She blinded me with science

14 12 2013

Quick note/plea: I’m putting together a proposal to teach another 300 general education course (as is the bioethics class), tentatively and excitingly called “Technology & Society”.

I’ve begun putting together a web page to serve as a resource for my would-be students at my course blog; as I am just getting started with this, the page is a bit thin on content. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll wrassle the various possibilities into a (semi-) coherent course, so I’ll be tossing up  links to as wide a variety of sites as possible.

Why do this? As the course will require a couple of honest-to-pete research papers, and as this is the first time many of the students will be writing h2p research papers, I’d like to give them as much of a boost as possible to get going.This isn’t meant to serve as a substitute for their own research, but rather, as leads.

(For comparison’s sake, you could look at the Bioethics articles and Bioethics sites & docs pages.)

Anyway, any help you could offer (in the comments, or via email—absurdist [at] gmx [dot] com) would be greatly appreciated!


You’re just another brick in the wall

2 10 2013

I first read Diane Ravitch as an undergraduate—my policy professor, Cathy Johnson, had assigned The Troubled Crusade for her class—and while I was suspicious of what I sniffed out as her conservatism, even I had to admit her history was good.

As she moved in and out of government (she worked for Bush I; I knew it!), I paid some attention to her doings, thinking of her as a kind of reasonable conservative.


She has certainly moved on from her years as a critic of public education, shifting from that of mod-con to the flag-bearer for a democratic education.

“A Nation at Risk” didn’t say much about accountability. It was really just saying woe is us, woe is us, our schools are failing, we need to have higher standards, we need to have a better curriculum. It didn’t say much about testing. I think there were one or two lines about it. But a lot of people jumped on this and said, “Oh, yeah. We need to test more. We need to have higher graduation standards.” Which is fine. But what they really had in mind by accountability was, “Who is going to be held accountable?” Meaning: “Who should be punished?” Uh, they don’t operate their businesses that way. The really great companies in America don’t operate by punishing their employees. They try to get the best people they can and then they take good care of them. I’m thinking of companies like Google. They talk about all the perks for the employees. Well, schools don’t have any perks for employees. All we’re doing now is talking about who should get fired next. So accountability has become this idea of, “Somebody’s head has to be chopped off. Some school has to be humiliated.” And that’s not educational. That’s penitentiary talk. (emph added)

Sing it, sister!

And there are districts like the one I wrote about in Minneapolis where there are schools that are virtually all white, schools that are completely black, schools that are all Hmong, schools that are all something else. And, you know, nobody stops and says, “Wait a minute. Aren’t we supposed to be trying to have an integrated society?” So in some ways what schools are dealing with today, public schools and also charter schools, is a social failure. It’s really a question of, What kind of a society do we want to be? (emph added)

Ed policy is not my area at all, but my response to this is: Right on! RIGHT ON!


h/t Charlie Pierce

It’s another round in the losing fight, pt III

6 09 2013

Rounding out the reconsideration:

3. It’s not unfair when you lose. Yes, if the game is rigged or there are payoffs or some other kinds of undermining going on, that’s unfair. But loss in and of itself is not unfair, in sport, argument, or politics.

And loss in these areas is just loss, rarely anything more. It’s not evidence of conspiracy, of the evil of your fellow humans, or of the breakdown of civilization. It is not The End.

“Win some, lose some” (or, for the more ursine-inclined among you, “sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you”) is the point, here.

4. It’s only unfair to use your rules against you if the rules were unfair to begin with. Kinda a mouthful, I know, but it pretty much gets to the point: If you’re fine with the rules when you were winning, it’s gonna be tough to garner sympathy for THE INJUSTICE OF IT ALL!!! when you’re losing.

Relatedly, if it were fine for you to write the rules when you were in charge, then it’s just sour grapes to bitch about other people writing rules when they’re in charge.

5. That you lost or are unpopular doesn’t mean you’re oppressed. If you live in a political culture of strict majority-rule losing can lead to repression, but neither the politics nor the culture of the US is strict majority-rule. Almost no political win or loss is final (cf. “win-some-bears-get-you”), and even in those cases where the culture seems to have shifted decisively, as with same-sex marriage, those on the losing side can continue to fight as long as they have fight in them.

It’s true that those who oppose civil recognition and the normalization of same-sex relationships will likely have their arguments dismissed by those who already think such relationships normal, and may be called bigots and homophobes. Those opponents might feel they can no longer bring up their views at work or in public, and worry that there may come a time when they have to choose between their principles and their jobs or a friendship. Going along to get along can, in fact, feel pretty damned oppressive.

But here’s where #4 comes in. If it’s terrible that you no longer feel you can voice opinions which you once offered freely, was it terrible that those who disagreed with you felt they couldn’t voice their opinions? And if it’s terrible now, why wasn’t it terrible then? And why isn’t it terrible for other unpopular opinions? And, to sharpen the point, if you lose your job or a promotion because you hold political views contrary to those of your boss, is the problem the contrary views or an at-will employment system which does not protect political minorities?

I do have some sympathy for those who feel they can’t speak up, precisely because there have been times I’ve kept my mouth shut rather than make trouble. You don’t want to be That chick or have to explain why you would even consider holding the views you do over and over and over again. If you are out of step, it is easy to feel stepped on.

So, yes, JS Mill had a point about social conformity: it often is oppressive! To live among others is to conform, which means there’s no way to escape such oppression.

But that there are consequences for nonconformity doesn’t always mean one must conform: If you can, in fact, live with those consequences, then perhaps you are not oppressed—or, at least, not helplessly oppressed.

I, for example, don’t care much about money, and I live in a culture—and in a city, especially!—which prizes financial gain. That I haven’t sought to maximize my wealth marks me as a kind of loser, and when I visit family and friends who own houses and don’t make shelves out of wine boxes I think Jeez, I am doing life wrong.

Still, most of the time I am able to live with the consequences of my choices and priorities. It’s a pain in the ass that I have to think about money as much as I do, and think that if I made just a wee bit more I could happily minimize my cash anxieties, but I’ve managed to cobble together a life of which I at least have a shot of making sense.

Am I oppressed? I don’t think so. Out of step in some important ways, yes, but as long as I am able to step out, to live my own absurd life, well, I can live with that.


And yes, there will be a caveats-to-the-caveats post.

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

6 03 2013

Do you become more or less of a crank the more real your anxieties become?

I’ve joked that I’m a privacy crank (even as I realize the, ah, complexities of worrying over privacy on a public blog), but I’ve felt pretty confident that I’d be able to balance my antipathy to any kind of tracking with desire to participate in a full social life. I accept cookies in order to access certain websites, but periodically clear my cache and browser history; I have a cell phone which I can use to text and *gasp* talk, but which doesn’t have a GPS. I search on Google, but not while I’m signed in to my job-related Google account (which, outside of work, I never use).

And I live and work and ride the trains of and walk around New York City, which has CCTV mounted in train stations and on the sidewalk. I don’t like the surveillance cameras, but as a small and plain person, I doubt very much that I’m camera-candy.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

But it seems as if the chances of being both social and private are dissolving in the corrosive effects of a culture which wants only to “share” and technologies which enable such sharing. As Mark Hurst points out, while one could try to minimize the omni-info maw of social media, a technology like Google glasses sucks you in—whether you want to be so sucked or not:

Remember when people were kind of creeped out by that car Google drove around to take pictures of your house? Most people got over it, because they got a nice StreetView feature in Google Maps as a result.

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about. The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change. [emph in the original]

Y’know those illegal cell-signal blockers? Would they work on something like this? If not, someone is working on countering this, right? Right?

Because, at some point, if you can’t legally opt out of this surveillance without opting out of society, those of us who want to be around other people without being subject to their tracking techs might want to consider, mmm, other ways to remain free social beings.

. . . . Yeah, I really am a crank, aren’t I?

We might as well try: Here comes the future and you can’t run from it

24 07 2012

It is terrible not to know all that I want to know, a terribleness only counterbalanced by the pleasure of soaking up what others know.

This is as good a precis for this series as any:

If men have always been concerned with only one task—how to create a society fit to live in—the forces which inspired our distant ancestors are also present in us. Nothing is settled; everything can still be altered. What was done but turned out wrong, can be done again. The Golden Age, which blind superstition had placed behind [or ahead of] us, is in us.

—Claude Levi-Strauss, from Triste Tropiques

Yes, I know Levi-Strauss, but no, I haven’t read him, don’t know if I’ll ever make the time to read him.

But this bit, this bit was worth the time.

h/t John Nichols’s obit for Alexander Cockburn, The Nation

We might as well try: the prelude

11 07 2012

I should just walk away.

The problem with being a theorist—with being a lazy theorist—is that one is supposed to chase down every last bit of an argument, and that if one doesn’t wish to do so, one if left wondering if this is because the argument doesn’t deserve the effort or because one is lazy?

I’ll take “Both” for two hundred, Alex.

There is a part of me that does think it worthwhile to scatter the arid bits of libertarianism to the wind, and another part that says, Why bother, it’s a shit theory promulgated largely by twitchy obsessives and freshwater economists, so why not leave the whole mess to the key-pounders* on the left and Paul Krugman?

(*This is not a criticism: Go go go!)

I’m certainly heading toward that conclusion, but there’s still a part of me that berates myself for not doing the work of shredding such terrible theory: Yeah, it is a shit theory—not even properly a theory— but I am also lazy and there is something to be gained in the meticulous dismantling of pernicious ideas.

Yet even as I carry that guilt-bag with me toward the off-ramp, I’m wondering if the best way to lighten my load is simply to swap it for a kit-bag full of stuff I can actually use.

Okay, now I’m going to lay that whimpering metaphor aside and get to the point: Why not talk about what does matter, and what ought to be taken into account in any discussion of politics, economics, and society?

I joked the other day that the problem with letting others go first is that they get to set the terms; why not set my own terms?

I’m disgusted with libertarianism because it bears almost no relation to humans or human being; isn’t this the place to begin? And so I will—but not until tomorrow.

Lazy, remember?