I’ve been fascinated by Gerrymandering since I took it up as the topic of a Human Geography class in my sophomore year of college. It’s an amazingly complicated topic that is often oversimplified. It’s also suddenly in the national spotlight. Three Supreme Court decisions this year will shape how we talk about redistricting and representation in our republic for decades. Earlier this year in Pennsylvania, the Court declined to hear a challenge from Republicans over a lower court decision that the current maps were unconstitutional. Back in October, the court heard arguments from Democrats against the Republican drawn map in Wisconsin that delivered a two-thirds majority to the party in recent elections. The court is preparing to hear from Republicans in Maryland about partisan gerrymanders in their state that favor Democrats.
Arguments about whether and how Gerrymandering has a place in American politics gets at the core of what it means to have a representative federalist system of government. Saying they are always evil or always good does a disservice to the deeper questions at play: How do you ensure racial minorities aren’t mapped out of existence, for example. How do you encourage underrepresented groups to be politically active when the map is drawn against them? Questions like these and more are hotly debated and essential to the health of our republic.
99 Percent Invisible’s recent episode about Gerrymandering really unpacked the controversy over the practice and what’s making it such a hot topic now. It’s a great episode that treats the issue with the carefulness and thought it deserves. Check it out: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/gerrymandering/
I just finished Do You Remember, a podcast chronicling the life of the band Hüsker Dü, from Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current and have to say it was a great listen. It’s a short, five episode series, featuring interview audio from all three members of the legendary punk band, including what is probably the last recorded interview Grant Hart did before he died last September.
Among the things I loved about this podcast was learning little things I never knew about the band. Like how the band met at Cheapo Records in St. Paul. How Bob Mould was a Macalester student and planned to go back home for the summer because the band wasn’t getting any gigs. That is, until Grant booked them a show on the sly just to keep him in town. And how the band was sort of the first music internet start up with Bob using email to advance venues about upcoming shows before they arrived in town. The conflicts that kept the band going and ultimately broke them up.
I didn’t grow up with Hüsker Dü but I knew of them by way of The Hold Steady’s We Can Get Together (“There’s a girl on Heaven Hill / I come up to her cabin still / She said Hüsker Dü got cool / They started in St. Paul / Do you Remember Makes No Sense At All”) and later Bob Mould’s more recent solo work. Discovering the Hüskers later in life, their sound doesn’t make me wistful for their career, but reminds me of what I love about home.
Like their punk and hardcore contemporaries in the DC hardcore scene, the Hüskers and their main rival, The Replacements, together defined a particular sound that permeated through the Twin Cities scene — characterized by the climate, culture, and economy of the place. I knew bands that still sounded like the Hüskers when I was a kid, and I know some of them still today. If you were to ask me what the Twin Cities sounds like, I’d probably throw on my 7″ of In a Free Land I got at Record Store Day three years ago and follow it with some Prince. The Hüskers are the clustered up clever kids at the Triple Rock (RIP) on a February night; Prince, the weird, androgynous kids front row at First Avenue for the headliner. Either way, you’re having a music experience uniquely Minnesotan.
Listening to the podcast, I thought a lot about my uncle who bounced around different bands in the same era and my own peers who picked up guitars and started making noise decades later. The kids that wouldn’t let not being able to afford Marshall stacks or expensive music lessons stop them from being in a band. They had a sound and a story to share and damn if they weren’t going to share it. It’s the kind of stories I hope my own kids can hear when they find my sticker-riddled guitar from middle school, plug it into the 12 Watt amp, and start jamming.
Even if you don’t know the first thing about punk music or Hüsker Dü or the Twin Cities, give this podcast a listen.
Today was my last day at 18F, the startup-like agency inside the U.S General Services Administration I joined back in September 2014. When I joined I wrote: “Working with a team of talented individuals to create a more open, transparent, and accessible government is a cause close to my heart.” That’s still true. It’s also true that, four years in, nobody has used their political clout or tenure to shut it down as was foretold to me by a former colleague.
It might be easy to see my leaving as politically driven by the administration change. It is not. While there are more politically appointed individuals overseeing 18F and TTS’s work than when I started, any notion that the organization was taken over by the White House, or that they are now expected to be White House loyalists, is overblown. We took an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution and that includes the 14th Amendment which promises equal protection under the law. No American should see their government services degraded just because the people who deliver it happen to disagree with the people setting the policy. There’s a broader academic argument but it’s not for this post.
I’m leaving because my term is almost up and when I look back on it, it’s kind of staggering how much I’ve gotten to work on over the last 3 years, 4 months, and 9 days at 18F.
I was part of the team that figured out what the 18F website needed to do for people and rebuilt it basically from scratch to better serve the agencies trying to work with us. I didn’t do much (any?) of the building, but my team knocked it out of the park.
I helped the team that implemented the United States’ first open data law write about how they got every federal agency in the government to report spending data in the same way. It’s called the DATA Act, and it was a massive undertaking. See their work: https://beta.usaspending.gov/#/ and learn more about it: https://18f.gsa.gov/tags/data-act/
More recently I worked with the cloud.gov team build a Platform as a Service designed to comply with federal policy. It’s the first fully open source product to be authorized by FedRAMP. For the layperson reading this, it’s a big damn deal. FedRAMP is the federal cloud services equivalent to a boundary waters outfitter telling you to go with the WeNoNah canoe. You still need to decide if it’s right for you but it’s a strong endorsement.
I learned a lot about how government contracting works, enough to know that I’ll never come close to knowing everything. I scratched the surface working with the team behind CALC, a market research tool that helps contracting officers determine a fair market price for professional services.
And then there’s all the things that happened while I was at 18F. Even if I didn’t get to help build or write about them, it was inspiring to be on the same team as those folks.
The federal government employs some of the most talented individuals I’ve ever worked with. They’re motivated by honest and passionate service to the American public. That was what I signed onto when I joined in 2014 and, though many of the faces behind it have changed, that spirit remains.
As for me, I’m off to Automattic where I’ll continue working for a passionate, open source team helping WordPress.com customers have a great experience with a product I’m passionate about. WordPress helps people around the world tell their story, whether it’s an individual food blogger or a major newspaper.
A couple years ago we found a copy of Richard Wright’s famous novel Native Son tucked into the corner of a Goodwill’s book section. It sat on the shelf and in the queue of both our long reading lists until I finally decided to pick it up this year. I’ve been a pretty slow reader lately so it took me a while to get through the book but I’m glad I took the time to read it.
About halfway through the book I started wondering why it took me until I read Ta-nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me to know who Richard Wright was. This book was just as good if not better than the classics we read in high school like Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, and All Quiet on the Western Front — some of these authors are even Wright’s contemporaries. Why not include a book that wrestles with the same weighty societal mores but from the perspective of a black artist in 1940s Chicago? The answer is surely nuanced and multi-faceted but part of it surely had to do with the fact that our district’s English curriculum was largely, if not entirely, set by white people.
Native Son is a book about power, violence, fear, and survival. It’s a book about how crimes and criminals are created in the hearts and minds of society reflecting onto individuals. It’s about words and actions speaking louder than money. And it’s also about an anti-hero, Bigger Thomas, a black man in Chicago who accidentally kills a white woman.
From the beginning of the book, Wright doesn’t set you up to love Bigger. He’s cruel to his sister, his mother, his friends, pretty much everybody else in his life. He gets offered a job in a wealthy white household to be their chauffeur and through an escalating set of circumstances, ends up killing their daughter. Wright’s narration throughout these events helps you understand Bigger’s actions, reactions, and perspective on the lot was dealt and ultimately keeps him sympathetic, even if you’re never fully rooting for him.
Aside from the beautiful writing, what struck me most about the book was how little has changed. You don’t hear about vigilante mobs coming after black men accused of committing crimes against white people now, but you do hear them dehumanized with a lot of the same language used by the newspapers and white people in Native Son. You still see well meaning white people “giving a chance” to black people they perceive as “troubled” while simultaneously reinforcing systems of oppression against those same populations.
There’s a myth a lot of northern people still believe that slavery, racism, and segregation didn’t exist in states that didn’t secede during the civil war and Native Son does a good job of exposing and showing just how those systems worked in big northern cities like Chicago. Wright shows how housing discrimination was much more than the redlining policies where mortgages weren’t given to people who lived in certain parts of the city. It was also a systemic practice of refusing to rent in certain parts of the city to black families.
Mr. Dalton, the well-to-do white man who hires Bigger as a driver, was also his family’s landlord. During his trial, Bigger’s attorney questions Dalton asking why he charges more in rent to black families than white families. His answer, there’s more demand for housing in black neighborhoods which drives up rent. His attorney follows up to ask why Dalton refuses to let black families rent in white neighborhoods with lower rent he calls it a matter of practice and tradition. Thus the Black Belt of 1930s Chicago was created through a systemic practice of segregation that raised rents on disproportionately poorer black families, and reinforced by the practice of redlining those wealthier families out of home ownership opportunities. Today, gentrification carries on this legacy in many cities.
Those same policies lead to prejudices and Wright doesn’t let you forget that Bigger was born and became an adult believing he embodied the stereotypes he was born into. He saw himself a certain kind of person: black, a criminal, and in poverty, facing a world full of those like him and others. And when you’re born believing you’re a certain way, it’s hard to see many other possibilities. We still struggle with this problem today. We see it in unemployment rates, standardized test scores, patterns of gentrification, access to social services, voting rights… the list goes on an on. We also still see white savior types like Mr. Dalton throwing money at communities or rushing to give people a “chance” without understanding the underlying human condition.
All in all, Native Son was a sad story reflecting a sad reality that hasn’t changed much in the intervening 77 years since it was published. Heartbreaking is how I think about Bigger, his family, his friends, the Daltons, and the City of Chicago portrayed in the book. It’s also the word I use when I think about Jamar Clark, Tamir Rice, their families, all the white folks (probably including me!) who try to fix when they should be listening, and all the systems that still keep minorities apart, unequal, and disenfranchised.
Yesterday in the wake of another comedian and powerful person, Sen. Al Franken, being accused of sexual indiscretions, a piece I saw shared by a lot of smart people was by Lindy West in the New York Times called “Why Men Aren’t Funny. Eventually, I found time to read it and I largely agree with it, especially the final conclusion that the comedy industry props up an immensely patriarchal system that masquerades as a meritocracy. That seems super obvious to me, and I agree that the solution is to prop up comics — and other professionals — who “are not male, not straight, not cisgender, not white.”
One thing that made me pause in West’s piece was her astonishment at Marc Maron’s apparent ignorance of this patriarchy.
A great many people have been pointing out women’s disadvantages in comedy for a very long time. Those people are called women. In return, we’ve been abused, discredited, blacklisted, turned into punch lines and driven out of the industry.
I don’t find this surprising both as a Maron listener and as a person of significant privilege. I am all of male, straight, cisgender, and white (MSCW), after all. It’s not to excuse Maron’s ignorance to say it’s not surprising. It is tremendously easy to be blinded by your own privilege, even if someone confronts you with it. I’ve encountered fellow MSCWs who are staggered when they’re confronted with these realities and so ignorant to them they can’t even imagine how to make it right. These are people I look up to at work in many ways. They’re people I admire for their ingenuity, but they’re blind to the broader scope of their privilege in the workplace.
Maron might be a perfect example of how easy it is to be blinded by privilege. I lost track of how many times he said something like “you’ve paid your dues, you know the deal,” to a comic guest — especially one from the old guard. He’s congratulated comics who “paid their dues” and worked out his prejudices against comics who didn’t pay their dues or found success some other way. Yet, despite the evidence, he still sees (or perhaps saw) “paying your dues” as an important part of being a professional comic. Listening to it, it sounds like he has an agenda, a worldview he’s trying to reinforce; it sounds a lot like the way other MSCWs justify their biases and prejudices about the other parts of the world.
It’s an easy trap to assume the system that worked for you works equitably for all even when you know it doesn’t. Failing to understand how others are locked out those systems, and rejecting evidence to the contrary is the definition of hegemonic privilege. It’s the same trap that allows white folks to reach the conclusion that all black kids need to do to avoid being shot by police is pull up their pants, stop looking like gangsters, and hanging around with thugs. It’s really easy for a white person to say, “well my kid’s been arrested a couple times and he didn’t get shot because he cooperated with the police. Just ask Bill Cosby, he knows!” to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that black youth are disproportionately targets of arrest and police violence.
It’s the trap of our default setting and it’s imperative for all of us to go out of our way to toggle that setting toward empathy. After the election, I saw a lot of people saying that over thanksgiving we MSCWs needed to start talking to our relatives who overwhelmingly supported Trump. We need to do a lot more than talking, and we need to talk to the ones who supported Hillary, too. Maron isn’t the only person to embody otherwise progressive viewpoints while propping up problematic power structures, and comedy clearly isn’t the only industry. We need to be confronting our people stuck on their default settings wherever they are, whenever it happens.
Since around June, I’ve worked on 18F’s cloud.gov product and this week marked my last quarter on the team. We end every quarter with a so-called “innovation and planning” sprint. The product managers do the planning and the team members do the innovating. Innovating in this context means working on parts of the product that will benefit users that aren’t part of the normal business work. I chose to work on improving the WordPress example app we maintain for our users.
If you’re not familiar, cloud.gov is a Platform as a Service built by federal employees and designed around the specific security and regulatory concerns federal agencies need to consider before they’re authorized to launch a web product. No matter how big or small, whether it has open data or national secrets, all information systems operated by the federal government are required to undergo some kind of evaluation against standards published by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The result of this process is the granting of what’s called an “Authority to Operate,” or ATO. Basically, an ATO says that the system meets the requirements outlined by NIST and the agency has accepted any risks the system might present. If an agency runs several websites they end up with a lot of repetitive documentation for components that may be the same across each individual app. cloud.gov attempts to solve this problem by standardizing many of those common components so that the agency only has to worry about the parts of the application that serve their mission directly.
It’s a fully open source and based on the Cloud Foundry PaaS project. Compared to how I’ve launched and managed WordPress sites in the past it’s a pretty big shift in how to think about the product. The main shift is finding ways to not rely on the filesystem.
To do that means pushing your uploaded files straight to S3 or another cloud storage service. It also means session information needs to be stored in a cloud service like redis. Most of the example we cribbed from Cloud Foundry’s example WordPress app but due to slight differences in our infrastructure environment, we needed to make a few alterations. The most significant was the recommended plugin for connecting to S3. Cloud Foundry’s example used a more robust AWS plugin but one that required extra effort for us to connect to Amazon’s GovCloud environment. Using that plugin meant installing two plugins from WordPress and then writing and maintaining our own helper plugin to interface with them. Human Made’s plugin was a drop in plugin that already pulled credentials from the environment and was much simpler to configure for cloud.gov.
Getting this up and running reminded me of the work I did at CFPB getting their then-WordPress site — the last major WP site I worked on — into a stable, easily deployable production environment and how much easier that all would have been with cloud.gov at our disposal.
We configured WordPress very similarly to how cloud.gov arranges the pieces. Uploads were synced to S3 and we heavily cached the site — including the local session. The difference is that we spent weeks, maybe even months, writing and maintaining a Fabric project that could install plugins, update the themes, and manage the version of Core we ran in production and then getting our CI server, Jenkins, to automate the deployment of it all. We ended up with a well-functioning DevOps flow for consumerfinance.gov that didn’t require any of us to be physically around whenever someone needed a deployment to happen. All of that was good and important work, don’t get me wrong, we were rightly proud of what we did. The point is that a product like cloud.gov could have saved us a ton of time because a lot of that orchestration is done behind the scenes.
If we’d had a platform like cloud.gov to start from, we could have saved ourselves a lot of that work and focused on other things closer to our mission.
WordPress was the first open source project I ever worked with and the one that taught me how to be a professional developer. cloud.gov has the potential to make government web applications faster, more reliable, and more secure. The two of them together make up a giant stack of open source code. I’m glad I had a chance to bring these passions together.
When we lived in Hungary we noticed a curious thing about their train network. Our city had about 68,000 people in it yet only had one train per day to the capital city, Budapest. If you couldn’t make the early morning direct train, to take a region train to the much smaller town of Dombovár and transfer to a high speed train the rest of the way. This only added 10 minutes of travel if you caught the right train to Dombovár, but quite a bit of unnecessary hassle.
Today, if you want to get from Kaposvár to Budapest you have three direct trains and five connecting through Dombovár for a total of eight possible trips. Meanwhile, Dombovár has 10 total trips — though some of them are quite long they’re all direct. A fact that would be less strange if there weren’t any direct trains to Budapest at all, but the fact that there are some, and all of them stop in Dombovár, suggests there could be more.
Maybe there’s really more demand for connections to the capital from a town a third the size of Kaposvár, but when I asked my Hungarian co-teacher about it, I was told that Kaposvár used to have many more lines to Budapest but voted for the wrong party in the last election and lost their direct connections. I take most things that particular teach told me with a grain of salt, but assuming it’s true, punishing people because they didn’t vote for the majority seems like an anti pattern for a democratic society.
That’s essentially what the GOP is trying to do to with this most recent health care bill, the so-called Graham-Cassidy Amendment. Numerous analyses of the bill have shown it stands to benefit the states that chose not to expand medicare — giving them more money — at the expense of those that opted for the expansion under the Affordable Care Act. What’s worse is that it appears the leadership — the amendment’s authors especially — are offering deals to exempt Senators whose states will be adversely affected in attempt to sway their vote for the bill. The guise of a policy reason for this is to not over-burden states with low population density:
Beginning on page 95, the bill has a provision that exempts low-density states whose block grants either decrease or stay flat between 2020 and 2026 from the Medicaid per capita cap. Under that scenario, Alaska and Montana would be exempted from the funding cap that applies to all other states during that period.
If only Montana and Alaska are exempted, where are they drawing the line on population density? Let’s look at 13 most sparsely populated states, how they fare, and how they voted in 2016 (source):
Alaska: exempt — R
Wyoming: 2% cut — R
Montana: exempt — R
North Dakota: 8% cut — R
South Dakota: 45% increase — R
New Mexico: 15% cut — D
Idaho: 27% increase — R
Nebraska: 13% cut — R
Nevada: 8% cut — D
Kansas: 61% increase — R
Utah: 30% increase — R
Oregon: 32% cut — D
The line is apparently 10 people per square mile. Except, for some reason, Wyoming. Shutting out those other states with similarly difficult rural healthcare problems. There may be roads to all the towns in these other states but that doesn’t mean their rural communities aren’t hard to reach. They’re in the desert, at elevation, or hundreds of miles from the nearest major city. If the states have to close rural health care facilities because of lost medicare funding, lives are at risk. The population density argument is ruse. It’s not about saving states with disproportionately hard to reach residents, it’s about sparing Republican senators in hard-hit states who are resistant to voting for the amendment.
Democratic governments should govern for the people and by the people. That means our representatives should act in the interest of their constituents for the good of the country — not subject the opposition to vindictive consequences. Furthermore, the 14th Amendment to our Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law. If the law has special provisions for certain sets of people who happen to vote the right way, that’s not equal protection. It’s bad enough this amendment administers benefits so unevenly, to add special protections for senators to get them to vote for it makes it unconstitutional.
2017 has been the year of people visiting us in Colorado. It’s also been the year of health care.
This year we’ve re-established primary care and have been hunting down a strange set of symptoms I’ve been experiencing. None of it is particularly concerning. I don’t have a terminal condition. It’s really just run of the mill going to the doctor stuff. But it is all stuff I probably wouldn’t have done without the great health insurance we get from my employer. We have pretty low premiums in the grand scheme of things and we only pay for part of it. We had the option of choosing a plan with a higher premium but a lower deductible and we hit our out of pocket limit pretty quickly. Since I’m a federal employee, we have a flexible spending account (FSA) we pay into pre-tax which reimburses us for co-insurance, copays, and other fees we still have to pay despite the fact we pay a damn premium every month.
We’re fortunate to be so well taken care of but not everybody is. My term is up at the end of the year and when I research potential future employers, I notice few of them offer as good of health plans. Many only offer a high deductible plan. Many of those plans don’t have out of state coverage, and prohibitive out of network costs. People who aren’t fortunate enough to have a full time job don’t get the privilege of sharing the costs of their healthcare with their employer. More still don’t get access to cost-avoiding tactics like FSAs or Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).
When we had worse health coverage, we coped with the higher costs by avoiding going to the doctor. That doesn’t make any sense!
Employers only offering shitty plans to their employees, and paying a diminishing share of them, is a problem older than the Affordable Care Act. the ACA only made them a little better. Before, even good employer based plans would still leave some basic, preventative measures uncovered or force you to pay an outsized co-insurance or copay for them. If you wanted a flu shot, depression screening, immunizations and vaccines, your insurance company could charge you a copay or force you to share some of the cost.
Health insurance is stupid. You pay hundreds of dollars each month only to have to cough up even more when you go to the doctor. At least with the ACA these basic things that keep people healthy are covered. But it’s still stupid. If you’re on a high deductible plan and need to see a cardiologist about chest pain, you might be on the hook for the whole visit despite the fact you’re paying your premium every month. Let’s say you’re pregnant and think you miscarried, you might have to get blood drawn once every 48 hours until your HCG hormone goes back to 0. Maybe your kid got a concussion playing high school football and needs to see a neurologist. Any myriad of unexpected health problems can happen to even the healthiest people and if it happens to you, your family could be on the hook for up to $13,000! That’s assuming every doctor, hospital, or urgent care is within your health provider’s network and isn’t dropped from that network while you’re still a patient.
Maybe you have an FSA or a health savings account to help you cover these costs. Maybe! But the point is you shouldn’t have to guess about how much of your paycheck you can sequester away every month just to pay your health bills. You shouldn’t have to worry about whether you can afford to take your kid to the neurologist, or whether you can afford to verify you miscarried.
The insane hoops I’ve seen people jump through to get the care that need has led me to only one conclusion: Medicare for all. It’s the only solution I’ve seen that provides coverage for our most vulnerable populations and keeps costs contained. There are plenty of things Medicare doesn’t cover that people will still buy insurance to cover (elective surgeries for example, aren’t covered). Taxes might have to go up to cover it but the people most affected by that tax rise aren’t the people deciding which is preferable going broke going to the doctor or staying sick and getting sicker.
Every doctor with a license to practice medicine should be in network and every person on American soil should be able to access them without going broke. Medicare for All is the best way to get there.
I’ve been writing this blog as a Jekyll for quite some time now. There’s a lot I really do love about the idea of static sites, but also a lot I’ve cooled on. One of those things was the writing experience.
My first encounter with Jekyll was at CFPB and I briefly switched to Octopress while I was learning how it worked. At 18F, I decided it’d be prudent to eat my own dog food, as it were, and host my blog the same way we hosted the site I was managing, 18f.gsa.gov. It’s been three years on Jekyll now and while I love a lot about Jekyll and the paradigm of static sites, I’ve grown tied of the work I have to do just to publish a new post. I’ve written about this before and won’t repeat myself but I was hopeful that there would be a product, open source or otherwise, that would give all the advantages of static hosting with a writing and publishing experience that was just as simple and powerful. The fact is, there’s not.
And it turns out easy publishing on a trustable platform is all I really want.
Getting here meant I had to write a Jekyll plugin and a page to generate a WordPress eXtended RSS (WRX) file out of the old Jekyll site. Most of the work was done in the liquid page, except for custom fields which were filled in with the plugin. The only problem I’ve noticed so far was about 22 pages with no title that were in the WRX file — these were Jekyll paginator pages and the WRX file itself also generated as HTML 🤷♂️.
Last week I started teaching as an adjunct professor in DU’s Electrical Engineering program. I’m teaching a course called Entrepreneurship in Engineering. My approach is to introduce my students to concepts and ideas from Science and Technology Studies, and some high level concepts of human centered design like usability, content, and accessibility. The goal is for the students to understand how a multi-directional approach to thinking about products, design, and technology are important when constructing a business, particularly one trying to make the status quo more judicious or democratic.
Last night we read an article that I loved in graduate school but might never ask my students to read again. The piece was, Paul David’s “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY.” I like it for a few reasons:
It’s short, about 10 pages.
The topic is familiar.
It makes a pretty straightforward point.
These three things together are the makings of a good reading. Short means students can consume the whole thing and not need a whole afternoon to do it. The familiar topic — the standard “QWERTY” keyboard layout is a technology that’s been around about 150 years and doesn’t require any special knowledge to understand it. Even if you don’t own a computer with a keyboard, the layout is on most major phones touch keyboards, and because it’s a standard you’ll find it at public computer terminals at libraries, schools, and really anywhere you see computers. The final one, straightforwardness, was what made me love it in grad school. Paul David’s point is essentially: There were and are better technologies for keyboard layout but negative externalities stemming from a somewhat arbitrary choice made 150 years ago make it basically impossible to switch on a large scale.
Here’s why I might never teach it again.
At the beginning of class, I asked my students to each write one thing they didn’t understand on the board. A few of them wrote questions relating to reading’s argument: If Dvorak is 40% better, why don’t we switch? What does quasi-interrelatedness mean? But about half of my students wrote some of the strange turns of phrase and metaphors used in the piece. For example, “What is a Topsy and what does ‘it jes’ growed’ mean?”
The question comes from this line:
Rather like the proverbial Topsy, and much else in the history of economies besides, it “jes’ growed.”
I completely understand where my students were coming from. Why is the author spelling things wrong? Why is he using words that aren’t real? Is a Topsy a kind of keyboard? What’s proverbial about it and why are we interspersing proverbs into a discussion about the history of a computer keyboard anyway?
This line, and others similarly obscure, stood out to me as I was re-reading the article to prep for last night’s class. It turns out Topsy is a slave from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin who said she didn’t think she had parents rather, “she just growed.” Reading around the context, I understood it the first time around; this time I started wondering whether I’d lose my students who got stuck trying to work out where this phrase came from and what it could possibly have to do with the history of keyboards, economics, or typewriters.
It turns out Milton Friedman was fond of this quote as well. There’s an argument to be made that The American Economic Review, who originally published this article in 1985, is meant to be read only by American economists. If the only people who will read your work are economists you can probably recognize an oblique reference to Milton Friedman. If only Americans will read your work, maybe they’ll recognize the reference to literature. Journals are written for their field but because they have a rhetorical purpose to advance of knowledge and scientific discovery, they should be written in a way that communicates the ideas, not the writers literary cleverness.
The ideas being introduced in an academic article are often difficult enough to grasp. Jargon and in-group speech will become dated, literary references will become more obscure as even the best of books compete for prominence. Rather than showing writing talent with this kind of flair, show it by making the content understandable and indicating to readers how they might read deeper if they’re moved to do so.
This is not a new idea, it’s simply one I’ve learned first hand. Writing for The Conversation, a Duke research scientist and Northwestern PhD wrote “if we’re not clear and engaging, then editors and the general public simply won’t read us.” They argue more academics should write publicly in order to improve their academic writing.