Kennedy’s Purple Prose


Echoes: Creativity and Aristotle’s Potluck

As classic works become more familiar you find those ideas are anything but dead and gone. In fact, they have us surrounded. The ubiquity of ideas you’ve come to associate with Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Federalists or Antifederalists suggests those writers captured something fundamental about how we understand the world and ourselves. Our Echoes series attempts to capture these reverberations through time. Perhaps there is new insight to be seen by presenting the past to the present and vice versa.

I recently read Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer in an attempt to keep thinking creatively despite the doldrums of dissertation writing. It’s a smooth read that attempts to match the mythology of creativity with the science behind a number of recognizable moments of genius, from the Swiffer to Pixar and from 3M’s masking tape to Broadway’s biggest success stories.

Jonah Lehrer shares his understanding of how creativity works

There was one moment, however, where I thought I saw Aristotle among these modern marvels. Lehrer was talking about why brainstorming doesn’t work.

I know a good number of you are teachers. And I can guess that some of you have used brainstorming in the classroom. With my eight years in the classroom and lifetime of thinking, I regularly came to the conclusion that I was doing it wrong. I never managed to unlock the magic mojo. It always felt silly, random and exhausting. I hated being the person at the front of the room who had to DO SOMETHING with the list once it was generated!

So, when Lehrer beat down all the magic talk of brainstorming with evidence that constructive criticism does more for creativity, I nearly threw my fist in the air and shouted, “hell yeah!”. He demonstrates how Pixar used their morning meetings of criticism and “plussing” to take Toy Story 2 from a dismal beginning to blockbuster success. Plussing makes all the difference; it’s “a technique that allows people to improve an idea without using harsh or judgmental language… whenever work is criticized, the criticism should contain a plus, a new idea that builds on the flaws in a productive manner.” Lehrer then connects this practice with an experiment conducted by Charlan Nemeth at UC-Berkley where she put brainstorming into direct competition with constructive criticism.  The group encouraged to debate produced more ideas while they worked together and had even more to add after the session had ended.

According to Nemeth, the reason criticism leads to more new ideas is that it encourages us to fully engage with the work of others. We think about their concepts because we want to improve them; it’s the imperfection that leads us to really listen. (And isn’t that the point of a group:? If we’re not here to make one another better, then why are we here?)

And the echo I heard was from Aristotle’s “pot luck” feast in Book III of Politics:

There is this to be said for the many: each of them by himself may not be of a good quality; but when they all come together it is possible that they may surpass–collectively and as a body, although not individually–the quality of the few best, in much the same way that feasts to which many contribute may excel those provided at one person’s expense. For when there are many, each has his share of goodness and practical wisdom; and, when all meet together the people may thus become something like a single person, who, as he has many feet, many hands, and many senses, may also have many qualities of character and intelligence.

This “creature” of many feet, hands and senses gets to a qualitative assessment of how we come together over brainstorming or plussing or any effort at collective action. The trick is in designing an experience that not only seeks to have everyone contribute but seeks to have everyone contribute according to their strengths and unique perspective.

Seeing and Knowing

Or, you might be thinking, “seeing is believing.”

Any survey of Politicolor quickly reveals a certain fascination with SEEING. But, here, seeing is not constrained by our…

but is something of another (grey) matter. Our posts have asked what we know from what we see and how seeing changes how we think about what we know. That sentence could make you dizzy but that’s the point. There is an inextricable bond between what we see and what we know.

Our previous investigations have involved reference to Cicero and Scipio’s Dream or Carl Sagan and astronauts. And sometimes both.

We have another name to add to the list.

In 1994, this guy had an asteroid named after him, 13123 Tyson, and, six years later, People Magazine named him the Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive. This makes Neil deGrasse Tyson is more of a modern thinker who suggests we “consider the category” before making too much of that last honorary. He has sparred with Colbert and is a regular favorite on WNYC’s RadioLab.

Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to inspire. He wants us (and the U.S.) to innovate.

In this 2013 commencement speech at Rice University, he works his way through our history of space exploration to focus on a familiar image, Earth rising over the moon’s horizon. Taken from space by the Apollo 8 Mission in 196, Tyson demonstrates how that image empowered us to take action. Seeing the Earth “as nature intended” gave us a reason to think about new and different questions.

In what Tyson describes as a “cultural response” to this image that Apollo 8 made possible for us all to see, a country at war was transformed into an “innovation nation.”

Tyson explains that we went to the moon to explore it but discovered the Earth instead.

*Tyson starts discussing the image at 11:00 if you don’t have time for the whole video



Reading List: The Warmth of Other Suns

If you’ve ever taught the Civil Rights Movement or even had a conversation about it, there’s a book you should read. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson reminded me of one of my favorite classroom moments talking about the Movement. It also made me re-think what I taught while I was there.

First, that classroom moment… It was Black History month and two of my students asked to interview me about the Civil Rights Movement for the morning’s video announcement program. This was not an easy question for me.

I was not a subscriber to these (sometimes) empty gestures at recognizing the experience of particular groups. I guess it’s risky to admit that. I was sensitive to how these efforts might trivialize real struggles and gut-wrenching experiences. When you walk through the halls of an average school during one of these months, you’ll see faux postage stamps, book jackets and movie posters of the same names and faces. Either the list of famous people for Black History month is short or it’s easier to administer when you provide the same list to all the classes. Consider that students, teachers and administrators do this same dance every year and you can’t help but wonder what we’re teaching students about Black History.*

Did you see Justin Bieber’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live? In a Valentine’s Day / Black History Month mash-up he sings about Maya Angelou inventing the peanut. Or maybe it was Denzel Washington… That’s how silly some of these Black History Month “events” felt to me.

But, in the end, these students were excited to talk about the Civil Rights Movement and to share that conversation with their school community. I had to agree to this very special Black History Month interview.

Prepped with an empty classroom at the end of the day and a little red light on the school video camera, we started the interview. Within minutes the students asked me what it was like to march in the streets with Martin Luther King. I took my first breath of life four years after he was murdered so I was speechless. They stopped the camera.

A short exchange revealed this wasn’t about my being crazy old in their estimate. My teaching had made the Civil Rights Movement real enough, substantive enough and provocative enough that they assumed I knew it. That I REALLY knew it. We then returned to the interview with a little better footing for a conversation about why I thought the Civil Rights Movement was still so important.

And, now, back to the book that answers that question so brilliantly while documenting the lives of people who lived through a complete transformation of the American people. In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson offers a beautiful statement about the African American experience of the mid-20th Century, how it re-shaped the country and continues to influence us today. She chronicles the lives of three individuals, from the harsh details of the lives they decided to leave in the South to their final reflections on the lives they were able to make for themselves in the North.

Wilkerson selected three stories, those of Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, to represent the more than six million African Americans who migrated from the South between 1920 and 1970. Six million people! She expertly demonstrates how this migration changed the South as much as it did the Northern cities where whole communities of southern blacks relocated.

The author’s beautiful language helps the reader see the dissonance these Americans experienced and to understand it didn’t end with their arrival in the North.

Many people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things. Tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city or western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself.”

This is the story of the American Dream turned backwards or inside out. And it’s a story that’s absolutely necessary to know and understand before we can claim to understand the mythology of the American Dream that is casually told and retold a hundred times over. Repetition can engender attachment and affection but it can also hollow out an idea that was once meaningful.

The phrase “white flight” has become so familiar that it hardly conveys anything thought provoking, but Wilkerson makes it a proper horror story. A story Ida Mae’s family likes to re-tell about the vanishing house will shock you. I was so angry I had to stop reading. It took 30 years but Ida Mae’s family had finally saved enough to buy a three-story brownstone in a nice neighborhood where her children could comfortably raise their families. They were proud. It looked like the American Dream, the dream she and her husband had for themselves and their children when they left sharecropping, had finally arrived. The day after they moved in, however, a house across the street disappeared. THE WHOLE HOUSE! As the white families left, the whole character of the neighborhood changed while a lifelong accomplishment for an entire family was eroded away.

Wilkerson’s novel itself is as inspiring as the stories she tells about Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. She brings this “other” version of the American Experience out of the shadows to be seen:

By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.

This quote doesn’t just tell you about the book. It reveals the perseverance present in the three stories and the ambition of the author to make real those long fights of everyday life. So real that you begin to wonder if you could have done it. So real that you wonder if it’s folly to ever discuss the American Dream as something that could stand on its own.

So real that you start to wonder if you’ve ever done justice to that experience when re-telling it in the classroom.


*I am very thankful for school administrators who listened (every year) to my lecture about living history together and teaching it that way. The laugh isn’t lost on me that I’m posting this in Black History Month.

Politics on the Inside

No, we’re not talking about political insiders. Not those hideous creatures that live inside the much maligned Beltway. We’re talking about one man’s perspective on the truth about politics as he understands it through human experience.

For rapper El-P, all politics is internal to one’s self or to mankind. In an interview on Sound Opinions, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot asked the rapper about the subversive or personalized politics they heard embedded in his music. Jim and/or Greg (I’ve been listening for years but can’t tell their voices apart) asserted that El-P’s music had captured something important about the “tenor of the times.” The host continued to describe a vibe going around the world, and permeating El-P’s music, that urged people to rise up, defend themselves and speak out. It says, “they may not win the battle but the struggle is worth fighting.”

Politicolor has weighed the political statements of favorite songs from the audience’s perspective on several occasions.  We looked at the messages in the music to determine what resonated with a Federalist way of thinking, how certain titles communicate revolution and constituting a new people, and when music seems to multiply the effect of a moment. Prompted by a NYT op-ed written by Bono, I wrote about how music motivated my own early activism as my young self believed whole-heartedly what Bono suggested in that piece, music has the power to change the world. This all made the interview with El-P even more interesting as the artist was asked to comment on the political ideas a couple of avid music-listeners found in his music.

Remarking that many people walk away from his music thinking it’s all negativity, El-P described the message of his latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, as one of hope, “but not un-battered hope.”

The artist suggested that transcendent moments come with a price of discussing what is uncomfortable and difficult. Transcending those difficulties, El-P says, requires knowing them and understanding them. He explains that his music is his attempt to explain his perspective on the human experience from his own eyes but also, “from another part of me [El-P] that I’m having to contain on these records. This other voice in me that is terrified and angry and confused. Doesn’t really know how to get to point B from point A without wanting to scream.”

El-P’s admits his latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, sounds like a struggle but he hopes his fans finish the album thinking it  was a good fight…

To me the battle is not out there. I mean, it maybe to some degree, but…

To me the battle is internal. And that’s what the record is about. The idea of cancer for cure, the idea of us being the cancers for our own cure; Of fighting ultimately internal battles. I always had in my head something that someone  told me that said ultimately we all have cancer to some degree and our immune system is just constantly fighting it back.

And I believe that, ultimately, that these are the real truths of the struggles that you’re seeing in the streets right now; and the struggles you’re seeing in the world. Nothing happens and nothing gets emanated from anywhere else except from things other than inside mankind, internally. There are no external factors except weather.

I choose to make my political statements from a personal perspective. Because the times will change and the movements will rise and fall and the talking heads will rotate and there are truths that will remain the same. There will still be a struggle.



Detroit’s Hiedelberg Project: Questions of liveliness at the edges & organized complexity

It was like walking through a graveyard. We found ourselves talking in hushed tones or, mostly, not talking at all. Spookiest of all was the hope that still occupied the hollow spaces of the Hiedelberg Project. Horror and hope. Calling out from the empty houses, there was at once a community abandoned and a community committed to persevere.

A four minute intro to the space that includes community voice and the artist, Tyree Guyton, who grew up in the neighborhood:

Keith (Hobbes21), his family and mine walked through the Hiedelberg Project in Detroit enjoying the whimsy of giant polka dots and nonsensical clocks. The Hiedelberg Project (HP) describes itself as “an outdoor community art environment. The elements contain recycled materials and found objects, most of which were salvaged from the streets of Detroit.” We shared smiles over piles of stuffed animals but then realized they looked like refugees crowded into a boat, determined to get anywhere that wasn’t here. The uneasy quiet returned to wash away our smiles.

Stuff Underfoot (photo by Kelly Fox)

The community art project included colorful cartoonish drawings of shoes amid piles of discarded shoes. These piles were so high it was hard to fathom how many people the empty shoes represented. I started to wonder where all those people were now. And then quickly tried to think about something else.

On the web, HP tells you the whole project “is symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have been discarded. It asks questions and causes the viewer to think. When you observe the HP, What do you really see? Is it art?… That’s for you decide.” Keith and I were trying to decide about the shoes.

I had thought of empty slogans you see plastered all over recovery efforts. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. But it was also easy to imagine they were there to nag you about something or someone trampled under foot. A people downtrodden. The same cognitive dissonance accompanied the armies of old vacuums, reinforced with brooms and empty gloves. These were the tools of a brigade prepared to make a clean sweep. To rebuild. To begin again. But the tools were abandoned, exposed and showing the wear of being exposed for years.

A Clean Sweep (photo by Kelly Fox)

A collection of nonsensical clocks asked you to consider either that the time had come to do something or to concede that even thinking that phrase made you part of a regime that never delivered on that promise. The time to act had come. And gone. And come and gone. Again and again. Each clock showed a different time, provoking you to wonder why. Think about it too long and each of the different times started to haunt you too. They want you to know that the time to act comes and goes each and every day while the Detroit neighborhoods this community represents continue to sit quietly. Forgotten and unchanged.

Haunting Dolls (photo by Kelly Fox)

We left the Hiedelberg Project but I couldn’t shake the cognitive dissonance. More than just art accessible in a public space, HP represents a powerful installment of civic art. It made you think about the people who once lived in those spaces and what they had heard from their city and fellow citizens. Not just what they heard but what they had believed. What they knew about themselves, that neighborhood and their city when they fled, begrudgingly left their family home or were dragged away. It made you think about how a people had been neglected or abandoned and how complicit you had been in it.

I think it was this idea of being a part of the problem that required us to quiet our voices. Being in that space required contemplating what it might mean to be lost or forgotten. Maybe even discarded. The problems we witnessed at Hiedelberg had an unrelenting gravity.

Liveliness at the Edges

The force of this community art project came into full view unexpectedly one night as I was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He was sharing his thoughts after a week on a grass farm, but I replayed the images of Hiedelberg as I read his ideas about an essential relationship between antagonists.

He suggested antagonists need one another:

For some reason the image that stuck with me from that day was that slender blade of grass in a too-big, wind-whipped pasture, burning all those calories just to stand up straight and keep its chloroplasts aimed at the sun. I’d always thought of the trees and grasses as antagonists—another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other. To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands. So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as, indeed, with all the species sharing the most complicated form. Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. Before I came to Polyface [the grass farm] I’d read a sentence of Joel’s that in its diction had struck me as an awkward hybrid of the economic and the spiritual. I could see now how characteristic that mixing is, and that perhaps the sentence isn’t so awkward after all: ‘One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.’

Hiedelberg’s polka dots were that blade of grass fighting to stand up straight, testifying to a liveliness at the edges that once existed.

photo by Kelly Fox

Polka Dots (photo by Kelly Fox)

The trouble that demands your attention in that urban neighborhood is that we as a people have misunderstood something fundamental about our life together. Pollan asks his readers to consider that corporate agriculture has ignored biological fact in an effort to increase their productivity. The HP story connects here. It does not argue that disorder simply happened on those streets but that order had been neglected or even abandoned. Stories of gangs, violence and vengeance recur in our discussions of urban streets. They tell us order was turned upside down as bad elements invaded the streets and conquered everything that had been good. That version of the story suggests gangs turned things upside down making it more admirable to stall and thwart police efforts than to cooperate and assist them.

If order is lost rather than turned upside down, however, society has to ask how it allowed this to happen. The community and city leaders have to confront their role in abandoning a certain group of people or certain places, for certain reasons; They have to evaluate those reasons, including those that are allowed to go unsaid and unchallenged.

The unrealized possibilities of Hiedelberg are not confined to that community alone or even to those that resemble it. There is something more to be known about being a whole community or a whole people that is lost when we sacrifice the liveliness of the edges for the false comfort of zero-sum thinking. Consider the usual vow to put more police on the streets that increases perceived safety but has a minimal effect on crime rates and the actual decline that accompanied the “broken window theory” described by Kelling and Wilson. As they observed in 1982, the neighborhoods felt safer because the foot-patrol officers were able to “elevate… the level of public order in these neighborhoods.” A useful summary of the theory appears in James Wilson’s NY Times obituary, “his most influential theory holds that when the police emphasize the maintenance of order rather than the piecemeal pursuit of rapists, murderers and carjackers, concentrating on less threatening though often illegal disturbances in the fabric of urban life like street-corner drug-dealing, graffiti and subway turnstile-jumping, the rate of more serious crime goes down.”

Recognizing Organized Complexity

Organized Complexity (photo by Kelly Fox)

The question of urban neighborhoods is not answered simply by counting the number of police, instances of gang activity or even broken windows alone. In her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs urged city planners to understand the question of cities as one of “organized complexity,” presenting “situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.” [italics in original text] The Hiedelberg project does not stop at asking us to consider the demise of a single urban neighborhood but provokes us to look at the systemic failure of a political society.

Walking down the street we were poised at a sort of event horizon confronted with the possibility of a lost state. Something Cicero described in The Republic as a sort of black hole:

As for the punishments which even the stupidest can feel—destitution, exile, jail, flogging—individuals often escape them by choosing the option of a quick death; but in the case of states, death, which seems to rescue individuals from punishment, is itself a punishment. For a state should be organized in such a way as to last for ever. And so the death of a state is never natural, as it is with a person, for whom death is not only inevitable but also frequently desirable. Again, when a state is destroyed, eliminated, and blotted out, it is rather as if (to compare small with great) this whole world were to collapse and pass away. (Book Three, 33-35)

This idea makes sense of the silence we adopted as though we were witnessing catastrophic devastation. But we witnessed hope and perseverance too. Tocqueville contemplated the failure of democratic government in Democracy in America and shed light on what makes this idea of hope make sense:

Many people, on seeing democratic states fall into anarchy, have thought that government in these states was naturally weak and powerless. The truth is that when war among their parties has once been set aflame, government loses its action on society. But I do not think that the nature of democratic power is to lack force and resources; I believe, on the contrary, that almost always the abuse of its strength and the bad use of its resources bring it to perish. Anarchy is almost always born of its tyranny or its lack of skillfulness, but not of its powerlessness.

The citizens of Hiedelberg had a sense of the power that still remained despite the appearance that all had been lost. They experienced this lack of skill and misuse of force but they know Hiedelberg has the potential to teach us the skills we need. This too resonates with the work of Jane Jacobs and how she concludes her book on great American cities, “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” Hiedelberg begs its observers to shift their perspective and consider its questions anew, with a sense of hope instead of loss and a substantive concern for what happens next.

Reading List: Longitude and How We Know

We think KNOWING is so easy that we approach the unknowable with suspicion. Longitude by Dava Sobel and William J.H. Andrews is a worthwhile read if only to challenge the certainty of our suppositions. Modern precision is grounded in countless struggles with imprecision.

Anyone who believes the modern world is a simple one should read Dava Sobel’s Longitude. Lucky for us, many of our modern luxuries make this historical puzzle of knowing your location an interesting story rather than a daily challenge. It’s as easy as an app on a smartphone, the right Google search string or clicking a city on a web-based map. Facebook, Twitter and other apps regularly ask for permission to share your location. Longitude reminds us this simple request is far from easy to make happen. The modern luxury is in having access to a daunting amount of information through simple tools and Sobel’s book takes us back to the point of origin for determining your coordinates.

The truth is that we encounter what is at least difficult to know or even unknowable more often than we realize. The book concludes with a short passage that captures how simple and familiar ideas help us believe we know something about the incomprehensible.

With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth—temporal—dimension to link points on the three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.

We recognize this idea of “testing the water,” but Sobel asks us to apply it to space-time. Few of us have any experience with space-time outside of our favorite Star Trek episode. We’ve never actually seen this temporal dimension but we can imagine it alongside the three-dimensions we know and the recognizable globe those dimensions draw for us. Distant stars had obscured our whereabouts for centuries until something as familiar as a pocket watch made it possible to know one’s location. What we know (the watch, three-dimensional space, and troubled waters) helps us understand what is unknowable (space-time, the fourth dimension and the systems of the universe).

Harrison's H-1

We regularly rely on our imagination to understand the world around us. Our preoccupation with using the simple tools of modern life while dismissing the complexity of their original proposition is dangerous. It threatens our understanding of how essential imagination is to the pursuit of knowledge and our ability to invent the very tools that have captured our attention. The GPS embedded in your car or your smartphone began with John Harrison’s first model for calculating longitude, the H-1. It weighed 75 pounds and sat in a 4ft. x 4ft. x 4ft.  cabinet. Accurate enough for the Longitude Board charged with granting the £20,000 award, the H-1 did not satisfy its inventor who had spent five years building it. Harrison knew it could be more precise. And more manageable. Solving the problem of longitude was not enough if the solution was impractical for sailors who needed this information while navigating the open sea. Knowing one’s longitude had alluded sailors and astronomers for hundreds of years, but Harrison seemed to believe finally knowing it was of little value without an easy way to access the data and calculate distance.

His designs continued to evolve until he presented the H-4 nearly 25 years later. The H-4, Harrison’s “sea watch,” finally put the precise measure of time in a device as simple as a pocket watch. The precise measure of longitude was not only knowable in 1760, it was finally easy to use.

The elements of Sobel’s narrative as she tells the longitude story sometimes appear more convenient than real. Longitude undoubtedly only skims the surface of the actual story, but the opportunity to think through the complicated nature of something considered to be so simple today makes the quick read worthwhile. The story makes the sophistication that accompanies innovation just a little more tangible.

It reminded me of a 20th century story of innovation too. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Isaacson reflects on a quote from the very first Apple brochure, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and remarks, “Jobs had aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them.

Sophisticated knowledge requires us to confront complexity too.

Citizen’s Conundrum: Dirt, Data and Digging Out

Now showing: “every utterance, every court filing, every public transaction, every burp, every miscue.”

In an interesting read, Jack Shafer wonders about the state of our politics “now that we have dirt on everyone.” While some debate the power of the Internet to democratize even the most authoritarian regimes, we should consider its role in making our politics dirtier than ever. Shafer describes the shift by comparing a campaign’s opposition research to mining for gold:

The past no longer matters to the political present the way it once did, because we have such better access to it today. Just 15 years ago, investigations of politicians and opposition research were largely limited to professionals with access to Lexis-Nexis or those who knew how to conduct a document search at the county courthouse. Digging dirt back then was like mining gold in the 1800s: labor intensive, and requiring both expertise and expensive tools. Widespread digitization and cheap information technologies haven’t eliminated the professionals from political dirt digging, only lowered the barriers to entry.

Leaping over those low barriers this cycle is Andrew Kaczynski, a 22-year-old history major at St. John’s University, who quarried C-SPAN archives for political gotchas and posted more than 160 of them on his YouTube channel, alerting the press to the best, he tells me.

It isn’t just the dirt. We’re also awash in data or dirt masquerading as data. The information costs of a wold-be knowledgeable citizen are skyrocketing!

David Weinberger takes on this question from a scientific perspective in a book with a great title, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. He points to a scientist’s lament from 1963. That scientist, Bernard K. Forscher, titled his famous letter “Chaos in the Brickyard” and complained that science was churning out too many bricks (facts) without the ability “to complete a useful edifice because, as soon as the foundations were discernible, they were buried under an avalanche of random bricks.” Weinberger explains the problem today is much larger than Forscher could have imagined. Our brickyards are networked!

He offers three reasons today’s brickyards are galactic in scope and they’re worth considering in the context of political dirt. I’ll list them here but recommend visiting Weinberger’s post on The Atlantic for a more detailed discussion.

  1. The economics of deletion. Little data is ever discarded now that massive amounts of storage are easy and inexpensive.
  2. The economics of sharing. It’s easier than ever to share everything. From the 160 hours of video on YouTube mentioned earlier to terabytes of data.
  3. Computers are smarter. The processing power of the average desktop has increased exponentially.

For science, this means the data grows more and more distant from hypothesis-testing and model-building. Data is made accessible in the hope that someone will eventually make it usable. For political life, this creates a chasm between news that matters and news that’s entertaining. You want news you can use? Well, that’s your problem.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed while trying to sift through fact and fiction to find the information that makes a difference in vote choice, policy expectations or even the decision to get involved. If journalists once dug for gold to help their audiences navigate these turbulence, they’ve sacrificed that role as they’ve competed to throw bricks, to throw lots of them and to throw them before anyone else does.

A flurry of web activity demonstrates just how little help one can expect from the press. In a recent post to the New York Times Public Editor’s Journal, Arthur Brisbane asked, “should the Times be a truth vigilante?

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

The earliest comments on the site hit along the same theme… how could this even be a question? If the Times isn’t a truth vigilante, what else could it be? Perhaps our media outlets have considered themselves to be purveyors of petty insults and meaningless drivel this whole time. Jay Rosen, a NYU journalism professor, has relentlessly called out the media for their “view from nowhere” and offers an excellent analysis of this latest installment.

There are many reasons to expect this deluge of dirt and date to only get worse. I hope this all hits home the next time you see a headline lampooning what little information American voters know. Too many of us enjoy the chuckle and assure ourselves we’re different. There’s an important follow up questions we should require… how the hell are we supposed to know anything? And what news are we missing because this headline was funny?


*** A future post will look at how to ditch dumb headlines and demand better. If you have a strategy that works for you, please share it by commenting on this post.

Politics and Public Art

There’s something about public art that gets to the heart of Politicolor’s project. When Carlos Collejo offered a tour of L.A. murals to our National Academy group in 2009, he explained the people and the art meet in the streets through these works of art. In the short video, “The Battle for LA’s Murals,” a muralist suggests museums are for dead people. While that might be a bit extreme, the art we saw on the mural tour was electrified with what a community aspired to and accomplished alongside the challenges they faced, the conflicts they still carried on their shoulders and their calls to a higher purpose.

Politics is inescapable. It’s embedded in every effort to understand who we are as a community, what we value and how we resolve conflict. L.A. muralists believe their work to represent their community is now challenged from two different directions with everyone claiming their right to free speech is in jeopardy.

I found this video through Open Culture so I’m going to recommend you visit their site for a bit of background on the conflict. I find it interesting that the muralists claim their work represents the community while graffiti artists only promote themselves. Graffiti has a long history associated with public protest, and I’m not interested in arguing that point here. The interesting part is that, in this assessment, the community outweighs the individual. This criticism is presented as everything you need to know to understand which work has value and which work doesn’t. These value judgments are tricky when you compare a real Rembrandt work to one from “the school of Rembrandt.” It might just be impossible when comparing museum pieces, public murals and graffiti.

What is informing the value we assign to L.A’s murals and their challengers: the city’s commercial ordinances and the local graffiti artists?

You can watch the video here:

Behind The Wall: The Battle for LA’s Murals from Oliver Riley-Smith on Vimeo.

Bonus Points: Open Culture is an excellent resource for free educational media on the web. They have a directory of free university course on the web, free ebooks, free videos, free language courses… you get the idea, right? If you’re not the type to keep up with a website through an RSS feed, you can “like” them on Facebook and pull their posts into your newsfeed. Super easy.