Notes from 2017 – Time to save Big Bird again!


Last week, the New York Times reported on administration plans to cut popular domestic programs, including funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The move would save $500 million a year, about 0.016% of the federal budget.

Said Heritage Foundation economist and presidential advisor, Stephen Moore, “I think it’s an important endeavor to try to get rid of things that are unnecessary.” 

Here are some of the things Mr. Moore considers unnecessary:

Sesame Street
Downton Abbey
Ken Burns “Civil War”
Ken Burns “Jazz”
Sherlock Holmes (several versions)
The Midsomer Murders
Ken Burns “Baseball”
Shakespeare plays (many)
The PBS Newshour
Masterpiece Theater
The Antiques Roadshow

These are just a few of my favorite programs, past and present. Add yours to the list

Politicos periodically try to defund PBS. Remember the rumor that one of the Teletubbies was gay?  But I think the real reason is apparent in this dialog from The Power of Myth series, one of the most popular television programs of all time. The conversations between mythologist, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer’s, which first aired in 1988, are as relevant as ever today:

Joseph Campbell on "The Power of Myth" series

Joseph Campbell on “The Power of Myth” series

BILL MOYERS: Would the hero with a thousand faces help us to answer that question, about how to change the system so that we are not serving it?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I don’t think it would help you to change the system, but it would help you to live in the system as a human being.

BILL MOYERS: By doing what?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, like Luke Skywalker, not going over, but resisting its impersonal claims.

BILL MOYERS: But I can hear someone out there in the audience saying, “Well, that’s all well and good for the imagination of a George Lucas or for the scholarship of a Joseph Campbell, but that isn’t what happens in my life.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You bet it does. If the person doesn’t listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life, and insists on a certain program, you’re going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off-center; he has aligned himself with a programmatic life, and it’s not the one the body’s interested in at all. And the world’s full of people who have stopped listening to themselves. In my own life, I’ve had many opportunities to commit myself to a system and to go with it, and to obey its requirements. My life has been that of a maverick; I would not submit.

BILL MOYERS: You really believe that the creative spirit ranges on its own out there, beyond the boundaries?


By now it should be obvious – this year’s crop of would-be overlords, like all of their kind, want “a world…full of people who have stopped listening to themselves.” It’s up to ALL of us to deny them the pleasure!

We know the drill by now…when this budget item comes up, call and write elected representatives. Make #SaveBigBird go viral on twitter. It worked last time an administration tried to evict Big Bird, and it will work again!

Ken Burns, Downton Abbey, Sesame Street, and Joseph Campbell cut across party lines. They invite all of us to listen deeply to ourselves. They remind us not to let others drown out the still small voice of our souls.

Part-time penury


Between 1981 and 1984, I worked as a part time instructor at a community college in northern California.  Like most part-timers, I dreamed of the tenure track.  I was lucky.  At one point during a faculty meeting, I looked at all the other hopefuls, did the math, and realized I was on, if not a sinking ship, one that was dead in the water.  I started building a lifeboat and made my escape.

According to a recent NPR story, a million part-time, or adjunct professors, have not been so fortunate.  That’s 75% percent of U.S. college teachers who are stuck in part time positions; like workers at McDonalds, many rely on food stamps to get by.  Current pay for adjuncts is $2,000 – $3,000 a class with no benefits of any kind.  “Freeway fliers” is what we called ourselves when I was in the ranks, zipping between nearby schools to pick up any available classes.

One adjunct interviewed in a parallel story on the PBS Newshour teaches six English classes at three Ohio universities.  With a family to support, he couldn’t afford to stay home when he had pneumonia last fall.

At the time, I assumed the dismal prospects were my fault; I only had an M.A. and taught at a small town, two year school.  The articles make clear that although the trend began at two year schools in the 1970’s, it soon spread to all types of colleges and universities.

Peter Brown, professor emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz says the average salary of adjuncts there is $12,000 a year – less than the custodial staff.  “Between 1970 and 2008, the adjunct pay has gone down 49 percent,” says Brown.  “The salary of college presidents has gone up 35 percent.” 

In the 80’s we talked of organizing, and finally, three decades later, some colleges are granting part timers collective bargaining rights.  Twenty-two percent of adjuncts now belong to a union.  The death last fall of an 83 year old Duquesne University adjunct, who had taught for 20 years with good reviews, only to die impoverished, served as a wake-up call, as did a January congressional report that found adjuncts are treated like “cheap labor.”

In general, we get what we pay for, and as college students go ever deeper into debt, it’s worth asking what their education dollars are buying.  Well-to-do college administrations.  Top notch football teams.  A lot of professors too sick or stressed or busy commuting to hold decent office hours.  Ever fewer real-world prospects.  And…?

If we don’t want to end up singing “Glory Days” when we think of the long-gone time when American education was the best in the world, something will have to change.

Big news for online education

In mathematics, an inflection point is the place on a curve where the curvature changes from concave upward (positive) to concave downward (negative) or vice versa.


Andy Grove, former Intel CEO, gave the term a new relevance.  In his management book, Only the Paranoid Survive, he wrote:  “A strategic inflection point is the time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change.  That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights.  But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.”

Grove borrowed a parallel term, “disruptive technology,” from business writer, Clayton Christensen.  A disruptive technology is an innovation, very often appearing crude at inception, that can change or eliminate entire industries.  The first horseless carriage must have seemed silly to buggy makers, just as the first kindle looked like a toy to brick-and-mortar bookstores.

A week after my first post on free online college classes, an article in Sunday’s Sacramento BeeAn elite school offers master’s degree online, suggests that we’ve already  passed an inflection point and that online coursework is a “disruptive technology” that is destined to change higher education in ways we cannot yet grasp.

Online classes are nothing new; I took an early online programming class in 1998, with mixed results.  Online graduate degree programs in business as well as software exist, many offered by private colleges.  What’s different now is the scale.

Beginning in January, Georgia Tech will offer online master’s degrees in computer science at a cost of $6,600, compared to the $45,000 price tag for the same courses taken on campus.  Some of the funding comes from AT&T which “will use the program to train employees and find potential hires.”  Estimates of future interest in this degree run as high as 10,000 students a year, including international participants.

Because of Georgia Tech’s prestige and the ambitious nature of this undertaking, educators are watching closely.  There is no guarantee of success for this particular program, but from the perspective of student loans alone, there is a huge need for innovation of this sort.  The first producers of new technologies are not always the ones who succeed, but like the first makers of personal computers and ebooks, they define inflection points that change the world.  Georgia Tech may well be doing the same thing.

MIT Open Courseware

Open: characterized by ready accessibility and usually generous attitude: as (1) : generous in giving  – Webster’s Online Dictionary

“The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.” – Dick K.P. Yue, Professor, MIT School of Engineering

Between 1968 and 1972, an idealistic Stanford educated biologist named Stuart Brand published an amazing compendium of ideas called, The Whole Earth Catalog:  Access to Tools.  The title came from photos of our planet taken from space – appropriate, since it was Brand who launched a public campaign in 1966 to get NASA to release the pictures.

In his 2005 Stanford graduation speech, Steve Jobs said, “When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation…. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”

One of the great notions that inspired Jobs and other idealists was the thought of putting computing power into the hands of “the people.”  That much has been accomplished.  Every kid with a smartphone holds more computing power in the palm of one hand than NASA had when they made those pictures in space.  Now, off course, we see plenty of less-than-ideal side effect of the digital age – unintended consequences that dreamers like Brand did not imagine.  I won’t repeat the headlines – if you’re reading this blog, you’ve seen them.

That is all the more reason why it’s a pleasure to learn how one of our finest universities has embodied the best of the information age dream in order to benefit people all over the world.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has freely posted class materials from every one of its courses online – MIT Open Courseware.

Sign on Canal Street, New Orleans, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sign on Canal Street, New Orleans, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Under the “Courses” button, you can see class offerings by department.  I invite everyone to look at some of the courses.  The technical classes are vast and impressive, as one would expect, but they aren’t the only ones.  I saw more than one syllabus in the Literature section I plan to check out.  This is attractive enough, but I think the importance of MIT’s move goes beyond personal enrichment.

Our system of higher education is floundering; while technical jobs go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants, tens of thousands of students who thought a college degree was the door to a better life find themselves saddled with debts that amount to 21st century indentured servitude.  The recent congressional “fix” will make few besides college administrators and bank loan officers happy over the long run.  I saw a different model in play during earlier days of the tech boom.

The best boss I ever had, now an industry expert in semiconductor design rules, went to work with a two year degree in drafting.  A friend who was a senior systems analyst studied math in college for three years and then dropped out.  After that, he went to work in a hospital that wanted to computerize; when no one else knew what to do, he gave it a shot.  My own experience was similar.  Clearly this doesn’t apply to every field – you don’t want your doctor learning by trial and error – but inventiveness, ability, and the ability to learn are not guaranteed by a formal degree.  The lack of a degree does not proves those qualities are missing.

As I noted in my review of The Unwinding by George Packer, Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and co-founder of Paypal believes that education is America’s “latest bubble.”  He offers grants to people under the age of 20 with ideas that “could make the world a better place,” if they are willing to leave school for two years to strike out on their own.  I see parallels between education now and traditional publishing at the start of the ebook era.

The digital world we now inhabit brings multiple ways of doing more and more things.  The good people at MIT, who live at the proverbial cutting edge of technology, should be applauded for their decision to share their vast resources with anyone, anywhere.  Good dreams change, but they survive.  Forty-five years after the first Whole Earth Catalog, “Access to Tools” has a whole new shape.  I hope we see much more of the same.

Weekend Video: The Real Meaning of Life

For now, the heat has broken. It’s Sunday. Went for an early dog walk and had the park almost to ourselves. Now the dogs are dozing at my feet and there’s a cup of coffee nearby – a good frame of mind to watch a short but inspiring video I found posted on Life Out of the Box, a blog that always rewards the time I spend exploring it.

Life Out of the Box

LOOTB Weekend Video: The Real Meaning of Life

Here’s a great video that we found by one of our favorite philosophers Alan Watts. We’ve shared another video of his in the past, What Do I Desire, because his philosophy on life is so in line with the mentality we have here with Life Out of the Box. In this video he explains what the real meaning of life is and that it’s not about the destination of success that we’re after, but rather the journey along the way. His words continue to inspire us to go after our dreams and live the life we desire and we hope they do the same for you all on this beautiful Saturday morning. Make it a weekend to remember friends!

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The best graduation speech, ever.

It’s that time of year.  I seldom pay much attention to graduation speeches.  I can’t remember anything said at my own, nor do any quotes come to mind from celebrities whose commencement addresses get soundbytes played on the news every June.  But there is one graduation speech I’ve read and listened to many times and continues to be a source of inspiration.  You may know it.  If not, I’m happy to pass it on.

Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005

Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005

In 2005, Steve Jobs, whose academic career consisted of one semester of college and a few audited classes, was chosen as the graduation speaker at Stanford.  In his brief but memorable address, he spoke of finding one’s true vision, following our hearts, and not wasting our all-to-brief time walking someone else’s path.  Here are three of my favorite quotes from the speech:

“You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

About getting fired from Apple:  “It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love…the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it…keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I invite you hear everything this visionary had to say that day, in a  text version of the speech, and / or this video clip.

Belated reflections on the Academy Awards

By now, everyone who cares has read accounts of the event – the winners and losers, the fashions, and the host.  It’s tempting to add my own $0.02, but that’s not my purpose in writing this.  It would be easy to get sidetracked if I tried.

With the glaring exception of failing to nominate Ben Affleck for Best Director, I thought the Academy had a number of worthy candidates to chose from and did a credible job in selecting winners.

This year, like most others, the major awards didn’t interest me as much as the “small” ones.  Music, makeup, costumes.  Screenplays, cinematography, film editing.  The last three were tasks I learned while working on a student production in college – they are critical, difficult, and we hardly ever notice the names when the credits roll.  These awards always remind me that movies are collective efforts.  You see it especially in the memorials to those in the industry who died in the previous year – when they did their work well, it was seamless and we barely noticed.

In contrast to the production of movies, the myth of the solitary genius still lurks in our psyches.  As far as I can tell, it’s an artifact of the 18th and 19th western romantic imagination.  It has never appeared in the east at all, and the works of the Renaissance masters were mostly collective efforts.  Leonardo, Michelangelo, and all the others had workshops where apprentices stretched the canvas or mixed the pigments, and journeymen painted the drapery.  Then the master stepped in to finish the hands and the face of the virgin and child.  Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel was an exception.  I bet he would have advertised on TV it he’d had it available, like James Patterson, whose sometimes excellent novels are now collaborative efforts.

Old myths linger.  In the early part of the 20th century, when movies were young, writers dreamed of the Great American Novel.  Hollywood was a place where ill-starred authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald went to complete their fall from grace and die.  Nowadays the fantasy is to write the next Twilight or Hunger Games and get the novel optioned.

Let me be explicit.  Sometime during the last 50 or 60 years, movies became our most important artistic medium.  Never mind that there’s lots of chaff in the wheat – across the globe, movies are where most of us go, most of the time, to find inspiration and learn about ourselves and the world we live in.

With this in mind, watching the Academy Awards made me sad when I thought of the future of the medium.  During the past month, the local Board of Education announced 11 school closings.  Parents and students showed up at several meetings to protest, and with its usual flair for drama, the paper published a photo of a girl with a sign saying, “Please don’t take our music department away.”

I thought about her on Oscar night.  She probably won’t grow up to work on movie scores.  How many other potential writers, musicians, artists, technicians, and designers who will do something else because our bureaucrats limit their options in the name of pragmatism?

Pragmatism is necessary but it doesn’t nourish the soul.  I hope the next generation of dreamers continues to dream, against ever worsening odds.  I hope we never look back on this year’s Oscars and think, “Ah, those were the days…”