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UMass Resource Allocation

April 14, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

Since I arrived at UMass Amherst, it has been confronted with stark choices in the face of dramatic budget cuts several times. People still talk about the cuts in the late 80s, before I arrived. And I still vividly remember Chancellor Lombardi describing how he planned to minimize the damage of the cuts he was compelled to make in 2003.

We are not today faced with such stark choices. Instead, we have an opportunity in a moment of relative calm, to reflect on how resources are allocated on campus and what system should be put in place going forward.

Prior to this process, I had little understanding of how resources on campus are actually allocated. That is, I understood that the campus receives revenue from various sources, like the "state allocation" and "tuition retention" and "grants and contracts". And I understood that my department received funds in the form of GOF and faculty lines. In between, were shadowy figures like deans and the provost, who were important somehow, but their actual roles were mysterious to me. And I had little or no knowledge about how my department compared with other departments. Or how the activities of any department connected with those sources of revenue.

After completing the first phase of building a strategic plan for the campus, the chancellor began to lay the groundwork for moving to a new model for resource allocation. Now the Joint Task Force for Resource Allocation (JTFRA) is issuing their report, after several months of work and weeks of public feedback. Their current recommendations are that we continue the process and begin testing "an alternate resource allocation model". This new model will provide a lot more information about how funds are allocated.

There is a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about this new model. People worry that this process will inevitably lead to everything being monetized and all decisions being driven by bean counting and the bottom line. That might be true, except for the Strategic Plan we've been building.

Through the strategic plan, we know what we want to do and where we're trying to go. Now we need to figure out how to get there. If all we had was a resource allocation model, we might be tempted to use it to establish our goals. But we already have a plan, well elaborated, that charts the path we want to follow. And the resource allocation model can help us identify the means.

Several years ago, I was in a conversation where one person said, "I don't like to play politics" and another said, "Ah, but that's still playing politics -- that's just playing politics badly." I think the same is true here. Defending the status quo means defending a situation in which you have almost no knowledge of the actual financial situation of the University or the consequences and implications of our actions.

We need to monitor the exploration of resource allocation systems closely. We need to educate ourselves. And we need to ensure that whatever system we put into place provides the information we need to make decisions effectively: this probably means we need more than purely financial data. We need to become and remain engaged in the process. And that is, I think, a key goal of the whole exercise. If we have more information, we can make better decisions.

Poŝtamikoj el pasinteco

April 12, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

Hodiaŭ mi ricevis epoŝton de ulo en Connecticut kiu sendis al mi bildojn de letero kiun li trovis inter la paperoj de sia avo. Li klarigis ke sia avo parolis Esperanton kaj biciklis tra Eŭropo en 1931. La letero estis de 1956 kaj li tre volis scii pri kio temas kaj petis min traduki. Jen tio, kion mi tradukis:

  Dolni Kounice 21/8/1956

  Estimata sinjoro!

  Mi ricevis vian leteron 20/8, sed tia por kiu vi lin 
  adresatis, jam efektive neloĝis al adreso Dolni Kounice, 
  sed forlasis tian malĝojan monaton 6/3/55 kaj iradis de 
  sian gepatroj en la ĉielo. Kun ŝi fortiris mia lasta 
  bela punkto de mia vivo. Mia fratino estis jam multe 
  jaron malsana kun la galo, kaj maltrankvilo de 
  lastan jaron rapidis ŝia morto.

  Ŝi ofte rememoris vin kio vi faras kaj ĉu vi vivas. Ho, 
  kia ĝojo havis fratino ĉe via memoro!

  Mi estas ankaŭ jam maljuna kaj mi sopiras baldaŭ kunveni 
  de mian karan.

  Pardonu, ke mia letero neestas bone skribita, mi konas 
  malmulte Esperanto, sed mi pensas, vi komprenos tion.

  Salutas vin kore,

Li dankis min pro la traduko kaj diris ke sia avino ĉiam diris ke la avo estis la originala hipio, kiu volis unuigi la mondon per Esperanto kaj arto post la unua mondmilito.

Community Television, Free Software, and Maker/Hacker Communities: Aspirations of Freedom

April 12, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

Below are my remarks from the 2014 Science for the People conference.


Growing corporate control of media, software, and consumer products over the past 50 years has led to three largely separate movements to preserve the ability of ordinary people to access the means of production of mass media, computer software and, most recently, the technological hardware of modern culture. The movements share an aspiration that transparency and community participation are fundamental to democracy and an egalitarian society. Understanding their history and the reactions to these movements can provide insight into current and future efforts to secure freedom.


I was unaware of the activities of Science for the People at the time. Being 6 or 7 years old, I was probably busy watching Captain Kangaroo. Looking back, however, I perceive that there is a common thread running through a number of other communities, or movements, that have shared similar goals, strategies, and aspirations. Looking back at Science for the People through the lens of these other movements may offer some insights. Charting the successes and failures of all of these movements may help us find common ground and look for ways that we could unify these struggles around common principles leading to greater success.


The printing press, film, radio, and television all offered means to disseminate information widely: to create a mass market for ideas. Throughout history, a constant tension has existed due to the capital that has been required to utilize these tools. This has consistently created an environment which favors ideas palatable to the owners of capital.

In the late 1960s, Sony introduced the Portapak — a portable video camera recorder system — which dramatically reduced the costs for producing television programming. A number of video collectives, such as the Raindance Foundation, sprang up with the goal of creating alternative forms of communication.

George Stoney, a documentary film-maker and professor at New York University, co-founded the Alternative Media Center with Red Burns which, in turn founded the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers (today the Alliance for Community Media) which lobbied for government regulation to support community access.

Stoney said that "cable access" was about more than access. “We look on cable as a way of encouraging public action, not just access,” he said. “It’s how people can get information to their neighbors, and their neighbors can get out on the streets to organize.”

The transition to cable television provided an opportunity for communities to require cable franchises to offer resources for public access. In 1969, the FCC included language that first encouraged public access and by 1971, required providing Public, Educational, Government (PEG) facilities and channel capacity. In 1984, the Supreme Court struck down the FCC regulations, but Congress passed legislation that rescued public-access television, allowing franchising authorities to require public access.


At exactly the same time, Richard M. Stallman quit his job at MIT to begin writing software for what would become the GNU project. Stallman had benefited from a software community where people freely shared code and he had seen how this dramatically increased productivity. Then companies began requiring programmers to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) in order to get access to the source code. And began to file patents on algorithms.

Stallman believed that, as a matter of freedom, users must have access to the source code of the technology systems they use and the ability -- indeed obligation -- to pass that right on to others. He realized this when the lab got a new printer. Previously, he had modified a printer's software to notify people when their jobs printed -- or to broadcast an alert when the printer was jammed. But the new printer was closed source and, although a colleague had the source code, he was not allowed to share it with Stallman due to an NDA.

My personal experience was similar: I wrote an application for my doctoral thesis using a piece of commercial software and, just as I was about to graduate, the company went bankrupt and a new version of the operating system broke my application. The company ultimately resuscitated enough to get out a new version that fixed the problem -- and I was able to show my work and get hired -- but the experience taught me that one should never base anything important on software where you can't inspect and modify the source code yourself -- a principle I live by today.

Stallman began building an operating system, which he called "GNU" for "Gnu's Not Unix". Little by little, with contributions by many authors, the project assembled a compiler and utilities for a Unix-like toolchain. Ultimately, Stallman established the Free Software Foundation to support the GNU project. But not everyone agreed with his moral position regarding freedom.

Eric S. Raymond initiated a competing movement around "Open Source" which created an alternate conception of software freedom, which was friendlier to commercial interests. The ultimate effect was to coopt much of the community and mindshare. Open Source ultimately subverted the moralistic goals of the Free Software movement for what has operationally been wider success.

But the GNU project might not have been able to gain a foothold at all, but for the fact that the owners of Unix, AT&T, had been enjoined from entering new markets due to a Department of Justice consent decree in 1956. This resulted in AT&T distributing Unix source code without support which in turn, created the ecosystem where patches, fixes, and extensions were exchanged openly that Stallman had experienced.

Similarly, the Internet and the World Wide Web would never have been created by commercial interests. Corporations would have been much more likely to build something like cell networks -- and the past 10 years has seen a concerted effort by those interests to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Cory Doctorow has called it a War on General Purpose Computing.

My iPhone seems like a computer -- like my computer -- but in fact I have limited control of how I can use it. The only software I can install has to be approved by Apple. I can't even copy files to or from its filesystem. And, although it has both a cell chip and a wifi chip, I can't share my cell connection to users over wifi unless I agree to pay a third party money. It's not really my computer anymore at all.


The Maker movement is a reaction to this trend to increasing corporate control over the products of consumer culture. The goal is to enable people to make products for themselves, so they can control all of the affordances of the product. The Maker movement includes more than just computer code, but the hardware, the enclosure, and everything. So Maker culture is also about prototyping and using 3-D printing to build physical objects. Or using a lathe. Or knitting and weaving.

Maker culture is a reaction to runaway capitalism. In his book "Makers", Cory Doctorow writes:

Capitalism is eating itself. The market works, and when it works, it commodifies or obsoletes everything. That's not to say that there's no money out there to be had, but the money won't come from a single, monolithic product line. The days of companies with names like 'General Electric' and 'General Mills' and 'General Motors' are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.

Maker culture sees itself fostering those smart creative people and providing a landscape where they are free to rework, remix, and reuse basic fundmental elements to innovate and Make things.


Science for the People acted on the conviction that science is inevitably political and, without oversight, offers tools to those who would exploit and oppress people. Technology has empowered the exploiters, but also the people as well — probably more than anyone expected. All three of the movements described here represent attempts to strike a balance that preserves some measure of Freedom for the people. Of the three, only Community Television found a political solution -- or minimally -- an accommodation.

Many of the benefits that Workers were able to extract from Capital during the early part of the 20th century, were due to fears of Communism. The suppression of Communism (McCarthyism, etc) and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union emboldened Capital and enabled a neoliberal shift, especially in the US, that has disempowered workers and let wages stagnate for 30 years, while returns to Capital continue to grow. Loss of revenue, due to growing inequality and tax cuts for the wealthy have limited the ability of government to counterbalance the power of corporations and monied interests. The public narrative has shifted substantially to the right since the 1970s.

Community Television leveraged connections in the political system to extract a revenue stream to fund access to the tools of mass communication. An ongoing threat to community television, however, is the shift from television and broadcasting to streaming and unicasting. The revenue stream, as currently embodied in legislation, is tied to broadcasting and may not persist going forward.

The Free Software Movement remains a small part of what is a thriving market for open source software. Linux is the dominant server platform and Free Software is at the heart of the internet and nearly every commercial operating system. But the Open Source movement has enabled commercial interests to parasitically capture many of the benefits of Free Software without necessarily having to participate in -- or contribute back to -- the development community.

The Free Software movement has led directly to an Open Hardware movement, which is providing a fertile ecosystem of tools and resource for Makers. Maker culture draws from the Agile development process: rapid prototyping and early release of beta products, and focuses on not simply making a product, but also creating "instructables" that explain how someone else could make one. There is a growing library that new Makers can draw from in trying to create new projects.

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit who is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship, spoke here at UMass recently to promote his new book "Without their Permission". He pointed out, "You Have No Choice But To Be Entrepreneurial." The jobs that people trained for don't exist anymore. We are all free… to be unemployed — provided we're not in debt and have the education and technical skills to be creative and find capital. Unfortunately, without some new economic arrangement that empowers people to avoid becoming endebted wage-slaves of the system, I very much fear the Maker movement will be a genuine path forward only for privileged elites.

Ohanian disagrees. He admits that you may have a number of failures before you succeed. But you only need succeed once and then you're set. Who knows who might create the next Facebook or Snapchat? I was reminded of the ad for the lottery: You can't win if you don't play!

Still, as the demotivator says, "Quitters never win, winners never quit, But those who never win AND never quit are idiots."

Technology has enabled direct communication among people (monitored by security agencies) more so than anyone had previously imagined. Repressive regimes that have tried to shut down this communication have failed, due to what Ethan Zuckerman has called the "cute cat theory of digital activism". You might be able to shut down just activists, but if you try to block social media generally (and the resident lolcats), then ordinary people will get annoyed, rise up, and overthrow you.

Unfortunately, although social activism on the internet may be good for pulling things down, it's not yet shown that it's effective at building stable institutions. And that is our challenge going forward.


Doctorow, C. 2012.

Lasar, M. 2011. The Unix revolution—thank you, Uncle Sam?

Olson, W.D.S. 2000. The History of Public Access Television.
Ohanian, A. 2013. Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed. Business Plus.

Stallman, R. 1985, 1993, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010. GNU Manifesto.

Starr, I and Venman, B. 1988, 2005. Amherst Community Television: History and Cable Advisory Committee PEG Programming, Organization, and Management.

Vitello, P. 2012. George C. Stoney, Documentary Filmmaker, Dies at 96

Zimmerman, B., Radinsky, L., Rothenberg, M., Meyers, B. 1972. Towards A Science For The People.

Zuckerman, E. 2008. Cute Cat Theory: The China Corollary.

Great Maker Session

March 29, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

On Friday, I sent a note to the Maker mailing list inviting people to an unboxing of the stuff I ordered for my balanced aquarium project. Everything has come in, except the CO2 sensors, which should arrive in a week or two. I promised to bring the box, unopened, so people could participate in the joy and mystery of opening the box.

Earlier in the day, interspersed with my other tasks, I finished unboxing the rest of the Galileo development boards I received from Intel. I tested them and updated their firmware, so they'd be ready to go.

I got out an LCD shield from DF Robot first. It looked lovely and snapped seamlessly into place. But when I connected the power, it didn't seem to work. I checked the connections and it powered up for a minute and then was down again. I found if it wasn't connected quite solidly it seemed to work, but as soon as I pressed down on it, it stopped. Then I realized what it must be: the shielding around the ethernet jack causes solder points on the bottom of the shield to short out. After a bit of experimentation, I cut out a bit of plastic tape and covered the top of the ethernet jack. Then I could connect it solidly and it worked flawlessly. Well, it powered up, anyway.

When I copied the test script in from the DF Robot wiki, it didn't work. Nothing seemed to happen. So I googled a bit and discovered this post which describes how to replace the Liquid Crystal library with an updated version. After initially putting it in the wrong place, I fired it up and, Success! I was able to diplay messages on the LCD.

Next, I got out one of the pH probes and connected it to the risers on the LCD Shield -- how wonderfully convenient! You can just plug it in! I grabbed the test code for the pH probe and munged it into the LCD display code, so it would show its output on the LCD. Nothing: a pH of 0. I had remembered seeing something about the LCD shield using analog pin 0, so I had switched to a different sensor pin but then realized that I was just counting wrong. I moved the plug and, Success! I was getting pH readings! And that's where I how far I got before it was 5pm and time to open a beer, sit back, and talk about other things.

I was initially skeptical that the data were good, because the pH meter was proposing a reading of 3.83 for its buffer solution. A bit of reading, however, suggests that the reference buffer for storage is supposed to be pH 4.01. That sounds like we're in the right ballpark anyway. So far I'm very pleased with everything from DF Robot: quick service, good prices, and good documentation.

Balanced Aquaria

March 24, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

I recently received a grant of five Intel Galileo development boards. These are like arduinos, but beefier, with ethernet and micro SD-card readers. I've been planning to use them with my writing class to have the students perhaps write a little code but, mainly, generate some data that they can use to write about. And I think I've come up with a great idea: balanced aquaria.

When I was a kid, my dad had students create balanced aquaria in his ecology class. They would put some pond scum in gallon pickle jars, seal them up, and then watch. I remember one sat on his window ledge for at least 20 years, quietly photosynthesizing.

More recently, you can buy eco-spheres available in the mass market: even Target has them.

I think I'll have my Writing in Biology students investigate the dynamics of balanced aquaria. I got a little grant to pay for some sensors to let students collect data about what's going on inside.

I've been thinking about this for a long time. What you probably really want to know is dissolved oxygen. But it's hard (read expensive) to measure dissolved oxygen. I spent a lot of time looking for some way to do it for cheap. I found this fascinating bioboard project that offered some tantalizing ideas, but nothing concrete.

Then I discovered that sensors to measure atmospheric CO2 are much less expensive. I believe that measuring the CO2 in the air in the balanced aquarium will give me a satisfactory estimate of the available oxygen, since the two should be in equilibrium with each other.

I'm planning to hook up CO2 sensors and pH sensors. I also got some LCD shields so we can see the data in real time.

Once I get the stuff, I'll do some pilot testing to see what kind of data we can get and what kind of infrastructure I can put in place (with MQTT maybe) to collect and display the data. It should be a lot of fun.

Continuingly Employed

March 19, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

In the last round of collective bargaining, I served on the non-tenure-track faculty team and, among our other accomplishments, we completed negotiations for implementing "continuing employment". Until now, I've been appointed on term contracts -- usually every three years. These were typically formulaic, but there was always an element of stress involved as the deadline approached: Would the reappointment process go smoothly? Had anything changed? The University was equally happy to get rid of the administrative load in managing all the paperwork that had be copied and passed around and stamped and signed and countersigned.

There was some question what to call these provisions. Originally, the term "continuous employment" was used but, at some point, the University representative decided that it should be called "continuing employment".

Under the new process, for new employees you have two one year contracts followed by a two year contract. You are then evaluated for "continuing employment" after the first year of the two year contract: if you don't pass, the last year is your terminal year but, otherwise, you are reappointed afterward with no fixed end term.

It's not tenure: they can still let people go if they decide that the work isn't going to continue. But they can't arbitrarily replace one person with another. And another provision of the new contract sets different levels of criteria based on faculty rank (Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Senior Lecturer II).

And today, I finally received my "Notice and Acceptance of Reappointment" letter And having signed the letter, I guess I am now "continuingly employed". Here's to many more years in the service of the University of Massachusetts Amherst -- one of the worlds greatest universities!

Alexis Ohanian at UMass Amherst

February 25, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

I took my boys to see Alexis Ohanian at UMass recently. They both read Reddit and were persuadable to go. He gave a good presentation: in equal parts funny, insightful, and inspiring. He also interviewed a UMass alumnus, Steve King, who has worked at a lot of internet startups. There was a lot I would agree with, but I was also left with a number of questions.

Are generation times decreasing? There's already a generation gap between Alexis and the students in the audience. Alexis talked about geocities websites and other early internet technologies that most of the people in the audience probably had never heard of. The world has already moved on.

How remixable really are newer mobile technologies? Reddit was created in a time when it was possible to inspect the protocols different layers of technology more easily than it is now. I worry that as the internet gets more complicated -- and subject to greater corporate control -- it raises barriers that previous entrepreneurs didn't face.

What role does luck play? The entrepreneurs talk of how you need to fail to succeed and you only need one to succeed and that's all well and good as a rationale for why you need to try. But what if none of your ideas succeed? In the end, it reminded me quite a bit of the advertising for the lottery: "You can't win if you don't play!" Like the demotivator says, "Quitters never win, winners never quit, but those who never win AND never quit are idiots."

Faculty workload and governance

February 23, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

Workload has been a contentious issue at UMass since I first got involved with the union. When I first arrived at UMass, the union did not much concern itself with non-tenure system faculty. There weren't very many and the Union was focused primarily on trying to make sure there wouldn't be very many more. When it became clear that we were becoming a substantial part of the faculty, the leadership had the vision to actually begin organizing us and advocating for our interests. That's how I got involved.

One of our first concerns was workload. There have always been disparities of workload among departments, but some departments were more unequal than others. In particular, some were hiring non-tenure system faculty to teach an excessive number of courses (as many as five -- or even more) and still calling them part time (less than 1.0 FTE). One of our first achievements was to establish a floor: We established that a 3-credit course would represent no less than 0.25 FTE. Some in the University saw this as license to begin routinely hiring non-tenure track faculty with a 4/4 load (four 3-credit courses each semester). And, with the recent switch to 4-credit Gen Ed classes, some in the administration would now like for non-tenure-system faculty to routinely teach four 4-credit classes per semester.

This all assumes that a faculty member does nothing but teach. If you're teaching four classes, that's your full-time job. If you're paid only for teaching full time, you don't have any opportunity to engage in either scholarship or service. Or faculty governance. I don't think that's a good idea either for the faculty member or for the University.

An engaged faculty must be involved in governance. For shared governance to have any meaning, all faculty ought to be able to serve on some committees, like the Personnel Committee, which oversees all of the personnel actions in the departments. Or the Faculty Senate, which has primary responsibility for academic affairs. Creating dis-empowered contingent faculty benefits no-one. It's not good for the faculty member to be so disconnected from the life of the University, but it's also not good for the University. We need engaged scholars that are invested in the life of the University -- not just freeway faculty.

In the last round of bargaining, I made this case to the administration and was unsuccessful in making any headway. Bargaining is about to start again and I'm hopeful that this time we might get some kind of agreement that as a 3-credit class is 0.25 FTE then a full-time faculty member must teach less than 4/4 in order to devote some part of their professional effort toward governance.

Science for the People Conference

February 13, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm going to be speaking on Saturday April 12 at the Science for the People Conference: Community Television, Free Software, and Maker/Hacker Communities: Aspirations of Freedom

Growing corporate control of media, software, and consumer products over the past 50 years has led to three largely separate movements to preserve the ability of ordinary people to access the means of production of mass media, computer software and, most recently, the technological hardware of modern culture. The movements share an aspiration that transparency and community participation are fundamental to democracy and an egalitarian society. Understanding their history and the reactions to these movements can provide insight into current and future efforts to secure freedom.

I wasn't a member of the original Science for the People organization. But the theme of science being coopted and misused is one that resonates with me and I'm looking forward to participating in the conference.

Amherst Media Maker Drop-in

February 8, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

On Friday, we had the first drop-in session for the Amherst Media Maker community. Around 10 people came and we spent most of the time in a far-ranging discussion. Some of the people had come to the initial workshop, but several were new. It was a great conversation that I hope will be a model for how we move forward. There was a lot of excitement and positive energy.

Ostensibly, I went there to work on Node Red. Before the meeting, I had installed Node Red on my Raspberry Pi and could at least demo it. But we mostly talked about other stuff.

Christine Olson came because she's interested in studying the launch of Makerspaces. Stephanie Jo Kent came to talk about hacking community engagement to build resilient communities. A student from Hampshire came to talk about developing a curriculum for teaching electronics. It's great to see the Maker community becoming a home for so many interesting perspectives.

We talked about a vast array of interesting ideas: gamification, building environments to foster collaboration, providing space for self-directed activities, the distinction between Maker and Hacker, models for organizing the community, and future plans for the space.

We did look at some technical stuff. I briefly showed Node Red. I brought one of the Galileo development boards I got recently which we passed around and discussed. We worked, again, to try to get the servos working: the ones we received with our kits have been problematic and we've been working with the supplier to figure what's wrong. It was all good.

It looks like the time will work going forward. There was interest in meeting again next week. Several people said they could come every week. I'm not sure I can attend every week, but I'll come when I can.

Why Attend 2014 MTA Annual Meeting

January 29, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

One year, while attending the Massachusetts Society of Professors (MSP) General Membership luncheon, an elderly faculty member joked to me drily that he was there for his $700 lunch — implying that the luncheon was the only benefit he received for his annual dues. Of course, this year, a full-time faculty member will pay ~$900/year in union dues to belong to the MSP.

In point of fact, more than half of the membership fee ($486) is actually the dues for the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). You might well wonder what you're spending all that money for and question its value. If so, I invite you attend the MTA Annual Meeting (May 10-11 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston) to find out what it buys.

The MTA fights for public education. They are opposed by well-funded and well-organized lobbying groups that have been working for a generation to defund state government; to undermine and destroy public education; and to roll back benefits to state workers -- your benefits. The MTA has been on the front lines trying to defend education: to stop ballot initiatives that would eliminate the state income tax or tie teacher evaluations to high-stakes testing. And this is a special year to attend…

This year, Barbara Madeloni, a UMass Amherst faculty member, is running for MTA President. She has been at the forefront resisting the privatization of public education. She is pushing for the MTA to shift from fighting a rearguard action to limit losses, and to articulate a vision of public education based on values of social justice and democracy -- a vision that respects the expertise and dignity of teachers.

Part of your MSP dues go to support a team of delegates to the MTA Annual Meeting. If you go, the MSP will pay for your hotel room and buy you a nice dinner out. And in return, you have an opportunity to see the budget of the MTA and to account for every nickel of your dues to them.

No-one who attends the MTA Annual Meeting is unmoved by the experience. If you believe in the mission of public education -- and the role of public higher education in that mission -- you owe it to yourself to see what you're a part of. And learn what you can do to help win the fight.

(Written for the MSP Chronicle)

RIP Pete Seeger

January 28, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

I grew up listening to the Almanac Singers. My family had a record of their Talking Union album and as a kid I used to sing along with Union Maid and You've Gotta Go Down and Join the Union. Pete Seeger was a founding member in 1941, during the dramatic growth in unionism in the 1930s and 40's after the passage of the Wagner Act.

Pete Seeger was there for the wild ascent of workers as they leveraged a fair wage from the plutocrats who had wrecked the economy during the Great Depression. And then Taft-Hartley was passed and, little by little, the labor movement has been chipped away at until today it is a ghost -- a mere vapor -- of its former self. And we have a new crop of plutocrats and robber barons who've wrecked the economy. Pete Seeger watched it all from the beginning to the end.

I wonder how it must have felt.

Through it all, Pete never seemed to lose hope. He never gave up. And, in the words of the immortal Joe Hill, let us remember to not mourn but, instead, organize.

Massachusetts Gubernatorial Candidates at the 2014 Mass Municipal Association Annual Meeting

January 27, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

The closing event of the Mass Municipal Association annual meeting was a review of gubernatorial candidates. The moderator asked questions that had been derived from the audience. Each candidate was given the opportunity to make a brief opening statement and then asked a series of questions related to unfunded mandates, whether to tie unrestricted aid to increases in state revenues, the deficit in local transportation budgets, and contributions to retiree health care.

Joseph Avellone (D) is a former doctor and health-insurance executive. His primary focus was in controlling health-care costs and he leaned heavily on his previous experience as a Selectman. I would never have guessed he was a Democrat based on anything he said and kept thinking, "If it walks like a Republican and sounds like a Republican…"

Charlie Baker (R) is a Republican. He's another former health-insurance executive who served as a policy wonk in a previous Republican administration. He seemed comfortable and tried to project an air of competence: "I'm good at it! I have a track record with that". He, too, reminded the audience several times of his chops as a former Selectman. Some people thought he seemed arrogant, but I could see voters liking him.

Don Berwick (D) seemed both the most wonkish and most visionary to me. He is the former head of Medicare/Medicaid under Obama and similarly focused on the need to control health care. He advocated for single-payer and infrastructure renovation and increased revenues to pay for it. I liked him, so he'll probably get forced to drop out before the primary, perhaps due to some errant scream or something.

Martha Coakley (D) underwhelmed me again. She seems flat and unpersuasive. She was practically the only one who mentioned education, but she talked about it in platitudes: children need the best education we can provide for the state to be competitive. I'm pretty convinced that the way the Democrats lose the election is to put Martha up against Charlie Baker. Just like when she ran against Scott Brown, I don't see her building the necessary excitement or enthusiasm to win.

Evan Falchuk is running as an independent, having created his own party. He was more credible than I expected. He talked about making fundamental changes in how state government works, for example creating multi-year funding initiatives. That sounds like a wonksh, technical detail, but it is a fundamental limitation in how state government works. If you knew funding would be reliable, you could take out a loan and do a big project in 2 years, instead of spread out over 10 -- and gain huge efficiencies. Keep dreaming.

Mark Fisher (R) is an unabashed tea-party member. He started out sounding vaguely reasonable ("I want to bring common sense to Beacon Hill"), but then wandered off into crazy land. He talked very calmly about zero-funding communities that voted in favor of sanctuary laws for illegal immigrants. Or that wages should be entirely a function of the "free market", as if the government doesn't use monetary policy to influence the unemployment rate or something. Sheesh. I don't see him as a credible candidate, but he might shift Baker far enough to the right to do him some damage.

Steve Grossman is a former state treasurer and a classical politician, horse-trading one thing or another. I found his leaps of "logic" to be largely incomprehensible: Tax the internet to fund transportation! Aid, aid, aid, lottery! Perhaps to insiders, that kind of logic makes perfect sense, but I found it jarring and orthogonal to my plane of reality.

Juliette Kayyem has a background in homeland security. She's relatively young and this is her first shot at an executive position. She's been somewhat unconventional: she's been using twitter to reach Democratic activists and has some fresh ideas. I definitely want to know more about her. I'm not sure she's ready this time around, but I think she'll move the race in directions it needs to go.

I'm hopeful to see some interesting candidates. I've been disappointed that the Democrats in Massachusetts seem only too willing to give the nod to the candidate with the strongest ties to the Democratic machinery: they picked Shannon O'Brien rather than Robert Reich for example -- which is how we ended up with Mitt Romney as governor. Let me say that again: we had Mitt Romney as governor. I always hope that the Democrats will pick the most interesting, dynamic, exciting candidate with the best ideas. But it rarely happens. Still, there's always a chance.

JTFRA Guiding Principles

January 21, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

The Joint Task Force for Resource Allocation at UMass created a draft set of guiding principles that included language about incentivizing. This is my reply:

I read the JTFRA draft guiding principles with interest and would like to offer one recommendation: reword to avoid creating incentives.

Creating incentives is always a mistake. There is extensive research that shows that rewards don't work -- See Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards" and Daniel Pink's "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" for two recent examples.

Incentives try to shape behavior by encouraging people to aim for the reward rather than to do what they think is right. It's worth thinking about that. How much time do we want people to spend trying to get rewards rather than trying to do their job as well as they can?

Using rewards and incentives also encourages perverse behavior. It undermines honesty and candor because people try to manipulate the data and appearances to increase the likelihood of receiving the reward -- and to undermine people around them, with whom they are competing.

Finally, the statement "incentivize excellence" is meaningless. What does "incentivize excellence" even mean? Only do things we can do excellently? Just as "something worth doing is worth doing well", it is equally true that "something worth doing is worth doing badly". It's often better to do something badly than not to do it at all.

Ask. Create opportunities. Invest. Don't incentivize.

Future of Education

January 21, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

A colleague on the Rules Committee recently shared a message that included the statement "we are all better off when education thrives". I wrote the brief reply that follows:

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment:

Universities were constructed in a time when you needed a place to contain the accumulated knowledge of humanity (educated people and their books, journals, etc). Now, the information mostly resides on the internet and it's easy for people to access it directly. A kid with a smartphone anywhere on earth already has access to more-and-better information than the most powerful, richest person on earth had 20 years ago.

This isn't to say that education has less value, but the nature of that education needs to change. Education used to be about "knowing things" and transmitting that knowledge. There are still a lot of university classes that are taught (and assessed) as though that's what education is. That kind of education now has little value. We need to demonstrate that we're providing a kind of education that does have value.

It also is much less clear that people should have different phases in their lives (ie, one where they "learn" and then a later one where they "do"). We need to start life-long learning much earlier and have people start "doing" in kindergarten, even as we have people continue to "learn" throughout their careers. It's not clear that our current educational system supports either effectively. But it's becoming clear that education is not our generation's key challenge.

It's becoming clear that our current economic system is simply breaking down. Robots and computers can already do many of the things that people do, only better. Soon that will be "most of the things that people do". We need a new economic model that will ensure that the fruits of such a system of production are equitably shared. No kind of university education will help you much in the kind of hellish kleptocracy our society will become without economic reform.

We need more than platitudes like "we are all better off when education thrives". We need to ask questions like "what kinds of education?" and "education for what?"

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