Saturday, July 02, 2011
This is my last entry using Thingamablog as my blogging platform. While I've appreciated the client-based customization that Thingamablog offers, it lacks the power and features of a program like WordPress.
This site will live on as an archive. My new blog - powered by WordPress - can now be found here. Ciao!
Sunday, November 14, 2010
An analysis of the US economy by Robert Reich
I would encourage you to download this speech by Robert Reich. [Right-click on the link and choose "Save Link As" or "Save Target as".] It's a cogent Keynesian analysis of America's current economic situation, except that it's also a near-perfect Marxian analysis, too, aside from the Keynesian interventionist strategies. Reich's key argument is that inequality is bad for business, and unless America can address this fundamental challenge, all of the secondary problems will be insoluble. The irony is that, in the end, Reich copies much of David Harvey's Marxist analysis of the fundamental contradictions of capital accumulation. The only real difference is that Reich wants to save capitalism, while Harvey has no such allegiance.
One interesting contribution by Reich is his discussion of the "three coping mechanisms" that the average American household has been using over the past 30 years to compensate for the effective decline in wages:
1. moving women into the workforce
2. making men work more overtime (a great source of "improved" US productivity)
3. borrowing money against home equity
Reich asserts that these mechanisms have, up to now, allowed Americans to ignore the problems of inequality. However, these mechanisms are now spent, and it's time American politicians own up to the fundamental problem: the engine of the American economy - the average consumer - is no longer capable of spending the money that makes economic growth possible.
Friday, July 16, 2010
Elizabeth Warren: The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class
The following lecture features Elizabeth Warren speaking about the current crisis in (and looming collapse of) the American middle class.
This presentation is almost 58 minutes, but I highly recommend it for anyone interested in long term social and economic trends and the future of the middle class. Warren is a Harvard law professor who is a well-known commentator on debt and family issues. (She's even appeared in Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.) In this lecture, her basic thesis is that the typical American family (two parents, two kids) does indeed earn more income - even adjusted for inflation - than its counterpart in the early 1970's. This is mainly due to the addition of a second income, usually from the wife. On the other hand, there have been many extraordinary increases in costs (mostly inelastic) that have overtaken this increase in income, to the point that the 1970's family actually has more disposable income and more financial flexibility.
There are many impressive aspects to her
presentation. First, it shows the relevance and usefulness of good
statistical data. It is culturally fashionable to dismiss statistics,
but the evidence Warren uses is illuminating and provocative. It
confirms some things I felt were true, but have never been able to
confirm or quantify. Second, her conclusions seem difficult to ignore or
refute, and they are plainly scary if one thinks about them for too
long. Warren's point about the move from a three-class society to a
two-class society is particularly chilling. Third, while certain cost
challenges are clearly American in nature (e.g. health insurance), many
others, like housing and education, pertain to middle class Canadians
like myself. Finally, her insights into the declining costs of food and
clothing, as opposed to the increasing costs of electronics and child
care, provide a sense of fairness and balance that is often missing in
popular political discourse. Generally speaking, this is a
thought-provoking use of an hour.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Comic Sans: The Write Type?
Apparently some people don't like the Comic Sans font:
"Comic Sans walks into a bar, and the bartender says, "We don't serve your type."
But seriously, here's a response in defense of our favourite faux handwriting font:
Here's another somewhat backhanded endorsement of Comic Sans. Honest.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Measuring the Internet
I remember back to the good old days of Alta Vista when they could actually count the number of pages on the 'Net. Like McDonald's hamburgers, the number of websites and pages now appears too large to measure. Nevertheless, here's a really fascinating site that attempts to quantify the Internet in terms of type and share:
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation
Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation* argues that modern western society (and particularly American society) is moving from a relatively literate print-based culture to a post-literate technology culture. Bauerlein's specific focus is on the new realm of social technologies ("e-mails, text messages, blog-postings and comments, phone calls, tweets, feeds, photos and songs" (p. x)) that he believes overwhelm the process of maturation, attenuate cultural boundaries, and threaten the "intellectual development" of young people: “Instead of opening young Americans mind to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them” (p. 10). The Dumbest Generation is an enjoyable pro-reading, anti-technology jeremiad in the tradition of Neil Postman (to whom Bauerlein pays homage), but it's not without its limitations.
Drawing on research from a number of government sources and reputable cultural institutions, Bauerlein argues that young people in America are increasingly moving away from book reading, particularly fiction and literature. One of the best empirical studies he relies upon is a large-scale reading survey from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts that measured leisure reading rates in 1982, 1992 and 2002. The rate (based on reading a single book outside of school or work) shows a precipitous drop of 17% in 18-24 year-olds (from 59.8% to 42.8%) between 1982 and 2002. This is certainly troubling, but Bauerlain glosses over the fact that leisure reading for 25-34 year-olds also declined (from 62.1% to 47.7%), as it did for 35-44 year-olds (from 59.7% to 46.6%). Moreover, this decline in leisure reading occurred before the wholesale adoption of the social computing technologies that Bauerlein believes is at the core of today's "dumbest generation". [Indeed, one of the newest and biggest social networking fads, Facebook, is barely mentioned, whereas another fad that has already receded, MySpace, features prominently in Bauerlein's analysis.] Therefore, it appears to me that he is identifying a larger problem, one to which modern technology may contribute, but which is nevertheless deeper and longer-standing than Bauerlein contends.
I can offer no objective, measurable reasons for this post-literate society, except to say that this trend is certainly reinforced and confirmed by what I have witnessed in my 16 years as a high-school and college teacher. I see a spreading anti-intellectualism, one that is marked by young people who are often aware that they read less, and yet are indifferent or belligerently proud. (Bauerlein calls such young people bibliophobes.) Perhaps the reason lies in TV and video games, older electronics that pre-date social networking technologies, but which work in the same disastrous way: intellectually fallow screen time that crowds out reading time. [I am reminded of Postman's provocative discussion of TV's inducement of stupor-like alpha waves.] Working hand-in-hand are other potential causes: educated people having fewer kids (relatively and absolutely), a pop-culture explosion that emphasizes fun rather than satisfaction, and economic changes that remove both parents from the home (and thus create a vacuum that is easily filled by screen-based technologies).
So social technologies cannot be seen as the sole reason for concern. And, without up-to-date data that can parse the multiple challenges facing a literate culture, Bauerlein's book must therefore rest on anecdotes, persuasive arguments, and reasoning to convince us that social technologies - sometimes called Web 2.0 - are helping to lead us down a dangerous path. At this level, to be sure, I do think Bauerlein succeeds.
Bauerlein starts with a pretty familiar defence of print-based culture. Modern technologies crowd out and simply overwhelm the old methods of socialization and transmitting knowledge. At a basic level, the lack of reading is self-reinforcing: "as the occasions of reading diminish, reading becomes a harder task. The more you don’t read, the more you can’t read" (p. 59).The consequence of this is a society (or at least large portions of it) incapable of benefiting from those skills peculiar to reading. For example, habitual "readers acquire a better sense of plot and character, an eye for the structure of arguments, and an ear for style, over time recognizing the aesthetic vision of adolescent fare as, precisely, adolescent" (p. 58). To the extent the "linear, hierarchal sequential thinking solicited by books has a shaky hold on the youthful mind, and as teens and young adults read linear texts in a linear fashion less and less, the less they engage in sustained linear thinking" (p. 141). Logic and argumentation crumble: the "reading" in a Web 2.0 world is fragmentary at best. Even in the online world, in studies of teens done by the Neilson Norman Group, adolescents display "[r]eading skills, research procedures, and patience levels insufficient to navigate the Web effectively" (p. 146). Knowledge itself ultimately suffers, and Bauerlein marshals scores of studies to show that young people are indeed suffering from a decline in cultural literacy, basic numeracy and functional scientific knowledge.
One of his most interesting arguments is that modern adult society is doing a poorer and poorer job of moving young people beyond adolescence. Social technologies intensify and extend adolescence, and contribute to an increasingly narcissistic youth culture:
“Maturity comes in part, through vertical modeling, relations with older people such as teachers, employers, ministers, aunts and uncles and older siblings, along with parents, who impart adult outlooks and interests.... The Web (along with cell phones, teen sitcoms, and pop music), though, encourages more horizontal modeling, more mimicry of people the same age, and intensification of peer consciousness" (p. 136).
This horizontal modeling appears to remain for longer periods of time, according to Bauerlein, and helps closet the average teenager from any new or challenging experiences. This is where "dumbness" starts to find fertile ground:
For education to happen, people must encounter worthwhile things outside their sphere of interest and brainpower. Knowledge grows, skills improve, tastes refine, and conscience ripens only if the experiences bear a degree of unfamiliarity.... Adolescents don't [understand this process like adults do], and digital connections save them the labor of self-improvement" (p. 138).
Bauerlein's last major point is that educators have become increasingly complicit in pandering to these social technologies. Given their own progressive proclivities or ignorance, educators and academic researchers appear incapable of resisting the bandwagon. They do not ask, generally speaking, if adolescent enthusiasm necessarily leads to pedagogically desirable results:
‘Knowledge is never more than one generation away from oblivion.’ If the guardians of tradition [ie. educators] claim that the young, though ignorant, have a special perspective on the past, or if teachers prize the impulses of tenth‐graders more than the thoughts of the wise and the works of the masters, learning loses its point. The thread of intellectual inheritance snaps” (p. 186).
I am reminded of Sydney J. Harris' dictum that the "whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows." Put another way, we as educators owe it to our students to teach them what is irrelevant to narrow little lives dominated by social minutiae. We need to screw our courage to the sticking place and fight for what broadens their horizons, rather than what is trendy and innovative - yet intellectually arid.
* Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation
(Tarcher/Penguin, Toronto), 2009.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Is modern music going down the drain?
I recently came across an interesting article on the musical legacy of our current decade (2000-2009). The article, written by Kris Millet for Culture Magazine, takes a dim view of this century's musical output. His central thesis is that the technological fragmentation of the last 10 years has destroyed our ability to follow a band for any significant length of time, and that a fragmented music press prefers short-term bandwagons that disrupt the long-term appreciation of a band.
While I sympathize with his viewpoint, I think there are other forces at work, too. The biggest one would be economic. Millet's discussion of long-term support for U2 is a perfect example. What record label now can afford to support a band for four albums before it hits the big time? Not many, I would think. I know it's old hat to blame record labels for everything that's wrong in modern music, but their increasingly obsolete business model does have some upsides: money for promotion, grooming and time to learn.
I also wonder if songwriters are running out of ideas. Could it be that there is a finite number of good melodies? It would be impossible to measure, I guess, but maybe time will tell. Who knows - maybe in 10 years every rock and pop act will only be recording cover tunes. Then modern music will be just like classical music!