American Founders’ Month in Florida: Mercy Otis Warren

Sept 19 Warren

American Founders’ Month continues here in Florida. Today, we take a look at one of the most influential of those women who played a role in the establishment and early days of the United States: Mercy Otis Warren.

Mercy Otis Warren was one of the most well-read and literate residents of Massachusetts in her day, man or woman. A playwright and a historian, an eloquent essayist and inveterate letter writer, she was one of the loudest voices speaking out against the failures and perceived tyranny of British government in Massachusetts and the other colonies.

A long time friend to both Abigail and John Adams, she broke with her dear friend over the creation of the U.S. Constitution, which she opposed as a violation of the ideals she and Adams were strong advocates for during the Revolution. Indeed, she was one of those Anti-Federalists who wrote in response to the Federalist Papers; using the nom de plume ‘A Columbian Patriot’, she wrote powerfully on perceived flaws in the new Constitution, and as herself to her dear friend John Adams on how he had so betrayed what they fought for. Sadly, her relationship with the Adams family never truly recovered.

You can learn more about this fascinating woman through the National Woman’s Hall of Fame. 

Grab the Powerpoint slide featured in this post: Mercy Otis Warren AFM

Additional entries in the American Founders’ Month series:
Introduction to the Founding Fathers
Who Was George Washington?
Abigail Adams: Founding Mother and so much more
John Adams: A Hero of Liberty
James Madison: Father of the Constitution
The Sons of Liberty: The Tea Party and More

becoming adults more slowly

A new paper by Jean Twenge and Heejung Park (2017) is getting a lot of coverage. The main finding is a delay in the onset of certain activities traditionally defined as “adult.” This graph shows the trends in having a driver’s license, drinking alcohol (ever), dating, and working for pay–all down steeply for teenagers.

Twenge and Park find that these trends are parallel for different racial and economic groups. They also find that adolescents simply go outside their homes without their parents much less often than their predecessors did.

These data jibe with my observations teaching college and raising kids (and observing their cohorts) for 25 years. But I would have strongly surmised that my observations had a class bias. I would have explained the delay in adult activities as a result of increasing investments in children by parents who have assets to invest. American parents spend an average of $38,000 per child while their children are between the ages of 18 and 34 (Frstenberg, Rumbaut, Settersten 2005). That mean statistic conceals huge differences by social class. Some young people are rationally delaying their careers and the formation of their families while they accumulate human capital, thanks to their parents. Other people are on their own at age 15.

This graph, from Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg’s paper on extracurricular activities, shows a widening disparity in the sheer cash invested in organized activities.

Another reason to hypothesize a growing gap in the onset of adulthood by social class is Annette Lareau’s finding (ca. 2003) that middle-class American parents use a strategy of “concerted cultivation”–viewing childhood as an opportunity to develop human capital–while working-class parents prefer “the accomplishment of natural growth,” or letting kids be kids. One reason that middle-class and affluent American teenagers don’t spend much time away from their parents is that their parents are now providing “concerted cultivation” in the form of paid after-school activities, supervised homework, intentional conversations about valuable topics, etc. Meanwhile, the working class are trying to let their kids enjoy some freedom before they have to get jobs.

Given these prior assumptions, this is my biggest surprise in the Twenge and Park article: the lack of difference in rates of “adult” activities by social class. Here I graph the data in their Table 2.

Twenge, J. M. and Park, H. (2017), The Decline in Adult Activities Among U.S. Adolescents, 1976–2016. Child Dev. doi:10.1111/cdev.12930.

Furstenberg, F.F,  Rumbaut, R.G. Settersten, R.A. , “On the Frontier of Adulthood,” in Settersten, Furstenberg, and Rumbaut, eds., On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory, Research, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

See also: the changing transition to adulthoodcoming of age in your thirtiesGeneration Me?

Robot Humor

Text processing algorithms are notoriously bad at processing humor. The subtle, contradictory humor of irony and sarcasm can be particularly hard to automatically detect.

If, for example, I wrote, “Sharknado 2 is my favorite movie,” an algorithm would most likely take that statement at face value. It would find the word “favorite” to be highly correlated with positive sentiment. Along with some simple parsing, it might then reasonably infer that I was making a positive statement about an entity of type “movie” named “Sharknado 2.”

Yet, if I were indeed to write “Sharknado 2 is my favorite movie,” you, a human reader, might think I meant the opposite. Perhaps I mean “Sharknado 2 is a terrible movie,” or, more generously, “Sharknado 2 is my favorite movie only insofar as it is so terrible that it’s enjoyably bad.”

This broader meaning is not indicated anywhere in the text, yet a human might infer it from the mere fact that…why would Sharknado 2 be my favorite movie?

There was nothing deeply humorous in that toy example, but perhaps you can see the root of the problem.

Definitionally, irony means expressing meaning “using language that normally signifies the opposite,” making it a linguistic maneuver which is fundamentally difficult to operationalize. A priori, how can you tell when I’m being serious and when I’m being ironic?

Humans are reasonably good at this task – though, suffering from resting snark voice myself, I do often feel the need to clarify when I’m not being ironic.

Algorithms, on the other hand, perform poorly on this task. They just can’t tell the difference.

This is an active area of natural language processing research, and progress is being made. Yet it seems a shame for computers to be missing out on so much humor.

I feel strongly that, should the robot uprising come, I’d like our new overlords to appreciate humor.

Something would be lost in a world without sarcasm.


Submit Your Proposals for the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference

We are thrilled to announce the upcoming Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference in Spring 2018 that will convene civic practitioners, of all ages, to explore innovations in how people participate in democracy. The conference is the creative effort of several fantastic organizations working to empower their community, including NCDD sponsoring org the Jefferson Center, and NCDD member org the Participatory Budgeting Project. Proposals are to be submitted by November 1st, so make sure you get yours in and reserve your space at this great event by purchasing your tickets ASAP.

We strongly encourage you to read the announcement from the Participatory Budgeting Project below or you can find their original post on their blog here.

Get involved with the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference

The Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference will bring together more than 250 youth, educators, advocates, elected officials, and researchers to explore innovations that empower community members to make real decisions and directly participate in government.

Our conference kicks off just as 10 public high schools wrap up two weeks of voting in the Phoenix Union High School District—where students are using participatory budgeting to decide how to spend $55,000.

Join us! Purchase your tickets now at discounted rates.

Call for Proposals

In order to plan a conference that’s as participatory as the innovations we’re exploring, we want to hear from you!

We’re excited to review creative, engaging, and interactive proposals (check out these example session types) that focus on innovations in participatory democracy such as participatory budgeting, citizen juries and assemblies, and key practices that connect civic engagement and deliberation with decision-making.

Submissions close November 1, 2017.

We’re especially interested in proposals that:

  • are creative, engaging, and interactive;
  • showcase a diversity of opinions, experiences, and backgrounds;
  • encourage interaction, discussion, and/or skill-sharing with session attendees;
  • are accessible to people of any background or experience level;
  • promote new collaborations among conference attendees.

Submit your proposal for the 2018 Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference.

On behalf of the powerful team planning the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference, we’re excited to shape this conference and the future of participatory democracy with you!

We look forward to reviewing your proposal and to working together to grow and deepen the impacts of innovations in participatory democracy.

You can find the original version of this blog post on the Participatory Budgeting Project’s site at

The Nature of Failure

I had the pleasure of attending a talk today by Dashun Wang, Associate Professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. While one of our lab groups is currently studying the ‘science of success,’ Wang – a former member of that lab, is studying the nature of failure.

Failure, Wang argued, is much more ubiquitous than success. Indeed, it is a “topic of the people.”

It is certainly a topic those of us in academia can relate to. While people in all fields experience failure, it can perhaps more properly be considered as a way of life in academia. The chances of an average doctoral student navigating the long and winding road to success in academia are smaller than anyone wants to think about. There aren’t enough jobs, there’s not enough funding, and the work is really, really hard. More than that, it’s ineffable: how do you know when you’re ‘generating knowledge’? What does that look like on an average day?

Mostly it looks like failure.

It looks like not knowing things, not understanding things, and not getting funding for the things about which you care most. It looks like debugging for hours and it looks like banging your head against the wall.

It looks like a lot of rejections and a lot of revise & resubmits.

Those successful in academia – subject, as they are to the fallacy of survival bias – often advise becoming comfortable with the feeling of failure. With every paper, with every grant, simply assume failure. It is even becoming common for faculty to share their personal CV of Failures as a way to normalize the ubiquity of failure in academia.

But, Wang argues, failure is the key to success.

I suppose that’s a good thing, since, as he also points out, “in life you don’t fail once, you fail repeatedly.”

Failure is a thinning process, no doubt – many people who experience significant failure never come back from it. But a series of failures is no guarantee of future failure, either.

People who stick with it, who use failures as an opportunity to improve, and who learn – not just from their most immediate failure but from their history of failure – can, with time, luck, and probably more failures, eventually succeed.


religion and politics in the US versus many other countries

Here is a thesis that experts can evaluate better than I: The issue of religion in politics is fundamentally different in the US from many other countries. In the US, it is mainly about majority opinions versus minority rights. In countries from Mexico to Myanmar, it is about the social functions of a single organized body, the clergy. This difference matters for everyday politics.

The US has always had a religious majority that has been divided among many Christian denominations, with other faiths also represented. The Constitution gives individuals the right to exercise their religions freely. It also prevents any religion from being “established.”

The classic questions of religion and politics in the US involve majorities versus minorities. Sometimes, a coalition composed of many denominations supports a policy (e.g., banning abortion) for reasons that include religious ones. Then the questions become: 1) Does the desired policy impinge on constitutional rights? and 2) Are religious reasons for the policy acceptable or desirable in the public sphere? At other times, the majority becomes adverse to a particular religion–Mormonism in the 1800s being a clear example. Then the same two questions arise, but now the majority threatens the minority’s free exercise.

In nations with a single dominant religion that is organized in a hierarchical fashion (Catholic countries, but also, perhaps, some Muslim, Orthodox, Buddhist, Lutheran, and Anglican countries, plus in some respects, Israel), the issue is different. These countries have an organized, institutionalized body: the clergy. Typically, the clergy has a history of delivering some public services to the nation as a whole. For example, there may have been a time when the Catholic Church ran and staffed almost all of the state-funded schools in a given country. Sometimes, there is also a history of violent reaction against the clergy as an institution. Priests were executed in the French and Mexican revolutions, for instance.

In these countries, the question is not directly about whether to enact laws consistent with religious values. The question is whether to entrust an organized group of people, the clergy, with particular social functions. At the anti-clerical end of the spectrum, the clergy or priesthood is seen as a bane on society. At the clerical end, it is seen as a bulwark. These positions are, in principle, separate from one’s opinions of theology and of policy issues. A person could agree with the Church on most topics but distrust the clergy, or vice versa.

Here are some practical consequences of the difference:

  1. In the US, when debates over policy have religious components, they are deeply divisive and feel existential. At least some other countries treat such debates as fairly routine. The divisive issues for them concern the prerogatives of the clergy as an institution. An interesting hybrid case is Ireland, where the ballot victory on same-sex marriage was greeted with joy, at least in Dublin. I think voters were pro-equality, they celebrated because they had defeated the Irish clergy, a (currently unpopular) institution.
  2.  In the US, religious involvement in politics is usually mediated by officially secular political parties. The parties strive to assemble majorities by drawing people from several denominations. They typically recruit believers, not churches, into their ranks. In many other countries, each political party has a relationship with the main denomination, ranging from a formal partnership (e.g., for the Christian Democratic parties) to official hostility. Indifference may also be an option, just as a party can be neutral on other issues, but it will face questions about the clergy.
  3. In the US, it doesn’t really make sense to ask a candidate what she thinks of “the clergy.” You can ask her about abortion, God, her own faith, or the First Amendment, but there is no national clergy to have an opinion about.

See also: a typology of denominationsthe political advantages of organized religionreligion and politics in the Muslim world and the USA; and on religion in public debates and specifically in middle school classrooms.

American Founders’ Month in Florida: The Sons of Liberty

Sept 14 Sons of Liberty

American Founders’ Month in Florida continues today with a look at the Sons of Liberty. The Sons of Liberty were a sometimes controversial secret society devoted to combating what it perceived as British oppression by any means necessary.

While they may be most famous for organizing boycotts of British goods and dumping tea into Boston Harbor, they also took sometimes-violent action against people seen as serving British interests. We all recall, for example, those images from the era that illustrate Sons of Liberty tarring and feathering British tax collectors.


The Bostonian Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print, referring to the tarring and feathering, of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The men also poured hot tea down Malcolm’s throat

The Sons of Liberty were sometimes extreme in their pursuit of liberty; was that extremism always justified? How can we really say, from our own vantage point today? What a fascinating discussion we can have! You can learn more about the fascinating Sons of Liberty and its role in the Boston Tea Party from the Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Grab the PowerPoint slide featured in this post: Sons of Liberty AFM

Additional entries in the American Founders’ Month series:
Introduction to the Founding Fathers
Who Was George Washington?
Abigail Adams: Founding Mother and so much more
John Adams: A Hero of Liberty
James Madison: Father of the Constitution

American Founders’ Month in Florida: James Madison

Sept 15 or 16 Madison

Sunday is Constitution Day, so it is perhaps a good time now to share the Founder perhaps most associated with the Constitution: James Madison. Madison is sometimes referred to as the father of the Bill of Rights, and was an influential voice in the effort to replace the Articles of Confederation with a working national government under a federal system. He, like many of the Founders’, was a man of contradictions: a believer in liberty while owning slaves, an opponent of the debt and taxes necessary for waging war and yet leading (with some good cause) the United States into an ill-advised war with the British in 1812, and so much more. He was a complex man, this Father of the Constitution. One wonders what he would make of his handiwork today.

You can learn more about James Madison from the National Endowment for the Humanities!

Grab the PowerPoint slide featured in this post: James Madison AFM

Additional entries in the American Founders’ Month series:
Introduction to the Founding Fathers
Who Was George Washington?
Abigail Adams: Founding Mother and so much more
John Adams: A Hero of Liberty

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (Or, A Tribute to Cassini)

At 7:55 EST this morning, the Cassini spacecraft sent its final message to Earth before plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere. Reaching speeds over 77,200 miles (144,200 kilometers) per hour, Cassini experienced temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, causing the spacecraft to char and break apart, its elemental components ultimately diluting in the atmosphere of the gas giant. As NASA poetically put it, Cassini is now a part of the planet it studied.

It sent data back to Earth right up until the end.

It may seem strange that the spacecraft was slated for destruction while previous missions, such as Voyagers 1 and 2 continue, with both probes still heading deeper into space after 40 years of exploration. Yet no such fate was appropriate for Cassini.

Among the most remarkable findings of the Cassini mission came from Saturn’s moons: icy Enceladus was found to have a global ocean and geyser-like jets spewing water vapor. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was discovered to have seas of liquid methane and an ocean of water and ammonia deep below the surface. Both moons provide promising avenues of research for that most thrilling and elusive topic: life itself.

Allowing Cassini to live out the rest of its life naturally, transmitting data well past when it had depleted its fuel reserves, would have put both those moons at risk. Cassini had to devote its final fuel to its own safe disposal.

It seems a strange thing to find the destruction of a spacecraft so moving. Cassini was machine: it felt nothing, desired nothing. It undertook an impressively successful mission and now, nearly 20 years after its launch from Cape Canaveral, it was time for that mission to come to an end.

Yet don’t we all wish to live and die so nobly? To make profound contributions through our efforts and to gracefully exit in a poetic blaze at the appropriate time?

It is beautiful to think of Cassini – a spacecraft I have loved and followed for over a decade – reduced to dust and becoming one with the planet to which it devoted much of its existence; and doing so in service to the remarkable moons with which it was intimately and uniquely acquainted.

If we are to believe Camus, all our fates are absurd; the workman toils everyday at the same tasks. Yet, in itself, this fact need not be tragic.

Truly, there is no meaning in the destruction of a spacecraft which has served well its purpose. Yet it is in these moments – when we find beauty and profoundness in the absurd; when we ascribe nobility to practical acts which mean nothing – these are the moments of consciousness. When we experience wonder generated from the mere act of living. The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.

So thank you, Cassini, for your decades of service. Thank you for the rich array of data you have shared with us, and thank you to the many, many people who made this mission possible. Because of you, I – and the rest of humanity – have seen and learned things we would have never experienced otherwise. There can be no greater gift than that.



American Founders’ Month in Florida: John Adams

Sept 12 J Adams

John Adams remains one of the most fascinating of the Founders. A passionate patriot and one of the earliest supporters of American independence from Great Britain, he nevertheless felt it important to provide legal defense to those British soldiers accused of crimes as a result of the Boston Massacre.

“The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.” 

His rivalry with his colleague and once-and-future-friend Thomas Jefferson is also a fascinating aspect of the ‘strange bedfellows’ relationships that were necessary in the pursuit of America independence.

Check out the National Humanities Center’s activity on Adams and leadership here to get a sense of who this Founder was and how he influenced our nation.

Grab the PowerPoint slide featured in this post: John Adams AFM

And if you are so inclined, check out this humorous but realistic and passionate take on the patriot John Adams, from 1776.


Additional entries in the American Founders’ Month series:
Introduction to the Founding Fathers
Who Was George Washington?
Abigail Adams: Founding Mother and so much more
James Madison: Father of the Constitution