Children and Power

Just as my brother’s kids figured out (see his post Children and Power), I figured out in about third grade that teachers had surprisingly little power over me: they lacked the tools to compel me to do anything I didn’t want to do.

Oh, they had tools that could make things unpleasant for me. But once I figured out that the unpleasantness that they could impose was limited and bearable—and, in particular, less unpleasant than spending large blocks of my time doing busywork—their ability to control me was just about zero.

I did make some mistakes, as is to be expected when important decisions are being made by someone that age. I figured out almost immediately that busywork was pointless, and started refusing to do it. It was only when I got to college that I figured out that the truth is more complex: only most busywork is pointless. (In particular, learning the multiplication tables and learning how to spell the common words in the English language are both worth doing and inevitably involve some busywork.) But there was so much pointless busywork, and I lacked the perspective to separate the pointless from the pointy.

Either of two things might have saved me a lot of grief later:

  1. Elimination of pointless busywork from the curriculum. (Then I’d never have gotten the idea that it was pointless in the first place.)
  2. Someone that I trusted to clue me in as to which few bits of busywork would eventually turn out to have been worth my time.

The first didn’t exist, even though I went to an elementary school that stood head and shoulders above others in treating students like people.

The second is a bit more complex and subtle. There were people I trusted, but I think they hesitated to admit that most of the busywork was pointless (because doing so would undermine the teachers) and probably didn’t know which things I wouldn’t be able to just pick up along the way. (For example, my dad picked up spelling along the way, and never needed to learn how to spell by laboriously memorizing the list of letters that makes up each word the way I did.)

Looking back, I marvel at just how adversarial the whole school system is, even for a student who was bright and not inclined to be disruptive.

Here’s an example: I remember a set of first-grade arithmetic drills done with pictures of counting sticks. Our worksheets would show pictures of sticks, which we were supposed to count. When the number of sticks was large, they’d be grouped into batches of 10. But my experience with school was that it was an adversarial process. To my mind (as a bright first-grader), it seemed extremely likely that the worksheets would group the sticks in batches of 10 for a while—just long enough that we’d lulled into taking it for granted—and then would start printing some groups with 9 or 11 sticks. Then any student who had gotten so lazy as to not check each group would get the problem wrong and be mocked for being so stupid and trusting as to not count out the sticks in each bundle.

Imagine what I must have gone through—imagine how teachers must have treated me in the months leading up to that point—to have made me expect that. (I certainly wouldn’t have expected such trickery from most of the other people that I interacted with.) And those were good teachers! I shudder to think about kids who have to suffer with bad teachers.

Kids who learn early that their power is greater than they imagine will end up making things harder for themselves in some ways. But I still think they come out ahead. I’m glad it’s a lesson I learned early.

Zero tolerance on withholding care

I’m generally against zero-tolerance policies. I’ve read too many stories about kids expelled because of an asthma inhaler or a pocket knife forgotten in a jacket pocket (or in the trunk of a car) and accidentally brought to school. Those sorts of harmless, technical violations of the rules are exactly the sort thing that should be tolerated.

But there’s one zero-tolerance policy that I’d really like to see. Prompted by the gruesome story Occupy Oakland: second Iraq war veteran injured after police clashes, about a man beaten so badly by police that his spleen was lacerated, who was then denied medical care for 18 hours, I think we need a zero-tolerance policy for failure to provide medical care to prisoners.

Every person involved in taking or holding a prisoner—police, guards, staff, managers—should be absolutely responsible for doing everything necessary to ensure that needed care is provided.

If needed care is not provided, everyone who heard the prisoner request care, saw the prisoner in distress, or got a report that the prisoner needs or has requested care, should be fired.

There should be no exceptions.


I am the 99%, and I am lucky

The crowd in West Side Park at the Occupy CU rally

I came out of college almost debt-free, because my parents paid for my education.

I got a job writing software. It was exactly what I wanted to do—the only thing I wanted to do as much as writing prose. I remember being glad that my manager didn’t know that I’d have worked for free, just to get access to the computers. (In 1981, computers were still expensive.)

I started my career right at the moment when software started to became important everywhere. Even though my degree was in economics, I had no trouble finding software jobs.

I got raises, because software went on becoming more important. Even when the companies I worked for fell on bad times, I found a new job without difficulty.

I saw things changing. After about 1990, jobs went away a lot quicker, and when they went away, they didn’t come back.

I was still okay, because software was still important.

I realized that software wasn’t going to remain special. I realized that millions of people around the world could write software just as well as I could. I realized that the ones in China and India could live a middle-class life on one-tenth the money I was earning. I realized that I couldn’t compete with them on price.

I figured I was safe for a while, but only because there were so many managers who were sure that an employee he couldn’t see working probably wasn’t working. But that wouldn’t last. Managers would adapt. And managers who couldn’t adapt would lose their jobs.

I started saving money. I could see that I wasn’t saving it fast enough, so I started living more frugally. That was a double win: Spending less left more money to save, and it also provided me with an existence proof that I could live on less.

I lost my job when Motorola closed its Champaign facility in August of 2007. By then, I had saved and invested a lot of money. Not enough to retire in any ordinary sense, but enough that I figured I could get by without a regular job.

I am a writer now. It’s exactly what I want to do.

I am very lucky. That’s not unusual; there are a lot of lucky people. What’s a little unusual is that I know just how lucky I’ve been.

I am the 99%.

Open Wireless

Both my brother and the local makerspace’s Brian Duggan shared the link to the EFF’s Why We Need An Open Wireless Movement. Steven, because he’s the only person he knows who actually does run an open access point for his home network, and Brian because the local meshing network access point project is already able to provide this part of the necessary functionality.

At the meeting last night with some of access point folks, we got a quick demo of how to configure an access point running OpenWrt so that it provided both a closed network with access to the LAN and an open network that only had access to the WAN (hence, no access to local servers, printers, etc.).

The demo didn’t go as far as to show how to configure the system with quality of service limitations on the open network (so that random strangers can use your network, but can’t suck down all your bandwidth). Figuring that out will be one of my next steps.

There’s some info on OpenWrt’s quality of service page, but it’d be really nice to have an example with some appropriate settings that would allow some basic email and web surfing while leaving most of the bandwidth of a typical cable or DSL connection available for the connection owner. I haven’t found that yet. (Actually, I think I understand why it doesn’t exist. The upload and download speeds are set in kBits/s, so the correct values depend on the speed of your underlying connection. Values that shared 10% of a fast cable-modem connection could consume a large fraction of a DSL connection. Still, it’d be nice if there were some suggested values for typical configurations.)

Finding your self-sufficient sweet spot

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?



[This article originally appeared as a guest post on Self Reliance Exchange, but that site no longer exists and the successor site doesn’t seem to be using my post. Rather than just let the article disappear, I figured I’d post it here.]

Fabric on loom
Fabric on Loom

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?

My wife spins and weaves. I have a beautiful sweater that she hand knit from hand spun yarn. It’s wonderful—and it’s comforting to know that my household is not only self-sufficient in woolens, we produce a surplus that we can sell or trade. But the fact is you can buy a perfectly good sweater at Wal-Mart for less than the cost of the yarn to knit it.

If you try to be genuinely self-sufficient—in the sense of producing through your own labor everything your household uses, like a hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer—you’re going to be poor. Your neighbor who works at a job for wages or a salary is going to be better off by almost every measure.

Oh, his factory-made microwave meals won’t be as good as home-cooked food from your garden and his furniture from Ikea won’t be as good as what you make in your wood shop. But he’ll have so much more! In the time it takes you just to build a kiln he’ll earn enough money to buy a thirty piece set of Corelle ware. Unless he’s only making minimum wage, he’ll probably have enough left over to buy an iPod—and you’ll never be able to make your own iPod from sand and vegetable oil.

That’s why we have trade. If everybody specializes in one or a few things, and then trades with others for what they need, everybody can be better off. It raises your standard of living, but it means that you can’t be self-sufficient.

There are still many reasons to do for yourself. You can make exactly what you want, instead of having to make do with whatever happens to be available on the market. You can use superior materials, and take them from the environment in a sustainable manner. You don’t have to worry that the stuff you use was made in a sweatshop by children or prisoners or slaves. You aren’t dependent on the continued smooth functioning of the vast global economy. But you can’t be self-sufficient in very many things—even if you had the skills and the tools and the land, you’d quickly run out of time.

So, we find ourselves trying to figure out where we belong on the continuum between actual self-sufficiency and ordinary self-reliance. How do you find the sweet spot? Here are my thoughts:

  1. Focus on necessities. It’s a lot more important to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, and housing than it is to be self-sufficient in tennis rackets and rollerblades.
  2. Focus on capabilities. Instead of trying to fill your pantry by hunting and fishing, do enough to maintain and improve your skills—and then start developing your next capability.
  3. Focus on what’s practical. It’s really hard to be self-sufficient in window glass and impossible to be self-sufficient in digital watches. Don’t waste your time.

Start with the few things where homemade actually is cheaper, like gardening. Then move on to things that can be done as a hobby—and that you’d enjoy doing as a hobby. Don’t let point #1 above (necessities) keep you from developing self-sufficiency in something that’s fun and interesting just because it’s not important. It may not be important to be self-sufficient in beer, but the equipment is cheap, brewing is a pretty easy skill to acquire, and the result is better than what you can buy.

Finally, remember that there’s a vast range between being “self” sufficient and being dependent on a global supply chain. It’s almost as good as self-sufficiency to source things from your neighbors. Short of that, it’s still an improvement to source things closer rather than farther—your home town, your region, your state, your country.

Once you set your priorities, don’t hesitate to go with the cheapest option for things that don’t make the cut.  That frees up money that you can use on the important underpinnings of self-sufficiency—things like land and tools in particular, but also things like books, training classes, materials to practice with, and so on.

Then you’re in your sweet spot.

Public art in Chrysler’s Detroit ad

As a big fan of public art, I was particularly impressed with the fragments of public art featured in Chrysler’s “imported from Detroit” Superbowl ad:

There’s a lot to like here. There’s a lot of art deco, and I like art deco. There’s a lot of different kinds of art—murals, sculpture, architecture. And the spot features the sort of public spaces that are being phased out these days (in favor of commercial spaces that are technically only open to customers). The public square is important, and neither the mall nor the parking lot of a strip malls is an adequate substitute.

Anyway, one of the good things about public art on display in public places is that it’s available for use in spots like this. It’s part of our culture.

Would we lose internet service if there were riots?

All the smart folks on twitter have been asking questions along this line. If we had civil unrest, would the government try to cut off our internet access? (I have no doubt that if they tried, they’d succeed. Internet and cell phone providers are regulated companies; they’d roll over in two seconds.)

I think that would be bad.

First of all, it would be unconstitutional. At a minimum, such an action would infringe several first amendment freedoms: speech, press, assembly, and to petition the government.

More important, in a stable democracy like the US, I think internet and cellular service would be at least as much a stabilizing force as it would be a destabilizing force. In the event of civil unrest there would be many powerful voices calling for calm and for non-violence. Shutting off the internet would silence those voices along with the voices of those trying to organize protests.

So, I just sent this note to my congressman, urging him to take steps to protect citizens’ access to telecommunications services:

Prompted by the recent news that the Egyptian government cut off internet and cell phone connectivity for its citizens, it occurred to me that this tool of repression should not be available in the United States.

At a minimum, I urge you to oppose any legislation along the lines of last year’s “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act,” but I think you should go further.

I’d very much like to see legislation that would specifically bar the government from shutting down internet or cellular connectivity for US citizens, and that would bar telecommunication providers from “voluntarily” complying with “requests” from the government that they stop providing connectivity to persons in the US.

Of course, legal solutions only go so far. They would be much strengthened by technological solutions. Cell phones and internet access points can be designed to mesh with other nearby devices. That would make it vastly more difficult for a top-down order to shut down connectivity—hopefully, difficult enough that governments wouldn’t even try.

[Updated 30 January 2011: Here’s a list of ad-hoc meshing protocols that might serve as a basis for making a top-down shutdown impossible.]

Localization—not just for food

I spent the whole decade of the 1990s hoping that the economic upturn would prove that the strategy of letting employees go the instant there wasn’t any work to do was unwise. Surely, I thought, those companies would suffer—missing out on business because they didn’t have the skilled employees to do the work (and screwing up on what business they did get, because rushing to hire new employees would result in picking up some duds).

My hopes remained unfulfilled. Oh, probably plenty of companies did suffer from an inability to hire skilled, reliable workers at reasonable wages. Certainly employers complain that they can’t, especially when they’re lobbying Congress for an expansion of the H1 visa program. But it didn’t matter, because the company’s were profitable. (Profitable companies may do as they please; unprofitable companies must kowtow to the financial markets.)

I’ve written about this before, in a two part series at Wise Bread called “What’s An Employee To Do?” Part 1 laid out the issue in some detail, and part 2 talked about the best strategies for an employee to follow. (There’s actually a lot of opportunity for employees in the current situation, as long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking of themselves as employees.)

Prompted by Tobias Buckell’s recent post Working culture, though, I wanted to talk a little about the broader impacts of the way we’ve come to arrange society, because there were other reasons that employers kept employees on during a business downturn. Business owners kept employees on during a downturn because they cared about them as people, because they were friends and neighbors, because the whole community suffered when one person lost a job.

A small part of the reason that things are different now is that this is less true. Managers are not as likely to live in the same neighborhoods as their employees. They don’t shop in the same stores. Their kids don’t go to the same schools. In any case, the decisions are being made far away. (The local managers were completely out of the loop when the site where I used to work was closed down three years ago.)

But that’s just been an enabler of this shift. The real cause is the behavior of the financial markets, which since 1990 have crushed any employer that tries to resist, by driving its stock price low enough that someone could acquire them and bring in new management—management that would lay off plenty of workers.

This isn’t new, of course. Business owners knew that going public meant putting their business in the jaws of the financial market nutcracker—but they made so much money it was worth it. You occasionally hear about the rare business owner who has declined to go public for just that reason—but you hear about it because it’s rare enough as to be news.

As Toby describes, Germany has structures and institutions in place to support businesses that are small and local. Unions are a big one—including the government support for unions that encourage and enable unions to work together in a block. Also important are rules that lean against market pressures for business consolidation, offshoring employment, etc.

Personally, I used to support a purely market-based approach. That’s why I spent the 1990s waiting for markets to punish the bad actors. I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine to leave the fate of the companies up to the markets, but it unacceptable to leave to the markets the fate of whole communities.

Similarly, I used to support the notion that the right way to address this sort of issue was education (because I believe in free choice). Yes, stuff made by prisoners, slaves, and children costs less. Yes, stuff made by heavy industry costs less if the manufacturers are allowed to wreak environmental destruction all across their supply chain. But surely people would make different purchasing choices if they understood that they’re not only paying to have all this harm done, they’re also putting their friends and neighbors (and themselves) out of work. There again, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out, I simply didn’t understand how much cheaper that stuff was than stuff made locally.

Given the option to have the accoutrements of a middle-class standard of living—clothes, dishes, furniture, gizmos—it’s become clear that most Americans will cheerfully accept any amount of slave labor and environmental destruction (as long as they don’t have to see it) and tolerate the destruction of local businesses and the bankruptcy of their neighbors.

They’ll complain about how it affects property values and how it makes it tough to find a job. But then they’ll take their unemployment check and food stamps and go buy the cheapest stuff they can find at WalMart.

Neither markets nor eduction are going to do the job. The U.S. needs to create institutional support along the lines of what Germany provides.

The moderately grim truth

Via Dmitry Orlov, I happened upon America: The Grim Truth, which I think is worth reading, even though I disagree with both the forecast and the prescription.

It’s worth reading because I think it’s actually pretty good descriptively—it nails the split between the reality of the current situation and the average American’s perception of it. I am persistently amazed at the things that Americans just accept.

On food:

Much of the beef you eat has been exposed to fecal matter in processing. Your chicken is contaminated with salmonella. Your stock animals and poultry are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics.

On education:

In most countries in the developed world, higher education is either free or heavily subsidized; in the United States, a university degree can set you back over US$100,000. Thus, you enter the working world with a crushing debt. Forget about taking a year off to travel the world and find yourself – you’ve got to start working or watch your credit rating plummet.

On wealth:

America has the illusion of great wealth because there’s a lot of “stuff” around, but who really owns it? In real terms, the average American is poorer than the poorest ghetto dweller in Manila, because at least they have no debts. If they want to pack up and leave, they can; if you want to leave, you can’t, because you’ve got debts to pay.

On freedom:

Why would anyone put up with this? Ask any American and you’ll get the same answer: because America is the freest country on earth. If you believe this, I’ve got some more bad news for you: America is actually among the least free countries on earth. Your piss is tested, your emails and phone calls are monitored, your medical records are gathered, and you are never more than one stray comment away from writhing on the ground with two Taser prongs in your ass.

Even though I agree with just about all of that, I disagree on the prospects for the future.

First of all, the current situation is still an improvement over most of US history. Through our whole first century and a half, the average American lived a life just as dangerous, just as precarious, and just as vulnerable as the one described above. And if the average American didn’t owe just as much money, it was only because he didn’t have access to that much credit.

My point is not that things are okay now, but rather that the fact that things got better serves as an existence proof that getting better is something that can happen.

Second, although the situation in the US is very bad for someone who has gotten caught in the wage-slave/debt-slave trap, it remains possible in the US to opt out. It’s actually pretty easy, as long as you avoid debt. And avoiding debt is pretty easy: just don’t let yourself be sucked into the consumer lifestyle. There’s an awful lot of crap for sale—don’t buy it. There are plenty of big houses for sale—don’t buy one. You can live in a bigger, nicer apartment if you’re willing to live an hour’s drive from where you work—but if you live where you can walk to work, you don’t have to buy a car. With the money you save, join the rentier class.

I think we ought to change things, and I think it would be great if we could get the government to set rules that would encourage those changes—require uncontaminated food, prohibit predatory lending, protect workers from abuse, etc. But individuals can actually make those changes in their own lives without needing the government to act.

So I don’t see a need to flee the country. But that doesn’t mean that I think things are okay—which is why I think that’s a post worth reading.

On the ethics of submitting to airport security

I don’t want to say that I’m never going to fly again. I’d fly—if it were necessary to hurry to the bedside of a sick relative or to rescue someone. I might, just possibly, fly in order to take the vacation of a lifetime. But routine flying? I’m done with it. I’m simply no longer willing to participate in the system.

Megan McArdle hits almost the right note in this piece in the Atlantic: Dear Airline, I’m Leaving You. She seems to get the ethical aspect of being a willing participant in an immoral system, although she plays it for laughs.

Through most of the past decade, I flew on business a couple times a year. I got to watch as airport security became more and more a kind of shamanistic ritual better suited to deflecting blame in case of a terrorist incident than actually preventing one.

It always annoyed me—the pointlessness, more than the actual inconvenience. But even more than that, the fact that I submitted to it was a blow to my self-image. I take security seriously—all those business trips were for my work on Bluetooth security. As a person who takes security seriously, I really hated my role in the mock security at airports. Each time I submitted to it, simply because it was the only way to get where I needed to go, I thought less of myself.

I also worry about the TSA agents. Where I was only playing a brief role in the security theater, they were doing it as a career. How soul-destroying must it be when your whole career is performing pointless acts of mock security?

And spending your working life doing mock security is nothing compared to what those poor TSA guys and girls are doing now. Spending your days staring through the clothing of the traveling public? Getting paid to grope a steady stream of tourists and business people? No one with good moral character could do the work—which means that any such people will be quickly driven out of the job. Soon the only TSA agents left behind will be degenerates who don’t understand why what they’re doing is wrong.

And that is what I refuse to participate in. It’s not that I worry about people seeing me naked, nor about someone touching me inappropriately. It’s that the whole system is wrong. It mandates behavior that is uncivilized, unethical, harmful to everyone involved.

If I fly again, it will be because I’m doing something so important that it outweighs the harm of participating in the degrading system of mock security our society has foolishly bought into. That’s a pretty high standard.

[Update: After posting this I discovered TSA Enhanced Pat Downs : The Screeners Point Of View, which shows pretty clearly that many of the screeners know what they’re doing is wrong.]