Hard at Work in 2025

What does 2025 look like?

Lots of grey hairs, that seems likely. Americans are living longer, and working longer, too. If we plan to live to 90, then 30 years is a mighty long time to live without the intellectual stimulation, social interaction, sense of accomplishment and financial security that a good job provides. This is a very demanding population, many well aware of the importance of good food, fitness, mental health, recreation. By 2025 (about ten years from today), the 60-plus population in the US will increase by 70 percent.

That’s only part of the story. Forget about work as a series of repetitive tasks. These will be done by machines, or they will be outsourced. This type of work simply won’t be done by humans. And that raises the question, “what kinds of work are best done by humans, and not by smart machines?”And don’t think in terms of what machines, or computers, or devices can do today. Instead, think in terms of a decade ago (no YouTube, few phones with cameras, no tablets), and assume that the technology will advance at two or three times the current rate. Machines will be much, much smarter than they are today. And they will communicate with one another, often without human involvement. Much as I love reading, it’s clear that video and animation are going to occupy an ever-increasing share of everyone’s media diet. Cultural norms are changing. If you want to learn to fix a toilet, you no longer read about it—you watch a video. We are connecting data with an intensity and velocity never before imagined. This, plus a globally connected world, will make 2014 seem real old, real fast.

Add these trends to the longevity trend and the contours of 2025 begin to take shape.

CirclesSo what are we supposed to do about this? How are we supposed to think about 2025? Some of the answers are in a report prepared by the Institute for the Future for the (yes, I was dubious, too) University of Phoenix Research Institute. It’s good work. And it goes on to look carefully at ten skills for the future workforce that are worth browsing here and worth reading about, in greater detail, here. More or less (with some of my own interpretation added), they are:

  1. Sense-making: the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed. These are higher-level thinking skills related to creative and critical thinking, decision sciences, environmental scanning, extensive knowledge of environmental factors, and much more.
  2. Social Intelligence: the ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense reactions and quickly assess emotional impact, and then, rapidly adapt or lead to achieve the optimum result.
  3. Novel and Adaptive Thinking: This set of skills expands upon the two above, “the ability to respond to unique unexpected circumstances of the moment.” Routine solutions are useful, but those who can combine the routine with the new, those who are naturally resourceful, are most likely to succeed.
  4. Cross-cultural Competency: This goes far beyond tolerance and equality. It requires an ease in working across generations, across what was once called an organizational chart, gaining and contributing insights to an extraordinarily wide range of stakeholders, coworkers, clients, competitors, vendors, customers, participants and much more.
  5. Computational Thinking: What’s the point of all of that computing power if you don’t know what the machines can do, should do, and might someday do? This is akin to buying a fabulous car—you’re paying for the most extraordinary performance, but it’s yours only if you demand it. In other words, to succeed, you’ll need to understand how and why it all works (and not from a technical point of view, but from a high-level perspective instead).
  6. New Media Literacy: Critical assessment of videos, understanding of the techniques used to shape and deliver messages, how to write and speak and produce. Forget about PowerPoints—they were the 1990s. We’re entering the era of widespread transmedia, where text, graphics, photos, interactivity, connectivity, video and games are only the beginning.
  7. (I love this made-up word!) Transdisciplinarity: Not sure that this needs any commentary.
  8. Design Mindset: Or, more commonly, a skill in design thinking. What’s that? Planning based upon community, customer or participant needs—these come first, and old ways of thinking, such as profitability, flow from these decisions. There is a lot of information about design thinking on the web, including a good Wikipedia introduction, and a blog by Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo, and the author of “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation.”
  9. Cognitive Load Management: Yeah, I like this phrase, too. More or less, it’s thinking about ways to avoid a “overload” light from blinking inside your brain. Learn to say “no” to the junk that attempts to fill the media diet; learn to discriminate, to dig deep, to contextualize, to become a “sufficient expert” (I just made that up;  the phrase makes sense to me).
  10. Virtual Collaboration: To work productively on you own (never give your boss or client a reason to worry about time spent away from the office), and to do so with lots of other people to generate and maintain high levels of productivity. Use Skype, use other forms of technology to do great things (and some routine things) with people who you have never met, and never will meet in person.

I think that’s a great list. And with it, two (REALLY IMPORTANT) suggestions:

First, score yourself. On each of the ten items above, score yourself 1 (the worst) through 10 (the best). If your score is 85, 90 or better, you will be welcome in 2025. If your score is a lot lower, you’ve got some honest work to do.

Second, reconsider school. If school isn’t nourishing you on these ten points, you should begin to ask some very serious questions about your investment of time and money, and you should immediately focus your school’s administration, faculty and curriculum advisors that the world will change sooner than they believe possible. Work with them. Or, learn without them. But get moving!

Perfect Summer Days

The sun is still low in the sky, so the lake sparkles. I’m hungry for breakfast, but I want to walk along the water for a while to study the shape of the hills on the far shore. A quarter mile on the promenade and I can’t keep myself away from the farmer’s market. It’s an garage, open from 7:00 am until 11:0o am. I tasted yesterday’s coffee cake and it was spectacular. This morning, I want to try a scone before they’re all gone. Local strawberries, too, because the season doesn’t last long enough. Walking back to the town square, I grab a Daily from the news hawker—he’s probably fourteen years old, wearing a flat eight-panel cap, canvas bag drooping from one shoulder, shouting something unintelligible as if he’s been at it for decades.

Like yesterday, today is going to be a busy day.

2014-07-03 17.01.42Yesterday afternoon was busy with reading on the Hotel Atheneum’s wraparound porch, studying the lake, selecting the perfect rocking chair, becoming distracted by what sounded like a full orchestra nearby. Wandering is what folks do on a summer’s day at Chautauqua, so I followed the music to the amphitheater where a rehearsal of Madame Butterfly kept me and perhaps two hundred other people busy for an hour. On Saturday night, the theater will be filled with nearly four thousand people, mostly residents who either spend their summers here, or, at least, several weeks each year. I was reluctant to linger: I wanted dinner before heading to the theater. Back at the Hotel Atheneum, I wanted to sit outdoors and watch the lake while eating my local trout, and that was best accomplished by taking a seat at a community table where the conversation was both lively and reminiscent of first days at college when everybody I met was a potential buddy.

Off to the theater. It’s a standalone building on what amounts to a square mile of campus, passing hundred-year old houses whose facades were painted with bright colors, almost always adorned with bright flowers, a celebration of Western New York’s relatively short—but absolutely fabulous—summer season. Crossing the town square, noting the location of the bookstore for later on, I made it to the theater with minutes to spare (nothing new about that, not for me, anyway). A few hundred seats in a purpose-built structure with exposed beams and seeming endless depth on the stage, the Bratton Theater is everything a summer theater ought to be. The play: A Raisin in the Sun, which I had just happened to watch as a movie in June. The stage setting was so striking, there was an article about its design in the next morning’s Daily. It’s the story of a low income family trying for the American dream, a story that seemed dreary in high school, but here, consistent with Chautauqua’s mighty arts tradition, the play was both compelling and provocative. And, as is so often the case in this tiny summer town by the lake, it was the subject of rocking chair conversation for the next few days.

My first full day began, once again, at the farmer’s market, then at a brief spiritual ceremony—every morning offers a choice of several (Zen Buddhist, Episcopalian, peace)—followed by “Morning Worship”—in essence a few announcements, a few hymns, and a crackling good sermon from The Reverend Raphael Warnock, a brilliant fellow who now fills the job that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once filled, in his official capacity, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. He talked about Adam and Eve, and the existence of God. What began as a relatively calm and thoughtful lecture became a sharp, energetic jolt of intellectual and spiritual power—very much in the style of Chautauqua at its best.

The amphitheater, orchestra on stage, rehearsing. Note the houses nearby (left and right). The amphitheater is just another site in the Chautauqua neighborhood.

The amphitheater, orchestra on stage, rehearsing. Note the houses nearby (left and right). The amphitheater is just another site in the Chautauqua neighborhood.

There was no reason to leave the amphitheater because the 9:15 am session ended more than an hour later, and at 10:45AM, the morning lecture was set to begin. Curious title: “For Cod and Country.” It was about fish. Which fish to eat. Which fish we shouldn’t eat. To be honest, I confuse what I learned from this lecture, by National Geographic’s Barton Seaver, with the one I attended on the next day, by the University of Minnesota’s Jonathan Foley. That’s what the programmers intended. Both are part of a week-long lecture series on closely-related topics about feeding everyone on the planet. Several interesting points: there is a lot more food available on the planet than we choose to eat, but our decisions about what to eat and just how far we are willing to ship that food is more than a little crazy; we need to eat more mussels, clams, oysters, herring, anchovies and sardines, and less salmon, tuna, and swordfish, and now I think I understand the reasons why. Fortunately, many of the Chautauqua speakers—there seem to be about 200 per season—have written books about their life’s passions. A good reason to spend an hour browsing in Chautauqua’s bookstore, if you can find a moment to do so.

2014-07-04 10.04.10-1Me? I’m off to Sol Messinger’s “Yiddish Language Conversation” back up near the main road at the relatively new (few Chautauqua structures are new) Emerson Jewish Life Center, built in 2009. Sol is sitting at a conference table with four or five people, interviewing each of them, each of us, about our family history. He is speaking in Yiddish. I understand only a bissel—the tiniest portion—but just the act of listening is joyful. Here and there, one of the people at the table translates key ideas for me. The conversation drifts in and out of English. The people are not young. I wonder what will happen to Yiddish, but only for a moment. My head is filled with ideas, but the yellow broadsheet—the detailed schedule for this Chautauqua week, contains far too many things for me to do, so I keep moving, grab a quick quiche at the informal lunch place above the bookstore (not wonderful: Chautauqua’s food for short-term visitors is a weak link), and manage to get to Philosopher’s Hall in time to get a seat just on the perimeter. It has been raining, so some seats are wet. I sit on my Daily, my bun is a little wet for a while, but I quickly forget my personal issue when the speaker begins. He’s compelling—John Hope Bryant, advisor to U.S. presidents, another brilliant guy, this time focusing on financial literacy, improved credit scores, the end of payday loan stores, and a realignment of neighborhood banks to provide services for the lower-middle and lower-classes. There is tremendous power in his idea—and a strangeness that feels unique to Chautauqua. Bryant is a passionate Black entrepreneur, not so distant from the Reverend we heard this morning—but the vast majority of his audience are white, and no longer the successful businesspeople they may have been a decade or two ago. No matter: Bryant’s presentation is digging deep into their souls, and they will carry the word. He mesmerizes. They listen attentively. The reason to go to Chautauqua is to learn, to take notes, to remember what was said, to learn because learning is a productive activity that makes life worth living. That spirit runs deep in Chautauqua’s soul: it’s part of the complicated set of reasons why this Institution was founded in 1874. And it’s the reason I visited: to get a sense of how recreation, learning, culture, and time to sit on a rocking chair might, in their way, be a better way to spend a summer afternoon than reading blog posts on the internet.

2014-07-03 17.07.15No time to linger. A Chautauquan keeps busy, does not lollygag (except when the day is beautiful and there is a book to be read under a century-old tree while children are racing around on bicycles and otherwise living a perfect small town American life). That glimpse of what America might have been is just that—a glimpse—for there is music to be enjoyed in one of the old churches. An hour of art songs performed by students from Chautauqua’s music school on the north side of town (no time to visit, but I understand practice sessions and rehearsals are open, and a bit like Tanglewood). Then, at 5:00PM, I wander back to the hotel for a daily wine tasting. I was invited by my new friends at last night’s Community Table. Mostly, my contribution to the table of six chatty people was recommendations of novels by Reynolds Price because one of the women was interested. Then, we headed down to dinner in the hotel’s main dining room. Steak dinner. Fresh cut.

Finished up just in time for the concert. Big concert tonight: a July 3 pops concert. Big fun! The 80-piece orchestra decked out in Americana, red white and blue everywhere, and because I was a solo act this time around, I got to sit right in front. Guest conductor Stuart Chafetz was a marvel, a musician so completely enthralled by the music, so joyful, so in touch with the orchestra and the audience… The first half was the stuff you’d expect from an Independence Day Pops Concert—Sousa, a few movie themes, a Beatles medley (which felt remarkably modern here). Second half: a song-and-dance team, husband and wife, Beverly and Kirby Ward. Selections from the American Songbook (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Johnny One Note,” etc.) and MGM musicals. Kudos to Kirby for his step-perfect recreation of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain dance routine, not easy to do without (a) water and (b) much space to dance.

And it’s late. The stars are out. The lake is dark and a nighttime promenade is the only possible way to end the day. And then, sleep.

2014-07-04 10.01.57Next morning, it’s up at 7:00 am for the Farmer’s Market, then a spiritual bit, then a visit to the Methodist House (many religions, many houses, used for residents and for small events) for a July 4 lecture about the specific wording of the Declaration of Independence. I intended to stay for just a few minutes, but stayed for an hour and learned a lot about what Thomas Jefferson wrote and what Richard Henry Lee wrote. Half of the people in the audience seemed to know the speaker as a friend. I suspect he was a long-time Chautauqua resident or visitor, and that revealed one more piece of this fascinating puzzle: the people who attend Chautauqua are not just visiting because the lake is pretty in July. They attend because the combination of leisure and learning, family and fellowship, curiosity and creativity is, for nine special weeks every summer, available here and almost nowhere else.

There is so much to learn, to be learned, about this way of thinking and experiencing the world. I wish there was more time. I wish it was nearby. I want to see the constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar on July 21, and the opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, later that week, and the author E.L. Doctorow on August 7, and my list goes on. But in terms of both space and time, Chautauqua seems too far away—it clings to parts of the 19th century as it figures out what its 21st century life might be. I know one thing Chautauqua  ought to be: more accessible to me. I want to carry a part of it with me all summer long. I can’t help but wonder whether the magic of the internet might make that possible, someday.

Stuart Chafetz conducting the Chautauqua Orchestra.

Stuart Chafetz conducting the Chautauqua Orchestra.

Natives 100, Red Skins 0

From today’s New York Times:

For years, the N.F.L. and the Washington Redskins have defended the team’s name by claiming that it is a sign of honor and bravery, not a slur. When critics disagreed, the team pointed to a survey showing that a majority of Native Americans supported the name.

Making that defense may become harder. On Wednesday, a division of the federal government ruled that the Redskins name was disparaging. The team was stripped of federal protections for six of its trademarks.

That reminded me of something I’d written in a book (Branded for Life, now out of print). Slightly updated, here’s the relevant excerpt:

One of the ten cutest kids in a May, 2014 story about Indian pow-wows. For more up-to-date news about native Americans, click on the image.

One of the ten cutest kids in a May, 2014 story about Indian pow-wows. For more up-to-date news about native Americans, click on the image.

“Have You Ever Seen A Real Indian?”

That line was the basis of a public education campaign whose advertisements appeared in Rolling Stone, and several other magazines. The campaign promoted the American Indian College Fund.

What traits do you associate with today’s Native Americans? What do you know about them? If you met one, what questions would you ask? Would you ask about casinos, or alcoholism, poverty or living on reservations, the environment or restitution, or maybe the Crazy Horse monument? Maybe (then) new museum in Washington, D.C.? Maybe you’d discuss a book you had read about Indians, maybe a movie like Dances with Wolves?

Despite our newfound social awareness, we’re still struggling with the problem of Indians, or Native Americans. Neither label is okay: Indian was the result of mistaken identity (explorers believed were in India, not the New World), and American is a variation on the name of European explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whose maps helped to remove millions of native people from their homeland.

Children still sing “Ten Little Indians” and still play “cowboys and Indians.” Amos n’ Andy episodes are no longer shown on TV, there’s no such ban cinematic representations of Indians: bloodthirsty, lawless savage, tragic, inevitable, lazy, shiftless, drunk, oil rich, illiterate, educated half-breed, unable to live in either White or Indian world. We continue to envision the American Indian as noble hero, stoic, unemotional, first conservationist.

You can still buy a Jeep Cherokee (imagine buying a Chrysler Jew or a Ford Puerto Rican!), or a Pontiac, or travel in style in a Winnebago. You can buy a t-shirt with a grinning Cleveland Indian, or chew Red Man tobacco, or delight in the natural purity of Land O’ Lakes butter, whose Indian Maiden logo recalls the innocence of Hiawatha. The Tomahawk Missile was successfully deployed during the Gulf War. (First time around, I missed the Redskins completely.)

Nearly 30 percent of our native people live below the poverty line. Their numbers are few (4.3 million people, or 1.5% of the population–slightly less than all Americans claiming Norwegian ancestry). They are neither valuable to marketers nor are they powerful forces for change. (Tribal casinos are changing the situation, but not for all).

Today’s thinking. The elimination of Redskins trademarks is an appropriate first step, one that should have been taken decades ago. If I was a marketing executive at the Cleveland Indians, I’d be canceling all vacation plans this summer and instructing every employee of my advertising and marketing agencies to do the same. As this ball gets rolling, there will be a lot of clean-up work to do. Be sure to visit this link to see the HUNDREDS of high school teams whose names and mascots are based upon Braves, Indians, Redskins, Warriors, and more—and the dozens of professional and college teams named for Indians who, with or without their well-intentioned elimination of native warrior imagery who ought to be making alternate plans.

Okay, enough about this all-American misstep. Let’s talk about something far more important—the real lives of native peoples living in America today. Not in a museum, not in history books, but in contemporary 21st Century America. One powerful way to understand contemporary Indian life is to read the news and feature stories about their nation within a nation. Visit The Only Recognized National Media Platform Serving Indian Country

Indian Country Today Media Network, LLC is an internationally-recognized multimedia platform, solely-owned by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, comprised of IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork.com, a full-service website with mobile optimization, breaking news alerts and This Week from Indian Country Today, a weekly subscription-based e-newsletter. Both deliver in-depth coverage of Native American News, world news, politics, business, gaming, finance, economic development, environmental issues, education, arts & entertainment, Native American culture, pow wows, health & wellness, travel, genealogy, First Nations of Canada, sports, and veterans’ issues. In addition to up-to-the-minute reporting by its team of national correspondents, IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork.com offers comprehensive listings of pow wows, scholarships, internships, tribal colleges, health tips, veterans’ resources, and job opportunities. It is augmented by a thriving social network, and Datecatcher, the first Native American Dating site powered by and partnered with Match.com

 

Two Books About School

…but not books about reading, writing or arithmetic. Not exactly.

Both books tell surprising stories about creativity, and support the thesis that experiential learning can be far more powerful than anything that can be tested.

I really like the way elementary school John Hunter sets up his story, so I’ll recap it:

“Three children have made their way into the room, gazing silently at the Plexiglas structure that represents our planet. It’s an imposing, four-level affair—undersea, ground and sea, airspace, and outer space—covered with submarines and ships, soldiers and cities, tanks and oil wells, spy planes and satellites….There is a United Nations, a World Bank, two or three arms dealers, and a weather god or goddess, who controls the vagaries of tsunamis and hurricanes, determines the fate of the stock market, and tosses coins to determine the outcomes of battles and coups d’etat. The children are provided with national budgets, assets, stores of armaments, and portfolios outlining fifty global crises. Then they are given ten weeks to save the world.”

For a video overview, click on the picture:

World Peace Game

The game works because it is is difficult, requiring students to figure out the many things they need to know, but do not know. So they figure things out—a far better way to learn than memorization or textbooks. Hunter describes three types of thinking that improve by playing the game:

  • the development of knowledge based upon facts
  • the unexpected insights and creative solutions that result from trying and failing and trying again
  • the gradual accumulation of wisdom that comes from collaboration, cooperation, conflict, and observation

book-3d-340For thirty years, Hunter has been playing the game with his students, without much notice, mostly in Virginia and Maryland. Then came a documentary, then a TEDTalk, then, this book. He’s now quite well-known, but a cursory understanding is quite different from the deeper understanding that a few hours with a good book and a good author can provide. The book works best when he is the teacher, which, of course, means learning a great deal about himself. He tells one story of his desire to expand his own personal world view by traveling and studying eastern religions and philosophies in ancient monasteries. Feeling good about his worldliness, he (and his dreadlocks) attracted the attention of several Chinese school girls on long train ride. After trying out their English and asking questions about American life, they asked him several simple questions: “Sir, where do you belong? Who do you belong to? Who is your group?” This set off a series of questions in his own mind; he explains: “This struck me because I had been in so many different groups since I left my home community—so many spiritual and social groups—that I’d begun to feel that I had no particular allegiance anywhere, simple because I had come to have allegiance everywhere.” A short time later, woken from a  dream, he conceived of all of the mechanics of the Game in a single instant. “It came to be in a diagram, an interconnected matrix of countries aligned in opposition to one another on every possible level—vertically (undersea, ground and sea, etc.) and laterally—each country at odds with every other in every possible sphere: economic, military, social, ethnic. I would actually see the multifaceted crises floating there above my bed as I lay awake in the pre-dawn hours.”

Hunter teaches in Richmond, Virginia. Several hundred miles up the coast, just north of Philadelphia, Tracey Krause is continuing the work that her teacher, and then, her mentor, Lou Volpe began. They produce high school theater. At Harry S Truman High School, theater may be the most important thing they do. It’s the school whose test runs of Les Miserables and RENT were so good, the owners of those properties determined that these productions could, in fact, be produced in high school. In high school theater, that’s a pretty big deal. In the life of Truman, it’s a minor detail.

Drama HighWhen the author visits Lou Volpe in his home, the living room walls are covered, top to bottom, with theater posters. When he watches Volpe interact with students, the author comments, “over time, one of the things that I come to see is how deeply Volpe knows his students. How couldn’t he? They take chances on stage that reveal their inner selves. But it is also true that the very things they learn from being involved in theater—empathy, the ability to imagine lives other than their own, the actor’s gift for giving a character a backstory…allow them to know him.”

It all ties together. “The theater classes are the foundation of Truman Drama, an essential element in its success. Plays and musicals that Volpe puts into production are already familiar to his students because they have studied them in class….In Volpe’s classroom, thousands of books are piled into bookshelves and stacked so high that if you remove a volume, you have to be careful the whole tower of them does not come tumbling down. The books are a reflection of one man’s catholic tastes—works by Shakespeare and Sondheim; David Mamet and David Hare; Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Thornton Wilder, Yasmina Reza, Wallace Shawn, Horton Foote, Paul Rudnick, Athol Fugard and on and on and on. They are not for decoration; they are used. If a student is looking for a monologue to perform in a festival or for a scholarship audition, Volpe reaches into the pile, pulls out something from the stack, and says, ‘Look in here. You might find what you want.’”

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

Author Michael Sokolove was inspired to write Drama High, in part, because he attended Truman (then, Woodrow Wilson). He tells the story of Truman Drama, mostly, through individual students, their personal and academic lives, their hopes and dreams, and their lives as young performers. He also allows Mr. Volpe’s successor, Tracey Krause her time in the spotlight: “Her energy level is staggering.. She teaches all day, spends endless hours with the theater program, coaches her kids’ soccer teams (she used to coach the sport at Truman), runs half marathons, has an active dating life, makes frequent visits to the tanning salon, and finds time to jet off to Las Vegas for occasional weekends to visit her best friend.”

So what are we learning? Sure, there are lots of ways to do school, some more and some less traditional. This isn’t an English class essay, so I’ll steer clear of identifying common themes, but I’ll allow myself just one. The sense of community provided by a big game, and a theater program—a sense that some student enjoy because they’re good at sports and others enjoy because they’re just plain brilliant. Here are two stories about two teachers (three, including Ms. Krause) that open doors for every student willing to enter and engage.

Completely Unreasonable

9780262019354Sitting in my big comfortable chair, I feel as though I’ve traveled several million miles since I started reading Noson Yanofsky’s new book, The Outer Limits of Reason. When I measure the distance from the comfy chair in the family room to my bed (where I read several chapters) and to my office (several more), I suppose I walked no more than 100 feet (round trips included). I think I started reading the book on December 30 and I finished it today, January 5—a week, pretty normal for an interesting book. Actual distance traveled, book in hand: 7 days x 1,600,000 miles per day for a total of about 11 million miles. How did I rack up so many miles? While I was sitting in my chair, reading in bed, or listening to music to accompany several chapters in the office, the earth never stopped moving. We tend to forget that part of the travel experience because, well, everything’s relative. We tend to think that we’re pretty much stationary in space, in a fixed position of some kind, but of course, we’re not. This is not new information: we’ve known this to be true for more than a century (thanks to Albert Einstein).

170px-Yogi_Berra_1956Somewhere between Yogi Berra (“half the lies they tell about me aren’t true”) and the goofiness of language (“This sentence is false.”), Professor Yanofsky, of Brooklyn College, runs through thought experiments at the edges of reality and reason. One of my favorites (which may be familiar) is the ship of Theseus, which won many battles and was therefore allowed to linger in the port for hundreds of years. Over time, it began to rot, so the good people began to replace rotten planks with new ones. That way, they figured, the ship would last longer. Reconstruction and restoration were, and remain, common practice, but the ship, and the practice, raise some questions. With each each new plank, a portion of the original ship, rotten though it may have been, disappears. In time, most of the ship is composed of new planks, so it’s reasonable to wonder how much of the old ship still exists. Eventually, the answer may be none at all. Of course, this is about more than decomposing ships. Are you the person that you were a decade or three or more decades ago? Natural processes suggest otherwise: your brain, your blood, so much of each of us is naturally replenished. on a regular basis (doctors and other practitioners may add, delete, or replace more).

Oxford Mathematics Professor Marcus Du Sautoy explains the Monty Hall Problem on YouTube.

Oxford Mathematics Professor Marcus Du Sautoy explains the Monty Hall Problem on YouTube.

Breezing through Zeno (Achilles and the Tortoise), Monty Hall (why you should change your mind when making a deal), and The Traveling Salesman problem (where computer or logical routing becomes an impossibility), Yanofsky pursues progressively more mind-bending stuff. Again, some of this is likely to be familiar if you follow this sort of thing: The Butterfly Effect, which abbreviates “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” (not exactly, but probably, sort-of). There’s quite a bit, well-explained, about the strangeness of quantum mechanics (that is, unlike the observable and more easily measured physical world), also not new anymore.

An internet place to explore tiles and other interesting things to make and do.

Click on the pic to visit an internet place where you can explore tiles, and see what people have been making in extraordinary ways.

I’ve always been taken with tiling problems: the shape of tiles that can fill a large space with only adjacent edges between shapes. Of course, a square is perfect for this sort of thing, and so, too, is a hexagon, but pentagons and circles don’t work at all (you need to fill in the blank spaces with other shapes). I had never seen the Myers shape, an odd solution to this interesting geometric design problem. (Thanks, Noson, whose childhood ponderings probably included palindromes.)

Much has been written about the relationship between mathematics and the universe, and Yanofsky summarizes this situation in terms that I could (mostly) understand. The fascinating essence: how is it that we, mere mortals living on this strange planet that is, mostly, inhospitable to human life (tornadoes, bacteria, extreme climates and attorneys  [his humor]), manage to develop a language based, mostly, upon numbers and calculations that somehow manages to explain so much of how it all works. When mathematics and science fail to explain the natural world, or present conundrums and paradoxes (for the correct plurals of these words, consider this from the Guardian), Yanofsky becomes interested, and offers the right illustrations to begin the conversation. Sometimes, there are formulas (too many, in fact), but I’d suggest that you skip past the Stephen Hawking “dictum that every equation halves the number of readers” and simply do your best to navigate the sections that are mired in equations and symbolic logic; the book can be easily enjoyed without fussing over the likes of p(A^~ C) ≤ p(A^ ~ B) + p(B^ ~ C).

So is all of this mathematical musing without much of a point? Or is he flirting with the true nature of the universe? I suspect he could speak eloquently about the former, but in the end, he may conclude the latter. After carefully defining reason as “the set of processes or methodologies that do not lead to contradictions and falsehoods” (why not “or falsehoods?), he italicizes this important idea: we human beings already live beyond reason. He goes on:

Our minds do not live in a world of stones, carbon-based life forms, and molecules following habitual laws of physics. Rather, we have feelings and emotions that are not dictated by reason and logic. We have a sense of beauty, wonder, ethics, and values that are beyond reason and defy rational explanation…In this sense, every one of us already transcends the bounds of reason.”

So here’s the ultimate paradox. A man spends his career thinking about, and teaching others, about the intersection of mathematics, science and reason, then writes a very good book about the success and failure of that way of thinking, then decides, on the final pages, that the edge of reason has nothing whatsoever to do with mathematics or science. Instead, it’s the soft stuff that defines the edge of reason, the ideas that cannot be quantified or measured. Not now, at least. Maybe someday.

Steve Evans from India and USA. Permission: (Reusing this file: Creative Commons attribution. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Photo by Steve Evans. Permission: (Reusing this file: Creative Commons
attribution. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

In a Word, “Curious”

CuriousWhat’s the secret of life? Of course, the answer is in a book with a single word title, Curious? The back cover has nine words, 58 characters: “Embrace uncertainty. Attract love and abundance. Master your life.”

All of this makes me want to write an answer book called “Seriously?” but the author, a clinical psychologist and professor at George Mason University deserves more than the Twtr-obessed publisher allows. His name is Todd Kashdan, and although I suspect curiosity may not be, as the subtitle promises, a way to “Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life” (shouldn’t that “to” be “in” or “for”?), there’s too much good stuff in this book for me to pass it by.

Mostly, like every creative person, I’m curious about curiosity. I seem to have it in larger doses than most people, and I think I like that about myself. My friends tend to be curious, too, and they tend to value this in themselves. In fact, I enjoyed a long telephone conversation with a friend not six months ago on this very subject—he was analyzing generational differences in the workplace, and thought our generation pursued curiosity with greater energy than the current one.

Of course, Dr. Kashdan touches  school as curiosity-killer (“Do it now, ask questions later. Stay away from strangers. Avoid controversial topics and hot-button issues”), but I think he’s better when he’s positive, and consistent with the thinking of the positive psychology movement in academia, where he plays a part. When describing how and why “Curiosity is about recognizing and reaping the rewards of the uncertain, the unknown and the new…,” he explains that there is a “simple story line for how curiosity is the engine of growth.”

By being curious, we explore.

By exploring, we discover.

When this is satisfying, we are more likely to repeat it.

By repeating it, we develop competence and mastery.

By developing competence and mastery, our knowledge and skills grow.

As our knowledge and skills grow, we stretch who we are and what our life is about.

So “curiosity begets more curiosity.” Fair enough. But that’s just the starting place. When he offers curiosity as the opposite of certainty, and broadens the argument to society’s need for closure, specific answers, one way of looking at the world, his arguments become insights:

Curiosity creates possibilities; the need for certainty narrows them.

Curiosity creates energy; the need for certainty depletes.

Curiosity results in exploration; the need for certainty creates closure.

Curiosity creates movement; the need for certainty is about replaying events.

Curiosity creates relationships; the need for certainty creates defensiveness.

Creativity is about discovery; the need for certainty is about being right.

At first, I didn’t think much of this list, but the more I worked on a new project about knowledge and understanding, the more I realized the value of Dr. Kashdan’s insights.

Photo of the author, Todd Kashdan, by Adam Auel

It’s easy to see how this material can be brought into a wider domain: curiosity results in personal fulfillment, happiness, a healthy mental outlook, a purpose to life, and so on. He encourages openness in the style of so many self-help books, and here’s where my fascination begins to wane, mostly because I’ve read it all before: “When walking outside the house, I will gently guide my attention so I can be intrigued by every bodily movement and whatever sights, sounds and smells are within my range.” I don’t understand why anybody who is taking a walk would fill their ears with music, but that’s because I enjoy listening to the natural world. Does experience open my mind to every possibility? Not sure. I think I’m listening to birdsong, looking at autumn leaves and winter branches, and taking whiffs of honeysuckle when it’s in season. That’s enough for me.

If you find self-help books useful, you might add this one to your library. There are chapters about “The Rewards of Relationships” and “The Anxious Mind and the Curious Spirit,” and, almost inevitably, “Discovering Meaning and Purpose in Life.”

I think curiosity is powerful on its own terms: as an antidote to the routine, a door that opens to creative and divergent thought, as a pathway to learning lots of things. Secret of life? Maybe. I’ll leave that one up to you.

Google Books vs. Every Published Author, Part III

(Be sure to read parts one and two.)

The world is changing. As an author and creative person, I want as much intellectual property protection as possible. As a creator, I want as much flexibility as possible.

Here’s the summary of a very significant intellectual property case decided this month by U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin:

In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits. It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders. It has become an invaluable research tool that permits students, teachers, librarians, and others to more efficiently identify and locate books. It has given scholars the ability, for the first time, to conduct full-text searches of tens of millions of books. It preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits.”

On the one hand, Google is providing a substantial public service by unearthing, scanning, and distributing works in the public domain that may otherwise be forgotten. What’s more, they’re placing everything into a searchable database that can be accessed by just about everyone who wants or needs it.

On the other, Google has gone too far by scanning and distributing works that are not in the public domain, but are, instead, owned and controlled by copyright holders. (Most are authors, who typically assign publishing rights to their publishers but retain their copyrights.) Here, in my view (not a lawyer, but an author and a business person), the solution is simple, reasonable, and available. Google must ask permission of copyright holders before freely distributing their work. (Yes, this is cumbersome, but Google is a company whose cleverness is exceeded only by its resources.) Of course, authors could be pro-active in making such grants because they believe, in their sole and reasonable judgment, that their work’s inclusion in the Google Books database would be in the public interest or would benefit the author’s work from a marketing point of view.

According to Joe Crawford of Moorpark, California, you are free: to share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work, and to remix (to adapt the work)  Under the following conditions: attribution – (You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Joe established the rules for his copyrighted property. This is reasonable, and it is now done on a massive scale.

According to Joe Crawford of Moorpark, California, you are free: to share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work, and to remix (to adapt the work). Under the following conditions: attribution – (You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Joe established the rules for his copyrighted property. This is reasonable, and it is now done on a massive scale.

In fact, Creative Commons has done a lot of good work in this area, making it easy for copyright owners to establish rules with regard to sharing, copying and other uses of their property.

The issue is not whether Google Books should scan and distribute books, and the issue not whether this activity results in a public good. The issue is whether making full digital copies of a book in a public library that is still protected by copyright, and then distributing the digital copy without permission of a copyright holder is, under any reasonable interpretation of the law, more similar to a 21st century card catalog or more similar to copyright infringement on a massive scale.

As an author, I am strongly inclined to vote in favor of copyright protection and a requirement that Google, or any other party, affirmatively secure permission of my intellectual property prior to its distribution.

As a producer and businessperson, I could reconsider that position because the current decision may apply to future projects in some interesting ways. For example, one might contemplate an online system of recommended books that include substantial portions of copyrighted work—full chapters, perhaps, or more—as a kind of public literacy project. Or, one might translate entire works into other languages to provide greater access to those works. In both cases, if the works are scanned into a database so that researchers might use them for educational purposes, no permissions should be necessary.

Let’s take that a step further. There is so much video now available on the internet, and, for the most part, it is very difficult to search within those videos. If you were to create a database of, say, movie scripts or, in a more advanced form, movie dialogue, you might well be able to show the whole movie, perhaps in “snippets” (the term used by Google for its portions of larger works), or, at least, include these movie excerpts in a series of online documentaries that explore, for example, the mythology of the Star Wars films, or the role of animal characters in Disney or Pixar films. If it’s all for the public good, and it’s all part of a searchable database, Judge Chin’s ruling suggests that Fair Use is both a reasonable defense with regard to challenges, and, in a larger sense, that this sort of activity is to be encouraged if it serves a research need, promotes the films, and transforms the ways that people consume these films.

It’s easy to be glib or flippant about the tremendous reach of the judge’s decision, but in the end, this isn’t about books, or Google. It’s about whether creative professionals will be able to earn a living in the future. With each step into a new digital future, that future becomes just that much more murky. In doubt about that? Read this.

Google Book Chronicles vs. Every Published Author, Part II

(Be sure to read parts one and three.)

The statement from Google:

As we have long said., Google Books is in compliance with copyright law and acts like a card catalog for the digital age, giving users the ability to find books to buy or borrow.”

Baseball pitcher Jim Bouton wrote a popular book called Ball Four. The book is out of print, but it is available through Google Books. Jim Bouton is a plaintiff in the case against Google Books because the work was used without his permission.

Baseball pitcher Jim Bouton wrote a popular book called Ball Four. The book is out of print, but it is available through Google Books. Jim Bouton is a plaintiff in the case against Google Books because the work was used without his permission.

And from the Author’s Guild:

Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world’s valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works…In our view, such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of the fair use defense.”

Of course, the Author’s Guild plans to appeal the decision, but, for now, it stands.

The judgment was written by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin, who has been working with Google and the Author’s Guild on the future of Fair Use as it applies to Google’s insistence upon scanning and posting intellectual property without permission of the copyright holder. (Be sure to read yesterday’s post because it sets the stage for this one.)

This wonderfully cluttered bookshop in Tenby, Wales, UK is precisely the sort of mess that Google Books tries to solve. In the bookstore, there is no search, no apparent organization whatsoever (except those lovely Penguin classics in the spinner rack). On Google Books, every word of every book is part of a searchable database. (Photo by Howard Blumenthal, all rights reserved, do not duplicate or distribute without written permission.)

This wonderfully cluttered bookshop in Tenby, Wales, UK is precisely the sort of mess that Google Books tries to solve. In the bookstore, there is no search, no apparent organization whatsoever (except those lovely Penguin classics in the spinner rack). On Google Books, every word of every book is part of a searchable database. (Photo by Howard Blumenthal, all rights reserved, do not duplicate or distribute without written permission.)

Happily, my book, The Creative Professional, has not been violated by Google, but I will borrow from my own work to review the four “prongs” of Fair Use of copyrighted material:

  •  The first is the character of the use. “The focus of this factor is ‘whether the new work merely supersedes the objects of the original creation… or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is transformative.’”
  •  The second is the “nature and copyright status of the plaintiff’s work.” A work that is factual receives more protection than a work that is imaginative. Remarkably, an unpublished work is more likely to be protected than a published work.
  •  The third Fair Use test is the amount of material used. Fair Use protection is more likely to be extended when the percentage of the original work used in the new work is comparatively small.
  •  The fourth judgment is an evaluation of market impact. If the Fair Use was allowed, how might this use impact the market for the copyrighted material? If the copyrighted material is not currently in the market, or if its sales are minor and the use was otherwise fair, this factor may lead to judgment in favor of the defendant who claims that no infringement has occurred. However, if the material is not in the market, and sales are minor, but the use, based on the above three factors, was unfair, then discussion of this fourth factor may not enter in the decision at all. This becomes complex; whether you are defendant or plaintiff, you will want a smart lawyer who is well-schooled in the subtle features of Fair Use and copyright law.

Let’s add it all up:

  • Character of the use. Google’s use adds nothing new, except the ability for anybody to read AND COPY any portion of the copyrighted work without paying for it. I can’t argue that this is not, somehow, “transformative” but I can imagine the use of the term mostly in terms of, say, opening the back of an ATM and transforming bank customers into people who can take money freely, as they wish.
  • Nature and copyright status of the plaintiff’s work. It’s factual, and it’s under copyright for a reason. Copyright provides creative people with protection against unauthorized use. (This is a more complicated idea than one would think, so I’ll leave it to the lawyers to elaborate.)
  • The amount of material used. All of it. Every word. Seriously, is this what we really want as a society?
  • An evaluation of market impact. If we define market impact in two ways: sales of books and promotion of the authors for potentially greater market value, I think I can speak as an expert with regard to my own creative work: sales of books have not been affected in any measurable way, and NOT ONE PERSON has ever told me that they bought the book because they first saw it on Google. And I am no more famous than I was on the day before Google entered my life with their interesting theories and practices about Fair Use.

And let’s have a look at what the judge wrote in his decision:

  • Character of the use. “Google’s use of the copyrighted works is highly transformative…Google Books has become an important tool for libraries and librarians and cite-checkers as it helps to identify and find books…Google Books is also transformative in the sense that it has transformed book text into data for purposes of substantive research, including data mining and text mining in new areas, thereby opening up new fields of research. Google Books does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read books. Instead, it “adds value to the original” and allows for “the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.”…even assuming Google’s principal motivation is profit, the fact is that Google Books serves several important educational purposes. Accordingly, I conclude that the first factor strongly favors a finding of fair use.
  • Nature and copyright status of the plaintiff’s work. “the vast majority of the books in Google Books are non-fiction. Further, the books at issue are published and available to the public. These considerations favor a finding of fair use.” (Nonpublished works are subject to greater protection.)
  • The amount of material used. “Google scans the full text of books — the entire books — and it copies verbatim expression…Here, as one of the keys to Google Books is its offering of full-text search of books, full-work reproduction is critical to the functioning of Google Books. Significantly, Google limits the amount of text it displays in response to a search.  On balance, I conclude that the third factor weighs slightly against a finding of fair use.
  • An evaluation of market impact. Here, plaintiffs argue that Google Books will negatively impact the market for books and that Google’s scans will serve as a “market replacement” for books… a reasonable factfinder could only find that Google Books enhances the sales of books to the benefit of copyright holders. An important factor in the success of an individual title is whether it is discovered — whether potential readers learn of its existence. Google Books provides a way for authors’ works to become noticed, much like traditional in-store book displays…Google provides convenient links to booksellers to make it easy for a reader to order a book. In this day and age of on-line shopping, there can be no doubt but that Google Books improves books sales. Hence, I conclude that the fourth factor weighs strongly in favor of a finding of fair use.

Clearly, this is a topic that warrants a third article. See you tomorrow.

Google Books vs. Every Published Author, Part I

I have written several books. Perhaps you have purchased one of them. If you did, thank you. As a result of your purchase, I probably collected about $1.25 in royalties. You may have read the book, and perhaps, you lent it to a friend. You may have copied a few pages, or used the book for research, maybe even quoted from my book in your own work. That’s fine with me, and I am sure it would be fine with just about any author.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to make copies of the book and distribute it, for free or for a fee, and I certainly wouldn’t expect you to publish some or all of my book’s contents on the web–even if you believed that what you were doing would make the world a better place. I expect that you think about my book in much the same way.

Denny_ChinHowever reasonable, that’s no longer the way things work. Now, it seems, making the world a better place is reason enough to freely distribute copyrighted work without permission of the copyright holder. Here’s the logic and the new law of the land as set forth by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin in a case decided this month in favor of Google (which scanned and distributed millions of books, without permission, in the public interest) and the Author’s Guild (which cried foul, lost, plans to appeal to a higher court, and may lose again).

“First, Google Books provides a new and efficient way for readers and researchers to find books. It makes tens of millions of books searchable by words and phrases. It provides a searchable index linking each word in any book to all books in which that word appears.” In short, Google Books completely transforms the use of books, especially in research, and it is currently in use in a great many research institutions.

Second, in addition to being an important reference tool, Google Books greatly promotes a type of research referred to as “data mining” or “text mining.” Google Books permits humanities scholars to analyze massive amounts of data — the literary record created by a collection of tens of millions of books. Researchers can examine word frequencies, syntactic patterns, and thematic markers to consider how literary style has changed over time.” So it’s fair to say that Google Books is a fantastic tool for scholars because it allows them to scan a lot of books quickly, identify and study patterns.

“Third, Google Books expands access to books. In particular, traditionally underserved populations will benefit as they gain knowledge of and access to far more books. Google Books provides print-disabled individuals with the potential to search for books and read them in a format that is compatible with text enlargement software, text-to-speech screen access software, and Braille devices. Digitization facilitates the conversion of books to audio and tactile formats, increasing access for individuals with disabilities. Google Books facilitates the identification and access of materials for remote and underfunded libraries that need to make efficient decisions as to which resources to procure for their own collections or through interlibrary loans.” Unquestionably, placing a lot of books in a gigantic database is very useful for all sorts of reasons and provides tremendous public interest benefits.

“Fourth…Google Books helps to preserve books and give them new life. Older books, many of which are out-of-print books that are falling apart buried in library stacks, are being scanned and saved.” Absolutely right, but “out-0f-print” and “public domain” are not the same thing. Many of my books are currently out-of-print, and I plan to republish some of them because they are my property. Anything that is in the public domain should be rescued for the good of the public. Anything that’s out-of-print, but still protected by copyright, cannot be reasonably treated in the same way.

“Finally, by helping readers and researchers identify books, Google Books benefits authors and publishers. When a user clicks on a search result and is directed to an “About the Book” page, the page will offer links to sellers of the book and/or libraries listing the book as part of their collections.” That’s nice, but let’s consider whether the copyrighted work should be there in the first place.

Somewhere along the way, my books were published, and a public library purchased a copy. We all understand that the library will buy one copy of the book and then distribute that book to any of its cardholders. Neither the publisher nor I, the author, granted the library any kind of right to digitize the book’s contents. Google borrowed my book from the library, scanned its contents (without my permission) and now distributes one book in whole and another in part (without my permission). And because my book is a useful book, a Federal judge has determined that this activity is not only permissible, but in the public interest.

The judge’s justification: the Fair Use doctrine that allows certain uses of copyrighted materials for the public interest. For more about that, be sure read part two (and part three).

The New Jim Crow

From Ohio State's website: Professor Alexander joined the OSU faculty in 2005. She holds a joint appointment with the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Prior to joining the OSU faculty, she was a member of the Stanford Law School faculty, where she served as Director of the Civil Rights Clinic. Professor Alexander has significant experience in the field of civil rights advocacy and litigation. She has litigated civil rights cases in private practice as well as engaged in innovative litigation and advocacy efforts in the non-profit sector. For several years, Professor Alexander served as the Director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California, which spearheaded a national campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement. While an associate at Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, she specialized in plaintiff-side class action suits alleging race and gender discrimination. Professor Alexander is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University. Following law school, she clerked for Justice Harry A. Blackmun on the United States Supreme Court, and for Chief Judge Abner Mikva on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

From Ohio State’s website: Professor Alexander joined the OSU faculty in 2005. She holds a joint appointment with the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Prior to joining the OSU faculty, she was a member of the Stanford Law School faculty, where she served as Director of the Civil Rights Clinic.
Professor Alexander has significant experience in the field of civil rights advocacy and litigation. She has litigated civil rights cases in private practice as well as engaged in innovative litigation and advocacy efforts in the non-profit sector. For several years, Professor Alexander served as the Director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California, which spearheaded a national campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement. While an associate at Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, she specialized in plaintiff-side class action suits alleging race and gender discrimination.
Professor Alexander is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University. Following law school, she clerked for Justice Harry A. Blackmun on the United States Supreme Court, and for Chief Judge Abner Mikva on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Sometimes, a book is just the thing: a clear explanation running several hundred pages, written by an expert, vetted by other experts, building a powerful case to its logical conclusion. Several years ago, an associate professor at The Ohio State University wrote a book, a history, a manifesto based upon a dangerous idea. Her name is Michelle Alexander and her book, republished a year or so ago with a new forward by Cornel West, is entitled The New Jim Crow. The subtitle just begins to suggest the storyline: “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Often, when I read a nonfiction book, I dog-ear the parts I want to remember. I’ve dog-eared a third of this book. Here’s part of a dog-eared page, written by an American Bar Association task force and quoted by the author:

[The] offender may be sentences to a term of probation, community service and court costs. Unbeknownst to this offender, and perhaps, any other actor in the sentencing process, as a result of his conviction, he may be ineligible for many federally-funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal educational assistance. His driver’s license may be automatically suspended, and he may no longer qualify for certain employment and professional licenses. If he is convicted of another crime, he may be subject to imprisonment as a repeat offender. He will not be permitted to enlist in the military, or possess a firearm, or obtain a federal security clearance. If a citizen, he may lose the right to vote; if not [a citizen], he may become immediately deportable.”

On the surface, this may sound like get-tough-on-crime, perhaps stronger than some would like it to be, maybe not so surprising.

New Jim CrowProfessor Alexander’s point becomes clear when this idea is added:

…the system of incarceration operates with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into an inferior second-class status.”

For the most part, she explains, incarceration is not due to violent crimes. Instead, mostly, incarceration is due to relatively small amounts of drugs, often found as a result of policies, rules, laws, and Supreme Court judgments that encourage law enforcement to focus their attention on minority (most often, Black) people, even though drug sales and drug use tend to be about equal among all racial and ethnic groups.

It’s one thing to understand the problem as a social issue. It’s another when you “Imagine you are Erma Faye Stewart, a thirty-one year old, single African American mother of two who was arrested as part of a drug sweep in Hearne, Texas. All but one of the people arrested were African American. After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty so you can return home to your children. Unwilling to risk a trial and years of imprisonment, you are sentenced to ten years probation order ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs. You are now also branded a drug felon. You are no eligible for food stamps; you may be discriminated against in employment; you cannot vote for at least twelve years; and you are about to be evicted from public housing. Once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.”

Turns out, the  entire sweep was based upon a lie. Eventually, a judge dismissed all cases against the defendants–except those who pled guilty. “You, however, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.”

Sure, we see stories like these all the time, mostly on TV, sometimes in the movies, but their truth, and the reasons behind their truth, are disturbing because we (all of us, that is) must face one of two nasty realities:

(1) We are comfortable with the system that we our society has in place, even though it is often severe and places a very high percentage of Black citizens into the system; or

(2) We are comfortable with the system because American continues to support a racial divide with unequal rights, and severe lifetime punishment for a large number of people who live in the United States.

I suppose most people are only vaguely aware of the issue–that was my excuse–but this book removes that defense. The legal system is ferociously complicated. We must be fair but we must also be safe. You know the arguments, but that’s not much of a starting place to make things right.

One positive step is to bring this important topic to a study group. There is a free study guide available for groups willing to engage. Details below:

Drawing from and expanding on the themes of Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed best-seller, The New Jim Crow, this in-depth guide provides a launching pad for groups wishing to engage in deep, meaningful dialogue about race, racism, and structural inequality in the age of mass incarceration.  The Study Guide and Call to Action spans the entirety of The New Jim Crow, engaging the critical questions of how we managed to create, nearly overnight, a penal system unprecedented in world history, and how that system actually functions — as opposed to the way it is advertised.  This important new resource also challenges us to search for and admit the truth about ourselves, our own biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions, and the many ways in which we might actually be part of the problem.


This is one of several video recordings of Dr. Alexander’s speeches. This one was delivered at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. You can find others on this page.

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