Focus On What You See

It seems that in the last few years there’s been an increase in the way that many in the media promote petty intergenerational rivalries. It started with stereotypes about Millennials being lazy, unfocused, and self-absorbed, but has since progressed to stereotypes of Baby Boomers as having selfishly destroyed the economy, using up resources, and generally leaving societal institutions of politics, media, finance, religion, etc., in a worse state than they found them. An example would be the vitriol expressed by some younger people when they find out that many senior citizens get steep discounts at many universities.

Most people leave the front door wide open when it comes to allowing ideas that they get from media to enter their ways of thinking. And sure enough, those stereotypes can be found all over social media being expressed by ordinary people, ranging from wry offhand slights all the way to the way to outrage.

Unfortunately, the problem is much more broad than just Millennials and Baby Boomers. It’s as if we’re being goaded into conflict, with collectivist ideas constantly being emitted towards us subtly and not-so-subtly that people are defined primarily by the groups to which they belong, and that each of those groups is suspect.

Consider every media message you encounter that has the effect of making you feel negatively about another group. Obviously this includes big things like age, race, national origin, religion, political affiliation, region of the country, and so forth, but it’s more insidious than that. Look at how socially acceptable it is to ridicule hipsters and vegans, not because they’re harmful, but simply because it’s an idea virus that’s spread across our culture without any real critical thinking taking place to counteract it.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a day and count all the times you come into contact with a message that, upon reflection, you can tell is meant to be divisive. Take special care to count messages that are meant to make you feel comfortable about yourself at others’ expense.

I should add that I’m not suggesting this is a pernicious conspiracy. Yes, Russian troll farms exist to stir the pot, but for the most part I think that reader and viewer attention is what sells ads, and that if you want someone’s attention, an effective way to get it and hold on to it through a commercial break is to outrage them.

Either way, given how pervasive the problem is, what’s the solution? Well, in the epic ’90s sci-fi series Babylon 5, Commander Sinclair remarks, “Ignore the propaganda. Focus on what you see.”  To do that requires retraining one’s mind to resist the collectivism of seeing people in terms of the groups to which they belong, and instead think of them first and foremost as individuals, with all the extraordinary potential variety that entails.

It takes a little practice, but after a while, not only will you have immunized yourself against these sorts of negative idea viruses, you’ll be amazed (and not a little dismayed) that most people can’t see how glaring stereotypes and generalizations are being used in a way that keeps people divided.

Why Do Senior Citizens Get University Discounts?

Recently a friend on social media has commented repeatedly and negatively about the Baby Boomer generation, and as part of this asked for my comment about the University of Minnesota’s Senior Citizen Education Program, which allows state residents 62 and older to take courses and even earn degrees for a negligible cost. It’s similar to programs nationwide, both at public and private institutions, that offer very low cost university education to senior citizens.

My friend was outraged by this: “People desperately taking classes to try to find a decent job pay upwards of $2,500 a credit, whereas entitled fucks living a life of luxury and taking classes on a whim pay $10?”

(First of all, no matter how old you are, if you’re paying upwards of $2,500 a credit for university courses, you’re making a horrible mistake. There are ways to earn a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited U.S. university for less than ten thousand dollars total. But that’s a post for another day.)

Still, it’s not like he doesn’t have a point. It’s fair to ask, if higher education for credit can be provided to senior citizens at such a low cost, why can’t it be provided to younger people at that cost, especially since they’re the ones who will benefit the most from it?

The arguments that I recall seeing for low cost university programs for seniors include:

  • Those programs generally only allow seniors to sit in a class only after all the full price students have all been accommodated. They’re basically “flying standby”, so they’re not in anyone’s way.
  • On the opposite end, at most schools courses will be cancelled if enrollment isn’t high enough. By counting those seniors, sometimes a course will run that wouldn’t have otherwise, which improves access for full price younger students, particularly in the liberal arts.
  • Schools may make up for it in the long run, as seniors who feel a connection to a college or university may bequeath more to it on their deaths than they would have paid in tuition. (This would explain why some non-public institutions offer similar programs to seniors.)

But even if all of those reasons hold water and these programs can be shown not to cost taxpayers anything, I can’t help but agree with my friend in one respect: in an era when total student loan debt in the U.S. is now over $1.5 trillion, the optics of making that same service free to those who need it the least are absolutely terrible.

So that’s my response to this specific issue. But this is just a small part of a much more broad division within society, and for more on that, click/tap here.

Fortress of Solitude

My youngest has the unfortunate habit of taking a glass upstairs for water every night and not bringing them back down in the morning. When I looked in his room a few minutes ago I said, “Noah, the very next thing you will do is take all of these glasses downstairs! There’s so much crystal in your room that it looks like the Fortress of Solitude. I’m afraid a hologram of Jor-El is going to appear!”

But he just looked at me blankly, because he had no idea what I meant. So, the moral of the story is that today I learned that I have neglected to ensure that my youngest has seen the original Superman movie from 1978, the one directed by Richard Donner that stars the late great Christopher Reeve. We will correct this at the earliest opportunity. I just hope it doesn’t inspire him to take more glasses up there rather than fewer….

Which Media Outlets Are Worthwhile?

I often discuss current events and geopolitics on the DavosMan.org forum, a small but interesting set of people who range all over the ideological map, and who hail from North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Recently one of the people there listed the set of news media he follows, and it made me think about which ones I follow. I was going to respond in kind there, but I realized the answer might be more general interest, so I’m answering here instead.

For starters, I don’t watch TV other than occasional entertainment shows. TV news is a wasteland. The 20th century newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken once wrote, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” Nowadays that phrase would seem as appropriate for 24 hour news channels, the revenue model for which is to sell ads by promoting a pernicious adrenaline high of outrage and fear so that people will keep watching. For some reason CNN seems to be the default telescreen braying in public spaces in the U.S., and every time I see it I’m reminded just how empty it really is, an endless barrage of false urgency coupled with flashy imagery designed to mesmerize. And its competitors are no better.

Some print media are a little more useful, and while I don’t set out to stay current with any specific periodical, although I’ll often read articles from the Washington Post, The Guardian, The Intercept, Reason, FEE, Asia Times, PanAm Post, and Fair Observer (long form journalism that leans centre-left). For specialty media I’ll read Dominica News Online, University World News, and InsideHigherEd.

Like many people nowadays, typically I read an article not because it’s in a particular publication but because it’s recommended on social media by someone who I know is thoughtful. Some of those people mostly share my perspectives, but others do not.

I occasionally run into articles from RT, CGTN, Granma, teleSUR, etc., but do not take them seriously. They are not an “alternative perspective”, they are just press releases from dictators worthy of no more attention than a missive from Sarah Sanders. RT in particular is an interesting study in propaganda, however, not because the news it delivers is untrue, but because its editorial approach is deliberately to report on events in a way designed to sow mistrust in Americans of every societal institution in their lives, especially governmental, media, and financial. The sad thing is that these societal institutions deserve that mistrust, which is why RT doesn’t typically have to lie, so in that sense perhaps RT is performing a backhanded service, and I can see why some libertarians actually find it appealing. But it’s still not something one could actually trust.

Instead of any of those, I’ve come to prefer spending that time on podcasts that cover new ideas in my specialization. Especially if you’re someone who spends a fair bit of time in the car, finding worthwhile podcasts is something I strongly recommend. There is definitely something for everyone out there, from the ridiculous to the sublime, a cornucopia of unfiltered experts sharing what they know.

And I don’t feel bad about spending less and less time on news media. Other than weather reports, I can’t remember the last time a news article from general interest media actually gave me information that I could use to help me reach my goals. Can you?

Is A Degree Necessary?

My friend Michael Strong recently posted this video of T.K. Coleman on the topic of whether one can be taken seriously without holding a degree.

I found this interesting because degree-skepticism is pretty common among the more cutting edge educators I follow on social media. So, Coleman says that one shouldn’t make a hasty generalization from regulated professions like medicine and law to assume a degree is required in life, which is fair, but then makes a hasty generalization from programming and start up culture to assume that a degree isn’t required in life.
 
Coleman is right that the argument “no one will take you seriously without a degree” is false. But that hardly means that many people won’t—wrongly and foolishly, in my opinion, but that’s life. And I get it that he works for Praxis, an educational startup based on the idea that higher education isn’t necessary, encouraging young people instead to take apprenticeships with startups.
 
I understand that there are companies, a few of which are prominent, who are saying that they’re willing to consider undegreed applicants. But what are the real numbers of people in this category who have gone on to careers as successful as those of their degreed peers? That’s the needed comparison, not just whether one can become employed at an entry level.
 
Ultimately, it should be considered an individual decision. People often don’t think of it this way, but a degree isn’t a goal, it’s merely a tool that helps you reach a goal. Depending on what one’s goals are, a degree program might be vitally important, or it might simply be an expensive distraction. To insist that it’s always either one or the other is indefensible. Coleman makes a worthwhile argument, I just think he’s overplaying it.
 
It’s also worth noting higher education’s ability to absorb initiatives meant to circumvent it, a recent example of which is this partnership between a coding camp and a university. The first two sentences on the Praxis web site declare “The Degree is Dead. You Need Experience.” I’m guessing that identification of false dichotomies isn’t part of their curriculum.

T-Shirts, Teen Sarcasm, and Free Culture

Speaking of Noah stealing my t-shirts and of Creative Commons, the following exchange recently took place:

Me: Ah, so I see that you stole my Creative Commons t-shirt.
Noah: Yeah, I love closed captioning!
Me: You know full well that means Creative Commons.
Noah: Right, I mean I love creative commas!

Life with sarcastic teenagers! Honestly, I have no idea where he gets it….

Not Even Attribution

Introduction

I was very interested in a recent conversation about Creative Commons licenses hosted by Robin DeRosa on her Twitter feed, and a follow up to that conversation by Maha Bali published on her blog. In this exchange they and others wrestled with one of the issues that I’ve seen educators consider since the dawn of the open education movement, that of which license to use to release their works openly.

Typically that means licenses from Creative Commons. I believe it’s not hyperbole to say that this organization is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for building a free society. Their primary activity has been the development of a suite of open licenses that allow individual and organizational creators of content to conveniently release that content in a way that disclaims some or all of the entitlements that typically come with copyright. Or, as they put it, rather than “all rights reserved”, they provide the option to creators of instead choosing “some rights reserved” or even “no rights reserved”.

Why did I refer to them as entitlements when Creative Commons itself refers to them as rights? I’ll freely admit that my position is ideological. It was a great PR gimmick to package patents and copyright under the rubric of “intellectual property”, but since copying is not theft, I don’t see copyright as a legitimate form of property at all, it’s merely a government-granted entitlement of monopoly on a piece of information. And as a free market kind of guy, I reject it as I would any other government entitlements.

So that’s where I’m coming from, it’s not difficult to understand my personal objections to all of the various options when it comes to Creative Commons licenses. It’s worth noting that I’m not trying to tell other educators or content creators what to do, but simply outlining why I think the way I do, as part of the ongoing conversation. It also should go without saying that this is my personal site only, and that nothing here should be considered a policy of New World University.

NoDerivatives (ND)

Most educators don’t really consider this open at all. The “NoDerivatives” option simply means that you’re allowing other people to copy your content, but not to modify it in any way. If there’s a complete work that you want to distribute that can be convenient, but such works aren’t part of the “commons” of materials that can be adapted and remixed to make new materials, so they don’t really contribute to the development of an alternative to what’s called permission culture. I’m not interested in that, and have never even considered releasing material under this license.

NonCommercial (NC)

I think it’s safe to say that educators tend to be ideologically left-leaning, and since I’m not when it comes to fiscal issues, this tends to be an area of fundamental disagreement. I’ve seen colleagues react quite strongly against the idea that some individual or company might make money by selling access to content that they authored. Now, I’m not unmindful that corporate publishers of textbooks and journals in wealthy countries often act in ways that many, including me, find exploitative and anti-social. Personally I believe that between the OER and OA movements, we in higher education no longer need them as intermediaries, and that the time will come when they wither and die, their passing unlamented by any but their shareholders.

But that doesn’t mean that a special option to stop all commercial use of one’s content is necessary or desirable. Any commercial publisher attempting to sell works with any Creative Commons license by definition is competing with repositories that release those same works for free. There’s a reason that they don’t attempt this: there are plenty such works out there they could use for this purpose, yet their strategy remains to develop their own materials and attempt to compete on their supposed advantages.

Moreover, in economically developing societies, small scale proprietary educational institutions often serve the poor more successfully than public institutions do. If the goal is truly to release materials in a way that ultimately benefits as many students as possible, then any clause that gets in the way of such institutions is an impediment to reaching that goal.

ShareAlike (SA)

ShareAlike, also known as “copyleft”, is an option in a Creative Commons license that allows derivative works but only if it is released under the same license under which the original is released. At first glance this seems like a good idea, after all, if someone is adapting a work that they received from the commons, shouldn’t they return that adaptation in kind? The problem is that there are several different licenses that include the ShareAlike clause, and by definition, materials released under those different licenses cannot be remixed together. The end result has been the development of silos of content, where materials released under BY-NC-SA cannot be combined with those under BY-SA. To some extent this can be overcome through the playlist model of course development, but not always, and it seems to me better to avoid the problem in the first place.

Attribution (BY)

Now, I actually don’t have a problem with attribution. If I use work someone else wrote I’ll happily acknowledge them. But copyright and plagiarism are not the same thing. One, as I said, is a government entitlement. The other is a form of fraud. But since I’ve already rejected ND, NC, and SA, BY is the only clause left, and I would prefer not to claim copyright at all rather than claim it only to turn around and disclaim every part of it other than the bit that shouldn’t require it in the first place. What I prefer to attribution as part of a license is a cultural norm of attribution, and within higher education I believe that cultural norm already exists, making a license that only consists of BY unnecessary.

Zero Is My Hero (CC0)

So why am I so enthusiastic about Creative Commons if I don’t use licenses that contain any of their legal clauses? For starters, because I cheerfully acknowledge that while I’m over on the radical end of the free culture movement, that doesn’t mean the bulk of that movement isn’t also doing great work moving society away from the notion that “all rights reserved” is the only approach to consider.

But also, when they were designing licenses, they didn’t leave people like me out. In addition to their suite of various licenses, they also designed the CC0 waiver, a way of disclaiming copyright to the maximum extent possible in as many jurisdictions as possible, thereby effectively placing it into the public domain, where I want my content to go. I am very grateful for their work to make that an option for me, and for those who are on the fence, I can report from here that I have never suffered any deleterious outcome from having chosen this path over any of the “some rights reserved” alternatives.

Social Democracy Isn’t Socialism

There’s a certain video called “The Biggest Myths About Socialism” that’s been making the rounds on social media. It’s by Francesca Fiorentini, who posts on the Al-Jazeera’s comedy webshow Newsbroke. It says something about how post-truth our era has become that there’s even such as thing as a comedy show being sponsored by what is supposedly a news media organization, but in this case, the inaccuracies are no laughing matter.

Fiorentini may be a glib presenter, but the one glaring error that dominates her piece is that she’s deliberately confusing social democracy and socialism in order to make the latter not seem like the terrible idea that it manifestly is. I’m referring to the difference between Scandinavian countries and countries like Venezuela and North Korea. They don’t have the same sort of systems, and they shouldn’t be lumped together.

Basically, social democracy is when a society has a market economy with a layer of social programs on top of it. We’ve seen around the world that this is a sustainable approach, because the prosperity that comes from a market system is enough to fund the social programs. This is what we see in places like Scandinavia and so forth.

Socialism, meanwhile, is when there’s not much of a market economy, where the government nationalises industry, or otherwise controls it so tightly that the market process is disrupted too severely to produce prosperity. We’ve also seen around the world that this is an unsustainable approach, and that, as in extreme examples like Venezuela and North Korea, it leads to poverty, starvation, and death.

It gets confusing sometimes because politicians on various sides often use the wrong word. For example, many U.S. conservatives complained that Obama’s health care legislation was “socialism”, which it wasn’t. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders has referred to his positions as “socialism”, which they aren’t. In fact, when he referred to Denmark as a socialist country, he was called out for it by the Prime Minister of Denmark.

Of course, he’s not the only one. Inspired by Sanders, a new wave of leftist American politicians have arisen to challenge the status quo of the Democratic Party, most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who wears the badge of “socialism” with pride. But is she really? As commentator Matthew Gagnon writes:

The reality is, she is — like so many people crying out for socialism today — responding to a form of trendy political hipsterism. The need to signal her own virtue as a radical, counter-culture, ahead of her time, rebelliously egalitarian icon is powerful, and adopting a once scorned label and trying to make it cool is a great way to do that.

She doesn’t have to actually understand socialism at all, she can just make up whatever she wants and call it socialism. Indeed, she can position herself as mainstream and her opposition as extremist by suggesting that any and all government action, tax collection or spending is an example of socialism. “What, do you hate road, highways and schools, you troglodyte?”

To Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and their ilk, positioning themselves in this way allows them to ridicule actual opponents of socialism as little more than anti-government anarchists who believe the government should never do anything, anywhere, for any reason. This is, perhaps, the king of all strawmen.

Which means, ultimately, that Ocasio-Cortez is not even a socialist, no matter how much she might want to call herself that. She is a big government statist who believes in little more than confiscatory taxes, bloated spending, and a government program for every problem in America.

Ironically, this makes her that which she least wants to be: a boring, fairly typical liberal, the likes of which we have seen in this country for a hundred years. Not new. Not trendy. Not fresh. She is essentially a 28 year old Walter Mondale.

As Socrates said, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. And by that standard, as by so many others, there is very little wisdom to be found when the term in question is “socialism”.

Free T-Shirts Revisited

I’m a bit too busy to update this very much these days, but I thought it would be amusing to update any wayward reader about the free t-shirts. My youngest, now 13, has aged into wearing my t-shirt size, and sure enough, he stole them all. I suppose most kids’ first branding instinct wouldn’t be to promote a credit union, but… there it is.

Raise Your Voice Against Censorship And Oppression

“When you have strict censorship of the internet, young students cannot receive a full education. Their view of the world is imbalanced. There can be no true discussion of the issues.” — Ai Weiwei

Raise Your Voice!
Today, 16th October 2015, is Blog Action Day, and this year’s theme is “Raise Your Voice”. That means this year we’re remembering bloggers whose mission is to bring critical information to the world, but have imprisoned and silenced by oppressive regimes.

To that end, I’d like to send a shout out to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and their new project, called Offline. As they explain:

Around the world, repressive governments have arrested, imprisoned, and tortured coders, technologists, and bloggers. EFF’s new project, Offline, raises awareness of these digital heroes to ensure that—even as they are locked away—their voices can be heard. The first five highlighted cases include free software developer Alla Abd El Fattah (Egypt), web developer Saeed Malekpoor (Iran), online columnist Eskinder Nega (Ethiopia), and the Zone 9 Bloggers (Ethiopia). Right now, we’re trying to raise as much awareness as possible about free culture advocate Bassel Khartabil, who has been transferred from a civil prison in Syria to an unknown location.

Many parts of our world are improving year by year. Progress is out there. But there is still oppression and censorship in many places. These people are trying to make it better. Don’t forget them.