More caught than taught

The most important things I know, I don’t know how to teach. I’ve been reminded of that lately as I’ve taken a larger role in teaching the kids as they finish up their last few years of schooling. Although it involves different subjects for each one, I see the distance between how they currently approach a problem and how I would approach it, and I don’t have clear and straightforward guidance to give on how to get from there to here.

Our older kids eventually got it, though—I see a lot of my thinking in their thinking, to the point where they’ll regularly check in with me about how to address various difficulties—but I really don’t know how it happened, beyond just being alongside and available as much as possible.

So I’ll stick with being alongside and available, but this time around I’ll also try to be more observant of what’s happening, what’s working and what isn’t.

Local news reporting without local newspapers

I don’t subscribe to Ben Thompson’s newsletter (yet—maybe I ought to) but quite often I end up reading one of his essays because it was linked by someone else I follow, and I always benefit from it. His post on the local news business model was referenced this week by the Dense Discovery newsletter (which I do subscribe to), even though it was written in May 2017.

It makes some very smart observations about why local newspapers will probably not survive, and probably shouldn’t, but that local news still can and should be reported profitably. Thompson’s main point is that the old newspaper business model not only doesn’t work anymore but isn’t salvageable. Meanwhile, people still want local news and will probably pay for it if it is offered in a suitable package.

I strongly believe the market for this sort of publication is there. My hometown city of Madison, WI has around 250,000 people (500,000 in Dane County), primarily served by The Wisconsin State Journal. To the paper’s credit the website is almost all local news; unfortunately, most of it is uninteresting filler. Worse, to produce this filler took a staff of 52 people, of which only 10 by my count are local reporters (supported by at least 8 editors).

Were a new publication to come along, offering a five minute summary of Madison’s local news of the day, plus an actually relevant story or two a week with the occasional feature or investigative report, I’d gladly pay, and I don’t even live there anymore. What I won’t do, though, is bother visiting the Wisconsin State Journal because there simply is too much dreck to wade through, created at ridiculous cost in service of an obsolete business model.

Continuing on in the vein of the previous two posts regarding knowing your sphere of influence, here is a section of a post I wrote back in 2005. Guess I’ve been thinking about this for awhile!


Purveyors of the news thrive because people think it is important to have an opinion on matters which don’t touch them directly and which they have no way of influencing. In Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman explains it this way:

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. 

You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convert them into—what else?—another piece of news. 

Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.

Or, as a friend of mine once put it, we know more about the situation in Rwanda than we do about the situation in the house next door. News purveyors like it that way—and we like it that way.

Good intentions

Yesterday’s post reminded me of something that was said by Paul Farmer, who founded Partners in Health. (I have Tracy Kidder’s book about farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, but haven’t yet read it.) Farmer said this:

“WL’s [White Liberals] think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches”

While looking for that quote I ran across a reference to an address given by Ivan Illich, who I much admire and have learned a lot from. But I hadn’t read this particular talk, given at the invitation of a group of college students doing summer service in Mexico, called “To Hell With Good Intentions”. (Illich lived and worked in Mexico at the time.) It’s pretty fierce!

I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans.

I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class “American Way of Life,” since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it – the belief that any true American must share God’s blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants “develop” by spending a few months in their villages.

Of course, this surprising conviction was supported by members of a missionary order, who would have no reason to exist unless they had the same conviction – except a much stronger one. It is now high time to cure yourselves of this. You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately-consciously or unconsciously – “salesmen” for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or “seducing” the “underdeveloped” to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.

It’s hard to stop quoting, so I’ll just encourage you to read the whole thing, which is not all that long. Illich ends with this.

I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.

I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.

“I sit on a man’s back …”

I think about this Tolstoy quote a lot.

I sit on a man’s back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.

I do what I can to avoid personally inflicting injustice, and to deepen my awareness of how I inflict it unknowingly. But lately I’ve come to understand that my efforts mostly benefit me (character work), and the world at large not so much, since so much injustice is structurally inflicted.

And the hard part is that I’ve learned not to fool myself about what I’m in a position to influence. I have no problem with symbolic gestures as long as I keep in mind they are no more than that. But as to actually contributing to a solution, at this point I don’t know how to do more than understand the injustice, and to adjust my own behavior accordingly.

Strike while the iron is hot

A snapshot of our approach to homeschooling.

This is Elizabeth’s penultimate year of school. Since she has some giftedness when it comes to visual arts, I thought it might be good to let her try her hand at web design, a way to get started with computers without having to venture too far out into the internet. I had a couple of Chromebooks around so I set her up with one, added an external monitor and wireless mouse/keyboard combo, and added a gizmo to our wifi router that creates a separate managed network where I can grant permission to visit specific sites. I also bought a paid account on CodePen, a service which lets you do web programming remotely on their servers, not quite as good as doing it locally but pretty close.

This pair of books comes highly recommended for folks who have little or no previous programming background. Years back while refreshing my memory I had gotten them from the library and looked them over, and they are good. So I ordered them both, had them spiral-bound at Staples, and handed the HTML/CSS book to Elizabeth. She worked her way through it quickly, so I then had her run through the tutorials for the Bootstrap framework, which I’ve used to build websites. And then I bought her a video series for $10 that taught how to build five different websites.

All this time Benjamin, three years behind Elizabeth, is watching over her shoulder, discussing her progress with her, and before I know it working through the material himself. I don’t even remember telling Elizabeth she needed to share the computer, it just kind of happened. And so they’ve both worked through the HTML/CSS book and the Bootstrap lessons, which makes the logical next step learning to program in Javascript.

Actually it was Benjamin who showed the greater interest in the material, plugging away during every spare moment. Elizabeth worked at it too, but at least pretended to be indifferent toward it all. I still can’t tell her exact level of interest, but I do notice that Benjamin’s progress tends to goad her along (not going to be shown up!), and I’m fine with that.

So Benjamin was done first and ready to learn Javascript. At the same time some issues were developing with sharing the computer—it was set up in her room, and although she didn’t force him not to use it she did kick him out from time to time, and snipe at him about how much time he was spending on it. Setting up a second computer in the room that the boys share was not really a good option, so I put it on an extra table in my office, same setup as hers, and handed him the Javascript book. It doesn’t bother me to share the space, and it makes it easier for me to step in and help out when he hits a roadblock.

As I figured, that was enough to spur Elizabeth on to finishing the Bootstrap videos. But now there’s the issue of sharing the book, which worked OK with the old setup—one book for one computer shared between two people—but not so much now they can work independently.

So: work out a schedule for them to share the $30 book? Or buy a second one? Especially since the book will only be needed for a month or two, and not returned to. Frugality would have said share the book (or, even better, get by with the library copy). But I’ve learned to look at expenses like this differently: is it worth $30 or $60 to remove an obstacle keeping them from pursuing a currently active interest? In this case, definitely worth it. So I ordered another set of books, will have them bound, and will then give Elizabeth her own copy on Tuesday.

Side note: for some reason I can buy the pair of books on Amazon for $31, or buy them for $30 apiece, or buy them used—with much slower shipping—for about $20 apiece. I went for the greater expense and faster shipping, again electing to strike while the iron is hot. I bought the pair as well, even though it irked me, and I’ll have them both bound ($4 apiece) on the assumption that I’ll then have two nice sets of books to pass along to someone once ours are done with them.

Recommended: The Wirecutter

I wish I had kept track of the first time we bought something based on a recommendation from The Wirecutter, but it’s been at least four years, back before they were bought by the New York Times—an arrangement that seems to have made a good thing better. In any case they’ve earned our trust, both from their thorough reviews and from the quality of their selections. Good for choosing electric pressure cookers, tire inflators, mail order mattresses, vacuum cleaners … just about any common gizmo that costs more than a few bucks and comes in a bewildering array of prices and feature sets.

The latest for us was an electric tea kettle. We use ours 5-10 times per day, mostly for coffee/tea but sometime for cooking. The one we had was cheap and serviceable, but after who knows how many years it had begun to leak (made mostly of plastic) and needed replacing. When I pointed it out to Debbie she asked Can we get one that does this, and is made of that, and has such-and-such a capacity, and is removable from the base, and …. I said, get whatever you like. But I forgot to mention The Wirecutter. After a couple of hours of researching she bought one from Amazon, and when I saw the email confirming the purchase I went and took a quick look at The Wirecutter site … and sure enough it was their top recommendation.

”Our pick” electric kettle on a white counter next to two ceramic mugs.

So, please, next time you need to spend more than a few bucks on something where you wish someone else had already done the research, check to see if they’ve done a review. They know their stuff!