NPF has taken on a regrettably serious tone lately. Let's get back to having a few ha-has.

One of my colleagues is a devotee of terrible 1980s action movies (I believe his favorite is Road House, from which you can see every punch and kick condensed into a single 10 minute video). He recently sent me this clip of the opening sequence from the short-lived TV series Blue Thunder, which is based on (and uses copious amounts of stock footage from) the film of the same name. It is basically Airwolf, which defeated it in an epic ratings battle for the "Shows about helicopters" market. For reasons that will become clear in a few moments, I think this may be the finest of all TV intros:

A few things.

1. 22 year old Dana Carvey. Regardless of his age, role, or station in life, I cannot see Dana Carvey and think of anything except a) "It's sucking my will to live!" and b) Strom Thurmond, the best part of the single greatest cold open sketch in the history of Saturday Night Live. Also, Chris Farley was essentially born to play Howell Heflin ("That's a good mooovie, jurrdge.")

2. Dick Butkus is cast as "Ski" Butowski. Attorneys for the network vetoed the writers' initial choices of "Stereotype McTypecast" and "Polack J. Polackson" as ethnically insensitive. I don't know anything about the character, but I bet that beneath his gruff exterior lies a heart of gold and a softer side.

3. There's an actor named Sandy McPeak. I can't even.

4. The "Turn around and make a serious face into the camera as we put your name on the screen" intro. You don't see that one very often anymore, do you?

5. The theme song. Good god, the theme song. It's like they boiled the 1980s, collected the vapors, and distilled a pure, concentrated Eighties Essence…and made a song out of it. Horn section! Sound effects! Muted, Boss-distorted guitar lead/solo! It reminds me of that song Mark Wahlberg's character recorded in Boogie Nights after his porn career melted down.

If there is anything more ridiculously 80s than this, I don't think I can handle seeing it. (Small Wonder excluded. That…that is its own category. It has no competition.)


Although it has not gotten much attention yet, but the practice of using race as a factor in university admissions is not long for the world. When the Supreme Court hears and decides Fisher v. University of Texas later this fall (just in time to inject some racial invective into the General Election) the 5-4 decision striking down the Texas system will surprise exactly no one. Anthony Kennedy has dissented in every affirmative action case the Court has ever heard. His vote here is utterly predictable, especially given his dissents in Grutter/Gratz v. Bollinger, of which Fisher is essentially a replay. The decision in Fisher will affect the handful of states that have not passed laws banning race-based admissions. It turns out that it's pretty easy to get a state full of white people to support a ballot measure that eliminates affirmative action.

I have none of the typical White Guy hangups about affirmative action. Since around 2000, right before the Grutter and Gratz cases were jointly decided, there has been a seismic shift on the issue – not in public opinion, but in the legal logic used by universities to defend the practice. When AA was first institutionalized in the 1960s, its enumerated purpose was to redress historical grievances. After a few centuries of legal discrimination, segregation, and slavery, one could hardly expect that black students – and remember, we're talking about an era in which the schools were still segregated and some state universities had to be browbeat into admitting blacks – would immediately perform on par with white students who had received so many comparative advantages over the years. Although schools may no longer be de jure segregated, they remain mostly segregated nonetheless. So affirmative action-type programs have continued as the black/white(/Hispanic) gap in educational performance has lingered.

Eventually, perhaps out of fear that courts were becoming less favorable to the "righting historic wrongs" argument, academia began defending its practices on what we might call a Value of Diversity argument. That is, the university and the state have a compelling interest (as O'Connor's majority decision admitted in Grutter) in obtaining and providing "the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."

I have never put stock in the "Affirmative action is insulting to minorities" argument, seeing as how I have never heard it come from the mouth, pen, or keyboard of anyone who was not a white conservative. This, however, is not only a legally tenuous argument but one that rests on a remarkably insulting premise: that diversity has educational value, and, by implication, that white students will miss out on it if the university does not admit enough black and Hispanic students. There is no other way to read that, especially as explained in Grutter. This is a drastic change; rather than black students benefiting from programs designed to benefit them, it's the majority white students who benefit from having some Colored People around as scenery. The schools are saying, in a sense, that they need to admit blacks and Hispanics in order to provide some sort of Diversity Experience for whites.

I suppose we could have a philosophical debate about how the ends justify the means. That wouldn't be terribly convincing, and more importantly it ignores the reality of the impending Fisher decision. What happens afterward will be telling. Hopefully universities will reorient themselves toward a policy that tells black and Hispanic students, "We want you here," which is much different than, "We need you here." Fortunately, some states where the universities operate under bans on racial preference have already proven that it is possible to maintain elite programs that recruit and accept diverse student bodies without resorting to tactics that will irritate Samuel Alito. There is more to any college applicant than a test score, so I guess admissions boards will just have to do some actual work and read applications rather than simply sorting data in Excel spreadsheets.


In general, internet comment sections are where hope goes to die. If you want to go from a good mood to being on your knees praying for a comet to hit the Earth and wipe out humanity, the fastest way to accomplish that is to read the comment sections on any general interest website. Big content providers (AOL, Yahoo, YouTube, AP, etc.), local newspapers (for some reason the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is the worst I've ever seen aside from the NY Post), and non-political niche interest sites (cars, sports, fashion, entertainment, etc.) are all guaranteed to destroy your psyche in five minutes flat if you dare to wade into the comments. This is doubly true when the topic at hand is even remotely political. And of course the people who troll the internet as though it is their life's calling can turn anything into an Obama bitchfest in less than three posts.

Because we are well aware of how bad most comment sections are – and some are quite good, particularly on sites with educated, relatively narrow audiences – it's a lazy form of blogging to use comments as fodder. I can't think of anything easier than copying what some idiot wrote on a Trayvon Martin story and saying "Look at how stupid this is!" Yet I think a simple comment section can turn into a wonderful mix of performance art and psychology experiment when that rare news item comes along that ties the brains of the Obama loathing trolls in knots. Cognitive dissonance can be a beautiful thing sometimes.

Take this story from the internet's most popular blog on the auto industry. Headline: "Treasury orders executive pay cuts at GM including CEO Akerson." Imagine for a moment you are the kind of doughy, inchoate pant-wetter who sits at a computer all day posting comments about Barack HUSSEIN Obummer on every news item you see. Your mind is being torn in so many directions here.

1. The government is telling a corporation what it can do. Socialism. BAD.
2. GM might fail. Obama gave GM money (note: forget the bailouts under Bush). GM fail = GOOD.
3. Your authoritarian-follower tendencies mean you worship the wealthy, so limiting compensation = BAD.
4. Limiting compensation means "the best talent will leave the company", proving that Barry Hussein does not understand business. GOOD.
5. GM got a lot of money from taxpayers. They need to pay it back before giving themselves raises! GRRR!

So GM should pay back the taxpayers, but rich executives need to be lavishly compensated, but Obama doesn't understand the free market, but GM needs to fail to prove that he was stupid to give them money, but…

Watch them run in circles in the comments. It's hilarious. They can't decide piss and moan about Obama giving GM money or Obama telling GM that it can't have more money. A similar thing happened a few weeks ago when the Department of Energy declined to give a massive loan to would-be auto startup Carbon Motors (which has been the Duke Nukem II of auto startups, by the way). The comments are hysterical in every sense of the term. These people have spent years bellyaching about how the government shouldn't be propping up failing or non-viable companies, except now when the government declines to do so it hates America and doesn't understand job creation. So just to clarify, it is terrible when Obama gives car companies money except when he doesn't, which is also terrible.

We know that these people will complain, often with violent anger, about anything Obama does. It's a special treat, however, to watch them argue two diametrically opposed viewpoints just to keep the president in the wrong about everything. He must always be wrong, so adjust reality accordingly.


On Saturday I took a day trip to Tuskegee, Alabama to see some of the historical sites dedicated to one of my favorite figures in American history, George Washington Carver. Today the university physically looks almost indistinguishable from any other small, pricey liberal arts college, although its agricultural and veterinary programs would be out of place at the Swarthmores and Williamses of the Northeast. Colleges of its type struggle to attract students these days, as there are often tangible advantages for excellent students to choose cheaper schools (flagship state universities) or expensive ones that are better (Ivy League, etc).

Back in GWC's day, the school distinguished itself not only by necessity due to segregation but also in its approach to a complete education. The students did and learned a lot of things that would seem strange and foreign to today's college students: planting fields by hand, making their own clothes, machine shop, cooking, and even building most of the structures on campus by hand. And I really had to laugh at the reaction students (and parents – good god, the parents) would have today if my university announced that everyone was going to take courses in leather tanning and then pitch in down at the construction site for the new dorms.

Before I go on, I want to be clear that I am generally critical of the "more vocational training is the answer" argument in American education. The job market for plumbers and electricians blows just as much as for lawyers and professors at the moment. The argument that such jobs are resistant to outsourcing is also dubious since they are so much less resistant to becoming obsolete. For example, pre-wired wall panels are rapidly eliminating the need for electricians in residential and commercial construction. So if you are feeling the urge to rush to the comments to tell us how "More of these kids should be in tech school," no. That is, not unless you can explain the value in training people for jobs that don't or won't exist.

With that caveat and another about the danger in romanticizing history, the experience made me more reflective than usual about our mission in today's colleges and universities. There is no doubt that in terms of skills, we are better off teaching students physics, math, and writing skills than glass blowing, food preparation, or Field Hoeing 101. But people like Carver and Booker T. Washington believed that the manual work in the curriculum had benefits beyond teaching practical skills. They believed it taught character and made the students better people.

It sounds sappy, right? It is. It also sounds to me like a pretty damn good idea sometimes. Making shoes or planting a field might actually knock some of these students down a peg, and many of the ones I've encountered need that a lot more than they need the stuff they learn in classrooms. The kids I see are largely products of the suburbs. If they want something, they buy it. If something breaks, they pay someone else to fix it. Many of them are accused (with varying degrees of justification) of having an inflated sense of their own talent and importance. It wouldn't be the worst thing for a lot of them to have to learn how to sew or fix appliances. The message is useful: Even though you can afford to pay someone to do this for you, you're not too good for this work. It is not beneath you. You are not above it.

I can tell you that would have done me some good as an 18 year old. College students are and always have been a class of people that consider themselves to be above a lot of things. It will never actually happen, obviously, but we might be doing them a service by making them do practical and manual work. When students say, "I'm never going to need to know (literature, math, etc.) so why should I have to learn it?", we have an answer at the ready. I don't see why the same answer does not apply to learning how to farm or make clothes. The fact that you won't need to do it does not imply that there is no value in learning how to do it.

It's not an idea I've developed very extensively, but our goal in higher ed is to turn boys and girls of limited worldview into men and women ready to participate in and contribute to the world around them. Rather than always looking ahead to the next pedagogical fad, maybe there is some value to looking to the past as well.

This post was somewhat misleadingly titled, yes?


Although this quote is often mangled, in his essay "The Triumph of Stupidity" Bertrand Russell offers the best one-sentence summary of all that ails modern industrialized societies that I have ever seen or that I am likely to see: "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." Yep. That's pretty much it.

Not only is that true, but it's widely applicable as well. In the spirit of No Politics Friday, I want to talk about my year-and-a-half of experiences in comedy and the baffling relationship among stupidity, confidence, and talent. You may already have seen this viral video of an asshole heckler-turned-comedian ("comedian") getting her due on stage; if not, watch it now. Be sure you watch long enough to hear her "joke". (Update: Video appears to be removed, but read the HuffPost Comedy summary if you missed it.)

One of the most amazing things about being around comedians – including some Very Famous Successful ones with names you would recognize – is that the ones who are good are almost unanimously A) intelligent and B) wracked with self-doubt and low self-confidence. Conversely, every person I've met who remains convinced that he or she is great is complete shit and usually dumber than a sack of marbles to boot. It is absolutely stunning how little confidence talented people have and how much the total hacks can manage.

The young woman in this now-infamous video is a good example. She just knows she's awesome. She knows that her material is great (A female comedian talking about her vagina – what a revelation! What next, a male comedian with dick jokes?). She even reveals on stage that everyone in the room hates her because they don't like women. It's not that she was an asshole who got shitfaced, heckled, and interrupted everyone else who performed all night. Nope. They hate her because she's female and she's, like, too real or something.

People who suck at comedy are fantastic at that kind of excuse-making. Everything just rolls right off their backs. Nothing sticks. Nothing shakes their conviction that they are great. They can walk off of a stage after 8 minutes of material without one single laugh from the audience and immediately dismiss it – the audience was tired, the audience sucked, the audience wasn't able to understand his/her complex material (about dicks and boners and pooping), the room is bad, the previous comedian "killed the energy" in the room, and on and on and on. There seems to be no part of their brain that says "Maybe the problem is that you suck."

Then I talk to talented unknowns, Famous Comedians, and people who have succeeded and whose work ethics are legendary among comics. Jim Gaffigan, for example, despite being successful beyond most of our comprehension, continues to work 3-4 open mic nights per night in New York to improve his material. This is a guy with TV specials and movie credits and albums who sells out big venues at expensive ticket prices. And yet he constantly feels the need to improve. I once saw Famous Guy do a show in Atlanta with a 45 minute set of near-uninterrupted howling laughter. He walked backstage and the first words out of his mouth to me were a lament about the punchline he missed and the new joke that was "just OK". This seems to be par for the course for people who are actually funny.

I wish I understood this, and I wish I could fake the kind of self-confidence that some of these people have. I know I'm not terrible – people actually laugh when I am on stage – but all I do is beat myself up. I'm hardly unique in that respect. Most comedians I know are the same way – I screwed this up, I blew this punchline, I totally bombed tonight (even though there was plenty of laughter), my material is lame. We're all more than a little amazed at and envious of these people who manage to avoid even the slightest hint of critical self-analysis. Everything's the crowd's fault, or they simply imagine that the crowd laughed even when it was silent. Nobody likes them because they're (old/young/black/white/female/fat/skinny/"too real"/etc).

Comedy is one of the few things I've ever done with the potential for some outcome other than complete failure and royal suckage. And I want to figure out the secret to the Fountain of Eternal Confidence that seems to be known only to douchebags. Maybe it's just a front in some cases – i.e., they put on a brave public face but cry a lot when no one else is around – but more often than not it seems quite real. These people honestly think they're awesome, and no amount of evidence to the contrary can dissuade them. That's a pretty useful superpower to have.


I was forwarded an item from Forbes that is more remarkable for its tone than its content. Retail giant Best Buy is failing (largely because it is discovering that selling CDs and DVDs is not a growth industry, but also because electronics buyers are so willing to shop online rather than in big box stores) and it is attempting to turn things around by closing a bunch of stores. A commentator with Forbes, a name synonymous with a conservative take on business and financial news, points out that this is a silly strategy. It is not a difficult point to make. If the chain's fundamental problem is with its product offerings and retail model, having fewer stores selling the wrong thing the wrong way isn't going to help. The writer sums it all up in her title: Best Buy Cutting 50 Stores To Get Profitable. Good Luck With That.

An excerpt:

Best Buy is closing 50 superstores and focusing on mobile in an effort to reduce expenses. But since when is cost cutting to profitability a successful retail strategy?

Since never.

In so many ways, it feels like a shell game. The kind that companies use to deflect negative attention by waving their arms and yelling, “look over here!” Changing things up, reducing its footprint and getting out of too large or otherwise unfavorable locations is important and probably needed to be done long ago. But these changes look more like an olive branch to the financial community: a restructuring to reduce costs.

Analysts believe Best Buy is doing the right thing. Right or wrong, at least Best Buy is doing something. Sometimes the bigger thing to do is go small, but a retailer still has to sell more stuff, not just jettison the people and locations that are supposed to help it do just that.

Now let's pause and consider how the great minds at Forbes can wrap their heads around this idea as a business strategy…but not as a public fiscal policy. True, the analogy between government and business is imperfect (yet infinitely more useful than the favorite right-wing trope of the government balance sheet as a household budget) but it takes some active denial to gloss over the broader implications of "You can't cost-cut your way to profitability." This is true, and obviously so. So why, one might wonder, can Congress or state legislatures spur economic growth by cutting spending? The fundamental problem of the business and the government is the same: not enough revenue coming in to meets its obligations. Firing people and shuttering stores is a knee jerk response that promises meager short term benefits at the cost of substantial long term losses.

Just a brief review: businesses that try to become profitable by cutting expenditures are on the road to ruin, but growth in the planet's largest economy will be spurred by the government cutting costs and taking in even less revenue. Yep. That's about the logical consistency I would expect from a publication with Steve Forbes' name on the masthead.


You know what I can't stand?

Wait, I have to take a minute to process and accept the fact that I just started this post exactly as Andy Rooney would if he could use a computer. OK. Done.

I can't stand it when white people start saying incredibly racist shit to me, or in my presence, in that grating "Well now that there are none of THEM around we can be honest, right? This guy knows what I'm talking about" tone. Casual acquaintances or even total strangers do this. As long as they see a white face, they figure it's safe to tell me how they really feel. I'm trying to determine if this actually happens to me more now that I live in the south, but suffice it to say that it happens a lot now and throughout my life. The speaker in these situations is almost inevitably a white person over 40 boiling over with the frustration of being rhetorically castrated at work and in polite society. They frequently rail against "political correctness", which is a poorly disguised way of venting their resentment and humiliation at not being able to call the President a n*gger without getting fired or ostracized.

These people automatically assume that I – or you, or any other white person – feel exactly the same way. We are stewing in anger and biding time until we can feel free to cut loose and engage in some real talk about the fags, Mexicans, black welfare queens, and, if the company happens to be exclusively male as well as white, bitches. They think that you want to hear their 20 year old racist joke (which inevitably commits the even bigger sin of being completely un-funny. Note: if you're going to be offensive and an asshole, at least be funny.) about chicken and watermelon from a forwarded email. They think that anything they say will be OK because you're white, and all white people understand how They are. Hell, you feel the same way!

I have no idea if people of other races talk shit about white people when there are none around, or if women engage in as much epic man-hating when alone as movies and TV would lead us to believe. What I do know is that it's incredibly ballsy to assume that anyone who shares your genitals or skin color agrees with your racist, sexist, or otherwise intolerant attitudes.

Wait. Is "ballsy" the word I want here? Actually, what I meant to say is "delusional."


Being in higher education requires one to accept a strange relationship among status, social class, and income. Being a professor is theoretically a high status job, but the pay isn't stellar. Accordingly, we have to get used to the fact that most of our students have more money than we do. They drive nicer cars, go on two or three vacations per year, wear more expensive clothing, enjoy the family beach house on Tybee or Martha's Vineyard, and blow $500 on a night out at the bar without thinking twice. And most of them don't even work. But hey, this is the line of work we chose and we knew the limited income potential. It's just a reality we get used to. I hardly notice anymore.

Of course the preceding paragraph somewhat misrepresents the situation. The students themselves are not wealthy; the money is coming from Mom and Pop. And on my campus it seems that the recession has managed to miss many of the Moms and Pops. For example, the house across the street from me is occupied by three very nice female undergraduates. It has three cars parked in the driveway: a Range Rover (base price: $80,275), a Mercedes SLK ($54,800), and a Lexus IS350 ($42,480). I guess the latter girl's parents don't really love her.

This experience is not shared by every student – many of them are taking the bus and busting ass to pay rent – but it certainly isn't rare either. The parking decks at all three large state universities at which I've spent several years have been like exotic car showrooms. Or check out the parking lot at the frats and sororities. There's a lot of money being thrown around at these places.

Any head of a household, especially with children, understands that a very high income is necessary to afford buy one's 19 year old an $80,000 car (and if that's what Susie drives, what are mom and dad driving?). We're talking about real "one percenters" here, with household incomes most likely over $250,000. And I can never stop myself from wondering: What in the hell do all of these people do for a living? There can only be so many doctors in the world.

Now I have to make a confession – I grew up in a family and neighborhood with very limited imagination as far as career paths. Growing up, the two careers available in this country (as far as I knew) were Doctor and Lawyer. Girls could be teachers, nurses, or secretaries too. People who "weren't college material" became cops, electricians, low-skill civil servants, or meth addicts. This is not an exaggeration. I seriously had no idea what an MBA was when I got to college. "Banker" meant the guy who wore a tie and a brown tweed sportcoat at the bank in my home town. I had never met anyone who held a Ph.D. and professions like accounting, engineering, computer science, and so on were only vaguely understood. And it's not like I grew up poor – our family was well above average. But I was never exposed to anyone who told me that there were professions in the world other than Doctor and Lawyer. To this day, whenever I see or think of great wealth, that's what I assume wealthy people do. It's very naive and New Money of me, I know.

When I think about it, of course, I realize that not every family showering its college-aged children with money is headed by doctors and lawyers. I still can't tell you exactly what they do, though. I have a vague sense that people make a ton of money in "business" or "finance" but I'm short on specifics beyond that – lots of people must be working in generic offices in some sort of Executive Vice President in Charge of Administration type positions, at least as I envision it. All I know is that recession or not, 10% unemployment or not, there are a lot of these people out there, presumably in the Atlanta suburbs. There are far more poor people in this state, of course, but the absolute number of wealthy families is significant. And I'm teaching at the cheap public school – I can imagine what the student body is like at Atlanta's $40,000/yr private schools or the more academically demanding publics.

I think that one of the reasons that the children of wealthy parents tend to become wealthy too – aside from the obvious – is that they comprehend more career options. Poor, working-, or middle class kids tend to think of high paying careers in terms of the stuff they see on TV and they gravitate toward the most clearly defined paths. I certainly did, and I've had enough conversations with friends I grew up with to be confident that I'm not the only one who suffered this failure of imagination as I transitioned to adulthood. Perhaps there are more people than I realize taking advantage of the world's oldest method of getting rich – inheriting it – or maybe there really are that many doctors in this country. It is rare that I admit such all-encompassing ignorance, but all I know is that I am surrounded by a large number of the children of wealthy families and I don't fully comprehend where all the money is coming from.


In August of 2011, MSNBC personality Dylan Ratigan became a viral video star courtesy of a clip of him going on a loud, angry rant about the subservience of our elected officials to the financial sector. He makes some good points about the problems at hand, but I felt like his performance got silly in a hurry once his (taken aback) co-hosts asked him to propose a solution. His response began with "The President needs to give a speech…" and the first time I saw this, I was laughing too hard to notice that it went downhill from there. The twin assumptions that A) the president is not "bought" in the same sense as the Congress he lambastes and B) that a presidential speech could accomplish anything in contemporary politics except to give the talking heads a topic for a few days are both naive and ridiculous.

Last week I spent a decent amount of time prepping my "Last Lecture" – and incidentally, thanks for all the suggestions. I considered going the "This is what's wrong with politics and this is how you can fix it" route. The more I struggled to address the second half of that equation, the more Ratigan's lame response made sense. It was jarring to realize that for all the time spent pointing out what's wrong with the political process, economic system, and society as a whole, I have next to nothing to offer as a solution. I don't even know where we could plausibly start fixing this mess. Maybe Ratigan realized the same thing and that's why he was so angry. Maybe being forced to admit that we don't have any answers makes us feel like the designated mourners for a society that kills another piece of itself every day.

Sure, we all recognize things that could improve the political process; getting money out of elections is a popular suggestion (albeit one with some fairly obvious constitutional hurdles), for example. Would that really fix anything, though? If we draw the necessary distinction between incremental improvement and legitimate reform, it quickly becomes clear that there is no viable "solution." Our society has broken down since 1970 in ways that we spend our days cataloging: income inequality has exploded, public education has collapsed, the health care system is broken, Congress is barely functional, lobbyists are more powerful than elected officials, the media is a horrorshow offering everything from a milquetoast Beltway consensus echo chamber to Der Stürmer style propaganda and outright misinformation, unemployment is up and wages are down, job security and retirement are terms discussed only in history classes, and the military is both a budgetary and foreign policy behemoth draining away what treasure remains from the empire. And that list is just the tip of the iceberg.

Our problems are not insoluble, but they certainly are overwhelming. Clearly the world needs individuals with more vision and long term problem solving skills than either Dylan Ratigan or me. Or maybe our guess is as good as any other when facing an interwoven set of problems so big, complex, and deeply rooted that nothing short of detonating the building and starting over from scratch appears to have potential as a solution.