Category Archives: Social Engineering

God Bless the CWA

April 8, 2011

God bless the CWA. One of the great benefits of living in a university town is the infusion of wisdom and controversy waves of young minds and somewhat older professors wash over us each year. The CWA brings this intellectual cross-pollenization to a head. The most wondrous aspect of the sessions is the audience. In the journalism session I attended on Wednesday (“Long Live the News”), 20% appeared to be students and the remainder constituted a robust cross-section of Boulder’s other residents. I may have to start reducing my commitments during CWA, because the quality of the presentations and the subsequent questions and answers was at the highest level.

“News” is flowing towards us in an ever-growing torrent. Our job, if we choose to accept it (and heaven help us, if we don’t), is to develop Great American Readers and Listeners. Skepticism must always exist in response to a pay-to-play news cycle. Wire services have been steadily pumping stories out since the early part of the last century. The blogosphere is doing the same thing, but at drinking-out-of-a-fire-hose speeds and volume. WE must apply the filters and slow down our “judgment cycle” as the news cycle speeds up.

Some commentators do more old-fashioned journalism than the anchors from other outlets, correcting misinformation, revealing biases, learning from real experts, and placing actual facts in play. Other “affirmation-type” journalists eschew consistent accuracy, compelling prose and thoughtful analysis. We must find ways to feed the former and starve the latter, before it’s too late.

Gas Price Increases Won’t Persist

March 12, 2011
The law of supply and demand does not apply. Speculators rule. We (literally) pay the price.

Is $3.75 per gallon the new normal, or will this be just another bump in the road? Experts are attributing half the price increase since last fall to competition with India and China. That is unlikely to change. The price increases during the past couple of weeks are harder to explain.

The situation in Libya is very troubling from a humanitarian perspective, but Saudi Arabia has committed to replace Libya’s 2% share of world oil production. Experts have indicated there is no shortage of oil or gasoline in the supply system, so emotions and potential profits, not market principles, underlie the recent price spike. This, too, shall pass.

U.S. consumers have shown a remarkable ability to rapidly reduce gas consumption in response to historic price hikes. The result has been clogging of the distribution system, which has often lead quickly to price decreases to clear out the excess inventory. Thus, in ordinary circumstances, we profligately waste gas, but we know how to conserve when that matters.
The gas price roller-coaster rides we have taken in the past have braced us for a future that is not built upon a cheap energy foundation, but it hasn’t lead to widespread industry retooling, business model revision, or personal behavioral adjustments. We have, however, sold our clunkers, greased our bikes, and identified trip-combining opportunities – our personal transportation “Easy” buttons. The future is likely to demand more.

New Year’s Resolutions, circa 2011

January 2, 2011

Let’s take ourselves less seriously, set aside our historic community feuds, extend our planning horizon, and begin the process of saving our species. Mother Nature doesn’t care about us all that much. At this point, Mother Earth can support microbes and cockroaches more easily than humans. Where is Plan(et) B? The dinosaurs had it done to them, but we’re doing it to ourselves; and we think we’re the intelligent ones?

We hope we can save ourselves by tinkering around the margins (i.e., buy a Prius, install solar panels, insulate, grow your own vegetables, install low flow shower faucets [been there, done that]), but what we really need to do is restore turn of the last century streetscapes. You know,: the walk to work, bike to school, say “hi” to the neighbors at the corner grocery store, take a train to the big city once in a while world that is the definition of nostalgia now, but was all we needed to survive without cheap oil in its day.

We need modernity’s antibiotics, birth control and Internet, but we also need to wean ourselves off of outsourced manufactured goods and 3,000-mile salads in favor of home-grown food and home-made stuff that isn’t dependent upon $50/barrel oil for its creation or $3.00/gallon gasoline for its transport. We can expect those prices to double or even triple in the next 5 years, but so what if they don’t? What makes you happy? Less driving? Shopping closer to home? Follow your bliss in 2011.

Seth Brigham, Redux

Seth Brigham, Redux
September 25, 2010

‘Tis a challenge to find 250 more words to write on this arguably unworthy subject. Isn’t all the attention going to encourage or enable similar behavior? Not to mention the cold, hard cash. Do we really want Council’s public comment period to become the City of Boulder’s “Gong Show” (apologies to Chuck Barris)?

The premature “hook” of Mr. Brigham is apparently going to cost “us” $10,000. What would have been “price-less” is waiting a few additional seconds to see whether Seth might remove his skivvies, thus committing an actual code violation; or, his three minutes having been exhausted, whether Seth would be content to simply leave the stage wearing fewer clothes than when he started.

Let’s be honest. Boulder’s citizenry are a creative lot. Anticipating every behavior that might be conjured up by one of our own is well nigh impossible at a public hearing, where passions have occasionally been known to run hot. Thus, patience is proved yet again to be a virtue. Instead of, “Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200” (apologies to Parker Brothers), we pay $10Gs. We ought to be able endure for three minutes or less almost any combination of words and actions. We do it on the Downtown Mall all the time, don’t we?

There are victims of city mistakes who are far more deserving, but the City has told them, “times are tough; we’re sorry, but we just don’t have the money.” This case settlement would suggest otherwise.

College Student Empathy Dropping?

June 5, 2010

Balderdash. Take the quiz yourself at Now tell me whether you’re willing to make any hard and fast judgments about your own level of empathy, or that of current college students, based on the questions asked and how you have to answer them? Even a little humility in the way answers to the quiz questions are given skews the totals. And the more one knows about the world’s suffering – we see far more evidence of suffering today than we did thirty years ago – the more reason there is to be humble.

Remember the Twitter- and Facebook-generated donations for Haitian relief in January, which overwhelmed the Red Cross with millions of texted $10 gifts? Actions speak louder than words. Yes, some of these donations were from others, and some were from students whose parents pay the cell bill, but six months ago, Twitter and Facebook were still primarily driven by college students; they stepped up in a big way and deserve credit for doing so.

More significantly, how many young people do you personally know who devote days, weeks or even months of their lives to helping the less fortunate? There are 38 youth from First Congregational Church in Boulder leaving today to spend a week with other youth groups helping San Antonio’s poor and dispossessed – after fundraisiing for months to pay for the privilege. FCC youth have done this since 1988. Thirty years ago, talk of empathy was cheap. Today’s young people walk their talk.

Testing Students and Life-long Learning

May 8, 2010

In a 1979 book, Peter’s People, Laurence Peter wrote, “competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.” To the extent students get caught up in the hysteria, they are ill-served. Students should be encouraged to make mistakes, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and test their limits of rigor in the classroom. A fixation on test results defeats this educatory purpose.

The outcome of a good education is not measured by the grades or scores received. The true tests are: (1) what has the student learned (and retained), and (2) has s/he learned how to learn. The day you stop learning is the day you start falling behind. The skill requires some native intelligence, but more important is a healthy measure of self-discipline and effort. The best professors instill a passion in their students for the subjects they teach. The best students convert the passion to scholarship.

Testing should identify and reward the students who have (1) mastered the material and (2) are still hungry for more. It usually does the former, but rarely does the latter. As class sizes rise, direct student/teacher interaction declines, and depersonalized testing methods tend to predominate. Clever test-takers game the system. New “clicker” technology, pioneered by CU professor Doug Duncan, helps in the classroom, keeping students engaged and interactively guiding the curriculum to deepen their understanding. Could interactive, digital testing, tracked in an ongoing manner, create a “body of work” which better reveals our best students? It’s worth a try.

No Harm, No Howl

February 27, 2010

“No shirt, no shoes, no ‘sermon?'” At this point, I’ll bet everyone who was in Council’s chambers Tuesday night wishes Seth Brigham had been given his 3 minutes, because the resulting exposure (pun intended) just might have everyone disrobing for the next City Council meeting. I suppose it is a good thing that Council will now have carefully crafted procedures to handle the next person who seeks to speak in their skivvies, but we really do have more important matters to address this year.

I hope we don’t spend too much time carving out First Amendment exceptions to avoid comments that might hurt a councilor’s feelings or breach civic decorum in some other “personal” way. Give a clear warning, threaten removal if need be, and then follow through. But remember the “sticks and stones” rule: “names will never hurt me.” Council members ought to be able to survive 3 minutes of ill-conceived diatribe, even if it’s rude, insensitive and demeaning, without permanent harm.

Don’t get me wrong, they clearly don’t deserve it – Lord knows theirs is a thankless, poorly compensated “job” for which they deserve our thanks, not our brickbats. However, uncivil discourse almost always says more about the speaker than the accused. The audience can keep score pretty easily. Let’s not sternly manage Council meetings to prevent 1% from getting away with behavior that 99% of our citizens would never even consider doing. After all, such moments can be quite “revealing.”

Paper or Plastic?

January 16, 2010

When a child I love asks me if it’s ok to use plastic bags, can’t I just say, “yes,” and to their inevitable follow up “why” question, “because I said so?” But now the answer is, “no,” and the follow up is “because you (the young’un) said so.” Cool.

Well, that resolves the grocery quandary. My choice, my rules.

Now, how about the daily newspaper? The Daily Camera decides this for me today. In response to my query, I was told that the Camera arrives in a No. 4, LPDE (Low Density Polyethylene) bag, a thermoplastic wrapper made from petroleum. Uh-oh. They are recyclable, but not conveniently so: they must be clean, dry and empty when they are taken to the Eco-Cycle/Boulder Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials at a cost of $3.00 per car visit. My friends with dogs appreciate them as pooper-scoopers. Bag karma?

In a perfect world, every product would include in its base price the costs associated with its next “life.” We’re getting better at these calculations, but we’re a long way from doing it as a matter of course. God bless the children. It’s their future, and they have every right to nag us until we take our grubby hands off it.

Boulder’s Transportation Culture

October 9, 2009

The sooner Boulder’s transportation culture changes, the better. The challenge is that too many of our neighborhoods are not walkable or bike-able today; they were designed for automobiles. The planning assumption was you could rely upon cheap fuel to carry you, in a car, whenever and wherever you needed to go.

As we struggle to re-insert pedestrians and cyclists into our transportation infrastructure, all the blinking lights and shouted warnings we’re installing won’t change human nature. When you’re behind the wheel of an automobile, pedestrians and cyclists are not a threat. Your brain will take note of the semi-trailer truck your eyes see, but the poor bicyclists and walkers can be filtered out.

To bicyclists and pedestrians, Rule 1 is: you’re “invisible.” Rule 2 is: if a driver can see you, they will try to kill you! Every injured bicyclist I met as a municipal prosecutor told me the same story: I made eye contact with them, they “saw” me, and then they ran me over. No, they didn’t see you. Their eyes were gazing in your direction, but their brain, safely encased within their cranium, which was safely encased within a 2,000 pound steel shell on wheels, didn’t care.

Every driver should look carefully for what they can not see. Where are the blind spots? Where are the pets and people? Instead of looking for what can kill you, look for what you might kill – two very different points of view. Courtesy is contagious – just do it!

Marijuana Decriminalization

Daily Camera, 4/18/2009

Our prisons are overflowing, our border with Mexico is a free fire zone (both sides supplied by U.S. arms manufacturers), our need for tax revenues is increasing exponentially and our resources for law enforcement are stretched to their limits. Prohibition of marijuana isn’t working any better today than prohibition of alcohol worked in the 1920s.

Police chiefs all over the country are beginning again to use the “D” word (Decriminalization was popular in the 1960s and early 1970s), but now they do so for practical, not simply philosophical reasons. Keeping pot “illegal” has not enabled educational efforts to administer a coup de grace, though it has placed many otherwise law-abiding and non-threatening people behind bars (mandatory sentencing guidelines too often tie the hands of thoughtful judges).

Marijuana is less addictive than nicotine and causes far less harm directly to the body (and indirectly to other people) than alcohol. To the extent irresponsible use leads to unlawful behavior, enhanced penalties can remain (i.e., stop sign sober, 4 points; stop sign under the influence, 8 points and up). However, those laws exist today and pot-smokers are not our DUI problem. They are more of a threat to Frito’s than to other drivers.

Finally, keeping pot’s use criminal means users with substance abuse problems must weigh legal repercussions before seeking help. Legalizing its use, but regulating its production, potency, and distribution – while taxing the bejesus out of it – will ultimately result in far more societal good than harm.