FOIAs and the rest of life, now with executive function

Note: In 2021, I’m blogging once a week, typically on Saturdays. This is entry 23 of 52. I’m a day late, so we’ll pretend this entry came out on the 12th and is thus part of Week 23 (which by my count technically ended Saturday).

Note: I edited a bit of last week’s post, correcting something in the news blast about twitter censorship in Nigeria. Readers of last week’s post might consider looking at that fix.

The image shows an excerpt of the FBI's reply to my Freedom of Information Act request seeking anything they have about Philip K. Dick. To summarize, the excerpt looks a little like a typewritten document, and says Dear Mr. Lucas, we were unable to identify main file records ... pertaining to your request, yadda yadda.
In an interview, the late science fiction author Philip K. Dick says he obtained his FBI file via a Freedom of Information Act request. But I’ve never been able to get anything about PKD by sending FOIA requests to the FBI. I did ask the bureau to search far more than just their main files. To no avail.

This past week I’ve been catching up on my open records requests. At MuckRock, a service for filing such inquiries online, I have 169 requests in various phases: some completed, others ongoing, and still more with different statuses. Adding the requests I’ve lodged over the years without using MuckRock, for instance by emailing agencies directly, I estimate I’ve filed something like 200 open records requests in my life. That’s a lot to keep track of!

Open records requests encompass many moving parts and nitpicky details. For instance, on the federal level in the United States, there’s the Freedom Of Information Act legislation (initially enacted into law in 1966), which has resulted in any and all open records requests being called “FOIAs” as shorthand, even though if you’re lodging such an inquiry with, say, the Fort Worth Police Department, on the local level within the state of Texas, it’s not a FOIA but rather, in the lingo of those particular local cops, a public records request, or a public information request, or an open records request. But what to call these formal inquiries the public can make is just the first confusion individuals typically run into. Other complexities involve how to actually word the requests, which specific documents to seek, the multiple ways agencies will deny fulfillment of requests or outright lie and hide things, how to go to court over denials, and so on. Some people turn assisting others with open records requests into entire professional careers, which I suppose makes sense, since sorting through the deets involves deciphering time-consuming prolix tangles, not to mention authoritarian deceptions.

From the dark comedy movie Brazil, a 1.5-minute scene where bureaucrats physically battle paperwork

A specific trouble I’ve run into with my requests is undertaking the appeals process. If an agency denies a request, or claims they don’t have any responsive records for it (i.e., you requested x, but the agency says they don’t have any documents regarding x, and you don’t believe them), then if you want to pursue the matter, your next step, especially on the federal level in the United States, is to file a appeal — not a lawsuit, yet. Not all laws, not all jurisdictions allow for an appeals process. But if they do, it’s recommended you appeal the request for which the agency’s response has left you dissatisfied. An agency’s response you don’t like is called an “adverse determination.” For instance, if the Bureau of Prisons’ replies to your request constitute an adverse determination (and delaying fulfillment of a request for years, a frequent tactic of federal agencies, can constitute an adverse determination), then you’re supposed to appeal first to the Office of Information Policy, prior to suing anybody. Both the Office of Information Policy and the Bureau of Prisons are components of the federal Department of Justice, so your appeal to other foxes guarding the same general henhouse may be unlikely to succeed, but appealing makes your later lawsuit look better. It shows you “went up the chain of command,” to make an analogy to what the system usually asks whistleblowers to do. Once the appeals process fails, you then file a lawsuit, asking the judicial branch (basic separation-of-powers theory) to step in and overrule the executive branch or legislative branch agency you’re contending with. Because this process can take years and be expensive if lawyers are required, it prevents a lot of important information from being released and entering the news cycle. Plus, from the perspective of an individual member of the public (journalist or not) pursuing this process, it’s akin to fighting a battle. Even if it’s conducted on paper, it can be emotionally trying.

Executive function to the rescue

In the first half of the last decade, when I was more known for third parties publishing my journalism (as opposed to my self-publishing it), especially my writing for WhoWhatWhy, I filed most of the open records inquiries that exist on my 169-Muckrock-requests spreadsheet — but in my whole life, I’ve yet to appeal a single one. That was the obvious next step I should have taken with filings that resulted in adverse determinations (most of them). Now I’m confronting the confusing question of whether I can appeal them at all, since some laws/policies require appeals to be filed within, say, 90 days of the adverse determination. I’ve missed many of those deadlines, and I’m currently trying to figure out if I have to start completely over with brand new filings on the same subject matters. But then, can’t the agency just say the new filing is denied because it’s identical to the past filing that was denied? Yet would that still open up a new 90-day window for an appeal? In any case, I don’t want to end up waiting years and years again between my new request and the new adverse determination. I’ll ask the MuckRock experts for help on appealing.

Music video for the awesome 1988 song “Trip at the Brain” by crossover metal band Suicidal Tendencies shows the musicians playing atop a stage that’s a huge brain

I didn’t file a single appeal back then because I was going through mental health struggles that undercut my moxie to pursue such stressful battles and to organize my work as needed. I didn’t see the connections sufficiently in those days, because the grandiosity of mania made it difficult for me to perceive that I lacked skills and that I needed to formulate humble, mundane step-by-step plans to reach goals. “Executive function” is a concept in psychology and the mental health industry that refers to a suite of abilities such as managing time, formulating step-by-step plans, multitasking, streamlining procedures, and so on. If you’re cooking, and you realize that while one hand holds the saucepan under the flowing filtered water faucet, you can use the other hand to sprinkle herbs as the water slowly fills the saucepan, thus saving time by performing two tasks at once, you’re using executive function to optimize a routine task in your life (cooking). If you just unthinkingly follow a list of instructions someone else gives you, acting mechanically, without inventing little ways to improve the procedure, or questioning if it’s worth doing in the first place, you’re using little to no executive function. When people’s mental health deteriorates, they get stuck, the thought of venturing out beyond their comfort zones provokes overwhelming anxiety (sometimes they can’t even identify that they’re anxious), and they just doomscroll twitter all day (or engage in similar addictive behavior), losing the executive function to formulate battle plans to improve their situation. One of the nice things about my recent schoolteaching experiences has been that in teaching there’s such an onslaught of workload — lesson planning, grading papers, assessing where students are and adapting lesson plans accordingly, taking attendance, sitting through largely useless staff meetings, etc. — that if teachers don’t learn how to streamline things, they’re quickly in deep shit, so the schoolteaching experiences forced me to get more comfortable with applying executive function to, like, everything. I imagine new parents must have similar experiences, when the arrival of an infant decreases their sleep and free time, yet they still must get many things done (chores, employment tasks if no parental leave, etc.) just as they did before the child showed up. It can be tough when an adult is unemployed/underemployed, or trying to create structure for themselves in self-employment, to self-impose the same sort of ruthlessly efficient executive function that an outside job like schoolteaching can impose. It’s the difference between externally imposed instructions/structures, and internally imposing them, which requires a strong and healthy mind.

In my years in Seattle so far, with some exceptions, I’ve detoured from journalism to focus primarily on mental health (including by volunteering), a topic too broad to cover in this post (but see here, here, here, here, and here for starters); what’s relevant to open records requests is the idea of creating efficient processes for staying up to date with them. If you have 200 requests, then every single day, you, or MuckRock on your behalf, and/or the agencies are sending detail-crammed messages back and forth with status updates or notifications of adverse determinations or whatever. These notifications pile up in the requester’s email inbox (and the agencies’ inboxes, sometimes resulting in grumpy public information officers sending back sternly worded replies). The requester has to keep track of all this bureaucratic, checkbox-y data, or opportunities will be missed, deadlines will pass, and so on. It can feel overwhelming.

1.5-minute scene from Brazil shows the character Tuttle, a bureaucrat turned suspected terrorist, being physically killed by so much paperwork sticking to him that he’s completely enveloped by the papers to the point they disappear him

Now my mental health is much stronger, so it’s been time to return to the nagging stacks of open records requests, and this past week I spent a lot of time figuring out how to streamline my process with spreadsheets such that each weekend, or every other weekend, I can spend just 30 to 90 minutes updating my spreadsheets tracking how my requests are going and making/executing decisions about particular requests. For instance, this week I learned how to create logical styles in Libre Calc (a free software equivalent to Microsoft’s Excel) and how to use other non-beginner features. Also, MuckRock has a helpful option, I think one they introduced pretty recently, that allows users to export all their requests in .csv format to create a spreadsheet automagically. In sum, the efficiency prevents me from falling behind, prevents unattended requests from piling up to the point it takes a whole week to catch up. If someone is going in and out of psychiatric hospitals every few months, they don’t really have the time or energy to optimize procedures in their lives and then maintain those optimized procedures regularly. Or to change the example, imagine a person with low to zero income, who’s bouncing from one problematic partner’s apartment to another problematic partner’s apartment every few months, arguments and break-ups right and left, no stability they can rely on to support them while they organize/optimize/streamline their lives. And yet, having the opportunity to use executive function well is just damn required to advance toward huge goals successfully.

Executive function, meet Alan Turing and computer programming

The image shows the yellowed first page of Turing's Computable Numbers paper, with a handwritten addition mentioning that some corrections have been made
Title page of an early copy of Turing’s “Computable Numbers” paper, the sale of which is discussed here where I found the image

This idea of executive function is not just, “Oh, somebody has a project, and they simply sketched out some ideas on a piece of paper to make their project more efficient, what’s the big deal?” — it’s actually a very powerful concept that’s core to many things, including computer science. For instance, the idea of leaving notes for yourself about where to start next time you resume a project is an important component of late mathematician Alan Turing’s 1936 paper On Computable Numbers, With An Application To The Entscheidungsproblem, in which Turing invents the very concept of computer software, and what’s now the job of programming (such as coding HTML), before computers even existed. Leaving notes for myself was something I was doing with the FOIA spreadsheets: when I was calling it quits for a day, I’d leave myself a note, such that the next morning, I could read the note saying something like “Start on row 121 of the main spreadsheet next time I work on this.” How leaving notes applies to Turing’s invention of computer software is too complicated to go into here in depth, but I can present a quotation from his paper for flavor and say that in short, Turing uses a note left as an analogy for a software code instruction, and iterations of such notes left as an analogy for a series of software code instructions linked together. Recall when reading the excerpt that in 1936, the word “computer” meant a human being who performed mathematical calculations at a desk with paper and pencil as their job, for example for the accounting department of a large business. Turing:

It is always possible for the computer to break off from his work, to go away and forget all about it, and later to come back and go on with it. If he does this he must leave a note of instructions (written in some standard form) explaining how the work is to be continued. […] We will suppose that the computer works in such a desultory manner that he never does more than one step at a sitting. The note of instructions must enable him to carry out one step and write the next note. Thus the state of progress of the computation at any stage is completely determined by the note of instructions […] the state of the system may be described […] we can construct a machine to write down the successive state formulae, and hence to compute

The black-and-white image shows Alan Turing sitting in a chair, a frontal photo
Alan Turing, circa late 1930s

The software program is the set of instructions, what Turing called an “instruction table,” and he’d even argue that to some extent, you are the sets of instructions you generate for yourself. Or rather your mind is, not so much your social selves and physical body. Well, if you have good executive function, anyway, if you’re actually generating and streamlining procedures. If you have poor executive function, you’re reduced to obeying the instructions of others, mindlessly. Look at it this way. Another example of a helpful executive function action is, if you’re about to read a book, flip ahead to see where the next section break or chapter break is, and determine if you have enough time to read to that point, before plunging in. Sounds blindingly obvious, but might not be if you’ve grown up in a narcissistic country where to admit not having a skill, to admit not knowing something, to admit weakness, is too often putting your survival (employability, relationships, etc) in jeopardy. Further, psychiatry and identitarianism incorrectly teach people that inability is usually innate, part of some invisible, unprovable identity that must never be questioned, only honored, and that such gaps of knowledge usually aren’t fixable through learning. Then people get diagnosed as being intrinsically unable to perform executive function skills, and celebrate their diagnosis anniversaries and so on, explaining to each other without providing solid evidence — the symptom of distress, even strange distress as in psychosis, isn’t proof the problem’s cause is genetic — why they’re supposedly banned from improving their executive function. Like maybe because some mental health provider said so. When instead, individuals can support one another in improving their executive function abilities and ideas.

Executive function/programming versus the spies

A world sans executive function leaves individuals adrift, easy targets for what’s called soft power/active measures/seductive coercion/etc: TLAs (Three Letter Agencies) flooding our lives with sockpuppet propaganda to such a degree that the spy agencies are writing the highest level instruction tables influencing what humanity does. See for instance the testimony of defectors from spy agencies, like KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov in the early eighties saying 85% of that agency’s emphasis was on the “slow process” of “psychological warfare”; or, see the obsession with which the US State Department surveils literary figures, revealed in the 2010-2011 massive leak of diplomatic cables; or, read about the CIA funding creative writing programs. A person shopping for a bookcase might evaluate their options at a store with a fair amount of impartiality, perhaps using a tape measure to ascertain the geometric facts. But people do not typically evaluate their options regarding systems of governance similarly, because beyond the bare minimum, the various choices aren’t much discussed in formal education or popular culture. That’s a result of the spy agencies programming what individuals are interested in, for instance, by ensuring celebrities dominate the front pages of newspapers, tabloids, televisions, social media apps, and so on. The executive function ability to change and refine how you spend your time can protect you from getting swept up in default assumptions (e.g., such as the default assumption that focusing on what entertainers have to say on podcasts is the method to be selected for evaluating current events and ideas).

But improving executive function skills enables people to steer their lives better even in a propagandized environment. It’s so helpful to create and optimize little software-like programs to direct yourself, or recipes for your own life (to put a folksy domestic spin on it), about how to manage whatever tasks, such as requesting FOIAs, so that staying on top of everything becomes realistic, practical. Time and chance happenth to us all, regardless of how good our to-do lists are, but impressive executive function betters our odds of achieving at least some of our aims, even across generations. This is attested in many quotations; I’ll present three below, the last bringing this post back to Philip K. Dick.

Your mind is programmable — if you’re not programming your mind, someone else will program it for you.

Hacktivist Jeremy Hammond

Humans are the most programmable systems on earth. We were all programmed and we can all be reprogrammed. Our programming is our governance.

Philosopher Heather Marsh

 today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups — and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener […] The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words. George Orwell made this clear in his novel 1984. But another way to control the minds of people is to control their perceptions. If you can get them to see the world as you do, they will think as you do. […] The power of spurious realities battering at us today — these deliberately manufactured fakes never penetrate to the heart of true human beings. 

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick

I’ll say more about FOIAs in future posts. But it’s worth quickly noting a limitation to them: unlike government agencies, private firms and corporations can simply ignore records requests, though documents from within them sometimes come out thanks to hacktivists, or whistleblowers, or other leaks, or lawsuits. Open records legislation does not apply to the “private property” of files within business firms. Since corporations are typically more fundamentally responsible for the state of the world than governments (to put it in a bit of an oversimplified manner), the media’s focus on FOIAs can simply distract us from corporate crimes. The astute reader might notice an apparent contradiction: above, I say spy TLAs write the highest level instruction tables manipulating humanity, but in this paragraph I say corporations are more responsible for what humanity does and doesn’t do. The resolution to the seeming contradiction is that most of the spy TLAs’ budget nowadays goes to private contractors, i.e., private spies. So to whatever extent the CIA is currently funding creative writing programs, the picture is more accurately painted like this: private spies contracting with the CIA put together everything required for the funding/creation of creative writing programs. The spies shifted from working directly as government agency staff (which they still do to a degree) to working in private businesses contracting with the TLAs, to escape accountability (including open records requests). Still, many times, government documents obtained through open records requests can be important puzzle pieces for understanding the world around us.

The colorful image is a fantasy/surreal computer-generated drawing of a beautiful landscape. Part of the grass and hillside is a book, open to the middle. Upon the watery pages grow bushes.
Artist unknown to me. A book of the world…

News blasts

I wanted to include Belarus and Ethiopia, but ran out of time. I’ll include them in my next post.

Nigeria. In October 2020, mass protests occurred throughout Nigeria’s major cities following revelations of abuses by the Nigerian police’s notorious SARS unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. These decentralized protests, which spread across Nigerian communities worldwide, were called the #EndSARS movement, at first opposing the brutality of the SARS police, and then expanding to include demands for good, accountable governance in general. It’s important to note that authorities worldwide, including special police units, cooperate across borders, so to match that strength, it’s necessary for activists to cooperate across borders as well, which activists increasingly do, not staying mentally siloed within the invisible borders of the country they were born in. See this interesting Al Jazeera article from June 2020 on that topic. Back to Nigeria. The energy and organizations spawned by the #EndSARS movement did not appreciate when, earlier this month — as discussed in my previous post’s news blasts — the Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari (a general who ruled the country in the ’80s via a military coup) started trying to shut down Twitter in Nigeria once the social media company deleted one of his tweets for terms of service violation, since his tweet threatened violence against pro-Biafra separatists. Sparked by Buhari’s twitter censorship, Nigerians planned a massive protest for June 12. In Nigeria, June 12 is Democracy Day, a public holiday marking the event in 1999 when Nigeria transitioned from military rule to an elected civilian government. The protesters’ fire has been heated by many injustices, not just the twitter censorship. Among the injustices are extreme poverty and lack of public education, and horrifyingly widespread femicide and rape of women, all hardships worsened by COVID-19. Also, the Nigerian government has failed thousands of institutionalized individuals diagnosed with mental illness and confined in the country’s state hospitals, rehabilitation centers, traditional healing centers, and both Christian and Islamic faith-based facilities. These individuals can find themselves locked up in chains or otherwise abused. There’s a nonprofit called MANI (Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative) that is led by Nigerian users of mental health services (as opposed to led by mental health providers like therapists and psychiatrists); MANI has an interesting website, and they seem at my cursory glance mostly focused on the various support services they offer, but they did tweet a few times regarding the protests (some of their tweets about Buhari’s twitter ban embedded below). I’d like to learn more about the mental health situation in Nigeria, if there’s a psychiatric survivor movement there, and so on. Back to the June 12 protests. Activists in Nigeria criticized the large numbers of kidnappings in the country by terrorists seeking ransom, the many deaths in cult clashes and communal crises, the civil rights violations, the displacement of more than 10 million Nigerians, the high unemployment rate and the rising prices of essentials, the Internet shutdowns, and more. The Nigerian protestors have been issuing three demands to the Nigerian government: 1. End the killings and insecurity; 2. End the social media shutdown immediately; 3. Convene an emergency inter-regional dialogue committee for all regions in Nigeria within a month. During the June 12 protests, cops in the Nigerian cities of Lagos and Abuja fired teargas, detained protestors, and smashed cellphones, which of course activists use to spread information online. On short notice, I was unable to find much of anything about any Nigeria-related protests in Seattle or Texas. The situation in Nigeria will likely continue to develop. For more, read this YAC.news article, the source for much of this news blast item, or watch the YAC.news 7.5-minute video on the subject embedded below (the article is the script for the video’s voice-over), and/or watch the 3-minute Al Jazeera video about the protests embedded below.

The colorful image shows protestors marching during the day in Nigeria, including one woman with a bullhorn, and many holding their hands in the air
Source: 12 Jun ’21 tweet by Emeka Akpa, a Ph.D. economics student in Nigeria who says in his tweet: “Let me tell you what the government of Nigeria is afraid of: An educated, restless, enlightened and upwardly mobile southern young person.” (My understanding is that much of the instability and secessionism in Nigeria is in the southern states.)

Uplifting items in Dallas and Bangladesh/Australia. First, the Dallas chapter of Food Not Bombs has been sharing food in the southern part of that city at #CampRhonda, a community of individuals denied housing by their wider (un)society. Camp Rhonda is named in memory of Rhonda Fenwick, who lived there for a month before dying of organ failure, according to an interesting February 2021 article by The Dallas Morning News. In mutual aid, Food Not Bombs Dallas shared meals at Camp Rhonda today despite the 100° Fahrenheit temperature, and the activists have been working on a community garden at the camp, too. The garden and today’s sharing are pictured below. For my readers in North Texas (where I’m originally from), contact information to volunteer with or donate to the chapter might be: 972-955-0849 or dallasfnb@riseup.net or frankenstein@riseup.net. That’s according to the Google Map linked by the foodnotbombs.net website. I can’t link to that portion of the Google Map directly, so I typed the contact information directly into this paragraph. I don’t know if the contact info is up to date; if it isn’t, try contacting the chapter via Twitter: @FNBDallas. And c’mon Fort Worth, get your own chapter going! Now for Bangladesh/Australia. In the past month, there have been a handful of articles about 25-year-old Rohingya Noor Kabir, who was born inside a refugee camp due to the genocide against the Rohingya. Noor Kabir grew up on strict food rations, but migrated to Australia alone at age 16, where he recently won a Brisbane bodybuilding competition called the ICN Classic. He’s currently studying to be a nutritionist, and he aims to inspire refugees, even those in bad situations as he was, to exercise and eat as healthy as possible. This article about him is really good, this one too, and he’s pictured below. Upon arrival in Australia, he spent two years in community detention (I think something Australia has been imposing on immigrants/refugees generally, not just Noor Kabir), but then was given a bridging visa and worked as a forklift driver prior to meeting a mentor who encouraged him to become a personal trainer. The bodybuilding developed from there. In the article, Noor Kabir says, “When I lived in the camps, I struggled with food — not enough food, not enough carbs, not enough drink” and continues “We lived […] seven people in a room that’d be […] 5 square metres [roughly 53 square feet]” and concludes “I lived like this for 15 years – it wasn’t a good life, so I wanted a new beginning.” Noor Kabir is believed to be the first Rohingya man to win a bodybuilding competition.

The image shows a folding table set up at a park. On the folding table is a blue water cooler with Food Not Bombs painted on it. Next to the cooler are various food items such as pickles and watermelon. In the background stand what I believe are four Food Not Bombs participants, one with camo pants, another with a Nirvana T-shirt.
Source: @FNBDallas tweet from 13 June 2021. Sharing food at #CampRhonda
The image shows folding tables in a park with food items set atop. In the background stand what I believe are two members of Food Not Bombs Dallas.
Source: @FNBDallas, same tweet and sharing as the above pic.
The colorful picture shows a community garden built on the grass of Camp Rhonda. There are food plants growing within the garden.
Source: @FNBDallas tweet from 12 May 2021. Community garden at #CampRhonda
The high contrast picture shows the upper body a man standing with his hands on his hips. A dark red curtain is in the background. The high contrast style of the picture, as well as the stark expression of the very muscular, very symmetrical man, looks almost computer-generated, but it is real.
Source: 6 June 2021 article in the Rohingya Post. Noor Kabir, first Rohingya man to win a bodybuilding competition

Creative Commons License

This blog post, FOIAs and the rest of life, now with executive function, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on a work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2021/06/13/foias-executive-function/ You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest reading this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post one on one? Email me: dal@riseup.net.

New, optional notifications for commenters … and Myanmar news blast

Note: In 2021, I’m blogging once a week, usually on Saturday. This is entry 20 of 52.

Note: Adding a little to last week’s post on math empowerment, here’s a list of online resources for learning math free of charge, the helpful r/math subreddit FAQ, and mathematician Paul Lockhart’s well-known 25-page essay, sometimes called Lockhart’s Lament, decrying how math is typically taught in schools and providing suggestions for how to teach the subject as discovery and art. He later developed his essay into a book (which I haven’t read), titled A Mathematician’s Lament. I’ll stick this note atop last week’s post as well.

The black-and-white photo shows a uniformed man atop an old-timey automobile. A woman stands behind him. They're in some sort of rural farm setting.
United States Postal Service – Rural Free Delivery vehicle in South Dakota, 1905 – from Popular Mechanics

This evening I added a feature to my blog that hopefully will improve discussions. If readers choose to leave a comment on an entry, they now have the option to receive an email whenever a new comment is added to the post by anyone. Such emails include an unsubscribe link.

My hope is that receiving notifications of new comments will encourage previous commenters to return and converse with other readers. If you subscribe in this manner, and the post to which you subscribed were suddenly to go viral and draw zillions of comments, flooding your inbox, you can just unsubscribe. Further, all notification emails include [DouglasLucas.com Blog] in the subject line, so you can set up filters in your email system if you like.

I tested the feature a few times; it’s working fine, at least for me. However, if anyone has troubles or concerns with it, please let me know. Besides fixing a few additional things under the hood of this blog (invisible from the reader point of view), I also tried tonight to add a feature for my blog to notify commenters by email once their comments are approved (after being held for moderation), but none of the plug-ins I experimented with worked, at least not via a few hours of tinkering. I’ll try again next week.

To close off this week’s post, I’d like to inaugurate the news blast(s) write-ups I’ll include with each entry from this point forward. Many readers of my blog aren’t on twitter, where such information initially hits international awareness, so I’m hoping these news blasts will be a good way to spread topics that too often stay off the everyday radar, particularly here in the United States. I also will try to summarize the information in such a way as to provide an overview for audiences who may be unfamiliar with the material and who might need an accessible entry point into it.

News blast

Myanmar (aka Burma). Since the February coup d’état this year in Myanmar, in which the military murdered hundreds and arrested the democratically elected civilian government to replace it with its own junta (claiming a fraudulent election), hundreds of thousands of protesters have continued to take the streets and demand an end to military rule, sometimes in favor of the actual National Unity Government (NUG) declared illegal by the usurpers. However, U.S. officials in the first week of May said they won’t support the NUG unless it adopts representation for the displaced and persecuted Rohingya people and/or adopts a decisive anti-genocide position. Some individuals online are also pressuring the NUG to improve. Meanwhile, poverty in Myanmar is increasing to starvation levels amid a collapsing trade economy, Internet access is repeatedly shut down, journalists and poets are murdered for voicing anti-junta opinions, and dissidents are tortured with their organs harvested. Yet resistance continues, including hacks against the junta, and huge portions of the Burmese public joining militias / ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) or a civil disobedience movement to oppose the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military). The rank-and-file military is brainwashed to believe the resistance is chiefly foreign funded; the junta attempts to cut its troops off from outside information; one military doctor told the New York Times: “I want to quit, but I can’t. If I do, they will send me to prison. If I run away, they will torture my family members.” Arrests and rapes by military forces continue. Earlier this month, the junta declared martial law in Mindat, a town in Myanmar’s northwestern state of Chin, where residents told Reuters “We are running for our lives” and “We are living in a nightmare. Mindat is literally a war zone.” Clashes between insurgents and junta forces are ongoing as of yesterday in the Demoso township. Resistance movements in different countries, including Myanmar, are supporting one another, sometimes under the banner of the Milk Tea Alliance. Currently, because China, Russia, India, Turkey, Israel, and other countries supply weapons to the Tatmadaw, 200+ NGOs, as well as Anons, are calling for an arms embargo against it. Here in Seattle, protests took place outside corporate ABC affiliate Komo News. Save Myanmar Seattle information is available at this linktree page. The junta has suspended nearly a thousand educators in the Gangaw Magway area from their posts because teachers and students are learning real lessons by resisting them. A significant show-down may be coming since the junta expects compulsory education to resume on the looming date of June 1.

Creative Commons License

This blog post, New, optional notifications for commenters … and Myanmar news blast, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on a work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2021/05/22/new-optional-notifications-commenters-also-burma/ You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest reading this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post one on one? Email me: dal@riseup.net.

Here’s some math empowerment

Note: In 2021, I’m writing one blog post per week. It’s a little confusing, but this entry is both a placeholder of sorts for Week 18 (approx May 3 to May 8) — just the second time this year so far that I’ve missed my self-imposed weekly deadlineand a new post for Week 19 (approx May 9 to May 15).

Note (added 22 May 2021): Here are some extra links readers might find useful on this topic. A list of online resources for learning math free of charge, the helpful r/math subreddit FAQ, and mathematician Paul Lockhart’s well-known 25-page essay, sometimes called Lockhart’s Lament, decrying how math is typically taught in schools and providing suggestions for how to teach the subject as discovery and art. He later developed his essay into a book (which I haven’t read), titled A Mathematician’s Lament.

Teaching stress led me to skip another week. But! I’m back now. My 67-workday assignment — substitute-teaching high school geometry — ends on May 20, so that should free me up to dedicate more time to my blog: the globe’s most well-regarded and high-profile publishing outlet, far surpassing the London Review of Books, Asimov’s, and the nonexistent Fancypants Publishing, all combined. Starting next week, I’ll try to begin each post with a few bullet-point news blasts (before the post proper gets underway), since many of my readers aren’t on twitter where world events, unamplified or underamplified in the United States, enter international public awareness for the first and sometimes only time.

To make quick work of this blog entry, I’ll share with you four math videos off youtube that I, and hopefully the students, found helpful. The first three are about trigonometry; the last is a “map of mathematics” which shows how the subject covers much more than usually addressed in boredom torture chambers school. The initial video is three minutes and by the BBC. It credits the ancient Greeks with discovering trigonometry before anyone else; I don’t know if that’s really true… I have my doubts. What I like is how the BBC video superimposes a triangle on a building structure, and then later shows how a triangle can similarly be superimposed to find out (in relative terms) how much farther the Sun is from us than the Moon is from us. Teachers can project such a video onto the markerboard at the front of the classroom, pause it before the video gives the answer, and have students work out the problem themselves at their desks. Compared with teachers hand-drawing stick figures with a dying dry-erase marker, a high-resolution graphic on the board is way more fascinating as a word problem (judging by student reactions). The other two trigonometry videos, by Numberphile and Tibees, helpfully show the connection between trigonometry and circles. We too often think of trigonometry as about triangles (trigon comes from Greek’s τρίγωνον for triangle). Trigonometry is about triangles, but it’s also about circles. I hope you enjoy the videos… Next to memorizing math mechanics for endless drills of practice problems, patiently understanding why and how math really works is much more fun and opens up great appreciation for the mind and for Nature.

Three-minute BBC video set in India at an observatory
12-minute video by Numberphile connecting trigonometry with circles
13-minute Tibees video imitating Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting
11-minute video showing the many types of math

Oh! There’s also a neat in-person trigonometry exercise teachers can do with students, or autodidacts can do teaching themselves. Basically, you make a DIY clinometer out of common materials — fishing line worked well for me as the string — to sight the degrees of an angle, and then with a tape measure and trigonometry (the tangent function), you calculate the height of an object such as a lamppost. This can be helpful in engineering as it might be impractical to physically measure a tall object. In two of my periods, we found the height of the basketball goal on campus grounds, from pavement to hoop. The first class hit the answer perfectly: about 3 meters (about 10 feet, regulation height). The second class arrived at about 3.2 meters (about 10.5 feet), probably because the tape-measuring of the adjacent triangle side (the distance of pavement between right-below-the-hoop and where the student sighted the angle) was a bit inexact. All in all, the trigonometry exercise was a vivid way to explore math in the empirical world.

Exercises like trigonometry with a DIY clinometer startle me into remembering how in our reliance on addictive technology or on what other people pretend to know (especially celebrities or those with power over us), we tend to forget, or never learn in the first place, why and how things like GPS on smartphones actually work: i.e., how does a phone actually know where on the planet it’s located? (GPS involves trigonometry.) Besides math, what critical minerals is a smartphone made out of anyway, minerals the mining of which destroyed lives and communities? Even something as DIY-simple as putting together a clinometer and doing some straightforward math outdoors feels like — and actually is — a method of resisting corporate/military dominance (along with the constant anxiety and danger under it) by strengthening yourself, taking back power. Because, instead of depending on (often unknowledgeable) others or merely taking things for granted, with math (and other education) you gain a better understanding, scary as it sometimes can be, of how the world and life truly work.

The image shows a trigonometry problem sketched out by hand. A stick figure, a telephone pole, a triangle, numeric figures, etc.
Outdoors trigonometry by dmuldoonlla at instructables workshop

Creative Commons License

This blog post, Here’s some math empowerment, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on a work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2021/05/15/shucks-missed-entry18-math-empowerment/ You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post one on one? Email me: dal@riseup.net.

Review of education books, part one of two

Note: In 2021 I’ll publish one blog post per week. Here’s entry 15 of 52.

The image shows a tank pointing its gun barrel at a child sitting in a school desk. A soldier's head is poking out the top of the tank's hatch, and the soldier is yelling: "Learn!" The tank has a U.S. flag.
Compulsory education, imposed by nearly all governments

Currently my day job is substitute teaching in public education, something I did previously in Texas, too. Mostly known for popping into rowdy classrooms for a single day at a time, substitutes sometimes work long-term assignments also, effectively replacing the regular teacher across multiple weeks or months, as I’m doing now. There’s a lot I could say about schooling, especially this spring as students in the United States are encouraged to return to poorly outfitted classrooms against the advice of epidemiologists. I worry some of the innovations (to use bizspeak) hit upon during the struggles of remote learning might be forgotten in the rush back to so-called normalcy — for instance, teaching to the test and one-size-fits-all attitudes were thankfully dropped in the last year, but they’ll presumably return soon unless there’s a fight to stop them. Recently I sent many freelance pitches on the subject out to corporate media, nonprofit news, and literary magazines; we’ll see if I get a commission. In the meantime, I thought something quick and focused on the topic might be nice to self-publish here.

There are four books on education that have had an impact on me. What follows is a short review of two of them. In the near future, I’ll blog about the other two. (I’m just cutting in half what would otherwise be a review of four books, in the interest of saving time.)

By Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, 1995. I read this roughly a decade ago, around the time I was first going into teaching in Texas. I no longer have a copy of the award-winning bestseller on hand, but I remember the book was very much a tearjerker. It describes public education in the poorest U.S. congressional district then and now, in the Bronx. Kozol exposes in great detail the poverty, racism, and other injustice of public education there, telling the stories of individual students and families. I strongly remember how he very effectively depicts, as the New York Times review puts it, “the hypersegregation of our cities [that] allows whites to maintain physical as well as spiritual distance from complex and daunting urban problems.” Kozol describes the heroic effort put in by many school employees, and the ways employees, students, and families supported one another. In the wealthy private schools I experienced, something like a diagnosis of severe mental illness (whatever that means) would serve as pseudo-justification for ostracizing and making fun of a troubled kid. But I’ve seen firsthand in public schools, otherwise beaten down by a lack of resources and care from the surrounding world, how some students will of their own initiative provide unpaid support to diagnosed kids, just to aid them — something the upper, upper middle, or intelligenstia classes will completely forget exists, erased in their addiction to comfort. I also remember a friendly coach who collected donated clothes and stored them in a portable for poor students to have. I could tell those stories and many more in great detail, some other time. It’s just to say that the contrasts between fancy-pants private schools and worn-down public schools are very striking. The latter aren’t utopias to be romanticized — many bullies and awful, fatalistic teachers, along with other problems, fill public schools, but with 50+ million people in the public education system across the United States, they deserve more attention than the intelligentsia usually deign to give them. You can find out more about Amazing Grace on Kozol’s website. As the book’s subtitle suggests, that the well-off let most public schools rot, shows the low approval given to children, compared with, say, the high approval given to video games (gauged by discrepancy in amount of time individuals devote to each). Thankfully in many areas that’s been changing dramatically in the past few years. I should conclude with the caveat that since I haven’t read this book in a very long time, I don’t know what all I would make of it now were I to re-read it.

The image shows the jacket cover of the Homeroom Security book. In addition to the author's name and book title, the jacket shows five helmeted cops with pointed guns sweeping a school hallway

By Aaron Kupchik, Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear, 2010. This book, published by NYU Press, I also read roughly a decade ago — due to a very good review of it at Salon. Homeroom Security combines two topics I follow, education and authoritarianism (surveillance, cops everywhere, crushing of dissent, etc.). Like the Salon review says, the sociology/criminology professor wrote it in such a fair way that doubters who read the book can really be won over to his “radical” thesis: social support and participatory environments make schools safe, not the battle-zone mentality. I remember also (I haven’t read it in a decade, so again the same caveat as with Amazing Grace) that the academic Kupchik very effectively integrates both quantitative methods (statistics regarding money, measurable outcomes, and more) with qualitative ones (interviews, visiting the campuses for long durations like an an anthropologist, and so on). Most importantly, the book discusses how the armed cops, surveillance systems, and other military-like features lately ubiquitous in schools condition kids to believe those elements are just normal in life, to be expected always, rather than only sensible as rare emergency measures (i.e., humans have unfortunately set up the endo-realities of our our social/governance systems as if we’re experiencing permanent nonstop emergency, with all the health-destroying stress that entails). I’ll let the excellent Salon review — which is mostly an interview with Kupchik — finish up my work for me: below, Kupchik talking with the Salon interviewer:

We’re teaching kids what it means to be a citizen in our country. And what I fear we’re doing is teaching them that what it means to be an American is that you accept authority without question and that you have absolutely no rights to question punishment. It’s very Big Brother-ish in a way. Kids are being taught that you should expect to be drug tested if you want to participate in an organization, that walking past a police officer every day and being constantly under the gaze of a security camera is normal. And my concern is that these children are going to grow up and be less critical and thoughtful of these sorts of mechanisms. And so the types of political discussions we have now, like for example, whether or not wiretapping is OK, these might not happen in 10 years. […] As part of my research, I interviewed students, and one of the questions that seemed like a good idea at the start was asking them whether they liked having the SROs [school resource officers] in their schools. For me, having gone to public schools without cops, this really seemed odd to me, to put police officers in peaceful schools. And the students were puzzled by this question, and I quickly realized that it makes no sense to them because it’s all they’ve ever known. It’s completely normal. It makes about as much sense as if you asked them, “Should your school have a principal?”

The two books above, I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading about public education. The other two I’ll post about in the near future.

In conclusion

For now, let me conclude by saying that what I’ve found most important as a substitute teacher in a long-term assignment is just showing up, being truly present, for the kids. So they know they have someone consistent, there each school-day to greet them, who won’t be a mean-spirited dictator. A simple example: if students are marked repeatedly tardy or absent, there can be a variety of unfortunate repercussions for them. If they’re a few minutes late, it’s safer to just mark them present than it is to force them into a show-down with the quasi-legal system embedded in the schools, when the real problem might be a late bus or a domestic crisis or lack of nutrition/sleep or any number of other things that may be no one’s fault. Having a teacher they can count on not to be a threat, is important, in this otherwise stressful, endosocial world of permanent nonstop emergency that we’ve built for ourselves. And then, I can teach students about geometry and whatever else. Student challenges with, say, math, are often simply troubles with English language learning for migrant/refugee kids, or students understandably feeling miserable with, and resistant to, compulsory education in the first place. It’s helpful when school settings permit teachers to pick just one little piece of the math puzzle that students are struggling with, and break it down, teach it slowly, to make sure everyone understands, while meanwhile giving the advanced students enrichment books to pursue on their own. With the likely return of teaching-to-the-test pressure (or the school loses funding when students don’t pass) and one-size-fits-all in the name of efficiency, not to mention grief and stress in connection with the pandemic — and the poverty, racism, and authoritarianism Kozol and Kupchik document — I fear there are dark days ahead for U.S. public schools. But with the Internet encouraging people to become more outspoken about everything, to stick up for themselves and others, there’s also a lot of room for hope.

Creative Commons License

This blog post, Review of education books, part one of two, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on a work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2021/04/17/education-books-review-1of2/. You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post one on one? Please email me: dal@riseup.net.

Bullet points: High quality, somewhat under the radar coronavirus readings, including history, global, and mutual aid

Note: In 2020, I’m writing 52 blog posts, one per week, released on Mondays or so…like this one, which is out on, er, Tuesday! This is Week 14. I’m back on schedule. :)

“It is not your fault, I know, but of those who put it in your head that you are exaggerating and even this testimony may seem just an exaggeration for those who are far from the epidemic, but please, listen to us” — intensive care physician Dr. Daniele Macchini, in translation from Humanitas Gavazzeni hospital in Bergamo, Italy, Friday 6th of March 2020. (Additional attribution information.)

Same day as Dr. Daniele Macchini’s testimony from Italy, “Q: Mr. President, you were shaking a lot of hands today, taking a lot of posed pictures. Are you protecting yourself at all? How are you — how are you staying away from germs? THE PRESIDENT: Not at all. No, not at all. Not at all. […] Q: Have you considered not having campaign rallies? THE PRESIDENT: No, I haven’t. […] Q: Isn’t it a risk if there’s that many people close together? THE PRESIDENT: It doesn’t bother me at all and it doesn’t bother them at all.” Transcript provided by White House of Friday 6th of March 2020 remarks by Donald Trump after tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta Georgia.

A week prior at a rally, Trump said: “[T]he Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs [… The Democrats] have no clue, they don’t have any clue. […] this [disagreeing with him regarding coronavirus] is their new hoax.” Transcript of Trump rally Friday 28 February 2020 in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Analysis using the Flesch-Kincaid scale, developed in 1975 for the US Navy to assess the relative difficulty of understanding training manuals, finds US president and self-proclaimed “very stable genius” Donald Trump speaks at the reading level of a fourth grader, which explains his huge popularity among certain segments. The above image superimposes a picture of Trump yelling “Have you seen my ratings?” upon a photo taken by a nurse, showing the inside of a bodybag-laden truck at an ambulance bay outside a New York City hospital, Sunday 29 March 2020, shared with Buzzfeed by the nurse.

This post provides 10 bullet points that suggest and summarize various readings regarding the novel coronavirus pandemic, plus a bonus eleventh section at the end filled with uplifting material. I recommend further study of any or all of these linked materials, which have flown across my radar in the past few weeks. Whereas on Monday 23 March 2020 I wrote a guide for getting caught up on the pandemic if you’ve been living under a rock or enslaved (imagine someone just getting off a lengthy hiking trip in the middle of this or out of a psych ward), this entry is more a grab bag of important COVID-19 items that are a bit off the beaten track of typical US news readers. In the near future I’d like to write a guide helping US news readers develop a 60-90 minute routine for staying up to date on the pandemic daily by plugging into sources such as local and state public health officials, the World Health Organization, and a steady supply of high quality information from self-governance radicals. Hopefully soon I’ll return to writing more narrative-y blog entries, but as the globe is a bit of a bullet point place these days, I hope you find value in the below and if so, consider sharing this post, supporting me via donation, and/or replacing GovCorps around the world with prosocial ideas and actions. Without further ado:

  • A Monday 23 March 2020 article by Jim Geraghty at the (rightwing but literate) National Review titled “The Comprehensive Timeline of China’s COVID-19 Lies” documents the day-by-day, month-by-month, blow-by-blow of the Chinese government cover-up of the capability of novel coronavirus to transmit from human to human. As best understood to date, the disease jumped from animal to human in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

  • You should know the story of Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, whistleblower in this pandemic, or “awakener” as some in China call him as a compliment. The Lancet, one of the longest running and most prestigious medical journals in the world, published an obituary (1-page PDF version) for Li Wenliang by freelance journalist Andrew Green on Tuesday 18 February 2020 (corrected Tuesday 25 February 2020). On Friday 7 February 2020, the New York Times interviewed Li days before he died. Briefly: Li worked at Wuhan Central Hospital, where in late 2019 he saw laboratory result reports, being circulated within medical circles, that led him to tell his fellow medical student classmates in a private chat group that “it has been confirmed that they are coronavirus infections, but the exact virus is being subtyped […] tell your family and loved ones to take caution.” He knew that patients were already being treated under quarantine, so he suspected human-to-human transmission was possible and urged caution, though at first he did not want his messages spread further. (Speculation: I’d guess because of the risk from various Chinese authorities, and I’d guess also because at that point Li might have wanted rock solid scientific confirmation of human-to-human transmission, before wider circulation.) The conversation among his fellow doctors was that SARS (i.e. SARS or a SARS-like disease) might come back and that they needed to be careful. Against his wishes, his messages spread more widely on social media, leading Wuhan cops to force him at their station to admit a “misdemeanor” and to promise not to commit further “unlawful acts” like this “spreading rumors.” Seven others also were arrested, but as of a Thursday 23 January 2020 article at Poynter by Cristina Tardáguila and Summer Chen, their identities and fates are unknown (will update if I hear back). Li felt wronged by the cops and as time passed, he came to appreciate, despite the punishment, the value of his warning messages having spread, telling the New York Times later that he “felt very sad seeing so many people losing their loved ones.” He returned from the police station to the Wuhan hospital and, while treating a glaucoma patient, contracted the very virus he had warned of. While he was hospitalized in an intensive care unit, Li spoke out about his experience at the police station, including releasing the document he was made to sign, telling Beijing-based media group Caixin that “I think a healthy society should not have just one voice,” and the New York Times: “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.” At the time of his death, he was survived by his four-year-old son and wife, who was five months pregnant with their second child.

    Image of Li Wenliang by Anthony Kwan for Getty Images, 2020

    Social media users in China wrote in loud favor of Li Wenliang and against the Chinese authorities, saying on Weibo that, among other things, according to the New York Times, they wrote out of shame and guilt for not standing up to an authoritarian government. Others shared variations of a quote by Chinese writer Murong Xuecun, “He who holds the firewood for the masses is the one who freezes to death in wind and snow,” which the NYT has to explain “was written as a reminder to people that it was in their interest to support those who dared to stand up to authority. Many of those people had frozen to death, figuratively speaking, as fewer people were willing to publicly support these dissenting figures.” Additional sources regarding Li Wenliang: Friday 7 February 2020 article by Zhuang Pinghui in the South China Morning Post; Friday 20 March 2020 article by Helen Davidson at the Guardian; Friday 7 February 2020 article in the New York Times.

  • And regarding the importance of whistleblowers in general, check out this February 2018 panel on whistleblowing at the Oxford Union, which included Heather Marsh, CIA senior management David Shedd, and a Guardian journalist who though employed by one of the world’s biggest newspapers did not write about the Oxford Union censorsing the panel he was on (you read that right, about whistleblowing), although I sure as hell did at Buffalo’s The Public and by contributing to BoingBoing. You can read the panel transcript by Heather who had to whistleblow her own whistleblowing panel, or listen to her 22-minute audio of it below. BTW, the Guardian journadoodle who did not mention, via his salaried job at one of the world’s most important newspapers, the Oxford censorship, then got immediately bribed/rewarded with a paid lecture series at Oxford… a paid lecture series about… yes, about whistleblowing … while I, a devout anti-careerist, essentially have lost 100% of my day job hours due to covid-19 and, while restraining myself from retweeting silly Star Trek photoshops, am writing to you on my blog right here right meow and all these other people with really cool ideas and deeds and artworks and cats are also… okay you get the point, but the tough part might be, not forgetting the point/truth and also following it to all the places where it leads.

    Transcript; Heather’s analysis of the censorship

    And regarding the Chinese and British empires, these 2012-2013 tweets from the orange menace:

    A failing state in debt to Beijing, Russia does much of China’s dirty work. May 2018 at OpenDemocracy.Net: “They put a bag on my head, cuffed my hands behind my back and tortured me with a taser”: anarchist Svyatoslav Rechkalov on torture at the hands of Russian cops. April 2018 at The Russian Reader: Stay Human, How Russia is hunting down anarchists & anti-fascists and torturing them. Coronavirus, shit is getting real.

  • On Monday 30 March 2020, Europe-based journalist Balazs Csekö tweeted the Hungarian parliament had that day passed a bill giving Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán unlimited power and proclaiming: – State of emergency without time limit – No elections – Parliament suspended – Rule by decree – Spreading fake news and rumors: up to 5 years in prison – Leaving quarantine: up to 8 years in prison. On Tuesday 7 April 2020, Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted “One week ago, the European Union ceased being a bloc of democracies, as Hungary’s ruler seized unlimited power in his country. Since then, the other EU member states and the European Commission have done nothing about it.” And the same day he tweeted: “There’s an outright dictatorship within the [European Union]. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has seized unlimited power for an indefinite period of time. That the rest of the EU doesn’t care enough to act is a threat to the very EU itself.”

  • Regarding federal legislators flying around and thus spreading the virus or exposing themselves to it, as the Wall Street Journal published an article partially about on Friday 27 March 2020, see this from Heather Marsh in 2012: “We no longer live in a world where one individual has to make a long arduous journey to appear in person to represent their town or region, we need to work to ensure there is no reason why individuals cannot represent themselves in any circumstance” and “There are two underlying concepts which must be universally accepted for representative democracy to function: groups may act as individuals and individuals may act as groups. These two ideas are fundamentally unsound.” If you want more after that, see her 2017 talk (video and transcript) “The evolution of democracy.” For those asking, due to the pandemic, what we should do regarding governance, and demanding short, more practical/pragmatic readings on the topic rather than books, I highly recommend her 2014 “Installing new governance” and you might also read her 2017 “A societal singularity.” Life’s not really about whatever stupid shit Trump said lately, or whether Nancy Pelosi is going to do this or that. Instead look at the more ludicrous things, the federal legislators jumping on planes instead of picking up phones because people are mentally enslaved by these bizarre memes about Ancient Greece city-states or whatever, or the third rail topic of voting elections integrity or even whether voting for faraway celebullies to represent you and the neighbor who completely disagrees with you, and neither of you have or ever will meet the legislator anyway, makes any lick of sense at all (see my post this year on that and Russiagate whistleblower Reality Winner), and maybe then also realize, in order to uproot all of those echoes of long ago thoughts spellbinding billions of humans for millenia, might take more than a two sentence explanation of “well what should we do instead” and you might need to read and experiment and do different things to work toward replacing entrenched broken systems (i.e., us, we all are the broken system!).

  • From the 1936 sci-fi movie Things To Come, based on HG Wells’ writings. This is a demagogue leader from the film yelling at a fourth grade reading level except for “muddle”, which is advanced vocabulary I suppose
  • The 2019-2020 novel coronavirus is deadlier than the 2002-2003 coronavirus SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), but this 2003 unclassified paper on that earlier and related virus, produced by the CIA’s Strategic Assessments Group, may still be of interest for autodidacts and others studying public health systems responding to epidemics/pandemics. The paper is subtitled Lessons From the First Epidemic of the 21st Century: A Collaborative Analysis With Outside Experts. It’s a 17-page PDF: click here for the PDF at the Homeland Security Digital Library (sponsored by US Homeland Security, FEMA, and the US military’s Naval Postgraduate School).

    The unclassified paper describes its scope as follows:

    In June 2003, the CIA’s Strategic Assessments Group (SAG) sponsored an unclassified workshop with experts from various health-related disciplines titled “SARS: Lessons Learned,” held at the National Science Foundation. The group included leading virologists, epidemiologists, public health experts from academia and government, senior officials from WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and authorities in global public health, health communications, and economics. The meeting’s objective was to extract valuable lessons learned to help prepare for future epidemics of new and reemergent infectious diseases. The group reviewed the SARS experience from its medical-scientific, public health, psychosocial and risk communications, economic, and political dimensions. This report conveys the lessons participants found most important for the containment of SARS and for dealing with future epidemics.

    Before going to other bullet points recommending other texts, I excerpt below many of the lessons noted by this 2003 report:

    * SARS has served as a sobering warning about the serious worldwide consequences that can occur at every level—public health, economic, and political—when unanticipated epidemics arise in a highly connected, fast-paced world.

    * The ability to contain the next pandemic or to achieve global eradication of SARS remains uncertain. The disease could reemerge in fall or winter or move from its animal hosts to humans again at any time.

    * Honesty and openness from governments and public health officials is especially important. Without understating the risks or dismissing people’s fears, officials with relevant expert knowledge should advise the public on what measures to follow.

    * Official announcements will need to be bolstered by ongoing public education programs to avoid panic and help motivate first responders to take reasonable risks in treating the sick.

    * [T]he panel warned that the economic impact of an epidemic involving more deaths, plant closures, and population dislocations could be more significant than the modest SARS-related losses

    * Psychological intangibles — fear, risk avoidance, and resilience — are not currently represented in economic models use[d] to gauge the impact of epidemics.

    * The panelists stressed that the US defenses against infectious disease outbreaks depended on the expertise and competence of local public health officials worldwide. [Note by Doug: last chance for smug US intelligentsia to stop rolling eyes whenever anyone brings up international law, universal human rights, the importance of global telecommunications and planetwide collaboration, etc.]

    * The effective application and efficacy of quarantine and isolation proved a pleasant surprise to the public health community. Equally unexpected was the widespread acceptance of the need for these measures by the general public, panelists observed.

    * [P]eople were more prone to comply with quarantine rules when there was no familial or financial hardship involved

    * Continued efforts by local health-care workers in a high-risk environment were facilitated when the workers were reassured their families would be cared for and when the press portrayed them to the public as heroes. Conversely, when these measures were not taken, workers were much less willing to put in the long hours and expose themselves to SARS.

    * While participants lauded the overall rapid and effective mobilization of the international public health community, they did note that [the World Health Organization] was quickly overstretched in early phases of the epidemic, despite supplemental aid by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other organizations. One participant declared that [the World Health Organization] probably could not cope with a second public health-care crisis [simultaneously] on top of SARS [i.e., SARS plus another crisis at the same time]

    * A fearful and confused public, surrounded by speculation, rumor, and exaggerated media reports can lead to genuine panic — facilitating disease transmission and hindering quarantine efforts

    * Participants cited the following reasons for lack of transparency in the case of China […] Fear of upsetting foreign investors and incurring sizable economic losses […] Cultural reticence to reveal information that could be perceived as a weakness.

    * The panelists also affirmed that the experience with SARS had enabled the Chinese Government to gain valuable crisis management experience in areas such as effective inter-governmental actions when forced to shut down parts of Beijing. They commented that with outside support, China could begin addressing some of its major public health problems such as inadequate rural health care, rapidly increasing rates of HIV infection, hazardous animal husbandry and trade practices, and live animal markets which could easily lead to another pandemic

  • 2016 opinion piece in the Washington Post by Ronald A. Klain, Ebola czar at the White House from 2014 to 2015. The title is “Zika is coming, but we’re far from ready” and here are the key passages in my opinion:

    The man who led the effort to wipe out smallpox, Larry Brilliant, often says that the seemingly complex challenge of successful epidemic control can be summarized in one phrase: “early detection, early response.” […] If it seems like the world is being threatened by new infectious diseases with increasing frequency — H1N1 in 2009-2010, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016, yellow fever on the horizon for 2017 — that’s because it is. These are not random lightning strikes or a string of global bad luck. This growing threat is a result of human activity: human populations encroaching on, and having greater interaction with, habitats where animals spread these viruses; humans living more densely in cities where sickness spreads rapidly; humans traveling globally with increasing reach and speed; humans changing our climate and bringing disease-spreading insects to places where they have not lived previously. From now on, dangerous epidemics are going to be a regular fact of life. We can no longer accept surprise as an excuse for a response that is slow out of the gate.

  • Improve your food storage techniques with the following resources. SaveTheFood.com, derived from Dana Gunders’ work; Seattle Public Utilities 2-page PDF guide on food storage techniques, 9-page PDF on freezer storage, and website section on reducing food waste in general; World Healthiest Foods, where you type a food item into the search box, then check out the “How to select and store” section on the resulting webpage.

  • A Wednesday 25 March 2020 article by David Kaplan at the WTAE ABC affliate in Pittsburgh reports that a public school district in the greater Pittsburgh region has been using AM radio to provide lessons to students.

    Elementary and secondary school teachers record lessons the night before and send them in. Then, 680 AM WISR in Butler broadcasts the lessons. Secondary students get their lessons at 9 a.m. and elementary students at 9:30 a.m.

    “I thought the idea was great. It kind of takes you back in a way to think about the days of fireside chats,” said Hope Hull, the principal at Connoquenessing Elementary School.

    Hull says she thinks this exercise improves listening skills for students. She added that her teachers are excited to put these lessons together.

    Somehow makes me think of this April 30, 1981 Bloom County cartoon by Berkeley Breathed (my favorite cartoonist from newspaper days).

  • The University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine maintains a digital repository/encyclopedia with documents from and texts about the US flu epidemic of 1918-1919. I believe that encyclopedia was the source for some of the images in the Thursday 26 March article in the California Sun by Mike McPhate titled “Photos of the 1918 flu pandemic in California,” which begins: “We’ve been through shutdowns like this before.” Below follows some of the images McPhate’s piece republished. I’m unfortunately just going to copy his descriptions and sourcing information for each image without doublechecking them all myself as I would usually do, since by this hour I’m half falling asleep as I’m standing here typing this very sentence.

    A group in Mill Valley in November, 2018.
    Raymond Coyne/Mill Valley Public Library
    The Oakland Municipal Auditorium is being used as a temporary hospital with volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tending the sick there during the influenza pandemic of 1918, Oakland, California, 1918. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
    People lined up for masks in San Francisco, which made their use mandatory.
    California State Library
    Physicians vaccinated each other in San Francisco.
    California State Library
    American Red Cross volunteers prepared masks in Oakland.
    Oakland Public Library

    The University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine’s digital repository/encyclopedia also has city essays that tell the stories of 50 US cities and how each responded to the 1918-1919 flu epidemic. Here’s the Dallas essay, timeline, and gallery. Here’s the Seattle essay, timeline, and gallery. As the saying goes, Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

  • This last of the ten bullet points (before the bonus eleventh), perhaps the most important, consists of mutual aid resources recently compiled/tweeted by @YourAnonCentral, whom you all should be following on Twitter. First, a five-and-a-half minute video by subMedia.tv explaining what mutual aid is:

    Required viewing

    Now, some resources. US-based COVID-19 Mutual Aid and Advocacy Resources, a shared Google Doc. Here’s how to organize a neighborhood pod, for you and your neighbors to help each other. It’s a 4-page shared Google Doc and it includes flyer templates for getting to know your neighbors, and more. This 9-page PDF is a small zine of compiled resources on safety practices for mutual aid food supply and distribution, such as safe delivery and collection protocols, quite useful if, say, you are in the habit, as I am lately in the habit, of delivering boxes containing food and supplies to the grassy outskirts of an apartment complex in view of a particular young woman standing up high on a balcony peering down and observing with untraversable and seemingly infinite physical distance your discombobulated attempts to erect the structure of a normal conversation, like a (Thomas Otway remix of a) Shakespeare scene. Here’s a United States progressive group (yes I know), The Center for Popular Democracy, gathering data for a week of action to demand coronavirus tests if you want to fill that out. Here’s a mutual aid hub map primarily for the United States, linking for instance to the North Texas Democratic Socialists of America’s COVID-19 Mutual Aid Coalition website listing resources and offering a form to fill out to request and/or volunteer help. Also check out MasksForDocs.com. They have one goal: Get personal protective equipment (not just masks, despite their name) into the hands of healthcare workers as quickly as possible. Open, healthy, inclusive, grassroots, free. They’re accepting volunteers, donations, and requests. Bellevue’s nonprofit hospital Overlake, in the Seattle metropolitan area, just received 262 face shields from MasksForDocs.

Okay, we made it! Note please that the above is a shotgun approach (when is the twitter-news not a shotgun approach?), so please read carefully, think for yourself, your mileage may vary, at least one person on those eight million shotgun approach mutual aid resources is probably going to be unfun to hang out with at best (ten-point checklist by CrimethInc for spotting snitches, infiltrators, etc.), and so on. So, the eleventh bonus bullet point is some heartwarming examples of mutual aid, big and small, mostly via @YourAnonCentral on Twitter recently, ending this post. See below, and see you next week!

https://twitter.com/BecHanley1/status/1243864095859838979
https://twitter.com/NCLMutualAid/status/1247218939853246464
https://twitter.com/leytonstone_aid/status/1245405271230500865
https://twitter.com/seattlesymphony/status/1245735238719942657

Creative Commons License

This blog post, Bullet points: High quality, somewhat under the radar coronavirus readings, including history, global, and mutual aid, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on a work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2020/04/07/coronavirus-readings-history-global-mutualaid/. You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post otherwise? Please email me: dal@riseup.net.

Clinical Schoolteaching, Early Observations, Behavior Management

As you might have heard, I’m working as a clinical schoolteacher — basically, doing three months of unpaid student-teaching en route to earning my full teaching certificate — as mentioned in an earlier post. The gig’s at an elementary school in the Fort Worth Independent School District, in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. Many of these children, for instance, go home and spend hours and hours alone while their parent(s) work multiple jobs, and the children often lack proper clothing or supplies such as glasses.

But one student still thought to get me, in addition to my coordinating teacher, a Valentine’s present:

For me! (Pic = Public Domain; attribution & linkage = nice)

My observations so far largely fit with what I’ve observed as a substitute teacher, a role in which I often substituted for an aide, and for the same teacher across several days. So, as a substitute I did watch regular teachers teach.

They’re mean to students. Often.

According to the fantastic instruction FWISD’s Substitute Academy gave me on behavior management (I call it “crowd control”) — and this jives with my personal experience — administering sarcasm destroys your credibility and your relationships with students more than anything else. Sarcasm’s really nothing more than a way for teachers to vent their frustration and scare students — a losing strategy, in the long run, since students lose much of their respect for downright mean teachers and don’t learn as well. There’s no need to be a Tiger Mother.

For example, teachers will yell at students for not following worksheet directions, when it’s clear the students often don’t understand the directions because, say, they can’t read them without glasses, or they’re interpreting the unfamiliar words in a novel way, or the terrible textbooks’ directions are ambiguous in the first place. And this anger when they come to the teachers asking for help with the directions!

Of course, in disciplining children, there’s no reason to coddle and give ribbons for every good deed, either. But there’s nothing wrong with treating children with kindness, telling them thank you, praising them for succeeding at what is actually difficult for them — following directions, focusing, getting an answer correct, and so on. Telling a student “Good” never killed anyone, and an encouraging, welcoming classroom community helps students learn; yet, so often I hear teachers mock students and then support their offensive behavior with a chest-pounding, macho, “toughness” credo. Yeah right. Maybe you’re just a jerk, or maybe you just don’t know what you’re doing.

Way over on the other hand, though, it sure is easy for me to spend a week or two in a new community — the school — and pass judgment, especially when I’m not under the strain regular teachers are. (Teaching to the high-stakes tests, for instance.) Kind of like committing a cross-cultural drive-by. And, I don’t want these schoolteaching blog posts to turn into passive-aggressive attacks on my co-workers, you know? But I’m calling it as I see it, and when the time seems appropriate, I’ll mention my concerns to my superiors. I do defer to their chain of command, perhaps too frequently; but, when you’re the low man on the totem pole, brazenly passing judgment isn’t always the best thing to do — especially when my superiors have years of experience that might inform their actions in ways I don’t understand yet.

Of course I don’t really believe any of that… Though I do believe this: in assessing the public school system, you can’t point fingers at any one problem (especially just because it might be politically popular to rag on that problem). The errors are system-wide; everything from underfed, hungry students to funding problems to malevolent teachers to absent parents to … You can’t single out any one thing, and you can’t ignore the good work that’s being done, either.

But I’m furious at the way teachers write off students’ misbehavior (or just problematic behavior) as due to some sort of intrinsic “badness” of the children that the teachers act like they’re incapable of addressing. I’m not really furious at the teachers, but at a culture-wide reluctance to adopt a philosophy such as Pragmatism, where one doesn’t opine about metaphysical ethical essences, but just takes the most practical assumption. Assuming at-risk students are intrinsically bad might be practical if you don’t want to stick your neck out, or if you don’t want to make the extra effort, but it’s not practical if you want to help people. And children are people. After all, adults are often just as immature as they are.

And what about gathering the courage to ditch the paint-by-numbers worksheets and make your own material, material that’d be relevant to the students and help them understand and care about their work? In class we read this long story about settlers’ candle-making. These children have no idea what the “mold” is that settlers used to create candles. There were too many paragraphs for the story also. Why not write two or three paragraphs about the snow days, answering some questions you overheard the students ask about the weather? When it’s not busywork, and when the material is relevant to the students’ lives, discipline problems often disappear.

21st Century Schoolteaching (via Our Man in Tirana)

As to that student who needs glasses (see earlier post). Some questioning, and my own experience, indicates the delay in getting glasses to students is a persistent and district-wide problem. If my questioning about the glasses supply chain turned up correct answers, a corporation called Essilor is the contractor responsible for getting glasses to students, as the students are entitled to receive under various federal legislation (if I recall correctly). The contractor apparently operates under a (state? federal?) grant, which means they have an obligation to do their work (i.e. it’s not charity), and that grant might specify a timeline for delivering the glasses. Also, the grant should be publicly available; via Twitter or email, I’ll ask organizations such as ProPublica how to track down the grants, and if I have to, I’ll file an entire FOIA.

Don’t mess with my students.

Clinical Teaching Day 1; Rumination on Roles

My first day as a clinical teacher went very well. Except: I’m exhausted!

Right now the coordinating teacher and I are together in the same classroom throughout the day. She’s running the reins, and I’m just observing, sitting at the side. Eventually I’ll be able to lead some activities. I’ve done that before when I’ve substituted for the same groups of students across a continuous week or so, but this would be more serious, especially as it’s long-term.

The day began quite early; my alarms blasted off at about 4:30am. I showered & got ready, and Wifely Kate cooked breakfast:

iPhone pic by me, public domain for you. Food by Kate!

How awesome is that? The coffee was ready and everything. I was able to write fiction for about an hour and fifteen minutes — quickly revising (line-editing) an older, completed story so I can re-submit it; didn’t quite finish, since I’m having to fact-check some details — and then I headed to campus, the lunch Kate packed me in tow. At noon-ish I discovered she’d left a note in my lunchbox. The note talked about how proud she is of me. I got teary-eyed!

The coordinating teacher uses a Promothean ActivBoard (I’m not sure if the link points to the exact same model) in some very effective ways. For one portion of the classes, she shows multiple-choice math questions on the ‘Board, then the students record their answers using controllers — all students have one on their desks. The coordinating teacher shows the results on the ‘Board — as a bar graph; looks like something off Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — and uses them not just to motivate the class (the students love the video game-y vibe), but also to hone in on the students’ misunderstandings of the material in order to explain it again. Good real-time assessment.

Weirdly, one of the few TV shows I really like

The ‘Board can even export the collected data, so at a later time, we can analyze the answer statistics more precisely to spot recurring troubles. Totally something out of a Tim O’Reilly project.

Since I was mostly only observing — catching up to speed on this campus’s schedule, rules, etc. — I focused on watching one student at a time. (I’ve blogged before about developing observation skills. As for characterization, can a writer quickly notice in real-life what makes another person absolutely unique?) I noticed a boy whom I think might need glasses. Squinting, tilting his head to see better, putting his face inches from his paper. There’s a school program to address vision issues, but I’m not sure how prompt it is. Watching how in need and at risk students are can be upsetting. I’ve seen it before, substituting.

This particular student is enthusiastic, often raising and waving his hand even before the teacher asks another question. His enthusiasm hasn’t been disruptive. He seems to be a bit in his own world — smiling to himself, thinking his own thoughts. Good kid.

After leaving the campus, I went to Stay Wired! Coffeehouse and Computer Service for two hours, where I’m helping out as a computer tech. After my two hours were up, I informally sat in on a meeting for Democrat Cathy Hirt‘s campaign for the Fort Worth mayor position. There, upon being asked, I talked a little about my experiences and observations working for the local public school system.

I have to confess I’m bewildered about the relationships between my roles as a writer, teacher, newbie activist, blogger, and tweep (Twitter person). For example, working as an activist differs from volunteering for a political campaign (as I did for Bill White), from working for one in an official capacity, from blogging reportage or opinion about it, from incorporating observations of a campaign into a fiction project, etc. It’s a bit unnerving when you’re sitting there with a few people talking local politics and you’re trying to figure out which hat you’re wearing, so to speak. I have no real idea how to resolve these mini-conflicts, and there’s no one right answer.

The convention for blogs to be frequently updated conflicts with my personal preference for long-form or at least mucho-revised writing; and, when I’ve tried to blog long-form writing in the past, it’s often come off as too complex (Latinate, twisted syntax…) and hasn’t been revised well enough — a bad compromise between careful long-form writing and a quick blog post. Really, if you’re blogging long-form pieces, you’re essentially writing e-books. Since I consider myself a non-commercial writer (i.e. my goal isn’t profit; that possibility is a fringe benefit; I don’t mean that I consider myself highbrow — I try not to think in those terms), I’m not against the idea of eventually releasing more of my creative writing (fiction and otherwise) under Creative Commons licenses, but I sense that right now, I still need the bigger bullhorns and reputation-build of established venues (i.e. magazines, publishing houses).

Vika covers Metallica’s Orion

The increasing online success of vkgoeswild (Vika Yermolyeva) has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. I thought she was cool before she joined forces with Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione (Hipster cultural capital snobby-stupid FTW! =p). Vika supports herself by receiving online tips and selling customized transcriptions online. Other artists and bloggers have figured out similar business models (search through Boing Boing for many examples and discussions). But for creative writing, I just don’t excel at the very short, very quickly written form, which seems to be necessary to any feasible online business model I can actually think up for right now.

Besides, I love teaching!

Clinical Schoolteaching Begins: Scared but Eager

Tomorrow I begin a 12-week placement as a clinical teacher within the Fort Worth ISD en route to earning a full-meal-deal schoolteaching certificate. Tonight I’m quite a bit nervous.

Public domain pic thanks to Amada44

The campus is an elementary school. I’ve substituted a fair number of times in the middle and high school grades, as well as in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. I love kids and I love teaching. It requires patience, empathy, honesty, effective communication, a strict but fair approach, courage, an understanding of how people (young folk are people, too) need structure, a knack for facilitating group activity, good documentation skills, the ability to coordinate with coworkers…

So I’m confident in my abilities and experience. The anxiety comes from other causes. I’m not at all the best when it comes to crossing t’s and dotting i’s when time is of the essence, and that’s a necessary part of most work. I still don’t have many of the nitty-gritty details figured out (where do I park?), but I’ve always been able to improvise as a substitute. “Bring it on!” is my basic attitude, but everyone, including me, gets scared.

Wifely Kate has been so supportive and generous with her help. This weekend we did a lot of prep stuff, such as buying me more button-down dress shirts, cutting my hair (I still have a big ol’ shock of cowlick-y hair, which seems to be undefeatable). Marrying her has been the best thing that ever happened to me. And not just because she’s cooking breakfast and packing my lunch in the early, early morning as I get my creative writing in before driving to campus.

Schoolteaching is also scary because of possible political and work-world implications of online activity, online personal opinions. Working — at least as a substitute — has made me an official public servant. And there’s a lot of controversy over schoolteaching — for example, the Texas textbook controversy. What if something I tweet — such as this in favor of journalist Glenn Greenwald — bothers a parent or a supervisor? Oh well! I don’t really know how to handle that other than how I handle personal interaction in general, which is to try to be honest, fair, and diplomatic. I’m not one to stay quiet and keep my head down.

I’m ready. Again: Bring it on.

I need to make public something else soon, too, but I’ll leave that as a cliffhanger due to time constraints: I gotta get some sleep!