Memorial Day – 2014

The past couple of days, I’ve been seeing all kinds of post about how this is not National BBQ Day, National Car Shopping Day, National Start of Summer Day, and stuff like that. Typically, the post shows a soldier presenting to folded flag to a young boy, a Marine pausing by a monument of those who have died defending our country, or some other touching and important image.

This is an important message, but I think it is poorly executed. Too many wars have been fought because of black and white, either/or thinking. We are a great people. We can do better than this either/or thinking. We can pause at a grave of a soldier, watch or march in a Memorial Day parade, have a hot dog or hamburger with the volunteer fire department after the parade, perhaps even get a swim in at the beach, and have a BBQ with our extended family.

We need to honor those who have died defending our country. We should show this by stopping to remember their sacrifice as well as enjoying the freedom they died to defend. We also need to honor those suffering years after their deployments. For example, the Vietnam Vet in the hospital who has struggled with PTSD and alcoholism, whose liver has stopped functioning and for the loved ones that sit with him.

Happy Memorial Day, pass the ketchup.

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From Punch Cards to Cat Videos

“Do Not Fold, Bend, Mutilate or Spindle” The old phrase about computer punch cards in the sixties came to my mind Thursday as I attended OMMA Video as part of Internet Week in New York City. As experts talked about buying online video advertisements, based on increasingly sophisticated demographic information and programmatic buying, I had to wonder if the concern about being reduced to a number had far surpassed the greatest fears of those fifty years ago who protested the depersonalization that computers with their punch cards had brought.

Now, I understand the argument that improved targeting doesn’t depersonalize advertising, instead it makes it more specific, more personalized, but my mind drifts to the work of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”. Increasingly, our interactions have become transactional. They are losing the personal touch, the “I and thou”, the chance for transformation.

Perhaps that is because everything is becoming more and more about the numbers. We focus on ROIs, KPIs and how all of this ultimately relates to our “net worth”. At one point, I tweeted, “The talk about data, measurement and automation makes me think of Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

In contrast to all of this, the keynote speakers touched on something else, creativity. The first speaker, Mike Monello, CCO of Campfire, referenced Spreadable Media, Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. It sounds like I book I need to get.

Monello spoke about the reason people share content, to elevate their status, to define their community, and to strengthen bonds. It seems like this returns us closer to Buber. He spoke about putting the audience in the middle of the story, breaking down the fourth wall between the advertiser and the consumer and noted that people look for experiences, not content.

All of this comes to mind as I think about my campaign for State Representative. People are tired of politics, of the strategists that carefully run the numbers and craft messages to appeal to the largest demographic. I’ve been getting into discussions about this on Facebook recently.

For example, Whitney Hoffman, whom I met through Podcamp years ago, is running for State Representative. Recently, she wrote,

there seems to be a big gap between what politicians think folks need to know and what's effective, and how voters feel about it. For example, direct mail is a staple of politics, and data typically shows direct mail has a 1% conversion rate in retail, but very few people I talk to pay much attention to the glossy information that comes in the mail, and often toss it right away.

I had a great discussion with Whitney about this. It does seem like things like yard signs, bumper stickers, campaign websites, and direct mail, have little impact, other than showing that you’re a credible candidate. It is the same old politics by the numbers. But what we really need is politics that people will want to share, to define our communities and strengthen our bonds.

When people talk about content that gets shared online, they typically talk about cat videos. Cat videos make us feel good. Jane McGonigal talks about looking at pictures of cute animals in terms of building emotional resilience. It seems like there is an ever increasing need for emotional resilience, especially if you are at all politically active. So, the question that I asked of Whitney, and that I ask here is, how do we build emotional resilience into political discourse? Instead of sending out glossy direct mail, how can candidates reach out with messages that makes us emotionally stronger and builds our communities? What are the cat videos of your campaign?

2014 State Rep Democratic Nomination Acceptance Speech

Thank you. I know that there is a Board of Selectmen meeting coming up as well as other conventions this evening, and I have to get to a Vestry meeting, so I’ll try to keep my comments brief.

It is an honor and a privilege to receive, and accept, the Democratic Nomination for State Representative in the 114th Assembly district of Connecticut, serving Woodbridge, and parts of Orange and Derby. It will also be a lot of work, but it is work that must be done.

At the Democratic State Convention last Friday, the person nominating Denise Merrill for another term as Secretary of State talked about the importance of civic engagement saying, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.” Unfortunately, too few people vote in our state.

But as leaders, there is more to this that we need to hear, “if you don’t provide someone to vote for, don’t complain.” I am not running just because I want to, I am running because it is important work that needs to be done.

Some may say, “Why is he running, he doesn’t have a chance.” That is like saying, “Why should I vote, my vote won’t make a difference.” Wrong!

When I ran two years ago, I received 36% of the vote, yet when people asked me the outcome of the election, I told them that I had won. I hadn’t gotten elected, but I had won. I won by giving people a choice. Over 4,000 people voted for me last time, and I want them to have someone to vote for this time.

I won by discussing the issues. And I am going to win again this fall, whether it be with 56% of the vote, or 36% of the vote.

Some people are bound to give me advice about how I should change my looks. I should lose some weight, I should cut off my beard, I shouldn’t wear those dorky looking Google Glasses.

I feel too much of politics is based on is based on looks, personality, and popularity. We should be spending campaign funds on talking about the issues, not buying giant pictures of ourselves. If I try to be more popular or better looking than my opponent, I have less of a chance of winning, not only the popularity contest, but also the more important goals of talking about the issues and giving the voters a real choice.

So, what issues are most important to me? We can, and will, talk about health, education, civic involvement, the environment, transportation and so on, but I want to start off by talking about the underlying issues. Who are we as a people?

A lot of the discussion these days have been fiercely independent, with people waving flags saying “Don’t tread on me”, talking about freedom and individual rights.

Freedom to do what? To be self-centered, to be concerned about “What’s in it for me?” No, that is not what made our country strong. With rights come responsibilities. Our freedom should be the freedom to help the downtrodden and vulnerable amongst us.

We are privileged to live in a wonderful community. Many of us are privileged to have been brought up in well to do families, with parents that cared for us, and made it possible to go to college. We have responsibility to preserve this wonderful community, and to provide opportunities for those less fortunate than ourselves.

So, the campaign begins. Thank you for your support this evening, and more importantly, for whatever level of support you’ll be able to provide during the coming months.

Thank you.

Life is Messy – Rethinking Educational Reform – Part 2, Triggers

This was written a few days ago, but I never got a chance to really go over it. I've been pretty busy, so I'll put this up now, as is. More soon...

This weekend, I came across three distinct and interesting articles that, perhaps, should be considered in light of one another. The Hartford Courant ran the article, Top Nominees Announced For Ct High School Musical Theater Awards. I was very interested in the production of two of these shows. Amity Regional High School, in my hometown, produced “In The Heights” (See Lamentations and The Heights). It was a great production, as productions at Amity usually are. It received several nominations, as did “Rent”, produced by Trumbull High School. The Trumbull production of Rent, almost didn’t happen and I wrote about it a couple times: Trumbull for Rent and World AIDS Day and Learning About Bullying - Trumbull RENT. I was glad to see both production receive nominations.

Also this weekend, the New York Times ran an article, Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm. Should students be forewarned about content in works they are assigned to read that might make them uncomfortable, or might trigger PTSD? To me, these two stories are related. How should have Trumbull High School dealt with the difficult issues that Rent brings up? Cancelling the show? Using some sort of Trigger Warnings? Some other approach?

I recognize the need for trigger warnings in certain cases, just as I recognize the need for warnings about peanuts for those with peanut allergies. For some people, these warning can be a matter of life and death. For others, they can be just an annoyance. I had the good fortunate to go to a small liberal arts college where the professors knew each of the students in their classes. In such a situation, I would expect the professor to be able to deal individually with students as necessary and to make wise decisions about warning students that needed to be warned. However, in large universities where there might be hundreds of students in a class, I can see where some sort of trigger warning might be needed.

Yet even in situations like this, it would seem that the trigger warning could be an educational tool. Prior to reading a text, a discussion about the difficult topics would seem beneficial. “This week, we will be reading The Great Gatsby, a masterpiece of American literature. The story depicts misogynistic violence, a problem that society still faces today…” and from their get into a discussion about misogyny in the twentieth and twenty first century.

Life is Messy – Rethinking Educational Reform - Part 1, SBAC

This weekend, I’ve been thinking a bit about educational reform and have stumbled across several different interesting discussion. It started off when a discussion about the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, tests which have recently been administered at our schools.

A board of education member was fiercely defending the SBAC tests. She believed that the concerns with the tests were overblown and that the tests were properly administered. I opted my daughter out of the SBAC tests for many reasons and the feedback I’ve received about the tests do not square with the board members assessment.

The board member did admit that there were some difficulties, but there are always difficulties with any changes, and we eventually need to test changes in the real world. Setting aside the issue of whether or not there is real benefit to the changes that SBAC brings, I question whether there was sufficient testing prior to using the SBAC tests, and, perhaps more importantly, whether using the tests on students was wise, or perhaps even, ethical.

Having worked with computers for years, I recognize the importance of different aspects of testing, moving from unit testing to systems testing and integration testing. To put it into more contemporary terms, when do you move a system out of beta? Were the SBAC tests really ready to be moved out of beta? Where they properly tested? It does not seem so, from my perspective.

Yet there is a bigger question, about the efficacy and ethics of the testing. Thinking in terms of the scientific method, what was the hypothesis being tested? How will this test of the SBACs help prove or disprove the hypothesis? I have not heard this properly addressed. Working in health care, I constantly hear people talking about the importance of double blind tests. The SBAC tests were very far from this standard of testing. In fact, students were told that the tests wouldn’t make a difference, it was just a test to see how well the test works. As a result, I’ve heard many stories of students making up silly answers on the tests, something that wouldn’t happen if it were a real test that mattered.

I don’t know how much this really happened, and how much these are the sort of stories middle school students like to tell, but it does raise serious questions about the validity of SBAC experiment.

Yet this takes me to a bigger issue. In 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram ran a series of experiments measuring people’s willingness to follow orders, even if it could cause harm or death to others. In the experiments, the subjects were told to give shocks to students who failed to properly answer certain questions.

Many have questioned the ethics of these experiments and the Milgram experiments are regularly brought up in discussions about institutional review boards, or IRBs.

As I thought about the discussion with the board of education member, I had to wonder, are SBAC tests being administered in a way that would be approved by an IRB? Are risks to the subjects, or children in schools, minimized? Do the benefits of moving towards SBAC tests outweigh the risks to students? Are students, and their parents, adequately informed and asked to consent in ways that are free from coercion or undue influences? What measures are being taken to protect vulnerable populations?

There is a role for testing students in our educational system. Yet these tests need to be well thought out and administered in a fair way that benefits our students. In my mind, the SBAC tests fails this.

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