Dear Frank,

I remember the first time we met. It was my third and final interview for my current job at CCNMTL back in Spring ’04. I was initially anxious, but you immediately made be feel welcome and comfortable. [Over the years I came to appreciate your gift for authentically connecting with just about anyone, often within 30 seconds of meeting them. You dispatched with superficial niceties and blazed trails directly to people’s souls. You bridged intellect and emotion, without a hint of pomp or circumstance, projecting sensitivity and respect to everyone you encountered. Age, class, race, gender – not so much that these dimensions were irrelevant, but you always managed to connect with the individual. You actually listened. And learned.] During that interview I remember walking into your office, encircled floor to ceiling with books. You asked me about my undergraduate senior thesis, a topic I hadn’t revisited in almost a decade, and then proceeded to pull Julian Jaynes off the shelf. You showed me your photo with Allen Ginsberg, and then asked me if I recognized the person in another grainy b/w photo. When I correctly identified Wittgenstein I was pretty confident I had landed the job. But, more importantly, I had found a new mentor.

We didn’t interact very often my first summer at CCNMTL. I worked in Butler library, under Maurice’s supervision, and you were keeping summer hours, at your office in Lewisohn. When Fall rolled around I was eager to enroll in classes, and begin my graduate journeys, but I was nervous about signing up for a course with my boss. You never made me feel like a subordinate, but I was scarred from my relationship with management at previous jobs, and wasn’t sure what it would be like for us to enter into a student-teacher relationship. I hadn’t quite figured out that that was the only kind of relationship that you knew how to cultivate, although our roles were constantly revolving and inverting, as you shared your wisdom, and facilitated growth in every exchange. You brought out the best in everyone around you, rarely content to talk about people or events – always rushing or passing your way into the realm of the Forms. As I reflected when Robbie retired, I chose to enroll in your legendary Readings seminar after one of your students (I think it was Joost van Dreunen) made the case that your syllabus was your text on social/cultural/critical/communications/media theory.

That year was invigorating. I remember rediscovering the joys of school, as I learned to reclaim spaces of intellectual exploration and play, and translate them into action. On the surface, our seminars resembled office meetings, but the luxury of non-directed (not to be confused with non-purposeful) conversation, which was a privilege I needed to readjust to.

Together we figured out ways to weave together disparate threads of my life – work, hobbies, play, passions – somehow, I learned to integrate these (often inconsistent) vectors into a unified construct. A self, I suppose. But, it was my self, not one you imposed on me. It never felt like you pushed your agendas or ideologies on me – rather, you always wanted to help me discover what I really want to think about and work on. And I know that I’m not the only one that believes this – this was your way.

I often wish you had written more, although your autobiographical text is a multi-volume, multi-dimentional, multimedia masterpiece. Sometimes I wonder how seriously you took Socrates’ critique of writing, along with his commitment to be a midwife for ideas. Did you lose count of the number of dissertations you helped deliver?

One under-studied paper that you published, “Who controls the canon? A classicist in conversation with cultural conservatives,” (Moretti (1993), Teachers College Record, 95, pp. 113-126) captures many of the paradoxes you embodied and worked through. A radical classicist, a skeptical optimist, a scientific artist, a philosophical craftsman, an institutional revolutionary. Somehow, you integrated these roles with a career trajectory that not even the most advanced detectors in the Large Hadron Collider could trace. I watched you start countless conversations with a Greek or Latin etymology, charming the academics, administrators, and funders alike in a display of the continuing power of the Western cannon. You constantly reminded us of the classical education that many of our favorite thinkers received, and insisted we read them against that backdrop. But, more importantly, a reminder of how radical these thinkers all were in their own time, and how likely they themselves would be protesting the ossification of the cannon, if they were around today. These lessons will live on through one of the last projects you initiated, Decolonizing the Cannon, which a number of us are committed to follow through with. After 25+ years of reading Homer every fall, it will take us a lifetime to reconstruct the lesson plans you left behind.

In the 9 years that I’ve known you we’ve been to hell and back. We’ve studied together, traveled together, worked together, gotten sick and healed together, but all the while kept our senses of humor. I’ve read many beautiful eulogies about you, but in this letter I want to emphasize your enduring sense of humor. You were a funny man. LMAO funny. Slapstick funny. Dada surrealist funny. Hashish funny. Plenty of the humor was dark, and perhaps, as your student Ruthie suggested to me recently, your humor helped shield you from the brutal injustices that you perceived and experienced all around us. But you were also sometimes a klutz, in an absentminded-professor sense, and a disorganized mess. A creative mess, but a mess. But, I have to say, that even when you were operating on scripted autopilot, you were way better than most people at their best. There wasn’t much you enjoyed more than being called out for your lapses in attention, and my glimpses of your inner monologue were often hysterical. I think that your analysis of power led you to conclude the the world was simply absurd. We all witnessed you acting on this with gravitas and determination, but in the minutia of our micro-interactions, there was always a wide smile and a belly laugh. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the sound of your laugh. (Or, your bark. Man, did you love to throw down and argue. But, that’s another post.)

After I started taking classes with you, it didn’t take me long to realize that that the secret to understanding what you were talking about was knowing what you were reading that week. You would basically have one conversation all week long, no matter who you were talking to. I imagine it was bewildering to many of my coworkers when you brought up false-needs, or commodification at our weekly staff meetings, but if people paid close attention, they could almost observe the wheels spinning all week long, as you lived the theorists you were teaching through the practice of our projects. I often explained to people the incestuous nature of my work/school commitments by comparing my situation to a graduate student in the natural sciences. They might spend 40-60 hours a week in a lab, and working for you was about as close as I could imagine to working in a communications lab. I often wondered how many of my cohorts managed to keep up on developments in new media (and many of them certainly did) without the ambient immersion in a practice that exercised and embodied the theories we were reading.

When summer vacation rolled around, you never quit.  I remember how you used to talk about the stretch of time between Sept-May as one long sprint (as long as I’ve known you, you’ve taught at least 2-2 + advising phd students + multiple committees at TC and the J-School, on top of your administrative responsibilities as executive director at CCNMTL and a senior officer in the libraries) , but you didn’t exactly slow down in the summer either. Or, perhaps I should say that you did slow down, but you never stopped teaching and learning.  For at least 3 or 4 summers I participated in “slow reading groups” with you and a few of your dedicated students. We didn’t get any credit for these sessions, and you didn’t get paid. We would sit in your office, and go around the table reading a book out loud, pausing whenever we needed clarification.  And, we often needed clarification. You were convinced that no one was reading anything closely anymore, and that the hundreds of pages that were assigned in courses each week were flying by without students or teachers taking the time to slow down and absorb them.  The second summer we tried this we read Latour’s Politics of Nature, a text we all internalized and will never forget.

You had such a funny relationship with technology. You loved gadgets, but were constantly thwarted and befuddled by them. I wonder how many laptops and phones you lost or broke in the years we have known each other. You never stopped learning, but were suspicious of every new tool that showed up, and the more hype around the tool, the more you growled defensively at it. But often, after months of critiquing and berating something, you would come around and start appreciating it. While some of my coworkers/cohorts seem to have chips on their shoulders about the ineffectual futility of technological interventions, you had an optimistic will that allowed you to wield technology like you wielded the classics. Opportunistically, and instrumentally, in the service of social justice. That was your gig. Relentlessly. Sometimes I wonder if you felt like you had painted yourself into a corner with all of your critiques — like when you whispered quietly to me that you wanted to learn how to use Second Life, without blowing your critical cover.

Last week I ran into an ex-girlfriend that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. It was nice to reconnect, and in the course of our conversation I realized that we hadn’t spoken since I had started working and studying at Columbia. I was an entirely different person back then, one I barely recognized. Perhaps people return to graduate school in order to change, but true transformations require a relinquishing of your old identity and ego, without a clear idea of what might emerge on the other end. The Judaic tradition has a teaching that anyone who teaches you the alphabet is considered a parent. You literally taught me the alphabet, as we revisited the alphabet as a revolutionary communications technology (via Eric Havelock), and you taught me many other alphabets and languages that gave me access to entire new worlds.  You also invited me into your home, and made me feel like I was part of your family. Most of all, you modeled and embodied an honesty, integrity, and sheer force of will that I am blessed to have intersected.

Safe travels, Frank, and enjoy your vacation.

Love,
/J

“So what?!?” – Wikimedia ’06 Plenary session at Wikimedia ’06 in Cambridge, multimillionaire philanthropist Brewster Kahle presents his vision for the Internet Archive, and Frank steps up for the Q&A.  Classic brilliance.

Yottabytes, wormcams and whistleblowers

If you haven’t yet heard about the  details of the NSA’s spying program, catch yourself up with the timeline so this post doesn’t sound entirely bonkers.

For years I’ve been pondering the scope and implications of what Aram Sinnreich and I call The End of Forgetting, and even prior to Edward Snowden’s revelations, I have recently noticed a few dramatic activations of massive distributed memory banks.

In recent months, there have been a few instances where we have literally peered back in time, reconstructing the past based on comprehensive (relevant) records. In the sciences, the collection of records prior to having a specific question is sometimes called “triple-blind“. And, as we know, the dragnet-style collection of records has extended far beyond the lab. If software does one thing well its the collection/storage/retrieval of records; And, software is everywhere.

This story about the reconstruction of February’s meteor path based on dashboard-cam footage reassembled inside Google Earth was pretty stunning:

Also, was it me, or did the reconstruction of the crowd scenes leading up to the Boston bombings feel a bit like the the distorted phone messages from the past that the Scientists reconstructed in 12 Monkeys???

Mainstream physicists have postulated a viable form of 2-way time travel based on wormholes. In this scenario, one end of a wormhole is accelerated into the future, allowing those in the future to travel back to the point where the wormhole was opened, but crucially, no farther back in the past. The point when this wormhole is created is known as Year Zero.

In the past, I have discussed physically travelling through time (Pyramid Schemes), including how critical detailed records of your destination is to plotting flippin’ pinpoint coordinates. But in this post I’m content to explore the metaphor of the Wormcam, a science-fiction device I first saw used in Arthur C. Clarke’s Light of Other Days.  The wormcam is a wormhole that only allows light to travel through it. In this book, wormholes are first able to bridge any two points in space, and soon thereafter, any two points in time. Most people learn to correctly assume that they have at least one wormcam fixed on them all the time.

I’m not really big on sharp discontinuities in history, and I’m not particularly fixated on determining when precisely Year Zero fell/will fall. But, its increasingly clear to me that The End of Forgetting signifies the singularity, more-so than AI, Mo-Bio, and Nano-Tech combined. There won’t be a single moment when prior and after people won’t understand each other, but the period we are living through right now has those characteristics. And PRISM is just the start.

If you haven’t heard of the British series Black Mirror, stop reading this post right now and go watch  S01E03 The Entire History of You.  Really, that episode alone should lay to rest the question of why someone who doesn’t break the law should care about the End of Forgetting.

Of course, the precipice we are standing on does not only provide us with a view of the past. While the past doesn’t determine the future, power is determined to wield the past as a means of stacking the odds.

The media is currently preoccupied with data mining, and forensic analysis.  But, the real money is about about turning the wormcams to the future, using predictive behavioral modeling. The NSA  only needs to be 100% correct to stop terrorists, but corporations only need to be a few percentage points better to sell more burgers or prevent your friends from changing mobile carriers, and politicians often only need a few more points to win an election or gerrymander a district. A friend of mine at TC published a paper about predicting who will drop out of high school dropouts by third-grade, based primarily on their grades and absentee records. And, that’s before we turn to  pre-crime or pathologizing risk.

In Snowden’s own words, “they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with.”

Just remember, if all that exists is the present, then the past must be as malleable as the future. That is, unless we digitally ossify them 🙂

DSM-5 vs. NIMH: kill-shots and social constructs

Last month the DSM-5 finally launched at the American Psychiatric Association conference. After 13 years and multiple delays, you can now pre-order your copy at Amazon (list price: $150), or just leave a helpful comment.

The DSM-5 had been surrounded by controversy, and not just by the usual suspects. Allen Frances, the chairman of the DSM-IV task force, just published a scathing critique of the processes and outcomes of the DSM-5 efforts: Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life. Frances has been sounding the alarm about DSM-5 for over a year, raising concerns over the current committee’s secretive methods, conflicts of interest, expansive diagnostic inflation, and the reduction in reliability (the odds of two doctors agreeing on a diagnosis) that DSM-5.  Over 50 Mental Health organizations and almost 15k people signed a petition demanding reform of the DMS-5 drafts.

Although this scale of controversy would be scandalous in many fields, the APA barely flinched. The DSM-5 task force moved some of the most troubling diagnoses into the appendix, renamed a few others, skipped a round of efficacy trials to meet their deadline, and otherwise proceeded with business as usual.

I have to say my jaw dropped when I learned that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and it’s $1.5B/year of funding,  was “re-orienting its research away from DSM categories[!]”. The official NIMH announcement, Transforming Diagnosis, posted by their director Thomas Insel on April 29th, was picked up by a wide range of science media (NYTimes, Koplewicz @ The Huffington Post, Chris Lane @ Psychology Today, Psych Central) with headlines such as “NIMH Withdraws Support for DSM-5” and analysis that this was a “kill-shot” for DSM-5.

What struck me as most shocking was that the NIMH basically came out and said that the the Mental Illnesses defined in the DSM are social constructs – “the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure.”  Ironically, the anti-psychiatrist’s arguments have prevailed, although for the wrong reasons. As I interpret this statement, NIMH isn’t denying the existence of mental illness, just our current ability to agree on its nature and manifestations. But, yes, the current definitions are social constructs and continue to defy attempts at validity. Ha!

But, before anyone gets too excited, what the NIMH proposes may turn out to be scarier than the system in place. This research is representative of the direction that the NIMH is heading: Suicidal behavior is a disease. Here, disorders will be sliced and diced into their constituent elements, which conform more readily to the instruments and models that scientists (neurobiologists and geneticists) already have at their disposal.

I’ve been convinced for a while that within the next 5-10 years the Pharma-Industrial complex was going to invest enough research money to find a definitive neuro-imaging/molecular/genetic/biochemical marker for mental illness (that is, once the marker cast a wide enough net).  However, I wasn’t expecting them to turn the tables and redefine mental illness according to what they could already test. Pretty sneaky.

The saddest part of this whole debacle is that instead of seizing this moment of crisis as an occasion to bring together disparate stakeholders – from patients, to consumers, to survivors, to advocates, to caregivers across a range of backgrounds – and work together to develop a new language and paradigm for understanding human suffering and emotional crisis, the NIMH has doubled down on scientific authority. Soon they will be short-circuiting all debate by pointing at pretty false-color pictures and lab results. There will always be a value judgement when evaluating the boundaries of normal experience/behavior, and no scientific instrument will ever be able to tell us when someone’s experience/behavior is deviant, without human interpretation. As the disability right’s movement says: Nothing about us, without us.

Somehow, for all of the NIMH’s noble intentions, I have a bad feeling that the treatment side of mental health care is poised to become more oppressive. We’ll likely continue to see the growth of anti-psychotics for everyone, and the pre-cog, pathologizing of risk through predictive and preventative care that will explosively expand the diagnostic reach.

This conversation just took a sharp turn past the rhetoric of the last few decades. I hope the psychiatric resistance is following along closely, and updating their arguments accordingly.

Digital Communications in Theory and Practice

My doctoral program has an innovative alternative to traditional comprehensive exams.  Instead of reading 80+ books and spending a few days filling blue-books with essays, we can choose to 1. Publish a paper to a peer-reviewed academic journal, 2. Present a paper at an academic conference, and 3. Develop a syllabus.

I just defended my comps and am now officially ABD (wahoo!).  I hope to trade in those letters for a different 3, but in the meantime, here is the work I submitted to complete my MPhil:

  • Jonah Bossewitch and Aram Sinnreich (July 23, 2012) The end of forgetting: Strategic agency beyond the panopticon New Media & Society 1461444812451565,doi:10.1177/1461444812451565 (proof)
  • Bossewitch, Jonah (2011)Pediatric Bipolar and the Media of MadnessNational Communications Association  11/09: Slides. Published in “Drugs and Media: New Perspectives On Communication Consumption and Consciousness”, eds. MacDougall, R. C., New York : Continuum: 2011. <website> (preprint)
  • Digital Communications in Theory and Practice, Fall 2013: Syllabus

The syllabus was alot of work, but was definitely fun to work on. It came out of a mentorship I  worked on last year for a friend who was enrolled in Prescott college. He’s an activist and a close friend who wanted to learn more about this internet stuff…  We got a few weeks in, and Occupy erupted. But, someday I’ll teach this from start to finish.


Digital Communications in Theory and Practice

Prof. Jonah Bossewitch

Office Hours: By appointment

Course syllabus

Description

Like the telegraph and the railroad in their time, the Internet has been heralded as the promoter of equality, freedom, and democracy. And like the technologies that preceded it, its impact will ultimately derive from the ways we choose to use it.

What strategies are individuals, communities, and organizations developing to manage flows of information, maintain relationships, and organize collective action on the internet? How can we communicate more intentionally and purposefully? How can we be more deliberate in our choices around media consumption and production?

This course will explore new media and communication in both theory and practice. We will attempt to contextualize and historicize the digital revolution though the lenses of social and cultural theory, architecture, popular culture, and a simultaneous immersion in cultures of use. We will study and encounter how software embedded in communities of practice traces the social fabric of the networked age. Our inquiry will be guided and informed by a hands-on immersion into the fields are studying.

Objectives

This course is designed to help you improve your critical judgment around media and communications platforms and practices. Through a combination of direct engagement and reflection, you will learn to make more informed ethical and aesthetic choices in your media and communications diet, and learn to better critique the hype around emerging technologies. You will feel confident critically engaging with mainstream Internet pundits and become more comfortable engaging in the jargon-filled discourse around new media.

By the end of the course you will have a greater understanding of what software is and how/why it is created, and you will have also gained experience with a variety of collaboration tools, such as issue trackers, wikis, blogs, tagging, and RSS. We will be working closely with the technologies we will be studying, in order to develop perspectives grounded in experience, and throughout the semester we will be helping each other connect theory to practice, and vice versa.

The Joker’s Detonators

This weekend I participated in a wonderful academic experiment – a conference hosted by the Rutgers Media/Comm program called Extending Play. Thanks to everyone who was involved in making it happen!

The conference invited participants to play with traditional academic conferences, in form and content, and to a large extent, they succeeded. I had a stupid busy weekend, and couldn’t attend as much of this event as I wanted to, but I was there all day on Saturday, and the keynote conversations were refreshingly engaging,  and many of the panelists pushed the boundaries of conventional conference formats.

I’m hoping to circle back and write more reflections about the parts of the conference I attended, but in this post, I want to share my presentation. (It was a difficult presentation for me to make, given the tragedy in Boston last week… but, I think it was appropriate).

What impacts might Free and Open Source technologies have on networked insurgency tactics? How might 3D-printing, open source drones, open source rocket guidance software, and arduinos transform urban guerrilla warfare and pose a serious threat to (inter)national security? While these technologies are typically used for hobbies and play in the western world, their weaponization is an discussion whose ethical urgency needs to be taken up by communities of practice.

The tactics of networked insurgents are evolving at the speed of the internet, and FLOSS communities need to start thinking about strategies to anticipate, and prevent the weaponization of their software. Is the weaponization of FLOSS software intended in Stallman’s software freedoms?  While a minority of free software licenses attempt to prevent violent applications of their software, how should the average software developer think about their responsibilities towards the potential uses of their creations?

Ultra-Paradox

The Israeli elections are over, and it looks like Netanyahu’s “reelection campaign” wasn’t as successful as the last one he staged 4 years ago. A few months ago, in November ’12, I had just returned from visiting Palestine/Israel when the IDF launched an attack against Gaza. Although Palestinian rockets raining down on Israel are nothing new, the new extended range of the Qassam rockets allowed the Gazans to attack new targets. I listened in disbelief as I learned that a few of the missiles hit Jerusalem suburbs. As far as I am aware, the last time Jerusalem was bombed from the air was in 1967, by the Jordanians. And, I’m pretty certain the Old City was off limits. I mean, can you imagine the reactions if one of those Qassams scratched the holy dome of the rock?  Or, Jesus’ tomb, which is down the block?

The only way I have been able to understand these attacks is like an act of self-cutting—driven by utter desperation, isolation, and hopelessness.

From what I could tell, our Gazan (Brethren|Terrorists|Freedom Fighters) were basically lobbing missiles north, without the ability to aim. Humanity has been targeting projectiles for thousands of years, without the assistant of computers. Heck, the study of mechanics and the discovery of the parabolic equation was largely driven by military applications. For example, if you could calculate the rocket’s fuel, the wind speed, and the launch angle, you might be able to more accurately target a rocket. Or, even simpler—have some friends on the ground near the impact site tweet the lat/long coordinates of impact, and then adjust your next shot accordingly. But, we’re living in the 21st century, and the CTOs in silicon valley are playing with toy rockets controlled by open source missile guidance systems, like Altus Metrum. The weaponization of open source is democratizing access to the world’s most advanced killing platforms.

The Gazan militants are likely aware of these techniques, but if they aren’t, a lack of education is surely to blame. Education is a casualty of the occupation, alongside connectivity, mobility, access to water, fuel, electricity, etc. The Gazan militants are labeled terrorists since they kill civilian targets. But, if they can’t aim, they are hardly targeting civilians. The nuttiest part of this equation, is that if you tried to help them learn how to target their weapons, so they could aim at military targets instead of civilian ones, you would be accused of aiding and abetting terrorism. So, you can’t teach them how to not hit civilians.  You can’t help them overcome terrorism.

Adam Curtis, the BBC documentary filmmaker behind The Power of Nightmares and The Century of Self, wrote a recent blog post on this recursive, abusive co-dependency that reads like a dissertation proposal:  Save your Kisses for Me.
Working this out I almost blew a fuse. But, that’s the point. The situation is a paradox. A catch-22. No wonder the conflict seems to be stuck in an infinite loop.

RIP Aaron. You are not alone

The corner of the internet that I hang around in has been mourning all weekend with tributes, eulogies, and heartfelt sharing about the untimely death of Aaron Swartz.

I don’t remember meeting Aaron personally, but I have heard him speak, am friends with many of his friends, and was very aware of his work and activism.

I am furious and sad to hear that he took his own life. I have lost a few friends and relatives to suicide, and years ago wrestled with some of these demons myself. Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about politicizing this moment. There are strong arguments on both sides. Being persecuted by the state is horribly stressful and isolating, and I also feel strongly about many of issues that Aaron advocated for. But, I am concerned about responses that reduce and simplify Aaron’s complex decision. This post about suicide reporting on the internet raises the concern that sensational reporting causes an increase in suicides in the wake of the coverage.

What I want to contribute to this conversation is an important message to any geeks, hackers, or activists that are struggling with isolation, alienation, depression, or even suicidal thoughts. You are not alone. And, sometimes it takes alot of courage to decide to stay alive.

For the past 10 years, radical mental health groups like The Icarus Project have been developing support materials for activists that provide alternative ways of thinking and talking about mental health. Take a peek at their forums, publications, podcasts, documentaries, and more. They have really helped so many people rewrite their own narratives, and connect with others struggling with similar emotions.

In the past year or two especially, I have seen more and more geeks/hackers who are attempting to organize around these issues, eliminate stigma, and provide peer-support outside of the mainstream psychiatric paradigm. Geeks, hackers, and activists are especially suspicious of authority, and habitually question systems of power.  They are justifiably mistrustful of psychiatry, but need a place to turn to for support.

I don’t know the state of all of these projects, but they seem like a good place to pick up the conversation for how can we take better care of each other and provide kind of compassionate support we all need so horrible tragedies like Aaron’s, Ilya’s and countless others can be averted in the future.

  • Blue Hackers is a fledgling community of hackers dealing with depression
  • At HOPE#9 this past summer, there was a 3 hour (!) panel on Geeks and Depression. The notes and slides were posted here.
  • Just last month, at the Chaos Communications Conference (29c3), Violet Blue gave a talk on Hackers as a High-Risk population, and suggested a harm-reduction approach for thinking and talking about these issues.

It feels like there is an important conversation starting to happen here, and not just around free culture and prosecutorial abuse. How can we steer this conversation without reinforcing the stereotypes and stigmas around suicide?

Rainbows have nothing to hide

On my recent journey to the West Bank I learned about a wonderful Muslim holiday called Eid al-Adha.  Eid is a 4 day, family-focused holiday, celebrated with gift-giving and great feasting. The holiday commemorates the binding and non-sacrafice of Ishmael (since, in the Koran, it was Ishmael not Issac who was bound), and the Covenant between Abraham and the Lord.

When I learned about Eid, two questions came to mind:

  1. Why don’t Jews celebrate any holidays commemorating events that occurred in the book of Genesis?  [It is not really surprising that the religion of Moses takes its cue from the book of Exodus, but I found the omission surprising. However, I am not particularly interested in exploring  answers to this question].
  2. Does anyone on this seemingly God forsaken planet remember, never mind commemorate or renew, the covenant between Noah and the Lord?

Remember the story of Noah in the Bible? Though it is taught widely to children everywhere, I’ve been surprised at how the rarely it’s recalled. (Ed. note: In 2014 Darren Aronofsky (!) will be reminding us all how this went down, with Russel Crowe as Noah).

To recap: God commands Noah to build an ark and collect animal couples, 40 days/nights of rain, a raven, three doves, and an olive branch. Remember how it ends? Why are there so many songs about rainbows?

And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, 10 and with every living thing that is with you — birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well — all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. 11 I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. 13 I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. 17 That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.” *

Hmm… Sound relevant?

I just finished reading Imperiled Life: Revolution Against a Climate Catastrophe, and I am feeling the urgency of this calling.

I am thinking about starting a campaign that activates the mass communication networks known as organized religions, by short-circuiting the cognitive dissonance between fundamentalism and climate change denial. I want to invoke the Noahide covenant as an on-ramp to help educate religious folks about climate change, in the hopes of transforming their awareness into intention and action. Let’s help God keep his word, and hold up our end of the Rainbow!

An ambitious goal, to be sure, but we live in dire times. I realize that it might sound like there are logical gaps in this chain of reasoning, but I also believe convincing true believers using scientific reasoning is a dead end. I want to craft a hermeneutic argument, clothed in scripture, to convince the religions of the world to care. I want to turn Earth Day into a religious holiday.

And, I think we might be able to realize (and fund) the first stage of this awareness raising effort through merchandising.  I’m imagining rainbow flags, t-shirts, cups, hats, etc, covered with unifying symbol representing the solidarity of world religions. Something along the lines of Coexist, but more encompassing than just the Abrahamic faiths.  Something closer to the opening image on the World Festival app. Maybe something like this:

So, what url do you like best?  sacredrainbows.org, sacredrainbows.net, or sacredrainbows.us?

Quetzalcoatl and Back Again

It’s nice to be on the spring side of the winter solstice. Farewell, Apocalypse. Nice try.

What a year. In 2012 I occupied — Wall Street, Mental Health, the American Psychiatric Association, and my dissertation. I catalyzed the production and distribution of Mindful Occupation, and helped organize the Icarus Project’s NYC 10 year anniversary event and art show.  And, I was privileged to visit the great Mediterranean capitals — Cairo, Istanbul, Athens, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. All while holding down a full-time job.

Some were not concerned that the world would end on 12/21, but instead, were horrified at the prospect that humanity will continue hurdling forward, business as usual. As many on our planet yearn for unity and the Most Great Peace, and there are hints we might be learning to direct, harness, and measure our collective intentions. But, as mystics have long understood, our collective choices will decide if we converge on a global state of war or peace.

All of my travels this year were transformative and intense, but my October trip to the West Bank was really the culmination of my hero’s journeys. I travelled there for the final stage of the project we began 2 years ago, trying to help Palestinian educators develop their capacity to improve their teaching excellence (Towards the (educational) liberation of Palestine, Dispatches from Cairo: The Raw Data, If I forget you, O Palestine…).

I travelled with my friend and colleague, Mark Phillipson.  Together we delivered a keynote speech at the Palestine Technical University — Kadoorie, in TulKarm, and taught workshops on cutting edge, video-based, teacher training and assessment techniques.  The PTUK team officially opened the Multimedia and Educational Resources Center (MERC), and were raring to go. The MERC center is an impressive accomplishment, but I also experienced great sadness and disappointment at the unsustainability of the development grant. Just as we were finally getting some traction, the funding was finished.  I understood that unsustainability is a common failure of projects like this, but the firsthand experience felt worse than any theoretical critique.

My boss/advisor/mentor, Frank Moretti, was unable to make the trip this Fall, but recorded a video introduction to our keynote that set the stage for the rest of my trip. The introduction started out cordial and friendly, but 3/4 of the way through, Frank lobbed a handgranade was starker and sterner than any Mayan prophesy. He warns that unless educators incorporate the twin themes of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war into every stage of curriculum we are headed for a “collective calamity”:

This warning framed the rest of my trip, and the rest of the year. I’m still unpacking the fallout.

scaling inefficiencies

By Stichting Onderzoek Multinationale OndernemingenLast week I attended an amazing reading and film series group that felt more like a graduate seminar than a meetup. Cáfe de Cleyre has been gathering for 3+ hours weekly, for the past 3 months, and exploring the theme of Direct Action in theory and practice. I attended their ninth gathering where the the group explored mental health as direct action. They screened Crooked Beauty and read excerpts of Mindful Occupation and other Icarus Project publications. The topic was organized independently of anyone directly involved with the Mindful Occupation project, and this was a refreshing reminder of the power of media. I learned that the CdC is run by two primary facilitators, who keep the operation running, and each week’s topic is facilitated by two more people who volunteer to run that week’s conversation. The night I joined, over 25 people attended, and I was very impressed with participant’s commitment and the level of discourse.

The evening’s discussion was inspirational, but in this post I want to focus on the group’s format. On the surface, Cafe de Cleyre looks alot like a traditional reading group.  However, as I was reflecting on the organizing involved to bring this many people together—on an ad-hoc basis—I realized that digital communications play a large role in making assemblies like these possible. As I understand, group attendance varies significantly, week to week, as participants join for the discussions they are interested in. In years past, it was possible to organize a reading group around a particular theme, but the ad-hoc, on-demand spontaneity of this series would be much harder to maintain prior to social networking. For sure, it happened, but the internet has greatly facilitated this.

I bring up this point in direct relation to the conversations swirling in educational technology around MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  Columbia University is actively experimenting in this area now,  and there are great debates of what MOOCs are, and what, if any, value do they offer.  While access is not an end if of itself, I agree with Anya Kamenetz that, access to knowledge is generally a good thing. To be sure, granting more dominance to already powerful voices threatens diversity, but that is one of the reasons that the evaluation of MOOCs needs to be tempered by genre.

Many of the conversations about MOOCs also stress the efficiencies of scaling.   As a programmer, ‘efficiency’ is often my euphemism for ‘lazy’ (in the best sense), but it is important to point out that scaling isn’t the only way we could decide to leverage technology for learning.

I am reminded of another extreme example of this — May First/People link has recently launched a mentored training program called the People of Color Techie Training Program “for activists of color to become professional-level, politically progressive and movement involved technologists”.  May First is using communications technology to connect remotely with geographically dispersed learners, but in just about every sense, they are using technology to scale down – supporting 1-on-1 direct encounters, instead of the mass broadcast of lectures to 180k students.

Not all progress is driven by maximizing efficiency, and some of the most interesting educational moments happen at the smallest scales.

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