Wednesday, October 26

can of worms

We went to a taping of etown tonight. A show a guy I know describes as "kind of a lefty, do-gooder version of Prairie Home Companion". They had Peter Mayer and Ben Taylor on, who were both pretty good. Mayer I expected from what I've already heard - Excellent guitarist, good lyricist, sincere enough to be kind of corny without sucking. Taylor surprised me a little bit. Since it's a variety show format (albeit without any skits or the like), there was less of both musicians than I would have liked to hear - but I pretty much went in expecting that.

What left me feeling dissatisfied was a certain amount of what I can only describe as sanctimonious bullshit when they got around to the show's other guest, Nell Newman. Newman is Paul Newman's daughter, and she heads up Newman's Own Organics. This, I don't have any problems with. They probably make fine pretzels and whatnot, and after all, they are donating the profits.

But there came a point during the quasi-interview when Nick Forster asked about the criticism that buying organic/natural foods is basically a choice afforded to the wealthy, that the whole thing is often elitist. Since this is at the heart of the most basic problems with the organic ideology/industry/market, it would have been nice to get something besides a boilerplate response. Unfortunately, both participants danced around a little bit and trotted out the "well, it's really about you pay a little more and your kids are better fed and some farmer is getting rewarded for his hard work" boilerplate.

Which plays well in Boulder but I suspect doesn't have much to do with reality.

I guess it's worth noting that I like the idea of sustainable, localized agriculture. I grew up surrounded by what you could fairly call the other kind. Maybe grand-scale, Great Plains style agriculture - with its swaths of monoculture crops, massive petroleum & chemical inputs, intensive irrigation, and obscenely concentrated livestock production - will sustain itself indefinitely. Maybe yields will keep going up. It sure seems like there are problems with all of this. Anyway, I'm all for reducing inputs of pesticides and herbicides, and anything that ameliorates the hideous cruelty of industrial livestock production - in a country that eats far too high up the food chain, far too much of the time - is probably a good idea.

On the other hand, I think it's necessary to be deeply sceptical of anything as marketable as the "organic" label. And its ideological components (for example the automatic dismissal or fear of any genetic modification, a specific moral hierarchy of food) deserve more criticism than they often receive.

Sunday, October 23

Elizabeth continues to study for the GRE. I continue to waffle on the entire issue of grad school. Outside it gets colder. Yesterday I wandered the property where we rent and discovered many things - cacti, a lagoon surrounded by aspens, large piles of rock, prairie dogs.

The people upstairs have indicated that the owner doesn't really pay attention to things here, let alone pay for their upkeep. The driveway needs a load of gravel and I'm afraid to light a fire in the stove because the pipe is at least 15 degrees off plumb and probably hasn't been cleaned in a decade. Sooner or later the washing machine is going to rattle its way through the flimsy wall into our bedroom closet. Yet I suspect we all quietly prefer the hands-off attitude. If I'm going to have a landlord I'd rather not know about it very often, and I guess I'll clean the stovepipe myself if it means less looking over my shoulder.

Fringe intellectuals used to rant about the reduction of all human relationships to a cash nexus and describe rent as a basically unnatural arrangement. Time to time, I'm inclined to think they were right. I can't think of an impulse more widespread than the one to keep us owing in perpetuity on everything from the places we sleep to the songs we sing. Rent seeking behavior is become a chief disease of civilization, right up there with the petroleum economy and various malignancies of Church and State. Funny how the engines sustaining our existence are so often the substance of our discontent.

Saturday, October 22

current notebook extracts, some variations on same

We sit in a cafe in Lyons. Elizabeth studies for the GRE, muttering fragments of vocabulary and 10th grade math. I plug in an old laptop and start transcribing a couple weeks' worth of handwritten notes. Some days record better output than others. The overall process is made more frustrating by the fact that my two-week old notebook is disintegrating at a much faster rate than I can fill the pages. (Miquelrius, you suck.)

Some guy notices Elizabeth's GRE/GMAT book and informs us that he got a perfect score on the GMAT, then tells a story about how he cheated on a high school test by the brilliantly simple expedient of not handing in one particularly difficult page. It is a story that has obviously been told many times. I feel no special resentment for Perfect GMAT Guy. It would be easy enough, but he is a walking caricature and I suppose that being Perfect GMAT Guy is sort of its own dire consequence.

Here is some notebook text.

page text
22

rock & roll is not an ideology. neither is bluegrass. although they may be religious institutions.

32

nobody i much respect is advocating outright anomie & the breakdown of the social order so that we're all drowning in shit and starving to death.

tho i suppose we all have our moments of temptation.

34

man, the guys who can steal enough time and perspective in odd moments to write something Great fucking amaze me. i can't even write something Coherent in the space i make.

standing at mccaslin & s. boulder road, the mountains are white in the background. i try to take a picture but it's just hopeless. what seems so magnificent through my eyes is just tiny & horizontal though the lense.

38

my current situation ever goes sour, i'm gonna go drop off the fuckin' grid and live in a tipi by the river, ganking occasional connectivity from coffeeshops and refusing to engage in any activity or use any service which incurs a monthly bill or requires a unique account identifier which is not directly connected to a unix login.

39

an upside down american flag pin. there's a marketable notion. you could sell it next to black ones and whatnot. if, you know, you wanted to be all capitalist about it.

48

A recent minor epiphany: There are a lot of people either in my life or tangentially connected to it whose minds and perspectives fascinate me. Some of them, like the dude at work who loudly regrets that teachers can't smack kids around with impunity, are mostly fascinating because I'm not sure how you get there without some bad drug experiences or something. The rest, tho, they're full of stuff you can't help but take into account somehow, and it leads naturally to this impulse where I want to get them all into a room and make them talk about the shit that fascinates me until we get some Conclusions. The epiphany here is that not only is this wishful thinking in geospatial terms and a bad idea (there would probably be murders), but that it represents a special kind of intellectual laziness on my part. If my task in thinking & writing is to find a meaningful synthethis between my experiences and all the disparate things I find in brief connection with other, stranger minds - then it's probably incumbent on me to do the hard work myself.

(I'm being unfair to the guy at work, too - he's got worthwhile stuff to say even if a subset of it is uniquely apalling.)

It seems true that connections between two individuals are often not transferable. A -> B -> C does not imply A -> C, and it is too easy to assume otherwise.

Which might also be why polygamy is tricky as hell, and why I'm not going to get a consensus that neatly unifies my favorite visions just by tossing them at one another - no matter what convergences and collisions I imagine. Which isn't to say I wouldn't like to get many of you drunk and a few of you sober in a room together somewhere.

59

backreferences are computationally expensive. in sufficiently constricted domains they are extraordinarily useful.

for problem sets involving small-to-midsize collections of text documents, "computationally expensive" is something current hardware should be able to cope with. often it cannot, because it is too busy animating a paperclip or advertising a service for re-uniting you with the people you spent most of high school avoiding.

60

might as well admit i'm in that hungover state where details catch my eye. the filament of a bathroom light bulb glowing orange and fading for an instant after i've cut the power. small sounds. insect motion, birds. leaves. a cast of mind & sensory apparatus i first noticed the morning after my first real drunk, riding around in the back seat of mike's LTD with a case of milwaukee's best.

67

in the morning getting
in the car to go
to work, the moon is
perfectly defined, its
edges and surface etched
in the luminosity of
a sunrise which stretches
all the way across the sky
to the hilltop where
it hovers
and in this light, also
the turning leaves
and the thousandcolored grass.

later i sit and scribble these
thoughts with a cheap
ballpoint pen
the details are important
though i haven't
found god in them yet.

friday, october 14

i like places that are wasted
a little by the rip & shuffle
slap and stutter
of time like some old man who
makes unconscious art out of
his small domain
the beat tools in their
customary shadows,
some place once a farm
with now just the fences and
the token livestock
the tractor giving up
a rusty ghost, though
it'll run until
a month or a year after
the old man dies
time like that,
or like the house where
i live with the yard
they must have landscaped
once going quietly to
hell and seed and
a tangle of tall brown
grass and the bees
going dormant for the
winter under one eve,
one plugged up rain gutter
like the cheap bright
colored buddhist prayer flags
unravelling their beautiful
cliche in the wind by
our front door
or like gary indiana
through some train window
warehouse kansas city from
the backseat of some wallowing
detroit boat.

Saturday, October 8

minor scalp laceration

So I'm coming out of this bar in downtown Boulder. I'm out with a kid from work, Beau, and a couple of his buddies. People have been buying shots, which is how I am three sheets to the wind despite having left home with seven bucks in my pocket.

(If you're one of the 16 people I owe a drink, rest assured that I am keeping a list.)

Anyway, I'm coming out of this bar, and the band was pretty good, and I am maybe a little bit too pumped up, and I try to do this sort of hop down the front stairs. Unfortunately, as nearly as I can reconstruct this sequence of events, there is a ceiling in the way.

I spend the next twenty minutes or so walking around Boulder with blood streaming down my face and a cigarette in one hand. We stop for a slice of pizza and some dude gives me a baseball cap. Walking back to Beau's place, we scam our way into a toga party by claiming that I just got jumped in the alley. This is not even superficially plausible, but the blood trumps logic. I wash my face in a sink and someone hands me a keg cup.

Monday, October 3

All this week on p1k3 - a special series on the making of a web comic out of equal parts craft store cruft and cut-rate image manipulation.

Sunday, October 2

Here is a comic for today.

In other news, I suspect yesterday's post was more argumentative than it needed to be. Some recent e-mail from a friend suggests that my writing so far on education has been too much focused on criticism instead of substantive positive portrayals of the alternatives I'm pushing, and I think she's right. One reason, maybe the biggest, that Tamariki had such an impact on me is that it demonstrated how radical thought can offer concrete & functional alternatives to the system it criticizes.

I thought I might take one more crack at:

I like the Rule of St. Benedict, because Benedict addresses these sorts of issues in a beautifully practical way: Societies need simple rules, and humans in those societies needs to humble themselves to obey those rules (unless harmful). The best societies mute power, and this is one of the ways in which they do that.

At root, I just think that automatic restrictions on speech have detrimental effects: that the power they tend to mute, channel, or otherwise constrain is the power of individuals to express themselves. Certainly, speech which does actual harm ought to be subject to the censure of the community. But I tend to think that other, more broadly justifiable rules already cover the exercise of such speech. "Don't use words to hurt other people" is an application of "don't hurt other people".

Anyway, there was one other thing I wanted to mention while responding to Brent's post - a while back, Brent and I talked about the notion of a false economy of scale.

I'm no economist, me, but as I understand it, you get economies of scale when scaling a production process up leads to a lower per-unit cost of production. You buy a hundred thousand widgets from FooCorp Industries instead of a thousand, and suddenly you get them cheaper because FooCorp's setup costs are a lower percentage of their cost to produce your entire order. That sort of thing. Mass production and mass consumption are all about economies of scale.

A false economy, of course, is something that only looks like it is a good idea. One-ply toilet paper, say.

I think that a lot of what we see in mass education, with all of its parallels to mass production, is false economy of scale.

(Someone who actually knows what they're talking about is probably due to come along and tear this apart any second now...)

more: comic

Sunday, October 1

A while back, I promised to respond to Brent on a couple of points, so here goes.

Our culture has codes of conduct. Note that I don't mean arbitrary cultural beliefs; I'm talking about the standards embodied by the idea of dressing nicely when meeting with a customer. It's a matter of good culture. We encourage kids to avoid swearing just like we encourage them to comb their hair.

Why? Because these things are important. Culture is important. When you belong to a group, it's important to respect the cultural norms of that group.

Cultural norms of groups I still, in some sense, belong to include racism, homophobia, sexism, nationalism, strongly dogmatic religion, censorship, corporal punishment, a deep-seated respect for authority, a misplaced emphasis on organized athletics, contempt for scholarship, an aversion to rational thought, routine denial of empirical reality, and a highly developed hypocrisy of language. I generally don't respect these norms. The language thing may seem relatively minor, but I don't actually see any reason to encourage it.

Certainly hypocrisy is useful and sometimes necessary in the real world, and becoming an adult probably means realizing this.

Anyway, maybe all I needed to say is that I disagree: "Don't swear" is an arbitrary cultural belief, and simply lacks sufficient moral force to justify its imposition on free speech.

I like the Rule of St. Benedict, because Benedict addresses these sorts of issues in a beautifully practical way: Societies need simple rules, and humans in those societies needs to humble themselves to obey those rules (unless harmful). The best societies mute power, and this is one of the ways in which they do that.

(Similarly, allowing any and all language unleashes those who use language to abuse others, both directly and indirectly. We all know people who, if given the chance, won't shut up, abusing this power. Children have a particularly strong tendency towards this behavior.)

I have my issues with the first point, but it's the parenthetical statement that really interests me. I think it highlights something fundamental: If the educational environment is built on the assumption that things have to run smoothly, it follows that children should simply be constrained in that environment in order to prevent the behaviors you don't want. Strict, top-down rulesets and rigid, mandatory-minimums sorts of punishments should be in place to enforce the mechanics of the system, because the system and its correct functioning are the highest value.

As to behavior outside the system and its rules, we've always been given to understand that when you force kids to stop doing stuff, they'll forever afterwards Know Better. I think this last is demonstrably false, and the whole paradigm sort of falls apart on closer examination.

If you start out believing that education is a process wherein things work themselves out, with some help, and that it is usually messy and time consuming, then you can dispense with a lot of this.

At any rate, though I can't speak to other schools from personal experience, the system at Tamariki doesn't allow "any and all language", in the sense of personal abuse. This is not because it prohibits the right List of Bad Words. It is because the rules say that you can't use language to hurt other people - and the rules, unlike the forms of censorship most schools rely on, are subject to student input and enforcement, and apply as well to teachers.

Brent's final points are about the scalability of democratic ed:

Seriously, I think that education of the sort Brennen is advocating does not scale.

Note that this can be okay, depending on the type of education you want. If you want a holistic education that prepares a child ethically and philosophically, you can't find it in public education. That sort of thing simply doesn't scale up, from what I can see.

This is why I'd like to see public education become much more focused on skills. In my opinion, public education works best when it's teaching something relatively straightforward, rather than coaching a child in concepts of freedom, personal responsibility, etc.

I sort of think that it's not so much the concepts of freedom and personal responsibility we ought to be concerned about as it is their practice. They may not be straightforward, but I think there probably are not many skills more important than being free and taking personal responsibility. That said, I guess I would far rather see a school environment that focused purely on conveying useful skills than one full of mislabeled ethical content - is grading really about "accountability"?

Brent alludes to something important here: There is probably a long-term trend of expecting schools to fill more and more functions formerly left to family members or delegated to other social institutions (largely religious ones, I suppose).

(Put another way, asking why public education can't be like Tamariki is akin to asking why McDonald's can't serve six-course French meals. French cuisine works on a restaurant-by-restaurant basis, but not when you're trying to serve fifty million customers a day.)

I can't directly challenge the scalability thing. It's my biggest single problem with advocating any alternative educational program. Simply scaling Tamariki and applying it to the U.S. would require more (and different) teachers, a drastically different approach to facilities, the strong support of most parents for a system that would challenge their basic beliefs... In fact, it would require a radical shift in most of American society on a completely unprecedented scale. This is not going to happen.

Which I don't think changes the basic question: Why would you want to serve borderline-toxic shit to fifty million customers a day?

And on that note, I am going to sleep. More (if not more coherent) thoughts tomorrow.