Twitter Quitters

First of all, I take my Twitter community seriously (my 5th anniversary on TW is May 14). I have never, and will never, buy “bulk” followers for the sake of bloating the number of my followers artificially. In other words, my following of over 6300 is “organic.”

Second, I am relatively selective in deciding whom I will follow, which is typically following back many of those who follow me, although occasionally I will follow people whom Twitter “recommends” (obviously based on affinity algorithms) or whom I find on various Websites I frequent.

I also try not to follow a much larger number of people than the total of those following me. Back when I was at about the 2,000 mark for people I followed, Twitter imposed a moratorium on my following clicks until my followers came within 10 percent of the total I followed (1,800). It didn’t take long for the adjustment to take place, but I was surprised at the imposition of the moratorium. Twitter still does this, so I’m not sure why I’ve seen huge imbalances between Following and Followers on many Twitter stat listings.

Around the time of the moratorium, I joined the then-new Twitter Qwitters program, which provides me with a weekly summary of which followers stopped following me in the past week. I used to look at the Qwitters whom I had followed (clearly marked with an “Unfollow” option button) very carefully, because I felt that probably someone I intentionally followed may have followed me in haste, and I didn’t want to dump them if I was the one who initiated the reciprocal relationship.

I made a decision recently to stop doing that. The reason is simple: with over 6,000 followers, I don’t think there are more than a tiny handful (about a dozen) who are “unique,” “irreplaceable,” or personal acquaintances (some via Twitter and others face-to-face), and I know darn well who they are!

So from now on, I am simply unfollowing every Qwitter without giving it a second thought. And devil take the hindmost! It’s one less thing I have to spend any mental energy on.

The Simple Truth About Cancer

Cancer is the Rorschach test of the modern age. It really didn’t have its current identity until the 20th century. In fact, as late as the 1970s, there were serious doctors who thought it was caused by a “negative attitude!” In the 1950s, it was the plague unspoken, “The Big C.” When it was finally acceptable to say the word, we decided to wage “war” on it, which was a war that was more hopeless than any of the winless wars we have fought in the last 60+ years.

It was hopeless because we now recognize that there is no such thing as “cancer” generically. There is an entire class of over 200 vastly different diseases that involve unregulated cell growth. Treatments are also significantly different, and include not only chemotherapy, radiation, and surgical removal of tumors, but also type-specific treatments that depend on the very specific cancer involved.

The most important practical aspect of cancer in today’s world is that it is no longer the “death sentence” it was considered to be even 20 years ago. As a “survivor” myself, I can tell you that doing battle with this wily demon requires heroic efforts on the part of the doctor, the patient, and the patient’s family. But the medical and pharmaceutical professions are making enormous progress every single day in identifying new cancers, new cell behaviors, new treatments, new therapies, and giving new hope to nearly every victim of this insidious molecular enemy.

This is not a Pollyanna gloss on the situation. It is simply to say that in the glass half empty/half full analysis, I think it is getting fuller and fuller by the hour. Yes, in 2007, cancer caused about 13% of all human deaths worldwide (7.9 million). And the number is growing, not shrinking, as people live longer. But people die from all kinds of things. And breaking news here — we are all going to die someday. Nobody gets out of this alive. The Simple Truth about Cancer is that it is one of numerous causes of death, not the biggest, not the worst, in my opinion, and not even the scariest. What really scares me is dementia. But that’s another post entirely.

Education and the Web of Knowledge

In 1999 the British polymath James Burke published a book called The Knowledge Web (also made into a companion broadcast for the BBC) in which he effectively encapsulated a version of the WorldWide Web in book format. The subtitle of the book is “From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — and Other Journeys Through Knowledge.” For Burke, one thing always leads to many more, and in the book he has 142 “Gateways” through which his exposition enters and exits and links and folds, from Byron’s epic Childe Harold to the use of balloons in warfare to The Compleat Angler and The Glorious Revolution to … you get the picture. His narrative segues seamlessly from one topic to another, but the Gateways and page number references in the margins help you make many more additional leaps to shed new light on whatever subject he is discussing. It is a splendid and highly enlightening romp. And a motivating one, as well.

Which is why I have always believed that the most effective way to teach anything to anyone is to find “anchors” in their existing knowledge to which you can relate whatever new ideas or concepts you are conveying. Of course, accomplished learners do this automatically for themselves, but many people do not, and it makes it all the more difficult for them to learn anything. If all learning is zero-based, it’s not only a hard slog, it’s probably impossible.

We all know the cliche of the poor, failing student who is the master of her own sports trivia or his knowledge of astronomy. (And incidentally, it has become increasingly obvious to me that a huge proportion of these “poor learners” are laboring with ADHD that is either unrecognized or untreated). Anyway, I strongly believe that if you use the Knowledge Web approach, you don’t need a bunch of anchors to start from. Just one will do. Jennifer L. Roberts has a wonderful article in Harvard Magazine (http://ilnk.me/jcot) about John Singleton Copley’s A Boy with a Flying Squirrel, painted in 1765, in which she makes the point of taking the time and having the patience to explore ONE thing deeply, and how much can be learned from that. So true.

Since we have this example, I’ll suggest that you can segue from there to zoology and from there to the history of zoos and from there to urban history or ecology (two different gateways) and so on. It may be the Six Degrees of Separation syndrome, but I’ll be that I can take virtually any topic and in six gateways make a very logical transition to absolutely anything else.

As far as education is concerned, I can think of no other single skill (the ability to recognize and explore gateways) that is more productive, and conducive to life-long learning, as well. It requires an open mind, but the mind tends to open more and more as you pursue the gateways that arouse your curiosity.

I should also point out that even a subject like history, which is far too often taught in a linear fashion, lends itself extremely well to this approach. Let’s say your starting point is food. You can look at diet through the ages and across the continents, nutrition then and now, food preservation before refrigeration, food taboos and religion, the food laws passed in the Progressive period in the US (and what other Progressive legislation was on “the menu”), the food chain today, the locovore movement, the science of food (plant and animal), food in the military (a much bigger topic than you might suspect).  And these are just the close, logical branches. We haven’t really “jumped” yet.

If you take the Progressive movement, you can link it with newspapers that became very big at the turn of the 20th century, and from there to the economics of newspapers, who owns newspapers, newspapers as a mirror of 20th century life, the impact of cartoons printed in color, and on and on and on. And any branch has other branches, so as I said, six gateways will take you absolutely anywhere.

So to return to the challenged learner, find one “gateway” that they really love (there’s always something) and branch off from there. The biggest benefit is that after several of these outgrowths, the learner will probably start making connections on her own. Once s/he gets the confidence, there’s no holding back. For adults (and some younger people), there may be years of defensiveness that act as a lid on receptivity, but if you can release the genie, it will find a way to get out of the bottle!

ernieschell:

This is a slippery topic with a wide variety of entrance and exit points. I will take a pair, and perhaps return later to explore others.

We all read about the alarming problem of student loan debt, racked up by expenses for achieving a “college education.” The logic is simple: without a college…

Good Food Websites

Louisiana

Hebert’s Specialty Meats, New Orleans

Community Coffee and Teas, Baton Rouge, LA

The Ultimate Guide To Cajun And Creole Fare (INFOGRAPHIC)

What is a “college education?”

This is a slippery topic with a wide variety of entrance and exit points. I will take a pair, and perhaps return later to explore others.

We all read about the alarming problem of student loan debt, racked up by expenses for achieving a “college education.” The logic is simple: without a college degree, your future prospects are garbage. Get a degree, and you can presumably write your own success story.

My simple retort:  “Bullshit!”

There is a huge difference between a “credential” and an “education.” The degree is the credential, the education is much more difficult to wrap your arms around.

Before World War II, college was a more or less a privileged environment. Only high-achievers and dedicated grinds got a degree, along with the sons and daughters of wealthy families who saw it as a “right of passage,” which it still is in many ways.

Post WWII, with the GI Bill, a lot of vets got a pretty good college education. And this started the ball rolling toward our present predicament.

The issue is this: until the 1970s or so, a high school diploma represented a badge of significant achievement. Most kids were achieving at what we now call “grade level,” and when you got your H.S. diploma, it meant you knew the basics of reading, comprehension, composition, math, some science, some civics (“social studies”), some geography, some very basic history, and a year or two (mostly useless) of a foreign language, mostly Spanish, maybe French.

For guys, you also got manual arts (wood shop, metal shop — I still have a pretty decent lamp I turned on a lathe in wood shop), and for the gals, home economics (you know the drill!).

In the 70s, things began to shift and slip. Teachers, recognizing that failing students would doom them to a life of poverty, began to pass them along with “grade inflation.” Unless you were a complete idiot, you would get “passed along.” Each teacher assumed the next one would blow the whistle, but no one did. So kids were graduating from (yes, “FROM”) high school with skills that were probably equivalent to a realistic 7th or 8th grade education.

God only knows what it is now!

As a result, colleges stared remedial education for the first year or two to bring their students “up to speed.” And of course, the real value of the BA and BS began to fade.

I will make a [not so] bold guess that today’s college graduate is about equal to the H.S. graduate of 50 years ago.

A Real Education
So what is a college education supposed to be? It’s as I described above pre-1970, giving graduates the ability to follow current events with some judgment and discernment. Indeed, one of the reasons we have the educational system we do is because we live in a democracy where the electorate is supposed to understand the issues!

In college you learn that “knowledge” is not a matter of simple facts. College teaches you to ask questions, to analyze, to weigh pros and cons, to do research in multiple media, to evaluate sources of information, to essentially come to terms with the human condition or, in the sciences, with what is involved in doing real scientific research (where everything is up for grabs, but must be pursued via the scientific method plus some creativity to achieve real breakthroughs). Or it is to achieve a better grasp of and deeper familiarity with the fine arts and performing arts. College is for people who are almost adults, who are ready to live with ambiguity. The message is: “You are almost grown up. The secret you need to know is, there are no absolutes. Everything is open to question and analysis. Trust your faith, but understand that others may have a different faith, which you must apply yourself to understanding, while you remain true to your own. And never forget that you are just beginning a path of life-long learning, which this education has given you the tools to pursue on your own.”

This is the lesson of college and of life, and IF TRULY MASTERED, is often a key ingredient in wonderful marriages, scientific advancement, responsible public officials, outstanding teachers, brilliant artists and writers, model citizens, and so on and so on.

The Naked Truth
But the naked truth is that only a small percentage of people are willing to take this roller coaster ride. Most are just looking for a “credential” which will help them get a good job, contribute to a healthy two-income family, and raise well-adjusted kids who can go on to do the same.

They really can’t give two flying effers for the Pythagorian Theorum or existential philosophy or even Quantum Mechanics, which is going to be the A-B-Cs of future education.

So, like the victim of “Sixteen Tons,” they get another day older and deeper in debt, because they “had to” get a “college education” to get a good job, but what they got was a phony parchment with almost zero credibility. AND - they paid tens of thousands of dollars for this piece of worthless garbage!

And the elephant in the room is that employers see through their charade, and won’t hire them just because they have a “college degree.” The degree is worth even less than a high school diploma of 50 years ago, because there really are no standards out there. [In a future post, I may riff on why graduate school is equally fraudulent…]

The Bottom Line
So, what’s it all about, Alfie? I’ll take the phrase “life-long learning.” In my own experience, I would say that every 15 to 20 years you have to reboot and learn a whole new set of skills. And I don’t mean going to school again. There are many ways to get these skills on your own, on the job, in the community, or in some kind of intern program. And I’m not talking about doing this for free. If you play your cards right, you can get paid for learning. (For a good current example see http://t.co/JVtrZGKlIc). But truly earning your first college degree, and taking it seriously, is the key to acquiring further knowledge and mastery on your own later in life.

And here’s the punch line (at last)! There are few things more fun and exciting than keeping up with a variety of subjects you make your own. Whatever your profession, attend seminars, sit in on Webinars, go to conferences, talk to people, NETWORK! And the most important thing — pick a couple of areas of expertise that interest or intrigue you that are NOT in your professional area and keep track of these, as well. They can be hobbies, or pet peeves, or personal interests like movies or electronics or sewing or cooking or travel or whatever. But take them seriously, subscribe to enewsletters or magazines, read books in those subject areas — KEEP UP!

As I said, life-long learning. Don’t belly ache about being too tired or strung out or “busy.” You have one life to live, my friend. Live it to the fullest, and pass along your wisdom. Only try to do it a little more gently than I do, because people accuse me of being a little too “pedantic.”  But I’ll take pedantry over apathy, prejudice, hubris, and arrogance any day of the week!

My Three Favorite Irish Writers

Three of my favorite writers are Irish: James Joyce, Joyce Carey, and J.P. Donleavy. I’ve read a few of James Joyce’s shorter works, plus all of Ulysses in its entirety (in college). It had a profound influence on me, and was, along with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, a wonderful immersion in a literary adventure of gargantuan proportions (and indeed these writers all owe some debt to Voltaire). I own all of Joyce Carey, but have as yet only read two of his novels, including The Horse’s Mouth. It is such a hilarious romp! Writing this I am inspired to tackle the rest of them in the very near future.

And finally, J. P. Donleavy, whose 1955 book The Ginger Man is probably the single most hilarious and invigorating portrayal of raucous debauchery in print. I liked it so much I also got Donleavy’s The History of the Ginger Man about how the book came to be. And I’ve read The Destinies of Darcy Dancer and several other of Donleavy’s books. Can’t get enough of him!

James Joyce may be a difficult author. But Carey and Donleavy are not only accessible to all readers, but a hell of a lot of fun, to boot! Let me know what you think of all three of them….

Urban Anatomy and The Big Small Town

Detroit’s bankruptcy filing has spawned a torrent of comment from all directions. I am far from an expert on the subject (although I did spend a month there in July 1976 during the Bicentennial doing research for a Master’s Degree using historical documents - unrelated to Detroit - that were housed in the Detroit Public Library. I also had a client there about ten years ago, right in the downtown area.) But Detroit’s plight provides a perfect backdrop for my perspective on what constitutes the essence of vibrant city life.

To me, urban culture is a celebration of diversity: physically multi-dimensional, socially multi-cultural, and inherently multi-faceted in a way that almost no other environment can replicate. One could argue that a university has these attributes, but I specified “physically” multi-dimensional, which means shops of all sizes, museums, churches and other places of worship/meditation, schools, sports stadiums, symphony halls, office buildings large and small, hospitals, professional services in abundance (everything from doctors and lawyers to accountants and consultants), a substantial newspaper office (even if the newspaper is no longer substantial), streets small and large, and a wide variety of restaurants and food emporiums. Alas, what they usually lack is adequate parking, good public transportation, large/great supermarkets, and expansive car dealerships (to name a few things).

Some cities are more “cosmopolitan” than others, but virtually every city has a much higher level of diversity than small towns do. I currently live in a city of about 10,000 people, and grew up not too far away in a city that had 12,000 people. I don’t really classify either as an “urban” environment, since the “downtown” areas in each case comprise only two or three blocks — [Somebody has probably done a study of the ratio of a city’s population to the number of shopping blocks it has… although older cities will likely have a denser ratio because newer ones rely more on nearby or in-city shopping malls or strip centers, which provide the otherwise absent parking] — but they are both much more racially and sociologically diverse than most small towns tend to be. Of course, nearly everywhere “birds of a feather flock together,” so there may be less intermingling than meets the eye, but I find that class and income are bigger determinants of cohort formation than race or religion.

One thing every true city will have, though, is a healthy representation of the arts, from fine arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) to music to movies to theater to bookstores (although there’s a Barnes and Noble in so many suburban malls these days that it’s only the specialty booksellers that make the city special for bibliophiles). And that provides a major lift to city life in so many ways for nearly everyone who lives there.

But for all of this to happen and for a city to thrive, you need a “critical mass” of large businesses located in the city proper, which make donations to or underwrite many of the above-mentioned elements of city life (including the sports stadiums, which bear the names of their corporate benefactors). And people who work in the city by day have to be there in the evening and on the weekends to take advantage of all these resources. No city that empties outside of work hours is ever going to survive.

Philadelphia in the last ten years has thankfully seen a reverse-migration of residents whose parents had fled to the suburbs in the 70s and 80s. As a result, the city has come alive and updated itself in remarkable ways. The Philadelphia Orchestra is world-renown, our large roster of museums has been augmented with the migration of The Barnes Foundation onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (from its suburban location), and the entire city is being spruced up and beautified with touches large and small that make it a superb urban environment.

It seems as though Detroit lost the key ingredient — the critical mass of large businesses — when the “outmigration” everyone is talking about took place a generation ago. But I think the real problem is that the business scene was an automotive monoculture, which means they put all their eggs in one basket. That’s great when the basket is sturdy, and a disaster when the basket starts to break apart. Put another way, except for Motown and the music scene (which was never a big employer), Detroit was never more than a big small town, a “company town” in the sense that the Big Three auto makers were a tri-partite dominant employer that were destined to rise or fall more or less in sync. That’s not diversity; that’s insanity if you want to be a viable city.

I could go on and on, for the Rubic’s cube of urban magic is not easily encapsulated. But enough for now. What’s your take on this?

In the Bubble

One of my biggest pet peeves is that far too many (almost all?) American travelers (and those from many other cultures, as well) spend almost all of their time on the road “in the bubble,” i.e., not just in their “comfort zone,” but in a mini-environment that is hermetically sealed against the culture in which they find themselves, and is intended to replicate as much as possible the amenities of their home and homeland. (This is not intended as a parallel to the “bubble” shows now on TV and in the movies.)

The result, of course, is that wherever they go, these travelers are more nearly “back home” in their living rooms (as if they were watching it all on video) than they are in the midst of where they have gone to. This even applies to domestic travel, where every hotel room is like every other, and every restaurant ditto. Back in 1969 there was the movie “It It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” which parodied this syndrome to a certain extent (that’s not what the movie was mainly about…).

Let’s take domestic travel first, since more readers have direct experience of this. I’ll even forego the motel/hotel rant, since that’s the least of the problem. How many people go on vacations where what they see and eat and do is not that different from what they left back home? Plenty!

Then why bother traveling? It’s far better to seek out the by-ways and treasures that are much harder to find, and to explore a few of these in depth, than to get a superficial drive-by and pass-through that conveys little of what the local people and culture are all about.

Though travel is certainly not all about food, that’s still a good way to get beyond what even the secondary and tertiary tourist “attractions” have to offer. If I can, when I am visiting a new place (urban or rural) I try to eat where the locals eat. For example, I went to a Holiday Inn in North Carolina that was halfway between Wilson and I-95 that had a pulled pork dinner, which consisted of an entire roast pig (complete with apple in mouth) that had been slit open on its side, allowing diners to literally pull the pork from the carcass. That, plus all the fixings, made for a spectacular dinner and overall dining experience!

Of course, dining local doesn’t have to be “native.” In Athens, Ohio (one of the state’s smaller cities), there are a middle east and and a Greek restaurant. It helps that this is a college town, but the food was outstanding in both. And the local burger joint and hangout was also excellent, with many gourmet burger choices. On the other side of the Interstate, where the motels all are located, are the national chains. Bleh!

It gets even better for international travel. While some cuisines are a bit difficult to stomach, most have a wide variety of dishes of all sorts that you won’t find even in the restaurants of those nationalities back in the States. Be adventurous — try something that sounds interesting (not by name, but by ingredients and method of preparation). This includes drinks as well as the food itself. And don’t forget the desserts!

And finally, all meals everywhere should be enjoyed at leisure. Don’t rush the eating or the service (and bear in mind that abroad quite often the pace of service is inherently slower than most Americans are accustomed to — and you may be expected to ask for the bill when you are ready; it would be inconsiderate to assume you are done before you signal that your are). A leisurely lunch in an outdoor cafe can morph into an afternoon of people-watching over desert and a pause that refreshes as you have your final cup of coffee or tea or glass of wine or beer as the sun begins its slow but certain descent. It may be the same sun you see back home, but I guarantee that the quality of the light will be different, wherever you happen to be. Look, and you will see! I’ll take that afternoon over visiting one more soon-forgotten site anytime, anywhere (although a morning spent exploring the shops and by-ways and galleries and special sites of interest is an ideal way to work up an appetite and stoke a thirst).

Education for the 21st Century

(Spoiler Alert: Nothing in this entry is novel or earthshaking, but truisms that bear repeating from time to time.)

The phenomenon of Google Glass got me thinking that in the very near future, almost any kind of information you need (ANY KIND!) will be instantly available to you anywhere you are via some kind of wearable interactive Web-connected device (assuming improvements in battery power and ubiquitous WiFi). Even though multi-tasking has been shown to be a sham, I think we will develop a way to quick-shift between the Web view and the reality in front of us, much as you might look up the definition of a word on your eReader as you are engaged in the act of reading (only much, much faster).

So in a world of instantly available bits of information — or chunks of information, which seems a more accurate term — the challenge then becomes to sort the wheat from the chaff. Indeed — to assess all data and information and purported “facts” to determine the validity of each, the degree of truthfulness, the applicability, the relevance, and of course the provenance of what you are addressing or is addressing you.

In short, one needs to develop “critical thinking” skills. And I believe that developing such skills is the most important goal of education for the current century, and probably beyond. These skills need to be developed from the earliest days of education. Well, perhaps starting in kindergarten. One could play games where a you have to make a statement about the color of a ball. “The ball is not red.” “The ball is not green.” “The ball is blue.” And then the class has to assess the validity of statements about the ball: “The ball bounces.” “The ball is not rubber.” “The ball is plastic.” “The ball floats.”

Beyond Critical Thinking

As an extension of this basic structure of educational endeavor, I think two other elements need to come into play. One is the Socratic Method, whereby knowledge is acquired via inquiry and debate among individuals with opposing viewpoints asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate perception, concepts, and ideas. Or even to define things: what is a star? What is a mammal? What is a “cat?”

The ultimate objective here is to demonstrate that there are more than two sides to many things, and that what something “is” often depends on one’s point of view, underlying belief structure, past experience, and cultural environment.

Which leads to the second element: the acknowledgement that learning is a lifelong process, and never confined simply to the classroom or to a formal learning environment. We are all students and all teachers, at all times, in all ways.

And finally…

Among the basic skills everyone needs to survive in the 21st century is a basic understanding of how computers work, how computer programs are written, how the Internet works, and what algorithms are and how they work. The logic of algorithms may seem reductionist to most people, but it need not be. Ultimately, the brain depends on its own algorithms, which are constantly evolving in response to the environment, to competing results of an algorithm based on successive experiences, and so on. If we go back and look at Ada Lovelace’s work with Babbage’s Logic Engine in the 19th century, and her path-breaking work deriving the first algorithm to be processed by a machine — making the daughter of the poet Lord Byron the first computer programmer — we can see just how invaluable such skills truly are. And how they are not confined to “nerds” and “geeks.” If you appreciate music — and everyone should in their own fashion and to their own ability — then you can appreciate algorithms (why that is so is for another post). As you must, to be fully engaged with the world around you as you interact with the ubiquitous online environment in the Brave New World.