Monday, September 30, 2013

Learning in passing

I heard a story somewhere, that Michelangelo once had a great block of marble. Every day, he would go and stare at it for hours. His apprentice would ask him what he was doing.

"Working," he'd say. But the block would stay the same.

This went on for weeks, for months, for years. And the block would stay the same. Then, one day, the apprentice came in and was amazed to discover the block had changed.

Michelangelo had created David.

This story is pretty ridiculous, but I like it as a metaphor for the work that happens when you're thinking.

When I was an undergraduate, for example, I'd have a deadline, and I'd sit on it. Not procrastinating exactly, but not actively working on it either. If I had a paper due, I would think about the topic a lot. I'd think about it in the morning. I'd think about it while doing other things. I'd think about it before going to bed.

Then one day, I'd sit down and write the paper. And it was easy to write. Because I'd written the whole thing in my head.

Not that I was producing any Davids, but I've always found this manner of processing to be particularly helpful for me.

If something comes up and I don't have an answer, I'll say, "let me sit on that awhile." And then some day I'll have an answer. I don't really know where it came from.

I started thinking about this recently after discussing (in my civic book club) Markus Prior's Post-Broadcast Democracy, which explores the effect of media environment on political learning and engagement.

One thing that comes up a lot in this book is the idea of byproduct learning.

That is to say, learning from the environment around you, whether you intend to be learning from it or not. Prior gives the example of newsreels, short news films shown in movie houses before the main feature.

People went to the movies to see the movie. But they also saw the newsreel. They also learned from the newsreel. So really, whether they intended to be informed or not, they became informed by watching the newsreel.

A media environment where people can more efficiently find what they're looking for decreases byproduct learning. If you only see the things you're actively interested in, you won't learn from the things that happen to cross your path. With the passing of newsreels and diminishing of broadcast television, Prior argues, byproduct learning is minimal in our current media environment.

But I'm not convinced that all is lost. These traditional venues may be dying, but there's still opportunity for byproduct learning. There's still opportunity to share with each other and learn from each other. There are still opportunities to make news accessible and to provide tools and resources that will inform a casual observer.

But are we doing it? And are people learning from this?

I don't know. I'll have to sit on that awhile.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Straight spaghetti

There's an important connection between advertising and social justice. Between buying power and social power.

The economic structure we've created espouses that the 'market is always right.' Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, the idea has important implications for social action.

When I was in grad school, one of my professors speculated that mainstream acceptance of gay people and families would be driven by marketers.

Essentially, he argued, marketers couldn't afford to ignore this population.

On average, gay couples have more disposable income than straight couples. Ironically, this is because homophobic sentiments around adoption by gay families leads to gay couples having more buying power. And, in a capitalist economy, buying power is an important form of power.

Just as politicians need to cater to senior citizens, marketers need to cater to gay couples. Not to mention all the folks who aren't homophobes, of which there are many.

If you imagine companies as driven by nothing but profits, with no thought to morals (I know, hard to imagine, right?), then the calculation would go something like this:

If you appeal to gay consumers by featuring openly-gay people in your ads, then you risk alienating the homophobes. If you show only straight people in the your advertisements, then at best you miss tapping into this lucrative market and at worst you alienate everyone else.

The last few years we've been in a transition time. Some companies are boldly coming out as pro-gay, while others are playing it safe and hoping no one notices. But it's getting harder and hard for companies not to take a stand on this issue.

And then, every once and awhile, a company totally implodes.

Like this week when Barilla chairman Guido Barilla, was asked in an Italian radio interview if he would consider using gay families in ads.

He said he would not.

"...But not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others … [but] I don't see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family."

Oh, crash and burn.

And believe it or not, his interview went downhill from there as Barilla expressed his views against adoption by gay parents, and told gays they could eat another pasta. And I'm pretty sure he didn't realize he was being offensive.

Even his apologies are offensive. First he tried to clarify his remarks, saying he "simply wanted to highlight the central role of the woman in the family."

Then, he tried apologizing further saying that he has "the utmost respect for homosexuals and...marriages between people of the same sex." He maybe should have stopped there because he then added, "Barilla in its advertising has always chosen to represent the family because this is the symbol of hospitality and affection for everyone."

So. A woman's place is in the home (cooking pasta, I guess). Families with gay people aren't real families (or aren't hospitable?). And frankly I'm not clear on how he feels about gay women.

Basically it's time to stop buying Barilla.

Barilla is a major company. It has half the Italian pasta market and a quarter of the U.S. market. This blunder and subsequent boycott has the potential to do major damage to their market share.

And I assure you other companies are watching.

Other companies breath a sigh of relief every time they're not asked how they feel about gay people. But they know the day is coming when either they'll have to diversify the people they present or they'll find themselves in the position Barilla is in today.

And they're hoping Barilla gets away with it, so that they can be homophobic too.

Update: Rival Bertoni responds with this ad.  Boom.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Visualizing racial segregation

I recently ran across an interesting map from the Demographics Research Group at the University of  Virginia. (Specifically at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service - gotta get that school name in there!)

Using 2010 Census data, researchers created an interactive map with racially color-coded dots for each person  residing in the United States. In total, the map has 308,745,538 dots, coded for White (blue), Black (green), Asian (red), Hispanic (orange), and Other (brown).

The map is really fascinating, so you should check it out.

Looking at the full map, you can see some general geographic trends - the large Black population in the south east, the Hispanic population in the south west, the fact that no one lives in the west

Of course, when I realized the map was interactive the first thing I had to do was look at my respective home towns.

Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and frankly is better integrated than many. Yet the map still shows clear racial segregation between neighborhoods. Along the industrial docks - the "flat lands," as they're called, you can see the large Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations. By the way, can you guess which area is Oakland's Chinatown?

Then to the right, as you start getting into the Oakland hills, you can see wealthy, White, Piedmont as well as the middle class, White neighborhoods of the hills.

And if you're wondering, I grew off 98th ave (bottom right). At least my neighborhood is more integrated than most - not too many White folks, but a good mix of everyone else.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Income disparity and migration

I've become particularly interested in economics as a tool for understanding social issues and for affecting social change.

So today I went to an interesting lecture by Samuel Bazzi, Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston University. Bazzi spoke about his recent working paper Wealth Heterogeneity, Income Shocks, and International Migration: Theory and Evidence from Indonesia. (Read full report)

At it's heart this lecture was about mapping individual choices to national trends. This strikes me as a very economics concept. If peoples individual decision making can be explained and predicted by a mathematical model, then those decisions can be aggregated to explain, and predict, larger trends.

This is definitely a vision of social science as epistme, or "scientific" knowledge.

But can people's decisions really be accurately mathematically modeled?

Well, I'm skeptical, but I have much more to learn. And, even if transforming individual actions into mathematical statements is not an accurate description of reality, I'm not prepared to assume that means there's no value to this approach.

So let me tell you about migration in Indonesia. 

Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world. Immigration, particularly from rural areas, is common. Recruiters are active in rural towns, attracting around 700,000 migrants annually to 2-3 year contract jobs in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

So what determines whether someone immigrates or stays in Indonesia? 

Well, money, says the economist.

Immigrating for these fixed-year contract jobs can be fairly lucrative compared to rural agriculture. But the costs associated with migration make it difficult for the poorest people to take advantage of these opportunities. Alternately, for the wealthiest Indonesians migration may not be a lucrative enough opportunity.

So you end up with a trend where the poorest and the wealthiest don't migrate, but those in the middle, do:

Using this data, Bazzi goes on to map and predict migration trends. His model looks particularly at the effects of sudden economic changes on migration. Years with higher rainfall are more profitable for farmers. And the 2004 Indonesian ban on imported rice drove up the cost of buying rice domestically. These economic changes influenced people's need to migrate for higher wages and people's ability to afford migration.

By looking at those economic changes and examining income this period, Bazzi says, you can use his model to predict migration next period.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Remedial Voting School

I'm thinking about starting a website, where people can anonymously post their embarrassing voted-related stories.

I mean...people have those, right?

Like this morning, when I had to vote three times before the machine would accept my ballot. That was awkward. After the first fail, or maybe it was the second, the poll worker politely reminded my that I should only vote for one person. After the third fail I asked him to check my ballot because by then I was convinced I was probably an idiot.

For the record, I did nothing wrong.

Everyone was actually super nice and polite about it. Because poll workers are awesome like that. But I still felt like kind of an idiot. Even though, really, I did nothing wrong. I still don't know why the ballot box wouldn't accept me. I've never had that problem before.

Well, not that problem, but others.

Like the time I got a stern warning from a poll worker because I accidentally wore a campaign sticker into the polling place. (I was really excited).

Or the time I went to vote after registering through a student group and inexplicably my name wasn't on the ballot almost as though my registration form had never gotten mailed even though the student group swore that it would.Yeah, that was awkward.

After standing around and hemming and hawing a bit, the friendly poll people directed me to a provisional ballot, assuring me that it would get looked at if it was a close race and counted if I was a legitimate voter after all. Not that I really thought my one vote counted to begin with.

My point in all this, is that if I can so easily come up with three times I've embarrassed myself at the polls, I'm sure others must have stories too. And I worry that those incidents depress turnout.

Poll workers have been nothing but cordial and helpful to me while I act a fool, but I still leave feeling a bit awkward and uncomfortable. And I'm someone who more or less knows how the system works. And who gets way too excited about voting. And who doesn't so much mind acting like a fool in public (thanks, theater training!).

So I wonder about other folks who try to vote and fail. Who live in places where the poll workers aren't quite so friendly. Who decide that really, this whole business just isn't worth the trouble.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Either I didn't look or I didn't care

When I was growing up, if I felt that a teacher was consistently not giving me sufficient feedback on my writing, I would start to slip things into my essays.

(Are you really reading this?) I'd ask in the middle of an argument.

Nobody ever noticed that.

To be fair, I didn't do it that often. And when I did, it usually wasn't on full-blown, quarter-of-your-grade type essays. It was on short assignments graded on some mysterious scale of checks and pluses. The kind of thing you knew the teacher probably wasn't reading any way.

And I mean that with no disrespect for teachers, but merely as an illustration of something we all do.

Prioritizing, I believe they call it.

I often flippantly joke that if someone asks for my feedback and I respond without any comments or changes, then it probably means that either I didn't look or I didn't care.

Because, really, just about everything can be improved.

And "not caring" is just my over dramatic way of saying something's not a high priority. If I know others are looking at something more closely and therefore my feedback isn't critical, then often I don't care. If I know something's only going to be seen by a handful of people who probably won't really read it anyway, then often I don't care. If something's gone through so many revisions that it's basically done, but there's still one more opportunity to check for glaring mistakes, then often...I don't care.

I mean, I care deeply. But really, I don't care.

Prioritizing is a fine art.

Much of the time, it's my work to care - as a writer or as an editor. I review things over and over, fixing this, changing that, playing with the language here and there.

When I'm editing, I'll notice one small change and think, well, that's not worth correcting. Then the next small change makes me look more critically. Then before you know it, I've turned on track changes and gone back to the beginning.

Because really, I care a lot.

But, sometimes, it's up to someone else to care. Sometimes, there's a writer who cares and a few editors who care, and then I know: I don't have to care

So then I just take a quick look, prioritize other things, and decide it looks fine.

And I know I'm not the only one who does this because of all my teachers who never noticed my sly (are you there?) questions. And because of all the times I've gotten sign off on documents that look fine in a 1-second look, but are clearly wrong in a 5-second look.

So I get suspicious when I get no feedback on something. I think feedback is critical. I think more voices leads to better outcomes.

But sometimes, people just don't have the time to care.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Cautions of Capitalism

Capitalism came up a lot this week.

Well, really, it comes up a lot, but this week in particular I found myself having several conversations about the pitfalls of our capitalist economy.

One friend told me that, despite having a perfectly lovely, middle class job, she couldn't buy fall clothes because they were just too expensive. I've had those moments.

It's one of those times when you realize just what it means that wages have been stagnant.

Making matters worse, the clothes we buy - despite being more expensive - seem to be lower quality than they used to be. The fabric is generally thinner, meaning I need to wear (and buy) more layers than I used to. Also, they tend to easily rip, tear, or otherwise be worn through.

I had a hole in my sweater when discussing this.

And there's a dangerous cycle in all of this. On the one hand, there's the average consumer - squeezed by stagnant wages, increased costs, and the need to consume, discard, and replace more frequently. In this environment, consumers become much more discerning. I'm not going to replace my sweater because no one can really see the hole in the sleeve. Also, I can probably mend it. Also, that sweater's pretty comfortable. So I won't buy another.

Then there's a business - squeezed by decreasing sales and increased costs, desperately trying to meet their quarterly goal by lowering production costs and increasing purchase frequency by making items more disposable and replaceable.

That cycle doesn't really work for anyone. (Not to mention the environment.) But that seems to be the way capitalism is supposed to work? Each character works to meet their own interests. But doing that just continually makes the situation worse.

And then there's debt.

I told someone this week something someone else once told me: You will have debt for the rest of your life. You're supposed to.

It took me a really long time to wrap my head around that, and frankly, I don't really understand it so much as I accept it. To fully participate in many aspects of our society, you need to have a (good) credit history. And if you don't have debt, you don't have a credit history.

I continually fight the urge to pay off my student loans as quickly as possible. That's the way I tend to think about finances. Take on some debt, pay off your debt, save for future investments. Don't over borrow, don't over spend. Sounds pretty logical to me.

But, that's kind of not how it's supposed to work. I'm not supposed to pay off my student loan debt. It's good debt.

Like clean coal.

I understand it, but I don't really understand it. Does it really make sense that our system intentionally works this way? That seems crazy.

It feels like there must be other options.

Economist (and personal hero) Elinor Ostrom did a lot of work around collective action. Her work looked largely at collective management of limited resources, but the consumer/business cycle above has many connections.

Ostrom looked at communities where each person acting in their own interest would lead to failure for all. If you over fish, it might be good for you in the short term, but it'll be bad for you in the long term.

She looked at how people worked together - collectively defining rules and regulations that worked for them. So everyone could fish, and everyone could keep fishing - because fishing was done in a way that allowed the fish population to sustain over time.

We're facing a serious capitalist collective action problem. Having companies watching out for their own interests isn't working. It isn't working for us, and frankly, it isn't really working for most companies.

But what's the path to collaboration? What's the sustainable system?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Homelessness in the news

So, there's a story that's been on the news a lot this week.

A homeless man found a backpack with $40,000 of cash and travelers checks. He turned it in. When word of his good deed got out, he was honored by the City of Boston, and donations started pouring in. By this morning's newscast, he'd raised nearly $100,000.

Isn't that just heartwarming?


So why do I cringe a little every time I see this story in the news?

When I first saw this story, the banter between the two anchors got awkward to the point that one anchor felt the need to say, "look, just because he's homeless doesn't mean he doesn't have morals."

It's the kind of thing I'd hope wouldn't need saying. But it needed saying as they talked about this story.

And now these donations are pouring in. And that's great. This guy did a good thing and I hope this fund helps him out. He totally deserves it. Feel free to donate.

But I wonder about all those people donating.

Are they also donating to great organizations like the Somerville Homeless Coalition? Are they working to change the systemic issues that lead to and perpetuate homelessness in this country? Are they buying Spare Change and chatting with the homeless people they run into?

Or are they ignoring the problem. Ignoring the people.

At least, until some heartwarming story comes along. Then suddenly, giving a few bucks makes them feel like a hero.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Great ads round up: Carl Sciortino and Chipotle

As a marketer, I spend a lot of time actually watching ads. And when an ad comes up several times in my Facebook news feed - posted by my friends, no less - then I definitely take the time to stop and pay attention.

There've been a few such ads lately. The most recent is Carl Sciortino's ad where the openly gay state rep, currently running for U.S. Congress, "comes out" as a Massachusetts liberal to his tea party dad:

Now, of course, I'm totally biased because I already thought Sciortino was a total super star, but seriously, this ad is fantastic. Since launching yesterday, the ad has garnered nearly 150,000 YouTube hits, brought national attention, and landed Sciortino time on Hardball tomorrow night. Not too shabby.

So what makes this ad so great? Well, it's funny, shows a family dynamic many of us can relate to, and is just...human. Not something we've really come to expect from politicians these days. The ad is professionally done, but it doesn't feel overly polished - as if some polling council carefully constructed every word and facial expression.

And it shows political debate as we wish it could be.If only all of us could learn to disagree passionately without disparaging each other personally.If only we could learn to fight for our views with out loosing love and respect for each other. If only we could make it okay to disagree again.

Hands down one of the greatest political ads I've ever seen.

The other ad I've been seeing a lot these days is Chipotle's "The Scarecrow," meant to promote the company's new app-based game:

What I find particularly interesting about this ad is that I've mostly seen it posted by real-food advocates with notes along the lines of, "Chipotle is still corporate evil, but I love this ad!"

It's beautiful, well done, the animation is amazing, and that song from Willy Wonka still kind of creeps me out.

And it has a message you don't expect to see from a fast food chain - that food which is mass produced and processed is not food at all.

Chipotle brands itself as "food with integrity," touting on their website that they find "the very best ingredients raised with respect for the animals, the environment and the farmers."

But really, who believes that?

Honestly, I know nothing about Chipotle's business practices, but as a skeptical consumer the idea that a mega company, formerly owned by McDonald's, could sustain such a lofty approach sounds a little suspect to me.

But I'm interested to see where Chipotle goes with this. From what I understand, Chipotle is specifically trying to reach consumers much like myself - Millennials who are skeptical of brands and corporations.

They says that any press is good press - and it's entirely possible that by associating themselves with slow food Chipotle will successfully raise market share by being thought of as slow food.

But as for myself...I think I'll still shop local and go to the farmer's market.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Constitution Day

This cake, complete with chocolate constitution,
was on display when I went to the National
Constitution Center
in Philadelphia a few
years ago. I don't know why.
Today is (U.S.) Constitution Day.

You may not have known that, but indeed, Constitution Day is celebrated every year on the 17th of September.

According to the U.S. Senate website, the holiday was started in 1956 and established as Constitution Week. The 17th itself, the date when delegates signed the Constitution, was originally known as Citizenship Day.

In 2004, the day was renamed "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day" after Senator Robert C. Byrd included the language in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of Fiscal Year 2005.

I'm not really sure why.

As far as I know, no one celebrates constitutions on June 15 - the date the Constitution of Massachusetts was ratified in 1780. Seven years before the U.S. Constitution.

The Massachusetts constitution, as you may know, is the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world.

The U.S. Constitution was modeled after it.

The purpose of Constitution Day is to educate people about the importance of the U.S. Constitution. So if you want to test your constitutional knowledge, check out this fun quiz from the Washington Post.

Who knows, you may just learn something.

Monday, September 16, 2013

It's the end of the world as we know it (I feel fine)

My high school English teacher told me that when Ray Bradbury was growing up, he, like many people, tuned into the famous War of the Worlds broadcast by H.G. Wells.

She said that he, like many people, thought the broadcast was real. Thought that aliens were invading the planet. Thought that we were all going to die.

So, she said, he gathered up his younger brother, packed some sandwiches, and walked up the hill. To watch the world end.

He would have been 18 at the time, but beyond that, I have no idea if the story is true.

There's something else I associate with this story, though truth be told, I'm not totally sure where this came from.

As I recall, my English teacher told me that later when recounting this story, Bradbury explained his calm acceptance of the end of world by saying that - reality only exists insofar as we perceive it. When I die, my reality dies, my world ends. Just as death is inevitable, the end of the world is inevitable. So really, there's nothing else to do but to sit back and experience life, even in its destruction.

It certainly sounds like something Bradbury would say.

And there's something very logical about just accepting the inevitable. About accepting things you can't change. About experiencing what you can, when you can.

But, I think my English teacher missed something in this story (or maybe I did at the time).

Bradbury's short story, The Last Night of the World, explores a similar situation. The story captures a couple's last day as they calmly accept that the world will end that night. "I always imagined people would be screaming in the streets at a time like this," one says.

And how is it that everyone, knowing they are doomed, stays so calm?
"Because there's nothing else to do."
"That's it, of course, for if there were, we'd be doing it."

 But the point is just the opposite. The world is ending. Every day.

Through war, environmental destruction, and the senseless snuffing of individual lives, realities and worlds. The world is ending.

And we calmly accept it as inevitable. As if there is nothing to be done. As if we faced our own death and shrugged. So it goes.

The world is ending. And most of us are just watching it end.

"We haven't been too bad, have we?"

"No, nor enormously good. I suppose that's the trouble. We haven't been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things."  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Civic Street Games know those games where you're driving and it's like...5 points if you hit a mailbox, 10 points if you hit a street light? (I was going to say pedestrian, but that would be terrible).

I mean, I don't think people really play these games. (I hope). But people joke about them. You know what I mean?

Well, anyway. It's a thing. Really.

So, as I walked around town this morning, I starting to think about what you'd get points for if the game was more civic - or perhaps, I might say, more neighborly.

Here's what I've got so far. What would you add?

Civic Street Game - Scoring Rules
5pts for saying hi to a stranger
5 bonus points if you can do it without being creepy

5pts for sharing your umbrella with a stranger during a rain storm
(No bonus points because it's impossible to do this without being creepy. I've tried.)

5pts for picking trash off the side walk

5pts for (safely) removing sharp or otherwise hazardous debris from the street while you cross it

5pts for mailing random mail you find on the sidewalk (because apparently that happens)

5pts for volunteering helpful, relevant information to a stranger (eg, "Just so you know, if you park there, you'll get towed. Yeah, I know the signage is terrible!")

10pts for helping someone who's slipped/tripped/fallen
New England special: 5 bonus points for pretending to ignore someone who is clearly okay. Nobody saw you look like an idiot. Everything's fine.

1pt for telling someone they're still wearing a name tag from some event they went to

1pt for telling someone you know that they should stop standing on the walking side of the escalator

1pt for giving someone accurate directions
5 bonus points if you admit that you honestly don't know and while you'd love to be helpful, you're probably better off if you find someone else to ask. Sorry.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Saying No to Yes Men

Many of my friends and colleagues are big proponents of deliberation and dialogue - conversations where diverse community members evaluate and address community problems.

At it's root, deliberative processes assume that the best outcomes come from the most voices. That groups make better decisions than individuals.

It sounds pretty good in theory, but there are many complications to making this work.

The one on my mind today is the risk of 'yes men,' as it were.

This can take many forms - from deliberately surrounding yourself with people who agree with you to incidentally ending up with a network of people much like yourself.

Whether intentional or not, being surround by people who generally agree with you limits the possible outcomes of any process. The resulting outcome may be okay. Or it may not be. But it will almost certainly not be as good as it could be.

Conversations with disagreement can be hard. But, that's okay. That's good.

Disagreeing doesn't need to mean table flipping and shouting matches. Reasonable people can disagree in reasonable ways. Share view points, explain motivations, evaluate impulses.

But often we don't get to have those conversations.

Socially, we seem to be trained to just go with the flow. Agree with whomever is in charge or has the most social clout.

And sometimes that makes sense. Sometimes it's just not worth the fight.

But I get nervous when no one disagrees with me. Who's holding back? Who doesn't feel comfortable sharing their view?

Having those divergent voices is critical - to us as individuals and to the societies we live in.

So ask yourself - do you create welcoming space for different view points?

When was the last time someone disagreed with you?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Good Job is Hard to Find

I spend a significant amount of my time talking and thinking about good jobs and worker's rights - primarily through my work as a member of Somerville Community Corporation's Jobs for Somerville.

We all know folks who are working two or three jobs just to get by. And that's not okay.

It's easy to blame it on the economy - these are rough times and we all got to tighten our belts. But when I see no change to the status quo anywhere in the future - that's not okay.

(Also, while the recent economic downturn has doubtless made things worse, let's not pretend it was all rainbows and roses before.)

I'm not content to sit around and wait for the economy to get better. I'm not content to imagine that someday, just so long as I shop enough, there will be jobs for everyone. I'm not content to let the market sort itself out.

And when I talk about jobs, I want to be clear in differentiating between "a job" and "a good job."

It's not enough to create crap jobs that pay nothing. It's not enough to build a system where people are forced to scramble for whatever scraps they can get. It's not enough to create temporary jobs that are gone in a month or two.

We need more. My community needs more. My neighbors need more.

I'm no economist, but we must find a way to fix this system. We need to find ways to create, good, sustainable jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage, are safe, and have opportunities for advancement.

That shouldn't be too much to ask.

There's an effort getting started in Massachusetts to raise the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour and to require employers to provide earned sick time to employees.

Those are good efforts that deserve good consideration and, I believe, support.

But let's not stop there.

The system IS broke - and we should fix it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

We are the Masses

People have a tendency to generalize.

Well, they may or they may not. But it always makes me laugh inside when I hear someone say, something such as, "Well, you know people these days, they're not very smart."

Or maybe it's that people are lazy.

Or maybe they just don't care.

It's always something.

If there's something wrong in the world, or in your little corner of it, it's easy to blame it generally on the populace. It's easy to shake your head and sigh, "Ah - people. What are you going to do?"

As if an unfortunate outcome could have been easily predicted from the fact that people were in charge of the decision in the first place.

Stupid, fallible, biased, corrupt, people.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I regularly quip that I "hate everyone." But even as I direct my undirected anger at the vast horde of the nameless, the faceless, The People, I try to remember that I'm just as bad (or just as good, if you're an optimist) as any of them.

We're all stupid, fallible, biased, corrupt individuals and sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we make mistakes as individuals, and sometimes we make mistakes en mass.

And that's okay. Maybe we just have to accept that and move on.

It strikes me that professionalization is an attempt to protect us from the masses. Because having well educated, specialized, idiots is preferable to having some random idiot off the street.

But seriously, how many times have people in high-level, professional positions messed up big time? I don't have a number, but go ahead and Google "scandal" and see what comes up.

There seems to be a certain mythos around professionalization - as if by carefully accruing specialized knowledge and experience, an average Joe can transcend into some infallible existence.

And there's something appealing about this vision, as we each see ourselves as infallible (well, I don't know about you, but I am always right), and we each see Others as screw-ups.

But the truth is, we're all just people.We all have our faults. And we need to figure out how to work together.

Blaming our problems on generalities and looking for solutions from specialists is not going to help us. We're all generalists in the world, and specialists in our own experience. We are the masses.

Monday, September 9, 2013

It's All in the Tag Line

My new hobby is coming up with marketing catch phrases for academic departments.

Some of you may recall the words of the irreverently inspired Tom Lehrer when introducing his song Oedipus Rex:

"But, a few years ago, a motion picture version appeared of Sophocles' immortal tragedy Oedipus Rex. This picture played only in the so-called art theaters, and it was not a financial success. And I maintain that the reason it was not a financial success was that it did not have a title tune which the people could hum, and which would make them actually eager to attend this particular flick."

He then, of course, goes on to perform a catchy Oedipus Rex theme song.

I'm no Tom Lehrer, but it's with that spirit that I found myself trying to come up with ridiculous, but appropriate catch phrases for fields of study. Not at all to imply, of course, that these fields aren't already successful. Here's what I've got so far:
Economics: The market proves it's valuable.
Chemistry: Learning by exploding.

Civil Engineering: Learn to build it, they will come.

Communication: That's what I'm talking about!
History: It just never gets old!

Philosophy: A good thing to think about.

Physics: Who doesn't want to study the physics of two bodies in motion?

Psychology: You know you want to.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Here Be Dragons

I don't really know much about mapping (though I did take a history of geography course as an undergraduate), but I really like maps.

I feel like maps are generally considered to be very factual. This mountain is x kilometers high. This river is located at (x,y) coordinates. This border is here. Greenland is...about the same size as Africa?

But maps are not really factual at all.

Okay, maybe they are a little factual - but taking them as unquestionable truth conceals deeper issues. Maps can say a lot about a socio-political environment.

For years in school I remember teachers saying, "Just ignore the USSR on this map. It doesn't exist any more."

Not to mention the challenge that comes from border disputes. Or from rivers moving over time. Or of which direction is "up." And of course, there's the well documented argument over how the globe should be projected two dimensionally.

Side note: Africa is almost 14 times the size of Greenland. The contiguous United States are about the same size as Australia. If you're interested in other size comparisons, check out MapFight.

My favorite are older maps which clearly show, "here is civilization, out there are the barbarians."

I'm pretty sure every part of the world has maps like that in their history.

While apparently only the Lenox Globe is documented to contain the phrase"hic sunt dracones" (here are dragons), there seem to be plenty of instances of dragons or other wild animals appearing on the outskirts of maps.

So next time you look at a map, ask yourself where those borders came from, how they were measured, and what when into making those determinations.

...Then let me know, cause I'd be interested to find out.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Science with the Stars

Someone told me today that Bill Nye the Science Guy is going to be on Dancing with the Stars.

So I have a proposal for a different reality TV show.

Something of a "Bill Nye" meets "Dancing with the Stars."

12 pseudo-celebrities are paired with science advisers, then go head to head in a series of science related competitions.

In week one, celebrities compete in a classic egg drop - using limited materials and strict guidelines to construct a container that will allow a raw egg to survive a one story free fall.

Week two ups the ante to see which celeb-scientist pair can build a trebuchet that launches objects the furthest. (Hint: it's all in the counter-weight.)

In the finalist show down, contestants must design, implement, and explain their own science project.

And amidst all the science, there's drama, angst, and broken allegiances. Maybe a table flip or two.

I'd watch that.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Secret Lives

If you've never read any James Thurber, do.

I've personally always been fond of his drawings, particularly his characterization, from A New Natural History, of the Hopeless Quandary: 

But, Thurber is perhaps better known for his short story the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Mitty is an average man who dreams of heroism. He imagines himself saving lives as a surgeon and taking on daring missions as a member of the military.

The story is generally read tragically.

Mitty imagines himself a hero, but he is no hero. He's just a quiet man regularly berated by his wife. Like another tragic hero, Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman, Mitty just can't seem to catch a break.

But I like to read it differently.

Yes, Mitty is an average man, but he refuses to be defeated by his averageness. He imagines himself a hero and he is a hero.

He will not be cowed by the mundanities of modernity.

Like many classic heroes, he accepts his fate, embraces his fate - tragic though it may be - and faces it resolutely.

So next time you find yourself day dreaming, imagining a world where you're saving lives or defeating bad guys, remember Walter Mitty.

Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Going to the Pullman Hell

In the States, yesterday was Labor Day.

Many places in the world, "labor day" is celebrated on May 1 - International Workers' Day. But, International Workers' Day is a little too Communist for most Americans' taste, so we celebrate in September instead.

While there had been several efforts to make an official labor holiday in the U.S., the idea didn't really take hold until several workers were killed by U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike.

That'll do it for you. 

The Pullman Strike, for those who don't know, was a watershed moment for the U.S. labor movement. There's a reason they hardly talk about it in school.

Workers for George Pullman's train company were essentially indentured labor. They lived in Pullman towns and bought produce from the company store. But they didn't get paid enough to settle their company bills. So they had to keep working until their debt was (never) paid off.

One of my favorite quotes from the Pullman Strike came from a laborer, in 1883:

We are born in a Pullman house.
We are fed from a Pullman shop,
taught in a Pullman school,
catechized in the Pullman church
and when we die we shall be buried in a Pullman cemetery
and go to a Pullman hell.

Incidentally, on the one page my American History text book devoted to this strike, the editor elected to remove the last line of this quote. As if going to a Pullman hell was the most unspeakable part of the whole ordeal.

After workers went on strike, the U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney obtained an injunction saying the strike was illegal. President Cleveland sent in federal troops, and things got pretty messy from there.

People died.

But I got Monday off.

Ultimately, the strike was crushed. Many strikers were blackballed. Gene Debs, founder of the American Railway Union (ARU), was sent to prison. It was a huge victory for the ruling elite.

But something shifted. People across the country started to ask - why aren't workers treated fairly? What's so wrong about wanting to feed your family? How is it okay for our own government to attack citizens just trying to get a decent wage? Something was broken.

The days of the Pullman Strike and rough and tumble union politics seem distant and ephemeral. But never forget what those workers did for you. They risked everything - and sometimes lost everything - because it needed to be done. Because the system wasn't fair and something needed to be done.

Something still needs to be done.