Nothing to Celebrate

Some Limits on Freedom

Ok, it’s been an exhausting year of almost non-stop social chaos in this country. I’m sure there are plenty of retrospectives of the events of the past twelve months (and much trivia) you could watch and read this weekend but I’m not going to look for them.

I’m also not going to write one. I just have a few thoughts about all this crap, mostly recycled from three previous rants. Feel free to ignore them.

The origins of this mess we’re in go back farther than one year, of course, and I continue to assign primary responsibility to the dead weight of indifference expressed by a significant number of American citizens in 2016. I can only hope that enough of those who opted out of voting, or worse, voted as a “message” to some unknown entity, are now paying attention.

I’m sure many more people are now at least awake, as expressed by the so-called resistance of the past year. However, as I ranted previously, resistance is not futile, but it’s also not enough. Pushing back does not move the country forward. At best, it maintains the status quo. Most likely, resistance will only keep us from sliding too far back into that past you hear so much about. The one that was “great” for some, but not for most.

One positive will be the many new faces who will be running for office this year. However, they, as well as the more familiar ones who want to stay in office, need to do more than put up a lot of scary ads saying “I’m not with him/them”.

They need to explain, clearly and forcefully, their vision for positive change and how it can be achieved. Engage us with how we can progress and improve society, as opposed to returning the “normal” that obviously wasn’t working for large parts of the county.

Finally, much of what has been written and said by our so-called leaders over the past twelve months, also brought to mind an essay written almost twenty years ago by the great Isaac Asimov.1

His point in the column (published in Newsweek, an actual paper magazine), is that, although many in American society loudly exclaim that the people have a “right to know”, they rarely are referring to having accurate and meaningful information. Instead they ridicule and devalue knowledge.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Asimov ends the essay with this idea:

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism”.

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval and social rewards for learning.

Asimov’s refusal to accept willful ignorance would make a wonderful message for any candidate, for office at any level, to include at the center of their campaign.


The image is of a t-shirt for sale in The Newseum. If you are visiting Washington DC, plan to spend half a day in this wonderful alternative to that other museum of American history.

1 The whole essay is a little dated, as you might expect, but worth reading.

Tech Addiction Does Not Have a Tech Solution

The New York Times says the tech backlash is here.

Once uncritically hailed for their innovation and economic success, Silicon Valley companies are under fire from all sides, facing calls to take more responsibility for their role in everything from election meddling and hate speech to physical health and internet addiction.

The backlash against big tech has been growing for months. Facebook and Twitter are under scrutiny for their roles in enabling Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and for facilitating abusive behavior. Google was hit with a record antitrust fine in Europe for improperly exploiting its market power.

Evidently, the breaking point came this week when two of Apple’s large, institutional investors began pressuring the company to study and find solutions to the addictive nature of their technology, especially among children. Their statement expresses a belief that “long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy and the company itself are inextricably linked”. 

Ok, I understand the addictive properties of gadgets like smartphones and social media sites like Facebook and SnapChat. But is this another case of blaming technology for human problems? Of demanding technological solutions instead of the difficult job of working collectively to change the culture?

I strongly disagree with media that post clickbait headlines like “Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy.” and follow them with unsupported statements like this:

They have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes.

No. They – those evil smartphones – just sit there doing nothing until someone picks it up. They do not impede daydreaming and creativity and, in my opinion, can actually improve the ability to recall information. On their own smartphones don’t make people more anxious. And they certainly do not “make” parents ignore their children.

Yes, companies like Apple1 should provide tools to help mitigate the “addictive nature” of their products. And Facebook should use some of that highly touted “artificial intelligence” to do a better job of screening out anti-social messaging. All of them certainly need to do a better job of educating parents and teachers on how children interact with their products.

But at this point in history, it’s not possible to compel people to use those tools and that knowledge. I wonder if it’s even possible to educate people how to be more socially responsible on social media when some of the worst examples come from people our political, business, and entertainment “leaders”.

So, the tech “backlash” is here and this debate will continue. With too much of the blame likely directed at the technology and the companies that create it. And not nearly enough of the responsibility accepted by those of us who use it.


1 And Google, which provides the operating system for far more smartphones than Apple and is often ignored in these debates. Of course, much of Android is copied from iOS so there’s that. :-)

Wasted Space

Exam

There are many things I don’t understand about the writing of Jay Mathews, former chief education writer for the Washington Post and current weekly columnist. Mostly why the paper continues to waste valuable newsprint on his work.

His column from last Monday is a good example.

Mathews begins by condemning the decline in the number of states that require students to pass one or more standardized tests in order to graduate. He says this a “national movement led by educators, parents and legislators”, calling it a “breathtaking turnabout, but without much celebrating”. Because polls related to public perception of school quality have not changed in five years?

He continues by complaining about “creative programs to boost achievement” being used by some states. Mathews says, those efforts are “failing miserably”, according to a report by “45 experts (including many teachers) who peered deeply into the state plans required by the new law”.

After spending the first half of the piece trying to make the case that the lack of standardized testing is hurting schools and students (with his usual lack of evidence), Mathews actually writes a statement that makes sense.

The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much, but the Collaborative for Student Success study indicates that reducing exit tests is not likely to bring much improvement, either.

So, maybe the focus of Mathews column should have been on alternatives to standardized testing, which he admits don’t seem to make any difference.

Anyway, this mess ends with some additional odd and unsupported statements, including his usual plug for the Advance Placement program. Which, of course, is another standardized testing program, one run by colleges rather than states.

We love making schools more accountable. Then, we hate the idea. This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement.

Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference. As always, that will be what saves us.

Does he understand that the excess of standardized testing has been driving “energetic and creative teachers” out of the classroom for a decade or more?

And why is this crap allowed to appear in a major national newspaper?


Image: Exam by Alberto G. on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Some Thoughts for a New Year

New Year Sunrise

Although I’ve always thought September 1 would make a much better New Year’s Day, western society has decided today will be that largely artificial dividing line. So, here we are in the year designated as 2018.

So, how will today and the ones that follow be different from the 365 that came before? Unless you came into a big inheritance when the calendar clicked over, I suspect for most of us the answer is not very.

However, after the chaos of 2017 in the US (which spilled over into many other parts of the world), something needs to change. As I wrote in any earlier rant, resistance to negative change can only take you so far. If successful, it really only maintains the status quo. Even with the small positive steps that occasionally pop up.

In 2018, we can continue to complain about what has happened in the past. Or we can plan and work to improve the future. Only one of those is worth the time and effort.

I hope we can find good people to run for leadership positions, at all levels, not just Congress, who understand this. Because real progress is only going to come from clear, creative, positive ideas for improving government and society. Not from trying to scare people. Not from asking for support simply because “I’m not that guy.”.

Maybe in this new period of time known as a year we as a society can move forward instead of ranting in place.


The picture is of sunrise over the Potomac River as seen from the Alexandria waterfront, New Year’s Day, 2012. As I recall, the temperature was much warmer that morning than it is currently.

The Strange Holiday Mix, 2017

This is my idea of an annual tradition: a collection of the holiday-related songs I can stand to have on heavy rotation over the next month or so. As opposed to the traditional playlist of earworms that even the programmers at Muzak must be embarrassed to let loose on the world.

But regardless of your musical tastes, and whatever you are celebrating this time of year, enjoy!

  1. Strangest Christmas Yet – Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers
  2. Christmas Coming Home (feat. Lennon & Maisy) – Nashville Cast
  3. To Christmas! (The Drinking Song) – Straight No Chaser
  4. Christmas Is the Time – Katharine McPhee
  5. Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Actin’ Nice) – Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
  6. Santa Claus Is Comin’ (In A Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train) – The Tractors
  7. Warmer in the Winter (feat. Trombone Shorty) – Lindsey Stirling
  8. Santa Stole Thanksgiving – Jimmy Buffett
  9. Feels Like Christmas (feat. Jana Kramer) – Straight No Chaser
  10. Santa Claus, Santa Claus – Dennis Turner
  11. California Christmastime – Rachel Bloom, Vincent Rodriguez III, and the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Cast (the video)
  12. Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ – Bill Kirchen & Austin de Lone
  13. They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore – Great Lake Swimmers
  14. Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me) – Davina & The Vagabonds
  15. Santa, My First Love – Swear And Shake
  16. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – Lindsey Stirling
  17. Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy – The Tractors
  18. Baby Don’t Leave Me (All Alone on Christmas) – Echosmith
  19. Schedryk – Pink Martini
  20. The Way-Too-Early Christmas Song – Paul and Storm