Academia on the experience of poverty

It takes a lot of words for academia to say “We’re can’t describe the experience of poverty”. This is from “ Using a sustainable livelihoods approach to assessing the impact of ICTs in development” by Sarah Parkinson and Ricardo Ramírez:

…the way development professionals conceptualise development and poverty is very different from how poor people themselves view these. Poor people perceive poverty in a much more complex manner than do development professionals and they employ a range of strategies, not only to maximize income, but also to minimise risk and to protect or increase other things that they value.  Poor people’s priorities are often different from those imputed to them by development experts, and their strategies are often more complex, both in terms of activity and motivation Thus it is argued, the sustainable livelihoods framework [above] provides a conceptualisation that is more appropriate to the perspectives and realities of poor people. (Chambers 1995).

And more:

The focus of “livelihood” in sustainable livelihoods (SL) frameworks is an attempt to move away from narrow definitions of poverty, and as such reframes the broad aim of development as an effort to improve people’s livelihood options.  “Livelihood” refers broadly to a means of making a living, and includes the assets, access to institutions and processes, and strategies that a person utilizes to achieve livelihood outcomes (Ashley and Carney, 1999).    The term “sustainable” refers both to the characteristic of a livelihood to endure the various shocks and uncertainties likely to be encountered in the environment, and to avoid contributing to long-term depletion of natural resources (Chambers 1987).

For the record, I’m much more comfortable with this conceptualization than the standard “poverty is the absence of money”…and this involves a flow chart. Via Peter Miller’s dissertation.


Social Assistance Cynicism

As someone who, for a living, congratulates people on their commitment to serve their country then tells them how to sign up for public assistance, I am not surprised by this NY Times article saying that now 1 in 8 Americans now use Food Stamps. Though unsurprised, I can though appreciate the cynical responses:

I have an idea. Let’s expect people to get food insurance if they want to eat in times of need, instead of giving them food stamps. They can buy food insurance from private, for-profit companies. Those companies can deny benefits for misstatements on their food insurance applications, regardless of how minor the misstatement, whether it was done with fraudulent intent, or how long ago the application was taken. We’ll rely on the food insurance companies’ discretion as to what foods they cover at what percentage rate of prevailing market prices, which is part of the insurance coverage, but which is never actually disclosed to the people buying food insurance, even though it amounts to a substantial portion of the insurance contract and significantly affects the utility of the insurance to the purchaser. The whole thing will be implemented through a big bureaucratic claims process, with some food insurers refusing to provide benefits unless you get your food at the company store. And, get this, any time the food insurance company refuses to cover someone’s food, that person’s only effective recourse is to take the insurance company to court, a process that takes months or years and does not in any way ensure useful contractual enforcement to someone who needs to eat RIGHT NOW.

Actually this problem could be solved by having Food Savings Accounts (FSA). If poor people would just put money into an FSA (pre-tax!) then they could build up an account balance that would carry them through those times when they get hungry and need some food.

Food stamps just promote the consumption of food. If you subsidize something, you get more of it. We should be discouraging that kind of behavior.


Like Wikipedia, but before

This is how the emerging internet is described in The Axemaker’s Gift, published in  1995. Interesting sections to me highlighted by me:

The new systems can present data to the user in the form of a “web” on which all the information contained in a database is interlinked. For example, a simple chain of web data-links might go: “toilet roll, invented in response to sanitation ceramics, resulting from nineteenth-century sewage developments, triggered by a cholera epidemic, whose social effects generated public health legislation, that established pathology labs, able to function clue to tissue-staining techniques, that used aniline dyes, discovered during a search for artificial quinine, in coal-tar that was a by-product of the manufacture of gaslight, that illuminated early workers’ evening classes, in factories spinning cotton from America, processed by Eli Whitney’s gin, after he developed interchangeable musket parts, that made possible the manufacture of machine tools, for production lines that introduced continuous-process techniques, that one day would make toilet rolls.”

Any individual link in this loop of related innovations and events could also provide the start-point for other loops, in which any link could initiate yet other loops and so on.

There are two main attractions to this way of accessing information. First, it is easy to operate because the user can join the web at an entry point matching their level of knowledge and which might therefore might be something as complex as a quantum physics equation or as simple as a toilet roll. Second is the interconnected nature of the web that makes it possible to move from the entry point to anywhere else on the web by a large choice of routes, one of which will best suit the user’s own idiosyncratic interests and level of ability.

At each stage of the journey, any link prepares the user for the next link because of the way in which all links relate. Also, at any link there are a number of alternate routes to take, and it is here that the user can make choices based on personal interest or experience. So it is not inconceivable that a journey might begin with the toilet roll and eventually lead to all the data required for understanding quantum physics, or pottery making, or medieval Latin.

Since there would be no “correct” way to arrive at target data designated, say, by curriculum needs, in the kind of educational process that the web might make possible, the web would offer the user a means to “learn” the target information by arriving at it in their own way. “Knowledge” would then be the experience of having traveled on the web, like the knowledge of a city’s streets. The journey, therefore, would be more valuable than the destination and relationships between data more valuable than the data. It might be that we would eventually come to value intelligence no longer solely by information-retrieval but by the imaginative way a student constructed such a journey.

The attraction of the web is that the user needs no qualifications to enter, and the process of exploring the web is as easy or complex as the user chooses. The web contains the sum of knowledge, so the experience of a journey finks every user in some way to every other user. The number of ways in which a web might be accessed, linked, or restructured could be as many as its users decided.

Use of the web would above all accustom people to become gradually more familiar with the way in which knowledge is not made up of isolated, unconnected “facts,” but is part of a dynamic whole. Experience on the web might also bring greater awareness of the social effects of the introduction of any innovation, thanks to the way the result of interrelating data on the web mirrored that of the way innovation affected the community at large. So each time a user journeyed on the web and made new links between data, the new connections would restructure the web in much the same way they might have rearranged society if they had been applied in real terms. In this sense, the web could become a microcosm for society itself. It could serve as a means to play out scenarios for knowledge manufacture and its potential social effects. Eventually, of course, the web might become the general mode of involvement in all social processes, either in person or through the use of personal electronic “agents.” **The power of the individual is greatly magnified. **


Gatekeeper Code

From a thread on whether BASIC is relevant:

Really, what I think is happening is that BASIC is so easy to learn that even people who shouldn’t be programming can use it. There are people who can’t program very well at all, but they DID learn to program in BASIC, so they think they can program, learn a little PHP maybe, and them come work at your workplace and start fucking shit up. Similar people who are forced into more structured languages right off the bat never get the idea they can program at all, so they never even apply, much less get hired, and you never have to work with them. The complaint is really that BASIC doesn’t act as an effective gatekeeper in weeding out bad candidates.

Full disclosure: I learned to program using BASIC on a TRS-80.

Also, this is related to an argument Steven Pinker makes when ripping apart Malcolm Gladwell’s new book:

Another example of an inherent trade-off in decision-making is the one that pits the accuracy of predictive information against the cost and complexity of acquiring it. Gladwell notes that I.Q. scores, teaching certificates and performance in college athletics are imperfect predictors of professional success. This sets up a “we” who is “used to dealing with prediction problems by going back and looking for better predictors.” Instead, Gladwell argues, “teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree — and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before.”

But this “solution” misses the whole point of assessment, which is not clairvoyance but cost-effectiveness. To hire teachers indiscriminately and judge them on the job is an example of “going back and looking for better predictors”: the first year of a career is being used to predict the remainder. It’s simply the predictor that’s most expensive (in dollars and poorly taught students) along the accuracy-­cost trade-off. Nor does the absurdity of this solution for professional athletics (should every college quarterback play in the N.F.L.?) give Gladwell doubts about his misleading analogy between hiring teachers (where the goal is to weed out the bottom 15 percent) and drafting quarterbacks (where the goal is to discover the sliver of a percentage point at the top).


Axemaker conclusions

The following is from the conclusion of the Axemaker’s Gift by James Burke and Robert Ornstein:

The first step may be to recognize that we can use our technology as it has been used time and again through history. We can use it to change minds, but this time for our own reasons in our own terms and at our own pace, if we use the coming technologies for what they could be: instruments of freedom. The very interactive nature of the modem world makes it less easy to block such an act and to continue with the old ways of hierarchy and division. But in any case, all that ever kept us in thrall of institutions was our ignorance of the kind of knowledge that could soon now be so easily accessible and understandable that it will be a waste of time to know it. When Gutenberg printed his books, he greatly lessened the power of memory and tradition. The new technologies will lessen the power of arcane, specialist knowledge. And when they do, we will all, in one sense, return to what we were before the first axe.

The culture we live in, based on the sequential influence of language on thought and operating according to the rationalist rules of Greek philosophy and reductionist practice, has wielded tremendous power. It has given us the wonders of the modem world on a plate. But it has also fostered belieh that have tied us to centralized institutions and powerful individuals for centuries, which we must shuck off if we are to adapt to the world we’ve made: that unabated extraction of planetary resources is possible, that the most valuable members of society are specialists, that people cannot survive without leaders, that the body is mechanistic and can only be healed with knives and drugs, that there is only one superior truth, that the only important human abilities lie in the sequential and analytic mode of thought, and that the mind works like an axemaker’s gilt.

Above all (and most recently) we have also been persuaded to think that it is unacceptable to be different or even to acknowledge that differences in abilities exist between us. But our survival may depend on the realization and expression of humanity’s immense diversity. Only if we use what may be the ultimate of the many axemalcer’s gifts—the coming information systems—to nurture this individual and cultural diversity, only if we celebrate our differences rather than suppressing them, will we stand a chance of harnessing the wealth of human talent that has been ignored for millennia and that is now eager, all around the world, for release.

I greatly enjoyed the book, but I understand where the only 1-star  reviewer is coming from:

the suggested solution of a “web supported” world full of small democrartic communities is such hairy-armpit, dope-smoking, hippy rubbish I found myself laughing out loud. I’m fascinated to know who is going to design and construct and distribute the servers to enable this web-supported world, let alone who is going to host and maintain them

Burke got the wealth and attention that enabled this book through the medium of television, and i bet he tours the world for book launches on jumbo-jets. i wonder if the irony of that is lost on him.

It is very difficult to build jumbos or LSI processor chips as a cottage industry

pure twaddle


Invoking the first amendment

The eloquent wording of Roberto Lovato, from the (now successful) Basta Dobbs campaign, to Lou Dobbs:

You and others have suggested that we are seeking to abridge your free speech. Such arguments exhibit a shallow understanding of what the first amendment protects. You are free to voice your opinions, just as we are free to encourage CNN to cancel your program. There is, quite simply, nothing in the constitution that guarantees you a national news platform from which to spread misinformation, and invoking its protections is only a distraction from the real conversation.


Three Story Intellect Model

Three Story Intellect I netflixed Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead this weekend, so I’m in a mood of rhetoric and reason. Above is from my Critical Thinking reading (“Teacher Behaviors that Enable Student Thinking”, Arthur L Costa_)_. The terms are a nice way to evaluate the complexity of test questions, and is comparable to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Apparently the metaphor is derived from an Oliver Wendell Holmes poem:

The Three Story Intellect

There are one-story intellects, two-story intellects, and three-story intellects with skylights.

All fact collectors who have no aim beyond their facts are one-storymen.

Two-story men compare, reason, generalize, using the labor of fact collectors as their own.

Three-story men idealize, imagine, predict–their best illumination comes from above the skylight.

I disagree with Costa’s interpretation: ‘The third story of the house invites students to go “beyond the skylights” to speculate, elaborate, and apply concepts in new and hypothetical situations.’ Oliver Wendell Holmes isn’t talking about going above the roof, he’s talking about letting in enlightenment, epiphany and the muses. You know, that stuff you can’t teach in Critical Thinking, if at all.

If you’re selling yourself as a poet, it’s good to advertise your skylights, especially if they let Eratos in (they’re better at that than puddingstone).


Going crazy over social impact

This week’s topic in the Millenial Blogging Alliance is “How do you define and measure Social Impact?” Since I’m currently at 34,000 feet and salty about some recent Federal funding restrictions, let’s go a little crazy.

I am hereby defining Social Impact as the flow of dollars between your community and the outside world. Positive Social Impact is a net increase in dollars within your community as a result of your activities. Negative Social Impact is a net decrease in dollars within your community as a result of your activities.

That’s even easy to measure, unless it’s indirect. And it’s the indirect impact that’s the problem. Providing services does not bring money into your community, unless:

  • you and your staff are part of that community e.g. you are your constituents if identity based, or within the physical area if you are geographically based, or a some proportion of the two
  • the supplies you’re using are produced by your community, proportional to community ownership and labor
  • the supplies are sold by the community, in which case you can only include the retail markup as impactful if they were manufactured elsewhere, and only that being proportional to community ownership and labor
  • your activities somehow induce money to enter the community now or at some later date

And don’t forget to subtract earned income if those funds pay staff from outside the community, or purchase supplies that were sold or manufactured elsewhere.

So I must be arguing for direct grants. I am. And does that undermine the nonprofit service model? It does. We have been operating under the idea that if the “services” present in affluent communities are replicated in impoverished communities, then those communities will have the opportunity to become affluent. This is putting the cart before the horse: those businesses, services and public spaces did not create the affluence; they are a result of it.

In response to the “personal responsibility” criticisms: the goal is not is not to induce any one particular person to work, it’s about creating an environment in which people can work, be paid for their work, and contribute towards building their community. The way to allow that to happen is ensure that people can easily exchange labor, goods and services. To do that, you need money. Our communities are poor not because they cannot circulate money, but that they have little or no money to begin with.

This concept of social impact embraces the ideal that people want to work and contribute to their community. We did not invent jobs as a way to spend money. We invented money to improve the efficiency of coordinating our collective efforts and outputs. This is not to say that money should be the measure of the quality of our communities; those metrics should be up to the community to decide–but communities should have the tool, money, to build the place in which they wish to live.

And yes, I am aware of alternative currencies, but they’re few and far between. The true aspiration here is providing individuals, to the fullest extent of society, the agency to create the world in which they wish to live. But I can’t fully describe that, let alone measure it, without stepping outside of Wealth Bondage. Then again, I did say I’d go crazy.

So if you want to look at your social impact, follow the money.

Updated: Read the other posts in the Millenial Blogger Alliance:

Rosetta, Working at a Nonprofit Does Not Equal Social Change Colleen,  Does Writing a Check to a Nonprofit Equal Social Change? Elizabeth,  What is Social Impact? Elisa,  Measuring Social Impact Tracey,  The Meaning of Social Impact James,  Measuring Social Impact Lauren,   How Do You Define and Measure Social Impact? Allison,  Five Problems With How We Measure Social Change


Ace Advertising

It’s a bad evening when Google points you back to your own blog. So to get on with it, George Creel of The Committee on Public Information (CPI) had a great quote:

“In no degree was the Committee an agency of censorship, a machinery of concealment or repression. Its emphasis throughout was on the open and the positive. At no point did it seek or exercise authorities under those war laws that limited the freedom of speech and press. In all things, from first to last, without halt or change, it was a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventures in advertising…We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption. Our effort was educational and informative throughout, for we had such confidence in our case as to feel that no other argument was needed than the simple, straightforward presentation of the facts.”

The CPI being this (more Wikipedia):

The purpose of the CPI was to influence American public opinion toward supporting U.S. intervention in World War I via a prolonged propaganda campaign. Among those who participated in it were Wilson advisers Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, the latter of whom had remarked that “the essence of democratic society” was the “engineering of consent”, by which propaganda was the necessary method for democracies to promote and garner support for policy. Many have commented that the CPI laid the groundwork for the public relations (PR) industry. The CPI at first used material that was based on fact, but spun it to present an upbeat picture of the American war effort. Very quickly, however, the CPI began churning out raw propaganda picturing Germans as evil monsters.

So to tie up the loose ends, I’ll quote from a favorite, Allan Weisbecker’s Can’t You Get Along with Anyone:

Remember Bhopal? The toxic waste cloud released by Union Carbide that killed over 20,000 people in India back in 1984? What do you figure was the first thing the CEO Warren Anderson did when he learned of the catastrophic misery and death his company had perpetrated? See to it that medical and evacuation people were rushed in?

No. Anderson called Union Carbide’s public relations chief, a guy named Bob Berzok, to get on the crisis management, the spin control. “Spin” (or “spin control”) is, of course, a euphemism for lying like a slug. And there’s even a euphemism for the euphemism, a description/label/concept I really like – in the morbid sense – for its Orwellian ring. Perception management.

Update: Bob Berzok left a note in the comments about this incident:

Just to set the record straight, when first learning of the Bhopal tragedy Warren Anderson decided to go the Bhopal so that he could personally help provide relief & aid immediately, along with the medical care offered the first & following days. Also, to set the record straight, Warren did not call me because at that time I wasn’t responsible for public relations or corporate communications. My responsibility at that time was employee communications. Much has been written, and this isn’t the forum to review everything…but it should be noted that Warren Anderson by going to India did so against the advice of his public relations & legal advisers. He went because he was asked by the UCC India Ltd. management & because he personally knew it was in his heart to try & help.


Gifts of Magnificence

Gift Hub (Blogging Philanthropy from A Dumpster) is a favorite blog of mine. On “ Foundation Trustees as Stewards of the Public Interest” I left this comment:

Personally, I’d like to see society make a point of separating out Charity (giving to those of equal social standing) and Mercy (giving to those of lesser standing). Imagine if the IRS determined the status of your donations based upon your income and the organization’s clientelle. Flat taxes, graduated giving; now there’s a platform.

I received this reply from the blog’s author, Phil Cubeta (Morals Tutor to America’s Wealthiest Families):

Ben, interesting comment. Mercy implies maybe a differential in power. Charity implies maybe caritas or gifts made out of solidarity, in the sense that we are all children of God. Philanthropia from philia is redolent of Greek concepts of magnificence. The philanthropist would create or endow great public buildings or monuments or entertainments. Whether gifts to the poor or into things that help the poor should receive a bigger tax benefit, or be somehow required for foundations, is a big debate right now. The more rules and penalties though the less the rich will play. They have the option of opting out and keeping the money. How much philanthropy we have and how it is directed or shared are two different questions. I suspect we will have more if we leave givers free to be themselves, though we may deplore the self they are.