Debate Camp

Facebook: Am I Doing this Right?

I am about a month into this Facebook experiment and I’m finding it alternately interesting and a chore.

The interesting parts come from the content that my friends and family post; it’s a real variety, as I’m sure it is for everyone on Facebook. There’s pictures of the kids’ latest games or school accomplishments, laughable moments when someone paints the family dog or puts make-up on a parent; there’s work rants and engagement notices and of course the ubiquitous happy birthday notices that scroll.  There’s tirades against the tyranny, protest against the patriarchy, support for soldiers and friendly philanthropy. I see windows into hobbies (miniatures, comic books, quilts, photography), windows into travel (Spain, Japan, England, Australia), windows into houses (parties, selling-of-the-house, buying-of-the-house, the ever-popular remodeling-of-the-house — oh, and the building-of-the-house).

I de-muted a lot of folks shortly after the election because, like everyone else, I was in a bubble; however I note that I wasn’t missing the political posts so much as the non-political ones.  I can get my politics from the Economist and NPR, but the Economist and NPR can’t show me the progress my friend has made on her garden.

Which brings me to the chore: curation. What should *I* post on Facebook, to show that I’m engaged? Am I doing it right?

The concept of Facebook curation is not new and it’s been studied (particularly as to its impacts on mental health). The idea that I should/will consider what I post, the varied audience, etc. before I post means I am not being my “authentic” self and thusly am showing only the “best” side I have, therefore setting a higher standard for others.

This sounds so impressive, except that I’m pretty sure that my quest to find the very best protein powder, or inability to fire the correct muscle groups in my left butt cheek, or continual surprise at insomnia when it decides to rear its ugly head, all of which are authentic, are not my best side.  Perhaps I’m not curating correctly.

I therefore started to look through my feed to see if I could find an example of curation. I believe the point of curation is to show your very best self, so the criteria I used to identify curation was that the post itself had to be positive or show the post-er in a positive light (not neutral or negative).  The post couldn’t be commentary on a news item *unless* the poster had an accompanying lengthy position statement to demonstrate knowledge of the space.  The pictures must be flattering, if there are/were pictures.

I found three genre of possible curation: My Life is Instagram Fabulous, I Have a Lot of Friends, and I am a Positive Person.

My Life is Instagram Fabulous is the person who takes great pictures.  Either a set of three or four, or a polite collage, all framed properly and tastefully filtered or cropped.  Some of them are actual photographers so this makes sense,  and generally speaking their content is mostly photo and a little text.  Often this links to their Instagram account (I don’t yet play there but maybe I should). These are some of my more artistic friends.

The problem with pointing a finger and saying they are curating is that 1. they are expressing themselves in the medium to which they already have an affinity (these are the folks who were running around with actual film cameras back in the day and were probably the school photographer) and 2. I know them and have seen how/when the pictures get produced; yes there is forethought and planning but it’s mostly to capture the *feeling* of the moment and not to convey something artificial.

I Have a Lot of Friends is the person who seems to be permanently at parties and gatherings.  As an extroverted introvert this exhausts me but I can see they are having fun.  Usually there are large group photos, group selfies and photos of tasty-looking food and/or the theme of said party. I have more than a few green pictures right now thanks to St. Paddy’s. The pics seem to be taken early in the party (everyone fresh!) and midway (everyone having fun!) but not towards the end, which we all know is when your mascara is running a bit and your lipstick has worn off and everyone is exclaiming that they don’t usually yawn at 9:30/11/1am but they got up early that morning. (A note about the photos:  one of my friends is a beauty queen — honest to goodness, complete with the sash — and never, ever takes a bad photo. Ever.)

The problem with pointing a finger and saying they are curating is that 1. when was the last time you went to a party and took pics at the end? You didn’t. You were having too good a time, or you rationalized that you already took all of the pics and there wasn’t a point in doing more.  Secondly, the whole point of Facebook is to network among friends, so naturally events that tie two or more people together within the platform would be appropriate to post.

I am a Positive Person is the person who posts a lot of life-affirming, positive statements.  They can either be the someecard style, or the motivational-poster style. They tend to be posted in fits and spurts, leading me to believe that there is some aggregator of these things that people can pick one or more at a given time and simply share to their wall.

The problem with pointing a finger and saying they are curating is that 1. these tend to be something that everyone could benefit from (or get a laugh from), so from the “my life is more wonderful than yours” aspect — which honestly seems to be the sort of curation that is criticized — it doesn’t add up.  If you want your life to be more wonderful than mine by comparison then don’t share a great lifehack about gym prep or affixing importance to given events (don’t sweat the small stuff). Secondly, I get the impression that the Positive Person is trying to boost themselves and others as an aspect of this, and that isn’t curation so much as it is, I think, affirmation.

As I review this list and attempt to see if I am Doing It Right it occurs to me that I’ve fallen prey to survivorship bias. If we posit that “bad” curation (the kind mental health researchers are rightfully worried about) is the act of displaying only a competitive, positive slice of your life at the expense of other parts of your life — I’m thinking teen girls mostly thanks to the literature around this — I don’t have many friends (even Facebook friends) that fall prey to this. (You could argue I don’t have many friends. That may be true.)  The sample set weeded itself out before I sent (or accepted) the invite.  You could make the argument that you pick friends and don’t pick your family — but my family is the one that helped create my mindset (think lots of Nova/Nature shows, learning to balance a checkbook at 10 and do my own taxes at 14, and a severe distaste for bullshit) and so they don’t tend to share this predilection.

So I think I’ll just keep posting whatever I think is appropriate to share on Facebook — with “appropriate” defined as probably not the contents of the morning’s bowel movement or things of a similarly super-private nature — and we’ll see if someone gets jealous of my insomnia or failing gluteus minimus sinister.





Doubling Down on Facebook

I have struggled with Facebook– as a concept — for the last several months. Much as with my friends, I find the election year did it no favors with howling political rhetoric and drama around every corner. It’s not the Facebook I joined.

Remember when you could “poke” someone? And then at the holidays, you could “send candy canes” or throw sheep at them? Remember when the status updates had your name in them, so instead of saying things like “Today I discovered the best maple bar doughnuts are to be had at Tully’s!” you’d type something like, “is enjoying a maple bar doughnut from Tully’s” because it would show up as “Bobbie is enjoying…” and so forth. But over the years Facebook functionality has changed; I can’t throw sheep anymore and it lets me do things like tag people and “react” to their posts and serves up ads to me (that are, I must say, pretty on the mark).

I appreciate Facebook needs to evolve and some of these evolutions I truly enjoy. I’m Facebook Friends* (that is a new definition of friendship, I think: you wouldn’t go interrupt them at 3am in the airport in Hong Kong, for example, but if you saw them wine tasting you’d wave hi to see if they wanted to be friends in person again) with a few dozen folks I haven’t seen in many years and I *like* seeing how they are doing. There’s the guy I used to work with who quit his day job and went full time DJ (and is making a damn good living out of it and seems to be having the time of his life). There’s the gal who decided to become a photographer, the Canadian who got his US citizenship and goes rock climbing all over the place, the gal who became a florist (and again, nice work!), the guy from the old SLT job who is raising two daughters *right*, the couple moving to Austin because they can get a brand new mid-century modern house and you know they are going to make it look good.  I can check in on my  cousins in Buenos Aires, my friends in London and my friends in Australia. I can check on my friends from high school– curiously I haven’t any from college — and my friends that I see regularly so when I see them, I can say things like “so how *did* the mustard sauce turn out on the pork?”.  Facebook is particularly useful to getting out the word for civic responsibility and nonprofit work, as well, and for word-of-mouth business (that’s how I found out about Silver and Salt, for example).

Perhaps like most people the part I am unsure of — unsure because I am not certain how much of it is my perception or how much of it is Facebook’s reality — is how much of what I am being fed is representative of the “real” world. That is to say, I have the power to mute people (which I admittedly did do during the last 2 months of the election — I’ve since unmuted everyone), I have the power to “react” to ads (don’t show me this because it’s not relevant, don’t show me this because I see it all the time — they really need to have a “don’t show me this because you are tempting me and if  it goes down much further in price you’ll have my visa card”), and I have the power to say “don’t show me so much of this” or “show me more of this”.

There’s been much discussion of the “bubbles” we live in and how Facebook feeds into that, I won’t retread the ground. With all due respect to Mark Zuckerberg, I don’t believe Facebook should be my only news source — something that is/was the case with many and contributes to the aforementioned bubbles. (I don’t believe Reddit should be your only view to the world, either)**. It is evident though that as you choose your circles and selectively mute or “show me more of this” to ads and content you are tweaking the algorithm in the background and reinforcing your bubble. (It isn’t clear to me how to re-set it back to 0, incidentally — remove all of the “customizations” I’ve either explicitly or implicitly requested and see what a “new user” sees).  I therefore have my bubble, reinforced and evolving, and that is just what Facebook is going to be.

My options are thus: I can leave Facebook (directly as in closing my account or indirectly as in just not visiting), I can stay on Facebook passively (the occasional thumbs up, the occasional “Happy Birthday” as it reminds me and I remember to look), or I can actively participate. I’ve been waffling between the latter two and seriously considering the former (I know a few who have cut the cord, as it were).

The problem with divorcing Facebook is that I would no longer have a ready answer to “I wonder what so-and-so is up to?”, and I don’t have contact information (short of LinkedIn) for many of the so-and-so’s. I would miss more birthdays, I am sure. I wouldn’t get the reminder of where things were at five, six, or ten years ago; in short: I wouldn’t get the things I signed on to Facebook for.  I would not at all miss the ads, the requirement to curate the content (“see less of this”), and I would certainly not miss the uproar that echoes through the platform whenever there’s an election. (To be clear: I have political opinions and leanings just like everyone, and I back them with money and action. I am just not a yell at the top of my lungs person.)

I think, therefore, I am going to stick with one of the three options as an experiment: I’m going to carefully work with Facebook. I’ll go and like all of the things I like, and work harder to engage with the platform; I’ll use the tools it provides for privacy and for filtration, and we’ll see.  I will not make it my only source of data for news (social, local, national, or global) and if this experiment fails I’m basically fine with that. I just figured I’d give it an official run.

*see Dunbar’s number for context.

**I much prefer the Economist and then I use Flipboard to subscribe to topics rather than platforms; so for example I’m just as likely to see an article from the Wall Street Journal as I am to see one from Fox News or USA Today.  I’m also a big NPR fan. I blame my dad for that, I can remember riding in the back of a 1981 Volvo 240DL on the way to and from school and listening to NPR, thinking it was the driest, most boring stuff on the planet. Somewhere in my late 20’s that changed and now I’m putting my son through that.

Eat Your Frogs

“Eat a live frog first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain

The relative cholesterol of frogs notwithstanding* this has been my mantra for the past several days. As part of the seasonal reorganization of things here at my company, I have a new boss and new coworkers (sorta) and so there’s a bit of an administrative tax associated with that: the PowerPoint that describes your products. The weekly update email on how those products are doing. The monthly update PowerPoint on how those products are doing. The one-off PowerPoint to discuss the ProblemChild in your product, and the one-page Word docs to describe the individual projects of your Product. Then of course there’s the emails about each of these items.  It was a rough three weeks getting all of that in order, but now I think we’re there and it’s time to eat another frog.

America needs to eat a frog. Actually, your average American citizen needs to eat a *lot* of frogs, because it is Election season. Whatever their opinions are about the candidates for the Top Office are, and how much they do or do not like said candidates, that is (frankly) the least of the frogs Americans need to eat.

*All* of the 435 House of Representative seats are up for reelection this year. Thirty five of the 100 Senate seats are, too. One hundred and sixty three ballot measures are up in 35 states, and 72 citizen initiatives. In my home state we have some pretty big decisions to make, including the possibility of a carbon tax (the Economist covered it last week). There are initiatives about pot, about gun control, about taxes, and about minimum wage; I guarantee the average American has an opinion about some or all of those. I equally guarantee there are no simple choices.

Let’s take my home state: Washington. We have the aforementioned carbon emission tax on the ballot, which economists love but I guarantee you local businesses will not. Ditto the Minimum Wage initiative (actually economists are split on that one, depending on who you talk to regarding artificial price floors, etc.). Firearms make another appearance, this time around risk protection orders. Another initiative asks you to weigh privacy risks against proper compensation for home health care workers. There’s also not one, but two advisory votes (where we get to let the State House/Senate know how we feel about taxes they approved without subjecting them to vote). You may think we have a lot in our state but it turns out California and Alabama voters will have a much thicker pamphlet to read through.

All of these frogs to eat and yet, while the states are doing their best to saute them in butter and garlic (or is that braise them in red wine and tomato sauce?) our election year coverage seems largely devoted to the biggest frogs who, depending on the status of the Congress they are rewarded with, may be stuck in the mud anyway and unable to do much other than croak for the next two years.

Because of the howling cacophony over those “biggest frogs”, it’s rare you find an intelligent, balanced conversation over the little frogs (and possibly tadpoles) we need to consume. It’s almost like the sheer dread of that first big frog negates the fact that once we’re done chewing that one and swallowing it, we have to eat another fifteen, or twenty, or thirty frogs.  Unlike college, there isn’t going to be some sort of machismo pride on the line for chugging your frogs; there’s not going to be a team of your brothers and/or sisters cheering you on as you eat your frogs.  This is probably because they’ll be busy with their own frogs. Stopping to discuss the balance of flavors in the small frogs, or cooking method, seems ridiculous.

It is, however, the platefuls of small frogs that await us are what we’ll have to subsist on for the next two years (at least — remember Senate terms, for example, are six years), and they are not getting the attention they deserve. I’d argue the biggest frogs are over seasoned and will be cooked to a crisp, leaving little taste on the palette and not otherwise making any long-term impressions. It’s those carefully prepared, home-grown frogs we need to fill up on. On voting day,  you get to pick your frogs.

*50mg per 100g of frog meat, in case you were wondering, vs 88 for chicken. There may be a missed opportunity here.


I usually resist posting overtly political messages — not because I do not have opinions (boy, do I have opinions), but because I can usually find someone screaming “my” message from the top of their lungs, participating in the cacophony that runs parallel to our electoral process.

I do not pretend to have voted in every election since I was 18. I have not. I *have* however voted in every election since 2000, when I returned to Washington State and in my own self assessment became a grown up (I had voted in every Presidential election previously, but like most younger folks I had largely ignored local elections). I vote because it’s one of the freedoms we have, an ostensible say in the selection of who is going to Speak For Us, and because there are still many in the world who do not have this freedom. I also vote because I’m a firm believer that if you don’t do what you can to improve things — in any way you can, the least expensive (in time and money) of which is to vote — then you don’t get to bitch about the outcome.

Which brings me to today, Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is the day we honor those who have fallen in service to our country. Male or female, any branch of service, for hundreds of years. Some of these folks died to preserve our nation and some of them died to (purportedly) preserve similar freedoms in other nations. It’s important to remember that whether or not you agree with the reasons they were sent “over there”, they still went, they still died, and they still deserve respect for it. You can argue at the top of your lungs that you don’t agree with some of our most recent wars — and you’d be in very excellent company — but the fact of the matter is the responsibility for the Going To War is held on different shoulders than those who Go To War. Those who declare we are Going To War do so from a (hopefully) analytic mindset for the Greater Good. And those who Go To War are doing (hopefully) the best with what is given to them, be it direction, armor, or support.

That there is deficit on both sides is well-documented, maddening, and disheartening. We as constituents find out we went to war for reasons that were not as stated, or that don’t make sense, or to support an economic position, rather than a defensive one. We find out those we sent to war weren’t prepared, weren’t supported, weren’t properly supervised, mentored, and managed, and that horrible things happened to those we sent and those they were sent to protect. (The “fortunate” ones who get out, who make it back, often are equally unsupported – psychologically, medically, and financially).

This Memorial Day I have the following entreaty: Vote. It’s the simplest, easiest way to honor those who have fallen and exercise your right to pick the people who, in effect, get to select who falls next, where, and for what. And not just for the Big Ticket — vote for your members of Congress, because they’re the ones who can officially Declare War, and unofficially bring things to a grinding halt, as well we know. You may feel like this election is one of “voting against” rather than “voting for”, but at the very least you are having a say. 

Listening Ears

The last month or so has been an exercise in emotional control and perseverance: there are the usual challenges (it’s the last productive month before people start to serially take off for holidays, trying to eat healthily when people bring in baked goods is difficult, etc.) and new and unwelcome ones (a dear friend has passed on, the car decided I needed to spend some serious cash on it, a coworker is leaving which in turn throws into sharp relief just how much I can separate work and life). As such I haven’t had time to blog or really reflect on much: I’ve spent most of the month reacting and creating contingency plans.

As November is gone and I find myself firmly in the twelfth month, I have either got better at dealing with these challenges or I’ve become numb to their effect. The result is that I can finally take some time to concentrate on a (relatively) new concept: being self-aware and open-minded during challenging times (especially meetings).

We’ve had some training on this recently at the ‘soft, and courtesy of a side-program I’m getting a larger tutorial in how perspective can shape an entire interaction for the better (or worse). Traditionally I am not one to necessarily assume the best of intentions in dealing with someone during conflict — it’s something most people do not default to. (I know of one person who I think can honestly say that during a contentious debate can keep her “opponent” in a positive light; it’s fitting that she is the extremely patient Executive Director of a nonprofit devoted to helping schoolchildren (and teenagers alike)).

The idea of unconscious bias is not a new one, it’s the reason I assume the teenager in the brand new Porsche in front of me is spoiled rotten (instead of thinking they may be enjoying a ride with Mom or Grandma in their car), that the guy who cut me off on the freeway is a jerk (instead of hoping that whatever emergency they’re rushing off to is quickly resolved), that the person at work who hasn’t got back to me is a slacker (instead of positing that their workload is just as heavy as mine). It’s the reason some bosses assume it is ill-advised to hire single mothers (and some deliberately hire them), why some tourists raise their voice to speak English increasingly loudly to the people who don’t understand them, and why most people think NPR listeners are Loony Lefty Libs. (Hi.)

Nor is the concept of self-awareness a new one, if not practiced terribly often. In an era of “selfies” and Kardashians, you’d think self-awareness abounds, but alas it does not. The next time you think you are self aware, check how long it takes you to calm down after an argument with your spouse: that is, once the issue at hand has been resolved and how long until your autonomic nervous system chills out (e.g., your tone of voice changes, your heart rate slows down, you stop grimacing and feeling like you’re still arguing but aren’t really sure about what anymore).

In other words, it’s hard, when the guy has just cut you off and your latte has landed in your lap, to stop and think “gosh I hope he gets there in time”. It’s equally hard to sit in a meeting with someone who is disparaging your product or questioning your priorities to believe they are coming from a positive (or even just productive) space. It’s a skill set to practice and a useful one at work and at home, to be sure.  It’s harder still when the media (“social” and otherwise) is screaming you about the impending Armageddon (be it ISIL or Climate Change or Global Economies or Airbags or Guns or Presidential Candidates), to be positive about much.

The suggested approach (from training, shortly to be invoked in different ways) is to practice active listening: in other words, to let the other person say what they need to say NOT with a view to “how much longer do I have to listen to this drivel” but with an earnest attempt to understand where they are coming from, and acknowledge that position. This, combined with assuming the best of intentions, should serve to deter the impression that the other person is wasting your time/out to get you. The other tool provided includes essentially a “so what are we going to do about it?” mechanism — it’s perfectly fine to air an issue, but come ready to solve it or to commit to solving it. This should serve to ensure that conflict — when it does arise — is used in a positive and productive fashion. These things sound practical and practicable, but I suspect in the heat of the moment they aren’t that easy to call upon. I think, however, it is better to try, in these trying times.



Great Expectations

‘Tis the season here at My Big Software Company, where we rate ourselves and rate our peers and rate our managers in a method that doesn’t actually impart A Number, you see, but is still used to determine those numbers which are most important to working folks: how much you get paid, either in one shot (bonus), in the future (stock), or over time (raise). In other words, it is review season, and it sucks.

I don’t care how careful HR is and how well prepared they are. I don’t care what the template and tools are you are given to follow. The fact of the matter is that at least once a year and, ostensibly, four to six times a year, you are sat down and are told to quantify, in a variety of ways, the working worth of the people around you. And they are told to do the same about you. It sucks.

It’s horrifying and necessary. This process is meant to weed out the freeloaders, the bad seeds, Those Who Do Not Fit for a better word. As a manager I dreaded reviews (because as much as everyone says they want to lead a team of rock stars, guess what happens when you actually do? Now you have to rate rock stars. Which means only a few rock stars can be the rock stars of rock stars. Talk about splitting hairs.) As an employee I dread reviews (because as hot shit as I can think I am — and sometimes I really am — like any teenager staring in the mirror there are a load more times where I wasn’t even a lukewarm fart).

That more companies are moving to a system where this is not technically quantified in numbers — e.g., as a manager I would not say “Jane” is a “3” on a scale of 1-5 (for, you see, historically Janes and Jons were appalled at being reduced to a number)–means that this gets harder, not easier. How do I tell you that you are doing “pretty good” but not “really good” and so you only get a mediocre raise? How do I tell you I had to compare you to the guy who came in under-leveled — in some cases by 3 levels — because of someone ELSE’s hiring error, that has nothing to do with you? I don’t. I just tell you where you fell on the curve.

One of my favorite memes is the one that is attributed to Kurt Vonnegut but wasn’t — and was later imparted by Baz Luhrman on “Wear Sunscreen” — tells you that the race is long, and in the end, it’s only against yourself. If there were some way to measure one’s improvement against oneself, and then weight that within reasonableness (because frankly, I can have a deliberately shit year and then bust my ass for an easy “improvement” rank), that would be better.

Interesting point of fact though: we hold our kids to numbers.

My kid is in 6th grade — almost 7th  (2! weeks! to go!) — and is held to the standard 1(D), 2 (C), 3(B), 4(A) scale that I grew up with. Every assignment is reduced to numbers and faithfully reported and published (to the point where I often know his score before he does). This number — and numbers in standardized testing, either within the school or external to the school (Washington state is on its 4th or 5th “standardized’ test in the last 10 years — none of which equate to one another, so it’s a constantly shifting field)– will determine what classes he can take, which math path he is on, if he can participate in extracurricular activities, etc.  And he’s 12. Whereas his mother is 30 years his senior and doesn’t have the “advantage” of a number.

As a society we constantly worry about preparing our kids for the future, to be competitive within the global sphere. They are learning things 2 years earlier than they did at my age — both by math formulae and science concepts. They are expected to perform and they are connected in a way we never were — the kids are handed laptops as a required tool for school. The internet was this totally shady side thing when I was in school and generally not talked about. Now it’s a project to tell him about how plagiarism works and that Wikipedia is informative but cannot be your data source. We grade them and numericize them and then let them take and retake tests as needed to make sure the number fits. In short we are preparing our kids very, very well in one way, and very, very poorly in another.

In the working world, you are held to a numeric standard but it is never actually communicated to you. In the working world there are damned few test retakes and there is little extra credit. It’s this world full of meetings and 1-on-1’s and phraseology without hard-core definition. In the student world it’s the opposite: little individual time and little talk, all strict grading and numeric application. In college this gets less personal and more regimented. We train our kids to know things, but not apply them.

This mad scramble that results, inevitably, in a new testing method every two years or so means that we are trying to hit a moving target with a bow and arrow while on the back of a truck in the middle of an earthquake. Instead of sticking with one test– however suboptimal– we change the test in hopes of finding some “perfect test” that will make everything sane. Instead of gearing curriculae towards the Real World, we chase some phantom metric that is meant to make us feel better about being twenty-somethingth — or is it thirty-somethingth, now?– in the world on education. When we were, at one time, first.

We are two weeks out from the final grades that will numerically identify how “well” my kid did in school this year. We are two months from the longer, more complicated, not-numerically-driven conversation with my boss about how “well” I did at work this year.

In neither case can we state with confidence that the analysis was foolproof, regardless of the outcome.


The freeway between Centralia and Vancouver, WA is actually quite pretty, despite the gray drizzle that is the hallmark of October through April in Washington. Either side of the freeway is lined with trees, broken up occasionally by pastoral lands and the occasional body of water. The morning drive was shortly after dawn, the evening drive at night: without the benefit of scenery I listened to Snap Judgment podcasts.

I was bouncing between these two fair cities because my mother lives near one, and the 2014 Annual Washington State PTA Legislative Assembly was in the other. This is a departure from previous years, where the Assembly has been held in Seattle; in an effort to make things more equitable for non-Puget Sound schools the PTA has moved the event. Although to be frank I’m not certain how moving it to a far corner of the state benefits most. If we want to put everyone to equal inconvenience, I think we should hold it in Yakima next year. It’s wine season then, and odd years are not voting years.

The purpose of the two-day Assembly is to have representatives from each school PTA across Washington caucus and vote on the top issues the PTA Legislative Team will work on in the coming two years. To clarify: Of the 15 issues presented, we pick the top 5, which represent where the lobbying dollars and effort go.  There are educational opportunities as well – yours truly attended an eye-opening seminar on the capital budgeting process used by school district to figure out what they need in and for a new school – but the primary focus is to get together and vote your conscience or your constituency, and to influence others to vote your way.

It is an exercise in diplomacy that I find a constant challenge.

My school had four issues it cared very, very much about; the largest overlap with my own concerns was Funding McCleary. (To read more about McCleary, see this. And maybe this too.) I participated in a caucus and I opened my mouth to indicate that people like facts and data to support rhetoric; I found myself then scheduled to speak at the microphone at night. It was slightly over one minute, I spent it reminding myself that I should not speak too quickly, and I pelted people with facts.  I was one of 4 “pro” speakers, and there was 1 “con” speaker… and only one “no” vote at the end of the day.

When given an assignment to publicly speak I find that I don’t do it well on my feet. I spend hours finding data, drafting text, practicing, rehearsing, etc. In previous jobs where I had to present in front of 80 or 100 people I would carefully prepare, sometimes days in advance, or sometimes on the redeye between Seattle and London. Extemporaneous speech is not something I am good at, and it makes me sick to my stomach for the period immediately preceding and following.

The purpose of advocacy – and of acting as a representative of your school and constituency – is to speak up even when it means you are going to be personally discomfited, to be personally challenged, and to be publicly opposed.  As PTA parents we advocate for kids who are still learning to advocate for themselves, and frankly for an educational society that is often oblivious to their need of advocacy. After my brief spotlight that night I had to call the male person and calm down before I could take the wheel and drive the 100 miles home to my mother’s house.

A Letter to the Girl at the Gym, Going Back to CalPoly

Congratulations! You’re going back to Cal Poly!

Oh, I hope you don’t mind. David told me. David is my trainer, and your trainer, and as you’ve been training with him it will come as no surprise that he shared that. The fact that you and I don’t really know each other somehow makes this okay, but I’m still not sure how the social convention of talking about others works (when it is and isn’t okay), so just understand he is proud of you and that’s why.

He said you came back because you didn’t make friends and no one was particularly nice to you your first quarter.

Well, first, let me congratulate you again, and point out that you are making a financial decision that will last the rest of your life, and that we need more women in STEM, and that since the American schooling system is trained to either drop you out or send you to college (no trades-person training, which really should happen), you picked the best route, really. I’ll do you the credit to assume you knew that.

That said, a word about the friends thing: You’re not in college to make friends, and the deck was stacked against you.

To my first point: college is widely touted as this friendship-making, bonding experience that late teens/early twenty-somethings will have, filled with parties, alcohol, clear skin, walking to class in your pj’s, Ramen dinners, learning the physics of beer pong, etc. Every college brochure has the following 3 pictures among others: one pic of a beautiful college campus with architectural or landscaping feature, one pic of what a graduate of this college will look like (cap, gown, diploma, smile), and one pic — and usually several more — of groups of diverse young people with big smiles doing varying things in and out of class.

Take it from me: friends are what happen in between cramming for tests, running to class, and sleep deprivation. Friends *can* happen in college, but they are not part of the curriculum or contract  you (and/or your parents) are making with the university. Speaking as someone who attended classes where some of the constituents CRIED because they got a 95% (that’s crying with shame, mind you) — and the class was graded on a curve — college classes, and particularly STEM classes, are competitive. While it is possible to be friends and competitors, it’s a difficult trick and usually requires more experience than the school system arms you with. (Remember, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, we are all Special.)

Friends do not instantly appear as part of your dorm room provision, and in fact most people I know who did stay in the dorms avoided their dorm mates. Not that they were bad people, or anything, just not their type. Also, since college is a different psychological playing field than high school was, the criteria by which people group themselves together and socially signal is subtly altered. Wearing the right clothes or doing your hair the right way will not automatically identify you with some particular group that you can meld in to. You will find, I think, that this is a good thing.

Which leads me to my second point: you were going to have a hard time making friends. Everyone does, but you in particular will. First, I agree that it is unfair. Second, I will explain: you are a tall, athletic blonde, with fine features, and clear skin. You have the brains to get into CalPoly. You are, therefore, the subject of envy on two fronts.

Most of us who could get into CalPoly (and I say us because I didn’t apply myself — in both senses of the word — but had I –again, in both senses of the word — I would have got in) were the ugly ducklings of our high school. We had thick glasses and our skin wasn’t clear and we “geeked out” on things before being a geek became cool. (Wait, does that make us hipster geeks?) We spent our high school — and some of us, junior high — lives being either envious of your looks, your social sphere, and your choices; or being mistreated by you or people who look like you. (Example: it was one of “your” group in junior high who did the “finger test” down my spine to see if I was wearing a bra, and then announced it to the entire lunchroom.)  There’s an entire subsection of high schools everywhere of folks who were like me, who pretty much cried every day they had to go to school for a given period (in my case, about a year) because being a teenager is awkward enough but the additional unfairness that is heaped upon everyone in those times just makes it more so.

Imagine our distaste, then, when we find out you had brains, too.

Even if you weren’t one of the locker-room bullies, even if you were super-nice popular girl (and we had a bunch of those, too — and those are the ones I can be Facebook friends with now, actually, because they’re the same and I’ve grown up), we still were going to Go To College and Everything Would Be Better. We wouldn’t be judged on our looks and would only compete with our brains, and especially, especially at a technical college, our brains would be the thing most appreciated.

And now we saw you had them, too.

There’s going to be reticence. There’s going to be envy, and comparison, and competition, and it’s going to feel a lot like that first part of Legally Blonde where the two characters — the blonde one and the brunette one, I don’t remember their names but the brunette is considered more smart and less pretty, naturally — are in the thick of it and the smart, less-pretty brunette (I think the quote was “not entirely unfortunate looking”) is picking on the blonde. The real and perceived inequities of high school coming back and asserting themselves on someone who looks like, but isn’t, the person they had to deal with.

Totally, completely, and utterly unfair. In retrospect I agree. (Did I do this? No. I slacked off. It wasn’t a better solution.)

So I want to give you this advice, because it was hard to make friends for me as well — in junior high and high school. And, as I have the clarity of some years, this is the advice I wish I had gotten, and/or followed:

1. Remember where you are, and why you are there. It’s 3.67 more years to go, which is a comparatively small part of your life: treat it like a job. Learn as much as you can, get a decent GPA. Come home to the friends you’ve made here, but don’t be surprised if they change — or if you do. It happens.

2. Make friends outside of college. Join the gym there, or a club, get a part-time job at a place whose products you enjoy. Keep your college life, and your personal life, separate, at least at the start. You will find them slowly merging, and it may take a couple of quarters or a year, but if you don’t require it as an instant presentment you will be fine.

3. Get an internship somewhere. This will help you when you graduate to show practical work experience. It also shows you that most of the world operates differently from high school and college, and while it is not the utopia most of us thought college would be, it is far better than college was. You’ll learn about the difference in expectations of the corporate world and the academic world, you’ll learn the value of a well-timed coffee break or how to multitask in a meeting. Possibly more importantly you’ll learn if that is what you want to do when you get out of college, or if you want to pursue a more academic life.

As you left I heard you tell David you’ll be back in November, to visit for Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to the update. 🙂

State of Education

I was born in California, and the first 12 years of my life lived there. The summer before my 13th birthday we emigrated to Washington, all six of us: my four parents, my brother, and I. Up until then we had gone to private school (in my case, religious private school) because my parents wanted to keep us out of the blackboard jungles of southern California.

When we arrived in Washington State the public school system was actually pretty darn good — the fellow students in my junior high were, for the most part, atrocious (as all junior high kids are) and my social register was somewhere beneath pond scum; but the educational offerings, while not as good as a private school, were pretty decent. My brother and I were as challenged as we wanted to be (which became “not much” and so between parent teacher conferences and report cards, the continual theme was “Bobbie could do so much better if she just applied herself”.)

As a twelve to seventeen year old student, I did not pay attention to educational funding or where public schools ranked within the state or the country; I wasn’t a taxpayer and I regarded school as a dismal use of my time (why couldn’t I just sit in a corner and read someplace?). When I finished college (the first time), left home to go create my own, and returned to the state with the intent to start a family, I still assumed Washington schools were “fine”, as they were when I was in school.

By the time my son was about 2 I was hearing, from the fellow mommy reports, that this was not so. Funding issues were brought to the forefront, and as someone who has voted in every election since 2000, I discovered a direct correlation with my vote and my taxes. I was paying for these schools now, so why was I hearing complaints from the field? Why were the local schools needing additional funding, seemingly each year, in the form of bonds and levies?

When my son entered Kindergarten, I resolved to be as involved in the school system as I could — PTA, volunteering, etc. Doing this as a single mother working full-time was difficult but necessary; there’s an unspoken “us vs. them” for the parents who contribute (in any form or fashion) vs. the parents who do not. This is not fair but it is true. With every PTA meeting and email from the school and school district, it became clear that as well-funded as our schools seem and ought to be, they are not. As we live in an area where the median house costs about $350k and nearly every high schooler drives his/her car to school, this is not what one would expect.

My son’s school — the one he is leaving — was built the year my brother was born. There are five or six portables that have been there at least twenty years, housing not only “electives” like music and computers, but also at least two grade-level classrooms. In my six-year tenure here, the PTA has paid for cement stairs and a ramp for easier access to the kindergarten area, fencing to protect the schooling area from bears and predators that walk on two legs (for we have had cases of child enticement), new landscaping, chairs for all of the classrooms, new sports equipment, stipends for the teachers annually to spend on school supplies, scholarships for children whose parents cannot afford the roughly $350/year in expected purchase of school supplies, materials, school party contributions, and field trip costs. That the direct community who benefits from this (parents of the local students) is the direct community who provides it, is a pleasant thing. The realization that we are fortunate and there are other schools in this district and throughout this state where they cannot hope to raise equivalent cash is not.

Washington state is unique in that it has a state constitutional mandate to *amply* fund education. Unfortunately it hasn’t and got sued (see the McCleary case) and lost in its own Supreme Court. Lawmakers are scrambling to figure out how, with the number of tax-reducing propositions on the ballot, they can achieve the now court-mandated requirement to fully fund education by 2018. This is not eased by Common Core State Standards (whether you’re for or against them — and my opinion is that at least there’s a standard now, even if it’s a low one — they do cost money in the form of teacher training, new materials, etc.). This is not eased by teachers unions (who fight legitimately for better benefits for people who are treated as babysitters and, for the most part, have the shittiest job around; on the flip side they protect those teachers who are not deserving of the pseudo-tenure said unions provide). I have participated in three ballot/levy votes here in our little area of Sammamish, including this last round. For this last round I knocked on 375 doors, I called 85 strangers, I emailed hundreds more. I wrote each week to the local newspaper to get them to print my letter urging constituents to vote, explaining the benefits of a properly funded and educated community to even those who do not, or no longer, have children in schools here. (I succeeded twice.) In this most recent effort, the operational expenditures the district needed to survive were approved. Our kids will have heat in their classrooms, they will have virus-free computers, they will have secure locks on doors.

But they will have this at 40 kids to a classroom, with some children being bussed in from 10-15 miles away, because the local bond initiative (to account for expansion) failed. We have a total of 300 brand new houses going up in the immediate area this year alone; the average house here has 4 bedrooms. The amenities keep expanding and City of Sammamish is spending a record amount of money on a local swimming pool and community center. If you want to go to a chiropractor, an orthodontist, a podiatrist, a personal tutoring service, a nail shop, a grocery store, a sports equipment store, or a gas station in Sammamish you have a choice of three of those (each) within a 3-mile-square area. What I do not understand is we fund all of these things through the local economy, and the demand is there for additional housing for families ostensibly with children– where are those kids going to go to school?

Already poorly-paid teachers, who will not be getting raises in exchange for some preservation of their retirement funds, will need to stretch their attention to an additional 10 or so students. The level of personalized attention is already small in a 30-student classroom (in elementary school, where that attention is needed as they build the foundations of study and learning practice). It will diminish that much more as the schooling populace swells. Sammamish, and the local school district, will not have the ability to put forth another bond measure for four years, meaning that the short-term decision-making of the paltry 34% of the populace that voted (yep, that’s right, only about a third of the voting populace voted, and while more than half voted for the bond, bonds require a supermajority (60%) which was not had) will have some long-term effects on the community as a whole.

I had been Legislative Advocate at my son’s Elementary school for five years. This last year, after the second failure of the bond (there was proposal A, and then when that failed a special election for proposal B), I gave up. It may be temporary, and I may just be suffering from fatigue of the situation; I increasingly feel that this society values an “every man for himself” view of education.

Well, if that’s how it’s going to be, that’s how it’s going to be. It’s just a sad state of affairs.



NB: I may have previously mentioned that I’m not “into sports”, by which I mean I have not followed football or baseball or basketball teams. It’s only just recently that I’ve figured out when those seasons start and end, and that I have learned the rules of football (thanks to a SuperBowl party and the fact that my region’s team was in the SuperBowl this year. As the kids say, “Go Hawks!”) This post will therefore be unusual that it deals with sports. It will not be unusual in that it deals with gender perception and economics.

This past Wednesday some 700 thousand plus people descended on downtown Seattle to celebrate the Seahawk’s winning of the SuperBowl. Busses were jammed all morning, many folks did not go to work, kids skipped school; this was all for the privilege of standing along 4th Avenue, in the cold, hours on end, for a parade that ironically started late because those in the parade couldn’t get to their starting point because of all the people.

The parade seems to have made many people happy; my Facebook was replete with happy family photos of smiling, green-and-blue-dressed people, plus blurry photos of those in the parade. Everyone seems to have had a good time.

Nestled in that timeline, though, was a comment (actually two, from two different people), that the Seattle Storm (our local female basketball team) won National Championships twice, and no parade was had for them. (It should also be noted that the Seahawks paid for their own parade. )

In reviewing those comments the implication is, I think, that because it was a women’s team that won previously they were not “good enough” (not my words, just what I’m inferring from the context of the statement) because they were female. It doesn’t help that articles like this announced that the last time Seattle had earned a national title was when the Sonics won in 1979 (considerably before the Seattle Storm’s victories of  2004 and 2010 ). Forbes went so far as to acknowledge them and indicate they weren’t “counting” them. And yes, when the Sonics won in 1979 a parade was had.

There are two culprits here: sexism and economics.

Let’s take the simpler one: economics, specifically the concept of Supply And Demand. More specifically, there are demand differences between Women’s Basketball and Men’s Football. (It would have been nicer to have a Men’s Basketball team to weed out the gender variable, or a Women’s Football team, but alas we lost the former and the latter doesn’t really appear to exist except for the Lingere Bowl).

The Seattle Storm plays in Key Arena which holds  slightly over 17,400 seats; they play 34 games per season. 16 of those games are played “home”.  Ticket prices range from $16 to $155 with a mode of $28.  Let’s further say that 20% of anyone at an “Away” game is there for the Storm, and 80% of anyone at a “Home” game is. However, the Storm doesn’t actually sell all of the seats in Key Arena (they block off a portion, and they don’t often sell all the seats that are unblocked). 9,600 seats are actually available to sell and at times The Storm sells about 50% of those. Let’s assume similar seating volumes at away games, and or the purpose of this hack math, let’s say half of the time they’re at half, and the other half of the time they’re sold out, for a blended average of 75% capacity. So a back-of the-envelope dollar value for interest in The Seattle Storm would be about (9600*.75*.8*28*16)+(9600*.75*.2*28*18)= 2580480+725760=$3,306,240. (This obviously doesn’t include sponsorships, swag sales, etc.)

The Seattle Seahawks play in Century Link Field (the Clink) which holds about 68,000 seats and the Seahawks had sold out every one by July. The average ticket price was $220, they had 17 games in their regular season, and had 62,000 season ticket holders. Let’s just stick with the season ticket holders, as that is cash up front. (17*62000*220)=$231,880,000. (This also doesn’t include sponsorships, swag sales, etc.)

In short, there is a purchase-behavior disparity of 7000%.

That disparity is driven by not only volume (the Clink seating is 7x the amount in Key Arena used by The Storm), but also by price (average ticket price for the Seahawks is larger than the HIGHEST ticket price for The Storm).  Even if The Storm were to sell 100% of the available seats in Key Arena, they’d fall very short of economic comparability to the Seahawks in terms of fan fiscal investment.

But this isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know: the demand for entertainment via male football is much greater than the demand for female basketball. The Sonics left in 2008 and their ticket demand is 44,000 season ticket holders, meaning that even if they sold at the same price as The Storm they would still outsell on overall ticket volumes. And so we can infer that demand for entertainment via male basketball is greater than the demand for female basketball.

And so we segue into sexism: essentially that people are making economic demand decisions based on gender preference in sports.  As a society we tend to like our sports hyper-competitive, confrontational, metricized and self-aggrandizing. Nowhere is this more evident than how we idolize the players, how we purchase team jerseys and say “us” vs “them” when talking about upcoming games. “We won”, “they lost” is how games are summed up; followed by an earnest delve into strategic review of plays, the metrics and statistics behind those plays, and player strength.

These are not things we encourage in our girls. Much has been made of now-pink Legos and Goldie Blox, of Sheryl Sandberg Leaning In and the overall interest in getting More Girls into STEM. We enroll our daughters in soccer just as readily as Girl Scouts, we tell them they can be anything when they grow up. A girl who is hyper-competitive though is deemed less attractive, a girl who is confrontational is deemed a bitch. (Let’s not even touch self-aggrandizing). Women’s basketball is not televised nearly as much, or touted as often, as men’s.

We make these choices, and display our preferences, by our societal expenditure. The Seattle Storm will have a parade when the larger group decides that the athletic achievements of women is as representative and worthy as that of men, and that will have to come from increased ticket sales, which will in turn have to come from increased demand.