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!

White shoes

At my mother’s funeral several years ago my Aunt Henri told a story that for me captured a key quality. We were visiting my dad’s folks in tiny La Mesa NM at the time, and one Saturday my mom took his sister Henri to El Paso, the big city forty miles south, for a day of shopping. Even though we were always close to broke and so they mostly window-shopped, it was the sort of excursion my mom enjoyed. Henri was a teenager, my mom about twenty years older. One of their errands was to buy a pair of white shoes for Henri’s marching band uniform. They did that, and window-shopped, and ate at the Kresge’s lunch counter, and shopped some more, and then Henri realized she had left the shoes somewhere along the way. They retraced their steps but never found the shoes.

I remember my grandfather as a fairly kind man, but I’m told he could have a fierce temper, especially with his kids. So Henri was pretty upset at the thought of having to tell him she had used his money to buy a pair of shoes and then promptly lost them. But my mom said, “Don’t worry about it, let’s just go buy another pair.” So they went back to the shoe store and my mom bought the shoes.

Buying those replacement shoes was no small thing. We didn’t have excess money, so my mom would have had to tell my dad what she had done, and he had a fierce temper of his own—not violent, but a seething black mood. But it doesn’t surprise me that she risked his anger, or that she instantly moved to address someone else’s difficulty, or—especially—that she minimized the whole thing.

And it doesn’t surprise me that my aunt chose that story to tell at my mom’s funeral. Such a small thing—or at least my mom made it out to be one—and yet it touched Henri deeply enough to be telling it fifty years later.

To me that story—and so many others about my mom just like it, all just as simple, all just as selfless—shows what it means in practice to bear one another’s burdens, to let love cover a multitude of sins, to esteem others better than oneself. I don’t know what it was in her upbringing that caused this to come so naturally for her, but it popped up in my own behavior over the years even before I started to take selflessness seriously, and I have to figure it was due to how she raised me. I’ve worked hard to refine that quality in myself, and though I’m intent on passing it along to my own kids it isn’t something I know how to teach, only to model.

Which I guess is good news—not only is modeling a behavior the most effective way of teaching it, it also requires me to practice it—and practice, and practice, and practice again.

What do all these people do all day?

This essay by Cal Newport proposes that, since the work of a professor should be to engage in deep thinking, universities should take a stand by reversing the fairly recent (forty years?) trend to burden professors with administrative tasks, since those displace the more valuable work professors are being paid to do, and they aren’t very good at them anyway. It’s a strange piece of thinking, well executed and reasonable and, I think, delusional. Newport proposes that the administrative work should be offloaded onto people who are good at it and paid appropriately—fair enough in itself—but never asks whether the work is worth doing, or where it came from in the first place.

By ignoring the question, I assume he assumes that this is what it takes to run a university—or maybe he just chooses not to dig deeper as a way of staying focused on his particular goal, since he does say this in passing:

Another factor driving the professoriate’s drift into middle management is a significant increase in administrative demands. In part, this is due to the growth of university bureaucracy, which, once established, inevitably consumes the time and attention of its subjects to justify its existence.

I can understand that Newport would zero in on the more achievable (though still pie-in-the-sky) goal of shifting the burden to assistants rather than dismantling the machinery that creates the burden. But I can’t imagine that his proposal would work even if universities embraced it, since it isn’t clear to me that universities put much value on having their professors think deeply—and to the extent that there’s value in it, the appearance of deep thinking is probably sufficient.

Perhaps I’ve just read too much David Graeber. His book on the nature of modern work is excellent, and you can get the gist of his argument from the essay which inspired the book. It gives a good solid answer to a question that occurred to me early in my corporate days, as I was walking through a large open-plan office in the vast research building of the vast central campus of the multi-campus Texas Instruments. I knew more or less what Texas Instruments produced, and had a rough idea of how many and what sort of people it would take to make those things, and walked by row after row of people sitting at desks who were clearly not making those things, and wondered: what do these people do all day?

“Solipsistic Boomers”

At some point I’ll get it together and write one or more blog posts about the many newsletters I now subscribe to. Until then, here’s a nice passage from one, written by Aaron Renn.

It’s difficult for the solipsitic Boomers to understand or accept that subsequent generations have a generally negative view of them. Generation X folks like myself tend to be ambivalent. On the one hand, our parents are Boomers. On the other, we personally watched the Boomers pull up the ladder after themselves. The Millennials seem to be increasingly blaming the Boomers for their problems. Here are a couple of recent examples. First, a recent Saturday Night Live skit called “Millennial Millions” that’s hilarious. Second, a Vox interview with the author of a book on the Boomers called A Generation of Sociopaths.

Renn thinks it makes sense to divide the Boomers into two cohorts.

The early cohort Boomers, born 1942-1954, were the ones whose lives were heavily shaped by the 60s and the threat of Vietnam. The late cohort Boomers, born 1955-1964, were children of the 1970s and are culturally different in many ways. In particular, the Vietnam War was far less formative in their lives. To generalize, the early cohort Boomers were the parents of Generation X who brought us workaholic fathers and “latch key” kids; the late cohort Boomers were the parents of the early Millennials, who gave us helicopter parenting and “Baby on Board.”

That sounds right to me. And having been born in 1954 I’m right on the cusp of the early/late divide, and can relate to both camps.

Renn also points out that the reign of the Boomers is nowhere near over.

We are on track for a minimum of 28 consecutive years of Baby Boomers as President – and could easily have Boomers in office for another 12-16 more after that since the late cohort Boomers have barely started getting their own shot at the title.

If subsequent generations can somehow pry Boomer hands from the levers of power before this, I’m all for it.