Excellent Sheep

Excellent Sheep and Most Likely to Succeed thoroughly indict the American education system. In the late 80s and early 90s when I was in high school, the treadmill wasn’t as stressful and pervasive as now, but straight A students like myself were encouraged and expected to get on it. We were expected to join the student council and National Honor Society, give a shit about Who’s Who Among Students and National Merit Scholarships, and do extracurriculars we didn’t really care about. Who’s Who and National Merit came along with the tests I had to take, but I skipped the rest of the script. I saw it as styrofoam and a waste of time. What did this have to do with who I wanted to be?

Instead, I was dialing in to Bulletin Board Systems using a hand-me-down 286 and a 2400 baud modem. I was particularly captivated by boards run by engineers. The Digital X-Connect was run by telecom engineers in the telecom corridor north of Dallas. Bulletin boards showed me what I wanted to do and be. I wanted to be an engineer who helped build the infrastructure that would allow me to talk to the world with the written rather than the spoken word. I was working on cross-connects a couple of years later.

My neurodivergence saved me from the treadmill. The society I lived in didn’t have the vocabulary for me. “He’s just shy. He’s just quiet.” Autistic is the word. I credit my autistic operating system for rejecting pressure from peers and the system to get on the treadmill and give myself to a false culture. Introversion and an analytical skepticism of society drove me to the written word and alternative life scripts. Instead of eating stress and curating a fake self in hopes of entering a prestigious school and maintaining my credentials, I went to an affordable state university that gave me a scholarship. It happened to be right next to the telecom corridor. I entered the university’s co-op program and secured a position at a company making switches and cross-connects. I worked there full-time while taking a full-time course load and doing sys and network admin work for the school. The web and commercial internet were dawning, and I wanted to approach them from every available angle. I wanted to speak with computers and text.

I continued my straight A trend for a while, but the load was too great. Something had to give. Academic treadmill thinking would have me drop the co-op and sysadmin work and put more of myself into my course load. That was certainly what administrators wanted me to do. But, school was almost all theory. Physics and math courses were much of the curriculum, and they were unenjoyable cut courses meant to weed out students. I wanted more. I wanted theory and practice. I wanted to make things.

I invested myself in courses like Automata Theory – regular expressions are used by all developers all the time – but other classes I barely attended. I showed up on test days, did well enough to pass, and cared not at all about my GPA so long as I got the BS in CS that companies still required back then. Though I was already working full-time as an entry-level engineer, I had to get that piece of paper to make the position real and permanent.

Helping make telephony, the internet, and the nascent web was a helluva lot more interesting than most of my courses. Bringing open source and the web into stodgy corporations (through and around FUDdled suits and lawyers) felt great. While skipping much of  a forgettable course load, I learned how to work on a team and ship. I got the diploma, and never in my career has it mattered that I didn’t stay on the treadmill to a prestigious cum laude. Only that first engineering job ever asked to see my diploma, and then only so that a box on a form could be checked.

That piece of paper is no longer needed. In the last ten years I’ve seen and helped  really smart people get off the treadmill, avoid debt, and ship cool things.

For a taste of Excellent Sheep, here are a handful of quotes from the opening chapters.

The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

 

Look beneath the façade of affable confidence and seamless well-adjustment that today’s elite students have learned to project, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. We all know about the stressed-out, overpressured high school student; why do we assume that things get better once she gets to college?

 

Convening a task force on student mental health in 2006, Stanford’s provost wrote that “increasingly, we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behavior.” As a college president wrote me, “we appear to have an epidemic of depression among younger people.”

 

But the compulsive overachievement of today’s elite college students— the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can— is not the only thing that keeps them from forming the deeper relationships that might relieve their anguish. Something more insidious is operating, too: a resistance to vulnerability, a fear of looking like the only one who isn’t capable of handling the pressure. These are young people who have always succeeded at everything, in part by projecting the confidence that they always will. Now, as they get to college, the stakes are higher and the competition fiercer. Everybody thinks that they’re the only one who’s suffering, so nobody says anything, so everybody suffers. Everyone feels like a fraud; everyone thinks that everybody else is smarter than they are.

 

And make no mistake; today’s elite students are, in purely academic terms, phenomenally well prepared. How could they not be, given how carefully they’re bred, how strenuously sorted and groomed? They are the academic equivalent of all-American athletes, coached and drilled and dieted from the earliest years of life. Whatever you demand of them, they’ll do. Whatever bar you place in front of them, they’ll clear.

 

You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.

 

Never to have failed is a sign not of merit but fragility; it means your fears have kept you from doing or becoming what you might have.

 

Ableism, secrecy, and “the lost art of interpersonal skills”

My efforts to move non-transparent, inaccessible systems and discussions online are oft greeted with mentions of the “lost art of good interpersonal relationships”, or the like, discounting relationships formed and maintained online with the written word.

I along with many, many others built tight communities of interpersonal relationships spanning the globe using the written word. Our relationships are unconstrained by geography. Online, we find and create cultures that suit us rather than making do with the society our physical selves happen to inhabit. The art of good interpersonal relationships is not lost.  It is better, more accessible, and more impactful than ever.

After 42 years of coping in a neurotypical world, my spoken-meatspace interpersonal skills are far more developed than the online interpersonal skills of those who bemoan the loss of our ability to form relationships. In an age when millions of digital natives are meaningfully connecting in myriad and complementary ways, the lost art narrative is supremely out-of-touch. Instead of deploying lost art counter-narrative when someone tries to bring discussion in the open, step into the digital commons and bootstrap yourself into online interpersonal proficiency. We tech geeks, we digital natives must flip this script in order to modernize and empathize legacy systems. We haven’t lost art. We acquired new art, and it is time our systems and institutions, especially public ones, did so as well.

Debate in the commons with the written word so that all might witness regardless of their situation. I’m autistic and have a neurological disease. I’m averse to spoken communication, especially in the sensory flood of public physical spaces. When you hum with paresthesia from toes to teeth and your muscles boil with fasciculations, the energy to exchange conversational styrofoam with someone applying meatspace schmooze is exhausting to conjure. Insisting on physical , spoken conversation is bad threshold flow. It prevents neurodivergent and disabled from entering discussions and sharing their perspectives. Instead of pulling me into the status quo of private, synchronous, geography-locked conversations from which only those present can learn, come online and communicate where all can learn.

Transparency and accessibility are my motivations. They are best served by public online discussion free from the constraints of time and place.

 

Please take off your hat for the threshold guardians just doing their jobs

My scalp takes the brunt of my stimming. I pull my hair and dig bloody furrows with my fingernails. Periods of my life were marked by sores on my forehead where the furrows trespassed beyond the hairline.

Marks on the face and head are part of your identity. “Ryan, is that the guy with the sores on his head?” A hat lets me become a guy who wears hats when I don’t feel like being the guy with the sores. A hat also helps me regulate. A hat that covers my ears provides psychic and sensory insulation and reduces my need to carve up my head. It’s a tool for coping and being and is as much a part of my identity as the sores.

Threshold guardians are everywhere, and they want you to take off your hat. At the DMV, take off your hat. Boarding a cruise ship, take off your hat. Passing through customs, take off your hat. Board a plane, take off your hat. Attend a large venue, take off your hat. Sometimes even on buses and trains, take off your hat. Many places that check ID go through this thoughtless exercise that we thoughtlessly accept. Hat doffing is one of the theaters of our FUD-stricken compliance society. Even when I muster the energy to share my perspective, the rote routines of our empathy bereft systems turn everyone into tools who are just doing their job.

I travel exclusively by car these days. Security theater is pervasive, and I’m tired of taking off my hat.

Recent discussion about accessibility over accommodation inspired me to share.

But the accommodations model requires us to disclose our disabilities, it requires us to explain, to give up secrets we might not want to share. The accommodations model depends on invasions of privacy to work.

The Leader in Me and Compliance Culture

Is “synergy” a punchline in your industry? It is in the ones I’ve inhabited. I did a few stints in corporate America. I endured several management fads. The 90s were something. I remember the Seven Habits and its kin descending upon the engineering ranks and being promptly rejected. We brought in open source and our own culture, and life was better. Now, business jargon and false culture is in our schools thanks to The Leader in Me. What can no longer be sold so easily to corporations is now sold to education interests who invoke it upon our children. As an engineer and open source geek, hearing children use hack corporatist jargon is more alarming than hearing them swear. At least swearing is authentic. Teaching children to think and communicate in business jargon, in terms owned and licensed by a corporation, is tasteless and creepy. This language should not be used without irony and full knowledge of its history.

I associate the language of Leader in Me with empty suits, bad management, and conformity. This is an impoverished vocabulary. If we hope to cultivate STEM kids and accommodate neurodiversity, Leader in Me feels very much like the wrong way to go. Leader in Me promotes cardboard conformity in an environment of already dwindling imagination. In a system marked by too much testing and too much homework, Leader in Me feels like a whip for programming children to take their tests, do their homework, and hope for a soulless job that won’t cover their unforgivable student debt. The Leader in Me program, from the language in the book to the creepy videos of children singing praise to a corporation, evokes a conformist Dear Leader mentality. We’re making tools, not leaders.

Here is what our young leaders are writing. These are presented without evident irony or shame in the hallways of our elementary school.

  • I’m a leader because I sit quietly.
  • I’m a leader because I do what the teacher tells me.
  • I am a leader because I always follow the rules.
  • I am a leader because I always follow the rules, and my teacher likes me, and parents like me.
  • Being proactive means doing your homework right after school.

The rote postulation “I’m a leader because”  is indictment enough.

Periodically, we parents go to school for Leader in Me events where our kids walk us through their leadership notebooks and check off boxes. Trying to engage our kids authentically outside the scripted rituals of Leader in Me creates anxiety and fear of doing something off-script and off-message. The experience is phony. I see rote, rule-bound regurgitation driven by anxiety.

Lack of perspectives allows these programs in the door. I’m trying to offer the perspective of an engineer, geek, neurodivergent, digital native, and open source contributor. My mother-in-law offers another perspective. While navigating tremendous bureaucratic hurdles and very real danger, she and her daughter left the Soviet Union in the 70s and made their way to the US. She recently witnessed the expression of Leader in Me at an event at our elementary school, which my youngest attends. After beholding this spectacle of Dear Leader conformity, she offered her perspective to administrators.

Today I went to my grandson’s school to take a look at their “leadership” presentation. What I saw shook me up to the very core of my being. This “leadership” program is the most blatant and horrific example of brainwashing I ever came across. And believe me, I saw plenty of ideological manipulation in my life in the Soviet Union. Even in the Soviet Union, the brainwashing was not as in-your-face and unapologetic as in my grandson’s school. What I saw was a deliberate transformation of young children into obedient and thoughtless slaves.

What was the intent of this travesty? Who measures the outcome and by which criteria?

What did these young children take away from the indoctrination, because that is what it is – indoctrination in its ugliest form? On hallway walls I read numerous little essays. The brainless uniformity of these essays is frightening. One child wrote, “I am a leader because I sit very quietly”. Another, “I am a leader because I always follow the rules”. And another, “I am a leader because I always follow the rules, and my teacher likes me, and parents like me”.

We were escorted into a classroom in which each child was “a leader”. A trash can leader, a clean floor leader. Children neither understood nor comprehended the irony of humiliation and dehumanization.

I was not intimidated by the KGB and the whole Soviet Apparat of oppression and fear. I emigrated from a country behind the Iron Curtain despite terrible personal suffering and loss. I brought my daughter to this country to be free and to be an individual, as unique and incomparable as she possibly can. I came here to have my grandchildren be free, to think for themselves and develop into creative thinkers. To see institutionalized dumbing of my precious grandchildren, the intentional brainwashing and belittling of their potential and individuality will not be tolerated.

I wonder, was this brainwashing intentional or is it the result of thoughtless and careless initiative by thoughtless and shortsighted people?

As someone who has mentored and hired developers and designers, Leader in Me is not what I’m looking for. This language and framing is a liability in creative cultures. Do not teach children how to think and communicate in language owned and licensed by a corporation. Consult the creative commons and stop buying crony ware. Our children are being sold a product and a philosophy that some of us parents have rejected in our professional lives. I don’t associate products such as Leader in Me with good business ethics or with good cultural fits. The worldview that belies Leader in Me is too narrow and straight to accommodate the diversity of minds and thought that make modernity.

A deep irony is that our school district is attempting something brave and bold and a decade overdue. They are embracing project-based learning and the Most Likely to Succeed narrative. Not everyone involved has read the book yet. Once they do, perhaps they’ll recognize that Leader in Me is incompatible with MLTS. Leader in Me is of the system and culture MLTS warns against, yet we still have it in our elementary school. Eject Leader in Me. Build instead a culture compatible with project-based learning and modern work. Build a culture of agency, not compliance. Seek inspiration from The MIT Media Lab principles for work in the modern world.

  • Resilience over strength
  • Systems over objects
  • Disobedience over compliance
  • Pull over push
  • Compasses over maps
  • Emergence over authority
  • Risk over safety
  • Practice over theory
  • Learning over education

The credentialist life script started dying in the 70s and has been in the ground for a decade. To quote from Breaking Smart

Software-driven transformations directly disrupt the middle-class life script, upon which the entire industrial social order is based. In its typical aspirational form, the traditional script is based on 12 years of regimented industrial schooling, an additional 4 years devoted to economic specialization, lifetime employment with predictable seniority-based promotions, and middle-class lifestyles. Though this script began to unravel as early as the 1970s, even for the minority (white, male, straight, abled, native-born) who actually enjoyed it, the social order of our world is still based on it. Instead of software, the traditional script runs on what we might call paperware: bureaucratic processes constructed from the older soft technologies of writing and money. Instead of the hacker ethos of flexible and creative improvisation, it is based on the credentialist ethos of degrees, certifications, licenses and regulations. Instead of being based on achieving financial autonomy early, it is based on taking on significant debt (for college and home ownership) early.

and Most Likely to Succeed…

Students who only know how to perform well in today’s education system—get good grades and test scores, and earn degrees—will no longer be those who are most likely to succeed. Thriving in the twenty-first century will require real competencies, far more than academic credentials.

Prepare our kids for project-based hiringdistributed work, and life. Embrace project-based learning, and choose agency over compliance.

School Board Election Transparency and Flow

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My family didn’t realize an election for Dripping Springs ISD was happening until my mom received an early voting ballot in the mail. After too much digging, we found this page on the pretty awful district website.

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The bios there are a handful of paragraphs that do not communicate vision or provide much of a writing sample. I need writing samples to elect someone to a school board. School systems demand much of our kids, and school representatives should put at least as much effort into their campaign writing as a student does on a writing prompt on a standardized test.

Finding the election information page took some doing. The district website is a tough one to navigate and follow. The main sections of the site are District News and Calendar. I can find no mention of the election in either section. To find the election page,  you must search for “election”.

How easy is the election to find from social media?  A search for “election” on the district’s Facebook page has no results since 2013.

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Twitter fares no better. A search for “election” there likewise doesn’t turn up anything since 2013.

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How about on independent websites? Searching the local watering hole blog turns up nothing about the election. How about the city’s website? Neither “election” or “trustees” turns up election information.

How about the candidates, how visible are they? I found Facebook groups for the two incumbents. One is closed to comments without joining the group and the other is closed completely without joining the group and has only 12 members.

This is not transparent.

What to do about it? Well, I recently met Austin Kids First at a do_action event. They are working on transparency and candidate cultivation in Austin ISD. Sounds like AISD was in a similar situation a few years ago. I get the feeling this is typical of most districts. Now, thankfully, these questionnaires offer a sense of the vision, policy and writing of AISD board candidates.

I’d like DSISD candidates to answer the questions in those questionnaires as well as these:

  • Are you on board with Most Likely to Succeed and project-based learning?
  • Where can I go online to find out about you and your vision for Dripping Springs education?
  • What is the board’s role in modernizing the tools and workflow of DSISD to accommodate project-based learning and transparency?
  • What is the board’s role in ensuring that the digital, physical, and cultural infrastructure of DSISD accommodates all people, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, neurodivergence, personal appearance, body size, race, ethnicity, age, religion, or nationality.
  • Should creationism be taught in school?

I think those give a feel for a candidate’s grasp of modernity. The first question is particularly important given that DSISD is becoming a district of innovation so it can embrace the Most Likely to Succeed narrative and project-based learning. This is a big deal, yet I know nothing about the candidates’ positions on MLTS and project-based learning. The district’s social media and website have said nothing about it since announcing some screenings of the film back in January.

We need an Austin Kids First style effort for DSISD, and the district needs some publishing and social media flow. I happen to know some people who can help with publishing, for free, including freedom zero. Involve students in the project of bringing modern, open source publishing flow to the district with the help of volunteers from the communities and companies that will be in some of their futures. Start project-based learning by involving them in publishing and technology. Allow them advocacy and agency by letting them participate in building the digital infrastructure of a modern, project-based, transparent district in touch with the creative commons and the future of work.

Rosin, Live Resin, Shatter

Rosin

Here are some state-of-the-art cannabis extracts I enjoyed on my last trip to Colorado. Live resin is a butane hash oil (BHO) made from flash frozen fresh plants instead of dried plants. Live resin has the terpene profile and pungency of a plant fresh from the garden. It’s a lovely hit redolent of living green.

The shatter is BHO made from dried plants. Dried plant BHO is lovely, but the fresh plant taste isn’t as forward as in live resin.

Rosin is made with a solventless technique that uses heat and pressure to turn flowers, hash, and kief into full melt hash oil. Rosin is a fast and easy technique that can make use of tools as simple as a hair straightener. Rosin extraction is simple, requiring no knowledge of chemistry or botanical extraction. Since no flammable solvents are used, rosin techniques are safer than BHO for home extraction of your medicine. The rosins I’ve tried offered a very clean hit. Rosin is a promising trend. Medicine sans solvents appeals.

 

Law Enforcement Imagery on Social Media

Here’s a brief survey of how law enforcement in my area of central Texas represent themselves on social media.

Hays County Sheriff

I live in Hays county. The Sheriff’s department portrays itself with a police car in pursuit and a lineup of armed, unhappy white men standing next to an armored vehicle. The us vs. them thin blue lineup.

https://twitter.com/HaysSheriff

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https://www.facebook.com/hayscountysheriffsoffice/

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Comal County Sheriff

Comal goes for the vehicle lineup and features a totally unmarked car. These unmarked cars are illegal in some states, though that doesn’t stop police departments from using them. Some citizens pull cops in these cars over and challenge them on the safety and legality of patrolling in unmarked vehicles.

https://www.facebook.com/Comal-County-Sheriffs-Office-262901413722765/

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Austin Police Department

Austin goes for a civic landmark, wildflowers, and smiling, diverse faces.

https://twitter.com/Austin_Police

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https://www.facebook.com/AustinPolice/

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Travis County Sheriff

Blandly innocuous.

https://twitter.com/TravisCoSheriff

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https://www.facebook.com/TravisCOSheriff/

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Round Rock Police

A vehicle lineup including a SWAT van.

https://twitter.com/roundrockScreen Shot 2016-02-03 at 9.17.36 AM.png

https://www.facebook.com/RoundRockPoliceDepartment/police

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Williamson County Sheriff

Unsmiling good ole boys.

https://www.facebook.com/SORecruitment/

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San Marcos Police

Blandly innocuous.

https://www.facebook.com/smcpa/

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San Antonio Police

Diverse, smiling faces.

https://www.facebook.com/SanAntonioPD/

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https://twitter.com/SAPDCareers

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Georgetown Police

Civic landmark.

https://www.facebook.com/GeorgetownTXPolice/

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Bee Cave Police

A lone cruiser.

https://www.facebook.com/Bee-Cave-Police-Department-406748709376530/

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Lakeway Police

 

The white guy blue line, but with a possible smile or two and no armored vehicles or exposed weapons.

https://www.facebook.com/lakewaypolice/

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Bastrop County Sheriff

Cruiser lineups in non-confrontational poses. I’m glad they didn’t feature their $658,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle.

https://www.facebook.com/BastropCountySO/

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https://twitter.com/BastropCountySO

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