Monthly Archives: September 2013

Learning in passing

I heard a story somewhere, that Michelangelo once had a great block of marble. Every day, he would go and stare at it for hours. His apprentice would ask him what he was doing.

“Working,” he’d say. But the block would stay the same.

This went on for weeks, for months, for years. And the block would stay the same. Then, one day, the apprentice came in and was amazed to discover the block had changed.

Michelangelo had created David.

This story is pretty ridiculous, but I like it as a metaphor for the work that happens when you’re thinking.

When I was an undergraduate, for example, I’d have a deadline, and I’d sit on it. Not procrastinating exactly, but not actively working on it either. If I had a paper due, I would think about the topic a lot. I’d think about it in the morning. I’d think about it while doing other things. I’d think about it before going to bed.

Then one day, I’d sit down and write the paper. And it was easy to write. Because I’d written the whole thing in my head.

Not that I was producing any Davids, but I’ve always found this manner of processing to be particularly helpful for me.

If something comes up and I don’t have an answer, I’ll say, “let me sit on that awhile.” And then some day I’ll have an answer. I don’t really know where it came from.

I started thinking about this recently after discussing (in my civic book club) Markus Prior’s Post-Broadcast Democracy, which explores the effect of media environment on political learning and engagement.

One thing that comes up a lot in this book is the idea of byproduct learning.

That is to say, learning from the environment around you, whether you intend to be learning from it or not. Prior gives the example of newsreels, short news films shown in movie houses before the main feature.

People went to the movies to see the movie. But they also saw the newsreel. They also learned from the newsreel. So really, whether they intended to be informed or not, they became informed by watching the newsreel.

A media environment where people can more efficiently find what they’re looking for decreases byproduct learning. If you only see the things you’re actively interested in, you won’t learn from the things that happen to cross your path. With the passing of newsreels and diminishing of broadcast television, Prior argues, byproduct learning is minimal in our current media environment.

But I’m not convinced that all is lost. These traditional venues may be dying, but there’s still opportunity for byproduct learning. There’s still opportunity to share with each other and learn from each other. There are still opportunities to make news accessible and to provide tools and resources that will inform a casual observer.

But are we doing it? And are people learning from this?

I don’t know. I’ll have to sit on that awhile.

Straight spaghetti

There’s an important connection between advertising and social justice. Between buying power and social power.

The economic structure we’ve created espouses that the ‘market is always right.’ Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, the idea has important implications for social action.

When I was in grad school, one of my professors speculated that mainstream acceptance of gay people and families would be driven by marketers.

Essentially, he argued, marketers couldn’t afford to ignore this population.

On average, gay couples have more disposable income than straight couples. Ironically, this is because homophobic sentiments around adoption by gay families leads to gay couples having more buying power. And, in a capitalist economy, buying power is an important form of power.

Just as politicians need to cater to senior citizens, marketers need to cater to gay couples. Not to mention all the folks who aren’t homophobes, of which there are many.

If you imagine companies as driven by nothing but profits, with no thought to morals (I know, hard to imagine, right?), then the calculation would go something like this:

If you appeal to gay consumers by featuring openly-gay people in your ads, then you risk alienating the homophobes. If you show only straight people in the your advertisements, then at best you miss tapping into this lucrative market and at worst you alienate everyone else.

The last few years we’ve been in a transition time. Some companies are boldly coming out as pro-gay, while others are playing it safe and hoping no one notices. But it’s getting harder and hard for companies not to take a stand on this issue.

And then, every once and awhile, a company totally implodes.

Like this week when Barilla chairman Guido Barilla, was asked in an Italian radio interview if he would consider using gay families in ads.

He said he would not.

“…But not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others … [but] I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”

Oh, crash and burn.

And believe it or not, his interview went downhill from there as Barilla expressed his views against adoption by gay parents, and told gays they could eat another pasta. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t realize he was being offensive.

Even his apologies are offensive. First he tried to clarify his remarks, saying he “simply wanted to highlight the central role of the woman in the family.”

Then, he tried apologizing further saying that he has “the utmost respect for homosexuals and…marriages between people of the same sex.” He maybe should have stopped there because he then added, “Barilla in its advertising has always chosen to represent the family because this is the symbol of hospitality and affection for everyone.”

So. A woman’s place is in the home (cooking pasta, I guess). Families with gay people aren’t real families (or aren’t hospitable?). And frankly I’m not clear on how he feels about gay women.

Basically it’s time to stop buying Barilla.

Barilla is a major company. It has half the Italian pasta market and a quarter of the U.S. market. This blunder and subsequent boycott has the potential to do major damage to their market share.

And I assure you other companies are watching.

Other companies breath a sigh of relief every time they’re not asked how they feel about gay people. But they know the day is coming when either they’ll have to diversify the people they present or they’ll find themselves in the position Barilla is in today.

And they’re hoping Barilla gets away with it, so that they can be homophobic too.

Update: Rival Bertoni responds with this ad.  Boom.

Visualizing racial segregation

I recently ran across an interesting map from the Demographics Research Group at the University of  Virginia. (Specifically at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service – gotta get that school name in there!)

Using 2010 Census data, researchers created an interactive map with racially color-coded dots for each person  residing in the United States. In total, the map has 308,745,538 dots, coded for White (blue), Black (green), Asian (red), Hispanic (orange), and Other (brown).

The map is really fascinating, so you should check it out.

Looking at the full map, you can see some general geographic trends – the large Black population in the south east, the Hispanic population in the south west, the fact that no one lives in the west

Of course, when I realized the map was interactive the first thing I had to do was look at my respective home towns.

Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and frankly is better integrated than many. Yet the map still shows clear racial segregation between neighborhoods. Along the industrial docks – the “flat lands,” as they’re called, you can see the large Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations. By the way, can you guess which area is Oakland’s Chinatown?

Then to the right, as you start getting into the Oakland hills, you can see wealthy, White, Piedmont as well as the middle class, White neighborhoods of the hills.

And if you’re wondering, I grew off 98th ave (bottom right). At least my neighborhood is more integrated than most – not too many White folks, but a good mix of everyone else.

Income disparity and migration

I’ve become particularly interested in economics as a tool for understanding social issues and for affecting social change.

So today I went to an interesting lecture by Samuel Bazzi, Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston University. Bazzi spoke about his recent working paper Wealth Heterogeneity, Income Shocks, and International Migration: Theory and Evidence from Indonesia. (Read full report)

At it’s heart this lecture was about mapping individual choices to national trends. This strikes me as a very economics concept. If peoples individual decision making can be explained and predicted by a mathematical model, then those decisions can be aggregated to explain, and predict, larger trends.

This is definitely a vision of social science as epistme, or “scientific” knowledge.

But can people’s decisions really be accurately mathematically modeled?

Well, I’m skeptical, but I have much more to learn. And, even if transforming individual actions into mathematical statements is not an accurate description of reality, I’m not prepared to assume that means there’s no value to this approach.

So let me tell you about migration in Indonesia. 

Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world. Immigration, particularly from rural areas, is common. Recruiters are active in rural towns, attracting around 700,000 migrants annually to 2-3 year contract jobs in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

So what determines whether someone immigrates or stays in Indonesia? 

Well, money, says the economist.

Immigrating for these fixed-year contract jobs can be fairly lucrative compared to rural agriculture. But the costs associated with migration make it difficult for the poorest people to take advantage of these opportunities. Alternately, for the wealthiest Indonesians migration may not be a lucrative enough opportunity.

So you end up with a trend where the poorest and the wealthiest don’t migrate, but those in the middle, do:

Using this data, Bazzi goes on to map and predict migration trends. His model looks particularly at the effects of sudden economic changes on migration. Years with higher rainfall are more profitable for farmers. And the 2004 Indonesian ban on imported rice drove up the cost of buying rice domestically. These economic changes influenced people’s need to migrate for higher wages and people’s ability to afford migration.

By looking at those economic changes and examining income this period, Bazzi says, you can use his model to predict migration next period.

Remedial Voting School

I’m thinking about starting a website, where people can anonymously post their embarrassing voted-related stories.

I mean…people have those, right?

Like this morning, when I had to vote three times before the machine would accept my ballot. That was awkward. After the first fail, or maybe it was the second, the poll worker politely reminded my that I should only vote for one person. After the third fail I asked him to check my ballot because by then I was convinced I was probably an idiot.

For the record, I did nothing wrong.

Everyone was actually super nice and polite about it. Because poll workers are awesome like that. But I still felt like kind of an idiot. Even though, really, I did nothing wrong. I still don’t know why the ballot box wouldn’t accept me. I’ve never had that problem before.

Well, not that problem, but others.

Like the time I got a stern warning from a poll worker because I accidentally wore a campaign sticker into the polling place. (I was really excited).

Or the time I went to vote after registering through a student group and inexplicably my name wasn’t on the ballot almost as though my registration form had never gotten mailed even though the student group swore that it would.Yeah, that was awkward.

After standing around and hemming and hawing a bit, the friendly poll people directed me to a provisional ballot, assuring me that it would get looked at if it was a close race and counted if I was a legitimate voter after all. Not that I really thought my one vote counted to begin with.

My point in all this, is that if I can so easily come up with three times I’ve embarrassed myself at the polls, I’m sure others must have stories too. And I worry that those incidents depress turnout.

Poll workers have been nothing but cordial and helpful to me while I act a fool, but I still leave feeling a bit awkward and uncomfortable. And I’m someone who more or less knows how the system works. And who gets way too excited about voting. And who doesn’t so much mind acting like a fool in public (thanks, theater training!).

So I wonder about other folks who try to vote and fail. Who live in places where the poll workers aren’t quite so friendly. Who decide that really, this whole business just isn’t worth the trouble.

Either I didn’t look or I didn’t care

When I was growing up, if I felt that a teacher was consistently not giving me sufficient feedback on my writing, I would start to slip things into my essays.

(Are you really reading this?) I’d ask in the middle of an argument.

Nobody ever noticed that.

To be fair, I didn’t do it that often. And when I did, it usually wasn’t on full-blown, quarter-of-your-grade type essays. It was on short assignments graded on some mysterious scale of checks and pluses. The kind of thing you knew the teacher probably wasn’t reading any way.

And I mean that with no disrespect for teachers, but merely as an illustration of something we all do.

Prioritizing, I believe they call it.

I often flippantly joke that if someone asks for my feedback and I respond without any comments or changes, then it probably means that either I didn’t look or I didn’t care.

Because, really, just about everything can be improved.

And “not caring” is just my over dramatic way of saying something’s not a high priority. If I know others are looking at something more closely and therefore my feedback isn’t critical, then often I don’t care. If I know something’s only going to be seen by a handful of people who probably won’t really read it anyway, then often I don’t care. If something’s gone through so many revisions that it’s basically done, but there’s still one more opportunity to check for glaring mistakes, then often…I don’t care.

I mean, I care deeply. But really, I don’t care.

Prioritizing is a fine art.

Much of the time, it’s my work to care – as a writer or as an editor. I review things over and over, fixing this, changing that, playing with the language here and there.

When I’m editing, I’ll notice one small change and think, well, that’s not worth correcting. Then the next small change makes me look more critically. Then before you know it, I’ve turned on track changes and gone back to the beginning.

Because really, I care a lot.

But, sometimes, it’s up to someone else to care. Sometimes, there’s a writer who cares and a few editors who care, and then I know: I don’t have to care

So then I just take a quick look, prioritize other things, and decide it looks fine.

And I know I’m not the only one who does this because of all my teachers who never noticed my sly (are you there?) questions. And because of all the times I’ve gotten sign off on documents that look fine in a 1-second look, but are clearly wrong in a 5-second look.

So I get suspicious when I get no feedback on something. I think feedback is critical. I think more voices leads to better outcomes.

But sometimes, people just don’t have the time to care.

Cautions of Capitalism

Capitalism came up a lot this week.

Well, really, it comes up a lot, but this week in particular I found myself having several conversations about the pitfalls of our capitalist economy.

One friend told me that, despite having a perfectly lovely, middle class job, she couldn’t buy fall clothes because they were just too expensive. I’ve had those moments.

It’s one of those times when you realize just what it means that wages have been stagnant.

Making matters worse, the clothes we buy – despite being more expensive – seem to be lower quality than they used to be. The fabric is generally thinner, meaning I need to wear (and buy) more layers than I used to. Also, they tend to easily rip, tear, or otherwise be worn through.

I had a hole in my sweater when discussing this.

And there’s a dangerous cycle in all of this. On the one hand, there’s the average consumer – squeezed by stagnant wages, increased costs, and the need to consume, discard, and replace more frequently. In this environment, consumers become much more discerning. I’m not going to replace my sweater because no one can really see the hole in the sleeve. Also, I can probably mend it. Also, that sweater’s pretty comfortable. So I won’t buy another.

Then there’s a business – squeezed by decreasing sales and increased costs, desperately trying to meet their quarterly goal by lowering production costs and increasing purchase frequency by making items more disposable and replaceable.

That cycle doesn’t really work for anyone. (Not to mention the environment.) But that seems to be the way capitalism is supposed to work? Each character works to meet their own interests. But doing that just continually makes the situation worse.

And then there’s debt.

I told someone this week something someone else once told me: You will have debt for the rest of your life. You’re supposed to.

It took me a really long time to wrap my head around that, and frankly, I don’t really understand it so much as I accept it. To fully participate in many aspects of our society, you need to have a (good) credit history. And if you don’t have debt, you don’t have a credit history.

I continually fight the urge to pay off my student loans as quickly as possible. That’s the way I tend to think about finances. Take on some debt, pay off your debt, save for future investments. Don’t over borrow, don’t over spend. Sounds pretty logical to me.

But, that’s kind of not how it’s supposed to work. I’m not supposed to pay off my student loan debt. It’s good debt.

Like clean coal.

I understand it, but I don’t really understand it. Does it really make sense that our system intentionally works this way? That seems crazy.

It feels like there must be other options.

Economist (and personal hero) Elinor Ostrom did a lot of work around collective action. Her work looked largely at collective management of limited resources, but the consumer/business cycle above has many connections.

Ostrom looked at communities where each person acting in their own interest would lead to failure for all. If you over fish, it might be good for you in the short term, but it’ll be bad for you in the long term.

She looked at how people worked together – collectively defining rules and regulations that worked for them. So everyone could fish, and everyone could keep fishing – because fishing was done in a way that allowed the fish population to sustain over time.

We’re facing a serious capitalist collective action problem. Having companies watching out for their own interests isn’t working. It isn’t working for us, and frankly, it isn’t really working for most companies.

But what’s the path to collaboration? What’s the sustainable system?

Homelessness in the news

So, there’s a story that’s been on the news a lot this week.

A homeless man found a backpack with $40,000 of cash and travelers checks. He turned it in. When word of his good deed got out, he was honored by the City of Boston, and donations started pouring in. By this morning’s newscast, he’d raised nearly $100,000.

Isn’t that just heartwarming?

So why do I cringe a little every time I see this story in the news?

When I first saw this story, the banter between the two anchors got awkward to the point that one anchor felt the need to say, “look, just because he’s homeless doesn’t mean he doesn’t have morals.”

It’s the kind of thing I’d hope wouldn’t need saying. But it needed saying as they talked about this story.

And now these donations are pouring in. And that’s great. This guy did a good thing and I hope this fund helps him out. He totally deserves it. Feel free to donate.

But I wonder about all those people donating.

Are they also donating to great organizations like the Somerville Homeless Coalition? Are they working to change the systemic issues that lead to and perpetuate homelessness in this country? Are they buying Spare Change and chatting with the homeless people they run into?

Or are they ignoring the problem. Ignoring the people.

At least, until some heartwarming story comes along. Then suddenly, giving a few bucks makes them feel like a hero.

Great ads round up: Carl Sciortino and Chipotle

As a marketer, I spend a lot of time actually watching ads. And when an ad comes up several times in my Facebook news feed – posted by my friends, no less – then I definitely take the time to stop and pay attention.

There’ve been a few such ads lately. The most recent is Carl Sciortino‘s ad where the openly gay state rep, currently running for U.S. Congress, “comes out” as a Massachusetts liberal to his tea party dad:

Now, of course, I’m totally biased because I already thought Sciortino was a total super star, but seriously, this ad is fantastic. Since launching yesterday, the ad has garnered nearly 150,000 YouTube hits, brought national attention, and landed Sciortino time on Hardball tomorrow night. Not too shabby.

So what makes this ad so great? Well, it’s funny, shows a family dynamic many of us can relate to, and is just…human. Not something we’ve really come to expect from politicians these days. The ad is professionally done, but it doesn’t feel overly polished – as if some polling council carefully constructed every word and facial expression.

And it shows political debate as we wish it could be.If only all of us could learn to disagree passionately without disparaging each other personally.If only we could learn to fight for our views with out loosing love and respect for each other. If only we could make it okay to disagree again.

Hands down one of the greatest political ads I’ve ever seen.

The other ad I’ve been seeing a lot these days is Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow,” meant to promote the company’s new app-based game:

What I find particularly interesting about this ad is that I’ve mostly seen it posted by real-food advocates with notes along the lines of, “Chipotle is still corporate evil, but I love this ad!”

It’s beautiful, well done, the animation is amazing, and that song from Willy Wonka still kind of creeps me out.

And it has a message you don’t expect to see from a fast food chain – that food which is mass produced and processed is not food at all.

Chipotle brands itself as “food with integrity,” touting on their website that they find “the very best ingredients raised with respect for the animals, the environment and the farmers.”

But really, who believes that?

Honestly, I know nothing about Chipotle’s business practices, but as a skeptical consumer the idea that a mega company, formerly owned by McDonald’s, could sustain such a lofty approach sounds a little suspect to me.

But I’m interested to see where Chipotle goes with this. From what I understand, Chipotle is specifically trying to reach consumers much like myself – Millennials who are skeptical of brands and corporations.

They says that any press is good press – and it’s entirely possible that by associating themselves with slow food Chipotle will successfully raise market share by being thought of as slow food.

But as for myself…I think I’ll still shop local and go to the farmer’s market.

Constitution Day

This cake, complete with chocolate constitution,
was on display when I went to the National
Constitution Center
in Philadelphia a few
years ago. I don’t know why.

Today is (U.S.) Constitution Day.

You may not have known that, but indeed, Constitution Day is celebrated every year on the 17th of September.

According to the U.S. Senate website, the holiday was started in 1956 and established as Constitution Week. The 17th itself, the date when delegates signed the Constitution, was originally known as Citizenship Day.

In 2004, the day was renamed “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day” after Senator Robert C. Byrd included the language in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of Fiscal Year 2005.

I’m not really sure why.

As far as I know, no one celebrates constitutions on June 15 – the date the Constitution of Massachusetts was ratified in 1780. Seven years before the U.S. Constitution.

The Massachusetts constitution, as you may know, is the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world.

The U.S. Constitution was modeled after it.

The purpose of Constitution Day is to educate people about the importance of the U.S. Constitution. So if you want to test your constitutional knowledge, check out this fun quiz from the Washington Post.

Who knows, you may just learn something.