NPF: GRAND TOUR

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 29th, 2015 by Ed

A quick programming note.

For the next month I'm going to be living out of a rental car on a long road trip across the country hopefully ending as near to the Arctic Ocean as someone who doesn't work in the oil industry can get. Technically I guess it will end when I return to Central Illinois, but for the moment let's pretend that I will be eaten by a bear, shanghaied by pirates, or crushed by a falling piece of Skylab since all of those will most likely seem more appealing once I reach my destination.

I'm violating the internet rule against announcing vacations (and thereby alerting ne'er-do-wells to the dates on which your home will be unoccupied) because I have secured a house-sitter. Besides, there is little worth stealing in the soon to be foreclosed home I rent and the modal burglar in this city lacks internet access.

Though I stand firmly against the proliferation of overwhelmingly redundant social media sites, to supply family and friends with Visual Evidence of Experiences I have created an Instagram account. You may follow it if you want to see pictures of Nature and most likely the Sounds of Real America.


Instagram

As I will be sleeping outdoors and doing a vast quantity of driving, it is likely that my internet access and time for writing will be reduced over the next few weeks. That is just a guess; honestly I have no idea how frequently I will be able to or will want to write something here. Logistically it is more difficult to post On the Road, but I also happen to do some of my best thinking during 12-hour drives. So ideally the posting will continue at close to the current pace.

I have conflicting feelings about this. Obviously I'm looking forward to doing it but I have a tremendous amount of pressure on me at the moment to churn out more publications, so it is really hard for me to 1) not work, and 2) not think about work when not working. Ultimately I decided that staying here would reduce my productivity and negate the benefits of spending more time in the office; in the next month I'm hopeful that if the amount of time I spend glued to the screen is reduced, the quality of it will rise.

In any case, I'll update my progress as I go. I don't have a schedule or agenda except in the loosest sense, but hopefully a grand time will be had by all and I will be allowed into Canada without incident.

ABOUT FACE

Posted in Rants on May 26th, 2015 by Ed

Some things are funny because they are predictable, but it's a tricky kind of humor. When Leslie Nielsen turns to the bartender and asks for a Black Russian, you know with such certainty what's about to happen that there is no room left for humor when the visual punchline arrives. Foreshadowed is funny, telegraphed is not. Predictability is a source of humor more often when there is no overt attempt to be funny. When Charlie Brown lines up for the hundredth time to kick the football he's not trying to crack you up. It's funny because he doesn't know what's going to happen but you do.

When we saw the first reports of severe flooding coming out of Texas, I suppressed a soft chuckle. Not because I think death and destruction inflicted upon my fellow man is funny – no, the impending humor was the certainty that we'd be seeing Greg Abbott requesting Federal disaster relief aid by the end of the week. It may not take long, though, since he has already met with He Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken in Texas.

Stop me if I've mentioned this before, but when I teach Intro American Government (a breadth course that forces you to cover a new topic every other class, with no time to address anything in real depth) I am a realist who accepts that the students are unlikely to remember more than a fraction of the details. So I try to make sure that there's one or two big points from each topic that they remember. With the obligatory chapter on federalism, the One Point is that states balk at Washington's involvement in their affairs only until they're begging for it. With the dire budgetary situation found in most states today, there is no Rainy Day money lying around for hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, measles outbreaks, or anything else that can't be forecast with certainty. All the tough-sounding talk about getting Washington off Our backs goes right out the window when things, as the kids say, get real. It is politically appealing for state-level politicians to bash the federal government; some of them may even believe it. They learn very quickly, however, that ideology goes out the window when the state is faced with billion dollars in repair and cleanup costs. No one's a states' rights advocate when a city is under water and the Coast Guard and FEMA are the only ones equipped to handle it.

The men who wrote the Constitution were more suspicious (earnestly so) of power in the hands of a national government than any of the corn-pone orators elevated into high offices today. Yet they understood the necessity of having such a government. Even if they don't realize it, people like Greg Abbott recognize it too. It takes very little reflection and imagination to come up with a dozen scenarios that would have even Sam Brownback reaching for the phone to beg for Washington's help faster than he could say "I've never met Josh Duggar."

WORTH REMEMBERING

Posted in Rants on May 24th, 2015 by Ed

Usually on Memorial Day I go through the list of people serving in the military who died in the previous year in Iraq or Afghanistan, choose someone at random, talk a little about who they were and what happened to them. Generally I think this holiday is misguided, though, in that it focuses on the sacrifices made to the exclusion of why they were made. As important as it is to recognize that the ordinary men and women of the military do what they are ordered to do regardless of whether they want to or think it's a great idea, recent history teaches us that we and the political process in which we participate have an obligation to think a little harder about when we require them to make that sacrifice. Because if you'll recall we didn't think too hard about it the last time it came up, and here we are, 13 years later still fighting wars that were pitched as brief excursions.

This is more important than ever now not because the events are so recent but because as we stand here today they are distant enough in the past to be forgotten. Worse, they are distant enough in the past to be remembered not entirely accurately, with the intervening decade slowly eroding away the details. We remember, but we remember selectively and heavily influenced by 13 years of re-imaginings and re-tellings that cast the events as we want them to be rather than as they were. The narrative of the well-intentioned political and media class acting in good faith – a phrase that has become the modern Nuremburg Defense, "just following orders" – leading us astray because of intelligence that unfortunately and unexpectedly turned out to be false has taken root with a large segment of the population. It is worrying to think of young people who don't recall the events from personal experience being exposed to such an appealing but wholly fictional version of events.

With Jeb Bush apparently being considered seriously for the presidency by some portion or the electorate, Iraq is likely to come up periodically in this election. And the early indications are that we are in for some brazen revisionist history. The "faulty intelligence" trope simply isn't true even if our recollection of the run-up to the wars is distorted as badly as the intelligence in question. Even giving it the benefit of doubt, the faults were a direct result of the ideological and political commitment to generating a specific narrative. To say "Knowing what we know now, I would not have done it" is the most intellectually dishonest of cop-outs, since the passage of time has only confirmed and added more detail to what was already known at the time. Facts will always remain unknown to people who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge them.

And people died because of it. Remember that part of the story today as well.

A VORTEX OF SHIT, PART II

Posted in Rants on May 21st, 2015 by Ed

(Check in with Part I here)

So does Scott County really have to be as bad as it is? Realistically, yes. Its fate is sealed. Here's why.

There is no reason to stay in Scott County, Indiana. There's nothing to do there, no economic opportunities. It's ugly. The weather sucks. It has a lot of crime. Its only real asset – low cost of living – is a direct function of its status as a void in the universe and therefore not worth much. So like any half-rational person, you leave. You find the nearest big city or make the big move out to New York or whatever. You leave just like everybody leaves.

Well, not everybody. The people who are capable of leaving – young, not tied down, not incarcerated or on probation, not dirt poor – leave. So who's left behind? Old people who refuse to leave. Young people counting down the minutes until they can leave. People who can't pay their bills let alone the cost of moving. People with life-obliterating problems (with drugs, with booze, with gambling). People who have no skills or education that might be salable elsewhere. People who are barely adults and have four kids. People who don't have a parole officer. People who don't think that (insert name of essentially city anywhere) is better than Scott County. People who can't get their shit together even if they have the means. People who either had their asses kicked by life or are losers, basically.

So who ends up in charge? Who makes the decisions that make the Scott Counties of the world so spectacularly and consistently backward? Well. The idiots elect a handful of other idiots, who hire their idiot relatives to perform important jobs very badly. The Chief of Police in Scott County is behaving like some kind of reactionary, pitiably stupid backcountry hick because he is a reactionary, pitiably stupid backcountry hick. We know that with certainty because if he were any good at his job or had marketable skills he would move 25 miles away to work in the safe, fancy suburbs of Louisville, KY and do the same job only easier and at double the salary. And that's the reason communities like these are in a death spiral – anyone good enough to do the job(s) of running the place well is good enough to get a better job in a better place at a better salary. If a few capable people do stick around, they'll find it impossible to accomplish anything against the tendencies of the elderly, the ignorant, and the ignorant elderly.

How do we fix it? We don't. Communities need people with a mix of skills in order to prosper, and short of handing out Ferraris and a blowjob to anyone who agrees to move there it is not going to get a mix. It is going to get people for whom getting through one day is a struggle and therefore unwilling to focus on anything other than their own lives. It is going to get knuckleheads and miserable old people. It's going to get a lot of people caught up in the justice system or on meth. And they're going to be on the school board, in the police force, teaching in the schools, and raising their inevitably terrible children.

They will try to fix the local economy with ideas that were stale 20 years ago. They'll take ineffective, counterproductive, and punitive approaches to dealing with social problems like drugs, poverty, and crime. They'll teach their kids that the Earth is 6,000 years old and girls all want to be raped and The Messicans are comin' to take their part-time job at Casey's General Store. The courts, justice system, and law enforcement will be corrupt, petty, and inept. And that's just the way everything will be, and everyone will be used to it, and everyone will accept it as their lot in life and that will be that.

The only hope is that a higher level of government – particularly the state legislature – is run by less incompetent people who can enforce some half-decent choices on rural and failing urban areas. Good thing Scott County has Mike Pence and the Indiana Legislature handling the really important things in the State Capitol.

THAT WAS EXCESSIVE

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20th, 2015 by Ed

One of the hazards of following Gin and Tacos during the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the potential for a five hour, six period game with 115 shots on goal to come between me and the schedule of posts for the week. I had the best intentions. Thank you for your patience. This has been your annual Overtime Hockey Service Interruption (OHSI). Part II of yesterday's post will be here as soon as possible.

Bonus fun fact: Headers are illegal in hockey, so I guess it's not correct to call it Ice Soccer anymore.

A VORTEX OF SHIT, PART I

Posted in Rants on May 19th, 2015 by Ed

For the last several months, one of the worst places I have ever been in the United States has been in the news. Not surprisingly the reason isn't positive. Scott County in southern Indiana (anchored by the metropolises of Austin and Scottsburg) was the site of a rapid spike in HIV infections from prescription opiate addicts sharing needles in that little slice of Real America. If you've never been to Scott County, you've been to Scott County. Just think of whatever nearby dilapidated, tumbleweed-strewn rural dump is nearby and you're there. Think of a big trailer park, but dirtier and poorer. Think of small towns that have no reason for existing anymore. That's Scott County. Everything necessary to create an HIV outbreak is there in spades: lack of healthcare, lack of public health services, lack of education, lack of employment, lack of money, and lack of anything to do but make and shoot the kind of drugs that destroy people from the inside out.

After some of his trademark waffling between right wing talking points and massive public and Federal pressure, Indiana Governor Mike Pence recently approved a temporary needle exchange program for Scott County. Then after he swore repeatedly he would veto it, he signed a law to the same effect. For a moment it seemed like a rare example of Republican lawmakers making a decision based on evidence rather than ideology. Not to oversimplify the issue, but everyone who isn't weapons-grade stupid or steeped too thoroughly in War on Drugs propaganda to see over the edge of their paranoia understands that things like needle exchanges are sensible policy. People addicted to things like heroin and meth are going to do things like heroin or meth every day regardless of whether they have proper sterile paraphernalia available. There is no opiate addict on the planet who ever said "Looks like I'm out of clean needles. Guess I have to quit using." Until some kind of treatment program intervenes (which in the United States usually takes the form of getting incarcerated, at least for poor people) to break people from addiction, addicts use drugs regardless of any externalities. Even anti-drug crusaders are capable of understanding that things like HIV and Hepatitis outbreaks are expensive public health problems that cost far more in the long term than a bulk-bought $0.49 syringe.

Don't worry, though. The yokels of Scott County have found a way to fuck it up. Even when events conspire to accidentally produce good public policy from the Governor and state legislature, leave it to the ingenuity of the kind of people in positions of power in America's rural sinkholes to ensure that no sensible ideas are enacted on the ground.

Why does it always have to turn out this way? Aside from the obvious lack of a stable economic base, why must places like Scott County suck so completely and consistently? Many Americans insist that not terribly long ago small town America was actually a fairly pleasant place to live. The same is said about any number of medium sized Rust Belt cities that have been on the decline since the 1950s. Obviously these places are poor and that's a big problem. But lacking great wealth doesn't mean everything has to be terrible. Your school district might not be rich, for example, but it doesn't cost anything to teach students that the Earth is not 6,000 years old. It costs nothing to teach real Sex Education rather than abstinence-only detritus.

I have been thinking about this a great deal lately, and I have an idea that doesn't invoke religion, the Culture Wars, or the Republican Party's messy divorce from reality. But that will have to wait 24 hours.

DEADWOOD

Posted in Quick Hits on May 18th, 2015 by Ed

One of the most frustrating things about academia is that every department has one or two of these, and they refuse to retire so everyone is sitting around patiently waiting for them to die.

Please hurry.

NPF: A NOVEL EXPERIENCE

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 15th, 2015 by Ed

I stewed over how best to share this with you and ultimately decided to keep it simple. To give you a window into my life and where I live, the restaurant critic of the Peoria Journal-Star recently did a review of the Cracker Barrel. You know. Cracker Barrel. The chain restaurant of which there are about a thousand located on highways throughout the country. Lacking the energy to give this a proper treatment, I've reproduced it in full with some of my personal favorite parts highlighted.

MORTON — It’s possible that you don’t think about visiting Cracker Barrel unless you’re traveling somewhere. After all, the Lebanon, Tenn.-based chain has carved out a niche for itself by providing the imagery of the old country store along the highway much like Stuckey’s did decades before.

Before you get to your table at the Cracker Barrel, you have to walk the gauntlet through the bric a brac, old rocking chairs, racks of greeting cards and gift items.

The atmosphere at Cracker Barrel is sort of like eating at an antique mall. All kinds of things are on the walls: snow shoes, old lamps, coffee signs and an old clock or two.

At the table, I found that the word, “country,” pops up a lot on the extensive menu provided — as in country sandwich, country salad, country fried breakfast and so on.

Also noticed that you can get a bowl of pinto beans ($4.89) or turnip greens ($4.99) to accompany your meal. Now that’s a country touch you don’t find everywhere.

Like many places, there’s a choice of light dishes provided, complete with calorie counts. That’s how I know that country green beans are only 60 calories while a baked sweet potato is 190 calories.

We were there for lunch on a Friday so after screening the daily specials, I came up with the Friday Fish Fry ($9.99). My dining companion opted for breakfast (served all day at Cracker Barrel): Momma’s Pancake Breakfast ($8.59).

The fish was four pieces of crispy fried cod (you have a choice of cod or catfish) served with steak fries and creamy cole slaw plus a Cracker Barrel corn muffin. A little extra tartar sauce made the meal first-rate.

A word here about the service: exceptional. My server was attentive, helpful and obliging in every way. It goes with the atmosphere, I suppose, but you start feeling like you’re in that old country restaurant despite the proximity of the interstate outside.

My guest ordered blueberry pancakes with two fried eggs. The report was that there were a lot of blueberries and the cakes were fluffy. The eggs were a little peppery but she said she liked them that way.

As for beverages, I went with a Coke ($2.19) while my dining partner had coffee ($2.19). Refills were readily provided for both.

The Barrel also offers a number of weekday lunch specials for $5.99 with comfort food options such as baked chicken, chicken pot pie and meatloaf.
When it’s time to pay, you line up in the general store part of the operation where you find yourself tempted by giant gummy snakes and pecan logs.

I was able to resist, however, and headed outside past an array of rocking chairs lined up on the restaurant’s front porch. It must be the country influence of the Barrel but, next time, I plan to sit for a spell.

Kill me.

ALLEN WEST WOULD GET THE FJM TREATMENT IF HE WASN'T SUCH A TERRIBLE AND UNFOCUSED WRITER

Posted in Rants on May 13th, 2015 by Ed

Did you guys know that Allen West is still alive? True story, he is. He has the world's worst website and he has just used it to share with the world one of the most amazing things you'll ever see. It bears the title, just in case you're afraid that the preceding description isn't going to deliver, "More Ominous Signs of Christian Persecution." I considered giving this an FJM but after about the first three paragraphs it turns into such a cornucopia of non sequiturs that I couldn't even make anything coherent out of it (see for yourself and count the number of random right wing talking point Obama-related issues he throws in by the end). So here is the only relevant or salvageable part, the titular OMINOUS SIGN.

Aubrey, a very organized young lady, began the initial arranging of her room. And then came the request — “Dad, I know you haven’t been eating well here, so we need to go grocery shopping.” Dang it! This is what happens when your daughter is pursuing a Masters in Molecular/Cellular Biology. So we were off to the local Walmart Superstore just up the road. We gathered up her desired foodstuffs and headed to the checkout — and then this happened.

There was a young man doing the checkout and another Walmart employee came over and put up a sign, “No alcohol products in this lane.” So being the inquisitive fella I am, I used my additional set of eyes — glasses — to see the young checkout man’s name. Let me just say it was NOT “Steve.”

I pointed the sign out to Aubrey and her response was a simple question, how is it that this Muslim employee could refuse service to customers based on his religious beliefs, but Christians are being forced to participate in specific events contrary to their religious beliefs?

Boy howdy, that is one astute young lady.

Imagine that, this employee at Walmart refused to just scan a bottle or container of an alcoholic beverage — and that is acceptable. A Christian business owner declines to participate or provide service to a specific event — a gay wedding — which contradicts their faith, and the State crushes them.

Jeez, that IS pretty alarming. There are some rather clear parallels between a Muslim employee refusing to handle alcohol and a Christian employee who, for example, didn't want to handle birth control. For the first time, Allen West seems to have a point. This is a double standard.

EDITOR’S UPDATE: We spoke to the Walmart store, and apparently employees under 21 years old are prohibited from selling cigarettes and alcohol.

Oh. OH. Oh you mean that like literally every other business on the planet, Walmart does not allow minor employees to handle alcohol? You mean "No Alcohol" wasn't really a sign of impending Sharia Law?

The best part is not that Allen West is a very stupid person who jumps to insane conclusions based on his paranoid fantasies. We already knew that. The best part is that Allen West doubles down and just keeps plowing along as if nothing changed. The basis of his piece having been made irrelevant is not nearly enough to stop Allen West from making a point. He does offer up this weak tea in an effort to save some face:

However, that isn’t to say Walmart isn’t selectively caving to Muslim demands, such as this case regarding Halal meat in Ohio.

Ah, the classic Megan McArdle "I may be wrong but I'm still right."

Hey Allen, do any major grocery store chains already sell food designed for a specific religious market? Oh that's right, literally every single place that sells food in this country has kosher stuff. But other than that, it's an excellent grasping-at-straws example here. Grocery stores in places where there are a lot of Muslims deciding to sell Halal meat is creeping Sharia Law. What other explanation could there be?

And then he plows on for more than 500 additional idiotic words as if nothing happened. Since the last 75% of the column had so little to do with his supposed topic anyway, it almost works. Sort of like how the Hindenburg almost made it.

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COLLECTIVE INACTION PROBLEM

Posted in Rants on May 12th, 2015 by Ed

What follows is an outline of a conversation I have had repeatedly throughout my academic career. It is a representation of no individual or institution in particular, as I have had it with people at all stages of their career and at all types of post-secondary institutions from community colleges up to major research universities.

As a preface, everybody must know that educators spend a tremendous amount of time complaining about the students. I imagine doctors and nurses complain about their patients, and that people in retail and service complain about customers. Well, I can promise you that teachers are no different. If you know any teachers, you probably know this firsthand. If not, well…your suspicions are true. We complain.

Some colleague will spend a variable amount of time – years on end, or a single conversation – complaining about some aspect of his/her students. Usually it is their complete lack of effort or their utter lack of preparation / skills necessary to succeed in a university environment. My experiences have led me to believe what they tell me without being terribly skeptical. At some point I will ask a question like, "So did you end up failing a lot of people? Was that an issue?" or "What did your grade distribution look like?" Since I do not record these conversations and keep them as evidence you will have to take my word for this part, but I'd estimate that about 75% of the time my fellow educator reports that the grades were all A or B. Maybe, if he or she is a real ball-breaker, they give grades all the way down to C.

This is not universally true. Sometimes other professors tell me they fail a lot, or they pride themselves on being a tough grader who does not simply hand out A's like candy. There are some of us out there. But take a look at the statistics on grade inflation. Not only is A the modal grade in college courses now but the average GPA at any campus in the country has increased steadily since the 1990s. Maybe the students are just getting smarter. I kid, I kid.

I don't understand how people who have a Ph.D., not to mention considerable college teaching experience, cannot put two and two together. The students are terrible, yet somehow giving them all passing grades (and in some cases B or higher) isn't making them less terrible. Shocking, isn't it? It's almost as if the students can glean information online or from the campus grapevine about which faculty members are creampuff graders and take their classes with the confidence that if they don't feel like putting in the effort necessary to get an A they can do absolutely nothing and walk out with the B. Someone should do some research to study the question of how hard people will work above and beyond what is necessary to accomplish a well-defined goal.

That leaves the question: Why? Why do some faculty do this?

We don't lack for theories. Some people believe that giving high grades buys positive teaching evaluations, while others insist that no such relationship exists. Others argue that faculty, particularly at smaller and more teaching-intensive schools, grow to like their students to the point that they will not grade them harshly. Others blame parents and administrators for emphasizing grades above learning and retention above quality, respectively. Students who fail out of school don't write tuition checks, after all.

I have a simpler theory: laziness. It's rare that I don't side with academics, for obvious reasons. But I really think this one is largely our fault. Faculty give out inflated grades because it's easier. It's easier than working hard to improve a student's performance when said student simply does not care, and it's easier than giving out D and F grades and having to deal with students complaining about their grades and trying to negotiate higher ones. That's really all there is to it. Passing the students along, as America's high schools figured out long ago, is the easiest way to avoid making their problems your own. Just give them a C so they won't take your class again, or a B so you won't have to watch them cry in your office about how dad is going to take the SUV away.

Ironically, the perception of how much work is involved with giving out real, uninflated grades is…inflated. Being a Dick Grader is not nearly as much work as most faculty seem to think. If you lay out clear expectations and let the students know up front that you're not going to tolerate negotiations and that anyone looking for a course that can be passed with no effort should look elsewhere, it turns out that you don't have to spend hours and hours at the end of the semester in pained negotiations with aggrieved students.

It is not our job to hand out an A to anyone who enrolls in the course. When we choose to do so, however, we shouldn't be surprised that the students adjust their approach to our courses accordingly. If I could get my paycheck without having to put any effort into the job you can be certain that I would. Why would the students, grade-oriented as our system has become, do any differently?

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