How I Use Social Media

It’s occurred to me that I’ve never taken advantage of the way many social media platforms allow for a toot or tweet to be pinned, such that it will always be the first thing anyone sees. If there’s anywhere I’d direct people by default, it would be my personal web site, since social media is where I usually just make throwaway comments about whatever the Current Thing is, whereas this site is the archive of the major thoughts I’ve had that I’ve polished over time.

And if I’m going to direct social media users to my web site, then why not specifically to a post about how I prefer to use social media? So meta!

The most important thing about my approach to social media is that I may occasionally take it seriously, but I don’t take it personally. I have no illusion that my comments there will change anyone’s mind about the major issues of the day; humans just don’t work like that. So when some stranger disagrees with me, that’s not something to get worked up about, because ultimately those people are just words on a screen. To me, the value is simply in entertainment, and to a lesser extent, as a low-stakes way of keeping my rhetorical axe sharp. 

In other words, while this may sound funny, I recognize going in that social media is, by and large, a waste of time. That doesn’t mean that I never encounter interesting people and ideas that make me think about things in different ways. It just means that when that does happen it’s a pleasant surprise, not the fulfillment of an expectation.

That leads me to the issue of blocking people. I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to make it a point of pride that they don’t block people, and I don’t really understand that. If a person or account is decreasing my enjoyment of social media, I’ll block them quickly and without remorse. Social media is a dubious enough use of time as it is; there’s certainly no point in it at all if it’s not going to be fun.

Because I travel in libertarian-ish circles, I have the feeling that much of this feeling on the part of those people comes from the misconception currently popular on the cultural right that censorship is more broadly defined than just government suppression of speech. But freedom of expression does not include an entitlement to one’s choice of venue, and the freedom to speak doesn’t oblige anyone else to listen. If a song you didn’t like came on the radio, would you feel obligated not to change the station? Then why would you feel obligated to keep listening to some fool on the Internet you don’t even know in real life?

Something sort of related to this, at least on Twitter, is the trend I’ve seen of people setting their tweets so that only those people they follow or mentioned can reply. In keeping with what I just said, absolutely, they have every right to do this. But I find it so obnoxious that when I run into this I will instantly unfollow that person. It’s not social media if the conversation doesn’t flow in both directions, so if you don’t care what I have to say, I don’t care what you have to say.

As a final thought, just because I don’t take social media personally doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate those people I’ve encountered who have a lot to offer. In fact, I’ve often wished there were established ways of befriending in a meaningful way those people who are interesting even in the arm’s length environment of social media. So if you happen to think that I’m one of them, by all means, reach out!

The Trouble With Being A “Libertarian”

Normally I’ve always thought of ideology as revolving around a set of policy positions based on first principles. If you think that government should meddle in the bedroom but not the boardroom, you’re a conservative. If you think the opposite, you’re a progressive. If you think some of each, you’re a centrist. If you think neither, you’re a libertarian. Obviously that’s a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea. And by that standard, from a policy perspective, libertarians have no more in common with the right than with the left, and because of that, for many years now I’ve used it to identify myself.

What I’ve come to realize, however, is that the policy positions associated with an ideology are one thing, but the culture that develops within the movement that surrounds that ideology is a different thing altogether. That means that it is possible to embrace the policy positions of an ideology, and even the underlying philosophy that determines them, while not at all identifying with the culture of the movement that builds up around those beliefs.

A few years ago I started noticing a deepening divide between what I initially thought of as “Don’t Tread On Me” libertarians and “Don’t Tread On Anyone” libertarians. And in the last few years the negative feedback loop of social media has strengthened the former at the expense of the latter. More and more I see self-identified libertarians with large followings on social media who not only are trolls, but proud to be so. For a while I tried to push back against this trend by suggesting that the Non-Aggression Principle and Wheaton’s Law are each incomplete without the other. But that sort of argument doesn’t work on people who, to be blunt, seem to derive great happiness from being dicks.

Take the infighting happening now in the Libertarian Party. There’s always been back and forth between the purists and the pragmatists. As I recall, in the ‘90s the former were known as PLEDGE and the latter as the “Committee for a Libertarian Majority”. But despite their disagreements, they didn’t treat each other like the enemy. Today’s LP has become a textbook example of Sayre’s Law: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” To be clear, I say that not because liberty has no value, but because in a world of single member districts where the mainstream media has made it abundantly clear that alternative candidates will not be meaningfully covered unless they make a mistake, the LP will never, ever amount to anything, ever.

And it’s not my goal to hate on the LP. Like many people, the LP was my gateway into a world of interesting philosophical ideas. I want to hope it can still serve that purpose for other people. But in a world where, for example, the New Hampshire affiliate tweets “Libertarians suffer more oppression than black people” I can’t see how it would attract anyone worth associating with.

And that’s where I’ve increasingly found myself unsure how to self-identify. My “live and let live” views on free markets, civil liberties, and methodological individualism haven’t changed. My utopia is still a world in which anyone can openly be who they really are, where decisions are made nonviolently rather than politically, and in which people help one another and otherwise do nice things because they choose to do so, not because they’re forced to do so. In that sense, I haven’t left the libertarian movement. But these days, I feel more and more that the movement has left me. 

Bryan Caplan’s Simplistic Theory of Left and Right, states that “the left hates markets and the right hates the left”. (Tap the link for a short but very worthwhile elaboration.) And by that standard, it’s clear to me that more and more of those calling themselves libertarians culturally fit in just fine with the right, especially when so many of the trolls seem interested in using shock value exclusively to appeal to disaffected conservatives and populists. Well, I don’t fit in with that at all, and if that means that it would make more sense for me to self-identify as “market liberal”, then I can live with that.

Higher Education Podcasts for 2022

My friend Bryan Alexander recently asked which podcasts relating to higher education I would recommend, and the list grew so long that I thought I’d better post it here rather than try to jam it into a comment somewhere else.

The list shows that my interests lean heavily toward educational technology and open education. I’m actually not including all of the ones to which I’m subscribed, since, like any program, some of them no longer produce new episodes and this is meant to be a list of what’s current. I’m providing links to their sites, but they should be discoverable by name through just about any podcast service.

Obviously at the top is The EdUp Experience. Their flagship show is a crown jewel of higher education podcasting, with hundreds of high quality episodes released in just a few years and more dropping all the time. As if that weren’t enough, host Joe Sallustio and producer Elvin Freytes have parlayed the wild success of this first podcast into a network of shows about education with various themes, including technology, K-12 issues, disruption, social justice, and many more.

IngenioUs is another great one. I enjoy the longer episodes hosted by Melissa Morriss-Olson, but I really appreciate David Staley’s outstanding short audio essays, many of which offer more insight in just a few minutes than one might ever think possible. He’s thought about higher education a lot, and it shows!

FutureU is very strong. Journalist Jeff Selingo and author Michael Horn have been around, seen it all, and are great communicators. I appreciate their unique format of having a short interview with a guest, then after a short break discussing it between themselves. The EdSurge Podcast, hosted by Jeff Young, also has a polished journalistic style one might expect from that organization.

There are a few podcasts that are great in terms of content, but I think deserve special mention for their presenters. These include The eLearning Podcast; because I really like host Stephen Ladek’s crisp, positive style; Teaching in Higher Ed , because listening to Bonni Stachowiak feels like listening to a friend you haven’t met yet; and Enrollment Growth University — despite the name, episodes range in topic and aren’t solely about enrollment growth, and Eric Olsen is a really affirming, sincere interviewer.

Other higher education podcasts I enjoy include the following:

Finally, I wasn’t planning to include any that are no longer producing episodes, but I feel like I’d be remiss not to at least mention 25 Years of Ed Tech. Martin Weller of the Open University expanded his important historical book into an audio series that really is fascinating listening, especially given that higher education as a culture often has “innovation amnesia” about which of its approaches that many believe are novel have actually been tried before.

How Third Parties Could Win

The question came up on social media recently what it would take to see significant victories by third parties — political parties in the U.S. other than the Democrats and Republicans, including the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and Andrew Yang’s new Forward Party, among others. While I’ve long since moved on to try to make positive change in the world through other means, I used to follow third party politics pretty closely, so this is something I’ve thought about in idle moments for some time.

Some U.S. states have a process called “ballot initiative”. This process allows citizens to circumvent their legislatures and simply by gathering enough petition signatures, cause a piece of legislation or an amendment to the state’s constitution to be enacted or rejected directly by majority vote at the next election.

Using this process, third party activists could push for a state constitutional amendment that changes the process by which the state legislature and Congressional delegation are chosen from single member districts specifically to a system of statewide, no threshold D’Hondt method, party list proportional representation.

That means (roughly) in a chamber with 100 seats, when a party gets 3% of the votes, it get three of the seats. It immediate demolishes the “wasted vote” problem, in which people don’t vote for a third party or independent candidate even when they prefer that candidate because they perceive no chance that candidate can win. And in a state like California or Texas with a large Congressional delegation, the vote percentages that a minor party can realistically achieve even mean a few seats in Congress.

What good are a few state legislative seats or a handful of seats in Congress? Well, in chambers that are nearly evenly divided, it doesn’t take many seats to make the difference between whether a bill passes or doesn’t. A recent example is that of moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who by withholding his support for legislation supported by other Democrats was able to wield disproportionate influence on that legislation (much to the consternation of many in his party).

While not as recent, a more salient example might be that of Lacey Putney, an independent (not affiliate with any political party) member of Virginia’s House of Delegates for most of the last fifty years. He was the only independent in the lower house of the state legislature, but so important would his support have been that when it seemed the chamber might otherwise not have a majority party, not only was he guaranteed an influential committee chairmanship by whichever party he would support, some pundits even suggested he might be able to negotiate his way into becoming Speaker of the House of Delegates.

But as helpful as those short term concerns might be, having a few legislative members might be even more important in the long run, because one of the reasons people don’t consider third party and independent candidates is that news media routinely blackout coverage of them. Consider the 2016 presidential race. Everyone knew who Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were because the media covered their every word and action. But there were other candidates in that race, including Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, who as a successful two term Republican governor of New Mexico who managed to cooperate with a Democratic-led state legislature was arguably the most qualified of the three. And yet, the only major coverage he received was when he misheard a question about Aleppo, Syria and answered it poorly. For some reason, of all the things he had said on the campaign trail, that was the only one the news media deemed worthy to play, and on repeat, no less. But it’s one thing to ignore or make fun of candidates who never win. It’s quite another to brazenly refuse to cover sitting legislators.

Unique among strategies available to third parties, this ballot initiative approach is something that’s actually possible to do right now. If there’s anything third parties have shown they can actually accomplish, it’s ballot access. This process has also been proven to bring structural change that people want and politicians don’t. Those states that have term limits put them in place because of exactly this sort of initiative: libertarian activists used their expertise with ballot access signature gathering to get term limits legislation on the ballot, bypassing legislators who never would have enacted such a thing in a million years. And this proposal is very similar to term limits in that it’s a challenge to the systemic power of the duopoly, which has to be brought where they are weakest, not strongest.

And while to have the best chance for this to succeed third parties that may otherwise not have a lot in common would want to cooperate, if there’s anything on which they could all agree it’s that any chance for meaningful reform would beat being stuck under either the Democrats or the Republicans for the rest of their lives.

Those familiar with electoral reform proposals may notice that that I haven’t mentioned RCV, or ranked choice voting. That’s on purpose. I think it’s a pipe dream that RCV could actually lead to significant victories for marginalized candidates. It still requires that a majority of voters think positively about one’s party before it can lead to seats, and in an environment of systemic deterrence and conspicuous media blackouts that simply isn’t going to happen. Because of that, pushing for RCV is actually a huge mistake for minor party activists, because it mean they’re taking their one shot at electoral reform at the wrong target.

Strange Dream of a Dead World

I had this dream about two years ago, and I wrote this down at the time, but haven’t shared it here until now.

I followed this man and this boy through a portal to a wooded parallel world. The two had been there before, and the boy didn’t like it, and was upset because he thought he’d never have to go back.

The boy turned invisible to be safe, but there was still a shimmer so I was able to follow him.

He went up a hill to where there was a lone apartment building with a pack of black labradors in front. The dogs were all old, and they were all friends, happy to just be among one another. It was what they had.

A woman came out of the building. Her name was Mogham. She was putting up homemade posters inviting people to come running with her, but there weren’t many people on this world, and she didn’t have any takers.

The world wasn’t bad, but it was a dead world that just hadn’t finished cooling yet. It felt like autumn there, not winter, but with the understanding that spring would never come. It was dim, not dark, but with the understanding that dawn would never break.

It was a world that still had a little bit of the present, but no future.

That’s pretty much it. Interestingly, though, the woman looked South Asian, and when I looked up “Mogham” after I woke up it said that in Sanskrit it means “in vain, uselessly, without cause”. I’ve never studied Sanskrit, and I didn’t know that before the dream. Make of that what you will.

Strange Dream Medley

I had a few strange dreams one night a while back, and since it’s been a while since I blogged anything I thought I’d share them — why not? Anyone with an interest in dream analysis is welcome to have a go at it.

The first one was short and simple. I was at 219 in Old Town Alexandria, but, as was explained to me there, it was also the afterlife. I went out this door and there was nothing behind it but void. I just kept moving forward into it, but it wasn’t upsetting as one might expect. And that’s it; it was a very short dream.

In the second one I was in a town that looked like it could be in the Shenandoah Valley area and my car died. I had to get out and push it single-handedly up a steep hill (which was somehow possible for me), eventually leaving it in someone’s driveway until I could get it fixed. I was very upset because I saw that its tires had melted off and I’d have to buy new ones. Then I went inside this dive bar, and when I went upstairs there were these people who were all friends of my friend Andrew, and then Andrew was there too and I was really happy to see him. That’s all I remember about that one.

The last dream was the strangest one. It started out with me towing a boat and letting it into the water in a Florida-looking place, although it also looked like the Occoquan Wildlife Reserve where I took my son Noah on a hike a while ago. But then it morphed into me being on the back of the boat at night, the boat was going through the water at a fair clip, and zombies were trying to climb onto the back of the boat, and I had to push them off back into the water. And some of them were little kid zombies. Then I found myself holding a tiny baby zombie, and I said, “wait a second,” because for some reason I felt very protective of her.

That’s when the dream changed and it wasn’t that I was fighting zombies, I was just on set where they were filming a movie about fighting zombies. So I said, look, the other little kids had a lot of fun doing this, but if I throw this little baby into the water she’s going to be injured or killed. Where are her parents anyway? But it turned out her parents were impoverished people in Mexico and the production company people had rented the baby from somewhere and didn’t care what happened to her. I was obviously upset by this, but I needed to hand the baby to someone, and one of the other actors was Fidel Castro, except he was young (not to mention not dead), and he looked like the actor David Castro.

So I asked Fidel whether he’d had kids yet at this point (apparently I was aware I had jumped in time) and he said yes, so I handed him the baby. He started lecturing me on how to hold a baby, which annoyed me (I already didn’t like him because he was Fidel Castro) so I said, “I don’t need to be told how to hold a baby, I just wanted to be sure you wouldn’t fuck it up. I’m tired, and I just want to rest for a minute.”

And then I fell asleep in the dream and woke up in real life.

…assuming that’s what this is.

Disruption In Higher Education

Note: This is something of a follow up to No, Google Won’t Replace Higher Education.

My friend Dave Robson over at SpiralMath pointed me to an article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz at HBR on 6 Reasons Why Higher Education Needs to Be Disrupted.

I’ve seen lists like this for decades, with slight variations, from many authors. They’re not wrong. But I think it’s important to make clear that these things are leading to change within higher education, not its demise. I say that because I’ve seen that the capacity of higher education as a societal institution to absorb alternatives into its existing framework is often underestimated.

When I was starting out professionally in the ’90s, technical certifications were huge. Get the right certification from Microsoft or Cisco and you were immediately employable with a salary as high or higher than many degree holders could command. But those certifications didn’t replace higher education, they were absorbed by it. Colleges and universities began to accept those certifications as transfer credit. At first it was the for profit schools, because that’s where so much of the innovation happens in higher education, but eventually it was commonplace. No longer was “certification or degree” presented as a choice, now it was the first leading to the second. The certification would get you in the door, but the degree would help a lot if you wanted to keep advancing.

It was the same with MOOCs. They too were trumpeted by the easily excitable as the end of higher education as we know it. But instead, MOOC providers have ended up remaining closely held by the higher education industry that spawned them, with OPM-style services becoming as big a part of what they do as the MOOCs themselves.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate MOOCs for what they are: free or low cost continuing education. Although that does raise the question why anyone would pay $750 for a course from a company like, say, Section4 that they could more or less get nearly for free from Coursera or EdX.

Anyway, now it’s 2021 and we’ve gone full circle, with some people saying, “Why go to college when you can just get a certification from Google?” It sounds like a provocative and timely question only because in higher education journalism, memories are short and everything old is always new again. Here’s my prediction: people will get these certs, and it will help them professionally, yes, and then an awful lot of them will go on and earn degrees anyway.

What really is new, and will have a much more profound impact on higher education as an industry in high income countries, are demographic changes. There just aren’t enough Zoomers to fill all the colleges and universities that were needed forty or fifty years ago, even if more of them per capita decide to go to college. Also different now are the different paths to earning a degree. Residential schools are in bigger trouble than the rest, and COVID hasn’t helped. If young people aren’t going to get that “rite of passage” residential experience as part of their hundred grand, they have a lot of other paths by which to earn a degree that are cheaper and more convenient. That means Podunk College isn’t just competing against the state schools in its region anymore, but against the likes of SNHU who have a huge lead when it comes to distance learning — including marketing it. Some of those schools have folded already. A lot more of them are dead men walking.

So disruption? Perhaps. Development into different forms? Probably. But demise? Well, not as an industry at least.

Remembering Johnny Clegg

In my life I’ve only met three famous people.

I met Ron Paul once in passing when I was nineteen or twenty years old. I don’t think we had an actual conversation and I don’t remember getting a personal impression of him one way or the other. I include him here mainly for completeness.

I met Douglas Adams at a book signing when I was ten years old, maybe as old as eleven. He was very abrupt and kind of a jerk to me even though he wasn’t that busy, which was kind of a shame because I was a huge Hitchhiker’s Guide fan in grade school and had gone in there expecting that meeting him was going to be the greatest thing ever. I suppose this is why they say not to meet your heroes.

But the third story is a very nice one, so when I saw today that Reddit has a question asking people, “Which celebrity did you meet and found they were much kinder/ruder than you expected?” it’s the one I shared there. It occurs to me that it will probably be lost in a sea of responses and no one will read it, so I thought since I’d typed it out anyway I’d add it here as well.

Over twenty-five years ago, my girlfriend at the time was a huge Johnny Clegg fan. Even though he would fill stadiums in his native South Africa, and in Europe, he was totally unknown in the U.S.

He did a North America tour and of course we had to go. So we get to this mid-sized venue and the place is just empty, like maybe one hundred of us were in the audience total. But he and his band did a fantastic show, with as much energy as if they were playing for a full house at Wembley Stadium rather than for a few rows at a theater in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

After the show a few of us went up to the stage and waited, to see whether he’d come out. He did, and when he saw there only like ten of us he said, “You know what? Just come to the hotel bar where I’m staying and I’ll meet you there.”

So we went over and a short while later he came down, and spent two hours regaling us with stories of the fight against Apartheid and what it was like to be a father (referred to his kid as the “Clegglet”, which cracked us up). And then at the end he picked up our whole bar tab. (I know that sounds like an “and then everyone in the store applauded” ending, but that’s what happened.)

Anyway, best celebrity ever: kind, gentle, and yet such strength. I was genuinely sad last year when I heard he passed on, especially since I’m sure he still had so much more to give.

The Jefferson Test

Sometimes when another person’s lifestyle choices strike me as different from what I would choose, even markedly so, but don’t actually affect me, I’ll just shrug and say, “Well, it passes the Jefferson test.” Usually people have no idea what I’m talking about, so I thought I’d go ahead and explain it here so that I can conveniently refer people to it when the need arises.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And that seems like an appropriately high standard to maintain before getting involved in someone else’s business. If someone has a particularly strange belief or activities, but it does me no injury, then it passes the Jefferson test, and I move on. Life is short, and goals are hard enough to reach as it is without being deterred by things that aren’t actually obstacles.

Now, I’m aware that Jefferson was a hypocrite when it came to individual liberty, that his enslavement of other people manifestly fails the Jefferson test, and his other writings confirm that he was not merely unaware of the problem because of the era in which he lived, but wrestled with it, referring to slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot”. That’s why if you ask me who the figures from the American Revolution are who I respect I’ll say Thomas Paine and Roger Sherman, not Jefferson. However, those gentlemen didn’t come up with this particular pithy remark, Jefferson did, so there it is.

Take The Red Pill! (Not What You Think)

My friend Kirsten Tynan recently posted the following, and I think I may have taken it a little too seriously.

You’ll take the blue pill, because you love your dog, obviously. No, wait, actually not the blue one, because you love your dog. Think for a minute about what a terrible fate “never dies” might be when “doesn’t age” and “can’t be injured” aren’t explicitly included. And even if they are, sure, everything’s fine for a few hundred million years, but then solar output sequesters enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the Earth’s crust that photosynthesis stops working. No plant life, therefore no animal life, nothing to eat ever again. But worse, after a few billion years of that the Sun engulfs the planet. And after a few billion years of living in a fusion reaction the Sun goes cold and now Fido the Undying is stuck waiting for a trillion or so years for the end of the universe… except that apparently your hapless hound will even survive either the Big Crunch or the Big Rip.

So fine, how about yellow. No need to be selfish here, because there will be enough garlic bread available to end world hunger, right? You’ll be a hero! Next to you even Norman Borlaug will seem like a slacker! Except… consider that it says “infinite”, not “as much as you want up to infinite”, so on taking that pill, suddenly the entire universe would have infinite density, meaning all of existence would become a single gigantic black hole. On the plus side, yes, that would end world hunger, but not in the way one might hope.

Green is pretty useful, though, right? If you know what people are thinking, you can amaze them, or get away with almost anything, right? Sure, until you go insane. That one doesn’t say “read minds whenever you wish” and it doesn’t say anything about distance being a limitation, so if you take this one, your existence becomes a ceaseless cacophony of billions of thoughts. They’ll need to put you in a medical coma forever just to keep you from killing yourself. (And you’d better hope no one gives your dog a blue pill!)

But hey, red sounds pretty cool. Nothing could possible go wrong with that one.