Mary Mims and the Radical Side of Agrculture Extension Services

In the latest version of the Makers All framework, I argue that if you’re skeptical about Make Creativity Work — that many people in every community could gain the skills to earn part of their living creating robots, AI, etc — the history of US agricultural extension services shows what’s possible if we think big. I’ve been diving deeper into that history, and I’ve come across a remarkable woman named Mary Mims.

In 1925, Mims was hired by Louisiana State University Agricultural Extension Division as the state’s first extension sociologist. Through her amazing work in Louisiana, she ended up becoming an influential figure in the US.

Her book, The Awakening Community, which was published in 1932, launched her to national and international fame. The work, which features anecdotes, practical wisdom and concrete suggestions for building strong communities, became a model for community development for other states

Mims was featured as a premier speaker at events in 48 states and was considered one of the greatest national orators of her day. She gave a speech alongside President Calvin Coolidge, travelled to personal conferences with national leaders and nobility in Europe and other parts of the world, and became one of the best known national advocates for community development.

According to scholar and organizer Harry C. Boyte, Mims’ influence stemmed from the radical vision she advocated for and practiced.

Mary Mims developed the “community organizing method” in the cooperative extension service in the 1920s which spread to more than 1000 poor black and white communities across the south through the 1930s.

Mims, like others in cooperative extension (home economics, 4-H and other areas) drew on the Jane Addams Hull House tradition. She was also inspired by folk schools in Denmark. These had a focus on agency, building the civic power of students, families, and larger communities. They were “schools for life,” grounded in the experiences and life of common people not elites, with parallels to the “New School” (Escuela Nueva) movement in Latin America, begun in Columbia, which we’ve discussed before….

In Mims view, professionals of any kind should be a “leaven” for community self-organization. “So-called ‘social workers’ cannot hammer a community into shape,” she argued in her book, The Awakening Community. “If a community grows, it must do so from the inside.”

And Mims wasn’t alone. Boyte notes that

In the US, the United States Department of Agriculture and land grant colleges from 1937 to 1942 involved more than three million people in rural America in community discussions about the future of rural life, taking up issues that ranged from commodity prices and soil erosion to the future of democracy in America

When I think of government ag support, this isn’t remotely the image that pops into my mind. Extension services may end up being a much more rich vein to mine than I expected.

Shiver Me Digital Timbers!

An engineer with Rolls Royce who’s working on self-driving ships says they’re likely to become a reality before self-driving cars, starting with ferries.

My colleagues and I at Rolls-Royce anticipate that the first commercial vessel to navigate entirely by itself could be a harbor tug or a ferry designed to carry cars the short distance across the mouth of a river or a fjord and that it or similar ships will be in commercial operation within the next few years. And we expect fully autonomous oceangoing cargo ships to be routinely plying the world’s seas in 10 or 15 years’ time.

What I’ve always wondered is, what about pirates?  Wouldn’t self-driving ships be really vulnerable?   He says no.  

The threat posed by piracy to ships and their crews would also be reduced. That’s because uncrewed ships could be built so that they’d be very difficult to board on the high seas. Even if pirates got aboard, access to the controls could be made unavailable. Indeed, the computers in command could immobilize the ship or have it steam in a circle, making it relatively easy for naval authorities to reach it. Recapture would also be easier than is usually the case in such situations because there would be no crew held hostage. And without a captured crew to ransom, the target of the piracy is significantly less valuable.

I can see it now: a pirate ship appears on the horizon, and a convoy of robot ships and their drones immediately begin to steam in circles in a Busby Berkeley musical number, “I Only Have Eyes For You” blaring from their loudspeakers as they call in the authorities.

The reality, of course, would probably be closer to Gone in 60 Seconds; never underestimate the ability of thieves to adapt to a new mouse trap.

Exhibit 5423 How Online Music Is Screwing Artists: the YouTube Edition

Recently, the Merlin Network, the main indie label digital rights agency, released a survey of their members. According to Digital Music News, there’s good news and bad news. The good news: although income from audio streaming is still pretty sad, it’s increased considerably.

Boosted by a “significant uptake” in audio streaming, the global digital rights agency’s payouts have increased 52% year-on-year. Revenues paid out have increased more than eightfold….

Underscoring the strength of music streaming in the music industry, the report reads, “Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Merlin members report that audio streaming accounts for the majority of their digital revenues. This marks a significant leap from 2016, when less than half (46%) said this was the case.”

However, while audio streaming services like Spotify provide major revenue for Merlin members, video streaming has significantly underperformed. The global digital rights agency saw “only negligible growth from video streaming.”

As a result, there is now a staggering gap between audio streaming and video.

“Audio streaming growth outstrips video 3-to-1 as distributions to independent labels hit $353m.” 

The main reason for this discrepency: YouTube.

the latest IFPI report shows that user-uploaded video platforms [YouTube] have only paid out $553 million to rightsholders. The Google-owned video platform commands an audience of over 900 million users. By contrast, on-demand audio streaming services generated $3.9 billion with just 212 million users.

Industry critics argue that YouTube pays far less than it should, primarily through the creative use of legal loopholes.  Last year, over 180 musical artists from Lady Gaga to Ne-Yo signed on to an open letter to Congress, charging that major tech players like YouTube were using loopholes in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to rip off artists.

This law was written and passed in an era that is technologically out-of-date compared to the era in which we live. It has allowed major tech companies to grow and generate huge profits by creating ease of use for consumers to carry almost every recorded song in history in their pocket via a smartphone, while songwriters’ and artists’ earnings continue to diminish. Music consumption has skyrocketed, but the monies earned by individual writers and artists for that consumption has plummeted.

The DMCA simply doesn’t work. It’s impossible for tens of thousands of individual songwriters and artists to muster the resources necessary to comply with its application. The tech companies who benefit from the DMCA today were not the intended protectorate when it was signed into law nearly two decades ago.

And that, boys and girls, is another example of why any solution to the robot/AI employment threat must ensure we build grassoots power at the heart of this new economy. Small changes in the rules governing creative works can make a huge difference in who makes money off of these works and who doesn’t. And economic leverage can also make a real difference: one main reason why audio streaming is doing so well, Digital Music News, is that Spotify wants to have a successful IPO.

As it pushes ahead with its IPO plans, Spotify has settled major lawsuits and attempted to pay out more. 

If we want all communities to benefit from the coming economy, we need to ensure that at least some people in every community has an in-the-trenches understanding of how this new economy works, and every community needs the economic and political power to guarantee a real seat at the table.

How Not to Argue that UBI May Hurt Innovation

A few days ago in a commencement address at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg came out in favor of UBI.  In response, Forbes has a piece by Professor Robert Seamans arguing that UBI could actually hurt innovation.  Seamans’ first argument, that if UBI could be implemented by cutting other programs or policies that support innovation, is true but not that convincing; just because UBI could be poorly designed doesn’t mean it will be.  The second argument, however, is just bizarre:

If a UBI (or any other policy that shields borrowers from downside risk) increases the propensity for entrepreneurs to take risks because their downside is limited in the case of failure, this means that the capital provided by the financier is at greater risk. Thus, the financier may cut back on the amount of lending provided, or may continue to lend, but at a higher rate than before. Or, if the financier has trouble distinguishing between high- and low-quality risky projects, the financier may stop funding altogether.

One of the main barriers to getting started is keeping your head above water when you don’t have any income you can count on. If financiers knew that each team member of every potential investment had this eat-ramen-and-crash-with-someone level of safety net, this would make financiers less likely to invest?  Or that’d they’d invest less because teams that failed would have a ramen-eating safety net to count on till they got a job?  If that was the case, then middle class and upper middle class folks like Zuckerberg should have a harder time than working class or poor folks do getting start up financing, because they’re more likely to have parents, credit cards, etc as a cushion.  Anybody think that’s the case?

What’s Seamans’ evidence for this strange claim?

The negative response to higher levels of borrower protection by financiers has been documented in a number of settings. For example, Michelle White, a professor at UC San Diego, and coauthors find that higher levels of bankruptcy exemptions (the amount of money that an individual can retain when declaring bankruptcy) are correlated with more loan denials and higher interest rates….  

A recent paper with my coauthors Geraldo Cerqueiro, Deepak Hegde and Fabiana Penas shows that higher levels of bankruptcy exemptions lead to less innovation—in terms of lower number of patents and lower overall patent quality—by small firms.

It looks to me like the results of his study are statistically signicant but aren’t meaningful:  the vast majority of small firms weren’t filing many patents before or after the change in bankruptcy laws.  But let’s put that aside.  

Bankruptcy exemptions are how much property/assets you can walk away with, aka resources your creditors don’t get if you fail.  They only matter if you have creditors, and a lot of the would-be entrepreneurs who will most benefit from UBI are likely to be people who either wouldn’t or can’t get small business loans.  In fact, UBI might make getting a small business loan slightly easier because it means the business starts off with the equivalent of some cash to pay their employees.  In any case, why would anyone assume financiers would treat having less initial pressure to generate employee pay as equivalent to small business owners being to walk away with more assets if their business fails?

As readers of this blog know, I have real problems with a UBI-only strategy for tackling the threat of a robot/AI-based unemployment crisis.  But Seamans’ attacks on UBI as an innovation driver just don’t cut it.

Can We Make Math More Acessible?

Why are 76% of all math PhDs awarded to men?  One major reason, according to Stanford math professor Jo Boaler, is the way math is taught.

At Stanford University, I teach some of the country’s highest achievers. But when they enter fast-paced lecture halls, even those  were successful in high school mathematics start to think they’re not good enough. One of my undergraduates described the panic she felt when trying to keep pace with a professor: “The material felt like it was flying over my head,” she wrote. “It was like I was watching a lecture at 2x or 3x speed and there was no way to pause or replay it.” She described her fear of failure as “crippling.” This student questioned her intelligence and started to rethink whether she belonged in the field of math at all.

Research tells us that lecturers typically speak at between 100 and 125 words a minute, but students can take note of only about 20 words a minute, often leaving them feeling frustrated and defeated.

This style of teaching doesn’t work for lots of people — one college math class was enough to turn me off from math.  But it hits women and people of color especially hard.

When students struggle in speed-driven math classes, they often believe the problem lies within themselves, not realizing that fast-paced lecturing is a faulty teaching method. The students most likely to internalize the problem are women and students of color.

But there’s no reason math has to be taught the way it currently is.  Recently Boaler ran an interesting math teaching experiment that had impressive results.

In a recent summer camp with 81 middle school students, we taught mathematics through open, creative lessons to demonstrate how mathematics is about thinking deeply, rather than calculating quickly. After 18 lessons, the students improved their mathematics achievement on standardized tests by an average of 50%, the equivalent of 1.6 years of school.

What’s true in math is even more true in robotics and AI: if we want more people to use them, we need to take a hard look at how they’re taught.

Cross-posted from Data Chefs