Friday, October 4, 2013

A Freaky Fable for Our Times

Back and forth, back and forth, we swang.  Faces wreathed in frosty exhalations, blankets stuffed all around us.  I could occasionally glimpse his face when my arc edged ahead, allowing me to glance across my porch to his. We said nothing.  Not terribly surprising, we were 3, maybe 4, months old.

Our fathers were both young assistant professors at the local university.  Our mothers were "homemakers," tending to us and our older siblings.  That, too, is not terribly surprising, it was 1948 and our fathers were the first "professionals" in their  respective families. 

We grew up as brothers.  Our siblings were set apart by either age or gender, and our lack of actual "kinship" seemed to remove the jealousy and competitiveness that so often clings to those who live down the hall or intrude on "your room."

As we grew up you rarely saw one of us without the other being nearby.  My family spent 1959 through 1961 in Vienna, Austria; his spent a later year in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Upon each return our friendship was untouched and unaffected.  Despite sworn efforts to do otherwise, similar tastes and emerging data processing conspired to make us college roommates our freshman year.

However, we both married our high school sweethearts. I suppose we should have been warned by the fact that despite all of us attending the same high school we had never double-dated.  Turns out the women shared a mutual distaste for one another.  We did the typical guy thing, and drifted apart for a couple of decades.

We next encountered each other when our older daughters entered college.  My daughter chose a school down the road from his house, his, a school a few miles from mine.  It would have been foolish not to take advantage of the new opportunity to reestablish contact - besides, by now email had been invented and we both found ourselves doing the 9 to 5 in technology related fields.  He in the Media Cartel; I, in Big Education. 


Again, the friendship failed to miss a beat, despite the fact that our wives still showed no inclination to bury whatever hatchet kept them estranged.  Not long after this last reestablishment of our friendship, my friend lost his wife to cancer, though not before - I am thankful to say - she and I had established a delightful friendship of our own.  About the same time I lost my wife to irreconcilable differences.

The point is that we have led almost mirror lives, strangely connected, strangely parallel without any effort on our part to make it happen.  How did Paul Simon put it? "Some folks' lives roll easy as a breeze, Drifting through a summer night . . Heading for a sunny day."  Certainly, he and I have both been bruised by life and circumstance, but when it comes to our friendship - well, that rolls easy.  Which brings me to the rather bizarre circumstances of the last week.

It was probably over the weekend when I got an email from him.  "Short question - do you remember your phone number in our home town?"  [I'm going to change the specifics here for reason that will soon become clear.] 

Well, of course I did.  When we were growing up, in the days of dial phones, your "phone number" consisted of an "exchange" - a name that identified a grouping of 10,000 customers - and then 5 numbers.  In Glenn Miller's hit "PEnnsylvania 6-5000"  PEnnsylvania is the exchange - you would dial the first two letters of the Exchange P=7, E=3, and then 65000. So the number was 736-5000.  But when you told someone your phone number you would often just say "Pennsylvania 6-5000."  And they would know what you meant. 

So I wrote him back, "Of course.  My number was CLaremont 6-7885 and yours was CLaremont 9-8226."

I didn't hear anything from him for a few days and then I noticed that he had called my cellphone.  It is not unusual for me not to hear or answer my cell.  When I record lectures or teach, I turn the phone to silent mode and often forget to turn it back on.  So I simply hit the callback icon.  It didn't ring. It didn't give me an answering machine.  It didn't give me a busy signal.  Instead it gave me that "Wha, wha, wha" that you get when somebody's phone is off the hook or has been disconnected.  "Weird," I thought.  Tried again, same thing.  Went about my day.

Later that night I tried again with the same result.  So I sent him an email: Did you call me? I see a call from you on my phone, but when I try to call you back all I get is "Wah, wah, wah."

This what he wrote back:

"No, I didn't call you.  I called your old number, CLaremont 6-7885, and eventually it rang your cellphone."

Yes, that's right. He dialed the number of a phone I had last used 45 years ago, in a city I have not even visited for 30 years, a number that had never been registered in my name since it was my father's phone, a number that didn't even have an area code - and my cellphone rang.

That moves beyond weird and creepy to more than a little bit scary.  I have used that combination of letters and numbers as my password in two places: on my now defunct Facebook account and on my still active Google+ account.  But just think of the levels and degree of connectedness and collusion that have to exist for my 45 year-old landline number to cause my 2013 cellphone to ring.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Facebook - "Ya Gotta Love It."

No, that's not a figure of speech.  It is part of the company's latest "lack of privacy" policy.  If you have a Facebook account you got a notice about it on or about August 30th. It started like this:

"Hi Robert - [Unless of course your name isn't Robert] We're writing to let you know that we are proposing updates to our Data Use Policy and our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. These two documents tell you about how we collect and use data, and the rules that apply when you choose to use Facebook. Our goal with these updates is to make our practices more clear."  Sounds kind and caring, doesn't it?

The New York Times doesn't quite see it that way as they reported on September 4th that "a coalition of six major consumer privacy groups has asked the Federal Trade Commission to block coming changes to Facebook’s privacy policies."  According to the Times this is the problem: "Facebook users who reasonably believed that their images and content would not be used for commercial purposes without their consent will now find their pictures showing up on the pages of their friends endorsing the products of Facebook’s advertisers. Remarkably, their images could even be used by Facebook to endorse products that the user does not like or even use." Hence my assertion "You Gotta Love 'Em" - whether you want to or not, and even if you are represented as making those claims without your knowledge.  You see, Facebook goes on to claim that they may use the name and image of any Facebook member for advertising and commercial purposes, including those of minors, without their consent.  I can see it now, everyone whose Facebook page I ever visited, however briefly, would see a post: "Dr. Schrag loves Facebook! 'Finally they got it right!' claims long time antagonist!"  Jeeeez.

As is normal with Facebook whenever they take total leave of their senses, Information Week is now reporting that - after more that 10,000 users emailed complaints - Facebook will review the complaints to make sure that the proposed changes are "necessary."  Yet Facebook still asserts that the changes will be implemented this week. These kinds of problems are not, I need to point out, social media problems, they are Facebook problems, they are Mark Zuckerberg problems.

Facebook started out as a way for Zuckerberg to manipulate free data for his own benefit; originally using the pictures of freshman female students at Harvard to try to get dates. The underlying maturity of the site has not increased significantly since 2004.  Now the free data he wishes to manipulate are the billions of pictures and comments that Facebook users have posted to the site in the past 9 years. Mind you, the data are "free" only because Zuckerberg simply declares in this recent policy statement that they are his.

This puts Facebook users in a terrible and uncertain position.  Does this mean that if you choose to use the images and comments regarding your friends, children, pets, travels, etc., that you have posted on Facebook to write a book, that you are stealing content that belongs to Facebook?  Could Facebook sue you?  Are your birthday pictures, wedding pictures, cat and puppy pictures all just part of Mark Zuckerberg's personal gallery?  Only an idiot would assume that to be true.  But unfortunately in America we have a hard time realizing that "idiot" and "billionaire" can describe the person.  Our love affair with wealth often blinds us to the idiocy of the super rich. In this case, however, the duality holds and Zuckerberg is the idiot-billionaire who thinks he owns everything you have ever posted on Facebook.

I signed up for a Facebook account as soon as Facebook was opened to schools outside the Ivy League.  I think it was early 2005 or so.  I teach about technology and society, and so it only made sense to play along and see what happened.  I have followed the company fairly closely for the past 8 years, and this latest snafu is only the most recent in a depressing string of blunders that seem rooted in immaturity and greed.  So it was without any feelings of sadness or loss that I permanently deleted my account after breakfast this morning.  It is no big deal for me.  I have posted fewer than five pictures to Facebook and commented just as sparsely.  However, for the folks who started their child's page when the entity was a blip on a sonogram and have religiously posted the child's life to Facebook, Zuckerberg's claim that he owns that record is far more troubling, far more evil.

I do want to emphasis that my issues are primarily with Facebook, and not with social media in general.  Other social sites, Google+, Ning, Pair, etc., seem to be aware of both the potential and the peril of social media's power.  Social media attempt to walk a very thin line between the personal, the private and the public spaces of our lives.  These are spaces that are rarely co-joined in the West, in the 21st century.  They are, by their very nature, separate.  The town hall, the bar, the living room and the bedroom are not simply different physical spaces. In our culture they are spaces that define different psychic and emotional aspects of our being.  Social media, by slapping them cheek by jowl up there on the same screen, co-join those aspects of our lives in ways never before experienced.

As I continue to observe a wide range of social media on a daily basis I am pretty sure that none of them have got that balance right yet.  I am equally sure that Facebook has got it wrong.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Rise of the Internet and the Fall of Intimacy

Robert Frost and Billy Collins share a poetic love of the ordinary.  Their poems spring not from lofty philosophy or a slavish dedication to literary form, but from an appreciation for the small, the quiet and the private. Consider these two examples.  First Collins:

Another Reason I Don't Keep a Gun in the House

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

And now Frost:

A Patch of Old Snow

There's a patch of old snow in a corner

That I should have guessed

Was a blow-away paper the rain

Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if

Small print overspread it,

The news of a day I've forgotten --

If I ever read it.

The small, the quiet and the private - the personal and the exquisite -  these are the opposite of the Internet.  That is not an evaluative assertion - it is not a question of "good" or "bad", it is rather an objective definition of the nature of the Internet as a communication medium. And the Internet is, in that regard, a medium of incredible scope. It has linked us together to a degree that was inconceivable a mere handful of years ago. Facebook claims a billion users. Wikipedia asserts that China may approach a similar number of domestic users by 2015.  The numbers become babble, like the kids in the TV commercial - "Infinity plus one!" "Infinity plus infinity!" 

But something is lost in this gluttonous surfeit of "connectedness" and that is the small, the quiet and the private.  Let us further consider poetry.  It is true, I did not need to go across town to the library to find the poems I wanted for this post. I didn't even need to cross the room to the bookshelf. Even opening a book was unnecessary.  All Google needs is a name and there it is - everything that Collins or Frost ever published. I need only point and click, and the poem unfolds on my screen.

Yet, somehow it seems a tawdry assignation. Teenagers necking in a public park. You see, for me poetry has always been the most personal of literary forms. It is a page - a page of real paper in a real book, or scratchings of my own - in a private patch of shade and sunlight, or floating beneath a muted lamp in a darkened room. It is intensely revealing and private.

That is not how I encountered these poems.  The webpage presenting the Collins piece was bracketed on the right hand side by this ad:

I'll admit to laughing out loud.  Yet, I doubt it was part of the dialogue with the reader that Collins had intended.  Frost's poem was accompanied for an ad for the "world's largest and most affordable online Christian university."  I'm not sure what the algorithm gnomes had in mind there. However both sites invited me to email the poem to a friend, or share it with a friend via Twitter, Google+ or Facebook. Furthermore, I was expected to "rate" the poem.  I instantly flashed back to Dead Poets Society.  You remember, very close to the beginning of the movie, when the teacher, John Keating, aka Robin Williams asks one of the students, Neil Perry, to read from their Introduction to Poetry text.  The script goes like this:


        Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans
        Pritchard, Ph.D. To fully understand
        poetry, we must first be fluent with
        its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech.
        Then ask two questions: One, how artfully
        has the objective of the poem been
        rendered, and two, how important is that
        objective. Question one rates the poem's
        perfection, question two rates its
        importance. And once these questions have
        been answered, determining a poem's
        greatest becomes a relatively simple

[Keating gets up from his desk and prepares to draw on the chalk board.]

        If the poem's score for perfection is
        plotted along the horizontal of a graph,
        and its importance is plotted on the
        vertical, then calculating the total
        area of the poem yields the measure of
        its greatness.

[Keating draws a corresponding graph on the board and the students
dutifully copy it down.]

        A sonnet by Byron may score high on the
        vertical, but only average on the
        horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on
        the other hand, would score high both
        horizontally and vertically, yielding a
        massive total area, thereby revealing the
        poem to be truly great. As you proceed
        through the poetry in this book, practice
        this rating method. As your ability to
        evaluate poems in this manner grows, so
        will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

Keating dubs the passage "excrement" and instructs the students to rip those pages out of their textbooks.

I feel much the same about being asked to share and rate my interaction with the online poems.  I suppose I should not be surprised. What we have here is an Internet version of the currently vogue "poetry slam," which Wikipedia defines as "a competition at which poets read or recite original work. These performances are then judged on a numeric scale by previously selected members of the audience." Competitive, public poetry.  Bullexcrement. My definition is more simplistic: a poetry slam is exactly what the name implies - a slam at poetry.  I mean, let's all break out the graph paper for crying out loud.

But poetry is not the only intimate form of communication endangered by the Internet.  Social media like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter have replaced the slightly less public medium of email.  In those social forums one simply broadcasts the text, images and video that constitutes the timeline of your life and expects those who care for you to "follow" your posts.  It is their job to sort the trivial from the exceptional, their job to nurture and sustain the relationship. Again, bullexcrement.

Email, the first "killer app" back in the misty dawn of the Internet, also finds itself in a public/private schizophrenic Neverland.  Take a look at your inbox - any of them. How many messages are from people that you know and about whom you care? How many are work related - "have to" as opposed to "want to" interactions? And how many are from perfect strangers trying to sell you something?  It is to laugh, or to cry; depending on the day and our mood.

Here is the important, fundamental question: If you want to craft a private, personal, intimate, message - a letter, a note, a poem, a picture or a song - to a particular person, and you want to be relatively confident that the message is "for their eyes only" - not for all your social media friends, not for Google or Acxiom, or Amazon, or the NSA, or the DEA, or your cellphone provider, or your Internet service provider, or The Guardian, or The New York Times - how do you do that?

Truthfully, I do not know. Yet, I have a fountain pen. Very old school, the kind you have to continually dip into an inkwell while writing. It inclines me to consider the Jane Austin Solution: long letters, written in longhand on heavy stationary, put into an envelope, perhaps even sealed with wax, placed in a physical mailbox, and sent off via plane or train or horseback or on foot; finally to arrive, unscanned, unscooped, and unseen until the intended recipient breaks the seal and peers inside.

This is usually when I realize that I have no record of my friends' - dear or otherwise - physical, snail mail addresses.  Haven't used them in years. Maybe if I Google them.  .  .  .


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Making Hoecakes with Seed Corn

An Open Letter to the North Carolina State Legislature:

Making Hoecakes with Seed Corn

I hope you do not mind if I speak frankly.  I have been teaching at NC State for more than thirty years now, and I have discovered that plain talk is usually best.  Now before those of you who bleed Carolina Blue tune out, let me point out that my older daughter has a degree from Carolina Law and my younger has a double major BA from over there on the Hill.  So I am that common critter here in the Old North State: A Tar-Packer.  If you cut me open you would see one of those illustrations of the human circulatory system: twin pairs of vessels, one red and one blue.  And while in this context I write purely as a private citizen, I believe I could raise some resounding “Amens!” on both campuses.

You are all smart people.  You would not be a member of this august body were that not the case.  It is currently in vogue to assume that all politicians are stupid; otherwise why would we be in this mess?  Folks who allow themselves to espouse that position have never had to run for public office.  Getting elected takes determination, smarts, and money.  You have demonstrated that skill set.  But somewhere along the path to what I assume are your excellent educational credentials, somebody in my job – standing up in front of the class – let you down.  They neglected to teach y’all an important truth: There is no such thing as a free lunch.  You get what you pay for.

You have chosen to pay for a second-rate education for your children.  Well, maybe not for your children, they may be aiming at that darker shade of blue up in Durham or other private schools throughout the nation.  But you are most certainly short-changing the 200,000 plus students who walk the 17 campuses of our four–year institutions and the almost 850,000 students who take classes in our community college system.  And I, for one, do not see the wisdom in turning your back on almost a million people who will determine the future of the state.

I have heard the rhetoric about fiscal responsibility and the “mandate” to cut taxes which has led to the recent drastic cuts in funding to higher education, cuts which now rank us as next to the last in the nation in expenditures for education.  The strange explanations stemming from the capitol as to why that is a good thing often quite impressively complex and sometimes entertaining.  Still none of them trump a much more rustic expression: Don’t eat your seed corn.

Let me share a story about some of my students; the “seed corn” from which our future will grow.  In one of my courses my students are required to define the career they wish to pursue after graduation.  They must assess the skills necessary to get the job, and define how they will obtain those skills.  Next, they actually apply for the job or internship that marks the next logical step on the path to that career.  For the students who work seriously at the assignment, the assignment always gives them valuable insight into the real world of looking for a job; some actually land the job or internship.  More interesting for the moment though, are the scattering of responses that I think of as “those with delusions of a job.”  These, thankfully few, papers assert that within a few months of graduation the student will have started their own business or “taken over” an existing competitor and be well on their way to dominance in their chosen area.  These papers, which usually skirt the actual requirements, are often late, poorly written, and lack citations.  Yet they are heartfelt.  These students truly believe that they will, without skills or experience, succeed in the global competition that will define their world.

These students will not suffer under the continual erosion in funding that you seem to feel is appropriate support for higher education in North Carolina.  They are clueless, and will remain so even as the quality of their education crumbles around them.  They will continue to believe, as you apparently believe as well, that the simple possession of a degree will suffice for success.  The actual education represented by the degree is secondary.  The “ticket” is all that is important.  They, and you, seem to believe that there will come this magical moment when, despite second-rate skills and questionable dedication, they will rise above the competition.  .  .  .  Sure, and do you want fries with that fantasy?

Unfortunately, it is the others, the seed corn; that you will be sacrificing.  Our best students will soon discover that despite the efforts of their institutions to do more and more with less, and less, and less; they are simply more poorly trained than their competition.  And remember, this is not the ACC tournament we are talking about.  This is not UNC v. NC State; this is not about any of the rich rivalries among our 17 campuses or 58 community colleges.  The issue here is how well the young people of North Carolina are being prepared to compete in a global economy. 

China is planning to open 30 new graduate business colleges in the next few years.  My students from India write English better than most of my native North Carolinian students.  Those international students are now getting educational prime rib in their native lands, and you are asking us to make hoecakes with seed corn here at home.

Surely we taught you better than that.


Robert Schrag
Morrisville, NC

Monday, August 12, 2013

Hanging on the Phone Tree

This time tomorrow
Reckon where I'll be
Down in some lonesome valley
Hangin' from a white oak tree
                                                   - Ballad of Tom Dooley

Tom Dooley
was a big hit for the Kingston Trio back in 1958.  The song commemorates the 1866 hanging of man here in North Carolina.  He was convicted of murdering one Laura Foster.  Yet, like moonshiners outrunning "revenuers" and funding for public education, hanging has largely vanished from the Old North State. That does not mean that we can walk the forests unintimidated by the trees that surround us. But the trees of the 21st century carry a different threat than the white oak trees of the 1860s.  Today's trees can leave you dangling for hours, sometimes days, as you slowly lose consciousness and the world turns dark before your eyes.  I refer, of course, to the dreaded "phone tree."

This summer has, much to our chagrin, brought us into contact with a number of large healthcare and banking organizations - and their sequoia-sized phone trees. First the phone rings for a few minutes - three maybe five. Then a machine answers: "Hello this is GigantaCare. If you are having a medical emergency and are still alive please hang up and dial 911." OK, I made up the bit about still being alive.  I suppose it could be construed as an acknowledgement of organizational recognition that they were "in touch" with a sick person who might die on them, and hence they might actually have a liability issue. Not that they would ever use the word liability, as the sentence "Hang up and call 911." is designed specifically to avoid any kind of liability.  Anyhow, the machine then goes on to list 312 options from which to select.  By the time they reach the end of the list you decide you don't really feel that bad, and besides the bleeding has pretty much stopped.

The bank uses a slightly different strategy.  After their initial "wait you out with unending rings" ploy, they begin with "HELLO! Your call is very important to us. Please listen closely as our menu items have changed."  Then they cut right to their list of 312 options.  I listened - nary a pepperoni pizza on the whole menu.  So I used a fairly dependable strategy: I pressed nothing.  Most phone trees have a "silence response."  If you say NOTHING, eventually they forward you to a person - to avoid liability in case you may actually be dying.  You can also keep hitting O.  That usually works and gets you to a person.  The problem I encountered at MegaBank was that even after speaking to five different people on at least three different continents no one could really answer my question - which I eventually figured out for myself after spending three hours on their website. It wasn't simply a question of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing, it was that the right hand didn't know that there was a left hand.  Meanwhile, the left hand was talking to the bellybutton.

A couple of thoughts and a strategy.

First, the phone tree is not designed to facilitate communication, it is designed to simulate communication and to allow the company to appear to have attended to your needs. It occasionally does meet some low level communication needs. Appointments, directions, a simply bill paying procedure.  Stuff that is actually done more effectively through websites.  But when it comes to important issues, the phone tree is "make-believe communication."  But before we heap derision upon them, we need to acknowledge that social media like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter are pretty much the same thing.  Something has happened or is about to happen and we post it on a social media site.  Ta da! we have done our job.  We have announced it to "the world."  Well, no, of course not.  We have neatly side-stepped centuries of common courtesy that says "Look at me when you are talking to me."  We simply shout from the rooftop and if someone isn't listening - well, that's their fault right?  Press one if you think that is BS, press two if .  .  .

So phone trees and social media are two facets of an accelerating communication phenomenon - a strange return to  the "mass media" of the 1950s - a one to many model.  The TV station broadcasts the message and the "masses" tune in - or not.  In theory the digital age disrupted that model by empowering the individual - I can email who I want, I can send this picture, this song, to whomever I choose.  I can function as an independent entity.  And then came Zuckerberg and Facebook and the depersonalization of "friend."  A "friend" on Facebook or any of the other social medium is now the functional equivalent of the "audience member" of the mass media of the 1950s.  For a celebrity who has 5 million followers on Twitter, the follower is a fan - no more, no less.  And just as "audience members" were incredibly important to early television, our social media contacts do have important functions, just be careful not to mistake a post on social media for a conversation with a friend.  They certainly do not free us from the basic social niceties owed to real friends and family members. We cannot assume that a post on social media is a message to a loved one - that is both foolish and rude.

Which, strangely, brings me back to phone trees and a strategy for dealing with them.  Here is something to remember - the phone tree stands as a barrier between you and the people who can actually solve your problem.  When my bank sent me drifting around the world to solve my problem I was talking to IT [information technology] people who were focused on why the software wasn't working.  They couldn't actually address my specific question regarding which account was paying which bill.  GigantaCare wanted to know whose voicemail to forward me to - not who could answer my questions.  So I did something bizarre.  I got into my car and drove to the physical locations of the institutions.  The results were fascinating.  The people who could solve my problems were not the people on the phone tree.  They were the people behind the desk, and they were friendly and helpful. They got the job done.

I know it seems ironic.  Digital technology was supposed to free us from all that driving around, it was supposed to save us time.  But it hasn't.  When we are stuck in phone tree hell, or worse yet in "Please leave your name and number" hell, we automatically shove completing that task another day or two down the road.  Three or four if a weekend looms.  But if the place of business is less than an hour's drive away, I am saving an incredible amount of time, literally days, by driving there and getting the job done.  I know, I know, can I really be away from my desk that long?  Wait a minute.  I no longer work at a desk that much.  I shove my iPad or iPhone in my case and carry the office around with me.  So often I can drive to the bank or doctor's office and set up my office in their office. It's like "going to a meeting" in the old days. Then when the person at the desk gets off the phone and looks looks up, I smile and say "Hello. I hope you can help me."  Nine times out of ten I actually get my needs met - there and then. Press one if you think that is awesome.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Under Another Lamppost

It was Science News tickling me again - here is the lead: Earth-sized moons in planetary systems trillions of miles away could be hotbeds for alien life, astronomers report in the January Astrobiology.

Fascinating article.  I highly recommend it. Basically the question posed is whether - in galaxies far, far away - large rocky moons circling gas giant planets like Jupiter and Neptune might be habitable, might house environments that could sustain life. The discussion bounced back between yes, no and maybe.  Perhaps the most interesting part was the complexities of radiation that would strike the moon from both the system's star and the radiation that would be reflected onto the moon from the planet it was orbiting.

The article concludes with this upbeat assertion:  “Moons just improve the chances that life as we know it exists elsewhere," says Darren Williams, an astronomer at Penn State, “The diversity of environments that you can have is just amazing.”  I was struck by the simultaneous optimism and provincialism of the statement.  The optimism springs from the continual curiosity of every scientist worth his/her salt, the "Oh, goody! A new question!" perspective.  The provincialism dwells in our obsession with "life as we know it."  We are back to the "drunk and the lamppost" paradox: The midnight drunk searches vainly beneath a lamppost for the car keys he knows he dropped further down the street.  Why search here? Because the light is better.

Interestingly, the space blogosphere was all abuzz this week about another issue.  Seems that Fomalhaut b, a weird planet with a long erratic orbit that circles its star once every 2000 years has reappeared around its sun, also called Fomalhaut.  Well, it turns out it never really went away.  Rather, the astronomers who went looking for the planet assumed that it, like most planets, would really "pop" under the infrared "lamppost."  So that is where they looked for it.  It now appears that Fomalhaut b, unlike planets "as we know them," shuns the infrared, and likes the realm of the spectrum that is "visible" - to us. So Fomalhaut b was there all the time, ironically hiding under the lamppost with which we are most familiar.  Is to laugh.  Hah.

Why, then, do we insist upon searching for life as we know it when the far more tantalizing questions draw us to the consideration of life as we do not know it?  It stuck me that, had I the necessary time and skills, it would be amusing to write a sci-fi piece in which the protagonist would be threatened with - oh, firing, denial of tenure, execution, something like that - for proposing that life could exist in the newly discovered, carbon-rich, and hence completely toxic to "life as they know it," galaxies. S/He would argue the case for "life as we do not know it."  I have no idea if the piece would end in triumph or tragedy, or from whose perspective.  My friends who write fiction for a living assure me that the story would dictate its own ending.

The nature of the ending is not all that important.  Either way I would hope the tale would encourage us, next time we walk outside on a starry night, to think of each pinprick of light as its very own lamppost swarming with its own myriad planets and moons.  I have no doubt that from many of them other eyes are staring back at us wondering where in the universe they might encounter "life as we know it."

Friday, January 25, 2013

Linus Lives!

For many of you it is ancient history, a wonderful old Peanut's cartoon from the 1960s - I believe I had it many years ago on an orange T-Shirt; Linus is remarking to someone outside the frame: "I love mankind, it's People I can't stand!"  As with much of Schultz's work, the insight lingers long past the initial frame. So it is with Linus's wonderfully contradictory rant.  None of us wants to see ourselves as misanthropic curmudgeons.  We love mankind .  .  .  .  but.  Ah yes, but, as always the devil is in the details.  There is "us," the mankind we love, and there is "the other," the mankind we could love if only they didn't insist on [looking, talking, dressing, smelling, believing] the way they do!

I have always been fascinated by our defining and redefining of the notion of "we and them", of "us and the other," or as my father the sociologist would say, the "in-group" and the "out-group."  He loves to tell the story of when he first brought my mother to the small cluster of farms in a Mennonite community in southeastern South Dakota, to meet his family.  He was nervous because you see my mother was "nicht von unsere" - "not one of ours."  She hailed from that strange land of Pennsylvania and was some kind of indeterminate Protestant. It all worked out but not without occasional bumps in the road, caused most often by sins of inadvertent omission rather than intentional commission.

It has not always been thus. Across the millennia a sometimes subtle, sometimes horrifically violent contest has raged contesting the right to define  "mankind," that collective we love, and "people," the great unwashed herd we cannot stand. I would like to advance the notion that our media not only provide significant clues as to the current king of the "mankind" mountain, but are also important players in the coronation.

A brief walk through history if you will.  Prior to writing, it's guesswork, but fairly sophisticated guesswork.  In an oral culture "mankind" were those who shared our story, those whose sages spoke the same epic narratives that defined who we were and how we came to be. "People" were those who had been led astray by other tales of existence. With writing and books the narrative spread beyond the range of the speaker's voice, but only as far as the intellectual, literate, and usually theocratic elite. They continued to spread the "legitimate" narrative to "mankind" while ever more clearly defining where "mankind" stopped and "people" began.

The Renaissance and the printing press began to fracture the walls of narrative fidelity.  The stories began to breach the levies of authority and belief.  An increasingly literate middle class could encounter the stories of "the other" as written in lands where the other was "mankind" and where the newly engaged reader was "the people."  Movies banished forever the need for an elitist literacy.  The social narrative was no longer hidden amidst arbitrary squiggles on a page.  It moved and eventually spoke from the screen before our eyes like real folks, our folks.  Radio and TV eventually drew the oracles of the modern age out of Delphi and gave them a celebrity's seat in the living room.  "Mankind" watched our programs, the "people" attended to another channel - and it was becoming more difficult to tell them apart.  Who among that growing chorus of media voices were the pillars of "mankind," who were the sirens of "the people" calling us to the rocks?

And who now? In a world where we carry a community of a billion members in pocket or purse, it is important that we again ask, who is "mankind" and who are merely "people?"  There are those who would argue that social media have deposed the despots.  That "like" makes right.  I'm afraid it is not that simple. Consider where "like" leads us. According to "the Internet" [and as a popular Geico TV commercial reminds us, they can't say it on the Internet if it's not true] Rihanna has 61,617,468 friends or likes on Facebook, nudging out Eminem who has 61,269,210. In third place is Shakira with 54.8 million followers. Lady Gaga is fourth with 53.2 million and late singer Michael Jackson rounds out the top five celebrities on the site with 51.9 million fans.

If, as I assert above "mankind" are those who share our story, the sages who spoke the same epic narratives that defined who we were and how we came to be; then, for me anyhow, these millions of  "likes" still don't make right.  It is not that I would declare them the shunned "people" by virtue of their popularity.  It is not that "I can't stand them."  They are simply irrelevant in terms of an epic narrative that defines mankind.  Epistemologically speaking, they are trivial - an assertion that may well offend a few hundred million folks.

So if "like" doesn't define "mankind" in the digital world, what does?  I don't think we have figured that out yet. We haven't worked out how to distinguish popularity from quality in a world as porous and complex as the one enabled by the Internet.  And I'm growing ever closer to the idea that this may be a lesson we will only learn from the passage of time.  Consider your high school reunions.  At your 5th - if you have reached it yet - there will probably be a fairly high correlation with the social reality of graduation.  The popular kids will still be popular, the others not so much. Then at the 10th a shift occurs.  Some of the geeks and nerds will have flowered into interesting people with unique lives, and some of the high school heros will just be marking time, reliving past glories.  The trend continues, let me assure you, as the decades stretch out behind you.  Some of the popular kids remain popular and interesting, but many of the "uncool" kids rise to fascinating folks with intriguing perspectives on life. The point is that when we were back in high school, we really didn't have any idea who would become "mankind" and who would get stuck just being "people."

The same seems to be true of the digital world in which we currently live so much of our lives. Regardless of our chronological ages, in terms of "digital world," we are all quite young - still in high school, maybe a year or two past graduation.  We are still so young that we are probably unable to distinguish between "mankind" and the "people" with any certainty.  So I would caution us, to remember that now as then, popularity is not the best predictor of quality, of those who will come to define "mankind," and that "like" isn't always "right."

Monday, January 14, 2013

When Form Fractures Function

"Form follows function" is, for me, one of those "truisms" the realization of which distinguishes between a merely "educated individual" and a more fully "cultured mind."  As a matter of fact, I am confronted by that very distinction several times every semester when an otherwise bright and insightful student makes the heartfelt claim that s\he deserved a better grade on an assignment because "I put a great deal of effort into the assignment."

How do you explain that effort is only important to the extent that it produces results?  I often fall back upon the parable of  "the ladder and the wall."  You can dress it up however you want.  I tell a version that places two competing protagonists in a lane enclosed on both sides by tall walls.  The Ruler has placed something of great value - again your choice - behind one wall. The task is to find the treasure, and the competitor who does so will win the treasure. Both competitors begin to build ladders.  One builds a very strong and well-designed ladder, almost a stairwell, leaning against one wall.  The other simply cuts notches into a slender tree trunk.  The second competitor swiftly leans the tree trunk against the same wall as the slowly growing stairwell, scampers up, sees nothing, scampers down, shifts the tree trunk to the other wall, scampers up and claims the prize.

The defeated competitor claims the competition was unfair.  S/he claims that s/he should have been declared the winner as s/he had produced a far superior ladder. A claim to which the Ruler responds "it doesn't matter how good your ladder is if you lean it up against the wrong wall."  I hope the student can make the leap to the idea that effort is meaningless unless it is employed to accomplish the task.  Once we reach the university level we no longer grade on "effort" or "intent," we evaluate results - who found the treasure?  And finding the treasure is usually closely tied to a thoughtful application of the notion that "form follows function."

The last couple of weeks have reminded me how easy it is to let that vital relationship between form and function get out of balance.  In our classroom relationship the function is education.  My job is to provide you with the content germane to the course in a context that helps you absorb and understand the content.  The form in which that pedagogical function unfolds is, and always has been, constantly shifting - from lectures under trees to slate tablets, to computers, to tablet computers and smartphones.  But the idea is always that pedagogical form follows educational function

In the 21st century, in countries whose communication systems are predominantly digital, education is increasingly being conducted in virtual environments.  Those environments are commonly referred to as Learning Management Systems, or LMSs.  You have probably experienced a number of them like Blackboard or Vista.  Moodle is the most widely supported LMS here on our campus, and mediasite is one of several systems supported on campus that allow for the asynchronous capture and distribution of both video and audio content.  I mention those two because, as you now know, they are the two systems upon which I depend most heavily - and both of which developed significant glitches over the semester break.

"Fixing" those glitches was complicated, in our classes, by medical issues that prevent me from coming to campus.  Maybe it was that additional anomaly that distracted me, but I finally realized over the last few days that I had become obsessed with making the software and hardware work.  I knew what the various LMSs were capable of and for some reason it became important to make them do what I knew they were capable of doing - even if that got in the way of actually teaching the content.  I had fallen into the trap of trying to force a function into forms that were - for the moment at least - inappropriate for the pedagogical tasks for which I had always used them.  I knew that Moodle and Mediasite were usually good ladders - and for some reason I insisted on slamming them up against a wall where they no longer fit.

I have no doubt that once I am allowed to again go visit my  support folks over on campus, we will discover the new "improvements" that currently make my old tools more hamper than helper.  We will figure how to once again manifest the notion that form follows function. Until then I need to remember that education is the function and I need to stretch the gray matter a bit more creatively to discover the form best suited to that function in my current situation. I need to remember that, no matter how awesome the ladder, you get no credit if you lean it up against the wrong wall.