Sunday, December 28, 2014

'Sustainability' project prompts excitement, skepticism

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 28 December 2014

When I first heard of the Powerdyne-City of Terre Haute partnership, I was excited. I teach a course on sustainable development in the fall semester, so I am focused on “possibilities” and “realities” of new, more sustainable technologies, the challenges of transitioning to a “post-carbon” society, and being scholarly about it all. When I first read about a company that proposes to transform sewage sludge to a motor fuel, sustainably speaking, that is a big deal. 

My first inclination was to examine the technology, as I am familiar with a variety of waste-to-energy processes, from burning garbage to produce electricity, to bio-digesters in Thailand producing methane gas for cooking and home use from home kitchen wastes, to large commercial biogas facilities in Europe. So, I knew there were things that were possible. But biodiesel? That was new, so I did some research and found recently published breakthroughs in the process in South Korea and a demonstration plant there. However, I could find nothing about the experience with the demonstration plant. Hmm, troubling. Yet, I remained excited at the prospect of a cutting edge technology and such an important development in the U.S.’s virtually nonexistent transition to a “post-carbon” society, happening right here in Terre Haute.

As more information comes to surface, and because of a Facebook discussion group on the Powerdyne deal, I reluctantly became disillusioned, both at the prospect that the technology was viable and whether this arrangement was a good one. Just because a technology is theoretically sustainable, and in energy issues it has much to do with the energy return on energy investment (EROEI), it must also be economically and socially sustainable as well. The secrecy surrounding the deal, the less-than-forthcoming information from the company and then the economics of the deal raise questions about how sustainable the project truly is.

The discussion group on Facebook has been a model for what passionate civil discussion can be. The technology has been discussed with local experts in chemistry and engineering reading and sharing various research articles on the process of transforming sludge to biodiesel, some thoughtful searches for patents in the name of either Powerdyne or company personnel that might suggest some technical expertise on the part of the company (none were found). The contract between the City and Powerdyne was analyzed line by line by various people. One would think that contract language would be intelligible to the layman, but I have learned that legal language only resembles English and it’s a good idea to have a trained interpreter. I’m not sure if any lawyers deciphered the contract. It seems confusing to me and there appear to be many errors in it. In any case, those who discussed the contract itself were unsettled. Add to the discussion group Arthur Foulkes’ terrific investigative reporting in the Tribune-Star, and I have significant doubts about this “deal.” My greatest concerns, however, are not what you might think.

Turning waste into gold is one way to look at sustainable practices. And turning sewage sludge into biodiesel is about as good as it gets (assuming the process of turning the waste into biodiesel has a favorable EROEI). This is not just a matter of pricing, as pricing does not always capture the true cost due to a variety of political and social practices. Biodiesel, generally, does not have a favorable EROEI. What could make that return more favorable is the use of sewage sludge instead of corn or other plant materials. It depends on the process involved and we do not know what that process is. This doesn’t mean that the Powerdyne deal won’t make money, but it might not be very “sustainable,” especially if the EROEI is low and could become unprofitable should any of the energy inputs rise in price without an equivalent rise in the price for biodiesel.

I applaud Mayor Bennett for even considering turning Terre Haute sewage waste into transport gold. I know him as a leader who is willing to seriously consider thinking about sustainable practices as Terre Haute moves forward. And regardless of what happens with the Powerdyne deal, I hope he will continue to be open to the more sustainable option.

I worry that the public may not readily distinguish between the particular “deal” with Powerdyne and “sustainable solutions” and equate all such “crazy” ideas like turning sewage sludge into a transport fuel with Powerdyne and dismiss similar future proposals as a sham at best and a scam at worst.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Social media content may not be what it seems

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 5 October 2014

Thursday, Sept. 18, was an unprecedented day at ISU with a heavy police presence in response to a statement made by an ISU sophomore about a shooting on campus that day. What her motivation was we might find out, if she even knows.

This essay is not about someone yelling fire in a crowded theater to just yell fire, or about ISU’s response. Rather, this essay is about what I have been reading and hearing about the social media site, Yik Yak, where the statement was made. I have not perused Yik Yak or entered its environment. For nearly a year, however, I have been participating in other similar sites, ever since I read that the under 25s are abandoning Facebook for other more anonymous sites (that their parents aren’t present on).

The responses I’ve read and heard about Yik Yak strike me as “ethnocentric,” that is, a response to a different culture’s (there are generational cultures) practices that are unfamiliar, and because the practices are unfamiliar they are deemed inferior and wrong. Some of the critics’ claims are quite strong: That the space is evil, atavistic, immoral, dangerous, racist, sexist, out of control, mean, and the list of negative descriptors goes on and on. Even a psychiatrist has deemed such social media, Yik Yak in particular, “dangerous.”

Yet, none of the critics I’ve read or spoken to have asked members of that “culture” what they think about it. I never heard of Yik Yak until Wednesday evening when the ISU Rave Alert mentioned it. I heard quite a bit of criticism from “nonparticipants” by noon on Thursday.

So, I have been asking ISU students if they ever use Yik Yak and what they think of it. Their responses fit with what I had come to understand about the “culture” of other versions of Yik Yak. First, not all I spoke to used it, but all were aware of it. Those who used it said that you had to use a lot of filters (not technological but mental), that there is some pretty raunchy stuff on it but also some really funny stuff, serious conversations, just about anything you might want. So, those who are familiar with the culture of these kinds of sites see it differently. They understand the need to filter the material. Those of us who did not grow up with social media are used to having our material filtered for us, leaving something of a false impression that what we read and see is representative or at least “respectable.”

But those days are numbered as there is a different culture now, with a lot of the “adults” cluck clucking about what they don’t understand. I don’t think the older generation criticism of these kinds of sites differs much from the “generation gap” between adults who didn’t grow up with television and their children who did.

One aspect of cultures like Yik Yak is that it allows others to indicate whether they like someone’s posting or not, to respond publicly or in private. In my meanderings on similar sites, I find them to also be wide open. Of course, it is easy to be distracted by the raunchy, racism, sexism, jingoism, practically any ‘ism” conceivable. Notwithstanding the grotesque, there are very serious conversations that occur. One of the best I had regarding Ferguson, Missouri, was on such a site, with people mostly under 30. One thing I’ve had to learn is to filter the “provocateurs.” That is my term for what is a common activity on these sights, posting provocative and outrageous statements to just get a response. I’ve communicated with individuals who bet others as to who can get the most responses over a specific time period.

One site, Whisper, even has a “popular” page where users definitely try to craft messages and sometimes clever “tricks” to get others to respond. Enough responses and your “Whisper” gets on the popular page. Without that understanding, indeed, the discourse looks “uncivilized.”

Later in the day on Thursday, a threatening note was found in an ISU restroom signed “Jihad.” I’ve neither seen nor heard anything critical of the medium of an anonymous note left in a bathroom. Had it been posted on Yik Yak, I suspect it would have evoked more “ethnocentric” responses about the lack of accountability on such sites as though the medium is the culprit.

As I teach my students, the first wisdom of sociology is that things are not always what they seem. Investigate, don’t pontificate.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

What really happened in Ferguson, Missouri?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 31 August 2014

I’m not teaching any class this semester that lends itself to using Ferguson, Mo, as a way to teach sociology or to demonstrate how sociology can help cut through the immense clutter that corporate and activist news and the Internet create for us. 

I can, however, after 30 years of doing so, imagine how such a discussion might go.

Student: “Professor Steiger, what do you think really happened in Ferguson?”

Steiger: “Are you asking me what I know or what I believe happened?”

Student: “What’s the difference?”

Steiger: “What if I told you I believe that the entire thing is a fabrication. That there was no shooting, Michael Brown is not dead, but that it was all necessary to protect Mr. Brown because he has now gone into witness protection?”

Silence on the part of the student.

Steiger: “Well?”

Student: “Professor Steiger, that seems far-fetched?”

Steiger: “Why, I bet you can find someone on the Internet who has already put together such a scenario complete with ‘facts’ to back it up.”

Student: “Is that really what you believe?”

Steiger: “What do you think?”

Student: “You say it in a very convincing way.”

Steiger: “Are you now considering it as a possibility?”

Student: “Maybe, I hadn’t thought it before.”

Steiger: “Anyone else in class now considering it?” A few nods among the students.

Steiger: “OK, let me ask the class a question. How many here have really not drawn any conclusion about the events in Ferguson? That you are still undecided and waiting for more facts to come out?” A couple raise their hands, I ask them what they are waiting for. Their answer is “what happened in Ferguson.”

“So, am I correct? Everyone here has already come to a conclusion about what happened there?” Most everyone is nodding their heads yes.

Steiger: “How many of you basically see it this way: One person is good, the other is bad.” About three quarters of the class raise their hands. “And for those of you who see it that way, have you changed your mind any about who is good and who is bad since you have been following events there?” About three quarters of people raise their hand. “And who do we know more about since the shooting? Mr. Brown or Officer Wilson? Hands up for Mr. Brown.” About half. “For Officer Wilson?” The other half. “OK, now, think about it, as you read information about Mr. Brown or Officer Wilson, were you reading to confirm their good guy or bad guy status in your basic understanding of what happened? In other words, to confirm the story you have put together in your head? How many of you have read something about your characters, the good guy and the bad guy, that didn’t fit your story and just dismissed it?” About half of the students raise their hands.

Steiger: “How many of you here actually worry that you might get accidently shot by a police officer?” Four students raise their hands. None of them are white.

Student: “Professor Steiger, are you going to tell us what you think happened in Ferguson?”

Steiger: “ I know that a young African American male was shot and killed. He isn’t much different than many of you except most of you probably don’t see graduating high school as much of an accomplishment. It was for him because, for whatever reasons, there is a lot of hopelessness and fatalism in the community he grew up in.

“Why he died remains shrouded in mystery. I would feel better about the official process if there was a different prosecutor because the local prosecutor works so closely with the police, it’s hard to imagine, especially when the prosecutor is elected and needs the support of law enforcement in a political campaign, that there will be the appearance of favoritism toward the police. It matters little whether he does a perfect job or not, appearances are important and add to it that his father was a police officer shot and killed by an African American. Well, let’s just say, there is no way he would ever serve on a jury judging Officer Wilson.

“I believe it unlikely that Officer Wilson will be charged with anything. And if he is, even less likely he will be convicted. I believe this based on the past history of such events, which are more frequent than any of us want to believe. I also do not believe that ‘justice’ is always the outcome.”

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Perhaps Millenials are the True Americans

TERRE HAUTE — I recently took an online fun quiz that tells you such things as what kind of flower you are or which character you are from “Seinfeld”; there are many, and they’re fun. This one was sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust called, “How Millennial Are You?” ( Lately it seems I see a lot of material focusing on what is wrong with this generation of students who fill my classes. Both of my daughters are “Millennials,” too.

Millennials are born after 1980. They are reaching their mid-30s. They have never known a time without computers, and they have grown up with the Internet. Millennials are the first digital generation.

I took the quiz. I’m a Baby Boomer, and there seems to be much tension between the supposedly “work” and “youth” obsessed Boomers and the “entitled,” “Peter Pan,” Millennial generation. So, I was surprised when I scored 95 out of 100. Boomers average 11 on the test. I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole, maybe I’m just someone very ahead of my time.

Recently, I heard about a webinar that will teach me about this generation of students. I’m guessing there must be a market for such things. I found a how-to guide on Amazon, “What’s Wrong With Millennials: 50 Things you Need to Know about the Entitled Generation.” It details all the problems with Millennials in the workplace. Topics include the source of Millennial entitlement, how to talk to Millennials, what parents need to know about Millennials and drugs, the Millennial “reality gap,” and why their inflated opinions of themselves make them “lousy” leaders. I scored a 95 on the test, the average score for Millennials was 73. I’m more Millennial than they are!

I’m a sociologist and skeptical of such overblown claims, especially so when those making the claims have something to sell you (book, webinar, workshop). So I turned to the Internet to find some data. Thanks to Pew Research, I found some.

Millennials are socially liberal. Two-thirds support legalization of marijuana; 70 percent favor marriage equality. Too bad Pew didn’t ask about abortion, but in other research conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, they found that Millennials are mostly supportive of abortion rights (60 percent) but conflicted about its morality.

To me, this suggests that Millennials trust people to make good decisions for themselves instead of government or other institutions. Yet Millennials are the least trustful of the past four generations. Only 19 percent indicated that “most people can be trusted,” over “you can’t be too careful.” This says more about how Millennials’ view social life than whether people can be trusted to make their own decisions. Millennials also lack faith in some of our major institutions; 50 percent are political independents, continuing a trend toward less affiliation with the two major parties. They are also religiously unaffiliated, with three in 10 indicating no religious affiliation, the highest of any of the previous living generations. And only 58 percent indicate they believe in God, the lowest of the previous living generations. They are also not rushing to the altar: Only 26 percent of them aged 18-32 are currently married, compared to 66 percent of the Silent generation (those born before 1945) at the same age.

However, using the Internet and social media, they create their own informal communities. Using Facebook friends as a measure, Millennials average 250 friends, while my generation, the Boomers, average only 50 (here I am true Boomer).

The Pew study didn’t address the claim that Millennials feel entitled. However, to me it seems that Millennials are demanding some accountability from the culture on its promises like “work hard and get ahead.” That expectation is taken by many to be “entitlement.” Most of the students I see have done that; they are academic superstars. They expect their effort to pay off and are less likely to accept that they are not good enough. While they do not seem to be politically organizing to change some things, they respond individualistically and grow suspicious of others’ claims. They are disengaging from society’s mainline institutions because of it. They expect to be treated as individuals, not categories, and thus reject judging people on religion, race, social class.

In many ways, Millennials seem to be exactly what we Americans claim to be (but fall well short of it).

After researching for this essay, I am pleased to score so highly on the Millennial quiz. Now, where is my prize?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Creativity requires freedom from the risks of failure

TERRE HAUTE — Last week I wrote about the themes that emerged from the panel discussion by five Wabash Valley members of the “creative class.” One question posed to the panelists was whether creativity can be taught. One panelist, Michael Tingley, an artist, affirmed that yes it can be and that it is easy, it’s a “simple process” and he gave examples of his success with that process with his students. I don’t doubt Michael’s success, but I suspect if it were as easy as he suggests, that the search for unlocking the incredible creative abilities of every human being would not be so hard.

Apart from certain personality features which seem to lend themselves to creativity, the research on creativity as well as my own biases toward cultural and social explanations leads me to a different, less individualistic explanation of why we find creativity to be so seemingly elusive.

Despite all the research into creativity, we really don’t seem to know very much. But it seems to me, what we know is profound. Creativity requires risk-taking, a willingness to fail — even an expectation of failure.

Last semester I made a presentation to ISU’s honors students. These are the best and brightest academic stars anywhere. These students could have attended any university they wished based on their academic quality. I spoke to them about the importance of failure. Before getting into the meat of my discussion, I asked them a couple of questions; I asked them who considered themselves to be creative? All but a couple raised their hand. I asked them how many of them were good at thinking outside the box? All but a couple raised their hand. Then I gave them a little diagnostic that taps into how comfortable they are with creativity.

It’s a very clever test, really. It asks the students what kind of assessment they would like to be used to grade their learning or understanding of different kinds of material. Everyone but two of the students chose a multiple choice test, the least creative option. This fit with the research I had read on high-achieving college students. Our best students, those who reflect the best that our education system produces, prefer the least creative option when it comes to testing and this suggests they prefer the conventional over the creative. Our very best students are pretty risk averse. Being right is more important than getting it right (eventually) or a unique solution.

A willingness to fail, even an expectation of failure, is something the research shows is a characteristic of creative people. I don’t think that is a personality feature. Rather, it’s the result of being in situations where failure is not punished or even supported. In today’s America, where is “failure” ever supported or encouraged? Parents begin lining their kids up for academic excellence from a very early age. And the pressure to make the grade is intense.

By the way, nothing in the literature suggests that “competition” fosters creativity. Indeed, it can reduce it. So, the competitive nature of our academics today is undermining rather than supportive of a culture of creativity.

Trying new things is also part of developing (or maintaining) creativity. But today, even in children’s play, we over-organize it and specialize. Today kids pretty much are deciding what sports they are going to “play” at very young ages, get into competitive situations and focus just on that sport. Why? In some cases because of scholarships, dreams of going “pro,”  and desires of being “the best,” a narrow hierarchical notion of success.

Books like Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” is popular and I know people who want to follow it. While doing so may be a recipe for success in an increasingly specialized and narrow economy, it’s creativity that is increasingly in demand and such specialization does not seem to be conducive to creativity. The reason why is the investment made in the prevailing conventions and standards of what is “good.” We need more people who can ignore the conventional and redefine things. That requires risk, a willingness to fail and a culture that doesn’t harshly punish failure.

As director of the ISU Center for Student Research and Creativity, my goal is to support undergraduate research and creative projects. Working on a faculty mentored research project or an artistic/performance project frees students from the “tyranny” of grades, allowing them the freedom to “be wrong,” to “take risks” and to “think some outside the box.”

Monday, February 24, 2014

Fostering creativity prime mission in teaching

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 2/23/14

TERRE HAUTE — As part of ISU’s College of Arts and Science’s Community Semester program, I organized a panel discussion on creativity by a panel of what some would call members of the Wabash Valley’s “creative class.” The panel members were Dennis Evers, of Everstech Consulting — Waste Treatment and Resource Recovery Technologies; Morgan Lidster, owner of Inland Aquatics; Michael Sacopolous, CEO of Medical Risk Institute; Michael Tingley, full-time artist; and Pete Ciancone, Director of the WILL Center, served as a panelist/moderator. The discussion was in Clabber Girl’s Rex Room on Feb. 11.

Three themes emerged from the discussion: crossing boundaries, a willingness to fail and curiosity.

Research suggests that taking experience or knowledge from one area and introducing it into another is a key to creativity. As odd as it sounds, Morgan Lidster more than 20 years ago began mimicking nature in order to grow coral in the Midwest. Rather than model the treatment of water on a water treatment plant, which was once the way, Lidster mimicked the way in which the ocean cleanses itself of waste. It seems so simple really, but in 1993 it was not the way when he opened Inland Aquatics.

Become familiar with Michael Tingley’s art, especially his sculpture, and you won’t be surprised that his father was a mechanical engineer and that Michael also studied engineering. Indeed, I think there is a creative tension between the transformation of art into engineering and engineering into art evident in Michael’s work.

A willingness to fail also emerged in the panel’s discussion. The panelists talked about taking calculated risks and trying new things that didn’t work out. But even more interesting than glimpses into the panelists’ “failures” was how they recognized that the others who are necessary to their own “success,” whether it be a new technology or recognizing a new “risk”, also seek out risk takers themselves.

The panel observed that gatekeepers and decision makers who have been in position for a long time are more risk averse than ones more recent to the position. Dennis Evers and Mike Sacopolous both talked about the importance of finding “early adopters,” or those willing to take risks. It’s not age, per se; those who occupy positions for a longer time have more invested and are less willing to take a risk.

This may be the best argument I have ever heard for term limits and for rotating administrators on a regular basis.

The third theme was curiosity. As a sociologist I focus more on context and relationships rather than personality characteristics. Nevertheless, I have known three of the panelists for years, and each is unquestionably curious. I can also see that same curiosity in Lidster and Evers. I suspect that each panelist spends far more time reading and searching out answers to their questions than watching reality TV or sports.

In preparing for this panel, I read up on the creativity research literature and how to “teach” it. A couple of quotes will sum up what we know quite easily. “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original” (Sir Ken Robinson). “Every creative person knows that failure is part of the process,“ (Shelly Carson). “Risk is essential to creativity, … but if you want to get into the good college and the good graduate school and the good job, you don't want to take too big a risk. Schools often encourage you to do the opposite of what you’d need to be creative” (Robert Sternberg).

The true reformers of education are not those who ramble on about standards and value-added regression modeling to track teacher, er, student progress. Nor are the true reformers those who call for the transfer of billions of tax dollars to the private market for education (they are nothing more than speculators). The true reformers are those who recognize that teaching people to a multiple-choice test based on the economy of today, when we have no idea what the economy of five years from now will be, is folly.

Hence, the real need is not who can fill in boxes on standardized tests; instead, the real need is to foster creativity in students because they will face an uncertain future. Sir Ken Robinson: “I believe this passionately: That we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.”

My next essay will discuss how our culture is unsupportive of creativity.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Political philosophies produce unpure ideologies

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 19 January 3014

TERRE HAUTE — Last month I wrote an essay on the increasing individualist culture in the U.S. and how it helps to explain why Americans are unconcerned about the growing economic inequality. That essay prompted several civil discussions with a couple of readers that prompts this essay.

Despite all the rhetoric from pundits and politicians about culture wars and red state blue state, U.S. culture is broad, messy and dynamic. At this particular stage in history, the individualist tendencies in U.S. culture (which have always been there, just as the collectivist tendencies have) are in ascendance. Think of it as a pendulum and the pendulum is swinging toward the individualist orientation. As far as this translating to our political culture, yes, Republicans tend to lean toward the individualist orientation, but not in all things. On economic matters, quite definitely; on social matters, not so much. Democrats are generally the opposite.

Four current issues, I think, reflect the sway of individualist values over collectivist values. Two are generally supported by liberals and Democrats and the other two generally supported by conservatives and Republicans.

The sweeping success of marriage equality, most recently in such conservative states as Utah and Oklahoma, reflect individualist values over collective ones. There is little doubt in my mind that if given the vote, residents of Oklahoma, Utah and Indiana would ban the notion of marriage equality. But the state constitutions demand equality before the law and it’s difficult to argue against equality, a quintessential individualist value.

On the other side of the aisle are gun rights. All attempts by the public to regulate guns are being swept away with the idea of an individual right to bear arms. Despite the clear reading of the Second Amendment, the Supreme Court read out of “a well-regulated militia” an individual right to arms. Even attempts to regulate what kind of guns and who can obtain them are well pushed back with the powerful idea of the individual protecting oneself and loved ones with a gun. Why rely on the “state,” the police, when you can do it yourself. The sweeping “stand your ground” laws almost require one to shoot when threatened rather than flee danger. Public opinion has soured against “gun control” as well. The idea of “individual” security concealed in one’s pocket is a very strong allure in an individualist culture.

Insurance is a collectivist approach to coping with risk. A group of people pool their money with the understanding that if they get sick or in an accident or their house burns down, that the pool will pay for it. This is also the idea of Social Security, one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in our history. Republicans and conservatives, however, want to privatize Social Security, to turn it into an investment program. The benefits are not pooled, there is no broad buy-in for the success. Losses are just individual losses. There is no sense of “shared fate.” An important appeal to individualist sentiment is “choice.” The individual should make the choice about how their funds are being invested and used. That “my” money can be given to my heirs is also an appeal to individualist values.

Abortion rights are my last example. Appeals by liberals to choice, that complex moral issues are best left to individuals and not to the state, helped make abortion legal in the United States. Since 1973, conservatives have appealed to more collectivist values, to deny women “choice,” that each of us have an interest in every pregnancy, that women cannot be left to make such a weighty decision alone, that they must be informed of certain things, that they must wait a certain time, even concern for the woman that the clinics in which the abortions occur must be regulated to ensure the woman’s safety. The persuasive and legal arguments made to curb legal abortion appeal to collectivist values, those values that conservatives and Republicans sometimes mock with the label of “nanny state.”

Both parties utilize both ends of the individualist-collectivist continuum when they need to. Conservatives and Republicans appeal to individualist values when they wish to sweep away environmental regulations but appeal to collective ones when they clamor for more support for security measures. Liberals and Democrats appeal to collectivist values when they call for social programs or extensions to unemployment benefits and to individualist values when they push for laws so individuals can sue in court for workplace discrimination, in the name of equality.

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and is director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email
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