Are we all ice skaters?

Gliding through life, blissfully unaware that there is an entirely different world just below the surface.

The times we do break through unexpectedly the shock is so much that it often kills us.

And so we learn to fear thin ice. It is dangerous. It leads to death (some would say the ultimate price).

When we do decide to tap into the world on the other side we carefully control our access using tools to drill a hole through the boundary.

We remain on the surface, in our own element. Comfortable.

We lower more tools through the chasm, to fish out the pieces of that underworld we are interested in, because we understand that some can help sustain our own life, on the surface.

And when we have extracted what we think we need, we leave the opening to seal up.

A distortion and blemish on our surface that skaters learn to avoid, because it can trip them.

And even grow to resent those that broke the boundary as it now creates a more complicated environment for us to navigate smoothly.

Blasphemy?: DRMed Games on Linux

The interwebz have been all atwitter the past month or so with Valve’s announcement of the porting of their Steam gaming service to the
GNU/Linux platform. Many Linux users were thrilled about the
announcement and saw it as a sign that Linux was breaking out of the
small niche culture of hackers to more mainstream folk who just want
to turn there computer on and play a game. To be fair, Linux is not
without a large number of free (both as in beer and as in speech)
games already, but the announcement of a major (are they? I actually
only heard of Valve and Steam because of the Linux announcement)
gaming company moving to the platform as seen by some as legitimizing
the OS to the masses. It certainly gives everyone something to talk

I consider myself more of a pragmatic when it comes to the
philosophical debate surrounding free (for those familiar, the debate
mostly deals with libre software. English has many deficiencies, one
of which is the multiple meanings of the word “free”. In general free
software supporters do support the idea of paying for software and
believe that people should be able to make money off of the software
they write). I think free software is a great ideal to strive for, and
certainly for mission critical software I believe it is important to
have the freedom to view and modify the source code. As I brought up
in vtcli earlier this semester, as an example it is important to have
the freedom to confirm that the incognito mode of your web browser
really is doing what it says it is and not storing or sharing your
browsing information (as an aside to that, I erroneously claimed that
Chrome was open source, it is not, however, it theoretically uses the
same code-base as Chromium, which is open source, and happens to be
the browser I use both when in Linux and OS X. I highly encourage any
users of Chrome to switch to Chromium for the open sourced goodness it
provides, including the ability to confirm that incognito mode really
is incognito). That being said, if there’s a great game I like I am
not terribly concerned with not being able to look at or distribute
the source code, though I certainly would encourage game developers to
release their code under one of the many open source licenses.

It is interesting to note that free software evangelist Richard
Stallman himself isn’t ALL doom and gloom about the news. Though he
certainly isn’t thrilled and encourages people to try out any of the
free games that are available, he does see the move as a possible
motivator for some people to ditch their non-free OSes completely if
gaming had been the only thing holding them back.

However, if you’re going to use these games, you’re better off using them on GNU/Linux rather than on Microsoft Windows. At least you avoid the harm to your freedom that Windows would do. – Richard Stallman

I installed Steam on my Arch Linux install last week and so far have
tried out Bastion, Splice and The World of Goo. All work very well
and have been fun (I had played World of Goo before both on OS X and
Android, it is fun on any platform!). Offically, Arch Linux isn’t
supported but after adding a couple of the libraries and font packages
mentioned on the wiki everything worked like a charm. One down side
that Stallman failed to mention in his response was the fact that it
is much easier for me to spend money on games now that I don’t need to
switch over to OS X to run them.

Does awareness of our limitations aid in overcoming them?

A couple of thoughts have been bouncing around in my head while reading. First, while reading As We May Think by Bush, but repeatedly with other sources, I was reminded of a thought I often have when reading science ficture written in the 50s, around the same time Vannevar Bush wrote As We May Think. While on many levels the predictions of the future turned out to be quite accurate, there are notable exceptions that jump out at me while reading. A really good example that illustrates my point is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The series is somewhat unique in that it covers a huge expanse of time in the fictional world, over 20,000 years if all the short stories and novels written by other authors after Asimov’s death are taken into account, and was written over several decades in standard non-fictional Earth time: the four stories that made up the first published book in the series were written between 1942 and 1944. Asimov thought he was done with the series after writing two stories in 1948 and 1949 and went on to do other things for 30 years. After much continued pressure from fans and friends he published the 6th book in the series in 1982 and the 7th in 1986.

Three things struck me while reading the first part of the series, written in the 40s and 50s:

  • It was generally assumed that nuclear power was the energy of the future. The logical extrapolation was nuclear powered wrist-watches (ok, actually, I did read a compelling article fairly recently revisiting micro-atomic generators using minuscule amounts of radioactive materials to agitate a pizo-electric element to produce electricity, so maybe this wasn’t so far off the mark)
  • While we would have space ships capable of faster-than-light travel (hyperspace!), the calculations to perform jumps and ensure that the trajectory didn’t travel too near the gravitational effects of a star were done by a human, by hand. Particularly long jumps took the better part of a day to calculate and verify before it was deemed safe to tell the ship to execute the maneuver which itself would only take a fraction of a second.
  • There were no women whatsoever in any type of leadership role. We could say the same of ethnic minorities, non-heterosexual and non-cisgendered people as well, but we will give Asimov the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that the U.S. was (at least visibly) much less diverse than it is today. But surely he knew about the existence of women.

These are little things you get used to when reading science fiction of the time. I think perhaps most interesting is that while it is common to extrapolate technology into the future with reasonably accuracy, the social structures that will exist 10,000 years from now are remarkably similar to those of the current time, if science fiction authors have anything to say about it.

As I mentioned, the 6th book, Foundation’s Edge was published in 1982. Within the first page or so it was revealed without fanfare that the mayor of Terminus, politically the (quasi) central planet of The Foundation (despite it being on the outskirts of the colonized worlds), is currently a woman. Also, due to much research and development the latest spaceships have a new feature: hyperjumps are calculated in a matter of seconds by on-board computers. Also the old nuclear technology has been replaced by state-of-the-art zero-point-energy extraction (if I recall correctly, it’s been a while since I read the books!) providing a nearly unexhaustable energy source to power your jaunts around the universe.

The changes, while artfully worked into the narrative and coherently worked into the fictional universe that had first been described over 30 years prior, still jumped out at the casual reader. I bring this up by no means to diminish Asimov’s work, or him personally (I’m a huge fan, having read and enjoyed just about every book he’s written at this point), but rather to suggest that we has a species have some fundamental limitations in regards to predicting the future. We view the future through a lens designed by history and crafted in the present. While it is all too natural for us to extrapolate existing technology and social dynamics arbitrarily far into the future, and while that leads to some really fascinating scenarios, making significant conceptual leaps (such as the one Ada Lovelace is attributed to making) is something much more difficult and happens much less frequently.

What I wonder though, is after a long history of learning from our shortsightedness in some instances (and acknowledging our forsightedness in others), can we overcome this limitation? Are we now, compared to the 1950s, better able to make conceptual leaps and imagine technology and social structures that are fundamentally different from those of the present simply because we are aware that we tend to make certain kinds of assumptions? Why would a woman even WANT to be mayor of a politically powerful planet?

On Farming, the Internet and Funny Hats

This is a picture of me wearing a hat I made:

A “Scott Pilgrim” hat I made.

It was made from the same pattern used to make the hat used in the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The woman who did the work of adapting the hat drawn in the comic to something that could be made for a movie made her pattern available (for a small fee) on, a social network for knitters and crocheters.

I’m writing this post right after finishing a dinner which included mushroom leek risotto which I made while reading (risotto the real way involves a lot of stirring and pour in broth a little at a time) Bringing it to the Table by Wendell Berry. The book is a collection of essays Berry wrote over several decades on the topic of farming and food (Not entirely incidentally, Wendell Berry caused a stir and inadvertently started a flame war after writing his essay “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer” back in 1987). I ate my risotto out of a bowl that was hand made, though I don’t know by whom, that I picked out at the Empty Bowls charity event I attended on campus last semester. Along with the risotto I had some lentil soup (which I’m sorry to say only came from the organic section of Food Lion) served in a bowl that was hand made by a friend.

In his 1986 essay “A Defense of the Family Farm”, Berry says

As Gill says, “every man is called to give love to the work of his hands. Every man is called to be an artist.” The small family farm is one of the last places – they are getting rarer every day – where men and women (and girls and boys, too) can answer that call to be an artist, to learn to give love to the work of their hands. It is one of the last places where the maker – and some farmers still do talk about “making the crops” – is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. This certainly is a spiritual value, but it is not for that reason an impractical or uneconomic one.

People like to make things. We feel a deeper sense of connection to others when we use tools and wear clothing made by someone’s hands. In this essay Berry is cautioning against losing this rich tradition embodied in the family farm to the industrial agriculture complex. Now, in 2013, it is sad to say is cautionary foresight was well placed. Especially in the United States, and increasingly elsewhere as our “efficient” agricultural methods spread, we have become a society that is nearly thoroughly disconnected in all the ways that matter from the one thing that our very survival depends on: our food.

In his essay “As We May Think”, Bush asked “What are the scientists to
do next”. After the end of a scientific enlightenment of sorts, brought on by the War he asked if we could turn the tremendous scientific energy towards something more constructive. One of the many results of the technological advancements made during the war was a radical transformation in the way we grow (and subsequently think about) our food.

It had been know for some time that plants needed at least nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (N-P-K) to grow (it turns out to grow well they need much more, but at the time, we were patting ourselves on the back for unlocking the mysteries of plant life). Once the war ended there was an abundance of nitrogen (a component of TNT) that needed to be put to good use. The need was so great that it was made available to farmers (in the form of ammonia) for cheap, so cheap that it made economic sense to switch to this commercial product instead of continue with the tried and true method of spreading manure.

Along with this change came others. Because synthetic fertilizers could be produced and transported and spread in large quantities, and due to changes in the Farm Bill to promote food security farm sizes grew and crop diversity shrank. With less diversity less skill was needed and the number of family farms in the U.S. dropped dramatically, from around 6 million immediately after WWII to just over 2 million in the early 1990s. Earlier in the same essay Berry writes

With industrialization has come a general deprication of work. As the price of work has gone up, the value of it has gone down, until it is now so depressed that people simply do not want to do it anymore. We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment.

This was 1987, remember. Our current job crisis is certainly more complicated than the loss of family farms, but with the destruction of 4 million family farms came the loss of at least twice that many skilled full-time jobs.

All in the name of industrial efficiency.

What’s interesting though is like Berry said, we like making things with our own hands. And we know we like making things with our own hands, we just haven’t had much reason to after industrialization was purported as a solution to all the drudgery involved in actually practicing a skilled craft.

But like me and my hat, eating home-cooked food out of hand-made bowls, food made with ingredients purchased directly from farmers, we haven’t yet completely lost all our skills, they’ve just become hidden. Something we practice in the privacy of our own home.

I am cautiously optimistic that yet another layer of technology may in many ways help us build a stronger craft-based economy. Sites like Etsy have given artisans and people wanting to buy artisanal products a means to connect directly, without going through a middleman, eliminating an undesirable layer of indirection between the products we use and the people who made them.

Can the Internet help us reconnect with what we truly value: each other?

Academic Privilege: Experiences as a white cisgendered gay male atheist Engineer

Wow.  So after skipping out of PFP early on Monday to attend a talk titled “Why are you Atheists so Angry” by Greta Christina, I was going to write a post about    what angers me about the current state of academia (for those of you not familiar with Greta’s talk, anger in this context is not a bad thing, it is a powerful motivator for social change).  In the process of confirming the url to her blog, a curious random happenstance led me to this post from July, 2011, which in turn lead to here and finally to Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege

I’m not going to rehash the situation and subsequent discussion that lead to the first two links, but if you have time for nothing else, read “Of Dogs and Lizards” immediately after this (or earlier if you find yourself thinking that I shouldn’t be “making a big deal” about this).

This whole sequence of posts was really relevant to me because I had just spent a good deal of time last week discussing the concept of “privileged” with a group of friendly folks.  The parable did a better job of explaining it than I did, I think.

It’s important to understand privilege because it exists at all levels in higher ed, and has a profound effect on the people that don’t have it.  Before I go on, there are many, many kinds of privileged and many of us have some but not all forms.  There’s white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, cisgendered privilege, religious (in this country, Christian) privilege and so on and so forth.  Notice I’m not talking about the privilege that comes with having a lot of money (although the previously mentioned kinds of privileged have a huge effect on whether or not someone achieves financial privilege).  I’m talking about unearned privileges.  Privileges granted just by being born a certain way, or adopting a certain religion.

(Electrical) Engineering is a male dominated field, and while there have been many discussions as to why this is (and how to change it), one large reason is that it is not perceived as an inviting environment to women.

As a gay male, I tend to be sensitive to sexist comments made by professors, colleagues, even my adviser.  Not for the same reason a woman would be sensitive to them, although I can empathize, but because they make me feel like an outlier, like I don’t belong.  I really don’t understand, why would we “hire some dancing girls” to celebrate a successful paper submission?  And why would I pick a major based on the ability “to meet women”? And why is talking about how engineers can “pick up girls” such a popular topic (here’s a tip, maybe if you started thinking of women as human beings (editors note: I originally had written “human beans”, which might be the case as well)  and not some kind of alien species that you had to “trick” into talking to you, you’d be more successful).

I wish I could remember some more specific examples from the classroom.  All I can remember is numerous times feeling uncomfortable, both for myself, and for the few women around, after a professor (likely unknowingly) made a sexist comment in class.

Now, if you have read the parable yet, you’ll understand that I am not accusing the people making these comments of being bad people. They’re just unaware.  They legitimately do not understand why the comments they are making might be offensive to some people.  Because they have privilege.  It’s not a bad thing, or a good thing, it’s just the state of the world that we live in.  But because they have privilege, they also have the privilege of ignoring the people who raise concerns.

I have had good friends suggest that maybe I was just “an angsty gay boy” for feeling uncomfortable about the pervasive heteronormativity I experience in Engineering.  I have been told by colleagues, after raising concern about a sexist remark made by a professor, that “it’s not a big deal, he didn’t mean it that way, don’t worry about it”.  Well, I am worried about it.  And I’m also worried when people tell me not to worry about it.  As you know by now from reading the referenced posts, these responses are a nice way of saying “shut up”.  Subconciously that is usually often done because maybe they see some truth in what I’m saying but don’t want to admit it because they’re uncomfortable facing the fact that they have privilege, or maybe it’s to try and preserve the privilege that they have.

Academe should be an environment that is welcoming and inclusive to ALL people, and I think most of us feel that way.  So please, the next time someone tells you that a comment made them feel uncomfortable, listen to them.  And understand that it might take a while for you to understand WHY a comment that sounds perfectly reasonable to you might make someone else feel uncomfortable.

What privileged to you enjoy that you might not be aware of? And how might they lead you to say things that may make others feel uncomfortable?

What unearned privileges do you *not* have, and have you ever been made to feel uncomfortable, or unsafe as a result?


When Politics Attack

It is generally understood that educators (and especially administrators) must maintain a reasonably level of objectivity and personal restraint when mentioning politics or other highly controversial topics.  We have a mission to reach out to ALL members of society, and alienating some showing strong endorsement for one side or another of a heated political debate is generally seen as antithetical to our mission.

However, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, recently asked

“Under what circumstances and to what extent should a college or university president speak directly to political issues and even speak publicly on particular political candidacies?”


Read his full post on Huffington Post.

He concludes that when a political candidate, or the views of a candidate are a direct threat to the institution of education, then it is not only appropriate to speak up, but educators and administrators have a responsibility to do so.

I fully agree with his stance on this, and the particular examples he refers too, but I wonder where others fall? Are we all always going to agree which views are a direct threat to the institution, or will that opinion itself be clouded by personal bias and emotion?