After I learned the secret handshake, I saw it everywhere.
  • We were in Scotland for several days. Many things to mention, but here’s one for starters. On the spectrum with “A) Enjoying hearing music as part of who we are” at one end and “B) Enjoying making music as part of who we are” at the other end, the people we met were oriented toward B much more than folks I know back home. The US leans toward A, I think.#
  • And on the spectrum between “C) Enjoying hearing recorded music” and “D) Enjoying hearing live music” here too I thought I saw a difference. People we met in Scotland leaned toward D more and back home we lean toward C, I think.#
  • And on the spectrum between “E) Enjoying big famous professional traveling shows” and “F) Enjoying local musicians” I also thought there was a difference. US: tilts toward A, C, and E, and Scotland: tilts toward B, D, and F. That’s how it felt during our brief stay.#
  • One part of the evidence: On a rural walk, we met a man at the end of his driveway and talked with him for maybe ten minutes. As part of a story he was telling, he sang a song in Gaelic to us, a song he said was deeply, historically meaningful to people from a region of the UK.#
  • Background: Part of the positive energy of the first Obama presidential campaign had to do with a new use of online knowledge-sharing, community-building, and event-promoting that gave people a new feeling that they could be a meaningful part of a national campaign on their local level. It felt like a new method of politics that made people hopeful about democracy in a fresh, concrete way.#
  • The minute the Obama team got to Washington, they shut down the website. “Thanks for your help during the election,” they seemed to say to us, “but we’ll take things from here. We’ve got this. Go back to your personal lives. No longer think of yourselves as active citizens on any sort of regular basis. We can run the democracy without you.”#
  • It felt bad to see this happen, and it seemed like a grievous misjudgment and a profound misunderstanding of people, of politics, of hope, of — well, you name it. Damn, damn, damn, some of us thought at the time. #
  • The point: Fast forward to today, with the democracy far more imperiled than in 2008. The old tool in moth balls somewhere, hard to remember it in any detail. A new tool is on the table, AI. So, we know for sure that the old tool made people feel good, made people feel like active citizenship was for them. Now, with a powerful new tool available, what could it add to the positive things the old tool could already do? Just wondering. Wondering very seriously.#
  • For starters, maybe it could do something like this tilted in the direction of much-needed active citizenship. And more . . .#
  • Looks like we’ve set things up so it’s easier and more profitable to destroy a company like Red Lobster than it is to build one. #
  • Seth Abramson suggests that a high-profile career criminal avoiding deep legal trouble until late in his 70s is not a good sign about the United States of America. Tristan Snell has some clues about how that happens.#
  • A good blogroll sketches the context of your project.#
  • You’re saying, “These are the writers who help me think or find sources or build work teams or get the word out.”#
  • Most of the time, sharing the context links for your project is probably a wise and generous thing to do.#
  • This will seems too simple, and speaking of another person or another people too simply is a cruelty, I know. But I have to start thinking somewhere.#
  • The suffering of two people or two peoples cannot possibly be the same, cannot possibly be equal. To speak of suffering with the tools of mathematics is, I think, a fresh brutality.#
  • The suffering of two peoples is not equal, but I start thinking, because I have to start somewhere, with what two peoples have in common.#
  • Within reach here at my table I have two texts. #
  • The first is an illustrated directory of historical synagogues of Europe, written by C. H. Krinsky. It was published a couple of decades after World War II. Open to almost any page and you will find evidence of the creativity with which human atrocities are invented by the worst among us. Something different on every page. I haven't tried to read the book yet, I just open it at random from time to time. There is a page where I learn of paving stones being removed from streets that were paved during German occupation; the stones, which had first been grave stones, were being preserved now in the vestibule of a synagogue that had been restored to serve as a museum of witness. Even a cemetery could be an affront to the Nazis; even the grave markers had to be laid low one way or another, had to be flattened, de-spiritualized, de-historicized, de-personalized. Made lowly and mundane, made coarse by walking over and driving on.#
  • The second text near me at the desk is not equal to the first, because saying one life is equal to another is vulgar and grotesque:#
  • In the 1950s, a reporter for The New Yorker, A. J. Liebling, interviewed a retired Turkish military officer who when he was a younger man marched his troops through Gaza toward Egypt. His approach to Gaza, he said, was to leave no house standing. Liebling reports that the fellow, who things have been named after since those days . . . the fellow accompanied his comment about leaving no house standing with a gesture of his hand, moving horizontally across the space in front of him, implying a land where things have all been flattened.#
  • In a time of war that follows decades of animosity and war, it's difficult to imagine the emissaries of two peoples meeting at a grand table to talk meaningfully about peace. What could they have in common, except the one thing: Putting the < and > and = signs away for now, both peoples have been the victims of atrocity. I reach this question:#
  • Has that common ground ever been enough to start a conversation about making a shared future? How would a conversation starting there possibly go? I don't know.#
  • Some coincidences:#
  • Two friends were born in the same week, in the spring of the year I was born, many years ago. If memory serves me, each year during his birthday week one of the friends sends out a note reminding anyone who cares to ponder it, saying something like this: If there's something you were put on this earth to accomplish, better get to it.#
  • Since my birthday is only a handful of weeks earlier, that annual spring message speaks to me a little louder , a little more symbolically, than it might without these personal connections and coincidences in place. #
  • And that other friend, born that same spring week those many years ago? He was in my circle of close friends from school more than fifty years ago. No other non-family member saw so many decades of my life. And a few weeks ago he passed away, short of his spring birthday.#
  • He held his cards close to his chest through much of his life. I suspect he thought he had not accomplished as much as he could have. I had trouble persuading him that he would never know the ripples of influence that moved outward from him, from his careful reflection, from his moral character, from his inventive decisions. I suspect that he thought that what you accomplish in life is something you see and know clearly, can have confidence in and can name.#
  • I'm not sure that we all can have that sense of clarity. I suspect that he doubted himself and his accomplishments in the weeks of his final illness. Introvert though he was, those ripples were always emanating from him over the years, influencing others at near and far distances. There were people in need he served, for one thing -- who can measure that accomplishment? #
  • So expecting the surviving friend's annual note to come this year during their spring birthday week, I find myself thinking of tangible and intangible ways a person can satisfy its tolling of the calendar bell. Both kinds of accomplishment are very real, but the intangible, the ideas spun out into the community, say, the motions of spirit and example, the naming of standards for our actions, the creativity, the calling for creativity, all these and other un-measurables, well, yes, we'd better get to those with some urgency too.#
  • We would come to understand the many tasks, focused around one question that demanded an answer. This we would call the work of a generation. This work would define us. We would be known for this work as long as our society endured in its current form.#
  • But how to discover the question that would guide the work? Where would we meet in order to talk it over? Who would speak at the meetings, bringing the evidence of what lived experiences and what expertise?#
  • Who would call the first of these meetings? How would people be persuaded to attend? How would they be tempted to believe in the possibilities? How would the word get out and be noticed in a society already flooded with words? What would tempt people to attend to the word of the first meeting if they once noticed it? #
  • What information and conversations would prepare the ground, as it were, for the seed of the early meetings? What weathers water what was planted there? Who would provide and provoke the inquiries that had a hope of discovering the question that could, in time, form up the idea of the work of a generation? #
  • How could an agreement be reached to undertake the worthy work of a generation? What about the naysayers who remained?#
  • Who would set out the work? Who would clarify the work as it was being set out? Who would refine the plans along the way, based on what conversations and what inquiries? Who would extend the schedule for some years if work remained?#
  • What kinds of celebrations would be held as the work of that generation concluded? Who would tell young people about the work of the elder generation? Who would persuade them of the honor of good work? Who would urge and tempt them to look for the next quiding question? Where could they begin to meet? Who would call the first meeting?#
  • In any sort of wilderness, people of good will might collaborate for the good of others by setting up trail markers, cairns, stacked rocks that indicate to a later traveler that the path goes by this spot. Malicious actors might come along and knock over a cairn, making it more difficult for a walker to see it. People of ill will might throw the rocks away, left and right, leaving no clue that a cairn had ever been built there, undoing the work of good will of previous passersby. A thoughtful traveler might notice the ambiguity of a stretch of trail and landscape, and add a cairn where none has existed before, to ease the necessary interpretation of those who came after. When wind and weather tumble a rock or two from a cairn, a good-hearted person passing might build the cairn back up. A person who has never seen a cairn before, never heard of one, might guess that a whimsical traveler had paused there and stacked a few rocks while taking a break from the journey. But overall, the cairns speak clearly to passersby about one of the things people need for safety as they travel. Cairns speak of our need for solidarity, even a sort of thin but enduring thing we might call community, even if the people never meet or speak. Cairns speak of our need to make our journeys in sight of or in light of the journeys of others.#
  • But it's not clear that this system of collaboration and community can carry any other messages than those. In a crisis, maybe someone can invent a cairn that implies "Do not pass this way! Danger!" Maybe. But as beautiful as the cairns and the cairn-makers are, as quietly inspiring as they are, their message system has next to no room for elaboration, for creativity of message, for flexibility in making communities. It doesn't even have a very good way of defending itself against malicious actors. #
  • A message system can be a thing of beauty, and the community that maintains it can be an expression of the human spirit in one of its better moods, yes. But without ways to gather up new communities, to encourage new forms of affiliation in new circumstances, without ways to extend the meaning-sharing and meaning-making pathways, the system can leave us in a dangerous position, unable to respond when the landscape or the climate changes.#
  • That's one kind of message system. Other kinds are not so narrow.#
  • If Bob Dylan wanted to use statistics, he'd make them up. Half of the time's he's talked to a journalist over the years he's pulled the journalist's leg, contriving playful answers meant to needle the journalist for asking dumb questions or not thinking very hard about the answers he's given. He just makes stuff up in interviews. It's performance art, it's ad-libbed poetry, it's a mockery of the flat-footed inhabitants of the straight-laced world. #
  • But when he said about his early songs that he wrote songs that he wanted or needed to hear, that rings true to me.#
  • Seems like 92% of the time you yearn for a truth to be spoken in the world, you're going to have to speak it yourself. And 78% of the time a group needs to get together to make a neighborhood better or to protect an institution, we're going to have to assemble that group ourselves. And although 64.3% of blog posts have been written by people dressed too informally to go out into the world on serious business, 17% of those people realize it wouldn't have to be that way.#
  • In a blog post that begins with an image of a sand castle eroding on the edge of the sea and the observation that "Journalism as we knew it is washing away," Doc Searls also notes that "We should also respect the simple fact that now there is more journalism than ever: in blogs, social media, podcasting, and other places."#
  • I'm intrigued to think about these two facts side by side. Keeping them together in my mind, I translate them for myself this way:#
  • The forms of public writing and the institutions and practices we knew as journalism are washing away, but the civic needs those three things were organized to serve remain as urgent as ever. [We know that the old journalism, though built for purpose, didn't always achieve or even remember to try to achieve its purpose.] There is now, however, more journalism than ever, in production as blogs, social media, podcasting, and other places. But great swathes of this new production are not organized, not built to purpose, as the old journalism often was, to serve the same urgent civil needs. There are tools on desks and tables all around us, and great masses of inquiry, speech, and writing going on, but most of this activity and production is not organized around those same urgent civic needs. Not built knowingly and thoughtfully to that purpose. And the essential freedom of speech on the web -- if it endures -- requires that a single tight organization never be attempted. But literal and virtual localities can be organized and new forms of inquiry and production can be built to purpose. Tools exist or can be adapted or invented; teams can be assembled. #
  • We don't entirely know what that will be like, but that's okay, as long as people in different informal groups don't wait to explore and to undertake the work.#
  • If you drive through a trashed-by-economic-and-social-forces small Indiana town, it's hard to imagine what would persuade people living there that the wider society has any interest in their well-being.#
  • How, too, would anyone there imagine what a path to recovery would look like and how the work of recovery might ever commence.#
  • Jason Alexander said:#
  • Increasingly, says the former Seinfeld star, you have the tools, now build the team. Don't wait for somebody to invite you.#
  • In that 90-second video, he's talking about having a career in acting, but I'll say that he might as well be talking about active citizenship. Don't wait. The tools are, for the most part, out there. Now build the team.#
  • Most of our models of citizenship in a democracy involve somebody else building the team, not us. But the tools are, for the most part, already out there. Build the team.#
  • Pete Buttigieg said:#
  • Back when he was mayor our here in South Bend, at an informal gathering, I had a moment to ask him a question: Do you have any advice for people who want to make their voices heard, make their voices start to matter in the wider society?#
  • He paused for just a moment to think, as if he was acknowledging the fact that I had asked a real question.#
  • Then he said, "Don't wait. Start now."#
  • But we will have to think more clearly about the tools. About the kinds of knowledge, the mental attitudes, the skills, the tools, the kinds of alliances, the work to be done in and around our political institutions, in order to build a public voice with reach and staying power.#
  • It's a simple chapter. Douglass, enslaved, was learning to read. Someone had started teaching him.#
  • Upon finding out about this, his master blew up and forbade it, as many others would have done who owned slaves here in the United States at the time. The master said that learning to read would ruin a slave.#
  • Douglass now had a rush of insight.#
  • He learned that grabbing freedom for himself in a society happy to hold him trapped and brutalized required certain tools.#
  • He learned that the powerful aren't going to leave these tools sitting out. They certainly aren't going to teach others how to use them.#
  • He learned a big part of the answer to a question he had been pondering for a long time, essentially: #
    • How is it that they are so easily able to enslave us?#
  • It's a quick read, that chapter. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, the brief 1845 edition, it's Chapter VI. Scroll down to page 32.#
  • But here's the key moment:#
    • Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy."#
    • These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master.#
    • Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.#
  • And the following chapter begins:#
    • I lived in Master Hugh's family about seven years. During this time, I succeeded in learning to read and write. In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems. I had no regular teacher.#
  • PS. The story of Mrs. Auld, as brief as it is, also teaches another lesson: How immoral power corrodes the heart and smashes the spiritual compass of even the seemingly most innocent one who wields it. #
  • There should be an attractive blogroll over on this blog's main page from now on. This is a modern blogroll tool, related to blogrolls of twenty years ago but more powerful. My current idea is to shape a political focus for the RSS feeds that appear in my blogroll, especially feeds that manage to avoid the flood-the-zone propaganda methods common in right-wing and some other media today. Even better would be feeds that not only inform, but offer ways to get involved, ways to find other people to work with, ways to build skills for public life. I just got the blogroll operating, so I haven't done any of that shaping work as of 4/16/24. You can't make people become more active, reach out and form groups and alliances of groups, build skill sets for research and communication, shape or reshape their understanding of active citizenship, defend civic institutions that are under attack, build over time personal and group voices with reach and staying power, make powerful people understand that they aren't going away, that sort of stuff. You can't force people to do it, but I have a feeling you can tempt them and teach them and invite them too. Having good tools at hand is part of the picture, too. I have a feeling the new-fangled blogroll has a place in all this. #
  • Someone told me today that a cousin's family was holding a destination wedding. Sedona, October, past the worst of the heat. Theme: Western Chic. Americans used to get married with a bridesmaid or two, a groomsman or two. Now ten of each is fairly typical. They have to spend some big money on fancy clothing. They have to travel to the destination. But the new level of destination wedding is not just the destination but the theme. In this case, everyone is supposed to buy clothes to fit the theme. Women, the dresses better be cowgirlish and go down to the ankles. Men, boots would be good, but a bolo tie and a western shirt & vest might do in a pinch. Imagine 100 guests each buying travel and hotel reservations, clothes, wedding gifts, etc. What kind of life are we leading?#
  • Orson Welles says that experts, having learned their field's dogma and common sense, grow set in their ways and stop innovating. But until experts get a hold of them, the young, being ignorant, don’t know what can and can’t be done. #
  • Thought experiment. Which is better, semaphore or RSS? Yes, the question is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely.#
  • Both semaphore and RSS send messages quickly along networks that have been built to purpose.#
  • An aside: My students and I sent a simple message across a large university campus once. Let me say that semaphore, done right, is fast. Our message took less than five seconds to arrive.#
  • Both semaphore and RSS can presumably send any message you want to send.#
  • Both semaphore and RSS require someone who knows how to send a message on the particular system.#
  • Both semaphore and RSS require someone at the other end who knows how to read a message on the particular system.#
  • If you send a message saying that an army is crossing the border and heading in the direction of the capital city, both semaphore and RSS require the person who receives the message to know who to turn to. There needs to be an elaborated civil institution in place for responding to a crisis. Without an elaborated institution in place, the person who reads the message can perk up and say, "Wow!" but the value of the information pretty much dies there.#
  • As a message system without an elaborated social structure to pick up the message, reflect on it, act on it as a group, both RSS and semaphore resemble a personal phone call. "Hey, Jane, there's an army crossing the border here. Thought you'd want to know." "Thanks, Bill." The message bounces around briefly in the head space of one or two people's private lives. The social value of the information -- potential value -- lapses, no matter how fast the message has come down through the system. #
  • For semaphore and RSS, the value of information grows proportionately to the size of the elaborated network of organized people a message happens to arrive at.#
  • "There's a mob forming outside the U.S. Capital!" Wow.#
  • "There's people with long rifles hanging out at the Michigan Statehouse." You don't say?#
  • "Your fellow citizens are tempted to let themselves fall into indifference or despair!" Wouldn't surprise me.#
  • But if these or other important messages arrive by semaphore at the inbox of an elaborated social network organized to ponder and respond, it might be a different story. But people would have to be trained to do more than send or receive a message on the system. #
  • First, for one thing, they'd have to figure out what that "more" entails.#
  • Still, semaphore rocks. We sent that message out the south-facing door of that classroom and it made its way back, the long way around a part of the campus and back in through the north window, in just under five seconds. Modern message systems are beasts.#
  • In the next-to-last draft of Friday's radio essay, I had a paragraph about President Rutherford B. Hayes -- imagine that.#
  • About 145 years ago, Hayes was touring the newish western states of Oregon and Washington, trying to engage them in the life of the country. In 1880 (scroll down), he gave brief speeches in several young cities, talking to local crowds about their accomplishments and their opportunities for growth. (Example.) He committed the U. S. government to opening up transportation systems that would unite the far-flung parts of the country.#
  • These presidential speeches were criticized as being trivial or slight. Walt Whitman begged to differ -- he said that the speeches were fashioned to meet the needs of a democracy and they hinted at a style of political rhetoric that could serve the purpose. #
  • Whitman said that President Hayes sought to “compact and fraternize the States, encourage their materialistic and industrial development, sooth and expand their self-poise, and tie all and each with resistless double ties not only of inter-trade barter, but of human comradeship.” (154-155)#
  • Uplifting rhetoric, yes, decent and honorable, yes, especially if aligned with policies. In our age of politicians who enjoy stirring up chaos and fear, politicians whose goal is victory rather than comradeship, I'm grateful that Whitman composed a note about what Mr. Hayes was trying to accomplish.#
  • I ran out of time and had to delete the Whitman/Hayes discussion from the final radio essay, though.#
  • Yes, Britannica, you can say it this way:#
  • "Because she was Jewish, she left Nazi Germany in the summer of 1938 to settle in Sweden."#
  • But it's not as though Lise Meitner just called a travel agent for tickets over closed international borders to safety.#
  • The Declaration of Independence ends with the word honor -- how about that? The Declaration asks how to behave honorably in a time of national crisis, and it offers an answer that begins, in the first paragraph, with the idea of decency. Now that one of our two national parties has sold out to leadership and ways of operating that know nothing about human decency, I tried to slow down and think for a few paragraphs about what honorable, patriotic decency might be. A radio essay came of it. Audio here, full text below.#
  • Patriotic Decency#
  • A teacher once told me that “For emphasis and clarity, good writers often place the most important idea at the end of a sentence.” I remembered his comment recently when I was having morning coffee and reading — wait for it — reading the Declaration of Independence. I didn’t use to study our country’s founding documents over breakfast, but times of national crisis demand new routines. I was surprised to see that the Declaration ends with a sentence that itself ends with the word honor. How’s that for emphasis? Thomas Jefferson and his co-signers plainly wanted us to think about honor.#
  • Seeing honor being given this much emphasis, I looked back over our brief but potent Declaration and formulated a small theory. I think the Declaration of Independence tries to answer this question: “During a national crisis, what does it mean to behave with honor?” And the Declaration provides an answer to its own question, starting as early as the first paragraph.#
  • There the signers of the Declaration want us to think about decency. I’ll quote the exact phrase. The signers say that in a time of national crisis we must pay QUOTE “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” END QUOTE. To behave with decency, therefore, is to speak respectfully to others and take care to engage with their questions and their opinions. No wonder American soldiers in the Revolutionary War were horrified when the enemy killed American soldiers they had captured. The idea of decency was alive in the young nation. And from time to time we hear of it again.#
  • In the 1950s, the honorable idea of decency made a remarkable appearance. As you may recall, a crass, innuendo-spouting, microphone-loving politician named Senator Joseph McCarthy used his access to TV cameras to cause fear and chaos in the country and to provoke a national crisis. Sadly, he’s a familiar type. A big part of McCarthy’s method was carrying out high-visibility character assassination in press conferences and government hearings. But finally someone called him on it. In a public hearing, with the news cameras rolling, after McCarthy attacked and tormented yet another person, a lawyer named Joseph Welch stopped him, saying, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness . . . . Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?”#
  • So the idea of decency is tucked away in our founding documents, and from time to time somebody asserts the idea in public. If they didn’t, we’d probably lose track of it completely. But I don’t like just chanting words that have a patriotic history. In a time of national crisis, that’s weak sauce. We need better.#
  • We won’t solve our current national crisis by consuming more heaping servings of chaos and innuendo, and we won’t save the democracy while sipping our morning coffee either. We’ve got a fight on our hands, but I’m pretty sure we won’t have democracy without decency.#
  • In 1971, Paul McCartney wrote and sang:#
  • “You’re breathing so hot / A lot of political nonsense in the air.” #
  • Also in 1971, John Lennon wrote and sang:#
  • “I’ve had enough of reading things / by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians. / All I want is the truth now. / Just give me some truth.” #
  • Then, as now, it's difficult to pierce the veil of political rhetoric for the sake of one's own clear thinking, yes, but all the more so for creating something meaningful with other kindred spirits on this fragile planet. Not impossible, though. There are patterns to work with going forward, methods, stepping stones set in place by others, cairns marking trails that previous walkers have maintained for the day when we would need to head out in this or that direction. There are message systems that still can be made to function. There are people who would like to be in touch.#
  • We need to carefully identify the mind-numbing, population-sedating "normalizing" techniques that blur the specific dangers the country now faces, writes @Anne_Arbor, not so we can nod our heads knowingly over our morning coffee but so that we can recognize them quickly and knock them down." #
  • For example, she praises Richard @Stengel's brief careful discussion of journalists and politicians who lament that "we are a divided country." Stengel writes: #
  • The journalistic trope of saying we are “deeply divided” is a normalizing frame and a moral dodge. Yes, we were “deeply divided” during the Civil War, but the two sides were not equal: one was in favor of enslaving human beings. One candidate already has tried to overturn an election and is giving every indication of doing it again. Overturning democracy is not a “side”. The First Amendment protects the press so the press can protect democracy.#
  • Thinking and analyzing carefully, as these two writers do even in the space of a couple of tweets, gets the ball rolling. That still leaves us at the breakfast table, pleased with ourselves about all the insights. Activists have a toolkit that makes much more than a daily caffeine hit possible after an insight.#
  • For example, we can try to spread the word. One resistance-oriented writer, Dave Winer, says to figure out what events the press likes to cover, then create that kind of event. And then repeat. And don't forget to have smooth-talking representatives ready for media follow-up.#
  • If people show up for your event, get their contact information on a sign-up sheet. Without gathering the email addresses of kindred spirits, you might as well not bother organizing an event. Promise to send out useful next steps via email, and then keep your promise. Events are just a step along the way.#
  • And politics is repetitive. Like shampoo: Lather, Rinse, Repeat.#
  • The guest speaker, Nobel Laureate and journalist Maria Ressa, said that the news operation she and her team operates has found that a brief bullet list summary increases the click-through rate to full articles to a meaningful extent. She said that an up-to-date AI tool is strong enough to compose these bullet lists, saving time for working writers and editors. #
  • An @NPR reporter talked the other day about lots of Americans worrying about border security.#
  • No mention of right wing operators propagandizing to make people worry about border security.#
  • You could probably move that same segment over to a Fox station without changing a word.#
  • In 2006, marking the launch of the Guardian's Comment is free reader participation experiment, editor Alan Rusbridger gave a public speech on the shifting economics of print journalism in western countries. He described how skillfully Craig Newmark and other innovators had scraped big parts of the advertising income of newspapers away for their own web-based projects. Rusbridger did not hold his foot on the damper pedal, I'd say, during this performance -- the stakes for print journalism in 2006 were a melody clearly and brightly struck by the right hand. No less clear, in the left hand, came the somber implications for civil society of a greatly damaged and diminished Fourth Estate.#
  • Newspapers, usually slow to innovate, may look back to the early 2000s with much regret. In 2006, Comment is free was, however, a bold experiment.#
  • Nevertheless, the innovators who with their creativity trashed the economic model of print journalism were free to do so, and our society has found no way to replace much of what has been lost. Responding to a parallel moment of far-reaching innovation and shattering economic threat, the Screen Actors Guild recently struck, shutting down production of a great many entertainments. In part, the strike highlighted the fact that that the new AI tools can scrape away the images, movements, and voices of actors, perhaps with little or no payment. The new innovations threaten the livelihood of a huge portion of the entertainment industry. Thanks to the model of union activism, with a new contract some protections may now be in place.#
  • Citizens and readers in small cities and towns that have now been stripped of their local newspapers, or have been handed slender versions composed largely of wire service copy and a smattering of locally reported pieces -- these citizens and readers do not have a union, and they almost never organize. Whatever an innovative figure backed by big capital wants to do to the civic life of their community has gone through in many places largely unchallenged.#
  • The same sort of thing threatens us more widely now with AI tools that may very well disrupt in domino fashion any number of other industries. The economics of something will be disrupted, jobs will disappear probably on a brief timeline, and only the innovators and capital markets folks will stand to gain in the sort run. As in the Hamilton show, decisions will be happening over dinner, not in a functioning legislative chamber (if we had one) and not scrutinized by the public with the help of strong journalism. As in 2006, if anyone is around to perform the piece properly, the finale will be a composition played on both the right and left hand.#
  • When I asked about the steps for dealing with a flat tire, Bing's 4.0 chat tool recently advised me late in the process to put the car jack away before completing the final tightening of the lug nuts. What could go wrong?#
  • I asked the Bing AI tool just now to search the web for examples of how humorists and satirists have portrayed Henry Kissinger. It was merrily typing away joke after joke, anecdote after anecdote, and as I watched the words appear I saw HK being described as lewdly using the f-word while speaking with a casual acquaintance in a social setting. Almost instantly, the whole thread vanished, replaced by this sentence: "My mistake, I can’t give a response to that right now. Let’s try a different topic."#
  • (New radio piece -- audio here.)#
  • Our Thanksgiving drive landed us for a few days in a motel near my mother’s house. In the parking lot each morning the sun had a sharp wintery glare, the air was chilly, and jet trails criss-crossed the big blue sky. Next door, a four-story wood-frame building was under construction. At the top, stepping from beam to beam, a well-wrapped and hooded construction worker went about his business high up in the breeze. On the ground, my spouse and I walked into the motel office for hot coffee.#
  • Across from the front desk was the dismal free breakfast room where each day somebody managed to burn the edges of the fake scrambled eggs. But not this morning. Another guest, whose name turned out to be Glen, looked over the strap blocking the doorway and saw no food had been set out. The burnt eggs were advertised to commence twenty minutes earlier, at 7:00 am. Glen turned to ask if there would be breakfast that day. The woman at the desk apologized, said the morning crew was supposed to come in at 6:00, but nobody had arrived. She said she hoped they’d come soon because she was having an asthma attack and would have to call an ambulance shortly. Once she mentioned asthma, I heard more clearly the rasp in her voice and saw her tentative and fragile movement behind the desk. Glen asked her name. Nicole raised what looked like a little misting device toward her mouth.#
  • She was the only employee overnight. Nicole said she was afraid to call an ambulance because they'd take her away on a gurney, leaving the motel unstaffed. Judging by her emphasis on not leaving the motel, I was guessing she'd be fired for that. Glen, who had some first aid training, confirmed the urgency of the situation, and later I looked it up. Ten Americans or so die each day from asthma. For a good number of minutes the three of us stood in the lobby encouraging Nicole to call the ambulance, and she delayed, weighing her options. Medical care or job, medical care or job . . . . She did not look or sound strong.#
  • Over the years, I’ve known a handful of people who chose to work as night clerks. If I remember correctly, the work was usually an awkward solution to something difficult they needed to juggle in their lives. It was a job they couldn’t easily afford to quit. So there you go. Maybe she couldn��t risk losing her job, couldn’t afford to get fired for locking up the office and heading off to save her own life. She managed to get a colleague on the phone who promised to arrive in ten minutes, and with this assurance she called for an ambulance. When two shiny red emergency vehicles pulled into the lot, I stepped out into the sun. She’s over here, I waved, inside the tidy motel office, in the shadow of capitalism. About that time another worker arrived and slipped through the lobby into a back room. The paramedics renewed Nicole’s confidence, and we left her in their capable hands.#
  • A day or two later, when we stopped to pick up some morning coffee, she was back on duty. There was no sign of any lingering effects — she sounded lively and buoyant there behind the desk. All seemed well, I thought, except for the burdens she likely carried inside her. It was not just the asthma threatening her life and a workplace quietly uncongenial to her health and safety. She seemed under the shadow of an economic threat, which we know diminishes a person’s chances for decent health care. Proud of our country, we might say that she was free to choose that morning to call an ambulance or not, but is it freedom if neither choice is a good one?#
  • Somebody posts, and you reply. Different kinds of things might happen.#
  • 1. Maybe you allow your thinking to become entangled in the other person’s thinking, and the other person sees that entanglement as useful and joins in, replying to you, and together you see where that leads. Maybe it’s like late-night conversations in a dorm room or maybe it’s like the Lincoln-Douglass debates, but nobody knows until it happens.#
  • 2. Maybe you use the other person’s post as an occasion for a speech you wanted to give anyway. No need, really, to reply to anything in particular the person has said. No need to honor the specifics of the other person’s thinking — well, that’s how you treat the situation, anyway.#
  • 3. Maybe you use the reply platform as an opportunity to try to drown out voices of which you disapprove. A place to make noise that distracts from conversation. A place for self-flattering self-aggrandizing rants. A move typical of cancel culture.#
  • 4. Maybe the post was by someone more well-connected than you are. Maybe you want to be seen by and speak to the readership that person has built up over time. Maybe you just want to grab the microphone and steal the audience, if you can.#
  • 5. Maybe you think you’re funny and the whole world is your straight man. Maybe you love the sound of your own voice. Maybe you aren’t a good reader and so you don’t even know that you think in cliches and empty generalities that are too fuzzy-headed to contribute something to the conversation. Maybe you just like being thinly social in the arm’s-length way the web makes possible.#
  • 6. Maybe you’ve never experienced the kind of public speech that builds community and energizes activism, maybe you don’t know what it sounds like or how to think and talk that way. Maybe you think individualism is good enough to hold together a democracy.#
  • We walked across the sunny parking lot to the motel office. Inside on the left was the front desk, and on the right the tending-toward-dismal free breakfast room where each day somebody managed somehow to burn the edges of the faux scrambled eggs. But not this morning. Another guest looked over the crowd-control belt blocking the narrow entrance to the breakfast room. Supposed to be open at 7:00, but I guess not this time. The fellow guest turned to ask about that. The woman at the desk, apologized, said the morning crew was supposed to come in at 6:00, but nobody had arrived. She said she hoped they’d come soon because she was having an asthma attack and would have to call an ambulance shortly. Between each sentence now she raised a little mechanical misting device toward her mouth and inhaled.#
  • Call the ambulance now, the other guest said. I can’t, she said, because they’ll put me on one of those gurneys and take me away, and I can’t leave the motel unsupervised. Somebody’s supposedly on the way for the morning shift, she said. I’m sorry the food’s not ready, they’re supposed to be here to start making the breakfast at 6:00, she said. The misting continued.#
  • Don’t worry about the food, we all told her. Call the ambulance now, we said. She made another call. It sounded like another employee was only ten minutes away now. So she finally called 911, gave the location, and rehearsed with the 911 operator the medical steps she’d already taken during this attack of asthma.#
  • So there you go. Maybe she couldn’t risk losing her job, couldn’t afford to get fired for locking up the office and heading off to save her own life. It was a very bright wintery morning outside. After a time, I went out and caught the attention of the two red emergency vehicles just arriving, so there was no question where to focus their protective and saving energies. Over here, I waved, inside the tidy motel office, in the shadow of capitalism.#
  • When you live in a region for a while, you hear stories about the famous names there. They say this family watched its namesake business collapse a few decades ago, and the family left behind them unemployment, factory buildings that would soon become hollow shells, but they say the family made off with the wealth that they could live on for many, many years. They say that such-and-such a corporation did the same, extracting wealth from peacetime prosperity and wartime industrial urgency, leaving toxic waste pits next to the river but rewarding executives, owners, and stockholders as they too left shells of industrial buildings and unemployment that lasted for years. They say one of those first two stories involved stripping pension funds as well. They say that a more recent family sold its vital area business to new operators working on the hedge fund model which strips assets and slowly destroys the business, no matter how vital a service it supplies to the region and its economic and civic life. So these things happen over and over again, it seems, because there's nobody able to put a halt to it, nobody able to shine a light long and bright enough on it, nobody with the perseverance and the alliances and the skills to make an issue of the corruption that the structures of our economic life allow and encourage. Extract value, and let the pieces fall where they will --that's our society's motto.#
  • I remember growing suspicious of a certain best-selling NYer nonfiction writer after he wrote a piece about a topic I already knew fairly well. Now, instead of seeing a playful intelligence and verbal flash, I could see an underlying glibness. So now, to myself at least, I recommend testing authors and AI tools on topics I know well, just to see more clearly what their real strengths and weaknesses are.#
  • Taking my own advice, I read a ChatGPT document about what writing offers us when employed at the start of a big project. And to keep your readerly suspense to a manageable level, let me say that I found that ChatGPT 3.5 currently loves to exaggerate, to speak with greater confidence than it should, to make things sound more fixed and definitive than it should, in its findings on non-technical topics.#
  • [Maybe ChatGPT doesn't yet grapple with the differences in data and language use, the differences in possible certainty, when shifting from technical to non-technical topics. I don't know.]#
  • And I found that you can sometimes press ChatGPT to do a better job (of not exaggerating its claims about non-technical matters) via a series of follow-up questions. Previously, I wasn't sure that this was the case, but this time around I could see an improvement. [Since we were operating on territory familiar to me.]#
  • For example#
  • In a passage about starting a big project by doing some writing, ChatGPT opens with this claim:#
  • Clarity of Thought: Writing forces you to clarify your thoughts. When you have to put your ideas on paper, you're compelled to think through them more thoroughly, which can help in identifying potential pitfalls or areas of improvement.#
  • Well, that seems false to me. It speaks with too much confidence, too categorically, about a trait of writing. If writing forced everyone to think more clearly, then it wouldn't be so gosh darn easy to find bad writing and lousy thinking everywhere you turn in this troubled world of ours. So, written that way by ChatGPT 3.5, it's just not true. It's misleading. The passage doesn't help a person understand what it is about writing that can and should serve us well. In this passage ChatGPT uses strong verbs, [forces, compelled] which all the writing guides recommend, to make the prose sound vigorous and decisive, but it forgets to choose strong verbs that actually reveal the truth.*#
  • So I tried a follow-up question. "ChatGPT, friend, what is the evidence that writing forces a person to clarify their thinking?" Here's part of my friend's answer:#
  • The act of writing serves as a cognitive tool that externalizes thoughts, making them more tangible, structured, and accessible for further reflection and refinement.#
  • Surely the act of writing doesn't make thoughts more structured all by itself. So that's not true. ChatGPT is wrapping a blanket of generalization over a more fine-grained process, which is often a mistake when we reach for clearer thinking, yes? So I followed up again, with this question:#
  • "ChatGPT, buddy, you say that 'The act of writing serves as a cognitive tool that externalizes thoughts, making them more tangible, structured, and accessible for further reflection and refinement.' Is it the tool itself that makes thoughts more tangible, structured, and accessible for further reflection and refinement, or is it the approach a particular person takes to using the tool that makes these possible?"#
  • Finally, ChatGPT was willing to put the brakes on the misleadingly overconfident verbs, the generalizations that mask useful particulars, and reflect in a more fine-grained fashion on the topic. Here is its concluding paragraph in answer to my second round of questioning:#
  • In essence, while writing serves as the medium for externalizing thoughts, it's the active, purposeful, and reflective approach a person takes to using this tool that makes thoughts more tangible, structured, and accessible for further reflection and refinement. Writing becomes a powerful cognitive tool when individuals consciously employ it as a means to clarify their thinking, actively engage with their ideas, and remain open to revision and feedback. The process is dynamic and interactive, with both the tool and the approach being essential components of effective thinking and expression.#
  • Now we're getting somewhere. A person could think usefully about the role of writing in a big team project with the help of these more fine-grained ideas.#
  • The software itself is powerful and fascinating. On non-technical topics, though, it appears that a person who relies on current ChatGPT 's composing skills for something they really care about risks sounding like an exaggerating, imprecise enthusiast who doesn't know when to move up close to the particulars of a topic. #
  • As a writing teacher on the university level for many years, I read many dozens of papers by students who were working through that same stage in their writing and thinking but who had not yet completed the passage across to the other side. The sentences often flickered back and forth between promising ideas and nonsense.** In part, the students were not precise enough readers to see that their own drafts had these rather particular problems.#
  • _____________#
  • *Yes, ChatGPT uses one trait of good writing more or less in isolation from other traits of good writing, and doing so it weakens its writing. How about that?#
  • **This is not just a trait of many writers early in their college years. It's a trait of the drafting process, which is all about crossing over from the disarray of early thoughts to the clarity that writing can help a person find.#
  • A friend and I were texting about missing a guest writer who'd come to town. He pointed out that you have to do some digging to keep up with what's going on here, what with the performing arts centers, the colleges and universities, the music venues, and such. If a person could go to one web page and see all the events here, this little city and county of, what, a quarter million souls would seem like a very special place, and maybe it is. But it's hard to see it. There's no central repository of information, all the more so since the local paper's been bought out and stripped of resources. Things are in some ways much better than they seem, due to the lack of information. We're demoralized sometimes not because of the reality but because of the lack of information.#
  • As a people, we say ���literally” so much because we don’t know if anyone listening knows how to be serious about words. I was sitting very close to the string quartet. I could have reached over and touched the upper arm of the fellow playing the cello, his left arm. Literally.#
  • A fundraiser. A large hall, round tables, centerpieces, dinnerware exactingly set at each place. Elegant black name card on a little spike: Ken Smith / Salmon, at my place on a table for eight in the far front corner. A quick glance revealed that I would be watching people head into the rest rooms all evening, passing through the doorless entry, pausing to look left or right, seeing which path was their path, then heading in. #
  • Not as obvious was that the empty chairs just behind me formed the performance area for the string quartet. When their time in the program arrived, the four musicians filed in. I turned my chair180 degrees and I was looking over the left arm of the cellist at his iPad music software, which he operated with a foot pedal, turning pages in a blink from time to time. Nobody had a better seat, nobody else could have reached over and touched one of the musicians. I bet people at the far end of the hall could barely hear them.#
  • When the waves of dots on the screen grew blacker, more tightly spaced, the cellist moved more intensely and the sound that came from this nearest instrument grew similarly intense. I could see when his part in the music would grow agitated or mellow, even before it happened. A person wouldn't quite have been able to "read" the music from where I was sitting well enough to play it, but I could read the broad patterns of the sheet music, possibly for the first time in my life. Not sure, but it looked like the Stomp bluetooth foot pedal that turned the page also had settings for scrolling, turning pages, going back a page, and, I think, moving to the next document. Cool brand name.#
  • A thought on the approaching high school reunion:#
  • The tension between running a college prep school mainly for the sons of the affluent and the ideals of the more socially conscious strands of Roman Catholicism endures and endures. #

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