project and academic search engine that was discontinued in 2012. However, in March 2016, Microsoft brought back an updated version of the Academic Search system as a Bing-powered service.
Fast forward to April 2017, it appears that Microsoft has big plans for this academia-centric search engine as the company has launched Microsoft Academic 2.0 in preview form, allowing everyone to have a taste of what the system may offer when the full version is made available.
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If someone asks you, off the top of your head, what search engines you use or know off,…Read more
At the core of Microsoft Academic 2.0 sits the updated version of the Academic Search system. As the name implies, this system is a search engine that is tailored to look for academia-related content. The content that can be found via this search engine includes academic journals, thesis and conferences.
While the search engine itself will assist you in pulling up publications that are related to your field of interest, the Academic Search system can accommodate a wide variety of parameters.
For example, you could use the search engine to search for authors or even educational institutions. Also, depending on the topic that you’ve searched for, the results that return could include works that were first published in the 18th century or older.
So what else does Microsoft Academic 2.0 apart from the Academic Search system? For starters, Microsoft Academic 2.0 functions more like a full-fledged educational ecosystem. Unlike Academic Search, which is purely a search engine, Microsoft Academic 2.0 has some features that appear to be inspired from social networking services.
For starters, Microsoft has implemented a Follow button on all of the topics that can be found on the search engine. This feature will prove to be useful for those who wish to be updated on a specific topic, author or organization on a regular basis, allowing them to gain access to the latest materials without needing to search for it.
The updated contents will be made available on the user’s dashboard for easy access.
As for those who have published journals or theses online, Microsoft has also provided tools that would allow a user or organization to claim a paper, journal, conference or even an author as their own.
In its current form, Microsoft Academic 2.0 is still very much a work in progress. While the search engine part of the Academic 2.0 runs pretty smoothly, the user experience part of the system is still very much barebones and may not function properly at times.
While it is way too early to tell if Academic 2.0 will manage to be the research hub that Microsoft envisions it to be, there is no denying that Academic 2.0 could potentially be useful for those who are involved in academia.
Libraries.io – Open Source Search Engine For Developers
There are millions of open source projects online with new ones being launched every day. Developers from all…Read more
Oset Babur in Harvard Magazine:
Imagine a business that creates a perfectly energy-efficient environment by adjusting ventilation rates in its workplace. On paper, the outcome would seem overwhelmingly positive: fewer greenhouse-gas emissions to the environment and lowered costs to the business. It’s an idyllic scenario, except for what Joseph Allen and his team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) describe as the potentially serious human cost: workers with chronic migraines, nausea, fatigue, and difficulty focusing. Fortunately, these side effects are avoidable.
“The truth is, we absolutely can have buildings that are both energy-efficient and healthy,” says Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science. In 2015, his team published a two-part study that quantified the cognitive benefits of improved environmental conditions for workers. The first phase took place in the Syracuse University Center for Excellence, where knowledge workers, such as architects and engineers, went about their regular workdays as Allen and his team manipulated environmental factors. “We weren’t looking to test an unattainable, dream-state workplace. We wanted to test scenarios and conditions that would be possible to replicate,” he explains. They adjusted ventilation rates, carbon dioxide levels, and the quantity of airborne VOCs (volatile organic chemical compounds that are emitted by common objects such as desk chairs and white boards). At the end of each day, the team asked workers to complete cognitive-function assessments in nine key areas, including crisis response, decisionmaking, and strategy. “We saw pretty dramatic effects,” he reports: workers in optimized environments scored 131 percent better in crisis-response questions, 299 percent better on information usage, and 288 percent higher in strategy.
Saturday, April 29, 2017
New article in the Modern Workplace Learning Magazine “In this article I take a look at how workplace learning has changed over the last 10+ years and its necessary future direction. In May 2010 I posted a diagram I had created that showed what I considered to be the 5 stages of …
The education culture of performativity is wrapped up in notions of measurement. How do we measure student success, teacher performance, effective school leadership, and successful education policy? How do we know which school systems are successful and why they are successful? How can we tease out and understand causes of performance, such as the influence of social and economic factors, the system, the school, and the teacher? These are perennial education questions, and ones which continue to become more and more important in a globalised world in which countries, schools, and teachers can be compared, and in which there is an ever-increasing weight of accountability.
Standardised testing is a central issue in this neoliberal education context. Individual schools have their own approaches to measurement, such as the one I describe in this blog post. In Australia we have NAPLAN and WACE. There is currently talk of a national Phonics Check in the early years, such as that used in the UK. Internationally we have TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA.
Steven Lewis and Anna Hogan have shown how oversimplified reports of international testing measures can contribute to oversimplified ‘fast policy’. As Marten Koomen points out, systems should respond to international testing measures but these systems are complex. Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard wrote that looking at a single country’s PISA ranking is useless; rather we need to carefully disaggregate the data and consider social and economic factors, and differences between states, schools and groups.
This week I received in the mail a copy of new book The global education race: Taking the measure of PISA and international testing, by Sam Sellar, Greg Thompson and David Rutkowski. (Full disclosure: I got a complimentary copy.) It is a pocket rocket at about A5 size and 99 pages. In the Foreword, David Berliner and Pasi Sahlberg question the value often ascribed to PISA, noting that PISA tests are linked to the social conditions as well as school systems and that “when the race to the top gets tougher … curriculum narrows and children suffer” (p.ix).
The book demystifies the workings of PISA, using the extended metaphor of the ‘race’ as a way to make sense of what PISA is, how it works, how it might be used, and how it shouldn’t be used. The authors make their explanations accessible without ignoring the complexities of standardised international testing on a large scale. The book is at once matter of fact and told with a wry sense of humour (as a reader I’m a sucker for references to Monty Python and 1980s arcade games). The book rails against the commodification of simple solutions to solve complex problems. As I explored satirically in this He-Man inspired post (speaking of 80s references) there are plenty of edu salespeople hoping to profit from the pressures of accountability pressing in on schools and teachers. This book, however, is about helping those on the ground to understand the complexities, inner workings and possibilities of PISA.
What sets Sellar, Thompson and Rutkowski’s book apart from other literature is its ability to engage with complexity in an accessible way; to explain clearly without simplifying; and to avoid binaries and polarising divides while acknowledging differing perspectives. They note, for instance, that PISA has been innovative, carefully developed, and judiciously administered, but that such a big project will undoubtably suffer from technical issues and limitations. They note that PISA is an assessment of select content areas of one sample on one day, but also argue that transparent standardised tests like PISA can be a useful tool for understanding social systems. They explain validity in understandable ways and show how countries can use PISA data responsibly.
The international examples help the book to be relevant to people in OECD countries around the world. For Australian readers like myself there are some gems, such as that PISA performance has become an end in itself, evidenced by the national target of improving Australia’s PISA ranking by 2025 (articulated in the 2013 Education Act). The authors call this move “astounding”. Their tongues are firmly in their cheeks when they state on page 76 that: “The aim of reversing the trend of declining PISA scores seems to be to improve PISA scores through intensifying those policies that have not worked so far. A bold move.” A bold move, indeed, and one that Simon Birmingham might want to reconsider.
The authors also recognise the desire of policy makers, educators and the media to understand PISA and to glean the most important messages it can tell us. They warn, however, about over-attribution of causality, when correlations become causal claims, pointing to the way the media and policy makers often use PISA to point to particular factors as being the cause of high or declining PISA performance. I’ve written about the dangers of policy moves like performance pay for teachers, and the authors have warnings to offer their readers about the negative effects of pairing standardised testing with punitive accountability regimes, and of governments desperately scrambling to ‘win’ against other countries. Run your own race, they argue.
The global education race presents an important challenge to policy makers and educators alike: to develop informed communities willing and able to engage in discussion of how educational measurement, including system-level measurement tools, can be judiciously used to inform policy and practice. The kind of shift they suggest is a challenge. It will require ministers, media and educators to take a non-divisive, sense-making and collaborative approach of seeking to understand, and of deep, thoughtful engagement with data and with one another.
Less Common Villains: monstrous fishmonger, malignant barista, fiendish librarian, diabolical ceramicist, treacherous auctioneer, deceitful zookeeper
Friday, April 28, 2017
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While the news waves groan with stories about “America’s Opioid Epidemic” you may discern that there is little effort to actually understand what’s behind it, namely, the fact that life in the United States has become unspeakably depressing, empty, and purposeless for a large class of citizens. I mean unspeakably literally. If you want evidence of our inability to construct a coherent story about what’s happening in this country, there it is.
I live in a corner of Flyover Red America where you can easily read these conditions on the landscape — the vacant Main Streets, especially after dark, the houses uncared for and decrepitating year by year, the derelict farms with barns falling down, harvesters rusting in the rain, and pastures overgrown with sumacs, the parasitical national chain stories like tumors at the edge of every town.
You can read it in the bodies of the people in the new town square, i.e. the supermarket: people prematurely old, fattened and sickened by bad food made to look and taste irresistible to con those sunk in despair, a deadly consolation for lives otherwise filled by empty hours, trash television, addictive computer games, and their own family melodramas concocted to give some narrative meaning to lives otherwise bereft of event or effort.
These are people who have suffered their economic and social roles in life to be stolen from them. They do not work at things that matter. They have no prospects for a better life — and, anyway, the sheer notion of that has been reduced to absurd fantasies of Kardashian luxury, i.e. maximum comfort with no purpose other than to enable self-dramatization. And nothing dramatizes a desperate life like a drug habit. It concentrates the mind, as Samuel Johnson once remarked, like waiting to be hanged.
On display in the news reports about the mystery of the opioid epidemic is America’s neurotic reliance on supposedly scientific “studies.” Never before in history has a society studied so much and learned so little — which is what happens when you resort to scientizing things that are essentially matters of conduct. It rests on the fallacy that if you compile enough statistics about something, you can control it.
Opioid addiction is just another racket, a personal one, in a culture of racketeering that is edging toward truly epochal failure, for the simple reason that rackets are dishonest, and pervasive dishonesty is at odds with reality, and reality always has the final say.
The eerie thing about reading the landscape of despair is that you can see the ghosts of purpose and meaning in it. Before 1970, there were at least five factories in my little town, all designed originally to run on the water power (or hydro-electric) of the Battenkill River, a tributary of the nearby Hudson. The ruins of these enterprises are still there, the red brick walls with the roofs caved in, the twisted chain-link fence that no longer has anything to protect, the broken masonry mill-races.
The ghosts of commerce are also plainly visible in the bones of Main Street. These were businesses owned by people who lived in town, who employed other people who lived in town, who often bought and sold things grown or made in and around town. Every level of this activity occupied people and gave purpose and meaning to their lives, even if the work associated with it was sometimes hard. Altogether, it formed a rich network of inter-dependence, of networked human lives and family histories.
What galls me is how casually the country accepts the forces that it has enabled to wreck these relationships. None of the news reports or “studies” done about opioid addiction will challenge or even mention the deadly logic of Wal Mart and operations like it that systematically destroyed local retail economies (and the lives entailed in them.) The news media would have you believe that we still value “bargain shopping” above all other social dynamics. In the end, we don’t know what we’re talking about.
I’ve maintained for many years that it will probably require the collapse of the current arrangements for the nation to reacquire a reality-based sense of purpose and meaning. I’m kind of glad to see national chain retail failing, one less major bad thing in American life. Trump was just a crude symptom of the sore-beset public’s longing for a new disposition of things. He’ll be swept away in the collapse of the rackets, including the real estate racket that he built his career on. Once the collapse gets underway in earnest, starting with the most toxic racket of all, contemporary finance, there will be a lot to do. The day may dawn in America when people are too busy to resort to opioids, and actually derive some satisfaction from the busy-ness that occupies them.
Who is Pooh Bollinger? And what’s got her so worked up?
Find out soon in this space….
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