Monthly Archives: October 2013

Singing Science

There’s a long and proud tradition of totally nerdy sciences songs.

Flanders and Swann, Tom Lehrer, They Might Be Giants, Atom and His Package, and MC Hawking (You down with Entropy? Yeah you know me!) are just a few of the luminaries in this field.

There are so many great nerdy science songs that I once made a mixed tape on this subject (recorded off vinyl) for my high school chemistry teacher. This was the same class where a student took on the persona of a rapper he called ROYGBIV, and where some of my classmates wrote an amazing composition about the Chernobyl disaster set to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song. I’ve still got the lyrics somewhere.

This class was also when I decided to major in physics as an undergrad.

So I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that a teacher in Oakland, CA (Hollllla!) has started a blog of his students rapping about science. Science with Tom features such hits as Rosalind Franklin vs. Watson & Crick and Dwarf Planet, Wassup?

Being somewhat partial to Pluto, I include that particularly ditty below:

Well, school in Oakland has certainly changed a lot since my day.

While science songs may be nothing new, I’m excited to see in this digital era an educator who’s actively sharing this work and who hopes “that teachers and students across the world will utilize, remix, and reinvent these videos.”  And the comments on his blog and YouTube channel indicate that people are doing just that.

Science is fun. And it’s funny. And it takes creativity. It’s not some velociraptor waiting to attack. Like many things, it’s simply the story of people trying to make sense of the world around them.

Singing and dancing isn’t the only way to bring out those aspects, but it seems to be an effective way. So go on ahead – keep on singing.


The ones we’ve been waiting for (hint: it’s us)

Many of us are waiting for Godot.

In some ways, it’s easier. There’s so much to do and accomplish in our daily lives that some problems just seem insurmountable without someone else to lead the charge.

“I’ll work on that issue,” I’ll think to myself, “Just as soon as Godot gets here. Then I’ll help out. Then it will be amazing. Then there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.”

But, of course, Godot never comes.

And so I go about my aburdist French life. Doing this and that. Nibbling around the edges of change.

But perhaps it is time to stop waiting. Godot will ever come. No Deus ex Machina will descend from the heavens proclaiming all fair and just in the world. No change will come without each of us – individuals, all – working for it.

I recently finished reading my colleague Peter Levine’s book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: the Promise of Civic Renewal in America.

Levine explores how we can collectively tackle what he calls “wicked problems.” Those societal issues that are so complicated that your brain starts to leak out your ear when you think about them too hard. Or maybe that’s just me.

For example, creating a just and fair society is not simply a matter of raising the minimum wage – as if that were a simple matter. It’s about equalizing opportunities throughout everybody’s life. Ensuring that kids have healthy food to eat, safe homes to live in, and enriching opportunities which teach leadership and agency.

But when it’s a battle to make a small change like minimum wage, how can I even think about tackling bigger issues? When trying to unravel these deeper problems, I quickly go down a rabbit hole of economics, psychology, history and more. Finding fallible people and fallible systems.

Eventually I get frustrated. Why can’t it just work? If no one wants children to die terribly in violence, why doesn’t it just stop? Why does it have to be so complicated? And how on earth could I even begin to address a situation I don’t truly understand?

The truth is, I can’t design a perfect world. I’m not infallible or omniscient. I don’t know what’s best for everyone. I hardly know what’s best for me. Even if I spent every hour of every day reading relevant literature and thinking deeply about these problems, I still wouldn’t have the solutions. Godot would never come.

And that’s okay.

Because you’re not infallible or omniscient either. And neither is anyone else. It seems pretty clear our elected officials are not. Our journalists, moguls, and social icons are similarly wanting.

We’re all broken, scarred, scattered people doing our best in a difficult world. There will always be problems. Even if we could end poverty and war, there would still be disaster and disease.

The best we can do is work together. To talk to each other. As people. As individuals. As beings whose experiences have shaped our views and opinions. As creatures who see the world very differently, but who ultimately all want something better. For ourselves and for our children.

If we indeed are the ones we’ve been waiting for, then perhaps I would say, it is time to stop waiting.


Make some noise

It’s hard to describe the scene that is Honk! The annual gathering of activist street bands that takes over the streets and spirit of Somerville every Columbus Day weekend.
Since its founding, more than 50 bands from around the world have come to Somerville to rejoice, protest, and express. Some are radical, some are overtly political, and many have a crafting ability that would put a radicalized Martha Stewart to shame.
When the bands are in town, the streets come alive with music, voices, and collective power. The staging area for the Honk! parade, pictured above, is a marvel of costumes, characters, and music.
As the Honk! website explains,”they honk their horns because it’s the best way they know to protest a world of violence and oppression…each band has a unique sense of humor to complement their sound, as they mock and discredit the roots of hatred and injustice through the whimsical act of making music together. The result is a spectacle that is radical and subversive without being militant or sanctimonious.”

Making music together.

It sounds so simple. It makes me think of school children playing xylophones or regimented marching bands.

But the music of Honk! is alive. It inhales through every player and exhales through every listener. It pulses through the crowd. A calming cacophony. A baby joyously banging on pots and pans like that’s the only thing in the world.

There is hope and anger. Passion and despair. A public community of sound and expression.

Life writ loud.


Not a holiday

My rules for blogging is that I should post once every day – excluding weekends, holidays, and any day I claim off in advance.

Today is kind of a weird one. It’s technically a holiday. I have the day off work and I spent the morning tackling some quality yard work.

But I’ve never been a big fan of Columbus, and therefore have never been a big fan of Columbus day. So how should one celebrate this so called holiday?

Well, since I’m basically off today, I’m going to phone it in and suggest you read this excellent post from the Oatmeal. But since it’s not really a holiday, I can say that I blogged.


Fighting the same battles

Someone recently told me, “We keep fighting the same battles. Who has power changes. When it’s strategic to act changes. Who’s on our side changes. But it’s still the same battles.”

And it’s true.

It sounds kind of depressing, but it doesn’t have to be.  Optimists would say that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

And that sounds plausible, though I guess you’d have to ask a historian.

But I also think of my late cousin Richard. A labor organizer who got his start (I believe) organizing with the United Farm Workers, he used to joke that over the course of his illustrious career unions went from their strongest point in history to their weakest.

And while there are many things in the world today that are better than they were, there are also many things that aren’t so good and have even gotten worse in recent years.

I often think of life as a sine wave – sometimes good and sometimes bad.

But maybe the sine wave does…bend towards justice.


Imagining Utopia

I often wonder what utopia would look like.

As an activist, I fight for a better world, but what exactly does that mean? In daily life, there are specific issues I care about and mostly I fight to move the needle – even a little bit – on those.

But what would the world look like if I could win every war, if I could make all the rules and pass all the judgements?

I don’t know.

My first instinct is to imagine a world where everyone’s treated equitably – not in a creepy, Harrison Bergeron kind of way – but in a way that’s fair and that everyone feels good about. (Let’s leave aside for today that I can’t be more specific as to what that means or how to accomplish it.)

I imagine a world of peace, of understanding, of open minds and open hearts. I imagine a world where everyone just gets along.

And while that does sound lovely in a never-gonna-happen kind of way, I also have to ask myself – is that really the ideal?

In Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers – a social commentary thinly veiled as a science fiction novel – he advocates strongly for the benefit of war and conflict.

Now, if you haven’t read Starship Troopers, I highly recommend it. While it did win a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960, the book was highly criticized when it came out (and probably still would be if anyone read still it). Starship Troopers is undeniably pro-war.

And one parable from the book has always stuck with me.

Heinlein describes a planet called Sanctuary. A planet known as a paradise. “A planet as near to Earth as two planets can be.”

Yet, Heinlein says, “With all these advantages it barely got away from the starting gate. You see, it’s short on mutations; it does not enjoy Earth’s high level of natural radiation,”

Plants and people easily thrive on Sanctuary. Farmers can plant wheat without having to weed, because the Earth plant – accustomed to having to compete for survival, easily wipes out the Sanctuary flora, which never had to compete.

So what, Heinlein asks, will become of the humans that have now colonized this imaginary paradise?

“It doesn’t do a person any harm not to be radiated; in fact it’s a bit safer…But the descendants of those colonists won’t evolve…So what happens? Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a space ship? Or will they worry about the fate of their descendants and dose themselves regularly with X-rays or maybe set off lots of dirty-type nuclear explosions each year to build up a fallout reservoir in the atmosphere?”

Conflict, challenge and competition, Heinlein argues, are good.

And I think he’s got a point. That’s not to say we should turn to war to solve our problems. But differences and disagreements are good.

So what does utopia look like?

Well, I guess I’d have to say that utopia would be hard. We’d have good days and bad days. We’d disagree passionately. But we’d do so civilly. We’d try to understand where people are coming from and embrace disagreements as a growing experience for all involved. We’d believe that the best solutions come from the most voices and that everyone has something to add.

Utopia wouldn’t be paradise, but we’d all be working together to get there.


Civic education and solving social problems

Get a bunch of activists in a room, and before long people will start asking, “But what should we do?

There are many answers to this question including advocacy, direct action and service. One of the most forward thinking answers focuses on K-12 civic education.

Service tends to address the problem (feed the homeless), advocacy tends to address structural inequity (increase the minimum wage), and direct action tends to be some combination of those two (have a food drive while protesting).

But education, it seems to me, addresses the problems in ourselves.

If we were better – if all of us were more equipped to have difficult conversations, to understand pressing social issues, and to know how our institutions should work and do work – then as a society we would be more successful in tackling our problems.

A future where advocacy has resolved all our ills seems implausible, but a future where residents are capable of collaborating and equitably resolving issues gives reason for hope.

So, I was particularly excited  when my colleagues at CIRCLE released a new report this morning: All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement. Coming from CIRCLE’s Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, the report is the culmination of a year-long series of ambitious and original research projects.

One particularly compelling point:

“…Research has repeatedly confirmed the following pattern: Young people’s civic engagement is strongly related to their individual and family experiences-for example, whether they receive engaging civics education in school, discuss politics at home, or are contacted by a political campaign. The outcomes-voting and knowledge-vary from state to state. State policies regarding civic education and voting laws also vary. But once we consider all the relevant factors together in one statistical model, the impact of the state laws themselves either vanishes or becomes very small.”

State policies are still important. Personally, I would advocate for same-day voting, no voter ID requirement, and improved civic education. But even if I won all these policy changes, it wouldn’t be enough.

CIRCLE’s research shows that “When a controversy arises in the news, teachers tend to use it as an opportunity for civil debate (94.3%),” but nearly a quarter of these teachers also expressed concern that “parents or other adults would object to ‘bringing politics’ into their classrooms.”

We can do better.

As communities, we should support our schools in having these difficult conversations – modeling for our students the kind of civil deliberation we can’t seem to handle ourselves. As adults, we should engage the young people around us in conversations about politics, current events, and tough issues. We should ask for their help, their engagement, and their turnout on election day.

(CIRCLE also found that “being told to vote by a high school teacher and learning about voting predicted electoral engagement in 2012.”)

And we should make sure that all young people in our communities – whatever their schooling, economic, or family situation – we should make that all young people have opportunities to meaningfully engage.


Who are the disengaged? A case study from Italy

When political participation falls – who specifically is being left behind?

The data I’m familiar with is all United States based, and points to two compelling reasons: “non-voters” are less engaged because they primarily come from less affluent, less educated backgrounds and thus are less informed about politics; or “non-voters” are less informed about politics because they don’t really care – they prefer entertainment to news.

My colleagues at CIRCLE have some powerful numbers showing the systematic disenfranchisement of youth with no college experience. In the 2012 presidential election, young people with college experience voted at a rate of 55.9% – nearly twice that of their peers with no college experience (28.6%).

Markus Prior looks at disengagement through the lens of self-selection. In a high-choice media environment, people who prefer entertainment to news will naturally become less informed, and therefore vote less, he argues. His work looking at the effect of broadcast and cable television on voter turnout indicates that voting will go down when media choice goes up. If news is the only thing that’s on, you might watch news. But if you can watch Chopped instead…well then, you’ll become less informed.

So I was particularly interested this weekend when I hear an Italian economist make a totally different argument.

Ruben Durante, Assistant Professor of Economics, Sciences Po Paris (visiting Yale), says that in Italy, disengaged voters are the most politicized.

His recent working paper, Politics 2.0: the Multifaceted Effect of Broadband Internet on Political Participation, joint with F. Campante and F. Sobbrio, tracks recent voting trends in Italy.

Similar to Prior’s work exploring the impacts of a high choice and low choice media environments, Durante is interested in the effect of Internet usage on political engagement. Does voting increase because people have more access to information, or does it go down because people have more access to entertainment?

In the high choice media environment, following the wide adoption of Internet, Durante found that voting went down. In the election after that, though…participation went up.

The reason for this, Durante found, was that the market responded to the decline in voting by coming up with new ways to engage voters.

In the 2013 election – in which participation rose dramatically, the newly formed Five Star Movement garnered a shocking 25% of the vote – more than any other party. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that this party grew out of an online, grassroots, movement.

Durante wanted to know who stopped voting in the years for which participation declined. So he compared voting rates for the major parties.

Over 30 parties participate in each election, with two parties dominating and the rest sharing around 10% of the vote.

Durante found that the turnout for the two big parties stayed static during the years voting declined. It was the “outsider” parties that took a big hit.

And who votes for “outsiders”? The radicals.

They have significantly higher levels of political activism, and roughly equal levels of “Interest in politics” and “Political information” compared to the mainstream Center-Left Party. The mainstream Center-Right party is loyal at the polls, but otherwise disengaged.

Thus, Durante concludes, that the voters who dropped out didn’t do so because they were uneducated or didn’t care. They dropped out because they got more news on the Internet – and that reality was too depressing for them.

But when a grassroots movement decided to move into the political realm, to become part of mainstream politics, it brought those voters back with them.

The Internet made them more engaged.


University City

As I took the train into downtown Philadelphia, the conductor called out, “UniVERSity CiTY” with a 1920s attitude. The view outside the train window brought me fond and hard memories of my industrial and post-industrial homes.
University City. Sounds so full of hope and promise. The golden city at the heart of the American dream. Yet something deceptive seemed afoot. That moment when you realize the American dream is not available to everyone. When you realize the Emerald city is just a myth. When it feels like just another lie.
I later learned the area was named University City at the urging of the local institutions of higher education. It was a dangerous neighborhood. And as these institutions grew, they needed to clean up the neighborhood.
So they named a district. They subsidized businesses moving in. They put university patrols on the corners at night. They cleaned up the neighborhood. And intentionally gentrified it. The area is nicer now. Safer. It’s a good thing for those there now. And a bad thing for those before.
The American dream. University City.

It’s okay to say sorry

Not too long ago I ran across an article called 23 Things Every Woman Should Stop Doing. I assumed the first thing on the list would be to stop reading articles telling you what to do.

But alas, the first point advised to stop apologizing.

I mostly thought the whole article was stupid, so I filed it away in the back of my mind and didn’t give it much more thought.

Until I ran across an article called One easy secret to make people like and trust you more.

Their advice? Apologize more.

“People are often afraid to apologize for fear of looking weak,” said study author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor in Harvard Business School’s Negotiation, Organizations and Markets Unit.

“What we find in this paper is that it doesn’t harm perceptions of power. Instead, apologizing for things that aren’t your fault can show empathic concern, which leads people to trust you more.”

As mentioned in the quote above, the study looked specifically atsuperfluous apologies” – saying sorry for bad weather, traffic, or other things that are clearly not your fault.

That may be different from apologizing for inconveniencing someone, but the point is still relevant.

I’m often surprised when I “superfluously” apologize and someone responds, “It’s not your fault.”

I find that confusing. I know it’s not my fault that your basement flooded or your flight was delayed. I was saying sorry cause that kinda sucks and I’m sorry about that. That seems like a perfectly appropriate usage of the word “sorry,” and apparently Harvard professors agree.

I don’t really have a point to this post, so, you know…sorry.