Category Archives: Commentary

Online Education is Great if You’re Already Privileged

It’s not surprising that people are stupidly exuberant over a new way of using the internet, without any clear idea of its consequences. It’s even less surprising that Thomas Friedman is declaring it a “revolution” without considering the probable outcomes.

He’s talking about online learning. There are many different ways to learn online, but Friedman is talking about Coursera, a for-profit company that will offer Stanford lectures free, with homework, testing, grades, and a certificate of completion for a low price, online. Universities including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Yale have been offering classes online, for free, for some time, reaching millions of people. Many companies offer technology classes online under different business models. The startup Codecademy gives super-slick lessons on JavaScript and HTML/CSS for free. Lynda does paid subscriptions to video tutorials on different computer programs and languages. And you can always find YouTube Photoshop tutorials by infuriatingly smart 13-year-olds.

I like learning things online. It’s made me a lot better at my job and given me skills that’ll help me find better jobs. But I was born to a family with the means and education to make a 4-year college an easy choice if I put forward a bare minimum of effort.

Before I got my first job, my resume had some big exaggerations. I listed Photoshop, Final Cut, and programming as skills, since I was pretty sure I could pick them up if I needed to. My degree though, those details had to be completely accurate. Maybe I would have still been hired if I left off the fake skills. But I needed the degree to get in the door. Everything else I learned later, online.

“When you consider how many problems around the world are attributable to the lack of education,” efforts like Coursera’s are going to be massively good, Friedman says. But knowledge and skills don’t get you anywhere in the U.S economy. Distinguished credentials do.

A degree in political science prepares you with some small amount of knowledge that you’ll use at a job, about the same amount that a person could pick up in a few months of dedicated independent study. But the degree is essential. Even 4 years of self-study would likely not get you a job. An engineering degree program surely teaches more that will be used on the job, but the degree is required proof that you know it well. You need a degree to get into law school not because the content of your undergraduate education is going to make a difference, but because it shows your ability to be chosen in a competitive application process and complete some kind of study well.

If schools and employers are looking for competition and distinction, the popularity and low barriers to entry in online learning will be a curse to students who spend time or money on it. Entry-level positions are starting to list a bachelor’s and a master’s as requirements, as more students finish undergraduate degrees and their value is diluted. What distinction is going to come from getting an A in the online machine learning class of 100,000 students that Friedman describes? Worse, grading is “on the honor system but [Coursera] is building tools to reduce cheating.” The distinction factor of excelling in Coursera is going to be zero.

Coursera promises to help connect successful students with employers, but it’s hard to see why an employer would hire a Coursera student over the masses of unemployed recent graduates. Friedman mentions the University of Phoenix as a pioneer in online classes, which is more apt than he thinks.

For-profit colleges like Phoenix are under fire for delivering poor outcomes for students’ money, meaning graduates can’t find jobs. We’re already dealing with a system of for-profit higher education that feeds off of the very popular idea that people with no job prospects just need more education, takes from their limited funds, and leaves them right where they started. There are already so many ways for people with little education to spend their time and money getting educated. Some, like the community college system, seem to prepare their students for this economy better than others. It seems like low-income people today need to obtain more and more education just to keep out of complete destitution.

The unemployed and poor of the United States must be the best-educated in the nation’s history by an incredible amount, but they are stressed to undertake still more training to adapt to an economy that doesn’t want them. We’re facing crisis-level barriers to comfortable, secure jobs. But acting like new technology that provides “just-for-fun” liberal arts learning and technical skills that’s only useful for the already comfortable is going to solve those problems is irresponsible.

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noNato and occupy protesters in Chicago

NYT story on Nato Summit protests.

The standoff, which lasted several hours, grew intense as police officers, some in riot gear and gas masks, and protesters, some wearing all black, confronted one another, and shoving and scuffles broke out.

Why were those militant jerk anarchist protesters wearing BLACK? Don’t they know that’s the sort of thing that’s going to antagonize friendly police officers and force them to put on their riot gear and gas masks?

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Why our press can’t cover Occupy Pt II

Watching the livestream of the same event covered in the Times made the human diffuseness obvious. I was finally seeing something that was true to my experiences.

Especially at a march, there’s a weird meta attitude of being a piece of this spectacle that so frequently isn’t actually doing anything. You mill around. Chat with occupiers who are friends, or who you’ve seen a few times at marches, or who you follow on Twitter but never met.

You talk about the whole scene a lot. Think of a reason the police have been especially combative or friendly today. Speculate darkly about some too-aggressive people looking to cause trouble or too-passive people holding the whole thing back. Wonder aloud if anyone has planned what happens next. Say something about another occupier that falls somewhere between lovingly joking and outright mocking.

At a tense moment, you greet someone with “what’s up” and you both smile and think obnoxiously, what could be up that’s bigger than this?

Then, get bored. “What is the POINT of this march? I’ve got work tomorrow…”

Everyone loves to put things into a timeline. “We all really needed this,” someone says. “I think this is a rebirth, a renewal.” Speculate about when things are going to get really big.

The livestreamer calls out to someone, “Hey! Everyone really loved your facilitation teach-in the other day. Just wanted to let you know.” “Oh yeah, that’s great to hear,” she says, and runs off.

Then, there’s a confrontation. Police are lining up and it looks like they’re going to be pushing people back. Everyone lines up and puts on their best aggressive-but-self-conscious face. There’s whispering and maybe some huddling about tactics and what to do when the police start pushing, but nobody can really decide on anything before it starts, so there’s general confusion and maybe someone gets arrested or knocked over or beaten with a nightstick.

And it’s completely surreal. Because you know that guy! He usually runs the committee meetings you go to sometimes, or he always gets upset because he didn’t understand something at general assembly. And now apparently he’s done something so wrong that he’s on the ground protecting his head. Whatever brought the violence on couldn’t have been too different from the exact same thing you were doing.

Just like when you’re watching brutality on TV or reading about it in the paper, the precise details of how it started aren’t clear. But spend enough time around one of these communities and their slow-moving actions and it’s obvious that the people intent on being beaten or pepper-sprayed are imaginary. Our popular media aren’t capable of showing this. The violence is impossible to justify, if you’re watching closely enough.

Why is Occupy Wall Street incomprehensible in the media? Pt. I

I participate in Occupy DC, but I’ve watched New York’s occupation only in the media, so I’ve seen them the way the media sees all of us. They mass and they march, menacingly unified, and clearly “anti” everything, or a lot of things. But who are they? And what exactly are they doing? News reports about the occupy movement answer these questions badly, making protesters incomprehensible even to sympathizers.

Colin Moynihan writing for The New York Times City Room Blog about Saturday’s Occupy Wall Street march and the subsequent arrests and violence is a perfect example. The details reported could hardly make the protesters seem more victimized. Occupiers are shoved, beaten, and arrested, with no better justification given than the need to keep things orderly.

Still, there’s disbelief that police could dish out violence without any cause. We hear from occupiers mostly after they’ve been victimized, but who can trust them? There must have been something in the nature of the crowd that called for it. Nobody really understands what happens at a protest anyway, so who knows?

This is the way a newspaper covers politics. The Democrats don’t want their intra-party fights and deliberations and day-to-day mundanity broadcast. We’re supposed to focus on the outcomes: the big events, the prepared statements, the votes. They want to be this inevitable, unanimous machine.

But focus on the social, mundane aspects of participating and organizing and occupiers will become human. And that’s what we want.

You have to start with what the occupied public places mean to participants. They form a combined social club and workplace, where you come to hear a teach-in, plan a march, or go to a businesslike twice-a-week meeting. It’s a social experience, and the people involved are excited, bored, confused, discouraged, and buoyant over the work that they’re doing and the risks they’re taking to improve the world in the multiple ways they think is best.

What the 1% should have said

By: Just Regular Folks PR, Inc.

We here at the Just Regular Folks PR firm have bailed you out of some tight spots before (get it?). But all of a sudden, the “whining index” is on the rise. Suddenly, these noisy upstarts think they’re “entitled” to something more than a swift kick in the pants and no taxation on capital gains.

The problem? You’re getting sloppy with language. Remember, not everyone is as intelligent and hard-working as you are. If they were, they’d be making the big bucks too. Millions of low-class Americans are so dumb, they don’t even know how to move a factory to China. They’re so lazy, they don’t even hire lobbyists!

You guys need a primer on how to talk down to these lesser Americans:

• Don’t talk about “careers”! People aren’t going to have those anymore. Instead, talk up the huge revenue opportunities in selling your organs and blood.

• Don’t say: “Tax cuts for the wealthy”! Call it: “Returning money to its rightful owners.”

• If someone mentions taxing the rich, hit back with: “You mean America- hating bums literally robbing taxpayers at gunpoint?”

• Don’t use the words “millionaire” and “billionaire”! It’s just “upper-middle class”.

• Remember! When they wrote the constitution, only white male property owners could vote. So we’re getting back to what the framers intended.

•You aren’t raising the retirement age to 75! You’re extending job opportunities to millions of underemployed seniors.

•Don’t say “capitalism”! Say: “The only alternative to mass chaos and starvation.”

• Most important of all, relax! You’ve earned it! Anyway, we’re already working on getting complaining criminalized. This will all blow over soon.

Not talking to the press

If you want to cover up wrongdoing, don’t talk. Lies can be uncovered, and truths could help reporters find you out, even if you’re trying to throw them off your trail. Your best bet is to stay completely out of the situation until the story comes out. Then fire back with some information only you could be privy to, and make the reporter look incompetent. Even if you can’t shoot down all the accusations, you dominate a quick news cycle by calling the reporting shoddy, and that story sticks.

Darrell Issa pulled it off beautifully. Issa stayed away from a high-profile New York Times story about using his office to enrich himself, and then he stood at a distance and attacked it once it came out.

Eric Lichtblau used IRS filings to determine the purchase and sale prices of Issa’s properties, finding that public works projects Issa created benefited him financially. Lichtblau sent these details to Issa’s office for comment and received no response. Only once the story was out did Issa’s office declare the prices were way off, that Issa didn’t gain anything from the transaction.

Lichtblau could see Issa’s office building from a golf course and included the detail in his story that the offices “overlooked” the golf course. This provoked indignation from Issa’s camp, appalled that a reporter could just make something up like that. Obviously Issa wasn’t going to let Lichtblau check his offices out while reporting the story. But reporters covering the scandal of the story have been granted access to the office to confirm that, no, you cannot see the golf course from its windows.

These and other purported inaccuracies led to Issa’s call for the New York Times to issue a front-page retraction of the story.

It springs from a disdain for the role of the media in policing politicians and refusal to acknowledge the concern that drove the article, namely that a conflict of interest could arise from operating as an active businessperson in a district and nation that you govern.

It’s tempting to approach this with the idea that if Issa has nothing to hide, he should admit to investigation. But even people with nothing to hide don’t like being investigated. The fact that he was able to refuse participation in the investigation without consequence is the issue. We have to require that our politicians allow themselves to be investigated and participate in investigations when we’re looking into matters as serious as whether they’re governing with our interest or theirs in mind.

If the threat of the New York Times running a story saying Issa refused to cooperate with a story investigating his possible corruption isn’t enough to get him giving up the damning information and trying to spin it positively, then we haven’t done our job. A politician should be embarrassed out of office if he won’t work with the organizations whose job it is to find the truth and give it to the public. Not if we see a picture of his penis. An elected representative of the people being openly evasive from the people’s gaze is incompatible with democracy.

But it worked out great for him, and that’s why he did it. Lichtblau’s story remained potent after Issa’s rebuttal, and a follow-up story in the Times added more evidence that Issa’s work in Congress was enriching him. But with the story tainted by some bad facts, it was over. Nobody would run with it, it wouldn’t get any traction. And if a reporter is completely denied access to any facts on a large business empire, there are bound to be some mistakes, and some are bound to involve different figures and look, really, pretty bad.