Monthly Archives: July 2014

Circus Week!

I’ll be offline the rest of the week for “circus vacation” – a week culminating in the season ending performances of the OPENAIR Circus. Now in it’s 29th year, this non-profit children’s circus annually engages 200 students from Somerville and surrounding communities in a variety of circus arts.

If you’re in the area, feel free to stop by and catch one of our shows! All performances are at Conway Park, with a suggested donation of $3. The theme this year is “haunted circus,” but in a totally child-friendly way, of course. Show times are:

Friday, August 1 @ 7pm
Saturday, August 2 @ 2pm & 7pm
Sunday, August 3 @ 2pm

And, if you were wondering, here’s what a car load of stilts looks like:

stilts

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JCI Scholars Program

No one in society should be deprived of access to ideas.

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to learn about the JCI Scholars Program. Based at Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security men’s prison in central Maryland, the program offers volunteer, non-credit, college-level courses in a range of subjects including advanced literature, criminal justice, games and game design, and history of economic thought.

Should you feel inspired to support this work – and I hope you do – you can do so at patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram.

You can even skip the rest of this post and just head over there and donate now. I won’t be offended. Go ahead: patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram.

This work strikes me as an important, intrinsic good – especially since prison-based education was decimated after President Clinton and a Democratic congress made inmates ineligible for Pell grants in 1994. It’s easy to confuse tough on crime with being tough on people who’ve committed crimes, I suppose.

But when I started thinking about this post I realized…I didn’t know why I find this work important. Or at least I couldn’t articulate it. Perhaps it was just the words of Oscar Wilde ringing through my head:

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

…This too I know—and wise it were
If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

Of course, Wilde wrote these words while imprisoned for his own “crime” of sodomy – a point which emphasizes that not all those imprisoned are imprisoned justly. There is, for example, healthy debate about the appropriateness of prison sentences for non-violent drug related crimes. Additionally, the Innocence Project estimates that between 2.3% and 5% of U.S. prisoners are innocent of the crime they’ve been imprisoned for.

Furthermore there is deep injustice and racism inherent in the system. Mandatory minimums have disproportionately increased black men’s admissions to prison. The school to prison pipeline systematically segregates and disenfranchises predominately poor, black men. The United States, with 5% of the world’s population, has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

There is much work to be done. Much justice which needs to be achieved.

And, yet – that is not the point.

The bulk of the scholars who benefit from this program are violent offenders. Some are innocent perhaps, but others surely guilty. Yet the JCI Scholars Program boldly states, no one in society should be deprived of access to ideas.

No one.

Is that truly so bold?

I am close with people who have been the victims of violent crimes. Do I risk pulling a Michael Dukakis if I respond with something besides hate?

I am reminded of the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Would it truly be moral for me to hate, knowing that indeed, hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. Shall I willingly continue the plunge into the dark abyss of annihilation?

No. I could not in good conscious go down that path.

And here we get to the heart of the matter – for as much as I may wish it, good conscious is not enough. It is not the only force which guides me.

That is to say – it is easy to take comfort in the language of personal responsibility, so often encountered when we talk about incarceration.

Whether you advocate for harsh punishments or thoughtful rehabilitation, whether you imagine criminal acts are caused by a failure of the individual or a systemic failure of society, it is comforting to imagine there is a defining line between us and them. 

And perhaps these men, incarcerated as they may be for violent, perhaps brutal crimes, perhaps they have crossed a line I have not crossed. Perhaps we as society should regulate such behavior. But we as individuals cannot neglect our humanity.

It would be foolish to think them so different from myself.

That darkness, that capacity for terrible acts, exists in all of us. And we have each touched that darkness more closely than we might like to admit. It may be comforting to claim superior self-control or personal virtue, but wishing does not make it so. We have each committed our own terrible acts. Broken no laws, perhaps, but not without sin.

Wilde writes, each man kills the thing he loves, yet each man does not die.

Betrayed by his lover, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor. His heart nor his health ever recovered. The conviction that each man kills the thing he loves was an acute truth for him. He was imprisoned, but his lover, free and unbesmirched, had conducted the more heinous act. The kindest use a knife, because the dead so soon grow cold.

We do need laws and regulations and a system of justice. And as a society, we should work to make that system as just and equitable as possible.

But as people, as individuals facing other individuals, we should know better than to sit in judgement. We are none of us Good.

I hope that the education provided by the JCI Scholars program helps empower incarcerated citizens to address some of our system’s terrible inequity. I am no expert on prisons, and while I seek justice, I couldn’t think to speak for them on this matter.

I hope that the education provided by the JCI Scholars program provides some measure of peace, some insight on the Good Life, for those confined and perhaps haunted by their past deeds.

But ultimately, these outcomes are not what matter. What matters is that no one in society should be deprived of access to ideas.

No one.

And that is a good in its own right.

Support this work here: patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram.

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People and Particles

People are, by most accounts, individuals. Thus the challenge of building good societies becomes a question of the role of individuals within a collective.

“Individuals” and “society,” as John Dewey bemoans, are often treated as antitheses. Building societies degrades the individual while individual freedom degrades societies.

Within this framework, one’s only hope is to develop strategies to balance these opposing interests. Individual freedom should be supported, but only within reason – laws should protect the collective whole.

As individuals within a society, we may debate where the proper line is – should laws govern firearms? Seat belt use? – but the framework is the same. Balancing the individual and the collective.

In The Public and its Problems –  spoiler alert, the public has many problems – Dewey refutes the individual vs collective standard:

A thing is one when it stands, lies or moves as a unit independently of other things…But even vulgar common sense at once introduces certain qualifications. The tree stands only when rooted in soil; it lives or dies in the mode of its connections with sunlight, air and water. Then too the tree is a collection of interacting parts; is the tree a more single whole than its cells?

Now, this all sounds a little earthy crunchy, as it were. Yes, yes, we are all connected. All part of nature. Blah, blah, hippie speech. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Northern California, but I’ve heard this all before.

It sounds good in theory, a skeptic might say, but does this cosmic connection mean anything in the real world? I am still me, you are still you, and you and I are still unique individuals. We still have a challenge: individual vs. society.

Or could this be an issue of frame?

Consider Peter Singer’s argument for acting as a global citizen. He begins by quoting  the Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick: We should all agree that each of us is bound to show kindness to his parents and spouse and children, and to other kinsmen in a less degree…

Singer reports that his students “nod their heads in agreement at the various circles of moral concern” which Sidgwick goes on to name.

Then the Victorian takes this little jaunt: [We should show kindness] to those of our own race more than to black or yellow men, and generally to human beings in proportion to their affinity to ourselves.

Yikes. Awkward. Singer’s students “sit up in shock.”

Treating your family with more care than others seems, perhaps, natural, but preferring your own race over others seems racist. Because it is racist. The notion appropriately ruffles our modern morality.

The point, of course, is to highlight this dissonance. This type of moral reasoning – that I should care about those “close to me” above others – is so pervasive that it too often goes unchecked. I may believe it’s immoral to care more for Europeans than for Africans, but accepting that I do have “circles of concern” makes me prone to such an outrage.

Singer argues that we need to re-frame the question of who is “like us,” by recognizing the common humanity that binds us all together.

I’ll leave that argument aside for the moment and bring this back to Dewey by saying that if you accept circles of moral concern – if you love your children more than a stranger – that is indicative that the individual/society struggle is more complex than a duality. There are many levels of association in between.

As Dewey goes on to describe:

Any human being is in one respect an association, consisting of a multitude of of cells each living its own life. And as the activity of each cell is conditioned and directed by those with which it interacts, so the human being whom we fasten upon as individual par excellence is moved and regulated by his associations with others; what he does and what the consequences of his behavior are, what his experience consists of, cannot even be described, much less accounted for, in isolation.

It is only when we strip man of their associations that we find the abstraction we call an “individual.” But in taking away the associations, we have taken away the meaning, the context – the “individual” as we know it is but a reflection, a placeholder, a simplification of the truth.

In true Deweyan fashion, I think I’ll conclude this post with a science metaphor.

Light, as you may know, is both a particle and a wave. In some experiments, it will behave as a discrete, complete particle. A single whole.

In other experiments, it will behave as a wave – altering the waves around it and radiating outwards with no discernible beginning or end.

A particle and a wave.

While this was first demonstrated with light, a core principle of quantum physics is that every material object, every thing that exists, is both a particle and wave. Yes, indeed, you yourself are a particle and a wave.

At least in a physical sense.

But, of course, one could apply this metaphor to associational living, with each person both a particle – a discrete ball of something – and a wave – a changing presence which affects those around it just as it is affected in turn.

Our families become atoms, our cities molecules, our countries cells, and our world a collective whole – consisting of a multitude of of cells each living its own life.

And somehow this complex world of dual natures and interactions becomes something coherent. Amidst the chaos, the randomness, and noise. It is complex, indeed, but it works.

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Existence is Hard (But that’s okay)

I’ll admit to having something of a penchant for the melodramatic – somehow the art of such flourishes strike me as imbued with valuable meaning.

So perhaps it is simply that flair for the dramatic which occasionally catches me uttering such phrases as: well…existence is hard.

I made that very statement conversationally the other day, though in retrospect such apparently bleak phraseology is not the stuff so-called proper conversations are made of.

I immediately regretted having voiced it.

But, perhaps, there is no need for such regret. Perhaps the statement isn’t so melodramatic after all. In fact, is it not true that existence is hard?

Life is hard is a well known adage, and existence, I would posit, is roughly as hard as life.

Yet existence is hard sounds dark, dreary, and – as I was told – depressing. It’s the kind of thing you might say before tossing yourself off a cliff or going out in some other dramatic fashion.

I imagine someone simply disintegrating into nothingness, too overcome with the difficulty of existence to even hold their molecules together. They might simply disperse, scattered upon the air. An ex-parrot.

But why should it be so depressing that existence is hard? Should we rather have it that existence be easy?

I’ll not deny that the option sounds tempting. Some days, in particular, life would just be so much easier…if life were easy. But life isn’t easy. Existence is hard, and sometimes it’s a struggle to get out bed in the morning.

And that’s okay.

I don’t dream of a utopia where all is perfect and harmonious all the time. If such a state were even possible, I would find it…unsatisfactory. It sounds static, fake, forced. That is not life in its finest sense.

Growth and change and improvement takes conflict, disagreement, and tension.

I’d certainly agree that there are no shortage of things we can improve upon in our society. And I like to think that those improvements could create a better world. A more just world.

But life will always be hard. I’d not advocate that everyone live forever. Nor that everyone hold the same opinion. I might argue that we have the same capabilities, but I wouldn’t advocate to have the same functionings. These realities create challenges.

We should certainly strive to minimize those challenges. I’d advocate for civil dialogue. For systems that treat people fairly and equitably. For collective efforts to address our collective problems.

But we will still have problems. There’s no end to the road, only the constant challenge of continuous improvement. Facing those challenges will make us better, and braving those challenges will make the good times sweeter.

To embrace the role of dysfunction is to embrace the nature of change – to spurn a static ideal. To say that the bad times make you appreciate the good is to appreciate the bad times – to accept that they add value to a complicated world. To say existence is hard is to acknowledge a challenge – but to be cowed by it.

So yes, existence is hard. It is a challenge. But a worthy challenge.

I for one will strive to undertake it.

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Good Choices

There are a lot of choices one must make in life, and this can often be a stressful process – will the choice I select lead to the outcome I hope for?

One may never know the full answer to that question, but occasionally in life there are those rare moments where you can’t help but think – if this is happening, I must be doing something right.

So, since birthdays breed self-reflection, here, in no particular order, are a few moments that make me feel I must have made good choices somewhere along the line.

  • I woke up one morning and decided I’d go to work dressed as a pirate. That might have made the list by itself, but the best part of this story is that I already owned everything I needed to dress like a pirate. I don’t know what the Good Life is, but if I can dress like a pirate at whim, I must be doing something right.
  • Without any intentional strategy on my part, a group of my friends took the public bus to my wedding. Because that was the obvious way to get there.
  • At one point, a couple of my friends and I took it upon ourselves to make T-shirts for our favorite Gubernatorial candidate and wear them out to bars where we informally canvassed. Do we know how to have a good time or what?
  • The girl who was, unfortunately, probably the most picked-upon girl in my high school class once told me she respected me.
  • One of my birthday gifts today was this math joke: What does Sin B/ Tan B equal? Answer here.
  • My sister and I were once tasked with getting folding chairs out of a shed that turned out to be padlocked. However, whoever built the shed had put the hinges on the outside, so rather than return empty-handed, we took the hinges off, got what we needed, and screwed the hinges back on. We had a screwdriver on us, of course. Why would we not?
  • Pretty much my favorite thing in the world is to hang out with civic nerdy people. Or nerdy civic people. I’m not sure which.

I can’t claim to have made no unfortunate decisions, and its certainly the case that things haven’t always worked out as I might have hoped. But hey – at least I’m doing something right.

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Total Eclipse of the Community

Sometimes it seems like the problems of today are new – as though society once flourished and only recently fell into decay. If only we could go back, we cry, we’d be certain to regain paradise.

But just how far back would we have to go? Our grand parents? Our great-grandparents? Further?

A great post from xkcd bemoaning “the pace of modern life,” begins with this quote:

The art of letter-writing is fast dying out…We think we are too busy for such old-fashioned correspondence. We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper.

The Sunday Magazine
1871

Of course, a quote like this perhaps only reveals the dissonance between “modern” and “modernity.” Spoken casually, “modern” feels like an ever shortening window of current time – not even my floppy disks can claim to be modern any more.

“Modernity,” on the other hand, has been going on for some time. It’s more modern in a geologic sense.

And it’s somehow reassuring to read someone like John Dewey – so often seen as a bright-eyed optimist – write in 1927:

At election time, appeal to some time-worn slogan may galvanize [a voter] into a temporary notion that he has convictions on an important subjects…

The problems of today aren’t just the problems of today. They are challenges of modernity, and they didn’t spring up over night.

The public may indeed be in “eclipse,” as Dewey bemoaned, but we can still continue to search for the Great Community.

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Are there any girls there?

Inspired by the release of the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the New York Times recently published an article by Somerville resident Ethan Gilsdorf on how role playing has influenced a generation of writers.

While the article manages to quote two women – I assume they have a quota – the analysis does seem to leave something out. Consider Gilsdorf’s list of impressive people who were inspired by gaming:

China Miéville (“The City & the City”); Brent Hartinger (“Geography Club”); Cory DoctorowSherman AlexieStephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire”); Robin Williams, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”); Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Chris Weitz (“American Pie”).

Oh, that’s right. They’re all dudes.

That annoys me enough to put aside for the moment that the article argues it’s okay to be a nerdy freak when you’re younger because you might still grow up to be a productive member of society. (Everyone but George R. R. Martin is identified as a “former” gamer, apparently having grown out of the scandalous habit.)

I’m not really surprised no impressive women are listed as having been influenced by gaming. After all, we all know that the female gamer is a myth – like unicorns, griffins, or honest politicians.

But really…are there female gamers? Well, yes, the population is definitely greater than zero, but beyond that it’s shockingly difficult to answer with any accuracy.

Since the video game industry rakes in $15 billion annually, they have the most reliable data when it comes to consumer analysis. A 2013 study from the Entertainment Software Association found the population of video/online gamers is close to equal by gender, 55% men and 45% women.

Unfortunately, numbers for tabletop games (eg, board games, card games, and role playing games) are harder to discern. The most rigorous study – conducted by Wizards of the Coast way back in 1999 – found women make up 19% of monthly players. “This represents a total population of several million active female hobby gamers,” Wizards adds.

Unlike the Wizards study, which was conducted with a random sample representative of the U.S. population, more recent studies have relied on recruitment through online gaming forums. This sampling bias has almost certainly skewed their results. Consider, for example, a 2010 user poll from Board Game Geek which found tabletop gaming to be virtually entirely male (94.4%).

It is, perhaps, not surprising that forum-based survey data would reveal a higher percentage of men than a random sample. Among the gaming community, it’s generally believed that female gamers are like air – they exist, but you never see them.

Presumably this is because the gaming community is notoriously misogynistic. A point, of course, most eloquently captured in the classic Dead Alewives Dungeons and Dragons sketch:

“Are there any girls there? Because if there are I want to do them!”

But, misogyny aside, it seems clear that somewhere between 5%-45% of the gaming population is female. With the Wizards study estimating that 2.25 million people play monthly, even conservative estimates would indicate a not insignificant number of female gamers in the country.

Surely, some of them must have been inspired by this experience?

Jennifer Grouling, Assistant Professor of English at Ball State University, is one of the foremost (or few) scholars of gaming. As she describes, her book, The Creation of Narrative in Table-top Role-Playing Games, “examines issues of narrative development and co-authorship in face-to-face role-playing games.”

One might infer that role playing has been a creative inspiration for her, but since personal development is not the focus of her scholarship, Grouling doesn’t really describe this dimension for any of her fellow players, much less herself.

Google searches for “women influenced by gaming,” “women influenced by tabletop games,” or “women influenced by D&D” yield disappointing results. (Did you mean, women who influenced history?)

Female gamers may exist mathematically, but they don’t exist as part of the narrative.

With a little digging, one can find lists of female video game designers, which is a good start, but still not what I’m looking for.

On the whole of the Internet, I managed to find one blog post from writer Freya Robertson discussing how gaming (video and tabletop) influenced her work. One post.

One post!

I know I shouldn’t be surprised – as the narrative of the original New York Times article indicates, while the gaming community as a whole has received more mainstream acceptance, it still exists on the fringes of the norm.

It’s not uncommon to hear people “admit” to being a gamer, or perhaps, to being a “former gamer. You know, when I was younger…” or my personal favorite, “…I tried that once…(but I didn’t inhale?).”

Google searches on “people influenced by gaming” and variations thereof, results in the New York Times article followed by…a smattering of debate on whether video games make you violent.

So it’s clear that gamers as a whole are still fighting to shake off that stereotype of the socially-inept, never-getting-any, teenage boy living in his parents basement. The community as a whole is still fighting for respect.

And when you’re fighting for respect, it’s easy to forget that your community has many sub-communities. That it’s not just about making male gamers an acceptable norm.

It’s about showing that we are a rich community of thoughtful, diverse people who dare to explore, engage, and create. That no matter who you are, gaming is not something to be ashamed of – in fact, it’s something to be proud of. And it’s about being a community where no matter who you are or what you’re into,  you can be yourself and find acceptance.

It’s about fighting together and demanding respect for all of us.

After all, female gamers are like global warming – real and undeniable.

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The Power of Naïvety

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to watch part of a documentary on Freedom Summer. One woman, who had worked as an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had an interesting reflection on the experience (paraphrased here):

People think we were brave. The truth is, we weren’t brave. We were young and stupid and we didn’t fully understand the danger we were in.

In the discussion that followed, many in the room picked up on this theme. Some argued that the organizer was being too humble – that those involved in the movement truly were brave.

Others argued that participant’s so-called lack of knowledge was a benefit, that too often activists are stuck by “analysis paralysis,” or simply don’t act because “know” that there’s a small probability of success.

Finally, some combined the two ideas, arguing that it was their naivety which made them brave.

I don’t know which of these interpretations is the most accurate representation of reality – if indeed there is a general reality which could be accurately interpreted.

But however you interpret this statement, it raises an interesting question – is there a power in naïvety and should we encourage that?

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Frontiers of Democracy

I’ll be spending the next two days at Tisch College’s annual Frontiers of Democracy conference. Over 150 scholars and practioners will come together for engaging conversations about strengthening our democracy.

“Short take” speakers will be live streamed at the link above, and you can follow the conversation on Twitter using #DemFront.

Here is the framing statement for this year’s conference:

Frontiers 2014: The State of the Civic Field

Civic work is proliferating: many different kinds of people, working in different contexts and issue areas, are expanding the ways in which citizens engage with government, community, and each other. It is increasingly clear that growing inequality, social and political fragmentation, and lack of democratic opportunities are undermining our efforts to address public priorities such as health, education, poverty, the environment, and government reform. The 2014 “Frontiers of Democracy” conference, in downtown Boston, for an invigorating, argumentative, civil discussion on the state and future of the civic field.

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Summer Reading

I’ve been asked to submit (one of many) summer reading recommendations to Tufts’ annual list of faculty/staff recommendations.

There are so many good books I could write about that it’s challenging to pick just one to recommend, but I’ve decided to go with Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino. I read this book a few months ago and it has really stuck with me.

So, here is my official summer reading recommendation:

Non-fiction
Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino. A powerful memoir and cutting analysis of civil rights law, Yoshino uses his personal story as a gay Asian American to illustrate the ways in which we are all forced to hide our true selves. Even in this age where civil rights has come so far, social pressure – reinforced by legal rulings – pushes conformity to a norm which isn’t authentic to anyone. Yoshino demonstrates how real psychological damage can result from “covering” your true self. While everyone suffers cover covering to some degree, Yoshino focuses on communities most broadly and deeply affected: racial minorities, women, and LGBT people. A poet turned constitutional scholar, Yoshino provides specific examples of case law that has reinforced covering – such as the upholding of company dress codes prohibiting corn rows or requiring make up for female employees. These rulings run contrary to a true embracing of civil rights – of accepting everyone for whomever they are. A quick, engaging and thought-provoking read.

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