Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Perfunctory writing

There are two ways to write short, topical blog posts. One is the brute force-approach, the other takes a slightly more indirect route.

The brute force approach endeavors to take readers from a state of doxa (which is to say, knowing nothing) to some particular conclusion. In order to accomplish this, the text has to provide the necessary steps to get from here to there. Mostly in the form of providing necessary background information, and some logical reasoning using this information in order to move things along.

A perfunctory writer can combine brute force with minimalism, and provide just the barest minimum required to propel self-directed readers to the desired destination. Introduce the subject, the prerequisite information, the logical steps and the conclusion - done. Those who want to understand can glean what they need from these words, and those who want to use it as a source that the thing in question is an actuality can use the fact that they are posted in a blog to great effect. Mission accomplished.

The more indirect approach does not aim to convey the bare facts of the matter, but also a specific point of view to go along with these facts. Some additional context to make the general into a particular, placing it firmly alongside other things that are obviously in the same category. You tell it like it is, as it were.

The largest difficulty in keeping this short is that the main objective can only be accomplished by the way, in passing. You do not accomplish it by merely stating a particular thing and dropping the mic; the very point is that you and you in particular is there to provide some verbiage on the matter, reminding readers about your point of view on these things. It takes a sustained effort, but is ever so effective once momentum has built up.

With enough momentum, the posts write themselves in their predictability, ever so perfunctory. -

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Optimizing for the wrong situations

Optimizing for the wrong situations is a very common condition in the modern world. Not due to any fault of the individuals who happen to do it, but because of the sheer volume of complex interlocking systems that are in existence and the impossibility to know them all well enough to avoid it.

An example is when a traveler hears about the very strict custom checks in a country they're about to go to, and efforts profusely in order to make sure everything is in order prior to arrival. Time and energy goes into the preparations, in order to optimize for these checks. Then, when the day arrives, the custom official looks indifferently at the luggage, shrugs and waves them through with a bored gesture. Not just with regards to our traveler, but all travelers passing through.

These things happen all the time. You hear something, prepare exceedingly in accordance to what you heard, only to find out that the preparations were completely unnecessary. Even though you've spent weeks or months agonizing about this one particular thing.

Again, this is not due to any particular fault on your part. It's just that you didn't know the situation well enough to know that it's not a big deal.

This will happen to you, again and again There is no real way to avoid it, other than to only do things you've already done before. Which, to be sure, is the mostest expression of optimizing for the wrong situations. -

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The great man theory of Wikileaks

There comes a time in the life of any organization where it has to choose. Either between the things the organization ostensibly stands for, or the people and circumstances that happen to be relevant to it.

In the case of Wikileaks, this time was years ago, and they made their choice.

They faced, in no uncertain terms, the choice whether to focus on the structural and systemic possibility of whistleblowing, or on those who happened to lead the organization at the time. They could have chosen the former, yet have continually doubled down on the latter over the years.

This is not a subtle distinction to make. Assange and his crew could have made a statement to the effect that he would step back and deal with things privately until the issue was resolved, leaving the day to day operations of whistleblowing and media coordination to those left in the organization. Instead, they chose to turn Wikileaks into an Assange-focused organization, rather than a whistleblowing one.

What's interesting is that there are those who to this day continue to insist that the person of Assange is more important than the structural and systemic possibility of whistleblowing. They insist so fervently that they actively aid in sacrificing every shred of credibility Wikileaks once had in an effort to see their man go free. Instead of keeping the lines of communication open and trustworthy, they prefer to drag it all into the mud and make everything slower and dirtier for it.

It is not a wise choice. But if it is the one you're making, I ask only one thing: is it worth it?

Friday, July 29, 2016

Speaking of educational efficiency

Having majored in education is an endless series of surprises. Not only do you get to learn thing about education, you also get to learn about how to treat people who have not learnt about education and who are not wont to learn about education.

Since you have an education about education, people come to you with questions about education. It's a reasonable thing to do, tautologically speaking - if education works, then the effects of education should be present in those with education. Conversely, if education didn't work, then seeking out those educated about education would be the very definition of folly.

You do not think these things before majoring in education. Because that's what they teach education majors.

This might seem like a roundabout introduction to a text on the efficiency on education, but it isn't. It is at the heart of the question what it means for education to be "efficient", and just at what education is supposed to be efficient.

It is very common in everyday discourse (political and otherwise) to depict educational practices as in some way deficient or inefficient, and to propose alternate practices which just happen to alleviate or eliminate these flaws that were presented moments ago. Everyone wants efficiency, and if someone with a confident demeanor says that something is more efficient than what we've already got, than it's probably true.

Otherwise they wouldn't be so confident, right?

Thing is, being efficient is not a standalone quality. There is always an implicit "at something" at work whenever the word is used, and being able to discern what this "something" is, is a key part of being able to tell generic confidence from actual, trusty knowledge.

Economists, who for some reason are extremely keen on applying generic confidence in political debates about education in particular, are prone to use statistics to show that education has become more and/or less efficient. The typical example is to compile the numbers on grades and how they've fluctuated over time. A move in any direction is interpreted as signs of (in)efficiency, and boldly proclaimed as such.

There are several peculiar unexamined assumptions at work here. One is that higher average grades guarantee some quality of excellence within an individual, and that educational systems that produce higher average grades also produce more of this excellence. Higher grades thus equal higher efficiency, which is the desired result.

The obvious counterpoint to this is of course to just give everyone the highest grades possible, thus guaranteeing maximum efficiency. Which is false on the face of it (although a case can be made that the absence of grades might have positive effects on learning environments), but it highlights the next unexamined assumption.

The second assumption is that this quality of excellence is a uniform quality that expresses itself equally in every student. It might seem counterintuitive, but it follows from the assumption that grades in and of themselves measure the same thing across individuals. It's subtle, but it obscures differences between individuals and - more crucially - curricula.

A third assumption is that the current curricula are adequate with regards to producing the desired outcome. The fact that the desired outcome is left undefined during the argumentation does not leave the assumption empty - it simply leaves it in the default mode, which is the current policies in play. Unless you specifically frame a different desired outcome, you're more or less forced to agree with the standard documents and their valuations of different skill sets and competencies.

Status quo has the advantage of actually being implemented, and does not need further explication to keep being implemented. Quite the opposite.

As you can see, you very quickly get into these deep nested layers of assumptions that follow from previous assumptions, ad infinitum. Sorting out what is assumed where and how these assumptions interact with others on the various levels takes both dedication and hard work, and an explication of any given boast that x is more efficient than y is bound to take up exponentially more verbiage than anyone really ought to read. Generic confidence is a powerful tool, able to convey a whole world of effort into a brief "it's all very simple, really".

But not to worry. We can deal with it. We are taught these things as education majors.

It's super effective.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

An oppositional read of Ghostbusters

The new Ghostbusters movie is out and about, and there are no lack of reactions to it. From what I've gathered, those who saw it without any particular expectations (other than the busting of ghosts) kinda liked it but had some minor complaints here and there. Others, however, claim that the movie ruined their childhood, and that they now face years of heavy duty therapy to recover from the loss of their past selves.

While the phrase "ruined my childhood" is hyperbolic to the extreme in this context - it's hard to imagine how such a thing could occur because of a ghost busting movie - it does however open up for some interesting possibilities. If we take it as possible for a movie to ruin a childhood, it should logically follow that an equal and opposite effect is possible. If childhoods are somehow open to retroactive alterations, then it ought to be possible to produce movies that in some way enhance these very same childhoods.

An opposite Ghostbusters, as it were.

This line of reasoning opens up a whole range of therapeutic treatments of many actually existing shitty childhoods. Indeed, avid entrepreneurs might want to get to work right away on retroactively prophylactic cinema products, before the market is flooded with happy memories and fondly remembered daydreams of the future we now ended up in.

I can't wait to see it happen.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

What even is remain?

Recently, I did some very late editing to an earlier post, that on modern ruins. Like all of my translations, it suffers from the fact that it is a rework of a piece I wrote when I was less language. Revisiting them means noticing that they do other things in text than in retrospect. The temptation is always there to edit them so that grammar and sentiment align.

I keep them around for the sake of archaeological preservation. No sense pretending the past isn't affected by learning and personal growth. Old writing always happened before the learning that came afterwards.

Thing is. It is possible to look upon contemporary architecture as modern ruins, and read it as such. Certain time periods had certain architectural norms and standards, and built accordingly. These norms and standards have mostly faded away, but the buildings remain, and with an astute enough eye it's possible to read past sentiments off the walls. Sometimes literally - either by design or later additions, such as graffiti - but mostly in implicit terms. Either the writing is on the wall, or the wall is the writing.

It always amazes me how much can be conveyed through architecture. It's never just about keeping the roofs supported and the walls upright. A whole aesthetic is conveyed by just standing around. This is the way things are, the walls say. Because they are.

There is a literacy to these things. Knowing the mindset and zeitgeist of the times that built the buildings around you lets you decode them more skillfully. You can see the optimistic bureaucratic 70s peering at you from the brick boxes, and the 00s from the confused rectangles that looked worn the day after the construction crews left. The past is on display. It remains.

These buildings weren't meant to be ruins. They were meant to perform functions in the present. To house, to store, to home. To present, as it were.

Nowhere is this as apparent as in abandoned buildings. Every part has a specific function, a designated task to be performed within. The fact that it hasn't, and hasn't for a long time, only underscores this intentionality. Dusty conveyor belts convey more than dust. Past design insists itself. It remains.

The question does insist itself. How far-fetched would it be to propose that not all ruins are physical, and that some are ideological, political, social?

It is a question to live by.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Some inspiring words about brexit

Before the brexit election happened, I wrote a blog post about post-electoral practices. About the inherent absurdity of showing up the day after an election, dressed in electoral garments and keeping on the electoral shenanigans as if nothing had happened. The point was, as you might imagine, to point out the seemingly inherent ridiculousness of such a course of action.

And then to turn it on its head and suggest that a more long-term virtuous approach to electoral campaigning, where you can actually just keep going after the election day without changing too much. The main point being that if your company is both pleasant and convincing, there'd be no need for electoral excesses. You could just comfortably speak your convictions and have listeners accept them by sheer force of personality. Quintilian style.

But then the election happened, and about five minutes after it became clear that leave won, its chief campaigners instareversed and declared everything one big lie. They never meant it, they only suggested possibilities, the impression that they actually wanted to leave is mistaken.

As electoral excesses go, this sure takes the cake. All the cakes. Especially those cakes that are lies.

Let the liars get the just deserts they deserve.

This whole ordeal underscores the point I was trying to make, though. There are a lot of elections going on, and you're likely to be involved in some of them. If something is to be salvaged from this epic clusterfuck of an election, let it be this: campaign in such a way that you can keep going with pride and confidence afterwards, regardless of outcome. And, more importantly, that you can remain on good terms with those who happen to disagree with you in the matter of who or what to vote for.

I'm sure you can understand the rationale behind this, seeing its opposite on prominent display.

The post I originally wrote turned out to be in exceptionally bad taste, given that it assumed a remain victory. But but. There are still things to be learnt and salvaged from this mess. -