Less Government

October 30, 2005 at 8:48 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Less Government

No, the title is not meant to suggest that I’m turning libertarian! Recall, however, my recent …frustrations? (sic!) about the sale of BC’s Terasen Gas to Texas-based Kinder-Morgan, as well as my lugubrious commentary on the privatisation of public utilities in BC (and elsewhere). One of the gummier aspects of local politics that I find difficult to comprehend is that Victoria (where I live) is essentially a tiny dogpatch of geography, surrounded by other little dogpatches, each with its own mayor, its own elected councillors, its own fire department, its own police, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, precisely because this bow-wow patchwork is so dog-gone stupid, we’re actually governed by a non-elected fourth level of government known as the CRD — that stands for Capital Regional District — which makes all sorts of important decisions that affect the entire region, but which isn’t directly accountable to the voter.

I thought I was being really stupid and thick-headed in not grokking the logic behind this arrangement, but now I’m happy to report that I am in fact a genius …no, er, that there are other people equally (if not more so) annoyed by the status quo. In fact, they wish to change this arrangement once and for all. To whit, if you’re a voter in this region, please take a look at Less Gov dot com. Their mission:

…to give the taxpaying citizens of the region the opportunity to decide the issue of amalgamation without political or special interest group influences. [More…]

The site includes a petition voters can ‘sign’ virtually. They include the following tidbits on their front page:

1. We have a population base of approximately 340,000 people with 13 municipalities and 91 politicians.
2. Vancouver with a population base of approximately 600,000 people has 11 politicians, a mayor and 10 councilors.
3. The Capital Regional District has 900 employees and is an unelected fourth level of government.
4. Amalgamation would eliminate the need for a Capital Regional District.
5. The Patricia Bay Highway runs through or into 5 municipalities.
6. There are 13 fire departments (paid and volunteer) with major duplication of equipment.
7. Infrastructure grants are often unavailable now as they are based on municipal population size.
8. The region has multiple police forces plus the RCMP.
9. No cohesive economic and land use plans based on regional population and needs.
10. Lack of regional arts planning (Art Gallery &Royal Theatre as examples).
11. Recent increases in duplications of services throughout the region (i.e. CRD entering policing)

This is definitely of interest to all Victoria-area voters.

Another silly online quiz: politics

October 29, 2005 at 4:42 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Another silly online quiz: politics

Tracing various blogposts back from an entry of Shelley’s, Truth Hurts, which deals with a recent Forbes article (Attack of the Blogs) that libels bloggers — well, ok, it tars ’em with a rather undifferentiating brush — I landed on Doc Searls’s commentary on same. But since I wasn’t really interested in what Forbes‘s writer had to say, I naturally let myself become instantly distracted by yet another quiz, which I found on Doc’s pages: the OkCupid Politics test. Below are “my” results. What I can’t figure out is why a score of 16%-permissive makes me an “economic liberal.” Is that a joke? With 75%-permissive in the “social liberal” category, I can fathom the label. But for economics? Circulation of money is a good thing, isn’t it? And while I want money to flow and to circulate freely, I actually also consider myself fiscally conservative (in the old-fashioned sense of the word “conservative,” to conserve). Perhaps one gets the economic liberal label if one’s answers are anti-corporatist, even as one also indicates that government has a role to play in supporting the arts? Maybe just thinking about the arts at all, vs. leaving them out of the picture gets one the label? Maybe thinking that homelessness isn’t something people bring on themselves also flags one?

Whatever. Here’s a pretty diagram. In the end the quiz amused me, for in the results page there is the option of clicking on “famous people,” which calls up a collage of faces. I’m smack-dab on Hillary Clinton’s mouth. A mouthpiece, I guess… Just think: a little more to the centre, and I could have been the birthmark on Mikhail Gorbachev’s forehead: sort of an Athena, fully formed from a defect.

You are a
Social Liberal
(75% permissive)

and an…
Economic Liberal
(16% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

Telling Stories

October 28, 2005 at 6:18 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Telling Stories

One of the more enjoyable books I’m reading right now is Roger Schank’s Coloring Outside the Lines, which I stumbled across because Zac left a comment on a post I wrote about HeyMath and his own Interactive Math site. (I need to check in with Zac more often — he finds these incredible puzzles and links… ) Schank’s other work focusses on e-learning (see here).

Anyway. In Schank’s work I found a fascinating account of how and why dreams are important. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

I’m not going to get into a Freudian analysis of why we dream; my concern here is simply with the role dreaming plays in learning. That role involves expectation validation. As part of the learning process, we seek explanations for unexpected or odd situations. If you’ve been going shopping at a certain store for years and then one day it has a closed sign in the window when you arrive, you begin testing explanations: Maybe it’s now closed on Tuesdays; maybe it’s always been closed on Tuesdays and I just never shopped here on that day; maybe the owner, who’s rather old, decided to cut back on the hours he works. Expectation validation is largely an unconscious process. While you may consciously consider some of these explanations, you probably see the closed sign and don’t give it much conscious thought beyond “I’ll come back when the store is open.”

Many times it’s not possible to test explanations consciously (we’re not aware of what our expectations really are, the issue is difficult to think about, etc.). Yet we naturally want to test some of the expectations we collected during the day. Thus, we test them in our dreams. The way our minds do this is to run “simulations” that often have little to do with reality. [details his young son’s dream of asking his sports hero to become editor-in-chief of his school newspaper, and concludes that the dream “was testing my son’s expectations about dealing with someone he respected.”] (…) The dream …allowed my son to test one aspect of his expectation. By talking about it, we could bring the issue closer to home and turn it into a memorable experience that might be useful later on.

(…) The more unusual or outrageous the dream, the more kids are compelled to seek explanations for them. [from pp.70-71]

In other words, telling stories and learning how and why they fall into expectation validation — or, Schank’s other very important point: fall into expectation failure — helps us to learn. Expectation failure is key to learning: familiarisation breeds perhaps not contempt, but certainly expectation validation. I expect the furniture to be in the same place I left it, I expect my friend to look the same as last time when I meet him for lunch today, and so on and so forth. I live in a prescripted pattern. If the expectations aren’t met, thinking kicks into a higher gear. If, on the other hand, they are, we can coast on autopilot:

When there is no expectation failure — when our friend looks exactly the same as he did all the times before — we don’t seek explanations and we don’t learn anything new.

The irony about expectations is that to acquire them, we have to abandon them. Our expectations are consistently wrong. Experiences demand that we modify or completely change previous expectations. (…)

Sometimes when children experience expectation failure, they are motivated to seek explanations for what happened on their own. Sometimes, however, expectation failure is a complicated experience that children aren’t able to deal with all by themselves. [Schank gives an example of a child not winning the “first violin” position in a school orchestra even though she was convinced that she was the best qualified.] (…) You can help your daughter eliminate the obstacle between herself and an explanation by telling a story. Rather than directly confronting her with possible theories about why she was demoted, tell an “analogous” story. [To this, she may reply that you’ve got it all wrong, that your story makes no sense in relation to her story, but she might instead begin to tell “her” story in a more detailed way.] (…) In response to your story, she told a story, and by doing so may have shed some light on why her expectation failed and what she can do about it the next time. [from pages 76-78]

Schank then deconstructs “scripts,” the “expected” routines and outcomes we’ve learned and which we need to do most of the simple things we take for granted. I can’t, for example, do my laundry efficiently without a “script” in place: I need to know the routine, and not face the task each time as though it were brand new. Otherwise, I’d never get past the first load… Or take the script we learn once we’ve been to a couple of restaurants: we don’t need to explain every single detail anymore. If we tell the story of a restaurant visit to another person who also knows the “restaurant script,” then the shorthand “I ordered pasta” is readily understood to imply that “ordering” in a restaurant also means that I ate it. Without “scripts,” I’d have to explain what a waiter does, how ordering works, that you get your meal placed in front of you, and that you eat it — all implied by “I ordered pasta.” As Schank puts it, “In one sense, these scripts are a substitute for thinking. Instead of having to infer, reason, draw conclusions, and invent novel behaviors to solve problems, we simply apply a script. It’s a shortcut we take from thought to action.” [p.79]

But think back to those days when you were a really young child and didn’t yet have a bunch of scripts at your fingertips: what was happening then was that you were learning all the time, constantly. As an adult, you can increasingly go on autopilot, unless you have a position that continuously makes demands on you to experience expectation failure:

The conundrum, however, is that the more scripts you know, the less likely you’ll be to experience expectation failure and put yourself in a position to learn new things.

Scripts promote rigid thinking. Actually, thinking really doesn’t take place; it’s more accurate to state that scripts promote unthinking reactions. (…)

Children who are locked into scripts limit their learning opportunities; the more scripts, the less learning. They short-circuit the learning process from the start, decreasing the diversity of experience and by extension their chance of encountering expectation failure. [from pp.79-80]

Schools, according to Schank, are the worst offenders in the “thou shalt live by script” indoctrinators gang. In a typical curriculum, everything runs by script. Expectation failure is a luxury no one has time for in the rush to meet “outcomes.” Plain and simple failure happens, but that’s not considered a “learning opportunity” — it’s just failure, and no one takes the time to tell stories around it, to figure out whether expectation failure took place.

And this whole thing started with telling your dreams… Interesting.

ASBOs: the clocks are turning orange

October 25, 2005 at 1:36 pm | In yulelogStories | 4 Comments

The Toronto Star had an interesting article yesterday by Sandro Contenta about Britain’s “asbo” law: New U.K. law targets boorish Brits. I had never heard of this before — it’s a very strange and very disturbing law, both in terms of how it’s carried out as well as in the sense that it had to be thought up in the first place to address situations deemed out of control.

“Asbo” stands for Anti-Social Behaviour Order — see this Wikipedia entry and see also the UK Government’s Crime Reduction page. The applications of this law are becoming increasingly horrifying as increasingly horrifying, and tragic, and absurd behaviour is sought out and targeted. It’s as though there’s a social ratcheting-up of outrage happening, with an implicit agreement that it’s pointless to address root causes. “Asbo” laws were put together to target these “crimes”:

• graffiti – which can on its own make even the tidiest urban spaces look squalid
• abusive and intimidating language, too often directed at minorities
• excessive noise, particularly late at night
• fouling the street with litter
• drunken behaviour in the streets, and the mess it creates
• dealing drugs, with all the problems to which it gives rise. [Note: I’m quoting directly from the UK “crime reduction” site…]

Jeebus, that’s quite a list…

As Wikipedia notes, singling out the following absurd example, the use of “asbo” law is getting weirder and increasingly unwilling to address root problems:

In a recent example of a less conventional use of ASBOs, a woman has been given an ASBO preventing her from jumping into rivers, canals or railways. This is because the rescue services had to rescue her from these places whilst she was attempting suicide. Rather than providing her with treatment or counselling, they gave her an ASBO, which means that if she attempts suicide again she could be sent to prison. [More…]

As if that isn’t bad enough, children are the next target — and I’m talking about children, the under-10 crowd. See The Guardian, Child commissioner attacks ‘baby Asbos’ plan (Oct.14/05): “According to figures in June, 4,649 Asbos have been issued since their introduction in 1999, of which 2,057 have applied to children aged 10 to 17.” The under-10s are next.

Useful related Guardian links:
Crime czar: stop calling children ‘yobs’ (May 22/05)
Untamed Malady (June 13/05)
ASBOwatch, official Statewatch site critiquing the law.

New tack

October 24, 2005 at 1:46 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on New tack

I’m going to try something different for a while, because I’ve got deskwork up the yin-yang and way too much on my plate to spend time writing my usual longer-ish entries. So, I’m going to point to articles I find really worth reading, or other short stuff like that. At least for the next little while…

First off, here’s an article from last January’s NYTimes, A Path to Road Safety With No Signposts by Sarah Lyall (January 22, 2005). It’s about Hans Monderman, a Friesian (Dutch) road engineer and his heretical ideas about traffic. Taking the author on a stroll along a road unmarked by boulevard kerbs, traffic signs, lights, or signals, he steps out into the busy traffic without looking, and remarks:

“Who has the right of way?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.” [More…]

That sounds stupid at first, but there’s an interesting principle behind this. According to Moderman, “it is only when the road is made more dangerous, when drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that driving becomes safer.” Read the rest of the article — full of interesting ideas to help us rethink traffic issues, calming, etc.

Moderman, his fans say, has “rethought a lot of issues from complete scratch. Essentially, what it means is a transfer of power and responsibility from the state to the individual and the community.” One of my sisters lives very close to the Dutch border in northern Germany, and her area has many streets like the ones described in the article (especially once you drive a couple of kilometres into Holland itself). Their “behavioural design” at first gave me the willies, admittedly, but it is a fact that you’re much more careful driving down those roads. Overall, there’s a net increase in civility, a keystone of civilisation and civic spaces like towns and cities.

Actually, this article is interesting to think about together with the new US Census report on how cities grow in daytime due to workers commuting into cities. This all has a tremendous effect on traffic patterns, and it’s generally not taken into account in census data that just tracks the resident population of a place. Many of the cities where daytime population swells are also the places most expensive to live in. Interesting implications for city planning, taxation, etc.

Must blog about this some more in relation to what I’ve been reading in Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead. She has a lot to say about the duncity of the typical road & traffic engineer, about traffic, and community in general… But what was that I said earlier about short blog entries??

Oh yeah, markets are “conversations”

October 21, 2005 at 9:39 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Oh yeah, markets are “conversations”

Markets are conversations, we’ve all learned.

Bite me, why don’t you?

Here’s what Corky Evans, B.C. New Democratic Party MLA, said about a proposed review by Ottawa of U.S. energy giant Kinder Morgan Inc.‘s proposed $6.9-billion takeover of Terasen Inc.:

This is about whether or not Canadians should be able to have a conversation about Canada before we sell a chunk of it. [More…]

Any more of this sort of talk, Corky, and I shall have to resort to acronyms, like ROTFLMAO…. Talk about subtle understatement! I do admire Mr. Evans for his sophisticated use of the word “conversation,” but let’s face it, this conversation is turning into the hoserisation of Canadians. Yup, fetchers of water and bearers wood.

Enough, already.


UPDATE: For further discussion, and in what might be true-to-blogging elliptical methodology, I’ve moved this conversation to the comments board for Burningbird‘s entry, Why American Businesses are Dying. Take a pew…

BC Teachers’ Strike: Escalation, Part 1 (…to be continued)

October 17, 2005 at 10:46 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on BC Teachers’ Strike: Escalation, Part 1 (…to be continued)

The BC teachers’ strike, which started 10 days ago on October 7, continues across the province, and Gordon Campbell’s government continues to refuse to negotiate. Today, around 15,000 people rallied in downtown Victoria — from City Hall to the provincial legislature — to show their support of the teachers. (Other reports claim it was 20,000.)

Today’s protest was part of a day of action that saw unionised workers across the city walk off their jobs in a snowballing show of solidarity with the teachers. The legal wrangling behind the teachers’ struggle isn’t uncomplex, but here are some CBC background links that illuminate the role of the courts and of law in the dispute so far, including Mary Ellen Lang‘s op-ed piece. She notes,

At the present time, most B.C. teachers (even those who didn’t vote) regard Bill 12, the B.C. Liberal law that nullifies teachers’ right to collective bargaining (again), as bad enough to warrant civil disobedience. [More…]

Personally, if I hear one more quote by our government’s Labour Minister, Mike De Jong, who has been hiding behind “the law” and emphasising that the government won’t negotiate with “law breakers” (i.e., the teachers), I’ll spit. It’s his sanctimonious posturing that should be against the law. As Jinny Sims (the BC Teachers Federation president) noted, “There is a big difference between breaking the law and having a law designed to break you. We will not be broken.” [See here for more.]

Even news outlets I associate with traditionally more neo-Liberal-friendly turf (although I could be wrong here) are printing editorials that urge local school boards to speak up and show some leadership — not least by standing up to government bullying. In the Western Penticton News Allan Markin writes:

For starters, the B.C. Liberals need to understand the difference between arrogance and leadership. For example, it was arrogant to go against declarations made by the International Labour Organization and international law that education is not an essential service. It would have been leadership to admit their mistake and restore fair collective bargaining to which the teachers are entitled. Instead, the B.C. Liberals continue to pander to parents who share their politically driven point of view that education is an essential service. What is even more disturbing, however, is the use of this specious reasoning to justify political arbitrariness and bullying. [More…]

Paul Willcocks, a journalist whose editorials were often an intelligent relief from the more usual hand-wringing or strong-arming intemperance in the local press, has a blog. His entry today on the strike offers a surprising snapshot of a “typical” protester at today’s rally, and he also offers useful historical background. Makes for interesting reading…

Meanwhile, further job actions are virtually a certainty.


This entry is my second on this topic; the first, Oct.10/05, is here.

Privatisation of public utilities

October 15, 2005 at 12:53 am | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Privatisation of public utilities

A few days ago I saw an article by Christopher Hume in the Toronto Star that disturbed me deeply: Privatizing the public domain; For better or worse, the time is near (Oct. 13, 2005). It begins thus:

Forget stocks and bonds, real estate and art — invest in infrastructure. That’s where the smart money is these days.

That was the message a panel of Canadian experts delivered recently to a delegation of visiting Australian developers and bankers, all of whom had their cellphones turned on and their hands in their (very deep) pockets. [More…]

Hume describes aging infrastructure in Canadian cities, too expensive to replace with tax money, which is being privatised through corporate funding. The assistant deputy minister of public infrastructure, Paul Evans, told the visiting delegation that Ontario does not have the money to fix its public infrastructure. Hence the heady leap into private investors’ arms. Hume equivocates as to whether he is seriously alarmed, or whether he thinks that, since it’s inevitable, one may as well make hay when the sun shines: Toronto is too expensive to fix, and public money is scarce. There’s plenty of money in Toronto, but it’s all in private hands …so, why not get those rich private investors to put some of their cash into deals that turn the building of roads, hospitals, and transit into private enterprises? Why not water and sewage, too? Why not everything that used to be public…?

And then, a day or two later, I see an article by Quentin Dodd in The Tyee that made my jaw drop, given the softening up it had already been given by Chris Hume. Dodd’s article, Water Works Quietly Privatized offered an eery parallel to what Hume described. Dodd’s piece starts with a question:

Who do YOU want running the municipal water systems in your community?

That’s the question asked on Vancouver Island and elsewhere in BC as the province’s municipal and regional district elections loom next month.

More and more communities are being tempted into striking deals with privately-owned corporations to take programs and services off their books. The contracting out of public water-supply and waste-water-discharge systems has been quietly introduced into some communities without any consultation or notification to municipal taxpayers. [More…]

The drinking water? Not only privatised, but sold out to a company based in Texas…? (Read the article.)

The insiduous thing is that these privatisations don’t happen in a big visible way — they’re done in small increments. In the case that Dodd describes in detail, it started with contracting out the water safety sampling to a private concern, a mere $36K contract. But here’s where the money is deceiving. $36K is chicken feed in the overall scheme of things, but this is the public water supply that’s being sampled for its potability.

The whole problem of accountability is encapsulated in this little story. Then comes the kicker — i.e., now Dodd starts to talk about where I actually live:

Elsewhere on Vancouver Island, as in some parts of the BC mainland such as Surrey, private deals have been quietly made and contracts signed and sealed, sometimes putting parts of water-system operations into the hands of private companies for up to 20 years or more.


Shortly after Vancouver-based Terasen Inc. was sold to the Texas-based Kinder Morgan company in August this year, the Terasen Utility Service company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Terasen, was formed to pursue water privatizations in municipal, resort and First Nations communities.

It has since gone on establish water partnerships in the Nuu-chah-nulth and Cowichan nations, contract water-metering for Surrey, buy a half a share of an Alaskan community water system, and secure a 21-year private-public-partnership (P3) deal to operate the City of Langford’s sewer system on southern Vancouver Island. Word is that it now has its eye on the much lager [sic] Capital Regional District’s system. [More…]

The Capital Regional District is the figleaf covering the mess that is local Victoria and its environs’ political landscape. Victoria the city is very small, but it’s the capital of BC, and it’s responsible for providing services to a whole range of people, many of whom are in need — many of whom come from surrounding municipalities. We are literally within spitting distance of one another’s jurisdictions, with Oak Bay to the East, Saanich to the North, and Esquimalt to the West. (Victoria, Oak Bay, and Saanich are jammed onto a peninsula — it’s cozy…) Further West are the other “western communities” (including Langford, mentioned by Dodd, and Metchosin, Sooke, etc.). All together we comprise the CRD, the Capital Regional District, with a population of somewhere around 350K or so and growing. I live in Victoria. It has taken me a couple of years to figure out what the CRD is or does (I’m still not entirely sure); it’s a supra-governing body that makes regional decisions. Its board is appointed (as far as I can tell, but correct me if I’m wrong) and consists of people elected to office in all the region’s municipalities, as well as some who I can’t figure out how they got there. We have layers upon layers of municipal government here, it sometimes seems to me, with various “authorities” (Health Authority, Harbour Authority, etc.) defending turf.

The CRD is the body that’s responsible for all the untreated sewage we pump into the ocean daily. The CRD does this, the CRD does that, but somehow it’s too difficult to explain where their mandate comes from (I can’t vote for or against them), and their decisions seem somehow to float above the normal democratic channels. (Perhaps in the effluvium emitted by the sludge in the Juan de Fuca Strait…?)

With Dodd suggesting that there are rumours that the CRD might be talking to Kinder Morgan in Texas via Terasen (which used to be a Canadian company but was sold to KM), I really do wonder what the hell is happening to us all.

I’m really trying to understand political processes, trying to understand how citizens can continue to be effective and efficient contributors to public discourse, to rationality, to reason. But when I read about these deals, I feel as though I’m being deliberately worn down. I feel as though my ability to comprehend is being erased, as though my historical memory of how things perhaps used to work in older variants of political process and democracy is being systematically drugged and incapacitated, until I either can’t remember anything at all or I just give up — both of which amount to the same thing.

Coincidentally, I just started reading Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead. In the introduction, Jacobs defines what she means by a dark age: it’s essentially a sort of mass amnesia where people literally forget how things were done before. As a result, the culture meets its end. On page 9, sketching out the most famous Dark Age (which was but one of many), she wrote something that really struck a nerve, given the changes imposed on us through corporatism and globalisation:

In the last desperate years before Western Rome’s collapse, local governments had been expunged by imperial decree and were replaced by a centralized military despotism, not a workable organ for governmental judgments and reflections.

Substitute (unfettered) “free trade agreements” for “imperial decree,” and “corporate rule” for “military despotism,” and keep in mind that the Romans didn’t see it happening while it was happening. Until it was too late. It’s terribly important to keep Jacobs’s other caveat also in mind:

Writing, printing, and the Internet give a false sense of security about the permanence of culture. Most of the million details of a complex, living culture are transmitted neither in writing nor pictorially. Instead, cultures live through word of mouth and example. That is why we have cooking classes and cooking demonstrations, as well as cookbooks. (…) Every culture takes pains to educate its young so that they, in their turn, can practice and transmit it completely. (…)

As recipients of culture, as well as its producers, people attend to countless nuances that are assimilated only through experience. [p.5]

In other words, a one-sided reliance on one aspect or techne (only the cookbook, say, never the demonstration, the hands-on learning) means that the nuances are lost. When the nuances get lost, forgetting sets in. A chain is broken. It can be reconstructed later, but a reconstruction, Jacobs is at pains to point out, is not a restoration. A reconstruction typically brings with it its own rigidities and ideologies that end up actually blocking and frustrating the new that might emerge.

At any rate, I’m deeply discouraged to learn about what looks like below-the-radar privatisation, a sort of stealth strategy that takes a nip here, a nip there, perhaps until very little is left in the public domain — and municipal leaders (as was the case in Dodd’s example of Campbell River) don’t even know it. We are losing something here, and it’s more than just our minds.

The world is getting flatter, The sky is falling all around (Strange Weather)

October 11, 2005 at 11:15 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

Thanks to Julie Leung I finally saw a wonderful article that Doc Searls had published in Linux Journal six months ago: Getting Flat, Part 2. Note that this is Part 2; there is a Part 1, subtitled Our Senior Editor digs into Tom Friedman’s new bestseller, from a Linux/open source angle, which is also very good, but from my perspective, Part 2 is a must-read.

Since I typically don’t keep up with techie stuff, I’m not a regular reader of either the Linux Journal or of Doc’s weblog (mea culpa, but there are only so many hours in a day…), which is why it took me six months to find this. But I do wish that there had been enough overlap between people who read me but who also read technology-focussed materials that someone had yanked my ADSL cable and said, “hey!, you gotta read this!” For example, it’s reasonably clear from what I’ve written in the past that I’m intensely interested in matters pertaining to education; that I homeschool (and use public school e-learning, i.e., one of BC’s 9 public distance education schools) to educate my kids; that I’ve written several paeans to John Taylor Gatto (see my numerous references to Gatto on my blog here). It’s also the case that I haven’t been able to suppress a couple of attacks on Thomas Friedman on my blog. Since the American invasion of Iraq in particular, Friedman has evolved into a mouthpiece for the administration’s “make tough” policies, which in turn makes me mistrust everything he has to say in any matter. …In fact, I wonder what’s up with Friedman and “toughness,” given that he enjoins American parents to dispense “tough love” if they want their little tots to stay competitive.

Ok, admittedly I have a jaundiced view of Friedman, and here it is (transparency, full disclosure): Friedman strikes me as someone who doesn’t want to see past his boxed-in nose. The world he describes is a box, he is in a box; ok, so the box is made of flat cardboard, but it’s still folded up over his ears… In Friedman’s universe, standardised tests and metrics and rubrics and competition and team-work and soldiering on are what count. For Friedman, the world might be flat(ter), but that merely means that it is more like it should be: regimented by a competitive globalisation I find regrettable, to say the least. It’s a world where people aren’t confused, where it makes sense that the strong know what to do (and make sure everyone else does it), where leaders are revered if they’re successful, and where success means …more of the same: endless exploitation of resources, steady and relentless accumulation of wealth according to the old models, and vague certainties that the “third world,” if it plays its cards right, will eventually be alright because …hey, it’ll be just like us! Change, in this strange, socially darwinian world, is only good if it results in more of the same. Institutions can’t really be knocked sideways, unless that’s the way to revitalise them. A mentality that never questions society’s corporate and institutional underpinnings is what I detect in Friedman’s lovesong to sexed up, technologically whiz- and gang-banged globalisation. Institutions, meanwhile, can continue to provide the human fodder for this insatiable monstrosity.

Hence, when Friedman gets around to critiquing US schools for not keeping up, for being too soft on those lazy kids, he is reverting to his usual “toughness” fetish to whip some sense into all those saggy bottoms. He wants the schools (the institution of school) and the parents to get “tough,” he wants them to swing the whip and make the naughty children buckle down. C’mon, everyone knows that if you just whack people’s backsides often enough, they’ll eventually get it right, eh? Good god, “the Asians” with their “traditional” reverence for authority and their “unquestioning” work ethic yoked to striverdom are doing it — therefore, ipso facto, we have to as well.

Oh, do we really?

The notion that the institution of school itself might be responsible for the problems we face in education seems to slip off Friedman’s radar screen. Which is where John Taylor Gatto, with his diametrically opposed p.o.v., comes in. Gatto writes at length about the economic function(s) of institutional schooling, but not because he wants us to make those functions more efficient. What Gatto is really concerned about is that by adopting a Prussian militarist model of compulsory public schooling in the 19th century, a model that emphasised obeying orders and fitting in (primarily by succeeding in pre-fab curricula, scoring well on tests, and knocking your seatmate off balance so that you would come out ahead), America began a long slide away from the active literacy of the early republic and the ideals of the Founders. Before compulsory schooling was introduced, America enjoyed a tremendously high literacy rate, a succinct separation of mythology (church) and state, and a climate that encouraged public speaking and debate.

All this has changed very much. And apropos of the climate of public discourse, read the transcript of Al Gore’s recent speech, Gore on the Threat to American Democracy. Read it. (It also meshes nicely with Rob Wipond’s article, Are we becoming easier to dupe?, which I cited yesterday.) One could almost argue that if Gore sees television as a vehicle for democracy’s degradation and the “refeudalisation” of public space, Gatto would probably say that schools prepared us for television in the first place. In schools, children don’t learn the active literacy that 18th century republicans assumed as the basis of democracy. Putting together speeches or dissecting ethics or taking a public role in any weighty sense: there’s no time for that now — the teachers have to make sure the kids are up to speed on the next standardised test instead. Gatto points out that the kids in elite prep schools still learn active literacy, and that this is what gives them an edge in public life. Gatto, in other words, asks after the political meanings of education; Friedman seems to circumscribe them strictly in economic terms (“they’re beating us, quick, work harder!”)

Some might say I’m too hard on Friedman. Well, it’s true: I do dislike his slant. And, ok, this entry wasn’t supposed to be about me or what I think of Mr. Friedman. I wanted to write about how simply yet beautifully Doc Searls manages to write a piece that speaks volumes about Tom Friedman’s understanding (or lack thereof) of out-of-the-box thinking, a piece that tells readers a story about Doc’s own personal educational experiences. Those experiences in turn comment lucidly on the picture Gatto paints of institutional schooling, and unlike the corporate globalised foot soldier of Friedman’s imagination, the protagonist ends up in the creative tinkerer’s IT Garage. Let’s start with the notion of IQ, Doc suggests:

…both Tom [Friedman] and Microsoft continue to believe IQ tests are important ways to measure citizens in a flat world. Because if there’s one thing the world is flattening fast, it’s the old caste system we call The Bell Curve.

Not surprisingly, no company on earth is more vested in the bell curve than Microsoft.

A friend who worked at Microsoft once told me he could describe his employer in two words: more school. He explained that the company is built by and for academic achievers like the two guys who founded the company. (…)

I can save Microsoft a pile of time and money by reporting a fact no school wants to admit, one that will flatten the world far more than any other factor: pretty much everybody is smart. What’s more, they’re all smart in their own ways. [More…]

This bit is really very important, for it points us to an important linkage. In competitive and corporate style globalisation, hierarchies are incredibly important. There’s still “us” and “them,” there’s definitely still a “have” and “have not.” The “haves” armour themselves with credentials and certification; they join the club of “us” where how well you did in school really really matters. We’re back to Gatto again, insofar as Gatto emphasises that schools are training grounds for our inner soldier: shut up and obey orders; don’t think, just obey. As Doc writes, If we want to break free of big company silos and big company thinking, we need to break free of our equally industrial notions about schooling, which are based on the belief that talent and intelligence are rare.” He goes on to cite Gatto, and then asks:

Stop and think for a second here. How much of the world’s best open-source code is being created by people who were trained to write that code in school? How much of it is the product of mentoring and self-education instead? How much of the intelligence behind it is as different as fingerprints?

What if the old industrial schooling system is as threatened by open source as the old proprietary software system? [More…]

In other words, what if open source [non-corporate, non-silo mentality] tinkering, self-teaching, mentoring, and really learning something because one loves to learn it, were to form the basis for a democratic renewal, the way late 18th literacy (active literacy especially) put democratic power within the reach of (white) men in the early years of the Republic? (And eventually women, and African Americans — although it did take an awfully long time…)

Doc tells the reader his own “checkered” school history — an unhappy tale of having to suck it up, except when he could work on things he loved:

At home, I devoured books. I just hated school, hated homework, hated the whole system. Athletics, too, because it was another caste system with a bell curve.


By junior high I was already a ham radio operator and a committed geek. And, like geeks and misfits everywhere, I worked constantly to increase the delta between my soul and the bell curve. In other words, I educated myself, just like Franklin, Edison and the rest of history’s productive misfits. [More…]

He then goes on to chide Friedman — although he also gives him a lot of credit for getting some insights about “flatworld” right (more than I can stand to give — even if objectively, Doc is right and I’m out in left field). He agrees with Friedman that we are living in an increasingly flat world, and that the affordances of information transfer and knowledge sharing hold tremendous potential for “flattening” the world in a truly egalitarian sense. And it’s true that if you’re privileged enough to have a computer and internet access, you have fewer and fewer excuses for being uninformed or unconnected, and since this is a medium that allows multiple channel exchange, you can even learn to speak out more. Not that you can necessarily buy your groceries with this, or single-handedly erase political oppression, but that’s perhaps not the point. Key to Doc’s point is that “… the ability to self-educate is essential in the flat new world,” and therein lies the beauty and simplicity of what I still can’t help but read as a refutation of Friedman’s hugely corporate competitiveness. To the latter’s notion of scarcity based on fear, Doc describes an abundance that comes from people released from fear. I know it pans out in shades of gray (or rainbow colours) vs. black or white, but I’ll take that idealism any day over having my ass whupped by Friedman’s “tough love.”

It’s funny — I kept hearing Marianne Faithful singing Strange Weather every time Friedman’s version of the world getting flatter came up. Hers is a pessimistic take, And he’s the rain that they predicted, / Its the forecast every time. / The rose has died because you picked it / And I believe that brandy’s mine. Yes, all that fear and competition, too: it can drive a person to drink! Oh well, thank god there’s still some lively fun in the garage….

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