Taking My Mind Back

I’ve written a few times on my struggles with commercial social media and my approach to using it, and this is in particular a follow up to Sorry Twitter, It’s Not Me, It’s You

Of course, when I say “my struggles” I’m sure they’re not all that different from those that many people have. The first and foremost issue is that, on balance, it’s a giant waste of time. Yes, I have learned a few things that were helpful from friends and other contacts, and I’ve occasionally gotten updates about people I know that I was grateful to know about. But what percent of posts on Facebook or Twitter qualify as genuinely informative about something or someone I actually care about? The ratio of signal to noise is vanishingly unfavorable.

It’s not just that it’s not the best use of time, though. In many ways, use of commercial social media is an act of self-harm. Large commercial social media outlets have evolved their design to keep people online no matter what, and the most effective way has been to encourage argument and division rather than conversation and understanding. The intention is to make people angrier for using it, and keep us addicted to outrage. To put it dramatically, the cruelty is the point—or at least the revenue model.

As if that weren’t bad enough, its purposefully addictive design damages one’s attention span, even in older people who didn’t grow up with it. How many of us cannot even watch TV anymore without having phone in hand, thoughtlessly doomscrolling because our brains tell us that a 44 minute episode of even the most exciting show just isn’t triggering dopamine often enough?

The cherry on top was that I also recently got an unpleasant reminder of its negative privacy implications. No need for details, nothing terrible happened, but even a glancing blow was enough of a wake up call.

That triggering event was enough to push me to do what sadly has become unthinkable these days: I quit Facebook and Twitter—permanently. And I don’t mean that I uninstalled the app, or that I “deactivated” my accounts safe in the knowledge I could always reactivate them later and pick up right where I left off. I just stone cold deleted my accounts altogether. 

This was about one week ago, and only now am I getting to the point where I’m not reflexively picking up my phone to see what’s “new”. I can tell that I’m starting to be more productive, and regaining a better level of focus. Every day I can tell it was the right thing to do.

Ten Billion Humans, Hurrah!

On Reddit, someone asked, “What’s your solution (no genocides) for humanity as it is estimated 10 billion humans living on earth around 2075?”

This was my answer. Since it’s just long enough to be a blog post, I thought I’d go ahead and share it here as well. Coincidentally, Life Is a Party by Stick Figure was playing while I wrote it. 

What’s my solution? Celebrate wildly once when we hit eight digits.

Yes, seriously. This anti-human, “Boohoo! There are just so many people!” thing is so incredibly tiresome.

“I’ll never have kids, because I don’t want them to grow up in this terrible world!”

OMFG, STFU. Humans have never had it as good as we do now. I realise there are good reasons not to have kids. And if you have one of those reasons, then fair enough, and I truly hope you enjoy life to the fullest. But I also feel a little sorry for you, because otherwise, what’s it all really for?

You are just the latest step in a line that goes all the way back to the primordial soup. You’re a link in an incredibly long chain. Each previous link, all the people in previous generations, found a way to overcome their challenges and pass on their experiences and what they learned. You can too!

As for overpopulation, sorry-not-sorry, but no, the Earth isn’t overpopulated. If you give everyone on Earth today just one acre and we’d all still fit in Texas. (I know people from there like to talk about how big it is, but look at a globe and you’ll see otherwise. Sorry, Texans.) And remember, half the reason we need so many calories is that we drag around these giant computers in our heads that solve incredibly difficult problems. And not exceeding Earth’s carrying capacity is one such problem. We’ll improvise, we’ll adapt, and we’ll overcome.

So no, it’s not that our planet is overpopulated, it’s just poorly managed. And sure, I agree that we need to make some difficult choices to make sure we leave the place in as good a shape as we found it. Look back and you’ll see that there are those in every era who believe that they are there to witness the end of history. The doomsayers have always been wrong before, and they’re wrong now. Every generation faces its challenges. We’re no exception. And we’re going to be okay.

On Being An American

‘When the soul of a man is born, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.  You talk to me of nationality, language, religion.  I shall try to fly by those nets.’ — James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I participate in a certain web forum for the discussion of geopolitics where the number of participants is just a handful, but the viewpoint diversity is very strong, ranging from my strongly market liberal views that are pretty disdainful of government action in most dimensions, to those on the right who are more or less recognizable conservatives, to social democrats, and even our court jester: an old school Marxist tankie who spends his days and nights posting article after article from TASS and other outlets of overt Russian dezinformatsiya

Occasionally, one of the other participants in responding to something I’ve said or in drawing my attention to one issue or another will refer to US government institutions as mine. For example, “your Supreme Court”, or “your Congress”; that sort of thing. Now, I almost never take Internet discussions seriously, and even less often take them personally, so it’s interesting that alone of all the things we discuss there — war and peace, economics and social dynamics, liberty and tyranny, the works! — it is this simple formulation that, to use an ironically American turn of phrase, drives me bananas.

There are a number of reasons why that may seem odd. The fellow who uses it clearly has no ill intent, he’s simply indicating that I’m an American. And he’s quite right: I am. I’m a US citizen, born in the US of American parents. My father’s family has been here since not long after the Civil War, and my mother’s European ancestors in what is now the US go back to the 17th century. (And that’s not counting an Abenaki ancestor on my mother’s side, since that’s so distant that to claim it as meaningful would be rather disingenuous.)

That said, that doesn’t mean that ancestry is everything, or even the main thing. I’ve long thought that whether one’s ancestors have been here since the last Ice Age or just the last presidential administration, culture is king in determining who an American is. American culture takes a lot of criticism, especially from ourselves, but one thing about it that I’ve always appreciated is how easy it is to assimilate. No matter where you come from, and how strong your ties remain to that place, your kids may respect your culture, but if they are raised here, they will be American. 

So if I’m an American and don’t think that being American is bad, then why does “your president” bug me so much? There are two reasons, the lesser of which is ideological. If something is “mine”, that suggests I am somehow responsible for it and that I endorse it. Well, I’m not, and I don’t. Perhaps at the local level there a single determined individual can build meaningful influence and effect noticeable change, but when it comes to things like US foreign policy, the decisions made in Foggy Bottom are even more distant from the hoi polloi of the electorate than any ancestor who trudged across the Bering land bridge in search of wooly mammoths to spear for dinner.

The great reason, however, is that the formulation implies that one’s outlook is inexorably limited by one’s national origin, that the color of one’s passport is all that colors one’s perspective. I do realize that it’s a factor, in fact I’ve learned how important familiarity from the inside of a society is to understanding it by reading some of the humorously inaccurate beliefs about American society occasionally made on that forum by those familiar with it only from afar.

But just because one’s culture may be a starting point for understanding the world, that doesn’t mean it’s a finish line for it. By cultivating multicultural experiences and deliberate exposure to other languages, other societies, and the hopes, dreams, beliefs, and fears of those whose roots were fed in distant ground, one can end up with a much more refined view of how we are similar and how we differ. 

Put simply, then, the main reason that formulation galls me is that it suggests that a person’s views are much more one dimensional than they necessarily are. I like to think that I don’t presuppose that of others, and in turn I would prefer they not presuppose it of me. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?

Sorry Twitter, It’s Not Me, It’s You

One of the big stories of 2022 was Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, and subsequent hilarious mismanagement of it such that it basically looks like he put $44 billion into a gigantic mountain of cash and set it on fire. A lot of people have taken exception to his changing policies at Twitter seemingly making it a less unfriendly place for hate speech and other objectionable content. But I haven’t really noticed a difference since he took over. After all, long before Musk’s acquisition Twitter was already an endless cage match of outrage-driven engagement carefully stoked by algorithms that decide what content to show. There may be a new ringmaster, but it’s still the same circus.

Even so, however, I hadn’t fully given up on Twitter. There were still some interesting people sharing ideas there, and I didn’t want to miss out on them. Now, though, I’ve decided to curtail my involvement with Twitter more or less completely. It’s not really because of Elon Musk. I think he’s wildly overrated at best (although it seems the rest of the world is catching on to that) and I don’t care for his changes, but the person at the top isn’t necessarily a deal breaker for me. I mean, it’s not like I’ve fully left Facebook even though it’s controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, who’s basically the best evidence that conspiracy theorists have that the world is controlled by reptoids.

No, my issue is a different, more profane matter. Simply put, on balance, Twitter is an enormous waste of time and emotional energy. I never come away from Twitter thinking, “Wow, what a productive activity that was!” And all too often, a visit there involves temptations to engage with people on extremely negative terms. Twitter is a bad habit, not different from smoking cigarettes or eating junk food or drinking too much. And like any bad habit, it’s a wonder target for a new year’s resolution.

I’ve actually done this before. Two years ago I deleted the Facebook app off of my phone. My time on that platform dropped like a stone. Since then I’ve only posted five things to my main profile there, and of those three were just reposting something smart someone else said. Nowadays I only drop by that site infrequently, and when I do I spend very little time. I expect I can do the same for Twitter. Scylla having been slain, it’s time for Charybdis to follow.

That doesn’t mean that I’m no longer interested in social media at all. On the contrary, it’s only anti-social media that I’m avoiding here. So what’s better? I’ve written about Mastodon and the Fediverse in the past, and how I believe it’s a more worthwhile platform in general, especially for academics. And having been active on that platform for several years, I noticed enormous waves of interest, new accounts, and enthusiasm there when it was announced that Musk would buy Twitter, and again when the deal finally went through. It’s gotten to be a really great platform, and I hope to see you there!

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.