BORN EVERY MINUTE

Posted in Quick Hits on May 7th, 2014 by Ed

A student presented me with this bottle on the last day of class. It is Rush Limbaugh-branded tea bearing the hilariously witty name "Two if by Tea". Get it? Because Rush Limbaugh is the equal of our founding fathers. Apparently it has been on sale for a while but I managed to avoid it by maintaining a policy of paying no attention ever to the fact that Limbaugh exists.

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Apparently it's just tea. No traces of Viagra or bootleg Dominican oxycontin, which is surprising.

The student informed me that he swiped this from his grandfather, who purchased five hundred bottles of this by mail. Five hundred. And after our recent discussion of how right wing radio and TV are essentially the elderly white person version of meth and heroin I can't help but wonder how many of these people are out there. How much of the Fox News audience literally starts writing a check as soon as these carny/con artist/demagogue types tell them to buy something or make a donation to their "charities"? Years of alarmist investigative news reports have given me the impression that old people are susceptible to being scammed. But I didn't know they were this susceptible.

BEDSIDE MANNERS

Posted in Rants on May 5th, 2014 by Ed

As a rule, if it gets published on a moderately popular website and has anything to do with academia I will see it a dozen times before 9 AM. This is a logical consequence of having so many teachers and academics in my social circle. Monday's have-you-seen-this piece appeared in Slate and asks whether academics need to be nicer to students. Well, the author puts it a bit differently – stressing "empathy" – but the bottom line is that we are talking about students getting less from college than they should because they find professors unapproachable, rude, or just so lacking in interpersonal skills that they are ineffective in the classroom.

My first reaction, as it is so often when I see these mass media "The problem with those damn ivory tower academics" pieces, was disdain. Students endlessly make excuses and showing empathy is a sign of weakness that they identify, target, and attack relentlessly. By far the least appealing part of the job, in my opinion, is dealing with the constant excuse-making. I try being empathetic, I really do, but unless I want to double my workload in any given semester it is necessary to be "mean." From the students' perspective, being mean refers to doing things like insisting that they show up to class, take the exams, and hand in un-plagiarized work on the assigned dates. I know, I know. I'm history's greatest monster.

Upon reflection, though, the article is not entirely misguided. A frank look at my colleagues past and present was enough to convince me that being approachable and having basic interpersonal skills are not essential preconditions to having a long career in academia. Lots of us are jerks. In fact there are so many jerks – and they are so prolific at jerkitude – that if we put every academic on a spectrum from Nice to Total Jerk, I would be closer to Nice. In other words, I'm surly and kind of a dick and I don't even count as a surly dick by academic standards. Rather than rejecting the argument out of hand, then, here are a few comments on the relevant points.

1. It is absolutely correct to state that academics are never taught how to teach. I began teaching – not as an assistant, but as a flying-solo fake professor – my third semester of grad school. The department's position was essentially, "You're tall and have a loud voice. Go do it. Good luck." The "training" consisted of a blow-off seminar taught by the tenured pariah of the department during the first year. This experience is not unique or exceptional; the next person I meet who says that they were well prepared for teaching will be the first. So yes, it might help if grad programs did something other than say, "There's the water, jump in and thrash around until you figure it out." But of course that won't happen, because…

2. There is almost no incentive whatsoever in the profession to maximize one's skills and performance as a teacher. Hiring is based on research, grant money, and publications. Promotion, tenure, and raises are based on research, grant money, and publications. Teaching, especially at research intensive universities, is essentially a giant distraction. The dominant strategy for anyone attempting to get tenure or move up in the profession is…well, to do what many of our students do: put in C+ effort and hopefully get B results. This conversation can't take place without admitting that the entire profession is set up to encourage us to do everything but spend more time on teaching.

3. Professors with tenure who consistently get awful evaluations from students should face some kind of consequences. Pile on the committee work until their jobs become miserable enough that they'll retire. God knows we have enough 70 year old deadwood preventing younger, better faculty from entering the profession.

4. A lot of us try. We really do. Some of us don't. It is problematic to proceed from the assumption that the students are all trying. Some of them are, some of them aren't. In the college setting, the students are adults and the onus is on them to be motivated and take initiative. If they want the professor's help, they need to ask the professor for help. If they ignore the professor's advice because it is not what they want to hear or it involves doing work, that is not our problem. Believe me, a lot of them don't get this no matter how obvious it seems to you.

5. If a professor is so personality deficient that he or she is unable to, and does not already, make simple calming small talk like "Oh I remember finals, they were the worst!" then I really do not think there is any hope for that person. They should be declared legally dead and transferred immediately to an administrative post. Something in the Provost's or Registrar's office would be ideal for their skill set.

In short, while personality is not overflowing in academia there is a danger in infantilizing our students even more than they already are. They are adults and they need to learn how to deal with, among other things, people in positions of authority who have shitty personalities. That's one skill they need to master before they start their first full time job.

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STRENGTH OF MANY MEN

Posted in Rants on May 5th, 2014 by Ed

This story has gotten little play outside of the upper Midwest, but last week the Milwaukee police killed a mentally ill homeless man named Dontre Hamilton, age 31. After two different Milwaukee police patrols responded to calls that he was loitering outside of a Starbucks – in both cases the responding officers spoke with Hamilton, determined that he was not committing a crime, and departed without incident – a third pair of officers approached him. In a chain of events that isn't entirely clear, Hamilton ended up with one of the officers' batons. Seeing him armed with…a stick, one of the officers drew his gun without warning and shot him.

Ten times.

It doesn't strike me as productive to try to sort out the chain of events. Some accounts (including, of course, the police) describe Hamilton as violent and aggressive. Others claim the police initiated the violent part of the encounter by trying to manhandle Hamilton, presumably to get him to leave the area. What interests me more is the fact that, once a cop reached the (questionable, but let's accept it as valid for the sake of argument) conclusion that deadly force was not only justified but necessary, Hamilton was shot ten times in a matter of seconds. Ten bullets were necessary to neutralize the threat posed by one outnumbered homeless man.

Ordinarily I leave the sociology to sociologists but bear with me here. I've harbored this theory for a long time and I don't know how to set it up in a way that won't make it sound weird so I will just throw it out there: have pro sports, and particularly football, led a large part of our society to believe that large black males are capable of feats of superhuman strength? Does a police officer pull his gun and believe – sincerely believe – that no less than ten bullets are needed to subdue a suspect when he happens to be black, male, and larger than average?

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It's possible that the answer is simpler. For example, we have considerable evidence that when cops start shooting they tend not to stop shooting until they're empty. Additionally, we know that when the police are scrutinized for using excessive force or the disturbingly high number of black males who die in custody the Hamilton story is the standard line: the pitiable, outmatched police officer was faced with a large black male suspect with the strength of a dozen stout men, flipping over cars and punching through brick walls. Deadly force was the only option, naturally.

It would be staggering if there was no correlation between weekends spent watching mostly large, mostly black males perform athletic feats that defy description while showing the kind of strength usually associated with adult bears and the belief of so many Americans that every confrontation with a black male calls for the use of force – and the greatest available amount of force at that.

The Hamilton shooting naturally brings to mind other instance of excessive use of force by law enforcement. The parallels to Zimmerman/Martin, though, jumped out at me first. We have the white cop / wannabe cop initiating the encounter with a black male who was pre-judged to be a significant threat, the rapid escalation after a shoving match with an unclear instigator, and the inevitable conclusion that pulling out a gun and shooting the guy is the only viable option.

You might think that two police officers with guns, pepper spray, nightsticks, handcuffs, radio backup, and the presumptive support of the entire criminal justice system on their side would go into an encounter with a not-quite-right homeless man sleeping outside of a Starbucks with the assumption that they have the upper hand. In fact the only way to come to the opposite conclusion involves a sincere belief that a lone black male is, by virtue of being a black male, capable of such incredible feats of strength that no assumption could be unrealistic. Could Dontre Hamilton, armed with a stick, kill two armed police officers? Of course he can, if those police officers buy into the stereotypes of large black males as athletes who can toss other 300 pound men around like matchsticks.

Giving the officers every benefit of the doubt, it still does not add up to a need to pump ten bullets into a single person in order to protect themselves. Going into an encounter with the assumption that the suspect has Hercules-like strength – the kind glorified on Sundays – is a necessary precondition to an enthusiastic trigger finger.

NPF: FLYING TRAIN

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 2nd, 2014 by Ed

Earlier this week I was accused by a younger person of lying about an experience I had on an airplane when I was six years old. True, there is a lot about flying in "the old days" that younger people cannot comprehend – security used to be a retired cop sitting on a folding chair next to a dilapidated metal detector and anyone under 10 was guaranteed the opportunity to enter the cockpit to chat with the captain during flight – but they've seen such things in enough movies to believe them. I'll have to rely on the fact that many of you are my age (35) or older to prove that I am not lying about this one, though.

There used to be an airline called People Express. People Express was the first post-1978 deregulation "ultra low cost" airline. It would be comparable to Southwest in the US or RyanAir in Europe today. People Express introduced, in the words of Homer Simpson, "a generation of hicks to air travel." Its prices were extremely low and its level of service quite spartan back in an era in which airlines still boasted about who did the best job of pampering passengers. People Express is also notable for having thought it wise to use purple, orange, and magenta simultaneously as its colors.

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Here's the part no one will believe.

My first flight was on People Express. Passengers boarded the plane and then after takeoff the stewardesses (as they were known back in the day) went around the plane and collected the fares from passengers in cash. You know, like they do on Amtrak. Like a flying train. No reservations necessary, no advance purchase, no tiered fares, nothing. You got on the plane, it took off, and then you paid. No credit cards or checks. I swear to a sampling of deities, that is how it worked.

The question of what happened to a passenger who boarded without the ability to pay did not trouble me at the time. In hindsight I suppose they would be treated the same way a train passenger is treated when the conductor finds him unable to pay, and the police would likely be called at the airport upon arrival.

They were simpler times. Oh, and as much as TV comedians and the general public enjoyed making fun of People Express during its brief existence, it was purchased by Continental in 1987 and its business practices (charging for checked bags and food, for example) are now widespread in the airline industry. Except for that whole pay-on-board part. That never quite caught on for some reason.

ALLEN WEST GETS THE FJM TREATMENT AND OWES ME FIVE DOLLARS

Posted in Rants on May 1st, 2014 by Ed

You're just going to have to trust me on this one because I have no way of proving it, but before I read this post on Donald Sterling from Tea Party icon / ex-Congressman Allen West (who managed the amazing feat of being too insane for Florida voters) I bet myself $5 that he would mention Benghazi. It was too easy to predict that this would end up being about Obama. Fish in a barrel. But I had faith that at his Allen West Best – smearing shit on himself while he swings from chandeliers at the John Birch Society headquarters – he could make this about Benghazi. Because if we know anything about the Tea Party, Benghazi Benghazi Benghazi Benghazi Card Check Fast and Furious Solyndra Benghazi.

I'm sick and cranky and I can't believe adult Americans elected this person to Congress. Let's just do this. Let's enjoy the perspective of someone who Tea Pertiers love because he's as insane as all the other halfwits they put on pedestals with the added benefit of making them feel not-racist because, hey, they like one black person now.

“Upon further review, the ruling on the field (court)…” These are the words stated by referees after they’ve gone to the reply booth (monitor) in order to clarify a controversial call. Often, the reason for the review is because of a coach’s challenge. Therefore, in the same light, let us review the case of LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling.

Yes, let's take this to the "reply booth." It's clearly the kind of thing that will look different if we change our perspective. There's a ton of subtlety here and once we look at this in a more nuanced way we'll come to see that Donald Sterling had some interesting things to say about the kind of black people who smell.

There can be no debate that the words of Mr. Sterling were reprehensible and disgusting. But how and why did these words come to light now, when his points of view were apparently well-known for many years?

Pretty basic example of the R. Kelly Theorem. You can get away with a lot if you avoid cameras and microphones. Allen West knows this problem all too well, as his primary shortcoming as a politician was that cameras and microphones recorded his words. Eventually this allowed people to determine that he is insane. I can see why he feels empathy for Sterling.

It seems his “girlfriend,” Ms. Stiviano, decided to tape a private conversation between the two. Apparently, Ms. Stiviano had recently been sued by the estranged wife of Mr. Sterling, so there is some potential nefarious motive involved.

Sounds like a stand-up guy already. Sell it.

Furthermore, the taping of a conversation without consent of the other party is illegal under California statute. There is some question as to whether he knew he was being recorded. Let’s assume for the moment he didn’t.

Sterling should sue her in a California court for secretly recording him. I'm serious.

That should reverse all of the damage done. Really set things right. Now I'm not being serious.

The national outrage against Mr. Sterling has come from an act that could be illegal and inadmissible in a court of law. Nevertheless, the court of public opinion has tried and convicted Mr. Sterling of being a jerk.

Well, our court system does not currently adjudicate questions of whether someone is a jagoff. Maybe someday. It would require a constitutional amendment or at least a law against jagoffery. But Allen, are you arguing that we shouldn't pass judgment on someone unless it comes from legally admissible evidence? Cool! That's an interesting new standard. Let ACORN know.

But have we come to a point in America where being a jerk is grounds for confiscation of a private property? It was Englishman John Locke who first proposed that individual rights as granted under natural law were life, liberty, and property. It was Thomas Jefferson who in the American Declaration of Independence used that paradigm to propose our unalienable rights from our Creator being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sterling’s comments were repulsive, but they were stated in the privacy of his own home — at least he thought it was private.

OK this is an important point – it's not "property." It's not "his" team. It's a franchise. Do you know what a franchise is? Let's use a McDonald's franchise as an analogy. If you violate your franchise agreement – say, you decide not to clean your restrooms and you take the Big Mac off the menu in favor of McMuskrat Strips – the corporation takes away your franchise. You're operating it as though you own it, but your "ownership" is subject to the agreed upon conditions. Franchise agreements exist because the behavior of one franchisee affects all others. If someone patronizes your shitty restaurant and swears off McDonald's forever, that makes it harder for every other franchisee to make money not to mention the corporate office.

So if one NBA owner makes it harder for every other franchise to make money – say, by causing people to boycott games and generally diminishing the image of a league with a large black fan base – the NBA will protect its interests.

So where do we go from here?

You go to the library to learn what "franchise" means.

Have we come to the point that private conversations can be taped and released in the public domain in order to ruin the livelihood –pursuit of happiness — of private citizens?

Is this a serious question? OK let me ask one too: "Have we come to the point that a picture of a private citizen at a Klan rally can be released into the public domain to ruin someone's pursuit of happiness?"

Ms. Stiviano, or whomever, knew exactly what they wanted the end result to be as they released this tape to TMZ.

I bet she also knew exactly what she wanted the result to be when she added water to oatmeal and put it in the microwave. I am so bored with whatever "argument" West is making here that I am daydreaming a "House" script where it is actually lupus. They solve the case in like five minutes and the rest of the episode is just Cameron and 13 making out in the shower. I see some potential here.

Is this the “new normal?”

Yes. Everyone is carrying a recording device everywhere.

Is this a violation of our privacy rights?

No. You're very stupid.

Ok, so what types of conversations occur in the privacy of the NBA locker rooms, or the homes of the players? Yes, this is indeed a slippery slope as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban asserted.

To paraphrase the right wing argument about Bush-era wiretapping, as long as you're not going on racist rants you shouldn't have anything to worry about!

Fox News host and commentator Greg Gutfeld applauded this moment because of the consensus outrage being displayed. But I believe this outrage misplaced, or more accurately, mis-prioritized. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Sterling’s behavior was “dangerous to the NBA.”

But it isn't, right Allen?

Where is the cultural, public outrage over a behind closed door comment such as referring to the State of Israel as an “apartheid state?” Probably most of America doesn’t know who said it or even what “aparteid” means.

First of all, when a word has the red squiggle under it that means you misspelled it. Second, there is no outrage because this statement is A) true and B) absolutely not even a little bit slightly analogous to what Sterling said. I mean, I guess if you want to twist it and argue that they are similar you're doing the rest of us a favor by admitting that you have so little rhetorical ground on which to stand that you have to stoop to this ridiculous level to make your "just as bad" argument.

Or how about the outrage that should have come when our own president leaned over to then-Russian President Medvedev sayng, “Tell Putin that after my reelection I will have more flexibility” and of course Medvedev said, “I will tell Vladimir.” And now we know what that “flexibility” has allowed.

Aren’t those “private” chats reflective of behavior that is dangerous for the United States?

Yeah I can see how we got here from Donald Sterling.

Or how about the lies and deceit of President Obama on healthcare and of course Benghazi, which we now know a video had nothing to do with.

OH MY GOD I WON! I'M SO EXCITED! THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE! I KNEW YOU COULD DO IT, ALLEN.

"And of course Benghazi." This is like satire, only better. Now do one about the cost of real estate in San Francisco and connect it to Benghazi. Difficulty Level 9. You can do it.

Has our culture devolved to the point that the private statements of an NBA owner draws more outrage than the lies and deceit of the President of the United States?

Well plenty of You People have been extremely outraged over that for years now. It's deceptive and inaccurate to pretend that no one cares. But it's correct to say that most of us don't care. The reason we don't care is that it's a big cauldron of horseshit that anyone with even the most basic understanding of the facts – that excludes the Teabaggers, so you're in the clear Allen! – realizes is a wingnut conspiracy theory that falls apart under the barest scrutiny.

Donald Sterling’s behavior is despicable, but so is that of President Barack Hussein Obama — and whose abhorrent behavior has more impact on our country?

One of those is objectively true. The other is Allen West's opinion. Being a very stupid and demonstrably unhinged person, Allen West's opinion carries as much weight as a dormouse.

The difference is that the media lead us along like sheep to the slaughter, turning us into reactionary, shallow thinking, low information voters along the way. We know more about Sterling than Benghazi — or the IRS scandal.

YEAH THERE'S THAT "IRS SCANDAL" THAT WAS COMPLETELY DEBUNKED LIKE A YEAR AGO. The media did drop the ball – by reporting on it as a "scandal" in the first place without doing any research just to appeal to old hysterical white people, the cornerstone of the cable news audience.

Sterling is a jerk, an unlikeable fella, but is he guilty of a crime that demands his property be confiscated? Uh, no.

Are you on any meds, Allen? You can't seriously be this stupid. I am starting to feel racist trying to quantify just how unintelligent you are. This sounds like it was written by a middle school student, and not a particularly bright one. The "slow" kid who sits in the back, has a rat tail, and teaches the other nine year-olds how to swear.

We’re told however that Obama is a likable fella –regardless of the incessant lies, deceit and abject failures. What is happening to American culture and values?

I don’t like jerks, but I really don’t like jerks who are liars, do you?

Jerks and liars are pretty bad, but I prefer either to drooling morons.

You know what's odd about death? When you die, you don't realize you're dead so it can't upset you. It's everyone around you who has to struggle to deal with it. In that sense death and stupidity are very similar, Allen.

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