A Modest Proposal

There needs to be a selection on every ballot that reads “None of the above”. If “None of the above” wins the election, then there is another election, only this time all the candidates that were on the previous ballot are banned from running. If we had such an option, I know how I’d be voting in November.

I won’t disrespect either candidate by sharing my opinion of them in this public forum. I don’t think either one will be the kind of president that I want leading our country. I am upset that I am being forced to vote for someone just because I believe that they are the lesser of two evils. I don’t think that this is what our founding fathers had in mind when they created our great republic.

The situation has gotten this way slowly over time. We have allowed our news channels to become more about entertainment than information. Even so, things were already bad a century ago when Mark Twain made this comment on the state of the press.

If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.   — Mark Twain

Our news media have one goal, to engage our attention so that we watch the advertising so that they make money. They don’t care if they cover the important events in the world. They love the current campaign because everyone is so agitated by it that they are watching just to see what will happen next. Meanwhile the advertising dollars are rolling in.

I guess we get the politicians we deserve. The way we treat our politicians, the only people that run for office are usually criminals and/or megalomaniacs. Anyone with sense enough to be a statesman wouldn’t put up with the abuse that we put our candidates for public office through.

I’ll vote in November. I won’t let the lousy quality of the ballot disenfranchise me. But I  hope we can do better the next time we elect a president. If there is a next time.

Where Have All the Statesmen Gone?

My daddy had a doctorate in rhetoric. He taught speech in high school. I learned much about the art of public speaking and persuasion from him. I was reviewing the article on Rhetoric on Wikipedia tonight. I was reminded of many of the mechanisms of persuasion, the syllogism, the enthymeme, ethos, pathos, and logos. These building blocks of public speaking have been taught to our public speakers and statesmen since before Aristotle wrote the book Rhetoric in ancient Greece.

When I was a boy, I could listen to the politicians of the day make speeches. I could read transcripts of their speeches in news papers and journals. I  haven’t heard any speeches lately. Our modern politicians speak in sound bites. They convince with one liners instead of well reasoned and crafted arguments. We don’t have a long enough attention span for that.

We used to have statesmen in this country. Individuals that served in the federal government because they felt it was their duty as citizens to represent their constituents and promote their interests and welfare. But somewhere along the line something changed. Now there are no statesmen. There are just self serving, greedy, puppets that do whatever their handlers tell them to.

It goes back to what I said about the eroding standards of education in a prior post. We want everything to be handed to us, predigested. We don’t want to think. We have been taught to regurgitate what we have been told. We don’t question whether it is the truth or not. Statesmen encouraged people to think about what they were saying. Our politicians just want to buy your vote with whatever empty promise they think will sway you.

I’m going to vote in the election this fall. But I sure miss the days of the statesmen. I guess that is the mark of growing older, missing the good old days of your youth. What will the youth of today miss when they grow older?

I’m Fed Up with Politics

I just read the weekly newsletter from Warren Ellis, a British science fiction writer that I follow. He is pretty depressed about the outcome of the vote on whether to leave the EU that was held this last Thursday. I don’t understand the issues well enough to have an opinion but it is clear that the country is very divided even after the vote. It feels similar to how things have felt here at home in the United States for the past decade or so.

It seems like things really started down hill when we had the contested election back in 2000. This was quickly followed by nine eleven and hurricane Katrina. I thought when Barack Obama was elected that things would be different but the right just continued to act like spoiled brats to the extent that it has inspired everyone in politics to act that way. I don’t have any confidence in any of our politicians, on either side of the aisle.

I think we’ve come to the point where any sane, rational person would be a fool to run for public office. We get the kind of politicians that we deserve. I don’t know why I continue to write about it. It is disturbing. It is what everyone is talking about. It is going to be the topic of conversation at least through the election in November. I suspect that no matter who wins the election, the other side will be whining about it after the election.

It’s Not Funny Anymore, Where are the REAL Candidates?

The United Kingdom just voted to leave the European Union. That is a rather extreme thing for them to do but they certainly have the right to do it. The problem is, I don’t think most UK voters really understood the underlying issues associated with this action. I’m sure I don’t understand them but from what I see as an outsider they have been subjected to an emotional campaign based on lies and half truths.

This strikes a resonant chord with me. I think that the American voters are being subjected to a very similar campaign waged by the presidential candidates. I don’t know if the UK made the correct choice but I’m almost certain that, right or wrong, they made it for the wrong reasons. I’m afraid we are about to repeat that in the United States.

I’m not happy with either candidate. I could list my reasons but I think the most important reason is that neither candidate is addressing any of the real problems that we are facing as a country. They are both putting on reality TV shows and I hate reality TV.

I’m going to vote. And, just between you and me, I’m going to be voting against the other candidate more than I am going to be voting for anyone. I don’t feel comfortable with sharing my selection online, but I do feel compelled to express my disgust with a political system that can offer up such pathetic candidates.

A Call to Action

I have been thinking a lot lately. I suppose I am a fairly contemplative guy most of the time. I try to glean meaning from the things that I observe in the world around me. I have been struggling with that of late. I just don’t understand why the people that are the nastiest rise to the top. I understand that we are living in a world where we have more access to news than has been the case in the entire history of the world. We know more about what is going on in Europe than our ancestors knew about what was going on in the next state.

Is this a good thing? I think so. It depends on how reliable the information is. If we don’t trust the information it is worthless. If someone manipulates the news, filters it, slants it, it becomes propaganda. When I was growing up propaganda was an emotionally charged word. It was what America’s enemies, the Communists, told their people to hide the atrocities they were committing. It never occurred to us that our own government was guilty of similar cover ups.

In the modern world the problem has evolved somewhat. Sure, governments still spin their news releases but the big culprits are the rich. Corporations hire armies of public relations staff to craft the story that puts them in the best light and then see that it is delivered as written. For the most part, our news channels have become entertainment channels that are more concerned with delivering eyeballs to advertisers than reporting the truth.

And we, the consumers of this mislabeled drivel are not free from blame. We don’t think critically about anything any more. We were schooled by an educational system that has been on a downward spiral for at least fifty years. Educational standards were adjusted to fit the bell curve of the performance of the classes instead of holding them to absolute standards of achievement. Then, when those students were turned out as the teachers of the next generation, they let the standards slip further.

We have tried several strategies to address this problem, with little success. We mandate universal testing only to find that the students are not being taught the fundamental principles of their subjects but rather how to pass the standardized tests on them. Such rote learning does not engender the kind of critical thinking necessary for a democracy.

Then there is the fact that we are so bombarded by information and entertainment we have become complacent. It’s too much trouble to go to the local city council meeting and take an active role in the community. I might miss the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory or Survivor. That is clearly more important than first hand civic involvement.

It is easy to point out what is wrong. It is hard, and becoming harder, to come up with viable solutions to these problems. Again the problem is, we haven’t been taught critical thinking skills. And those of us that have developed them are typically using them in a narrow scope, namely our professional endeavors.

I feel like the old man yelling at the neighborhood kids, “You kids stay off of my lawn!” I doubt that anyone will listen or if they do that they will do anything about it. I know that I haven’t done anything myself other than write this indictment. It isn’t that these problems haven’t been pointed out repeatedly over the years. It’s just that we still haven’t done anything about it.

Here’s my proposal. Everybody pick one thing that bothers them about the world. Think of some way that you can help make it better. And then do it. If it helps, good for you! But if it doesn’t immediately help, think of something else that you can try. Because in the final analysis, we’ve got to all pitch in and keep trying or just give up and lay down and die.

Can We Build a Better News Infrastructure?

Dave Winer said that we can build a better news network (please read his post for exactly what he said).

I commented:

The problem is that most people are just listening to figure out when it’s there turn to talk. They aren’t paying any attention to the substance of what the other person is saying. I think the abbreviation tl;dr is indicative of how that same principle translates into the print medium. I have lost all confidence in the news organizations in this (or any other) country. I feel less informed about the world than I ever was before the digital revolution. I can talk to someone on the other side of the world individual to individual but when the media is involved it all boils down to who stands to gain financially and who has paid whom the most to get their spin broadcast. I would like to see the internet give rise to a better news system as you advocate. What can we (users and developers alike) do to help bring this to life?

After struggling with getting links to this blog posted to Facebook and Twitter (manually, I am having trouble getting my process down to use Radio3), I discovered that Dave had replied to my comment:

Right now, the answer is simply to post using a tool like Radio3, which can post to the corporate networks as well as to the open Internet. So we get a chance to use your links to bootstrap a new open network. You sacrifice nothing, your posts still go to your current subscribers. That’s the outline of the plan.

I haven’t got Radio3 set up to post to Facebook through my corporate firewall so I am still figuring out the process to get this to work while I’m at work. Perhaps I should just refrain from posting while I’m at work. Any way, thanks for the response, Dave.

The Erosion of Educational Standards

The tone of this blog has always been conversational. It seems less pretentious to structure the posts like a conversation, albeit one sided, rather than use the stilted formalism that is advocated by most English teachers. It is not that they are wrong; learning to write within traditional formal constraints is good discipline. At one time, it sent the message that the author was educated.

These days it seems that most writers, particularly technical writers, paid little attention in English class. Or maybe it can be explained by a process of slowly eroding standards. Each new generation of teachers held their students to a more lax standard than that to which they were held.

Another factor is the lack of respect that English receives in the public school system. Science, math, history, all seem to have more direct relevance to success in a modern world that values technological prowess over rhetorical skills. You get the behavior that you reward.

When my grandfather was a teacher back in the first half of the twentieth century, he advocated teaching to mastery. In other words, the student did not move on to new material until they completely mastered the material at hand. There were no such thing as “social” promotions. This resulted in extremely well educated students.

Somewhere along the line, we decided that everyone that puts in the time should be able to get a diploma. This is a bad idea. It cheapens the achievement of those who work hard and master the curriculum to relax our standards and certify those who haven’t earned it. It engenders an attitude of entitlement.

It is also a bad idea for another reason. It has reduced the stature of American secondary education. Students from other countries are still held to traditional academic standards. Consequently, they out perform American students on standardized tests. This isn’t an indictment of the American students’ abilities, rather an indication that they were never challenged to meet their potential. My dad often said, “Always expect the best from your students and they will rarely disappoint you.”

The third and most important factor in the decline of American secondary education is that we refuse to pay for quality educators. Our teachers are so poorly paid that most of the teachers that we end up with are those that can’t get a better paying job in industry. There are some teachers that teach for the love of teaching; those whose salary is a second income or that are independently wealthy. But it is hard to make a living as a secondary teacher most places in America. We are trusting these people with our children. Why aren’t they the best paid professionals in our society?

There has been a movement to hold educators accountable for the education of our children. While I agree with the concept I think it has been poorly thought out and executed. By putting the emphasis on performance on standardized tests, we are forcing teachers to teach students to pass the standardized tests rather than to master the material. By threatening teachers with penalties including loss of their jobs if the students don’t pass the standardized tests we are creating fearful school environments that are actually detrimental to learning.

If we want to reclaim our world supremacy, we must start by paying the right kind of attention to our public school system. Better pay for teachers, less emphasis on numbers, more emphasis on qualitative analysis of student achievements are all part of this right kind of attention.