Assistant Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric, technology, and writing.
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Colorado Teachers Get Gun Training As 'First Responders'

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Should teachers have the right to carry guns in the classroom to protect themselves and their students? While groups on both sides of the issue fight that out, some teachers in Colorado are training.

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7 hours ago
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The problem with FAQs in documentation

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Many tech writers have a heavy disdain for FAQs. At first this disdain seemed a bit unfounded and elitist to me, but now, after a recent project, I'm starting to get the reasons for the disdain. All too often the FAQ format is abused by non-writers who want an easy way to write. The list of random questions grows with each incoming question until it's a ridiculous hodgepodge of information thrown together, with no larger story or narrative.
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2 days ago
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In Flint Water Crisis, Could Involuntary Manslaughter Charges Actually Lead to Prison Time?

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Last week, Michigan’s top prosecutor announced that five officials, including the state’s Health Department head Nick Lyon, will face charges of involuntary manslaughter for a death resulting from the Flint water crisis.

It’s a move virtually unheard of in modern American history; legal experts couldn’t point to a single case in which government officials were charged in a citizen’s death because they knew about a problem but failed to warn the public.

Almost immediately, news of the charges sent ripples through the community of Flint, where residents like Melissa Mays, 38, still go door to door delivering bottles of water to their neighbors.

“We still have to take care of each other,” she said. “It’s still the poor and poisoned people taking care of the poor and poisoned because the state won’t do it.”

Flint’s water problems began in April 2014, when the city, in an attempt to save money, switched the town’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. In the switch, officials failed to add a $200-per-day anti-corrosion agent that would coat the city’s antiquated pipes. The omission would prove disastrous as lead from the pipes began to leach into the water that flowed out of the tap, endangering thousands of children. Officials asserted it was “safe to drink,” above the outcry of residents who suspected the brown, odorous water was contaminated.

The first outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease — a serious type of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria — hit by summer. According to the water crisis interim investigation report released last week, Lyon and others knew about outbreaks for nearly a year before the public was notified and an emergency was declared. In all, a dozen people died from Legionnaires’ disease, though residents suspect there may be other victims who were never tested for the bacteria.

While some see the severity of the charges as a sign that someone may actually be held accountable for the contamination, Mays is skeptical. She points to former state epidemiologist Corinne Miller, who was originally charged with felonies for failing to tell Flint residents about a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. Miller’s felony charges were dropped, and as part of a deal with prosecutors in March, she pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor. Her punishment: Writing a letter of apology.

“People keep asking if I was shocked that the charges weren’t enough, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from the state,” Mays said. “Everything so far has been slaps on the wrist.”

An involuntary manslaughter conviction in Michigan carries a potential sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine. But how likely is it that anyone charged with involuntary manslaughter in this case will see any jail time?

It’s more common to find cases internationally where government officials were charged and convicted in deaths resulting from disasters, said Denis Binder, a Chapman University law professor who studies criminal prosecution in disasters of all kinds, including oil spills, plane crashes, building collapses and earthquakes.

In 2012, an official from Italy’s Civil Protection Department was convicted of manslaughter — and eventually given a two-year suspended sentence — for downplaying the risks from earthquakes in L’Aquila a week before one killed more than 300 people. And in 2010, the mayor of La Faute-sur-Mer, a village in western France, was given a two-year suspended sentence for manslaughter after Cyclone Xynthia caused flooding that killed 29 residents who had built their homes in a zone where officials should have barred construction.

The Justice Department could not readily say how many individuals here in the United States have been convicted for environmental crimes. But after consulting with experts, news archives and academic reviews, ProPublica found that convictions related to deaths tend to hinge on a more direct line of responsibility. Take Richard Smith, pilot of the Staten Island Ferry in 2003. He passed out at the helm of the 3,000-ton boat after taking painkillers, causing a crash that killed 11 people. Smith served 15 months in prison; his supervisor was sentenced to a year and a day for failing to enforce a rule that required two pilots to be in the wheelhouse as the boat docked.

But causing deaths by doing nothing to stop them?

In these kinds of environmental disaster prosecutions, convictions and prison time have proven elusive.

Elusive Convictions

To understand why, ProPublica talked to experts — former environmental prosecutors and Environmental Protection Agency officials, lawyers and academics — and looked at three federal cases in which individuals were charged in the deaths of people. None of the cases ended in convictions for those deaths.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion — the largest oil spill in American history — dumped an estimated 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and left 11 workers dead. Initially, the Justice Department pinned the blame on two well site leaders — Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine — for not notifying engineers that pressure tests showed the well they were drilling was insecure. Unaware of the failed tests, workers continued to drill, leading to the ensuing well blowout and explosion. Kaluza and Vidrine were each charged with 11 counts of felony seaman’s manslaughter and 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter, as well as violating the Clean Water Act. The manslaughter charges carried maximums of 8 to 10 years in prison, but neither man would serve a day.

The felony counts were dropped in 2015 as the Justice Department said “circumstances surrounding the case have changed” and it could no longer meet the legal threshold for involuntary manslaughter charges. Vidrine, who died earlier this month, agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor Clean Water Act violation and was sentenced to 10 months of probation, 100 hours of community service and a $50,000 penalty. Kaluza fought his misdemeanor charge and in 2016, a jury cleared him of any wrongdoing. Ultimately, BP Exploration and Production Inc. pleaded guilty to felony manslaughter and several other environmental crimes, agreeing to pay $4 billion in fines and penalties. As a part of the settlement, money was set aside to help the affected communities recover from the oil spill.

Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, walks out of the courtroom following his arraignment on Thursday, June 15, 2017, at Genesee District Court in Flint, Michigan. (Jake May/The Flint via AP)

It’s common for companies to accept responsibility, in the form of financial penalties, for their employees in environmental disasters.

“If there are individuals in the crosshairs of government prosecution, there’s a pretty strong inducement for the company to kind of, take the wrath,” said Scott Fulton, a former high-ranking EPA official and former assistant chief in the DOJ’s environmental enforcement unit. “There’s a dynamic where the company, out of desire to protect its people, will be willing to take a guilty plea as a means of accomplishing that.”

The Flint case is different, said Pat Parenteau, a former EPA lawyer now at the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Center. Without a corporation to take the fall, the governor, as head of the executive branch, would have to be the one to step in to shield the officials.

“Not a chance,” Parenteau said. “You won’t see the governor or legislature stepping in front of the bullet and taking the fall. These five officials will either go to trial or plead out. They’re on their own.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said investigators sought to interview Gov. Rick Snyder as a part of the water crisis probe, but were unable to do so. Gov. Snyder’s legal counsel, Brian Lennon, said Snyder has “always been willing to talk with the Office of Special Counsel under oath like every other witness,” but he never got a subpoena.

After the charges were announced, Snyder released a statement giving Lyon and another top official charged in the crisis, state Medical Executive Eden Wells, his “full faith and confidence,” after the charges were announced, calling them “instrumental in Flint’s recovery.” He also said Lyon and Wells will remain in their jobs.

“If he wanted to say ‘they’re following my directions,’ he could,” Parenteau said. “But he’s doing quite the opposite. He’s saying he thinks they’ll be vindicated and in doing so, he’s defending his own lack of action in the case.”

Gov. Snyder’s office pushed back against this statement when ProPublica asked him to respond to it. “The Governor did not fail to act,” said Anna Heaton, Snyder’s press secretary. “He has explained many times, including under oath and publicly to Congress, the timing and sequences of events as to what he knew, and when, and all of the actions he took in response. Further, these are allegations at this point. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”

In another environmental disaster case, an individual was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to prison. But that conviction was overturned by a legal rule that allows defendants to avoid a criminal conviction if they win a civil case based on the same facts.

In 2005, Dennis Michael Egan was the captain and owner of a petroleum barge that exploded in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal after crew members used a handheld torch to thaw a pump. One crew member died. A judge, in a bench trial, convicted Egan for negligent manslaughter of a seaman, finding that he “knew that the crew occasionally used an open flame to heat the cargo pump but nonetheless permitted the crew to engage in the illegal and unsafe practice,” according to the Justice Department.

Egan was sentenced to six months in prison, but an appellate court overturned his conviction, because in a previous civil trial, prosecutors had failed to prove that the victim was using a propane torch, or that Egan had ordered him to use a torch at all.

That probably won’t happen with the Flint case, Parenteau said, because it’s unlikely that any of the ongoing civil cases will seek to prove the same elements necessary for an involuntary manslaughter charge. There are multiple pending civil lawsuits pegged to the water crisis, including a class action suit seeking $1.1 million in personal and property damages from the EPA for failing to take quick action. “If two cases have different legal issues, then they’re just different,” he said.

As with Flint, news coverage drove public attention and, ultimately, prosecutors to Libby, Montana.

The small mining town produced much of the world’s vermiculite — a mineral used in concrete and insulation, among other things, because it “expands like popcorn when heated,” according to the Justice Department. A 1999 investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found elevated levels of asbestos-related disease among Libby residents and alleged that the mine’s owner — W.R. Grace & Co. — knew the mines had been contaminated with asbestos since the late 1970s and said nothing.

By the time the Grace company and seven executives were indicted for knowingly endangering the town, hundreds of Libby residents had died and another 1,200 residents were sick from asbestos-related issues. Unlike involuntary manslaughter, the Clean Water Act violation of knowing endangerment is used for instances in which defendants knew they were placing “another person in imminent danger of death” or harm.

Government investigators found that people were 40 to 60 times more likely to die from asbestos-related disease if they lived in Libby than anywhere else in America. Prosecutors presented documents they said proved officials knew about the health hazards, but kept them secret, so the company could keep making money. The defense argued the company inherited the asbestos problem and worked for years to clean it up.

At the end of the three-month trial, the company and its executives were acquitted of criminal charges. Town residents were shocked. They ultimately received compensation and health care from a combination of government and court actions, including a Grace company bankruptcy case and a provision in the Affordable Care Act.

In a place like Libby, where Grace was such a big part of the town, Parenteau said he could imagine there might have been jurors who were sympathetic to the company.

“But not in Flint,” he said. “Not for state officials. Not among the public and the people most affected by this — or almost anybody who has paid attention to this. I can’t imagine these state officials getting any sympathy.”

Uncharted Waters

As environmental crimes go, the levying of felony involuntary manslaughter charges against high-ranking state and city officials has put the Flint water crisis investigation squarely into new territory. Unlike the three other cases ProPublica explored, the charges in Flint are state actions. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan has confirmed an investigation into the water crisis.

“I’ve certainly never heard of a charge this serious,” Parenteau said. “My goodness — for failing to warn people.”

In addition to Lyon, involuntary manslaughter charges have been made against former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former City of Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Drinking Water Chief Liane Shekter-Smith and Water Supervisor Stephen Busch. All of the charges are tied to the death of Robert Skidmore, 85, who died from Legionnaires disease in December 2015.

Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, a coalition of community organizers on the ground in Flint, said the charges were “troubling, infuriating and a disgrace,” since they failed to implicate Michigan’s governor directly.

“Many of the individuals charged [Wednesday] answered directly to Gov. Snyder,” Shariff said in a statement. “Enough is enough. Gov. Snyder needs to resign immediately and the people must know what he knew and when he knew it. Gov. Snyder must not be immune from accountability.”

Bottles filled with polluted water in Flint’s City Council chambers on Jan. 11, 2016 (Jake May/The Flint via AP)

Investigators said they stopped short of filing charges against Snyder because they hadn’t found probable cause to do so. Schuette said investigators will continue to follow evidence but are now shifting focus toward prosecuting the criminal charges they have filed.

Flint has never had it easy. The hardscrabble middle-class city, built on the back of the automotive industry, has seen populations decline over the years, factories demolished and crime spike. Today in Flint, 41 percent of residents live in poverty and the median household income hovers just below $25,000. After the water crisis, home values plummeted, leaving many without the means to leave the city. And while Congress and the state have given $127.5 million to upgrade Flint’s infrastructure, that process will address only part of the problem.

Mays, who lives on Flint’s west side with her three sons, said the charges for the Legionnaires’ disease deaths, while important, don’t address the long-term effects Flint residents will face.

“It’s great that they might get punished, but we need pipes, we need medical care,” she said.

This crisis is not of Flint’s doing. At the time of the water switch, Flint was under the control of an emergency manager — an official appointed by the governor with the authority to make unilateral decisions about the fate of the city’s finances, including where it sourced its water. Citizens — including the City Council and the mayor — had no say in the matter. Many believe the level of disenfranchisement seen in Flint would have never happened in more affluent cities.

“The people of Flint lost their democracy and their voice,” said Leslie Fields, national environmental justice director for the Sierra Club. “Now there’s this disproportionate effect. It’s the cumulative impacts and the stress. It’s not just about the water. People have to go to these extraordinary lengths — how do you bathe kids in bottled water?”

Advocates say criminal prosecution isn’t a cure-all, but it could signal to the people of Flint that their concerns are finally being taken seriously and that people are being held accountable.

From the outside looking in, Schuette’s investigation seems designed to do just that. In addition to the charges, Schuette also released an interim report of the five-month investigation into the Flint water crisis, subtitled “the most comprehensive investigation in Michigan history” and concluding that the ordeal was a “failure of leadership” and a “man-made disaster of significant proportions.”

But in Flint, distrust runs deep.

“If someone dies on your watch, that’s on you,” Mays said. “Everyone needs to be charged. It’s not justice until that man [Snyder] is hauled off in handcuffs.

“I’d like to see all of these people who are charged put in Flint jail, so they have to shower in Flint and be forced to live in Flint,” she said. “Maybe if they lived here, things would get fixed.”

Do you have access to information about environmental injustices impacting vulnerable populations? Email Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

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6 days ago
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in responsibilities begin dreams

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Lately I've been reading the philosopher Timothy Morton, who has a lot to say about living in the Anthropocene, and I see that he has a forthcoming book called Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. On his website the book is described thus:

What is it that makes humans human? As science and technology challenge the boundaries between life and non-life, between organic and inorganic, this ancient question is more timely than ever. Acclaimed Object-Oriented philosopher Timothy Morton invites us to consider this philosophical issue as eminently political. It is in our relationship with non-humans that we decided the fate of our humanity. Becoming human, claims Morton, actually means creating a network of kindness and solidarity with non-human beings, in the name of a broader understanding of reality that both includes and overcomes the notion of species. Negotiating the politics of humanity is the first and crucial step to reclaim the upper scales of ecological coexistence, not to let Monsanto and cryogenically suspended billionaires to define them and own them.

The book isn't out yet, but I find this description worrying. The idea that "becoming human ... actually means creating a network of kindness and solidarity with non-human beings" sounds wonderful, in the most abstractly theoretical terms, but I doubt we can solve our and the world's problems simply by "negotiating the politics of humanity" — at least if Morton means, as I suspect he does based on what I have read so far, redefining the sphere of the political to include the whole range of nonhuman creatures, including the vast and ontologically complex phenomena he calls hyperobjects. Because we don't have a great track record of treating one another well, do we? I'm all for "kindness and solidarity with non-human beings," but first things first, you know? A good many people out there can't even manage kindness and solidarity with parents whose children were murdered in school shootings.

I'm reminded here of a comment made by Maciej Ceglowski in a recent talk. Responding to the claims of Silicon Valley futurists that we're just a few decades away from ending the reign of Death and achieving immortality for at least some, Ceglowski said, "I’m not convinced that a civilization that is struggling to cure male-pattern baldness is ready to take on the Grim Reaper." Similarly, I'd encourage those who plan to achieve kinship with all living things to call me back once they can have rational and peaceable conversations with people who live on their block.

I have the same concern with Morton's project as I do with Donna Haraway's theme of "making kin," which I wrote about here. I suspect that much of the appeal of seeking communion with pigeons, plutonium, and black holes (to use examples taken from Haraway and Morton) is that pigeons, plutonium, and black holes don't talk, tweet, or vote. If projects like Haraway's and Morton's don't reckon seriously with this problem, then they are likely to be in equal parts frivolous and evasive.

Such projects raise, for me, a further question, which is whether the language of kinship and solidarity is the right language to accomplish what its users want. Because you can achieve a feeling of kinship or solidarity without taking on any particular responsibility for the well-being of another creature. Here the old Christian language of "stewardship" seems to me to have greater force, and a force that is especially applicable to the Anthropocene moment: We do not own this world, but it has been entrusted to our care, and only if we seriously strive to live up to the terms of that trust will we have a chance of achieving true kinship and solidarity with all that we care for. It seems to me that Yeats had it backwards: it is not the case that "in dreams begin responsibilities," but in responsibilities begin dreams.

After posting this I realized that I'm not done. Morton, Haraway, Graham Hartman, and others working along similar lines are keen to bridge the gaps between humans and nonhumans — or, perhaps it would be better to say, deny the validity of the gaps that human beings perceive to exist between themselves and the rest of the world. They thus conclude that we require a new philosophical orientation to the nonhuman world, though one that employs quite familiar concepts (kinship, solidarity, intention, purpose, desire) — those concepts are just deployed in relation to beings/objects which formerly were thought to be outside the scope of such terms. We're not used to thinking that hammers have desires and black holes have consciousness.

This strategy of employing familiar language in unfamiliar contexts gives the appearance of being radical but may not be quite that. It strikes me as being largely a reversal of Skinnerian behaviorism: the behaviorists said that human beings are nothing special because they're just like animals and plants, responding to stimuli in law-governed ways; now the object-oriented ontologists say that human beings are nothing special because animals and plants (and hammers and black holes) all possess the traits of consciousness and desire that we have traditionally believed to be distinctive to us. The goal of the philosophical redescription seems to be the same: to dethrone humanity, to get us to stop thinking of ourselves as sitting at the pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being.

And underlying this goal is the assumption (often stated explicitly by all these figures, I think) that our belief in our unique and superior status among the rest of the beings/objects in the world has led us to abuse those beings/objects for our own enrichment or amusement.

I think this whole project is unlikely to bear the fruit it wants to bear, and I have several reasons for thinking so, which I will just gesture at here and develop in later posts.

(1) I doubt the power of philosophical redescription. Changes in our practices will lead to changes in description, not the other way around. The failure to recognize the direction that the causal arrow points is the signal failure of people who, being symbol manipulators by profession, think that the manipulation of symbols is the key to All Good Things. (I have written about this often, for instance, here.)

(2) I don't think we have taken the role of Apex Species on the Great Chain of Being too seriously, I think we have failed to take it seriously enough.

(3) I believe that all of these difficulties can best be addressed by living into certain ancient ways of thinking — which, in our neophilic age, is a hard sell, I know.

People will say, "Go back to Christianity? We tried that and it got us into this situation." To which the obvious rejoinder is the Chestertonian one that Christianity hasn't been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried. But perhaps more to the point: everything has failed. Every day I hear lefties say that capitalism has been tried and didn't work, and righties say that socialism has been tried and didn't work — to which each side retorts that its preferred system hasn't really been tried, hasn't been implemented properly and thoroughly.

And all of these people are correct. Every imaginable system has been put into play with partial success at best, and the problems result from incomplete or half-hearted implementation of that system and from flaws inherent to it — which flaws are precisely what make people half-hearted or incomplete in their implementation of it. Everything has been tried and found wanting, and found difficult and left untried. This is the human condition. Attempts to remedy social and personal ills always run aground on both the sheer complexity of our experience and our mixed and conflicting desires (mixed and conflicted both within ourselves and in relation to one another).

New vocabularies, or even the deployment of old vocabularies in supposedly radical new ways, won't fix that. Which is not to say that improvements in conditions are impossible.

Much more on all this later.
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8 days ago
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How the University of Michigan's free tuition program works and who qualifies

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The University of Michigan made waves on Thursday, June 15, announcing the creation of the Go Blue Guarantee, which provides all in-state students with a family income of up to $65,000 with free tuition for four years.

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9 days ago
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play as work

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Peter Suderman writes about playing the video game Mass Effect: Andromeda,

The game boasts an intricate conversation system, and a substantial portion of the playtime is spent talking to in-game characters, quizzing them for information (much of which adds color but is ultimately irrelevant), asking them for assignments, relaying details of your progress, and then finding out what they would like you to do next.

At a certain point, it started to feel more than a little familiar. It wasn't just that it was a lot like work. It was that it was a lot like my own work as a journalist: interviewing subjects, attempting to figure out which one of the half-dozen questions they had just answered provided useful information, and then moving on to ask someone else about what I had just been told.

Eventually I quit playing. I already have a job, and though I enjoy it quite a bit, I didn't feel as if I needed another one.

But what about those who aren't employed? It's easy to imagine a game like Andromeda taking the place of work.

You should read the whole article, because it’s a fascinating and deeply reflective account of the costs and benefits of a world in which “about three quarters of the increase in leisure time among men since 2000 has gone to gaming.” What I love about Peter’s narrative is that it is sure to make video-game alarmists less alarmed and video-game enthusiasts less enthusiastic.

I have a thousand ideas and questions about this essay, but I’ll mention just one line of thought here: I find myself wondering how, practically speaking, video games got this way. Did game designers learn through focus groups and beta testing that games with a significant work-like component were more addictive? Or were they simply answering to some need in their own psyches? I’m guessing that the correct answer is: some of both. But in any case, there’s a strong suggestion here that human beings experience a deep need for meaningful work, and will accept meaningfulness in small quantities or in fictional form rather than do without it.
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11 days ago
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