An ample account

As the 4th anniversary of this blog nears (November 12) I’ve been revisiting research that was near impossible when I began it. The namesake of this blog was Island 94, formerly sitting within the Mississippi River, which I was introduced to through the very excellent book When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman. When I first started this blog, it was very difficult to find primary sources through the internet. Fortunately, many libraries and archives have worked to digitize their collections and make them available online. Because of that there is a lot more to say about this blog’s namesake and inspiration.


The title page above is from Zadok Cramer’s The Navigator, a navigational aid published when the Mississippi was a navigational challenge—before the Army Corps of Engineers pulled the snags, built the levees and made it all into a generally uninteresting commercial thoroughfare. It is from the 1824 edition published after Cramer’s death and after the absence of the Island 94 for which this blog is named.

As you can tell from the ample account given even on its title page, this book is from a day when to publish something, you had to really mean it.

Teaching through breakage

A great comment from Tom Wolf showed up in my feed reader; left on a quote by Marco Arment on Simon Willison’s blog:

Over a decade ago when I started a program to teach senior citizens how to use computers (Windows 95, WordPerfect, and dial-up internet access :), the first day that I had them at the computer, I encouraged them to do their best to “break” it in order to remove some of their fear about doing just that.

Students who internalized my message of “there’s no way you can screw this up so bad that I can’t fix it” learned much, much faster. I reigned that message back in a bit later in the class so that I didn’t end up sending new users into the world who would click indiscriminately on absolutely everything, but removing the fear of breaking this expensive and mysterious machine was much more important to enhancing the students’ understanding.

What’s even more unfortunate is that this mentality, even when removed in certain arenas (users who regularly use a particular app, often develop a sense of comfort with the product and are more willing to do their own first-level troubleshooting) crops right back up as soon as the user is presented with a perceived “new” situation (even if it’s actually nearly identical).

Finally, the fact that there are hordes of so-called consultants out there who enhance these perceptions and prey on the average users’ lack of understanding to charge outrageous prices for sub-par (or in some cases no) work is incredibly frustrating.

Speak up for democracy

At the Grassroots Use of Technology Conference / National Writers Union Digital Media Conference I got to hear a lot of people bemoan how hard it is to make a buck as a creator in the digital age.

A comparison was made to the Open Source Software movement and I made a very quotable statement ( by Twitter standards): “Journalism is the software upon which democracy runs”.

Other than the awful mixed metaphors, I think I made a good statement: coding software has a very clear correlation between the work itself and the measurement of the final product at the end. Journalism: not so much. Of course some people do talk about how access to information and analysis from diverse viewpoints is vital to the continued health of our Democracy, but they get shouted down by Glen Beck. Newspapers themselves (or Cable Access TV or whatever is going town the toilet today) are usually discussed as some impalpable, circularly-reasoned necessity rather than put into context as providers of a what __is necessary for the kind of society we want to live in.

Call me progressive, but let’s talk about what we need to build tomorrow, not reinforce today.

Here’s a quote I have trouble disagreeing with from Mark Lloyd’s Communications Policy is a Civil Rights Issue:

…to argue that getting out of the business of regulation is the only constructive role for government to play is as blind as it is disingenuous. The challenge is to create a set of rules that reflects the best nature of our society. As Newton Minow makes clear in Abandoned in the Wasteland, the issue is not really whether the market provides good choices, but whether citizens have a real say in what those choices are. The issue is whether the parent must let his child be a consumer, or, more to the point, a product to be sold to advertisers, or whether the parent has a right as a citizen to demand more.

Social work is women’s work, so we don’t care

Two articles came across my desk today that I think are strongly connected. The first is from Danah Boyd on Teaching, nursing and second-wave feminism:

Since the 1970s, the number of brilliant, motivated individuals working as teachers and nurses in particular declined rapidly. Many women left these professions because they had many more opportunities and many men refused to do “women’s work.” Don’t get me wrong - there are some amazing teachers and nurses out there, but sexist constraint meant that the most brilliant, most passionate women inevitably went to these professions while that is no longer the case.

The problem is what has happened since then. I certainly don’t want to go back to the dark ages where women had no choice. But while we’ve opened up doors for women, we haven’t addressed how sexism framed nursing and teaching in ways that are causing us tremendous headaches in society today. Teachers are underpaid and undervalued because we took women’s work for granted. When teaching stopped being women’s work, we didn’t rework our thinking about teaching. As a society, we still have little respect for teachers and nurses and we pay them abysmally. This is deeply rooted in the sexism of the past but the ripple effects today are costly.

The second is from Dan Pallota over at Harvard Business Blogs (more on that in a moment) titled The “Psychic Benefits” of Nonprofit Work Are Overrated:

People often tell me that those who work for nonprofits should work for less because of the psychic benefits of being able to make a difference, work with the poor, and so on…

Don’t fall for this Puritan self-sacrificial psychobabble. It’s not the poor who are asking you to work for less. It’s the donating public, including many a wealthy donor. They’re asking you to end poverty and every other great social problem and to do it for them at a discount. And they’re exploiting the images of the poor to get you to agree. The fact that someone makes a one-time sacrificial gift doesn’t mean you’re obligated to make a lifetime sacrificial career choice. If you do the math and the psychic benefit comes up lacking for you, then ask the people who want you to make the world a better place for another kind of benefit that begins with a “p.” Pay.

I definitely feel the first quote flows into the second, and hence the inflammatory title to this post. I think Pallota’s explanation is wrong (Puritanical self-sacrifice) and Boyd’s is correct (we undervalue the work of women).

I find it very telling that social work is reframed as Social Entreprenuership (thank you Harvard Business School), a rhetorical device that allows men to participate. Giving things away is women’s work; getting people to pay for it, now that’s a job for a man.

Obviously not to scale


Following up on som graphics from the free book pile at the university, above is a graphic from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man. There are only 4 plates in this book (it’s the 1975) edition, but each one takes on a very plant-like appearance. (I think this plate is superior to the current reprint because mine uses stipple points rather than hash-lines to show contrast; it’s also typeset in Arial, but that’s just being picky).

Tielhard puts it all within Christian dogma (he was a Jesuit), but the Omega Point is pretty nifty. Briefly from Wikipedia:

The complexification of matter has not only led to higher forms of consciousness, but accordingly to more personalization, of which human beings are the highest attained form in the known universe. They are completely individualized, free centers of operation. It is in this way that man is said to be made in the image of God, who is the highest form of personality. Teilhard expressly stated that in the Omega Point, when the universe becomes One, human persons will not be suppressed, but super-personalized. Personality will be infinitely enriched. This is because the Omega Point unites creation, and the more it unites, the more the universe complexifies and rises in consciousness. Thus, as God creates the universe evolves towards higher forms of complexity, consciousness, and finally with humans, personality, because God, who is drawing the universe towards Him, is a person.

It’s complicated

Since I just posted about how social roles affect social values, here’s a scenario we recently had in my Critical Thinking class.

A man and his son are involved in a car crash. The father dies on the scene and the son is rushed to hospital. On arrival the surgeon on duty says “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son!” How is this possible?

Contextualizing it kind’ve kills the question.

God didn’t do Best Practices

The best Sunday sermon I have ever heard (out of 2, the other having been when I was 8 and the pastor was my aunt; but that’s beside the point) went generally as follows:

The 10 Commandments are unique both in practice, and in form. Of the 10, there are 6 social rules, 3 religious rules, and 1 thoughtcrime (the numbers vary a little depending on dogma, but not by much). Importantly, there are 8 “do not’s” but only 2 “do’s”. God is nearly giving you a free ticket to ride (it was a hip pastor): He didn’t spend too much time on the affirmatives; as long as you stay away from those few simple negatives you can do whatever you want (at least in His eyes).

Of course, we have problems even with that, so there’s another 60ish books (and counting) to fill in the blanks; but that’s beside the point.

Chasing Best Practices

At work we’re pushing the idea of Honest Practices over Best Practices. Honest Practices are stories and analysis that include both successes and failures—the latter being something nonprofits often omit (or reframe). Our focus on developing Honest Practices stems from frustration with the meaninglessness of many “Best Practices” that are out there. From Wikipedia:

A Best practice is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive or reward that is believed to be more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer problems and unforeseen complications. Best practices can also be defined as the most efficient (least amount of effort) and effective (best results) way of accomplishing a task, based on repeatable procedures that have proven themselves over time for large numbers of people.

Despite the need to improve on processes as times change and things evolve, best-practice is considered by some as a business buzzword used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things that multiple organizations can use for management, policy, and especially software systems.

As the term has become more popular, some organizations have begun using the term “best practices” to refer to what are in fact merely ‘rules’, causing a linguistic drift in which a new term such as “good ideas” is needed to refer to what would previously have been called “best practices.”

I really want to toss [[Citation Needed]] after the suggestion that “good ideas” is a suitable replacement for what was formerly known as Best Practices. But that would be too Honest.

Catastophizing and other thought distortions

This week’s topic in my Critical and Creative Thinking class is stress and stress-relieving exercises. I get a kick out of the table of thought distortions brought on by stress from Challenging and changing stress-producing thinking by Felice E Miller published in the Western Journal of Medicine, 2001 January; 174 (1): 49–50.

“Catastrophizing” also reminds me of old woman in the film Underground that continually says “It’s a catastrophe!” (or “katastrofa” because it’s Serbo-Croatian/BCE)—which my girlfriend and I like to repeat ad naseum.

Table 1

Common thought distortions and how to challenge them

_ Distortion _
_ Challenge _
Magnification or minimization
Overemphasizing or underemphasizing one aspect of the situation: “I didn’t check out with the patient if he understood the reason for the medication”; overlooking other factors that may be important
Using black and white thinking: “My colleagues are going to think I am incompetent”; are there shades of gray?
Taking the situation personally and ignoring the total picture: “It’s my fault”; what would I say to a colleague in the same position?
Stress-producing language
Using words such as should, have to, must, need rather than would like, want: “I should never make a mistake”
Pessimistic thinking
Thinking of the situation as permanent, pervasive, and personal: “I’m never going to have the respect of my colleagues” or “I’m not suited to this profession”; rather than temporary, specific, and related to factors beside myself 3
Is this unfortunate incident a catastrophe: “I’m going to be sued”; if the bad outcome happened, what would/would not be the consequences, and could I handle them?

West J Med. 2001 January; 174(1): 49–50.

Welcome Grassroots Users of Technology

This weekend is the Organizers’ Collaborative’s (and our 20 wonderful sponsors’) 10th Annual Grassroots Use of Technology Conference (still time to register!). I’m President of the Board for the Organizers Collaborative, so I’m a little excited. Even more so because I got top billing in the Program Booklet:

Welcome. We gather to celebrate as much as continue learning and sharing. When we began this conference 10 years ago, we expected computer and internet technology to become more important to advancing our vision for a progressive future. What we could not imagine then was that these tools would become the engines for political and social change we seek today.

When we met last year there was tremendous energy and excitement: the rapid-fire exchange of ideas and dreams was contagious as we hoped that we could finally turn the corner. I hope this year’s conference lacks none of that energy; but today we have an even greater opportunity for reflection on the tools and strategies we used, and the challenges we still face.

There is any number of emerging technologies and tested strategies I could highlight, but that would miss the power of what we have to build upon. At the heart of any technology lies our own unamplified voices and minds. I am excited that we can gather here today to use and develop these very human tools: together we can better imagine the world we wish to live in, and the technology we’ll use to create it.

In 200 words there isn’t a whole lot of places to put things, but I’m satisfied that I nailed the important stuff.