May 25, 2017

Just Start: My One Month Writing Commitment

Just Start:
My One Month Writing Commitment

It's about time I made a public commitment. Does it matter that no one reads this? Not at all.

I commit to writing every day for the next month. I've planned a writing schedule so here are the details.

My requirements are scheduled by the time I put in but my goals are counted by the word I want to write. For example, when I require myself to write for an hour my objective is 200 words. I've found that timed writing and word-count writing each have their advantages and disadvantages so I'm trying to think both ways.

I'll do a full writing tasks from Monday to Saturday and short writing tasks on Sundays and vacation days (I'll be visiting family from June 19–25 so this is my vacation).

My full tasks begin at 1 hour (200 words), but my goal is to work up to 2–3 hours by July (400–600 words). Short writing tasks are 10–20%. The purpose of short writing isn't to make serious progress since I'm beginning with a mere 12 minutes—the purpose is to keep a streak going. I can always work on something for 12 minutes, and once I build up my discipline and habit I «hope» I can easily write for 20–30 minutes on my off days.

To be effective this can't be free writing—my writing has to be objective-based—I need to complete projects. To this end every writing task includes 4 parts which I've timed for a goal of 200 words:

1. review the outline (5min)

2. write the draft (25 min)

3. edit the draft and incorporate it into the full project (25 min)

4. review the day's work and alter the outline as needed (5min)

I've broken my schedule down like this so I can always work in discrete, 30 minutes sessions. If I've only got half an hour to do something, I can finish the first or second half of a 200 word writing session. Even if my goal for that day is 600 words, I can complete it in 6 different parts. I work best in periods of about 90 minutes, but there should never be an excuse not to write.

I need to get things done. For my writing to count, I need to deliver. That means blog posts, reviews, short stories, and essays need to be posted the day I finish.

To keep myself focused on delivering, I'll only allow myself three active projects: 1 blog post, 1 short form analysis (an essay or review) or short form narrative (a story, travel report, or memoir fragment), 1 long form narrative (for now, a novella). If I want to turn to something else I have to either finish my current project or delete it. I might make an exception for long form writing after the month is over, but in general I need to feel the painful consequences of not finishing what I've started.

In 10 days of writing I'll devote 2 days to my blog, 3 days to long form narrative, and 5 days to short form analysis or narrative. I won't be more strict than that.

So that's my commitment. Once I build up my writing to 2-3  hours it should yield a blog post every week, an essay or story every couple of weeks, and a novella in about a year.

This isn't the first writing plan I've had. I doubt it will be the last. I always find problems with my newest idea. And yet my next idea is always better because I incorporate what worked and jettison what didn't. No matter, it's a start and it'll keep me going for a month.

November 9, 2016

What I Don't Like About Belgium

What I Don't Like About Belgium

Another top five, as promised.

It's important to emphasize that I don't like these things as a consequence of either my personality or my cultural tastes. I expect most Belgians don't have a problem with these things because they've grown up with them. They're not universal declarations.

1) The authoritarian educational system.
To be fair, I come from a system that is, perhaps, the most egalitarian on earth. Correct me if I'm wrong: are there other countries where disagreement with professors is not only tolerated but encouraged? This feature of American education and my critical, creative personality make Belgian education almost unbearable (and barely deserving of the name).

I believe it's the legacy of Catholicism. Taking an exam here is like reciting your catechism to a bishop, except the bishops are professors. I call authoritarian education "academic clericalism." It needs to be exorcised. I won't go into the whys and alternatives in this post.

2) The lack of public space.
One might think that a country with a strong social welfare system and almost exclusively public education would have a strong sense of the public sphere. My question then: what's with your public libraries and parks? Yes they have both, but the libraries are underdeveloped and have limited opening hours, the parks are few and small.

A related question: why don't you have living rooms in your student houses? Students have private bedrooms (no roommates) and shared kitchens and bathrooms. They have no space set aside to hang out. Socializing is done almost exclusively in bars and cafes.

There's a strong boundary line dividing the private and public spheres. I find it alienating and an obstacle to cultivating community.

3) Worker first, customers second.

Customer service, such as it is, is almost guaranteed to drive a North American crazy. I don't like customer service sycophantswe get that too much in Americabut I like to be welcomed. In Belgium it's not uncommon to be ignored in a store or restaurant. Sometimes clerks will ask you to leave the store ten minutes before it closes (so they can leave on the hour), meaning opening times aren't for the customer, they're for the workers. Some places close during lunch, or on Monday, or during the morning or afternoon of an arbitrary weekday. Almost nothing is open after 6pm, or on Sunday, or on the 16+ public holidays (in Leuven, a city of 90,000). In some stores, including grocery stores, the clerks ask to see inside your bag when you leave. Let me be clear about this: their default assumption toward all their customers is that they're thieves.

4) No free water at the table in restaurants.
This is proof that the UN statement on human rights remains incomplete. I'm being dramatic, but with a hint of seriousness. Not only do you have to pay for bottled water (I used to think Belgium was environmentally progressive), there's no public water fountains or free public toilets. There aren't even water fountains at the gym! Some things should always be freely available in society: air, a place to sleep on the ground (I'm referring to wild camping), drinking water, and toilets. For me, public water fountains and toilets have the same status as due process and freedom of speech.

5) The climate.
Too warm in the summer and far too warm in the winter. I don't mind not having air conditioning (even when I wish I had it; it's just not worth it), after all, it's not often that it gets really hot. But they don't have screens in the windows. More than that, their windows are designed in such a way that screens can't be installed. So if you want airflow when it's hot you have to take all the bugs that come with it.

That's summer. Winter in Belgium is heartbreaking. I've seen snow two or three times in three years. I can't say any more about it without making me depressed for the rest of the day.

Bonus: the horrifying lack of natural areas, especially in Flanders and especially inside towns and cities.

I could go on, and I could be more vicious in my criticism, but I live here so instead I should probably go back to my top five and focus on the virtues of the place.

October 31, 2016

What's so great about Belgium?

What's so great about Belgium?

"Is a personal story really that appropriate?" This is the question I've recently asked myself. You see, I'm considering using this blog to actually, you know, talk about my life. You're probably shaking your head at me, and you probably could have given me the right answer a lot faster than it took me to find on my own: "A personal touch is exactly what you want in a blog!"

Fair enough. But let me warn you, the stuff I've been writing—abstraact thoughts on education, business, politics, creative writing, personal development—these are in fact very personal to me. It's part of what an honest blog of my life should look like. But it's only part.

The other part should look something like this.

I'm an American expat living in Europe; at present I'm in Belgium. Don't worry, I've got philsophical things to say about expat living too, but why not try something more personal, like my favorite things about living in Leuven, Belgium?

1) I'll begin with the best: national variety.
Almost everyone I've known here is from a different country from me. Since this is a very international part of Europe, most are even from outside of Belgium. Many are students, many are living and working here. I know people from both Americas, Africa, a host of European countries, and a few from Asia. Almost everyone speaks my language (I lucked into that one!), but they bring their own oddities to the language. It makes life rich.

2) There's so much, so close!
Paris and Amsterdam are both less than three hours away. That's ridiculous. I once took a long weekend to go backpacking in the Alps. Europe-wide transportation is so inexpensive (for the most part) that for less than 100 euros and a few hours, I can spend a long weekend at any one of dozens, even hundreds, of incredibly lovely places.

My top to-do list: Prague, Czech Republic; backpacking in the Norwegian mountains; Saltzburg, Austria on the trail of the von Trapps; the Swiss Alps; northern Germany, where the Fisher family originated; and Albania (yes, they also have beautiful mountains).

3) Everyone says it: the beer.
I didn't like beer when I moved to Belgium, but Rochefort 10 is, in a word, sublime. (It's also pretty hefty at 13.2% alcohol content.) There aren't many foods or drinks whose extraordinary complexity I appreciate—chocolate, whisky, and coffee; sometimes wine, brandy, and absinthe—but a fine, dark beer is certainly among them.

Even though Rochefort is my beer of choice, it's also worth exploring. That's how I found Black Albert. If you've had Guiness than you have a point of comparison. Black Albert makes Guiness taste like a crisp and clear cider. That may be an exaggeration, but in all seriousness, it's like beer syrup. I wouldn't drink more than one in a sitting, but I would most certainly have more than one sitting.

4) Living abroad makes me appreciate my home country.
I think this is the experience of most people, and if it isn't then you're missing out. No matter where you move to and from, an adopted home will never feel entirely complete. There's always something missing. Christmas markets in Belgium are charming, but it's not home.

Missing home isn't only negative because it helps me see the value of what I miss. That's wonderful. Some people mistake me for a patriot (I'm really not). You couldn't imagine how many times I've come to the defense of America and Americans. I'm usually the first to find fault, but before faulting I like to find a common understanding. It's been my experience that most negative attitudes toward my homeland arise from an inability to understand the culture and situation of the US.

I would add that this seems to be the case inside the US too, between city dwellers and country folk, between Christians and atheists, between black and white. You get the point.

But my primary point is that being here makes me appreciate there more. I'd like to keep liking America, so I guess I'll keep living in Europe.

5) Every day brings the chance of more adventure.
I've been quite a wanderer over the years. That's partly because I get bored with the ordinary. I've found that Belgium, and Europe in general, keeps me off balance. There's always novelty around the corner. That's the nice thing about being a foreigner, about never being able to completely fit in, which is something that I hope will never happen.

I must admit, however, my hope is that no matter where I live—whether it's abroad or in my childhood hometown—that I look for adventure, that I pay attention to the virtues of the place I temporarily call home. Every home is temporary, so it's worth loving where you live now.

Beware! Now that I've let myself be expressive, especially optimistic, I feel the need to redeem myself to the choir of cynics by following this post by the things I dislike. It won't take me as long to think of a top 5.

August 9, 2016

Against Academic Clericalism

An Early Stage Manifesto for a Democracy of Learning
Against Academic Clericalism

I’m calling this a manifesto because my goal is to propose theses without at present justifying them. This deals especially with learning from late adolescence and beyond. In later posts I’ll expand and nuance each one.

1) Assignments should be submitted in public (published) to encourage ongoing engagement with a student’s work, allow democratic evaluation by both peers and more advanced students, promote greater accountability, and be more meaningful.

2) "Teacher” is a misnomer; “lead student” is more appropriate. “Professor” would be comical if it weren’t so clerical. Hierarchies and class distinction should be minimized and increasingly eliminated as students mature.

3) Students should not be graded by a magisterium (a teacher or professor) but by a cohort of other students, including their peers, offering ratings, reviews, and the chance for critical conversation.

4) Rigid forms of engagement suppress creativity and oppress intellectual growth. Scholarship is far from the ideal mode of learning for most students. A wider variety of forms and media should be considered legitimate for active/productive learning. For example, in the humanities, a creative work (and not only academic essay) should be an acceptable form of engagement.

5) Democratic student interest, not the interests of an administrative or professorial class, should be the driving force in academic study. This goes for themes and issues as well as the form and intent of assignments.

6) When two or more students are gathered together, dialogical engagement should be the rule, otherwise it’s a waste of social potential. In consequence: end live lectures.

The principle that underlies all these points is that there is no essential difference between learners of different levels. There are young learners, those that are more experienced, and those with vast experience. Learning experience is valuable but not the only (or even highest) value in learning. It certainly doesn’t alter the original fallibility of each of us; regardless of our title, we can be catastrophically wrong. My concern is that dominant ideas and media in learning, and the irresistible temptation of egoism inherent in academic hierarchies is undermining the creative potential of learning. Cultivating creativity is the highest possible achievement of learning, and we’re squashing it. We need an exhaustive, system-level overhaul. Let’s begin.

July 27, 2016

Smart Drugs

Smart Drugs
I'm passionate about education, that should be clear. I've spent much of my adult life as a student, some as a teacher, and now I'm in the early stage of developing an educational enterprise. I'm acquainted with the controversies that rage in the academic world and I have an opinion on most of them. One controversy in particular has peaked my interest: drugs.

I'm not talking about opiates or cocaine or even marijuana. I'm talking about that specifically academic (or, indeed, professional) variety, smart drugs. Adderall and Ritalin are among the favorites but there are others. I have never tried smart drugs myself, in part because many of the side effects sound dreadful and in part because it sounds far too expensive; however, I wouldn't rule it out in principle, and given an affordable smart drug without serious side effects in the vein of NZT 48 from Limitless I wouldn't feel the slightest prick of conscious in experimenting. Here's why:

I don't think it's cheating. I don't think it's abuse.

Obviously I have to explain myself. The most common objection I hear is that it gives someone an unfair advantage, like steroids. I've never and will never take steroids, despite my passion for fitness, not because it's unfair but because it's unhealthy. The athletic world has determined strict but somewhat arbitrary guidelines for what is and is not considered doping. Creatine in, maldonium out. Caffeine for training, not for performance. But the point of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) is to maintain a fair playing field among competetors. Everyone is allowed and disallowed the same substances. The principle purpose is health and fair competition.

Health is preeminent, I agree, but if my purpose in exercise is self-improvement, than fairness isn't a factor. That's why I sometimes use caffeine to boost my focus and stamina in the gym. That's also why I sometimes use caffeine to boost my focus and stamina in the library or at work. So do many of us. We like the cognitive and performance enhancing properties of caffeine when it's not a matter of athletic competition. So why wouldn't we accept performance enhancement in school or at work (with the arbitrary exception of caffeine)?

The fact is, competition is not a good way of looking at school or work. My purpose in studying and work is to simply do the best I can do, and not to beat other people. Cooperation is much better as model of social interactions in academics and the workplace. Whereas competition is 'all against all,' cooperation is 'all for one and one for all.' When I do better, we do better. Any improvement in my performance is good for the student body, for the company, and for the community. Admittedly, many social structures aren't designed to cultivate cooperation, but that's the problem with the structure (another topic entirely).

So the mistake people make is two-fold: they hypocritically permit (and employ) the performance enhancement of caffeine but not other smart drugs, and they mistakenly think that work and school is a competition rather than cooperation.

Not only do I think smart drugs are fair, but I also don't think their use is abuse except when it damages the user's health. This is another reason caffeine is acceptable. (I have my doubts about the more powerful stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin but I haven't done enough research to speak further. All I can say is that I'm skeptical.)

I've heard people with severe disorders become quite indignant at the use of smart drugs to enhance academic performance. Why do they think that because their problems are severe, smaller problems are illegitimate? I've had plantar fasciitis in the past, tightening and pain in the bridge of my foot. I wasn't paralyzed or bound to a wheel chair, but it hurt when I walked. So I learned about the condition and took measures to improve my situation.A sufferer of paraplegia wouldn't criticize me for going to the doctor just because my problem is so small compared to his. Why can't someone do the same with cognitive issues? Adderall is prescribed for narcolepsy. If someone has a hard time concentrating, it's not as debilitating as narcolepsy, but it's still a problem. Should I object to them taking a drug to improve their situation just because it's not as big of a problem as what someone else faces?

But maybe a smart drug user doesn't even think of it as 'solving a problem.' Maybe it's just performance enhancement: I'm good, I could be better. One time I read a truck driver's argument that he used a specific medication for the legitimate purpose of long haul trucking. Writing a PhD dissertation wasn't, in his book, legitimate. Why? It's intensly difficult (and ineffective) to to study philosophy for more than half a dozen hours in a day, but someone doing a PhD will be more successful studying 10 hours a day. Why is a trucker's need to work long hours more legitimate than an academic's? I sleep, eat (relatively) healthy, exercise, and listen to music, all to improve my cognitive performance. Why can't I take a pill too?

In each of these cases, with severe disorders and trucking, we have one person claiming 'my use is legitimate, your use is abuse.' I'm unconvinced on both counts. It seems like a egoistic lack of empathy.

My point is that we need to be wary of our use of the epithet "abuse." If it's physically, mentally, or socially damaging, then I'd use the term. In my book, addiction qualifies. But 'use for self-improvement' is not in its own right abuse. (And of course, I don't take the FDA as the grand arbiter of legitimate practice.)

All this is to say that if I found another smart drug as effective (or more effective) than caffeine with side effects as slight (or less than) caffeine, I would willingly try it. I haven't found it but if I do I think I could be a better person, not only for myself but for others around me as well.