Technological advancement: one unusual case study

I wanted to share a quick book review I just wrote over on Goodreads, and for three hopefully relevant reasons.

Not, not because The Red Rockets’ Glare is the second-best book title of the 21st century.

First, because the book argues for a particular model of technological development that we rarely discuss.  That may have some interest or application to the present, as we seek to apprehend where the digital world is heading.  It involves the interplay between central authorities and distributed enthusiasts, plus some other stuff (read on).

Second, because the geographical focus is on Russia and the former Soviet Union, and I’m curious about how that plays out in 2017.  My personal take is unusual (see below), so I can’t generalize much from that perspective.  Instead, I wonder what it means to consider a developmental model based on a country whose leadership intervened to some degree in the United States election in 2016.  Will people opposed to Putin think it inappropriate to consider this model?  Will Putin’s fans embrace it?  At a related level, what is the cultural standing of the USSR in a post-Soviet 21st century?

Third, because this is about space exploration, and the United States has in many ways withdrawn from its Cold War glory days.  We rarely discuss space travel these days, and are, I think, more prone to viewing it as a nostalgia-drenched icon or Ballardian dreaming rather than a present activity or a future-oriented concept.  There are exceptions – Elon Musk, China’s taikonauts – but we’re fallen far away from the 1970s idea that lunar travel was commonplace.

So read on and reflect on the long, long road to a quiet beeping noise…


How did Sputnik come about? What led the Soviet Union to take the world lead in the space race? Was there a pre-Soviet pro-cosmic Russian culture?

Before I say more, it’s time to confess that I came to The Red Rockets’ Glare from an unusual background. Like some, I’m a lifelong space exploration fiend, which predisposes me towards any book about the history of Russian and Soviet rocketry. Alongside that, I have a lifelong interest in Russian culture and history, marked by odd features like an undergrad stint doing Soviet studies, plus having a Russian heritage (mother was an immigrant from what it today Byelorus). So that, too, draws me closer to The Red Rockets’ Glare. I am either the ideal audience or just too nerdy for sanity.

Asif Siddiqi traces the prehistory of Sputnik’s 1957 launch. To do so he has to explore some very odd and divergent territory. And he has to make a case for the power of starry-eyed fandom to work in tandem with terrifying bureaucracies.

He begins with the astonishing figure of Konstantin Tsiolkovskii (1857-1935), a rural school teacher who, in the late 1800, invented on his own many of the ideas for 20th century spaceflight, from multi-state rockets to airlocks, space stations, and even the space elevator. Tsiolkovskii is a kind of mystery figure for the history of space, and Siddiqi takes care to show just how he attained prophetic status in the Soviet Union.

Tsiolkovskii won little attention from the tsarist scientific establishment, but inspired a great deal of fans, sparking a generation of space enthusiasts going into the Russian Revolution. Space enthusiasts are a special theme in The Red Rockets’ Glare, as they sought to advance their field on their own, often with few resources other than wide networks of mutual interest and support (56).

That enthusiasm led in two complementary directions. On the one hand, fans did the hard math and scientific work of figuring out how to make rockets work. On the other, they created a kind of Russian space mysticism, or Cosmism. The latter saw human and universal destiny in the stars, and reached stellar heights of imagination. For example, Nikolai Fyodorov prophesied a future where humans would spread throughout interstellar space in order to accumulate bits of the dead, in order to resurrect the human race.

…using all of the resources at its disposal, including science and technology, humanity should engage in a quest to reassemble the corporeal particles lost in the “disintegration” of human death…. Fyodorov believed that there would be no birth and no death, only the progressive reanimation of the deceased millions from history. (79-81)

This vision inspired a stray political-space group, the Anarchist-Biocosmists, who “briefly published a journal… under the banner ‘Immortalism and Interplanetarianism.'” (107)

In a very different but similarly inspired way, after the Revolution Viktor Khlebnikov

called on all Soviet artists to “create a common graphic language, common to all the peoples of the third satellite of the sun, to devise graphic signs intelligible and acceptable throughout this inhabited star lost in space.” (97)

And so on. Cosmism would go on to become a kind of subterranean Soviet meme, which would at times appear to power that nation’s more lyrical bursts of space travel. It also inspired practical work. Siddiqi shares a funny scene when a leading general visits a low-budget but energetic rocket lab in the 1930s, checking on the development of a new and very basic engine. One of the team “described his ORD-2 engine to the marshal but to everyone’s alarm could not resist digressing into a discussion on flights to Mars, to which Tukhachevskii responded with polite interest.” (141) . This gets funnier, or at least more absurd, when you remember than this was not only before Sputnik, but before the V-2, when Robert Goddard was hand-making little rockets and getting laughed at for his dreams.

Sputnik stamp

Yet Siddiqi’s book is not all about space fandom. He positions that movement alongside the Russian, then the Soviet government’s powerful and fearsome state apparatus, such as that important military leader in the previous example. At times the fans nudged the state into sharing precious resources. That’s a new way of understanding the great designer of the USSR’s initial space efforts, Sergei Korolev: energetic, practical, visionary, a political survivor, and dead at far too young an age. Korolev was skilled at uniting starry-eyed space enthusiasts with the Soviet military and scientific establishments.

At other times, the enthusiasts lost badly. The two worlds collide in heartbreaking passages when very geeky rocket scientists, caught up in Stalin’s great terror of the 1930s, turn on each other, using police denunciation and speedy executions to attempt to settle matters of engineering (173ff). Korolev himself spent awful years in the Gulag. Soviet space dreams were broken badly at this time, and only recovered with the pillaging of Nazi Germany’s rocket projects in 1945-1946.

At that precise point The Red Rockets’ Glare makes a subtle yet vital distinction. As victorious Soviet armies swarmed over the Third Reich’s ruins and political agents followed to set up what would become the Warsaw Pact, few were interested in what the Nazis had accomplished with rockets. Instead, it was a distributed network of rocket-interested individuals – fans, again – who discovered German scientists and machinery, then urged the state to pay attention to this windfall (196ff). Eventually, gradually, some military leaders caught on, and helped set up a very thin space research effort. I say “very thin” because Moscow had other priorities, such as atomic energy (both for war and peace), rebuilding a devastated economy, and scrambling to build an air force capable of global reach. Yet the space geeks made progress, building up bigger and better rockets, winning support from a cautious government, until in 1957 they cracked world history wide open with a tiny satellite riding a huge ICBM.

There are important lessons to be learned from this history. Siddiqi calls his approach “history from below”, and it’s a powerful reminder to historians and observers to not devote all of our attention to the actions of giant states. In his conclusion he offers a powerful contrasting vision, well worth quoting in full:

The prehistory of Sputnik contrasts strikingly with the other major post-[WWII] project of Soviet science, the development of the atomic bomb, which grew out of the interests of a community of physicists operating in elite academic, industrial, and educational institutions in the 1930s. The project of spaceflight, on the other hand, grew out of the musings of a half-deaf, lone autodictat in rural Russia, the work of amateur societies, and the handiwork of men and women who built rocket engines out of broken blowtorches in factory workshops. (364)

Let me take a step back in my recommendation. This is more of a scholarly monograph than narrative history, although the chapter about Sputnik’s completion and launch is gripping. Most of the book is an incredibly detailed analysis of Russian and Soviet organizational minutiae, from rocketry fan clubs to artillery unit politics, popular science magazine numbers, duelling rocket fuel paradigms, and multiple levels of bureaucratic hell within Stalinist terror. In other words, the reader is advised to get some background on events prior to basking in The Red Rockets’ Glare.


So what do you think of my questions, way up above?  Is this an interesting model for technological development?  Is this something we can consider, or will political issues alter our approach?  And how do we think of space travel in 2017, looking ahead?

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When Silicon Valley turns on itself

In case you haven’t seen it, this Paul Lewis article in the Guardian has attracted a lot of attention.  The theme of “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia” concerns some Silicon Valley technologists who are now worried about negative impacts from what they’ve helped to create.  Social media platforms maintained by the tech giants (Facebook, to a lesser extent Twitter) accessed through mobile devices (Apple, Google Android) come in for criticism.

It’s a curious piece.  For people who haven’t been following this topic it is, I think, a useful primer.  “‘Our minds can be hijacked'” touches on continuous partial attention, addictive design, dopamine, advertising-based business models, etc.  There’s even the classic nod to Huxley over Orwell (wasn’t this Neil Postman’s insight?).  We can share this article with people to start discussions.  It might be good in classes.

But if we look a little deeper, things get more interesting.  What Lewis is describing is not a popular revolt against Silicon Valley, or a campaign to reform it conducted by outsiders and critics.  Instead the article outlines a clash entirely within the tech world, a struggle limited solely to wealthy and sometimes powerful Valley actors.  The story isn’t about unfolding unrest, but a much smaller tale, about an incipient civil war within the elite.

The article is at its heart a portrait gallery, character studies of certain digital “designers, engineers and product managers”.  These portraits are studded with clear signs of privilege.  Lewis observes that “many of these younger technologists are… sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned”, and the term “elite” reverberates from the article in ways it wouldn’t from a US publication.

Early on, there’s a fascinating little detail:

Justin Rosenstein… [a]  34-year-old tech executive … purchased a new iPhone and instructed his assistant to set up a parental-control feature to prevent him from downloading any apps.

He couldn’t manage that little software setting on his own, but needed an assistant to do it for him.  Quite an arrangement for a supremely skilled member of the digital elite.

Better yet, consider this odd passage:

[Tristan] Harris is the student who went rogue; a whistleblower of sorts, he is lifting the curtain on the vast powers accumulated by technology companies and the ways they are using that influence. “A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today,” he said at a recent TED talk in Vancouver.

So Harris has gone “rogue” so much that… he has a TED talk?  Short of appearing at Davos, this is the opposite of rogue.  It is instead simultaneously mainstream and elitist.  Naturally Harris has the cultural capital to be “meeting lawmakers.”

Similarly, we read about “Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who benefited from [i.e., had grown very rich through] hugely profitable investments in Google and Facebook”.

McNamee, 61, is more than an arms-length money man. Once an adviser to Mark Zuckerberg, 10 years ago McNamee introduced the Facebook CEO to his friend, Sheryl Sandberg, then a Google executive who had overseen the company’s advertising efforts…

These are the rebels.  Generally, all of those insiders are men.  And a clear majority if not the totality are white, as far as I can tell.

For example.

In short, “‘Our minds can be hijacked'” is a story of insiders, a small world conflict.  That explains why it doesn’t cite any academic critics or the popular writers who have written and advised us on this, from Cathy O’Neil to Howard Rheingold.*  That’s why the subject appears in nearly clinical isolation – for example, there’s no reference at all to computer gaming, a vast business, and which is surely central to any digital attention and economics discussion.  Similarly, Lewis never mentions other ad-driven businesses, even when they overlap with and participate in the digital world, such as television.  Those connections, fascinating and illuminating at they can be, are not the point of this particular account.

Bearing this in mind, we can now better understand a key claim of the article’s conclusion, that increased government regulation is likely.   This is an important point.  The American Congress is already clearly, deeply beholden to the very wealthy and connected, as scholarship and, well, reality have amply demonstrated.  A movement within that sphere of privilege has a better chance of succeeding that one driven by popular dismay or, worse, academic analysis.  Looking ahead to the short- and medium-term future of technology, we should keep an eye on this insider development.  Remember the phrase “meeting lawmakers.”

The location of this development helps explain one particular contour or limitation of its politics.  The technology giants invoked – Facebook, Apple, Google – are spectacular creations of the market economy.  One could number them among the greatest titans of neoliberalism, if one allowed that vexed term.  Perhaps because the Guardian is a British enterprise at heart, even when turning its attention to America, it can actually raise the possibility of radical left wing politics in this discussion:

“’It is not inherently evil to bring people back to your product,’ [Chris Marcellino, former Apple iPhone engineer] says. ‘It’s capitalism.’ That, perhaps, is the problem.”

Perhaps capitalism itself is the problem?  What a powerful claim in 2017!

That politics, alas, drops from the rest of the article.  Again, the piece is about politics within the elite, not about possible critiques or movements against its existence and justification.

Perhaps beyond that privileged social stratum, down among the hoi polloi, we’ll see left-wing anticapitalism and popular loathing of the big tech giants intersect.  We’ve had hints of this before.  They could be signs of a new politics – and one very different from the kind that requires wealthy and powerful people to profitably mull their mistakes.

*There is one exception, an “ex-Google strategist” who’s now “on the cusp of completing a PhD at Oxford University exploring the ethics of persuasive design.”  I don’t know if this Williams will have the ability to exert influence from whichever perch he goes on to occupy, post-doctorate.  But we do get a sense of his politics when he dismisses Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn as candidates empowered by “emotional” dynamics, rather than, say, left political conviction.  I guess the problem isn’t capitalism after all, eh?

Posted in technology, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Two powerful futures from Kim Stanley Robinson

Scenarios are useful ways to imagine possible futures.  Recently novelist Kim Stanley Robinson offered two powerful and starkly different scenarios which are both remarkably accessible and enormous in scope.  This happened on the Radio Open Source podcast, which I recommend in general.

Ten minutes into a conversation about global warming and the author’s latest novel, New York 2140, host Christopher Lydon asks Robinson, “Can you share your vision of two endings…?”  He means endings for the present environmental, political, and social crises.

The writer responds: “I mean, there’s the simple utopia, dystopia [pairing]”.  Allow me to transcribe and annotate lightly:

The utopia is that we actually get a grip and create a sustainable civilization that’s in balance with the planet. And that means that fully 8 billion humans could live at adequacy and very happily, with all the rest of the biosphere including all the rest of the big mammals.

And there would be, you know, E.O. Wilson’s half Earth idea that a lot of land be left to the animals, while the humans congregate in the cities.  And clean tech, social justice, women’s rights (which actually stabilizes population very quickly), and then a post-capitalist system that regulates all this and makes it work.  That’s the utopian possibility that is quite possible in terms of physics.

Got it?  Readers might recognize glimpses of this in some of Robison’s earlier fiction.  Against this comes its extreme opposite:

Then the bad one is simply a mass extinction event, where  we kill off all the large mammals except for our own domestic beasts, and we ourselves are hammered, agriculture goes south, the oceans go south.  The first food crisis –  world culture will be so stressed, that it will become a fight of all against all.  Probably it will be so bad that you only get a few decades of absurd badness followed by a post-traumatic attempt to recover.  And also: you can’t come back from extinctions.  That’s the dystopia. Mass extinction event.

Listen to the podcast to make out the speaker’s barely suppressed rage.

Taken together the two visions constitute a powerful dyad, and I think it’d make for a good discussion and thought prompt.

Yet Robinson doesn’t stop there.  Usually opposed scenarios lead us to consider the most likely future to be a blend of the two in some way, or a path that winds between the two.  Not here:

But these are extremes… The middle, where you sort of think it’ll be halfway between these two – that doesn’t work.  It falls off… sharply, one direction or the other.  There isn’t a middle zone anymore.  Because if we stumble along like we are now, we’re gonna tilt off into dystopia. If we fix things we’ll slide off into utopia.  We have come to a bad moment, where we have to change.

That’s a huge, huge claim about our present and our short- and medium-term futures.  I think it would also make for a fine discussing and thinking prompt.

Is Kim Stanley Robinson right about our choices?

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Reading _Weapons of Math Destruction_: the plan

Our new book club reading is Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction. In this post I’ll lay out a reading agenda, along with ways to participate.

ONeil_Weapons of Math Destruction pb cover

Brand new copy, straight from the local bookstore.

The way people read along in this book club is through the web, essentially. It’s a distributed experience.

It works like so. On this blog I post an agenda (see below), which is designed to be comfortable for busy people to follow without being so slow as to lose momentum.  People read along as they can.  Starting with the first chapter, I post notes and questions every week as we work through the book.  Every post, including this one, is tagged “mathdestruction“.  I’ll keep these posts up, along with their attached comments, so readers can refer back to them in the future.

Some folks prefer to participate by commenting on those posts, which is great. Others write up thoughts on their own blogs, which I link to. My blog posts also appear on LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, and Facebook, where other responses appear. Still other readers create other responses, from Google Docs to bots (yes, really) to remixed visuals.  I’m waiting to see YouTube responses and to hear podcasts.

If you would like to see examples of the book club in action, head to the book club home page and check some of the past readings.  Perhaps the most spectacular example is the We Make the Road By Walking reading.


I’m writing this on Friday, October 6th.  Let’s give people a little more than a week to grab copies.  And then we can start:

October 16, 2017: introduction and chapter 1, “Bomb Parts: What is a Model?”

October 23: chapter 2, “Shell Shocked: My Journey of Disillusionment”, and chapter 3, “Arms Race: Going to College”

October 30: chapter 4, “Propaganda Machine: Online Advertising”, and chapter 5, “Civilian Casualties: Justice in the Age of Big Data”

November 6: chapter 6, “Ineligible to Serve: Getting a Job”, and chapter 7, “Sweating Bullets: On the Job”

November 13: chapter 8, “Collateral Damage: Landing Credit”, and chapter 9, “No Safe Zone: Getting Insurance”

November 20: chapter 10,  “The Targeted Citizen: Civic Life”,  the conclusion, and the afterward (apparently new for the paperback edition)

How does that sound?

If the book and schedule work for you, join us as we read Weapons of Math Destruction!

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What we’re reading next

Last week I asked you to help choose our online book club’s next reading.  Sixty-seven votes later, we have a clear winner.

I’m happy to announce the book will be (drum roll, please)… Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction!

Weapons of Math Destruction, cover

This is a hugely important book about data, data analytics, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.

Tomorrow I’ll announce a reading schedule and share some more information.  In the mean time, you can start finding the book at your local library, or from its official site, or via Amazon.

The poll was pretty interesting.  O’Neil’s book clearly distanced itself from the pack.

In the second tier were, with 5-6 votes apiece: Chris Newfield, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them; Rajiv Jhangiani, Robert Biswas-Diener, Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science; Strauss and Howe, The Fourth Turning.  Right behind them were Peter Frase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism; Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race between Education and Technology; Jeff Selingo, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students; Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.  People seem very interested in education, technology, and politics.

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Another university to close

A small university in Nebraska will close, in yet another story about the American higher education crisis.

Grace University describes itself as “a premier Private Christian University in Omaha, Nebraska.”  The institutional website carries the official announcement:

Grace University will cease all academic operations at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year… We are confident that the decision was necessary at this time to ensure, to the extent possible, the successful completion of the current year and to provide sufficient time for the necessary transition planning for all those affected by the closure.

The human cost is immediate.  There are the students whose studies and careers are now skewed.  As for faculty and administration,

About 20 full-time faculty members, nearly 60 adjuncts and almost 40 staff members work for the university. No severance plan is in place at this time. Any severance will depend on how much cash is available at the end of the fiscal year…

Why did this happen?  Declining enrollment, as my loyal readers doubtless expect to learn.  From the announcement: “The economic difficulties Grace has encountered over the past several years were due mainly to declining enrollment while initiatives to grow enrollment were unsuccessful.”

Because they received the majority of their revenue from tuition.  Remember, “tuition-dependent” describes the supermajority of American colleges and universities.

From the Inside Higher Ed article:

Grace had been running substantial deficits in recent years. During the fiscal year ending in June 2015, it lost nearly $2.1 million on revenue of $11.4 million, according to its most recent publicly available federal tax form. The previous year, it lost almost $1.1 million on revenue of $12.3 million. In June 2016 it attempted to close deficits by slashing salaries by 10 percent while increasing tuition by 7 percent, cutting some scholarships for students and eliminating the baseball and softball teams.

Note the curricular aspect:

The market of prospective Grace students is declining, Bauhard said. The university’s strongest programs include teacher education and psychology but not many of the programs currently most in demand with students.

“We have no science, technology, engineering or math,” Bauhard said. “That, again, was a factor in why students would tell us they were not coming here.”

How many campus leaders will interpret this as a cautionary tale about what can befall a college that doesn’t make major curricular changes? or neglect STEM?

How many others will see the Grace story as being about scale?  Perhaps America can no longer support so many small campuses.

Read the rest of Rick Seltzer’s thoughtful article for even more grim details, including the steps taken over recent years, and strategic options considered.

(via Scott Robison)

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Taking my son to college

Last month we took our son to college.  Well, “to university”, as the Brits say, since it’s the University of Vermont.

It was, and still is, a very strange experience.

Bryan and Owain

Dropping him at his new home.

One reason Owain choose UVM is because he really wanted to live in a city. He loves technology and industry, and prefers to be immersed in evidence of the classic model of progress, of construction and growth – i.e., not in a small town.

Now, Burlington isn’t a big city.  In fact, Wikipedia notes that “It is the least populous city in the U.S. to be the most populous city in a state.”  But it’s a world apart from the town where he’s spent the past decade, with our lack of a single stoplight and our population not even reaching 600 on a crowded day.  Moving to Burlington is definitely a major geographical and lifestyle change for him.

Hence Owain’s first tweet in his new life:

(Note that this is one way we communicate, here in an odd pocket of the 21st century.  He uses his mobile phone to capture a photo, feeds it into Twitter, and adds a caption.  I see this in my Tweetdeck column labeled “Family”.  Owain also pings me through GChat on his laptop, relishing a stable and fast broadband connection, and occasionally asks me to eyeball some writing in Google Docs.  We do use email (both Gmail) as well.  He never uses a phone for voice communication, being a late Millennial/early Gen Zer.  There’s no texting between us, since there’s no cell reception within 30 minutes of my house, unless I’m in Burlington.)

So already he’s getting new technology, machines, buildings, construction, and excitement!  Just what the lad ordered.

Does this make me feel sad for choosing a hyper-rural lifestyle for him to grow up in?  Did we do wrong by raising both he and his elder sister in the countryside?  This gnaws at me.  As a futurist, I know the trends about cities (growing) and rural areas (dwindling).  Did we… deskill our children, by forcing them into an antiquated, retrograde period of their lives when the rest of the planet is moving full speed in the other direction?

I wonder.  Maybe we’ve instilled in them a love for the green and the wild.  Perhaps some rural habits and tastes will return later in their lives.  As children I know Gwynneth and Owain romped in the woods and along the mountainside.  They played in blizzards and build forts out of snow and birch all over the homestead.  Perhaps over time they will, as C.S. Lewis observed in his dedication to the first Narnia novel, “be old enough to start reading fairy tales again”.

Do you know this passage?  It’s amazing, and I can’t read it without tearing up:

“My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather”

Yeah, I can’t think of my son at nineteen (19!) without also seeing him much younger.  The future and the past cram into the parallaxed present, and it’s the changing weather, or C.S. Lewis, making my eyes mist over.

But all of that’s not now.  Not yet.  Now Owain’s taking classes, getting to know a roommate, exploring a campus and city on foot, learning how to get gluten-free food from which sources, figuring out the university’s wellness regime, and getting his moorings in a new world.  This is what being a traditional-age, first-year student at a residential campus should be.

I so, so badly want to help him.  Too much, really.  My job, my career is about higher education.  As Owain works his way through the university’s toils all of my professional attention is activated.  I want to engage his professors and examine their assignments.  I can see how the general discussions around student life are bodied forth in his hall’s RA and the dorm’s programs.  The library’s staff and services leap to my mind, as does the general campus organization and philosophy.  I read about UVM scientists making discoveries, and want to drag Owain to their labs.  I want to talk policy with the registration staff and financial aid offices.  I want to sit down with the IT staff and discuss tech support, LMS structure, their pedagogical thinking, their approach to maker spaces, and….

And I can’t.  It’s Owain‘s time, not mine.

So I haul my professional self away from the city and retreat back home, back to the autumnal trees and winter-dreading animals.  But I still follow my son on Twitter, and only sometimes blink away moisture from my eyes.


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