New York 2140: part four

Today we continue our online book club‘s reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.*  We’re discussing the last two parts: “The More the Merrier” and “The Comedy of the Commons.”  Please join us in reading!

(If you’d like more information on the reading plan and schedule, click here. For all posts on this reading, click here.)

Today I’ll offer a summary of the plot so far, followed by observations and questions for reading.

But first, let me pull together online commentary and links from readers so far.

Mike Richichi blogged his thoughts about the novel so far, including the observation that perhaps the entire world received as “assisted migration” by the end, and offered examples of escalated commitment.

Mike also shared this fine glimpse of the Met from his morning commute:

Also on Twitter, Jen shares her thoughts:

From last week’s post, more comments: Babette Kraft reflects on assisted migration, building up to how the novel is about changing minds and hence about education.  Tom Haymes shares a grim bit of research arguing that the Earth is heading towards a tipping point into rapid climate change.  Bill Benzon wonders “How many science fiction narratives, stories, novels or films, are built around financial manipulation?”  We debate who’s to blame for climate change.

On his blog Bill Benzon identifies a beautiful and politically fascinating scene from the novel’s end, when Amelia takes Mutt and Jeff dancing in a small club.

But where’d it come from? That whole scene struck me as being uncharacteristic of the novel…

It’s as though KSR didn’t intend for it to happen, wasn’t part of his world building, but somehow at the very end a different world collided with KSR’s in that underground club and insisted on ending the story. There’s a counter narrative there, one about how such clubs came to be/continued to be…

He added on Facebook: “why stick it underground?”

Meanwhile, the latest United States Census data shows coastal populations steadily increasing.

Census data Atlantic Gulf coasts 2000-2016

One more point: some major internet connections now lie on or under certain coastal areas.  They may be inundated with water in twenty years or less.

Plot summary

A giant hurricane (Fyodor) clobbers New York for three days, causing terrible damage and destruction and which we see from every character’s perspective.  In the aftermath tensions boil up between homeless crowds and the semi-tenanted towers of the wealthy, and the plans for a financial strike go ahead. Private security outfits working for the oligarchy struggle with the New York Police Department.

Charlotte runs for Congress and blackmails her ex, the head of the Federal Reserve. Vlade and Idelba reconnect; Charlotte and Franklin connect.  New laws might turn elite housing into homes for the homeless.  A global movement nationalizes big banks and increases taxes on the wealthiest.  Inspector Gen and Mutt and Jeff quietly blackmail each other.  History keeps going. 

Another great photo from Bill Benzon – which he also labeled.


Animals become major drivers in the story.  They’ve been present since Amelia’s bears and Franklin’s tidal brainstorm, but now are more powerful.  A vision of many, many dead animals spurs Amelia to take a local revolution to the cloud and the world.  The boys spend time learning about animals after their muskrat adventure in the storm.

The theme of immigration morphs into one of homelessness after the storm. (Kindle \location 8340)  “[P]eople didn’t usually make great efforts to smuggle themselves into a disaster area.” (8349)

Education has been silent so far – as Mike Richichi puts it, “we see no mention of anyone participating in any sort of K-20 education” – finally makes an appearance in terms of student loans.  Amelia summons people everywhere to go on a debt strike, to declare a jubilee:

“What I mean by a householders’ strike is you just stop paying your rents and mortgages … maybe also your student loans and insurance payments. Any private debt you’ve taken on just to make you and your family safe. The daily necessities of existence.” (Kindle Locations 7977-7979; emphases added)

Our annoying citizen follows suit:

…even in Denver significant percentages of the population joined the various householders’ unions and refused to pay rents of all kinds, mortgages and student loans especially. (8047-8048).

The final political settlement includes free college education. (9107)

Technology: again we see uneven development.  Vlade follows a storm by checking NOAA’s web page (6810) (NOAA’s still around? only founded in 1970) and by using spreadsheets plus GANTT visualizations (7025).  Inspector Gen hopes for lifestraws, already in use now (7289). The Met’s farm uses “photovoltaic sheathing and paint” for power instead of solar cells, but also relies on generators, nondescript batteries, candles, and lanterns (6869ff).  People still watch telenovelas (7483).  Gunpowder weapons (assault rifles, laser scopes) are used alongside tasers.  Drones are still used (8276).

We get glimpses of new technology, but the innovations are often set aside, like this:

Some of the new stretchtech came from biomimicry, tricks learned from kelp beds or limpets or human fascia, and it was wonderfully effective, but relatively new and rare, and therefore expensive. (8382-8383)

It’s interesting to see digital technology downplayed as finance breaks down.  In turn, construction and agriculture become more important.  It’s as if politically progress is somehow technologically retrograde.

Some more fine language: “The great city was now a mass of rectilinear shadows, enduring under the flail of rain and wind.”  (7060)

I think hurricane Fyodor lasts for three days, after which, Christ-like, a new society arises.

Charlotte runs for Congress in a way that sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign:

My platform is similar to the left wing of the party’s current platform, you can check out the particulars if you like, the Rad Dems, but know that mainly I’m going down there to speak for intertidal people everywhere, and to speak against the global oligarchy every single day. I’m not taking campaign money from anyone and I don’t have any of my own, so I’m mostly doing this in the cloud… (8306-8309)


  1. Can the novel’s focus on immigration shed light on how to help the homeless?
  2. Thinking of the final section’s title, how did our protagonists and their allies avert a tragedy of the commons?
  3. Why does the novel end with that scene in the underground club?
  4. What aspects of life after climate change does the novel portray most effectively for you?
  5. Does New York 2140 leave you with a sense of urgency, a desire to act?
  6. How much of the novel is a reaction to our immediate history?  I’m thinking of how the 2008 financial crisis plays an important role in the story and echoes of the Democratic party’s subsequent left-center split.

NYC skyline, annotated: Bill Brenzon

What do you think?  Let us know in comments below.  Or share your thoughts on your own blogs, Twitter, or wherever you like.  I’ll harvest everything I can find with each week’s starting post – and ping me if you want to make sure I catch you.

…and that’s the end of our reading.  If you haven’t finished the book yet, don’t worry.  All blog posts for this reading are organized under a single tag, NewYork2140, so all of that content is available in one spot from now on.  That includes the full story of this reading, along with our guide and process.  These notes are there for you, and their attached comment boxes stand ready for your thoughts.

Coming up: we have one more post on August 20.  There I’ll offer some leftover and concluding thoughts and host more of yours.  This may include reactions to the 2018 Hugo best novel award, scheduled to be given August 19th, and for which New York 2140 is a nominee.

*Please use that link if you want to order a copy of the book.  We get a small benefit from each purchase.

(thanks to Bill Benzon for more fine photos)

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What is the world worrying about in 2018?

A new survey comes from Ipsos, and it’s most illuminating.  Ipsos polled nearly 20,000 people from around the world*, asking them what they’re most worried about.

It’s a fascinating idea, trying to get a finger on the world’s pulse.

Here is their slideshow.  Right after it I’ll summarize the results that most impressed me.

What are we most worried about?  The leading issues across the world, at least from these sample nations, are “Unemployment, poverty/social inequality, crime/violence and financial/political corruption.”

How worried are we?  “[M]ost people across the 28 countries think that their country is on the wrong track (56% on average).”

None of these individual fears reaches a majority of responses.  In fact, none cracks 34%, probably in part because of the competition:

Ipsos 2018 world worries

Compared to the rest of the world, the United States stands out, having a different set of fears, or at least a varied ranking of them:
Ipsos 2018 US worries

Health care is the number one anxiety for Americans, followed by immigration, crime/violence, and corruption.

Let’s zoom in on those top US issues. That way you can see how they’ve changed lately:
Ipsos 2018 US leading worries

Immigration has rapidly risen, no doubt thanks to Trump and the ICE stories.  Corruption is rising, too.  It’s interesting that crime and violence fears are down.  Has tv news failed at last?

The US isn’t alone in immigration fears.  Note our anxious compatriots, mostly in Europe:

Ipsos 2018 immigration

The world beyond the US is really much more concerned with economics.  Specifically, poverty and economic inequality.  (Kind of like this blog)

Ipsos 2018 poverty inequality

It’s fascinating to see Russians so concerned, followed closely by several eastern European nations How much of this is due to the Soviet-era** heritage, I wonder.

Remember that corruption of financial and political stripes was the world’s fourth largest concern:

Ipsos 2018_corruption

That’s a really non-regional concern, with leading nations from South America, southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Meanwhile, what about climate change?  You might be thinking of this if you’re participating in our online book club’s New York 2140 reading.  Well, not so much:

Ipsos 2018_climate change

China’s in the lead, intriguingly.

Now, back to this blog’s main topic, the future of education.  How worried is the human race about education?  That worry only hit 20% on the global average. A fascinating breakdown of nations follows:

Ipsos 2018_education

A few thoughts about what this might mean for the future of, well, the world.

The majority of the human race thinks we’re headed in the wrong direction.  Think about what that could mean for politics – for reform, revolt, populism, as well as for mechanisms of control.

The majority of our leading anxieties are economic: unemployment, poverty, inequality, and financial corruption.  This is being expressed while we continue to raise up more people from poverty than ever before in human history, suggesting the possibility of more revolutions of rising expectations.

Corruption is a global touchstone, and, unsurprisingly, appears in many political forms.  In the US we can think of Trump’s hilarious vow to “drain the swamp” while some Democrats are talking up corruption as a campaign theme.

For my American readers, our nation is weird, unsurprisingly.  Health care looms very large.  Note that this survey occurred during a Sanders-influence rise in desire for Medicare for all.

China also stands out from the rest of the world.  They are more concerned than anyone else with climate change.  They are also the most pleased about the future, with 91% seeing their nation on the right track.

Bear these anxieties in mind as you think about geopolitics as a whole, and your region in particular.  Consider how they shape education.

*28 countries:Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, France, Britain, Germany, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Poland, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United States.  The headlines emphasize the US, but the report is really more about those other 27 nations.

**I put Soviet-era there as a gesture towards Serbia, which was part of Yugoslavia, and not, therefore, part of the USSR’s Warsaw Pact.

(thanks to Tim Pendry for the pointer)

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A day in the life of a futurist, 2018 edition

Last year I blogged about a day in my work life.  People have told me they appreciated that glimpse into daily futurism practice, so I’ll offer another one now.  Perhaps this should be an annual thing.

6:00 am – I wake up in a hotel near Washington, DC’s National Airport.  That’s because American Airlines stranded me there.  The previous day I’d visited the Minnesota eLearning Summit in St. Paul.  After a fire and brimstone keynote address I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from many people, from campus leaders to technologists, media specialists and vendors.  I took in several conference sessions, then headed to the airport.  American managed to delay the day’s first flight badly enough to break the connection to the second; hence my overnight in a hotel.

But the hotel had some (not much) broadband, so I could accomplish work.  First thing in the morning I grab the laptop and check a series of news sites: Google News, Inside Higher Ed, HackerNews.  I also look quickly at Twitter to see if anyone has pinged me with something urgent, then check several lists (family, education, politics, futurists); ditto GChat; ditto Facebook.  Fire up a YouTube playlist of energetic music.

Then into email.

7:00 am – more emails.

8:00 am – quick jaunt to hotel restaurant for a too-substantial breakfast.

8:30 am – These emails are a heterogeneous lot.  Newsletters appear.  Old clients reconnect, while new ones write with questions about current or forthcoming work; these pings range from basic logistics (receipts, flights) to planning programs to concepts and strategic queries.  FOEcast activists continue working on the about-to-be-announced project.  Various announcements of different web activities (blog comments, etc.).

Then it’s time for a quick dive into Inoreader, my current RSS Reader, to check on clients, current events, and some searches.  One fascinating genetics story:

Along the way I add several stories to the in-proces August FTTE report.

10:00 am – place a “Do not disturb” sign on the door, because the morning video event is coming up.

I was scheduled to work with a fascinating new client for an hour over video.  We actually developed an elaborate plan, including me beaming in from afar, while eliciting audience feedback through Kahoot (to get them talking, as well as thinking about classroom tech), all prepared with some Google Docs.

So I make sure my laptop, camera, and mic are set.  Run a speedcheck; decent enough speeds, although latency is higher than I’d like.  I email my remote client to make sure we’re all good.

Then back to emails.

10:50 am –  fire up the video client and get to peer into their meeting room.

For the next hour I take them through a selection of major trends.  My Kahoot questions get them talking all right.  More questions bubble up, still within the timeline.  Tech issues crop up, unfortunately, so there is backchannel to address them along with my keeping the flow going.

Noon – I cordially thank my hosts, then disconnect… and run.  I have two hours until today’s Future Trends Forum at 2 pm, and can’t stay in the hotel past 1 pm at the latest.  My rescheduled flight is for 10:45 pm, and the airport has lousy broadband video, so I’ve arranged to visit my daughter just west of Fairfax county.

So I run down to the lobby, luggage bouncing under my hand, and smoothly check out.  Then it’s out of the building and stomping uphill for nearly a mile to the nearest Metro station, reflecting on the morning video.  I snap a photo along the way:

August heat is rising, so descending into the station’s cooler depths is a relief.

I remember the route I must take, find the platform, wait, and board the right train.  Then I was riding on the Metro (and now you can’t unhear it)

writing on the metro

When there’s signal, I respond to fresh emails on my phone.  When the signal drops, out comes my MacBook for further writing on the book.  The trains are taking longer than I planned.

The Silver Line ends at Wiehle Station, and I leap out and run to the pickup area, there to snag the Uber I’d just arranged for.  The driver is fascinating, a peace activist who drives to keep his cause afloat.  Traffic gradually drops, but the clock is (metaphorically) ticking. I plug earbuds into my ears and into the laptop, ready to roll.

1:59 pm – the car deposits me at my daughter’s block and I jump out, three bags in one hand, earbuds looped to my head, and my laptop open and already scanning for the right WiFi.  Into the house.

2:00 pm – I’m in a kitchen chair breathing heavily, a nice array of pots are hanging on the wall behind me,  and the Future Trends Forum is live.  “Welcome,” I cough out, and we begin.

Forum: Kelly Walsh_George Station

I manage my customary live tweet or two.

3:05 pm – I bid the Forum community farewell and exit Shindig.

For the next hour it’s catch-up time, responding to emails that have piled up over the past few hours.  There’s some social media activity to address: Twitter, blog comments, Facebook, even Google+ and LinkedIn.  I share some stories, like this important one about black students and student debt.

Also, I tell American to refund tonight’s flight.  I’m going to stay with my daughter until the rest of our family arrives in a few days.

4:00 – 6:00 pm -research time.  I work on the August FTTE report, which involves a Word file and multiple Chrome tabs.  Every detail resonates with the book, so a half-dozen extra Word files are also open, one per chapter, as I add words to each.

There are also details for upcoming Future Trends Forum sessions that must be dealt with: responses from guests, queries on Slack, two Mailchimp campaigns to edit.

I consider publishing a blog post, but it’s really too late, and should be done tomorrow.  I’m also tired enough that I risk some editorial errors.

6:00 – 9:30 –  finally, time with my splendid daughter.

Gwynneth and dada

9:30 – 11:00 pm – more writing.  More emails.  Some Facebook discussion.  Then my eyelids malfunction.

…and that’s one day.

Looking back on it, it seems pretty crowded.  It definitely felt rushed, with a lot of physical travel, different types of media production, relying on various transportation mechanisms, and catching up with a continually refreshed string of queries.

I didn’t get to do much reflection as a result.  Sometimes I have time to think about certain details of education’s future, as when I’m doing housework, driving, or standing in an airport line because American Airlines boards planes badly.  This day just had too much going on.

It’s useful if unsurprising to see how much of my work depends on digital networks, how uneven they are, and how accustomed we are to the latter.  Nobody groaned on the Silver Line when the car slipped out of 4G coverage, because we expect it.  Conversely, at no point was I beholden to a physical office, as my work exists in a distributed assemble of brain, devices, networks, and multiple storage/service sites.

What does this day tell us about being an independent futurist?  Our clients loom large, and we continually care for them.  Media production takes time, as do social media – for some, this is pure marketing; for me, it’s a mix of conversations and idea development.  Between discussion, logistics, friction, and working with clients, ideas about the future grow and ricochet.

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New York 2140: part three

Today we continue our online book club‘s reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.*  We’re discussing two parts: “Escalation of Commitment” and “Assisted Migration.”  Please join us in reading!

(If you’d like more information on the reading plan and schedule, click here. For all posts on this reading, click here.)

In this post I’ll offer a summary of the plot so far, followed by observations and questions for reading.  If you haven’t read the novel yet, you might want to avoid this post if you’re leery of spoilers.

But first, let me pull together online commentary and links from readers so far.

Mike Richichi blogs about his reactions, including observations about infrastructure, technology, and today’s politics.

Many, many comments flowed like the risen Hudson from last week’s post.  A few to savor:

  • Babette Kraft notes the link between a section title (about value and price) and its contents (personal and urban backstories).
  • We continued to discuss the uneven or relatively low level of technological development.
  • A major article about climate change and failed attempts to address it appeared in the New York Times. (thanks, Tom)
  • Steven Kaye thinks Mr. Hexter echoes British historian J.H. Hexter.

Bill Benzon blogs about his views of the city, offering several terrific photos of downtown, including the Met.  For example:

NYC with Met_Bill Benzon


It’s winter, so New York ices up until a February thaw.  Idelba (Vlade’s ex) successfully extracts gold from under the Hudson using a giant dredge, much to Stefan and Roberto’s delight.  Vlade then discovered and helped free Mutt and Jeff from a hostage box.  We learn more about Henry Vinson, a shady trader.  The Met co-op’s population narrowly rejects a buy-out offer.  Most of our characters brainstorm what to do with the discovered gold.  Amelia survives another accident, then tours Greenland and Siberia.

Mr. Hexter tells the boys a Herman Melville/smuggling/ghost story (referencing the Moby Dick chapter “The Line“), which inspires them on a new project.  Franklin rescues them again and works on his floating building project.  Inspector Gen tries to close in on Vinson.  Our characters’ brainstorm for dealing with the gold has become a revolutionary effort to decapitate or reboot the global economy. The boys head out on the water once more, but run into a rising storm, and our selection ends there.


The politics are now openly revolutionary and anticapitalist.

We see more technology in these chapters, I think.  There are underwater sleds riding subway tunnels (Kindle 4800), hostage boxes (4819), “milk of amnesia” inducing memory loss (4917),  remotely operated submarines (5010),  “giant robot freighter airships” (5542),  skyvillages (5543), containerclippers (5630), and “mayflies” (little recording devices, I infer) (5721).  Visual surveillance has expanded quantitatively since our time, or at least the police have:

“How many cameras do you have deployed now?”

“It’s a few million. The limiting factor these days is the analysis. I’ll try to figure out some questions and see what I find.” (4943)

People still use personal response systems, a/k/a clickers (5041).  Automation of human work didn’t happen (5777). Most meat eaten by humans is artificially created (5796).

I enjoyed some passages, like “…the middle of the glaucous cronking of the upsuck…” (4699) and “‘We persist in living,’ Jeff said sardonically.”  (5080)  “Vlade the derailer” is a goofy pun that still makes me smile (5208). “Escher Protection Services” is a great name for a security firm (6259).

Henry Vinson is the novel’s only villain that’s a character and human being.  He has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and he has come too late in the tale, from my rereading.  Bill has some thoughts on this.

NYC Met _Bill Benzon


  1. “Assisted migration” is a theme from the book’s first section, and it keeps returning throughout (35 times by my count).  What do you think the term means at this point in the novel?  How many senses does it have?  Who assists whom?
  2. Education: still no sign of formal education.  Is the book celebrating informal learning?
  3. Escalation of commitment is when people double down on sunk costs.  Where do you see this in your world?
  4. Charlotte gives a speech against a certain kind of economy (it starts “Fuck money…”, 5048).  Is this the book’s idea?  Do you agree?

What do you think?  Let us know in comments below.  Or share your thoughts on your own blogs, Twitter, or wherever you like.  I’ll harvest everything I can find with each week’s starting post – and ping me if you want to make sure I catch you.

If you feel a bit swamped (sorry, couldn’t resist), take a breath.  Remember, all blog posts for this reading are organized under a single tag, NewYork2140, so all of that content is available in one spot.  That includes the full story of this reading, along with our guide and process.

Coming up:

August 13 – Part Seven. The More the Merrier; Part Eight. The Comedy of the Commons

August 20 – leftover and concluding thoughts.  This may include reactions to the 2018 Hugo award, scheduled to be given August 19th.

*Please use that link if you want to order a copy of the book.  We get a small benefit from each purchase.

(NYC photos by Bill Benzon)

Posted in book club | Tagged | 17 Comments

Futures, educations, novels, dystopia and utopia

The program interviewed me about the future of education.  Show creator and host Bernard Bull was a fantastic host, offering thoughtful questions and a fine sense of humor.

In the podcast we speak of the futures profession, both my unusual career arc into it and how we balance (in Bernard’s terms) advising people about a future and trying to change futures.  I dwell on the classic utopian/dystopian divide in imagining futures.

Then we turn to literature and fiction.  Bernard asks me to write a novel about the future of education (!), and we wonder about appropriate genres (science fiction, mystery, picaresque, historical fiction, bildungsroman).  I recommend Rainbows End (here’s our book club’s reading).

Then I reference peak higher education, with a glance at the queen sacrifice.  Bernard points to Bryan Caplan, who was a fine Future Trends Forum guest.

Bernard asks me to speculate on the near and medium term future of education. Also on deck: changing enrollment patterns, the possibility of declining support for higher education, college athletics, and more.  I offer a couple of moonshot ideas; let me know what you think of them.

Thanks again to Bernard Bull for the lovely opportunity.

Posted in futures, interviews, podcasts | 4 Comments

How can small colleges survive the 21st century?

How can American small colleges survive and thrive in the 21st century?

I’m posing this question for discussion.  Think about what you know of this American institution and how it is faring now.

And to spur your thoughts, read this sobering Inside Higher Ed story about problems afflicting Earlham College.  Read it carefully and see which details seem especially important.

For some details that might resonate,

  1. Budget cuts have been ordered, from a $50 million budget plan down to $42 million.  (The budget was “$61.4 million in 2017“)
  2. “Earlham has been using money from its endowment to plug a gap between the revenue it collects and larger sums it spends”
  3. Anxiety about possible faculty cuts.
  4. Alumni worries that the college is straying from its mission.
  5. “net tuition revenue per student has been declining…In the 2013 fiscal year, Earlham collected $15,100 in net tuition revenue per student. It collected just $12,000 per student in 2018”.
  6.  Anxiety about the humanities.  According to the newly acting president, “How can we make sure we can preserve the humanities as we move through the whole process?”

What can small colleges do to survive such challenges?

Posted in future of education | 23 Comments

How healthy are American colleges? Their chief business officers speak.

Is American higher education financially sustainable?

We can do well to answer this question by listening to college and university chief finance or business officers.  After all, campus finance is their job.  Last week Inside Higher Ed  surveyed 415 of these professionals,* and the results are quite illuminating.

Tl;dr summary: for some, things are improving in the short term.  Private campuses are more nervous than publics.

I’ll break this down by the highlights which impressed me the most.

Short-term outlook improving, not so the long A growing number of CBOs feel good about their campus in a five year horizon:

Over all, 63 percent strongly agree or agree, while 14 percent strongly disagree or disagree, that they are confident their institution will be financially stable over the next five years. A year ago, 56 percent were confident.


CBOs are less confident about their institution’s financial stability over the next 10 years. Half strongly agree or agree they are confident, while 15 percent strongly disagree or disagree. The current figures are essentially unchanged from a year ago…

Much depends on which academic sector is asked:

How college and university funding actually works today The survey questions and responses offer useful glimpses into how the business of higher ed is conducted in 2018.

For example, endowments don’t matter much for nearly every campus:

Most CBOs say less than 5 percent of their budgets are funded by endowment income, but 7 percent of CBOs say that 15 percent or more of their budget is funded in this manner. According to CBOs’ estimates, an average of 4.0 percent of college operating budgets are supported by endowment income.

State funding continues to truckle along in its low level:

Public college CBOs report a steady proportion of state funding supporting their budgets in the last, current and upcoming fiscal years. They say state funds account for roughly one third of their operating budget in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

Discount rates continue to be an important tool for shaping admissions, yet “[f]orty-eight percent of CBOs, up from 34 percent in 2013, strongly agree or agree their college’s tuition discount rate is unsustainable.”   A little more than one third think they’re fine:

Discount rates: are they sustainable? CBOs in 2018

Note this important detail: “Private baccalaureate CBOs are especially likely to express concern about their tuition discount rate, with 68 percent agreeing it is unsustainable.”  That’s two-thirds of these campuses.

Strategies So what are these CBOs thinking about doing?

The leading strategy is… get more students.

Asked about 20 possible strategies for addressing revenue shortfalls, CBOs are most likely to indicate their institution will attempt to increase overall enrollment. Seventy-two percent strongly agree or agree their college will attempt to increase overall enrollment in the 2018-19 academic year, including 77 percent of those at private institutions and 65 percent of those at public institutions.

How this will be done as enrollment declines, demographics don’t look good, and international students are decreasing… is not explored.

Next up, creating new programs:

Majorities of CBOs also say their college intends to launch new revenue-generating academic programs (63 percent) and launch new master’s degree programs (58 percent) to address budget shortfalls. Private college CBOs are also more likely than public college CBOs to say their college will pursue both of these strategies…

I suspect that some will fund those new programs by reducing old ones.  Yes, the queen sacrifice remains in play.

Also on the table: tuition freezes.  24% of public CBOs said their campus tuition was currently frozen.

More dramatically, some CBOs are in serious conversations about mergers.

17 percent of chief business officers say senior administrators at their institution have had serious internal discussions about merging with another college or university. That is up from 12 percent a year ago. Officials at private colleges continue to be more likely than public college CBOs to say merger discussions are taking place at their institution, 23 percent to 9 percent.

And some approve of the urge to merge: “Eighteen percent of CBOs believe their college should merge with another institution.”  Once again, privates are more anxious than publics:

Private college CBOs are more likely than their public college counterparts to say their institution should merge, 21 percent to 14 percent. This includes about one-fourth of CBOs at private baccalaureate colleges.

What blocks mergers from consideration?  The financial officers “see a desire to maintain the status quo, geography and faculty opposition as significant impediments to merger or consolidation…”

One more strategy for financial stability involves sharing services with other institutions.  This is more popular than I would have thought:

Slightly more than one-fourth of CBOs say senior officials at their college have had serious discussions about consolidating programs or services with another college or university. Half of CBOs believe their college should share administrative functions with another college or should combine academic programs.

What can we take away from this report?

American higher ed is neither sick nor healthy.  Its diversity of institutions mean a variety of indicators, with some doing well, and others frightened.  Private undergraduate institutions seem especially fragile and willing to take radical risks, while public universities are less so.

I’ve been following CBOs and CFOs closely for years, and these divides are pretty consistent (see this example from 2015).

We might anticipate more mergers, along with more proclamations of post-secondary vitality.

*About one half public institutions, one half private, plus a handful of for-profits.  That’s nearly 10% of American higher ed.

(thanks to Matthew Henry)

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New York 2140: part two

Today we continue our online book club‘s reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.*  We’re discussing two parts: “Liquidity Trap” and “Expensive or Priceless?”  Please join us in reading!

(If you’d like more information on the reading plan and schedule, click here. For all posts on this reading, click here.)

In this post I’ll offer a summary of the plot so far, followed by observations and questions for reading.  But first, let me pull together online commentary and links from readers so far.  There has been a lot of discussion.

Welcome to Jen!  On Twitter she offered a fine visual as she prepared to dive in:

(And you are very welcome here.)

Conversation buzzed all over last week’s post, with twenty-six (26) comments (not from me) as of this morning.  I can’t summarize the whole discussion because it’s too rich.  Just click through and dive in, like Stefan and Roberto.  However, I can pull out a few thoughts that struck me:

  • Technological development seems to have slowed since our era. Most tech in 2140 is either what we have now or just a little advanced.
  • Lots of fine close reading from Bill Benzon, Joe Murphy, and Steven Kaye.
  • Babette Kraft observed in a very rich comment that the book’s first section’s title, “The Tyranny of Sunk Costs,” is quite important.  It “could be almost everything in this novel.”
  • Tom Haymes thinks I identified the wrong Met tower, and offers this one instead:


Tom also spotted this scary map of the world after a 4 degree temperature rise:

The world at 4°C warmer.

On Facebook Scott Butki and Patricia F. Anderson found three quotes they especially liked.  One was:

She kept her eyes on the famous investor, speaking beauty to power, which is perhaps more common than speaking truth to power, and definitely more effective. (page 12; Kindle location 404).

Another was passionate and self-referential:

[Climate scientists] published their papers, and shouted and waved their arms, and a few canny and deeply thoughtful sci-fi writers wrote up lurid accounts of such an eventuality, and the rest of civilization went on torching the planet like a Burning Man pyromasterpiece. Really. That’s how much those knuckleheads cared about their grandchildren, and that’s how much they believed their scientists, even though every time they felt a slight cold coming on they ran to the nearest scientist (i.e. doctor) to seek aid.  (page 140; Kindle location 2203)

A third referred to an “accompanying refugee crisis, which, using the unit popular at the time, was rated as fifty katrinas.”  (page 140; Kindle location 2187) This is another example of the transformed language we discussed last week.

On Twitter Patricia added another fine quote, this time from an excerpt:

(Can someone find me the Mayakovsky in Russian, so I can see how this translation holds?)

Meanwhile, author Bill Benzon has a series of amazing posts on the novel here.  I’m going to refer to them from here on.  Please read ’em.

Raptnrent blogged about the novel, including approving notes about the audiobook version.  There are some bits online, like this:

Rap. also responds to last week’s criticisms of the characters as thin, like so:

The characters seem rather stock, but I don’t think that’s a problem. They’re more important for what they represent rather than who they are. It contributes to the lightness and humor of the novel as well.

Last but not least, Tom Haymes also shared a good podcast interview with Robinson about this novel.

Whew.  That was a busy week.  Now on to this week!


The novel continues its practice of following a swarm of characters, tracing events through their perspectives.

Mutt and Jeff have been kidnapped by forces unknown. Vlade and Franklin rescue Stefan and Roberto again, then help them dive some more for buried treasure. Amelia has bear issues in her blimp, then in Antarctica.  The mysterious offer to buy the Met unfolds a little, while water leaks threaten.  Charlotte meets with her ex, who now runs the United States Federal Reserve.  Franklin becomes disappointed in his love affair, but has a vision of a new way to build houses on water, plus an investor.

We learn more about the world, including the history of the Pulses, along with a scene of water sumo.


References continue being hurled in all directions. Stefan and Roberto get to read Huck Finn, appropriately (2969).  Franklin uses Karl Marx’s “M-C-M'” formulation without attribution (4256).

More examples of the classic science fiction practice of inventing new words or repuporsing old ones to show (in Eric Rabkin‘s phrase) a transformed world through transformed language: “pikettied” (for Thomas Piketty; 2375), “lethemlucidity” (4170; presumably after this writer).  I also enjoyed learning the word mulm (3803).

Technology notes: air travel has declined, or at least moved away from jets (3428).  Medicine allows replacement of stomach linings (3544). There’s some criticism of cloud computing:

Lots of people were simply without papers or any cloud documentation; it was hard to believe until you met them by the hundreds and eventually the thousands, day after day for years. The cloud’s Very Bad Day in the aftermath of the Second Pulse had wiped out millions of people’s records, and no country had completely recovered from that, except for Iceland, which had not believed in the cloud and kept paper records of everything.(Kindle location 3417)

The city’s transportation system is impressive and relies on some new ideas, but Bill Benzon thinks it probably wouldn’t work.

Immigration remains a major theme, as does the duality of capitalism and anticapitalism.  As an example of the latter, the citizen offers this glimpse of downtown as something radical:

Hegemony had drowned, so in the years after the flooding there was a proliferation of cooperatives, neighborhood associations, communes, squats, barter, alternative currencies, gift economies, solar usufruct, fishing village cultures, mondragons, unions, Davy’s locker freemasonries, anarchist blather, and submarine technoculture, including aeration and aquafarming. Also sky living in skyvillages that used the drowned cities as mooring towers and festival exchange points; containerclippers and townships as floating islands; art-not-work, the city regarded as a giant collaborative artwork; blue greens, amphibiguity, heterogeneticity, horizontalization, deoligarchification; also free open universities, free trade schools, and free art schools. Not uncommonly all of these experiments were being pursued in the very same building. (Kindle location 3240)


  1. What kind of novel is this, without a clear protagonist?  Babette Kraft suggests that NYC is the protagonist.
  2. Bill Benzon thinks the book is ultimately a heist story.  Do you agree?
  3. What does the opening frame of sunk costs tell us by this point of the book?
  4. The citizen describes a vast social experiment going on downtown (“a proliferation of cooperatives, neighborhood associations, communes, squats, barter…”).  Does this seem like the novel’s politics?
  5. Do the characters and plots work for you, or is the novel at this point what one critic and sf writer thought: “2140 is a textbook rather than a science-fictional possibility”?  Related: is there a villain in the story?  (sf writer Adam Roberts doesn’t think so.)
  6. What do you make of this observation from the citizen?  “History is humankind trying to get a grip. Obviously not easy. But it could go better if you would pay a little more attention to certain details, like for instance your planet.” (2297)
  7. Is the novel more about the 2008 financial crisis than about the year 2140, as one reader argues?

What do you think?  Let us know in comments below.  Or share your thoughts on your own blogs, Twitter, or wherever you like.  I’ll harvest everything I can find with each week’s starting post – and ping me if you want to make sure I catch you.

If you feel a bit under water at this point (sorry, couldn’t resist), take a breath.  Remember, all blog posts for this reading are organized under a single tag, NewYork2140, so all of that content is available in one spot.  That includes the full story of this reading, along with our guide and process.

Coming up:

August 6 – Part Five. Escalation of Commitment; Part Six. Assisted Migration

August 13 – Part Seven. The More the Merrier; Part Eight. The Comedy of the Commons

August 20 – leftover and concluding thoughts.  This may include reactions to the 2018 Hugo award, scheduled to be given August 19th.

*Please use that link if you want to order a copy of the book.  We get a small benefit from each purchase.

(thanks to Beyond My Ken for the Met photo and to our splendid discussants)

Posted in book club | Tagged | 28 Comments

Americans sour on higher education’s future: new Pew survey

What do Americans think about higher education and its future?

PewResearch_logoI’ve been answering this question for years, and so it’s good to get new information. A new Pew study by Anna Brown just appeared, and the results are both intriguing and worrisome.  Among other things, some generational divides are widening.

Let me identify several key details.

First, a clear majority of Americans – 61% – think that “the higher education system in the U.S. is generally going in the… [w]rong direction.”  Only 38% – about one third of us – think academia is headed in the right direction.  (Just 2% had no opinion.) So a solid majority (a landslide, if this were an election) thinks American higher ed is in trouble.

That’s a hugely important datum for those of us in and around post-secondary education.  Bear this majority view in mind when we argue for, say, getting state governments to return to older levels of public university support.

Moreover, the party politics of the survey results are very interesting.   Republicans are really unhappy, with 73% seeing higher ed headed in the wrong direction, and only 26% deeming things to be rosy:


But Democrats aren’t that happy either.  They are split almost evenly, with a statistical majority joining the GOP.  Put another way, Dems can’t muster a majority to be optimistic about higher education’s future.  So yes, a partisan divide does exist over higher education, but at the same time there’s something like bipartisan agreement that higher ed is going astray.

Second, the specific reasons people cite (or select, from a menu) for why American higher ed is in trouble are very interesting.  The polled people had four options to choose from:

  • Tuition costs are too high
  • Professors are bringing their political and social views into the classroom
  • Colleges and universities are too concerned about protecting students from views they might find offensive
  • Students are not getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace

Identifying responses by party leads to a similar pattern as above: some near agreement (on tuition being too high) and some stark divergence (re: the two political points):


This seems pretty predictable and unsurprising.  High (published) tuition is generally unpopular and the GOP tends to see universities as filled with vile progressives of various stripes, while some Democrats actually approve of said faculty.The workplace skills explanation lies somewhere in between partisan and bi-, with members of both parties expressing concern, but the Republicans more so than their opponents.

Now, if we break down answers by age, we get a third and perhaps most significant set of responses:


Note how older folks (65 and over) are less likely to be concerned about tuition than younger people (Gens X, Millennial, and Z), quite possibly because of very different life experiences.  Note, too, the near-uniformity over college preparing grads badly for the workplace.  I’m not sure why this is less of a concern for people aged 18-34.

The political questions show the greatest variation.  Apparently the older an American is, the more likely they are to be worried that academia is a political problem.  This connects well with the age of Trump voters, who trended older.  The spread of views over professors bringing their politics into pedagogy is especially strong, with just over half of under-35s thinking this the case, while nearly every single senior (96%!) sees this as a key problem.

What can we deduce from this one survey?

Possibly we’ll see Democratic and especially Republican politicians go after higher ed in the pursuit of votes and donations.  We could expect more bills that restrict faculty members’ political rights, for example, or more cuts to state funding.

We could also see bipartisan drives for something around workforce development.  This could take place from federal policy down to local pressure on community colleges to switch up curricula.

In the medium and longer term, if these beliefs hold steady, we’ll see a shift to a nation where the majority accepts (or expects) professors to be political while often shielding their students from challenging views.

(via Inside Higher Ed)

Posted in higher education, politics | 2 Comments

New York 2140: part one

This week begins our online book club‘s reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.*  We’re starting off with the first two parts, “The Tyranny of Sunk Costs” and “Expert Overconfidence.”  Please join us in reading!

(If you’d like more information on the reading plan and schedule, click here. For all posts on this reading, click here.)

In this post I’ll offer a summary of the plot so far, followed by observations and questions for reading.

But first, let me pull together commentary and links from readers so far.  Yes, people have been excited about this novel.

On the web: one political scientist published a Chronicle of Higher Education column arguing for academics to become climate change activists.  A new report appeared arguing that major chunks of the North American internet will be endangered by rising sea levels within a generation.

On Twitter some criticism of the novel appeared. D’Arcy Norman found the book too detail-drenched.

Chris Lott saw it as too thin in terms of plot and character.  Jason Green found the novel involving a lot of worldbuilding.


MetLife before the Pulses.

Each “part” follows a swarm of characters, tracing events through their perspectives.  They include: two rogue coders/hackers (Ralph Muttchopf and Jeff Rosen, a/k/a Mutt and Jeff), police inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, financier and quant Franklin Garr (named for Ben), the repurposed MetLife building‘s superintendent Vlade Marovich, the Met’s most frequent leader and also a lawyer (Charlotte Armstrong), wildlife activist/social media star/blimp rider Amelia Black, NYC mayor Galina Estaban, and two adventurous boys, Stefan and Roberto.  We also meet “a citizen,” perhaps a stand-in for the author, more reliably a Greek chorus offering us plenty of information and commentary.

Right off the bat, just a few pages in, Mutt and Jeff launch a cyberattack on the global economy, then go missing, triggering local responses.  Amelia Black flies into town then tries to relocate polar bears.  Someone wants to buy the Met co-op, and not everyone likes the idea; leaks start to attack, too. Stefan and Roberto dive the Hudson for treasure, find a sunken British ship, and meet Franklin.  Franklin falls in love with another trader.  A tower collapses, and Franklin conducts a second rescue.

Worldbuilding happens quickly.  We get immersed in the future city’s daily life through detailed travel above and across it, along with stories about how people live in it and the many ways of fighting off water.  Between our present and the novel’s time two “Pulses” occurred, huge superstorms that swamped New York and the United States government resettled to Denver, Colorado.


I’ve been enjoying the novel’s sense of humor.  It begins with a comic back and forth, then continues by adding sarcastic asides, like this:

Efficiency, n. The speed and frictionlessness with which money moves from the poor to the rich. (Kindle location 1036)

Our opening characters are references to a classic American comic strip.

There are, in fact, many references being hurled in all directions.  The programmer Ken Thompson gets name-checked, as does Pluto the animated dog, “pynchonpoetry” (for the author Thomas Pynchon, Kindle location 1106), and more.

Robinson follows the classic science fiction practice of inventing new words or repuporsing old ones to show (in Eric Rabkin‘s phrase) a transformed world through transformed language.  Once you start looking for these, you’ll see them:

  • hotello (cheap, small hotel space: “rooms that could be packed into a suitcase. They were often deployed inside other buildings, being not very sturdy,” Kindle location 281)
  • wetbits (digital currency backed by… weather futures?)
  • blocknecklaces (a nice pun, I think, referring to blockchain and city block)
  • superscrapers
  • intertidal aeration (rising real estate prices)
  • wet equity (like sweat equity)
  • waterbarn (for storing boats)
  • “The greatest generation” now refers not to the Americans who lived through the Great Depression and WWII, but to those who kept NYC from destruction (1389).

Technology has advanced in some ways, although not so rapidly as it did in, say, the 20th century.  There are new building materials (graphenated composites) leading to new construction, more ubiquitous mobile devices, spoken word interfaces.

Immigration is a key theme so far.  Note how many of the characters, small and important, have recently come from other nations.  Immigration controls seem tight (1255).

Capitalism and anticapitalism are also major, coupled themes.


  1. The novel’s first line invokes the connections between computer software and real life: “Whoever writes the code creates the value.”   What is your sense of that connection so far?
  2. Education: what do you make of the boys’ adventure, combining archival work, community resources, and epic diving?
  3. New York 2140 is a social novel, using multiple and diverse characters to represent an entire society.  What does this approach tell us so far?  What would you like to learn more about?
  4. What ideas and practices are sunk costs?
  5. Taking this sprawling, buzzing mass together… where do you think it’s headed?

Two personal notes.  First, I have read the novel before, and did not find the detail to be too much.  Possibly that’s due to what I saw as a crackling energy racing through the book.  I read Mutt and Jeff’s exchange as rapid fire.  The citizen’s monologues seem to run down the pages, like a manic New Yorker in the proverbial hurry.  I could hear Inspector Gen’s rooftop directions in the voice of a local.

Which brings me to my second note.  I was born in New York and grew up there.  I never sounded like it (I was very shy as a kid, and watched a lot of tv), but absorbed many attitudes.  I talked more quickly than other people and was more politically engaged, if I can risk some stereotypes.  I also had a darker view of human nature – that’s due to the experience of 1970s New York.  So this novel speaks well to me.

What do you think?  Let us know in comments below.  Or share your thoughts on your own blogs, Twitter, or wherever you like.  I’ll harvest everything I can find with each week’s starting post – and ping me if you want to make sure I catch you.

If you feel a bit swamped (sorry, couldn’t resist), take a breath.  Remember, all blog posts for this reading are organized under a single tag, NewYork2140, so all of that content is available in one spot.  That includes the full story of this reading, along with our guide and process.

Coming up:

July 30 – Part Three. Liquidity Trap; Part Four. Expensive or Priceless?

August 6 – Part Five. Escalation of Commitment; Part Six. Assisted Migration

August 13 – Part Seven. The More the Merrier; Part Eight. The Comedy of the Commons

August 20 – leftover and concluding thoughts.  This may include reactions to the 2018 Hugo award, scheduled to be given August 19th.

*Please use that link if you want to order a copy of the book.  We get a small benefit from each purchase.

(thanks to Phil Long, Tom Haymes, and Tim Lance for links and thoughts)

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