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.

Academic Twitter Is For The Birds

Academia is a vibrant, healthy, global community consisting of people with a variety of origins, perspectives, and goals. But generally speaking, I believe we share a commitment to building a world where educators have access to the tools and skills we need to do what is best for students, and students are empowered to reach their goals without being exploited by the giant institutions that supposedly exist to serve them.

It’s interesting, then, that so many educators create content for closed, centralized, corporate platforms whose decision makers have amply shown that they do not have the best interests of our students or ourselves at heart. Scholarly publishing is the classic example of this, in that commercial publishers need us to conduct research, write articles about it, and provide peer review, all at our own expense, and then turn around and sell the results back to us. I’ve long believed that the existence of open source platforms like Janeway or OJS only highlight how unnecessary commercial publishers truly are if only we would show the confidence to abandon them in favor of community-run alternatives.

But scholarly publishing is not the only example. In honor of Open Education Week 2020, I’d rather focus on an activity that is very popular among those in higher education that I submit is not actually in our interest: Academic Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong, like most people I participate in social media. And I see the value of Twitter in its simplicity. It requires those posting to it to get to the point (not always an academic strong suit!). Through @ and # it enables easy tagging of people and ideas to draw other people, friends and strangers, into a conversation potentially of interest to them. And its mobile app means that it’s accessible nearly everywhere (“I wasn’t ignoring your conference presentation, I was live-tweeting!”).

But Twitter facilitates this rapid exchange of small ideas at the cost of control. It’s yet another centralized corporate entity that absorbs all the data it can find, agglomerating information about its users for resale to advertisers various and sundry. As the saying goes, when you use Twitter, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. And along with that centralized control comes top-down decision making that means that the approach taken by its corporate executives may differ from what many people in higher education might prefer.

Fortunately, Twitter is not the only platform that enables that sort of microblogging. A few years ago, Eugen “Gargron” Rochko took the programming code of an existing open source project and developed it into a platform called Mastodon. But instead of just using that code to set up a single alternative microblogging platform, he developed Mastodon to be free and its use to be decentralized. This means that different people or organizations can run their own Mastodon network, and set their own rules for their own particular community, and yet people with an account on one network can interact with people on other networks by following those other accounts, replying to them, and liking and boosting posts they liked, just as they can on Twitter. In networking terms, this constellation of different Mastodon networks is “federated”, and the sum of them together is often referred to as the “Fediverse”.

And the Fediverse isn’t just connective tissue for different Mastodon networks. Open networks that run on other software, designed for different purposes, are part of what’s being built. One of these is called Diaspora, it works similarly to Facebook. One is called PeerTube, it works similarly to YouTube. But developers of open networks aren’t just trying to copy the functionality of existing services, for example the fine people who develop Moodle LMS are building MoodleNet, which in will allow educators to collaboratively build curricular resources and share them openly, all while interacting with the rest of the Fediverse.

By this point you may be asking if the Fediverse is so great, why haven’t we all moved there yet? The sticking point is critical mass. Twitter has enormous first mover advantage, and most people who are interested in microblogging are already there, which means if you want your posts to reach the widest possible audience (and really, who doesn’t?) then that’s the best place to be. But as Tom from MySpace can tell you, getting there early and building critical mass aren’t unassailable advantages. If we want a social media world that we control, that’s built for us and meets our needs, it’s within our grasp.

As things are now, there are plenty of interesting people already posting in the Fediverse every day, many of which are listed by interest in a directory called Trunk. There are Mastodon networks aimed at people in almost every walk of life, including ones meant for people in higher education. A few are listed below.

There’s no need to make the leap all at once, as It’s also possible both to keep participating in Twitter for now while also getting involved in the Fediverse, there’s even a free tool that lets you connect your accounts so that you only have to post in one for it to appear on both. But I think you’ll find that once you start finding like-minded people in the Fediverse, you’ll appreciate interacting with them in an open environment.

As with alternatives to commercial publishers, all it would take for us to build a successful decentralized Academic Fediverse is the will to do so. So the next move is yours: you can keep devoting your productive energy for the benefit of surveillance capitalists, but I hope you’ll join me in helping to build a better world of open social media.

Fediverse Resources

  • Join Mastodon: an easy introduction to Mastodon
  • mastodon.social: a general interest Mastodon network that is open to all
  • scholar.social: a Mastodon network meant for those in higher education
  • mastodon.oeru.org: a Mastodon network hosted by OERu, an outstanding organization that connects dozens of higher education institutions around the world to collaborate in developing and using open educational resources
  • Mastodon Twitter Crossposter: this free service allows you to automatically post your tweets to your Mastodon account, or your Mastodon posts to your Twitter account, your choice!
  • Trunk: a great way to find Fediverse accounts worth following, based on shared interests
  • My account: follow me and I’ll follow you!

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.

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?

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”.

I Am A Salesman

Note: The author of this piece is unknown, although presumably is American. I myself am not a salesman, although I appreciate what they do more than most people do, in part for the reasons this author outlines.

salesman
I am proud to be a salesman, because more than any other man, I and millions of others like me, built America.

The man who builds a better mouse trap — or a better anything — would starve to death if he waited for people to beat a pathway to his door. Regardless of how good or how needed the product or service might be, it has to be sold.

Eli Whitney was laughed at when he showed his cotton gin. Edison had to install his electric light free of charge in an office building before anyone would even look at it. The first sewing machine was smashed to pieces by a Boston mob. People scoffed at the idea of railroads. They thought that traveling even thirty miles an hour would stop the circulation of the blood! McCormick strived for 14 years to get people to use his reaper. Westinghouse was considered a fool for stating he could stop a train with wind. Morse had to plead before 10 Congresses before they would even look at his telegraph.

The public didn’t go around demanding these things; they had to be sold!!

They needed thousands of salesmen, trailblazers and pioneers – people who could persuade with the same effectiveness as the inventor could invent. Salesmen took these inventions, sold the public on what these products could do, taught customers how to use them, and then taught businessmen how to make a profit from them.

As a salesman, I’ve done more to make America what it is today than any other person you know. I was just as vital in your great-great-grandfather’s day as I am in yours, and I will be just as vital in your great-great-grandson’s day. I have educated more people, created more jobs, taken more drudgery from the laborer’s work, given more profits to businessmen, and have given more people a fuller and richer life than anyone in history. I’ve dragged prices down, pushed quality up, and made it possible for you to enjoy the comforts and luxuries of automobiles, radios, electric refrigerators, televisions, and air conditioned homes and buildings. I’ve healed the sick, given security to the aged, and put thousands of young men and women through college. I’ve made it possible for inventors to invent, for factories to hum, and for ships to sail the seven seas.

How much money you find in your pay envelope next week, and whether in the future you will enjoy the luxuries of prefabricated homes, stratospheric flying of airplanes, and new world of jet propulsion and atomic power, depends on me. The loaf of bread you bought today was on a baker’s shelf because I made sure that a farmer’s wheat got to a mill, that the mill made wheat into flour, and that the flour was delivered to your baker.

Without me, the wheels of industry would come to a grinding halt. And with that, jobs, marriages, politics and freedom of thought would be a thing of the past. I AM A SALESMAN and I’m proud and grateful that as such, I serve my family, my fellow man and my country.

Racism in American Higher Education


Consider the following quote:

With white birth rates falling, a major demographic shift is coming. Are colleges ready for a more diverse pool of prospective college students? This special issue looks at efforts under way at several colleges to serve underrepresented and underprepared students, who are more likely to need additional support to graduate. Meeting their needs may help some colleges preserve enrollment levels even if it means the occasional “hand-holding” is necessary to achieve success.

Who do you think described an expected increase of students of color in this way? Was it some Secretary of Education from a state with a Republican administration? Was it some ultraconservative commentator on one of those rightwing web sites that pretends to be news? Was it an argument used by segregationists in decades past?

No, it was the Chronicle of Higher Education, selling a special publication called Diversity in Academe Spring 2014. It might sound like it belongs more in 1964, or 1864 for that matter, but unfortunately this is supposed to be the state of the art of thinking in higher education administration.

I’ve worked in higher education for over ten years. In that time I’ve worked closely with many students who were the first in their families to attend university, many of whom needed somewhere to go for extra advice. But this lack of sophistication didn’t come from their skin color. I met many students of color who were perfectly comfortable in a higher education environment, and white students who didn’t really understand what was going on and needed a bit more support. In my observation, this was a function of the level of affluence from which these students came, not how much melanin was in their skin.

Now, I’m not unmindful that if grouped together that students of color are more likely than white students to have come from a working class background. But if you really want to help someone, you look at the whole person as an individual, you don’t just start with what color they are as a lazy and inaccurate substitute for finding out who they really are and what their strengths and weaknesses might be. Ethnicity might be part of the individual experience, and some people take it very seriously, but this is dwarfed by the variation that comes from being an individual and it shouldn’t define people. For the Chronicle of Higher Education to offer advice that uses race as a starting point isn’t just doing students a disservice, it’s nothing less than the soft bigotry of lower expectations writ large.

Crazy Baldhead

This one is for Marcia Bright, Alula Raphael, and Scratchie Lloyd.

Don’t chase this crazy baldhead
Out of town

Me nah want your cabin
Me nah want your corn
Me nah want no slave
Me have respect, not scorn

Let’s build hospital, not penitentiary
Let’s use schools to make us free, not fools
Let’s have one love as our religion
Let’s leave God to one’s decision

There is always some conman
Coming with some con plan
But these words are not a bribe:
Let’s help each other stay alive.

Don’t chase this crazy baldhead
Out of town

Me, I not running

Two Wrongs Making… Something

“There’s a Sucker Born Every 60,000 Milliseconds” — Robert X. Cringely

The scam truck
Do you ever get those strange spam email messages promoting some little company of which you’ve never heard before, saying that its stock price is about to go up and you should buy it?

These are called “pump and dump” scams. Basically, the scammers buy the stock when its low, spam people so that a few dumb people will buy a lot of it, and when that drives up the price then the scammers sell at a profit. So with that in mind, check out this one I got today:

How do you feel about enriching yourself by means of war? It`s right time to get this done! As soon as the US takes military action against Syria, oil prices will rise as well as MONARCHY RESOURCES INC. (M_ONK) share price! Begin earning dollars on September 02nd, purchase M_ONK shares!

Okay, scams are bad. I’m clear on that. Still, I can’t help but appreciate that the people who will lose money on this are the same ones who, by definition, have no ethical quandary about enriching themselves by means of war. Those who live by the sword cry by the sword, and all that.