Downton Abbey Season One

The Beav and I watched the first season over a long week and liked it a lot. It helps that the villains are so incredibly mean-spirited and that the Dowager Countess is so funny. But at root, it’s the appeal of watching a poor middle-class sap learning how to live like nobility in a castle while the family bumbles around trying to marry off a spoiled brat of a daughter who suddenly has no money. Good stuff.

“The End of Laissez-faire” (1926)

I hadn’t planned on starting my birthday reading economic history, but that’s what happened. And the exercise ended happily indeed. Here is John Maynard Keynes on thought, feelings and action from the final paragraph of his essay:

…We need by an effort of the mind to elucidate our own feelings. At present our sympathy and our judgement are liable to be on different sides, which is a painful and paralysing state of mind. … We need a new set of convictions which spring naturally from a candid examination of our own inner feelings in relation to the outside facts.

Keynes is talking about the conflicting fears and incentives that hamper economic reforms the United States and Europe, but the observation has a wider reach. And it hit a nerve. Earlier in the essay he quotes an equally insightful (and provocative) line from David Hume:

‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.’ ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to choose my total ruin to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian, or person totally unknown to me … Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’

Both are from “The End of Laissez-faire” (1926).

Making the Internet a Better Place.

Mark Bernstein has an interesting post about cyberbullying. His solutions are interesting because, although he doesn’t say this, they imply that the current problems with bullying are connected to problems with established norms on the Internet.

The first is:

Anonymous posting is a bad idea. Sure, it’s got a theoretical place in the Democratic Nature Of The Web. And we could give up everything that’s good about the Web in defense of anonymity, in which case we’re going to have AOL and HBO and no Web. Lack of anonymity won’t stop bullying, but it will let observers get the context and help them find the kids in the ditch.

Maybe the nastiness on the web won’t go away (read: “disappear” or “go to a corner”) if names are attached to what people do, but the internet plays a huge roll in how kids are socialized today. How adults are as well. Humanizing that space will improve the quality of the socialization it offers. The effects will be felt far outside the virtual worlds of the web.

The second suggestion may seem as if it has little or nothing to do with the Internet, but it does. It’s reach is much wider though. Bernstein writes:

Discount childhood achievements and errors. Since bullies will punish missteps, we have to find a way to blunt the bully’s impact. Mistakes are embarrassing, but we can defuse their consequences. As a society, we’re going to have to agree to simply ignore the achievements and blunders of kids. Did you publish a book of poetry at 17? We don’t care anymore. Did you get naked and dance on the table of The Four Seasons at your coming out party? Old news. We don’t want to hear about your football triumphs or your high school grades any more than we want to see your refrigerator drawings. (This means the end of high school sports beyond recreation and exercise, which would also be a very good thing.)

If you want to be on the Internet–visibly as something other than a user–you must offer content. Because most of us are not artists, that means we offer up ourselves, most obviously by Facebooking the details of our daily lives. Two things result: we create a detailed record of our past that is perpetually present (i.e. always here, never past), and this record–created in realtime without reflection–becomes who we are. It maps a past and charts our future. Who or what we might someday become is weighted down and interpreted by this record which says: this is who we were, are and will be. If we were (are, will be) bullied (or a bully), what hope is there for us? The way we use the Internet is turning problems into trauma by making incidental actions into identity.

Bernstein’s third suggestion addresses this problem obliquely by responding to a question many of my students have: how do I become–and know that I have become–an adult? I tell my students they are adults–they are after all 18–but they don’t feel as if they are and are not expected to act as if they are. At most, their adulthood is a state, arrived at passively, demanding nothing of them, that confers new privileges (few of which seem very new or even worth exercising). Unsurprisingly, most of the teachers and administrators in my college talk about “the kids” not “the students.” Bernstein hits the problem square on its head:

A right of passage makes a lot of sense here. The fundies have that spooky silver ring thing, but we really need some dramatic way to say, “All the things you did before, that was growing up. Yesterday you were a kid. Tomorrow, you are no longer a kid: life is not a rehearsal, and it’s time to put childish things on the shelf.”

Adulthood is not (or at least should not be) a state we arrive at. It is a role we shoulder we cannot cannot initially (ever?) fulfill or live up to. A rite goes a ways toward showing this, and yes, it might address bullying. Why not? More broadly, I think it would also address the malaise (and, yes, despair) shackling so many of my students. What rite? Well, to let go of childish things today means letting go of our online selves, especially for recent generations who have come of age in virtuo. We could draw a curtain of shame between now and between someone’s childhood–not talking about it anymore than we talk about the stink they left in your bathroom before dinner–seems like a good (but alas unlikely) possibility. Imagine being embarrassed by someone so clueless they talk openly about their childhood or the smell of their poo.

Find Bernstein’s piece here. I think he may be responding to “Defining Bully Down” by Emily Bazelon. This op-ed in The New York Times has had people talking across the blogosphere these past few days. Find the op-ed here.

Taking Down TED

An excellent critique of the TED talks and their approach to education. Along the way it points out the commercial interests that are never acknowledged in these talks and flags the hypocrisy of its elitist and authoritarian use of lectures and memes to free “learners” from schools.

In the TED world of techno-humanitarianism, … computer-enabled learning certainly makes for an incredibly compelling story.

But once something becomes a TED Talk, it becomes oddly unassailable. The video, the speech, the idea, the applause — there too often stops our critical faculties. We don’t interrupt. We don’t jeer. We don’t ask any follow-up questions.

They lecture. We listen.

You are not supposed to interrogate a TED Talk. You’re supposed to share the talk on Facebook.

You don’t get to ask questions of a TED Talk. Even the $10,000 ticket to watch it live only gives you the privilege of a seat in the theater.

 

George Michael Cover

Woke up yesterday morning with this cover playing on the radio in my head. Was gone by the end of the day, but was back this morning. Both days it’s been intermixed with Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and other jazz standards. My thought in the car was that, George Michael often writes songs that can be sung and, at his very best, fits in that group. It sets him apart I think.

Iron And Wine covers George Michael

The Culture War, Seen Through Mexican Eyes

An op-ed on the importance and absence of students reading.

We have turned schools into factories that churn out employees. With no intellectual challenges, students can advance from one level to the next as long as they attend class and surrender to their teachers. In this light it is natural that in secondary school we are training chauffeurs, waiters and dishwashers.

Find the full text here.

Nostalgia for Culture Jamming

I don’t post video very often, but the past few weeks, several things have come up that I want to keep track of. This is a great example of found-footage video. A bit of culture jamming that is great.

Seeing it right after watching How to Survive a Plague, I’m struck by how much was lost with the late nineties boom-crash and the 9/11 security state that followed. We are scared and bullied everywhere. I just don’t see anything this interesting being done today. Who is sticking their finger in the eye of banks, the drone assassins, the Republican suicide-budgeters? This video assumes life is the artists’ business and that the powers-that-be should be running scared.

The Internet (note the capital letter) was supposed to amplify the scope of stuff like this, or so people hoped. But somewhere around 2.0, the whole project was overrun by the mosh-pit slash porn shop called the interwebs. The relevant text is You Are Not a Gadget.

Course Planning with Tinderbox: First Thoughts

In January, I bought Tinderbox, a hypertext application, as part of my on-going effort to find some way to organize notes on my computer rather than in my stacks and stacks of notebooks. I like my notebooks. They work for me. But they are dark pits: what goes into them has to be used quickly or it drops down beyond the edge of memory and is lost. This is frustrating when dealing with personal projects (although this blog has started to help there). But it’s actually debillitating when trying to plan and teach courses across semesters and years.

Tinderbox seems promising so I’ve decided to talk through how I’ve been using it to work on course planning and how it’s going.

Beginnings

I started out organizing material I already had. I knew what needed to be done and how I had done it in the past and simply transfered that into the program. Two things surprised me.

First, how easily TB adapted to what I wanted to do. I had to figure out how things worked and was working manually so everything took time, but what I wanted was what emerged. I was shocking to realize that I had never before had the experience of working with software that ultimately melted into the form I wanted. Tinderbox was transparent the way a pencil is tranparent.

Second, I was surprised to see how complex (multiple objects with multiple crisscrossing connections) the material I had been struggling to manage was. As the semester has progressed I have added material to the Tinderbox file rather than placing it in notebooks or on pads of paper. And now week six done, I’m floored by the material I have in play. What’s more, I have access to it all, and when I feel a bit lost (a familiar feeling from previous semesters), I can sit down and sort out where I am by going through and arranging my notes.

The Road Ahead

Now, week six is behind me, and I have been reading Mark Bernstein’s The Tinderbox Way. It’s been eye opening, especially now that I have all these weeks of working with the program under my belt. What I want to do now is to go through revise some of the manual organization I started with. I have four concerns right now

Empty Notes

I relied on empty notes in my early weeks. The note was the title. Nothing wrong with that but there were hundreds of them. To cope, I’d shoved them into logical, workable categories that replicated my paper and pencil organization and were filled in turn with categories full of content-as-title notes. I’d like to merge some of these categories now so that I can begin to explore the links between materials I was struggling to manage before. As a first step, I’m transfering these nested title-notes into the note text of their container. A side-benefit is that my Daily Schedule containers have fewer lines in them and no nested containers.

Attributes

I have also been lax about filling in attributes, in part because I was treating every note as a multilevel nest of notes within notes each with their own set of repeating attributes. Using the note texts means I have fewer notes to deal with, so I’m going through and filling in what’s missing. I also have a better sense of what attributes are useful to me right now, and so, I’ve deleted all the others that I created that aren’t.

Non-temporal Categories

I would like to merge some containers and put different material in contact with each other. First stab at this will be with Content Materials (lectures basically) and Readings. The prototype scheme I set up in the first few weeks of the semester makes that possible in a way it wasn’t before. There will be visible differences on the map that were not there when I first began.

Automation

I would like to reduce the manual generation of aliases by using agents and rethinking the groupings I’ve been using. Right now, kinds of info are a group. I think I am going to begin grouping based on content rather than kind, with readings being the priority content. My thought is to place vocabulary, quizzes, and homework based on a reading within that reading’s note, treating it as a container. I will then use Agents to pull out kinds of materials if I need to. For now, I think an agent collecting quizzes and an agent collecting vocabulary will be enough.