Darker, unequal, more controlled, yet hopeful: looking ahead to the Web of 2015

PewResearch_logoThe Pew Research Internet Project published a new report this week, looking at privacy online.  They surveyed a group of experts, thought leaders, innovators, and me for our thoughts.  Overall it’s a sobering document, finding privacy on the wane, driven by governments, businesses, and user behavior.

Here’s their lead question:

Will policy makers and technology innovators create a secure, popularly accepted, and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure by 2025 that allows for business innovation and monetization while also offering individuals choices for protecting their personal information in easy-to-use formats?

And here’s my response:

“Too many state and business interests prevent this. Governments, from local to national, want to improve their dataveillance for all kinds of purposes: war fighting, crime detection, taxes, and basic intelligence about economics and the environment. Companies badly want data about customers, and some base their business models on that. I do not see this changing much.”

Could anything challenge this situation?  Me:

“Citizen action is probably the best option, much as it was for crypto in the 1990s. But, I do not see that winning over governments and big business… In the United States, both political parties and the clear majority of citizens cheerfully cede privacy.”

Some folks expressed hopes for Millenials.  I hope they’re right, but think they have an enormously uphill battle ahead, if they actually choose to fight it.

Web Index logoThis Pew report appeared in my Twitter feed while I was reading another report.  The Web Index 2014-2015 assessment finds much to be concerned about.

Such as: Continue reading

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Sacrificing the queen or the whole campus? The case of UNO

University of New Orleans logoThe University of New Orleans is gearing up for more cuts, apparently. Its president has proposed so many cuts that one observer thinks UNO is over.

An individual round of cuts to academic programs could well make for what I’ve been calling a queen sacrifice, but the UNO case might go beyond that.

So what are these cuts about?  Jarvis DeBerry lays out the list of 7 programs (out of 80):

The Department of Geography would be eliminated. So would the following programs: B.S. in early childhood education and M.Ed. in special education, Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, Ph.D. in special education, M.A. and Ph.D. in political science and M.A. in romance languages.

More: “Four positions would be cut from the library, and department chairs would have to teach at least two courses in the spring and the fall.”

Personnel being riffed amount to 26 faculty and stuff, plus some indeterminate number of adjuncts.

The causes are familiar to the queen sacrifice: reduced enrollments and funding.  UNO did experience the unusual horror of Hurricane Katrina, which knocked student numbers down, although they’re apparently returning to pre-storm levels.  Funding reductions are partly due to the state of Louisiana cutting back on public higher education.  Fos: “There’s no new money from the state and probably won’t be for many years, so I have to find money to reinvest in programs that this university should be doing,”

But wait, as the commercial used to say, there’s more. Continue reading

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Notes on Paying for the Party

Paying for the PartyPaying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality is a powerful, carefully researched, and ultimately furious work of social science. Its target is higher education – specifically, how female students make it through large public research universities, and how they don’t. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton conclude that such campuses are doing a bad job for many students, and break this down meticulously.

The book is based on research conducted on a group of students attending “Midwestern University” (Ohio State, maybe?). The authors spent a great deal of time with 45 or so undergraduate women, living for part of a year on their shared dorm room floor. The resulting book is rich with conversations, analysis, and as much longitudinal followup as time permitted.

Armstrong and Hamilton identify a series of pathways students can take through the university experience. These include pathways based on partying, mobility (increasing class status), and professional attainment (getting skills for a specific job).  The authors follow each young woman through their track or tracks.

Each campus track collaborates with non-academic partners, but it’s the Greek system that looms largest in Paying for the Party. Fraternities and sororities ground the party pathway, a tightly focused social environment that students can dive into which emphasizes fun, hooking up with wealthy people, and low academic achievement. This isn’t news to many people, especially in academe, or to myself, but it’s rare to see it researched in such detail.  One key observation is a link between frats, sororities, race, and class:  “Greek organizations… [pair] like with like, or, in this case, affluent white women with affluent white men.” (16)

The studied dorm floor group actually split in two. One half went Greek; the other had no comparative social affiliation. The researchers dubbed the latter “isolates” (96), while the Greeks called them “the Dark Side”.  The Greeks also had an acronym for them, which I can’t recall.  I think it had to do with independence.

Instead of summarizing the entire book much further, let me highlight some key points. Continue reading

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Snowed on, locked down, raiding electrons and getting zotted: a week of storms

Readers and other audiences often express curiosity about my family’s homesteading life.  So I thought I’d share a story of that experience in extremity.  I also want to get it down while it’s still fresh in memory.

Last Tuesday a stormstorm hit Vermont.  That’s nothing out of the ordinary, of course.  But this one had an unusual bite to it.  Temperatures hovered around 25-33 F for two days, meaning snow fell with sleet.  The stuff attached itself to trees, melted a little, then froze into massive, heavy weights.  A second wave followed on Wednesday, piling on top of the first.

Our trees – remember Vermont is very forested – bent, then bowed, sometimes arcing down to the ground.

trees bent under snow in our driveway

Some limbs and entire trees were too weak to bear the burden, and snapped clean off.  For days we heard muffled CRACKs from the woods, and glimpsed boughs topple down through other trees and ground cover, slapping down into snow drifts.

Some of those arboreal missiles hit power lines.

tree on line

More than a few, actually.  More than 100,000 Vermonters were out of power over this week.  Our largest electrical utility, Green Mountain Power, fielded hundreds of repair crews drawn from many states and Canada.  Frustratingly, these snow-and-ice-bound trees sometimes took down lines days after the storm.  New outages appeared as old ones were fixed: one step forward, two steps back at the worst. Continue reading

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Most Americans pretty happy with the internet, says Pew

Pew Internet logoIn a break from gloom and dystopia, most Americans now view the internet as a positive force in their lives, according to a new Pew survey.  The results contrast neatly with the steady drumbeat of fearsome digital media stories.

For example, a clear majority of Americans do not worry about information overload.  “72% of internet users report they like having so much information, while just 26% say they feel overloaded.”*

Similar majorities enjoy:

  • “their ability to learn new things”
  • “improv[ing] their ability to share their ideas and creations with others”
  • being “better informed about products and services available for sale, national and international news, and popular culture”
  • being “better informed about friends than they were five years ago, and 60% feel they know more about family.”

This appreciation has grown over time.  We’re happier than we used to be about the internet:

Pew Internet survey results on online knowledge

Our delight is not just personal, but also social: Continue reading

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A university sacrifices its football team

UniversityAlabamaBirmingham_BlazersThe University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB)’s president announced plans to terminate that school’s football team.

This is interesting to me for two reasons: its relation to my queen sacrifice model and for the trend of concerns about college sports.  Not to make too much of it, Ray Webb’s decision poses questions for the future of American higher education.

I must confess before going further that I am not a sports fan.  College football is a strange world to me, despite winning three degrees from the University of Michigan.  What follows is a first attempt on a tricky problem by an outsider.  Comments are most definitely welcome.


UAB’s president described his decision entirely in economic terms, like so:

“The fiscal realities we face — both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint — are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the athletic department and UAB,” Watts said in a statement released by the university.

Moreover, these problems will get worse, and for reasons beyond campus control:

“As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the athletic department, football is simply not sustainable.”

Note the emphasis on the broader academic football world, in particular its governing body.  It’s not UAB’s fault that costs increased, in other words.

In the queen sacrifice model financial challenges make academic sacrifices attractive.  UAB choose not to cut programs nor faculty, but three* sports teams.  I don’t know if they considered academic reductions to support athletics, but this week’s decision didn’t touch on academics at all.  It was about sports teams costing too much, and adjustments to them as a result.

The supermajority of college sports teams lose money.  UAB’s needed tens of millions of dollars from student fees and elsewhere in the general budget to stay open. Continue reading

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A Vermont college announces a queen sacrifice

Chess queen, by John FowlerVermont Technical College will cut back some of its academic offerings next year.  That means cutting faculty, including both adjuncts and tenured professors, and offering another case of what I’ve been calling the queen sacrifice.

Recently-appointed VTC president Dan Smith identified programs and faculty to cut two semesters in advance, to wit:

Civil Engineering Technology (one tenured professor); English, Humanities and Social Science (two tenured professors and one nontenured professor); Landscape Design and Horticulture (one nontenured professor); Architectural Engineering Technology (one nontenured professor); and Electrical Engineering Technology (two tenured professors).

Note the number of tenured faculty being riffed.  Note, too, the full-time non-tenured instructors, and remember that “up to 27 adjunct instructors may not be hired back in the fall [of 2015]”.  In addition, “[s]enior professors are being offered cash incentives to retire early”.

As usual, certain fields lead the way.  “This approach carries “outsize” implications for the humanities,” according to a presidential email.

In a differently harrowing move, president Smith placed other programs on the block, depending on what they do over the next few months: Continue reading

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