Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Closing Lab Schools and Eating Our Seed Corn

March 28, 2012, 9:14 a.m.

The U High Idea and the Price of Educational Success

The Iowa Board of Regents wants to close the University of Northern Iowa's Price Lab School in Cedar Falls.

Local citizens have filed suit to delay the decision, arguing that the Board does not have legal authority to close it. Jeff Reinitz, "UPDATE: Lawsuit seeks to overturn Price Lab closure," WCF Courier, March 27, 2012 ("A group of educators, parents and residents is asking the court to overturn the Iowa Board of Regents decision to close Malcolm Price Lab School as part of budget cuts last month."). Gregg Hennegan, "Confusion reigns over legal authority to close Price Lab; Over 2,000 pages were released under an open-records request by The Gazette, KCRG-TV9 and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier," The Gazette, March 29, 2012, p. A1 ("Part of the confusion on the issue is that two code sections are in play. Chapter 265 deals with laboratory schools. Another, 256G, calls for a research and development school housed in Price Lab. Democratic state senators and representatives from Black Hawk County argue that Price Lab must exist to be the location for the research and development school. The lawsuit says that because the Board of Regents was not granted the legislative authority to establish a research and development school, it does not have the power to “disestablish” the school.")

The closure is even more sad and ironic given UNI's proud history as a teacher training institution: Iowa State Normal School, 1876–1909; Iowa State Teachers College, 1909–1961 (the name by which I knew it as a boy); State College of Iowa, 1961–1967; and, finally, the University of Northern Iowa, from 1967 to the present.

The story reminded me of the commencement address I delivered June 1, 1972, on the occasion of the closing of the University of Iowa's University Elementary and High School. The full text of the transcript of those extemporaneous remarks are here. I was an FCC commissioner at the time, and returned to my home, and the school that had been my home for 13 years, to try to provide a bit of levity on that very sad occasion.

You'll have to go to the source, linked above, for the levity. What's excerpted below is the portion addressing the value of such schools.

I cannot know now about the Price school, as I did not know on that occasion about U High, the degree to which an individual experimental school is living up to its potential, its mission, and meeting its goals.

The comic, Lewis Black, has a routine regarding the ozone hole. Angrily he shouts, "We've got rockets. We've got Saran Wrap. Fix it!!" That's the way I feel about experimental schools. I don't know that there is anything wrong with the Price school. I haven't heard that there is. But if there is, "Fix it!!" Don't close it.

Because what I am willing to contend I do know -- now reinforced with a term as school board member in Iowa City -- is that the idea of experimental schools is as sound now as it ever was. They deserve more support, not less, and certainly do not deserve to be closed.

Here, then, are excerpts from my thoughts about that idea, from the remarks I subsequently titled, "The Last Commencement Address: The U High Idea" -- as applicable today to the "Price Idea" as they were then to U High:

"The Last Commencement Address: The U High Idea"
Nicholas Johnson
June 1, 1972
(Excerpts; with highlighted quotes in bold)

How do you measure, how do you describe, an institution like the University Schools?
"We spent less on the University Schools throughout all those years, in fifty-seven years, than what was spent on the single set of video tapes that we know as 'Sesame Street.'"
It's really not much at all in terms of money--at least not the kinds of money I've been accustomed to administering the last few years.

The total budget for all of the fifty-seven years of the school's existence--based on a doctoral dissertation I looked at--I project to be about six million dollars. Six million dollars for the whole fifty-seven years is approximately twenty percent of the FCC's budget for one year.

And the FCC's budget is one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. We spent less on the University Schools throughout all those years, in fifty-seven years, than what was spent creating the single set of video tapes that we know as "Sesame Street."

Nor is the school much in terms of land and buildings. We have now returned this evening--fifty-seven years later--to a spot just across the yard from where the school was originally. And then in the 1920's it moved down the street to where you all went to school. We still don't have an auditorium. We have to gather at McBride Hall for our last commencement.

No, I think an institution like U High is very difficult to program on a computer or enter on a balance sheet, because basically it's an idea--an idea and the people who shared that idea and participated in it.
"The only way to think in terms of the impact of an institution like this is in terms of the people whose lives it has affected, and the ripples it produces throughout the rest of society."
And we shouldn't forget ourselves, I suppose, the alumni of U High, a group that now numbers about twenty-five hundred, including you as of this evening.

Because the only way to think in terms of the impact of an institution like this is in terms of the people whose lives it has affected, and the ripples it produces throughout the rest of society. The effect of U High is felt whenever one of its former staff members goes elsewhere and begins training professors, who teach teachers who teach students. Because in that way his or her influence ultimately spreads a thousand times beyond what it was in terms of a handful of students who were privileged actually to be in their classroom for a semester or so. There are hundreds of of former U High staff, students, and student teachers, who are today university presidents and deans of schools of education, professors and teachers and officials of educational institutions and associations--officials of one kind or another.

The effect of U High has been felt not only through people, but also in terms of the teaching materials and new teaching methods and texts that have been evolved here.

Indeed, I think it's somewhat ironic that U High really began at the behest of the President of the University, Walter Jessup, because of the difficulty he was running into in trying to do some educational experimenting in the public schools. They wouldn't let him do it the way he wanted to do it. And his reaction was very much like that of Howard Hughes. You'll recall Howard Hughes was once staying in a hotel out in Las Vegas and he didn't like the service, so he just bought the hotel. Well, that's kind of what President Jessup did, as Emil Trot recalls it, who was one of U High's first students. He said, "If that's the way you fellows are going to be, all right, I'll just start my own school." And he did.
"The accepted methods of teaching today all had to begin at some time, and in some place; as often as not, when you track it back, it turns out that the place was U High and the time was about twenty years before the ideas were believed to be safe enough to try in the public schools."
Because what President Jessup realized, as I think almost anybody knows who has ever had to deal with large bureaucratic institutions--whether it's the military, or school systems, corporations, government agencies, whatever it is --a television network--is that it's not really a place where genuine creativity and intellectual activity can take place. People who are hired to do a job, to carry out a mission which they do not control, may be superb at what it is they've been hired to do, but they simply don't have the time, the talent or the temperament to expend a lot of effort in challenging the basic assumptions of their own institution.
* The concept of speed reading, which enjoyed a boom nationally in the late 1950's and early 60's, was first tried out on us by Dr. Jim Stroud in the 1940's. I doubt that the testing of such a radical experiment would have been approved by any school board in the nation at that time.

* It was the staff of U High that developed comprehensive curriculum guides in the late 1930's and 1940's that could not be developed within the public school system within the state of Iowa, and guides which were still valued by teachers in and out of the state some thirty years later.

* The concept of interdisciplinary team teaching was evolving in the 1920's and 1930's at U High some twenty years before it became widespread throughout the schools of the nation.

* The work of Dr. Ralph Ojeman in giving junior high school students an awareness of basic psychology was carried out at U High in the 1940's.

* Iowa has pioneered in the field of testing and many of those tests were tested first at U High. This is now one of Iowa City's major industries, as you may know.

The list goes on and on and on:

* foreign language teaching in grade school,

* techniques in music instruction,

* research in physical education (I saw the other day that Lou Alley had written an article or speech about techniques of physical education in the year 2000--so we're still looking ahead in that field),

* new curricula for teaching the sciences,

* innovation in teaching spelling to grade school pupils was done by Ernest Horn here,

* English in high school (Dr. Carpenter's great efforts),

* and new approaches to mathematics by Dr. Price and others.
And so on and so on. The accepted methods of teaching today all had to begin at some time, and in some place; as often as not, when you track it back, it turns out that the place was U High and the time was about twenty years before the ideas were believed to be safe enough to try in the public schools.

The trouble with U High was that it was all done naturally and relatively quietly. U High has never had an Office of Public Information, it never hired a public relations firm, and, to my knowledge, no principal ever called a press conference. And it was that natural sense of concern and commitment, of excitement and adventure about life and about education, that was naturally passed on by the permanent staff of U High to us, to the student teachers and to the junior staff.

Kozol describes in a book called Death at an Early Age how some public schools, almost sadistically, drive any creativity and curiosity and sense of individual worth and development out of their wards.

My wife, who attended the University Schools with me, has told me similar stories over the years about things she has witnessed in public schools where she has taught in Virginia, California, Texas, the District of Columbia.

My own experience is limited to that of a parent; but I must say it has often left me in a state of despair about the quality of education offered my own children by public schools that often brag of their national superiority.

I don't mean to suggest that there aren't good public school teachers. Of course there are. There are a great many who are competent, who are concerned--many more than are ever recognized or thanked or adequately compensated. But I think they all feel the oppression of a bureaucratic system of which they are a part, and none can really feel that he or she is a part of an exciting adventure at the frontiers of educational innovation. Whatever the public schools may be, they are not that.

Even if one is willing to concede that no justification can be offered for providing an elitist education to a privileged few Iowa boys and girls who attend the schools as students, it seems to me that teachers--at some point in their career, and for however short a time--ought to have been exposed to such a faculty and student body.
"Somewhere, in the seventy-billion-dollar, barnacle-encrusted, bureaucratic industry that goes by the name of 'Education,' somewhere in amongst the concrete buildings and the computers and the layers of administrators, somebody better be watching to make sure that the torch of learning has not gone out entirely. If that is not to be the University of Iowa, so be it. . . . But as anybody knows who has tried to keep a camp fire going all night without a match, you can start it up again by blowing on one red hot coal, but once you are left with nothing but ashes you're just going to be blowing dirt into your face and into the darkness."
Somewhere, in the seventy-billion-dollar, barnacle-encrusted, bureaucratic industry that goes by the name of "Education," somewhere in amongst the concrete buildings and the computers and the layers of administrators, somebody better be watching to make sure that the torch of learning has not gone out entirely.

If that is not to be the University of Iowa, so be it. We certainly have lots of company. Lab schools are closed all over the land. It's a respectable position.

But as anybody knows who has tried to keep a camp fire going all night without a match, you can start it up again by blowing on one red hot coal, but once you are left with nothing but ashes you're just going to be blowing dirt into your face and into the darkness.

I don't for a moment think that a lab school can single-handedly reform public education, but it can help.
"School is where you learn about freedom and democratic or popular control. It's the last time you'll hear it mentioned, let alone practiced. . . . Teachers encourage you to challenge assumptions, to ask basic questions. Employers, you will find, fire you when you do."
The fundamental problem, of course, as you will soon discover, is that there is a basic conflict between the values of genuine education that you have been taught at University High School, and the values of the corporate state into which you are now--or in a few years--going to move.
* School is where you learn about freedom and democratic or popular control. It's the last time you'll hear it mentioned, let alone practiced.

* Learning gives you a sense of your unique, individual worth. But your value to the economy--as a consumer and an employee--is not as an individual, but as a predictable piece in a mass merchandised economy (as a consumer), and as a reliable machine in an industrial state (as an employee).

* As your education progresses, you are given more and more choice and control over selecting your own activities and goals. This is called maturity. Once you graduate, however, you are expected merely to execute predefined goals under the close direction of others. You have virtually no control or choice over what you produce, how you produce it, or what it's used for.

* Teachers encourage you to challenge assumptions, to ask basic questions. Employers, you will find, fire you when you do. Paul Goodman has described your dilemma under the descriptive title, Growing Up Absurd. If you haven't read it, you might enjoy it.
Two alternatives are basically available, neither of which do I find very acceptable.

One is to simply drop out. John Prine has a delightful little song in which he puts that bit of advice with the line, "Blow up your TV"--which always delighted me for a starter--"Blow up your TV/Throw away your paper/ Move to the country/ And build you a home." Well, that's not really bad advice, but it's not really going to solve the problem either, because for most of us, at least, it's not very practical.

Now another solution is to try to modify the educational system, and, as Kozol and my wife will tell you, that now appears to be the most widely accepted solution. If we could only train young people in school to really like Barbie dolls, motel decor, neon signs along suburban highway shopping centers, television programs, Detroit cars, hair spray, and Coca Cola, then they won't be so frustrated when they get out.

I saw a film the other day about how they do it in South Africa. It's very similar to our system. It's the way in which they sustain apartheid there. Essential to the state of society upon which the life and economy of that nation is based, is the enforced ignorance of its blacks. They are simply not permitted to see the swimming pools, and tennis courts and schools that their labor, and misery, support.

No, I don't really think that the answer lies in seeing to it that no one in our society--students or student teachers--ever get a glimpse of what a subculture of truly dedicated free minds and educational researchers might look like. I don't think keeping people from that vision is going to solve the problem.

I think they should be given that spark, that vision, that dream, against which to measure their daily lives. John Gardner, whose two books, Excellence and Self Renewal, may very well be among the most important of the Twentieth Century, has said that a nation that does not value excellence in its plumbers as well as its philosophers will find that neither its pipes nor its theories hold water.

No, I believe it is work that must change, not quality education.

The work place is today, as it was in the time when Brandeis described it, the place where we have the greatest abridgment of citizens' rights.

Workers and consumers, you and I, simply must be permitted to exercise greater control over the products, as well as the means, of production. And gradually, in some places in this country and others, that principle is being extended. Because a democracy simply cannot survive when it forces mature people to spend their lives dying in their jobs. We cannot give people the right to grow, and question, exercise discretion, and control their activities for only the twelve years of their lives that they are in school--and that only if they are lucky.

"A citizen cannot be repressed and treated as a machine subject to authoritarian control eight hours a day all year long and then suddenly perform as a mature person of judgment for eight minutes every four years when he or she enters the polling booth."
A citizen cannot be repressed and treated as a machine subject to authoritarian control eight hours a day all year long and then suddenly perform as a mature person of judgment for eight minutes every four years when he or she enters the polling booth.

Well, that's the challenge that confronts you, I think: to put the U High idea into practice, to live your life in ways that argue more eloquently than words or buildings, that those who preceded you as staff and as students were right to have invested in U High what they have.

And, I'm sure, that you will do.


And, as an addendum, now on the fortieth anniversary of those remarks: Iowa farmers have always been a smart lot. You have to be in that business. And two basic bits of advice any one of them could give you are: (1) don't sell off your topsoil (or let it erode away), and (2) don't eat your seed corn.

If only our officials and administrators had as much wisdom. For the educational innovations made possible by our nation's lab schools are the top soil and seed corn that represent America's only hope of growing one of the world's best educated, most innovative, productive and happiest people on Earth.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why Mitt Romney?

March 22, 2012, 9:05 a.m.

Better Than 'Least Worst' Republican

Every four years I take a look at the Republican field of presidential candidates.

There are two reasons why I'd probably never end up voting for any of them, and at least one reason why I engage in this exercise anyway.

First, over the years I've become increasingly non-partisan, disgusted with both of our money-driven major parties, and willing to give serious consideration to thoughtful ideas from anywhere on the political spectrum.

However, my political activity, such as it has been, is based in the Democratic Party. I've been registered as a Democrat, a Precinct Co-Chair for the Democrats, a member of the Party's county central committee, a candidate for Congress in a Democratic primary, and have received three presidential appointments from Democratic presidents.

Second, no matter how wonderful a presidential candidate of either party might be, he or she brings with them a cast of thousands to which at least some deference must be paid. (Although, as President Obama has shown the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party that got him the nomination and much of the election, it need not be all that much deference.) I'm not thrilled with the national and Iowa leadership of either party. But I think the Democratic Party's gang of party members, major contributors, political consultants, staffers, lobbyists, elected officials, influence peddlers, and hangers-on would be at least marginally better than those who would surround and pressure any Republican president.

So why do I bother evaluating the Republican candidates for president?

Because, given our system, the president is virtually guaranteed to be either a Democrat or Republican -- whether chosen by the voters or the Supreme Court justices. One of the parties is going to win, and their candidate is going to govern us for better or worse. That's why I'm not interested in encouraging the nomination of the Republican candidate least likely to win. I want the Republican candidate who, if she or he wins, will do the best job.

That doesn't mean I'll be sending them money, going door-to-door on their behalf, or voting for them. But every American's conversations at the office water cooler, and family dinner table, contribute something to the national dialogue -- first reflected in public opinion polls, and ultimately in election results. So do blog entries, comments on call-in radio programs, letters to the editor in newspapers, and the other ways we express ourselves.

Of course, corporations, the wealthy -- the plutocracy -- continue to exercise grossly disproportionate influence over both parties, with their campaign contributions directly and now with their "super-pacs." As New York's Boss Tweed used to say, "I don't care who does the electing, just so long as I do the nominating." They are the ones who are doing the nominating for both parties.

But whatever the reasons for, and consequences of, our two party system, the fact is that every American has a stake in the candidates for the presidency offered us every four years by those two parties.

This round, my first Republican favorite was Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. (See, and Mitch Daniels, Once Daniels made it clear he was not running, I switched to Jon Huntsman (see "And the winner is . . . Jon Huntsman; Jon Huntsman . . . Better than 'Least Worst Republican,'" June 26, 2011; and "Jon Huntsman, Jr.," And see, from 2007, "It's Huckabee; My Republican Pick: Governor Mike Huckabee," July 24, 2007.)

Now it's Mitt Romney.

"Oh, so do you really prefer him to Rick Santorum?" a friend asked, sarcastically.

That's a cheap shot.

As I've learned more about Romney, I've become increasingly impressed with his smarts, education, experience, accomplishments, commitment to public service, and obvious managerial ability in running a presidential campaign. Today I would say of him (as I said earlier about Jon Huntsman), Mitt Romney is much, much better than just the "least worst Republican."

He has a lot more going for him than the fact that he is the obvious best choice from among the final four.

In 2007-08, as the candidates were touting their "experience" as qualifying them to be president, I gave some thought to "Just what is the experience that would qualify someone to be president?" Here's an abbreviated excerpt from an op ed column I wrote on the subject at that time:
There’s no perfect, qualifying “experience.” But two things can help.
One is experience at administering large institutions: a federal cabinet-level department, a state government, military branch, major university or corporation.

The other is the understanding and rapport earned by having worked in institutions with which a president must relate: city, county and state government; the federal executive, legislative, judicial and administrative branches; international organizations and embassies; labor unions and Wall Street, among others.
By these standards both Democrats and Sen. John McCain are unimpressive.
Nicholas Johnson, "Politics: Assessing Candidates' 'Experience,'" The Gazette, March 30, 2008, p. A9, embedded in blog, with links to many more items, in "Gazette Op Ed: Candidates' 'Experience,'" March 30, 2008.

At that time Governor Bill Richardson came the closest to the range of experiences I thought useful. Mitt Romney doesn't rank that high, given his relative lack of experience with the House, Senate, White House, and Cabinet positions. And his work with the Olympics, while useful, is not exactly the same as the State Department, an ambassadorship, or the United Nations, World Bank, IMF or other international organization. But he has been a governor (and in a state where he had to work with Democrats), which comes the closest to any training we have for the presidency, he's administered other large institutions (Bain; the Olympics; this year's campaign), and certainly has ties with Wall Street and the business community.

You may have noticed that I've said nothing so far about his likely positions on the issues, were he to become president. He would probably seldom come up with the solutions that I would. For example, if trade unionism has been, and could be again, America's shortest path to a vibrant middle class -- or if the quickest and cheapest way out of a recession is for the federal government to become the employer of last resort -- Romney would probably prefer driving a paved road (i.e., financial aid to the wealthy "job creators") to walking my dusty path to prosperity.

Many of these differences are candidly laid out in his campaign document, Believe in America: Mitt Romney's Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth, September 1, 2011 (listing "Romney for President" as the author), which is available as a pdf file from the Romney campaign Website and as free Kindle download from Amazon.

For example, in the opening section, "Day One, Job One; Five Bills for Day One; Five Executive Orders for Day One," one of the top five executive orders is "An Order to Empower American Businesses and Workers: Reverses the executive orders issued by President Obama that tilt the playing field in favor of organized labor, including the one encouraging the use of union labor on major government construction projects," p. 7. (I suspect there are a good many workers who would willingly forgo this "empowerment.") Among Romney's tax proposals are reducing the corporate tax to 25%, continuing the present low rates on capital gains, and abolishing the estate tax (currently only applied to estates over $5 million) -- proposals unlikely to do much to stimulate consumer spending by the working poor and unemployed, pp. 37-47, 154.)

Moreover, even if he wanted to give a hand up to the 99%, he would be opposed by the same special interests that President Obama is now confronting.

As for his position papers and statements during the past year, this is a Republican primary campaign, after all. Romney needs the support of the members of a party that has largely lost its rational middle. His opponents charge him with not being conservative enough! I give him (and other candidates) some slack regarding what they say and do while campaigning (within limits).

His opponents' charges that he is the "Etch A Sketch" candidate is another bum rap, in my view. Peter Grier, "Romney Etch A Sketch: Is aide's comment a present for his foes?" Christian Science Monitor, March 22, 2012 ("Asked whether Mr. Romney had moved too far to the right for the general election, [senior Romney aide Eric] Fehrnstrom said [on CNN] that the GOP hopeful would hit a reset button for the fall campaign. 'It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch,' he said. 'You can kind of shake it up and restart it all over again.' . . . Romney’s primary opponents immediately seized upon the image of an erasable toy to project their doubts about the depths of Romney’s conservatism. Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich held up Etch A Sketches at rallies on Wednesday.") Fehrnstrom's choice of metaphor may have been very unfortunate, but he spoke the truth about all candidates. Hopefully candidates don't outright lie during the primary and general election campaigns, but is it really news that they change emphasis and nuance as they must appeal, first to their own party's extremes, and then to the independents in the middle during the general election? Indeed, what they say and how they say it will vary from town to town and audience to audience.

What some others see as his shortcomings, I see as positives. I may well be wrong, but what others see as flip-flopping I see as managerial pragmatism. We've seen what ideological purity, and refusal to negotiate let alone compromise, has produced in Washington. President Obama is kind of a pragmatist, albeit one who gives in too much and too early (in my judgment). Romney's experience as Massachusetts' governor qualifies him to do as well, or better.

Some others are troubled by his Mormon religion. I see it as a positive. Santorum's vision of an American version of the Taliban, using government to impose one group's religious and social values on the rest of us, appeals to me not at all. As a fallen-away Unitarian, I have studied, and participated in, most of the world's most popular religions at one time or another (including the Mormon) as I've worked out my own. Whether you call it religion, ethics, or morality, I think it useful for individuals (and the communities in which they live) to carry a moral compass that they check for directions from time to time. Maybe it's no more than a hunch, but Romney seems to have that.

Nor do I find his seeming inability to speak the language of ordinary Americans disqualifying -- that his tie to NASCAR fans is that he knows a number of folks who own race teams, his appeal to UAW members is that his wife has two Cadillac cars, that his income from lecture fees is only a modest $300,000-plus. I find such unscripted comments almost charming in an odd sort of way. For more from this perspective, see Ashley Parker and Michael Barbaro, "The Retooled, Loose Romney, Guessing Voters’ Age and Ethnicity," New York Times, December 28, 2011, p. A1.

My wife sees in some politicians a quality she calls "Elvis." Bill Clinton had "Elvis." Romney clearly does not.

What I see in Romney is a bright, well informed, analytical, hard working, focused, pragmatic, problem-solving manager. A little touch of "Elvis" would be comforting, but it doesn't trump the other qualities. See Ashley Parker and Michael Barbaro, "Romney Takes Analytic Approach to Campaign Chaos," New York Times, February 28, 2012, p. A16 ("Mr. Romney’s once inevitable-seeming march toward the Republican nomination has endured an agonizing stretch of setbacks . . ., unexpected challenges . . . and verbal mishaps . . .. So the candidate is taking refuge in what he knows best: rigorous analysis of the problem and a calm determination to execute a long-term plan. 'He just sits down and is cold and clinical and analytical,' said John H. Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire and a Romney adviser who has spent hours with him on the campaign trail.")

Some reports of his relationships as governor with the Massachusetts legislators are a little troublesome. Michael Barbaro, "Legislators Recall Governor Who Didn't Mingle," New York Times, March 10, 2012, p. A1 ("For officials used to the glad-handing and alcohol-lubricated culture of local politics, Mr. Romney was an unfamiliar breed: a data-driven chief executive used to delivering unquestioned orders, a political newcomer who cast the legislature as a foe, a delegator who preferred working with just the leadership and an emotionally remote figure who tended not to socialize — and because of his Mormon religion did not drink. Even though he worked just a few hundred feet from them for four years, Mr. Romney displayed little interest in getting to know lawmakers and never developed real relationships . . ..") A president can probably get by with no "Elvis," but they all need a little "LBJ."

One of the most insightful columns about Romney (meaning the author shares my instincts about the man) is David Brooks, "The Wealth Issue," New York Times, January 20, 2012, p. A27 ("[I]s Mitt Romney’s character formed by his wealth . . . corrupted by ease and luxury? The notion is preposterous. All his life, Romney has been a worker and a grinder. He earned two degrees at Harvard simultaneously (in law and business). He built a business. He’s persevered year after year, amid defeat after defeat, to build a political career . . . the sort of relentlessness that we associate with striving immigrants, not rich scions. . . . George Romney, Mitt’s father, was born in Mexico. But when he was 5, in 1912, Mexican revolutionaries confiscated their property and threw them out. . . . Within days, they went from owning a large Mexican ranch to being penniless once again, drifting from California to Idaho to Utah, where again they built a fortune. . . . Romney . . . may have character flaws, but he does not have the character flaws normally associated with great wealth. His signature is focus and persistence. The wealth issue is a sideshow.")

We have been well served by some presidents, governors and senators of wealth; George H.W. Bush, Franklin Roosevelt, the three Kennedy brothers, and the Rockefellers come to mind. Wealth can carry with it a sense of oblesse oblige, a sense of independence from the baser political pressures. I don't know enough about Romney today, or his Massachusetts record, to have a sense of how he scores on this quality, or would as president. But while I don't think wealth "is a sideshow" in this context, neither should it be disqualifying.

And that's my response to the question: "Why Mitt Romney?"

# # #

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Into the Valley of Silicon Rode the 600

March 3, 2012, 11:20 a.m.

esr's "Open Letter to Chris Dodd"
Armed and Dangerous Blog
February 23, 2012
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
-- "The Charge of the Light Brigade"
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1854
Former Senator Chris Dodd, the Motion Picture Association of America's impossible effort to reincarnate Jack Valenti, recently went charging into the Valley of Silicon with a brigade of lawyers, lobbyists and publicists at least equaling Tennyson's 600, and with results no more victorious.

What they encountered was as initially invisible and unexpected as that which greeted the British brigade in the Ukraine -- or the British redcoats 80 years earlier in America. Those whom esr describes as "technologists" had embedded their bunkers in the code they had written; what Larry Lessig first described as "west coast code" (as distinguished from the "U.S. Code" created by Congress on the east coast); the Internet which supports today's global business, education, finance, journalism, politics, social relations -- and entertainment.

Eric S. Raymond, sufficiently well-known and revered (in some quarters of his community) to go by "esr," in a true gesture of combative fairness, took it upon himself to explain to Senator Dodd why he had lost when "Into the Valley of Silicon road MPAA's 600."

Although I agree with much of what esr has to say, I'll add a little overly simplistic comment about my own position. The complaints of some copyright owners, including some Hollywood studios and producers, I find quite reasonable. Imagine if you had invested $100 million of your own money in the creation of a feature film, and then found pirated DVDs of it available (at a fraction of what they would someday sell for in America) on the streets of Beijing, Moscow and Singapore -- before you've even had your first showing of the film in a motion picture theater.

That's not to say the solutions the MPAA proposes make political, public interest, pragmatic, or even economic sense. It's just to say that their outrage and frustration is understandable.

Ironically, many over-compensated, multi-million-dollar corporate CEOs are not as swift as one would assume they'd be when it comes to designing business plans to optimize bottom line profit. Take the recording industry, for example. Few executives saw the genius in the Grateful Dead's willingness to let concert goers tape, and share, their concerts. Few saw the reasonableness of their customers' reluctance to pay $15 or $20 for a CD, when all they wanted was a single cut. After further alienating their customer base by suing everyone from teenagers to the elderly, they've finally come to see the wisdom in Apple iTunes' sale of multi-billions of individual songs.

It's important to recognize the distinction between ends and means when it comes to the constitutional intellectual property protection called copyright. The end, the goal, in Article I, Section 8, is that "The Congress shall have power . . . To promote the progress of science and useful arts, . . .." The means is a limited time copyright (originally 14 years, and now expanded by Congress to over a century, in response to Disney's desire to control Mickey Mouse).

"Fair Use" is an effort to promote the ends, the goal. It provides a four-factor guidance to the circumstances under which copyright material may be used without violating the copyright law. The two most significant are commercial considerations. Will the use adversely impact the income of the true copyright owner? Is the purpose of the user to make a profit, or are they using it in a classroom, a book review, or other commentary? The other two relate to the nature of the work, and the amount used. Use of factual material, historical accounts, or news are more likely to be considered fair use than use of creative works, such as songs, poetry, novels or plays. And the amount used is critical. The entirety of a song, poem, short story, or other work will have a tougher-to-impossible time passing as fair use than, say, a single sentence or paragraph from a 400-page book. All four factors are relevant; for example, just because it's "history," or the user isn't profiting from it, doesn't mean the user can reproduce an entire chapter or book.

The reason for this diversion into "fair use" is because legitimate corporate efforts to protect their intellectual property (such as films) from criminal taking, reproduction, and profitable sale, can sometimes take the form of a gross overreaching that encroaches on users' legitimate fair use utilization or other user rights under the copyright law.

From my perspective, that's what the fight is, or should be, about. Such revisions as there may be to the copyright law need to meet a "least restrictive alternative" standard -- remedies that simultaneously protect corporate intellectual property from criminal profiteers, while enhancing rather than curtailing efforts to "promote the progress of science and useful arts," and the fair use doctrine, by enabling the widest possible use of copyright material.

As esr hints in the last line of his essay ("if you’d like to discuss some ways of fighting piracy that don’t involve trampling on us and our users, we do have some ideas"), he and presumably other technologists are even willing to help out in designing such balanced standards.

Now, here is . . .

An Open Letter to Chris Dodd
Posted on Thursday, February 23 2012 by esr

Mr. Dodd, I hear you’ve just given a speech in which you said “Hollywood is pro-technology and pro-Internet.” It seems you’re looking for interlocutors among the coalition that defeated SOPA and PIPA, and are looking for some politically feasible compromise that will do something against the problem of Internet piracy as you believe you understand it.

There isn’t any one person who can answer your concerns. But I can speak for one element of the coalition that blocked those two bills; the technologists. I’m not talking about Google or the technology companies, mind you – I’m talking about the actual engineers who built the Internet and keep it running, who write the software you rely on every day of your life in the 21st century.

I’m one of those engineers – you rely on my code every time you use a browser or a smartphone or a game console. I’m not exactly a leader among them as you would understand the term, because we don’t have those and don’t want them. But I am a well-known philosopher/elder of the tribe (I’ll name two others later in this letter), and also one of our few public spokespersons. In the late 1990s I helped found the open-source software movement.

I’m writing to educate you about our concerns, which are not exactly the same as those of the group of firms you think of as “Silicon Valley”. We have our own culture and our own agenda, usually coincident with but occasionally at odds with the businesspeople who run the tech industry.

The difference matters because the businesspeople rely on us to do the actual technical work – and since the rise of the Internet, if we don’t like where a firm’s strategy is going, it tends not to get there. Wise bosses have learned to accommodate us as much as possible and pick the few fights they must have with their engineering talent very, very carefully. Google, in particular, got its huge market capitalization by being better at managing this symbiosis than anyone else.

I can best introduce you to our concerns by quoting another of our philosopher/elders, John Gilmore. He said: “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

To understand that, you have to grasp that “the Internet” isn’t just a network of wires and switches, it’s also a sort of reactive social organism composed of the people who keep those wires humming and those switches clicking. John Gilmore is one of them. I’m another. And there are some things we will not stand having done to our network.

We will not have it censored. We built the Internet as a tool to make every individual human being on the planet more empowered. What the users do with the Internet is up to them – not up to Hollywood, not up to politicians, and not even up to us who built it. Whatever else we Internet geeks may disagree on among ourselves, we will not allow our gift of fire to be snuffed out by jealous gods.

Because we will not have the Internet censored, we are also implacably hostile to any attempts to impose controls on it that could be used for censorship – whether or not that is the stated intent of the controls. That is why we were absolutely unanimous against SOPA and PIPA, and a significant reason that you lost that fight.

You speak as though you believe that the technology industry stopped SOPA/PIPA, and that by negotiating with the industry you can set up the conditions for a successful second round. It won’t work that way; the movement that stopped SOPA/PIPA (and is now scuttling ACTA) was much more organic and grass-roots than that. Silicon Valley can’t give you the political firepower or cover you’d need. All you’ll get from them is a bunch of meaningless press conferences and empty platitudes from CEOs who have nothing actually to gain by helping you and really wish you’d go away so they can get back to their jobs.

Meanwhile, the engineers inside and outside those companies will take it as their duty to ensure that you lose that battle again if you try to fight it again. Because there aren’t a lot of us, but the vast mass of Internet users – who do vote in numbers large enough to swing elections – have figured out that we’re on their side and we’re their early-warning system. When we sound the tocsin – as we did, for example, by blacking out Wikipedia – they will mobilize and you will be defeated.

Accordingly, one of the cardinal rules for any politician who wants to have a long career in a 21st-century democracy has to be “don’t screw with the Internet”. Because it will screw you right back. At least two primary challenges to SOPA/PIPA sponsors are in the news right now because they wouldn’t have happened without the popular outrage against it.

Hollywood wants you to screw with the Internet, because Hollywood thinks it has problems it can solve that way. Hollywood also wants you to think we (the engineers) are foes of “intellectual property” and in willing cahoots with criminals, pirates, and thieves. Neither of these claims is true, and it’s important that you understand exactly how they’re not true.

Many of us make our living from “intellectual property”. A few of us (not including me) are genuinely opposed to it on principle. Most of us (including me) are willing to respect intellectual property rights, but there’s a place where that respect abruptly ends. It stops at exactly the point where DRM threatens to cripple our computers and our software.

Richard Stallman, one of our more radical philosophers, uses the phrase “treacherous computing” to describe what happens when a PC, or a smartphone, or any sort of electronics, is not fully under the control of its user. Treacherous computers block what you can see or hear. Treacherous computers spy on you. Treacherous computers cut you off from their full potential as communications devices and tools.

Treacherous computing is our second line in the sand. Most of us don’t actually have anything against DRM in itself; it’s because DRM becomes a vehicle for treachery that we loathe it. Not allowing you to skip the advertisements on a DVD is a small example; not allowing you to back up your books and music is a larger one. Then there was the ironically pointed case of the book “1984″ being silently disappeared from the e-readers of customers who had paid for it…

Some companies propose, in order to support DRM, locking up computers so they can only only run “approved” operating systems; that might bother ordinary users less than those other treacheries, but to us would be utterly intolerable. If you imagine a sculptor told that his new chisel would only cut shapes pre-approved by a committee of shape vendors, you might begin to fathom the depths of our anger at these proposals.

We engineers do have an actual problem with Hollywood and the music industry, but it’s not the one you probably assume. To be blunt (because there isn’t any nice way to put this) we think Big Entertainment is largely run by liars and thieves who systematically rip off the artists they claim to be protecting with their DRM, then sue their own customers because they’re too stupid to devise an honest way to make money.

I’m sure you don’t agree with this judgment, but you need to understand how widespread it is among technologists in order to get why all those claims about “piracy” and lost revenues find us so unsympathetic. It’s bad enough that we feel like our Internet and our computers are under attack, but having laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA pushed at us on behalf of a special-interest group we consider no better than gangsters and dimwits makes it much worse.

Some of us think the gangsters’ behavior actually justifies piracy. Most of us don’t agree that those two wrongs add up to a right, but I can tell you this: if you make the technologists choose between the big-media gangsters and the content pirates, effectively all of us will side with the content pirates as the lesser of the two evils. Because maybe both sides are stealing on a vast scale, but only one of them doesn’t want to screw with our Internet or cripple our computers.

We’d really prefer to oppose both groups, though. Our sympathies in this mess are with the artists being ripped off by both sides.

Consider this letter our “Don’t tread on me!”. Our agenda is to protect our own liberty to create and our users’ liberty to enjoy those creations as they see fit. We have no give and no compromise on either of those, but long as Hollywood stays out of our patch (that is, no more attempts to lock down our Internet or our tools) we’ll stay out of Hollywood’s.

And if you’d like to discuss some ways of fighting piracy that don’t involve trampling on us and our users, we do have some ideas.