CONFUSION REIGNS

Posted in Quick Hits on October 12th, 2014 by Ed

I remember distinctly the following conversation when I was in first grade. Back then I was called Eddie. Don't call me Eddie anymore.

Eddie: "What part of America did Christopher Columbus find?"
Teacher: "Today it's part of the Bahamas."
Eddie: "So he didn't discover America?"
Teacher: "Well we call all of this the Americas."
Eddie: "And there were people there when he got there?"
Teacher: "Yes, there were indians."
Eddie: "Mrs. _____, why was Columbus important?"
Teacher: "We have to move on."

It's pretty trite at this point to point out that the man whose name had to be anglicized to make him sound un-foreign enough to be an American hero wasn't all he is cracked up to me. Nobody really cares because holidays are hard enough to come by in the United States and nobody wants to lose this one. A day off is a day off. But my god is it silly watching people actually "celebrate" Columbus Day. Maybe this, along with wearing track suits everywhere, is the only good thing about being an old Italian man and we shouldn't try to ruin it. In 2014, though, it's hard to believe anyone still takes seriously the idea that Senor Colon was a great man worthy of our admiration.

NPF: PENDULUM

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on October 10th, 2014 by Ed

There cannot be a baseball fan on Earth, Yankees devotees included, who is not a little embarrassed by Jetermania. The national sports media's overindulgence in #2's final month was at parts ridiculous ("Jeter's final night game!") to the unwatchable (various "tribute" videos from annoying NYC personalities). People are so sick of hearing about Jeter that there has been a strong and unsurprising backlash of articles critical not only of the media coverage but of Jeter as a person and a player. While many of us have been on the "Shut Up about Jeter" bandwagon for a decade now, it filled to overcapacity in the past two months.

So that is how I find myself sitting here about to defend, and even laud, Derek Jeter. I am as sick to death of the coverage of his retirement as anyone else, but even as a career Yankee hater I have a hard time believing that any half-serious fan could say with a straight face that #2 is not an all-time great player. All of these sarcastic headlines about honoring "one of the 500 greatest players of all time" might inspire some giggles but are patently ridiculous.

Derek Jeter has that Ben Affleck disease – just looking at his face and listening to him talk creates an irresistible urge to punch him, even when he's saying something intelligent. He benefits from playing on teams that are always loaded with expensive talent. He lives in the media capital of the US, if not the world, and his every accomplishment is reported on in glowing terms. All of this is true. Fine. Look at the numbers, though, and you see an absolute, slam dunk, first ballot Hall of Famer and that's not even debatable. Oh, I'm sorry…are there a lot of other shortstops with 3465 hits, .310/.377/.440 career slash numbers, eight 200 hit seasons, and 96 career oWAR? I guess he should wait until the rest of them are inducted. If they existed.

The criticisms of Jeter are well known and valid. He was not a great defensive player. He was an average one for the first half of his career and then a liability in the field over the second half. For how many great HOF hitters is defense a consideration? Most HOFers were either undistinguished defensively, played next to none (Molitor, Thomas, etc), transitioned to easier positions like 1B in their 30s to hide their defensive deficiencies (Murray, Foxx, Mize), or had allegedly fantastic defensive skills that were mostly mythical (Brock, Stargell, Winfield). When guys are great hitters, nobody cares about their defense. Dave Winfield was about as useful in the field as a traffic pylon in the field; I don't recall that mattering much when he became Hall-eligible.

Jeter also gets considerable criticism for how bad his final season was. This is so stupid it isn't even worth discussing. Pick ten random HOF hitters and look at their final seasons. Look at what players who are practically worshiped like Ripken, Brett, Murray, and Mays did in their final season (or two). Everyone hangs on a year or two too long, usually in a desperate effort to pad counting stats or reach milestone numbers.

Did he benefit from playing on high payroll, talent-stocked teams? Yes. And he was consistently the best or one of the best players on those teams when they were successful. He also delivered in the postseason, a notable shortcoming of many HOF caliber hitters.

In short, I get it. I understand that everyone is sick of Jeter and that the media coverage was so far over the top that it's hard not to hate him for it. That said, don't be an idiot. He was not a perfect player, but with the BBWAA opening the doors of the Hall to mediocre Nice Guys like Rice, Dawson, and Perez in recent years there is not a single decent argument against Jeter, the best hitting shortstop of the last 100 years, being anything but a lock for Cooperstown the moment he is eligible. Fuck that guy, but he could hit.

SELF-PARODY

Posted in Rants on October 9th, 2014 by Ed

An economics textbook could probably phrase this more eloquently than I do, but I'm fond of saying that the final stage of the life cycle in capitalism is self-parody. First you sell people an SUV, then when you get criticized for it you sell even bigger, dumber SUVs. You try to entice people to eat at a place called Golden Corral, and once you become the symbol of the rural obesity epidemic you install a fountain that oozes pestilent, lukewarm chocolate on any object placed in its orbit. First you sell the Shake Weight as an exercise implement, then you make fun of yourself and sell even more as joke gifts. Basically, you make one last financial windfall on an idea by becoming a caricature of exactly what you were accused of being all along. When everyone mocks your bad food and gargantuan portions, fuck it: introduce the Super Size.

Now that the bloom is off the rose of the Susan G. Komen For the Curetm foundation, fewer people look at it as a good way to support cancer research and more look at it as a shameless marketing firm that will slap a coat of pink on anything for a buck. The foundation appears to have embraced the hell out of that stereotype, partnering with some fracking company to paint an industrial sized drill bit pink. You know. For the Curetm.

drill

This is not the Onion. A company engaging in an activity proven to increase cancer rates in the vicinity came to Komen, proposed splashing some pink paint on their equipment, and the people running Komen said, "Sure, why not!" Because fuck it, right? Once people have figured out that you're a joke you might as well be the biggest joke you can be. Having long since established that shame is not a relevant concern in free market capitalism, once you no longer care about your reputation the opportunities to cash in become legion.

THIRD-RATE VILLAINS

Posted in Rants on October 7th, 2014 by Ed

A devoted comic book fan explained to me that the biggest issue with making a good series of films based on Batman is that other than The Joker, most of the villains suck. The Joker is #1 and once he's gone the drop-off to #2 and beyond is huge. Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy (and the military-industrial economy) has had the exact same issue.

The USSR was a great Villain. Americans and their elected leaders could turn the USSR into whatever they wanted, and the Soviet leaders were generally dyspeptic enough to confirm our fears. The (second) Bush administration certainly tried to turn al-Qaeda and then Iraq into the same thing but even people who go through the motions of believing it…they have to know. They must know. They have to know in their heart of hearts that despite al-Qaeda's capacity to execute some genuinely horrific attacks, it's just not the same. Discounting the 15-20% of the population who believe literally anything Fox News spits at them, there's no amount of squinting that can make al-Qaeda look like an existential threat to the U.S. (Oddly enough, the same people who claim that argue that Islamic terrorists are cave-dwelling camel fuckers, and the contradiction speaks to how implausible it is to conceive of them as supervillains. But I digress.)

Now we are going through the same song and dance with ISIS and the overwhelming lack of real interest in or attention paid to the current situation is indicative of how serious we perceive their threat. Sure, they can do all of the things that Modern Terrorist magazine recommends for groups with ideological fervor and minimal resources – maximum shock value tactics like execution videos and post-firefight blood and gore images – but let's be serious here. It's fitting that the group sounds like a third-rate Connery era Bond villain because even by the standards of terrorist/paramilitary organizations they're not terribly impressive. Despite the intense effort by the media to hype them into a suitably terrifying nemesis, very few people who aren't Senators from South Carolina or Texas honestly think "ISIS is coming, the end is near." I mean, what is the narrative? It was at least plausible to think that the USSR could (but wouldn't) launch a nuclear sneak attack in our sleep; is anyone putting the kids to bed with dire warnings that ISIS is going to swoop into the suburbs and blow up the three bedroom ranch?

They sure do pose a threat to private security contractors and certain kinds of international aid workers. That'll give the kids nightmares.

COFFEE WITH TWO SADS AND A SUGAR

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

For those of you who have clamored for coffee mugs over the years, your moment has arrived. I'm calling your bluff. Customizable mugs are now available (and 30% off on Tuesday) ranging from $12 to $20. The mugs feature a stylized version of the background image on the site and the inspirational text "Life is like a box of chocolates – it disappears quickly in an office."

mugs

Make your coffee the saddest coffee in the office or super-trendy coffee shop. Do it. I get like 80 cents each time you buy one. This is my retirement nest egg.

CURIOUSLY DIFFICULT

Posted in Quick Hits on October 6th, 2014 by Ed

Here's a fun game. Go to your state's website for unemployment benefits. Look for the link for "reporting unemployment insurance fraud". Then search for the link to report labor law violations by employers. Look all around the Department of Labor website.

I checked a handful of states (I'm relying on the readers to get all fifty cumulatively because, come on, I don't have that much spare time on my hands) and while the "report some lazy moocher stealin' your tax dollars" link or button was displayed prominently and required no effort to locate, the link to report labor law violations either didn't exist or required some digging to find.

Because, you know, the real problem with this country is that The Gub'mint is so damn liberal.

INSUFFICIENTLY DICTATORIAL

Posted in Quick Hits on October 5th, 2014 by Ed

After six years of listening to everyone to the right of Ben Nelson call Obama a tyrant and a dictator – possibly one unequaled in history – we now get to listen to all of the same people complain that Obama didn't unilaterally decree that no commercial flights from regions with Ebola outbreaks can enter the United States. And furthermore that no U.S. citizen who has been exposed to the disease can re-enter the country except under some sort of highly restrictive quarantine.

So you see, the problem here is that Obama is not dictatorial enough. Or something. I'm sure the same people who think they need to hoard guns because the government is making them buy subsidized health insurance would be positively laudatory if Obama announced that he was going to decide who gets to enter and leave the country.

This is why I stopped paying attention to domestic partisan politics a year or two ago. The vast majority of it is people repeating things they heard some right-wing talk show how say, things that a ten second application of logic or basic fact checking could render meaningless.

SOUNDS ABOUT RIGHT

Posted in Quick Hits on October 3rd, 2014 by Ed

I enjoyed this pair of comments on a post about anti-vaccine crackpots on the Gin and Tacos Facebook page.

Capture

It's neither worth it nor interesting at this point to address the basic flaws in anti-vax arguments. However, I think this comment illustrates why so many of these half-assed pseudoscientific theories are finding receptive audiences these days: it seems like it makes sense. To someone without a basic understanding of anything scientific or medical – that is, about 95% of American adults – it makes perfect sense that exposing an infant to many different diseases at once would "overwhelm" them. It's not correct, but a semi-reasonable person without any real understanding of how vaccines or the immune system work could read this and think it sounds perfectly reasonable.

If you're one of the increasing number of people for whom "Sounds about right!" is a suitable replacement for accurate information – and so much easier! – the scientific facts gleaned from Tumblr leads down some very strange roads.

LENGTHY

Posted in Rants on October 2nd, 2014 by Ed

Students complain a lot. This is neither surprising nor new. Students complaining about their classes is like adults complaining about their jobs; it's something everyone does no matter how good or badly they have it. George Carlin said there was a club for people who hate their jobs – it's called Everyone and it meets at The Bar. Replace people with students and jobs with classes and that's what it's like to work in education. You learn not to take it too seriously. Bitching and moaning is just part of what students do. It's not personal.

In the last two or three years, however, I've heard a brand new complaint with alarming frequency. I'm used to the traditional student gripes – the class is too hard, my grade sucks because you're a bad teacher, this class isn't interesting, etc etc – and I pay them little mind as long as I know I am doing my best in the classroom and the class as a whole is performing well. When I changed universities in 2012, though, I noticed a marked increase in complaints about the workload. In fact during my first semester I assigned Mark Twain's short story "Cannibalism in the Cars," figuring it would offer an enjoyable alternative to the extremely dry introductory readings on Congress. The students told me, when it became apparent that they got nothing from it, that it was just too long. In 12 point font with 1.5 spacing, the PDF was nine pages. I thought they were messing with me until one student helpfully offered, "We have the attention span of goldfish." This is a true story. I appreciated his honesty.

To be blunt, I went many years without hearing this gripe because my classes don't require an extraordinary amount of work. In my intro American government class, for example, I do what almost everyone else on the planet does: one textbook chapter per week. Gentle reader, this is not a lot of reading. Intro textbooks are basically formatted like teen magazines or popular websites these days. A chapter is about 25-30 pages. A good portion of that is not text (pictures, graphs, charts, and other visuals). It takes me about 20 minutes to read; for someone reading very slowly and carefully due to unfamiliarity with the concepts it might take 45. This is the total reading load for seven days. As my colleague is fond of saying, "The only way to assign less reading would be to assign none."

That is true, yet the students' complaints get louder every semester – there's too much reading. The underlying problem here has been studied both empirically and anecdotally by anyone who has been in a classroom in the last 15 years. An alarming portion of the students who enter college classrooms apparently have not read…anything, really. I have serious, well-founded doubts as to whether some of the students I deal with have ever read a book. I know for a painful fact that most of them read no news. At best they look at headlines. Essentially anything longer than a tweet or a Facebook status update is too long. Any video longer than about 3 minutes – the average Youtube clip – is also incomprehensible. This is the first generation of college students who were raised on both the internet and wireless devices, and it is absolutely goddamn staggering how poorly they are able to focus on anything. Anything at all, be it educational or entertaining. Open a textbook in front of them and their attention is drifting off to their smartphones before the end of the first page.

It's revealing to walk through the library in the evening, particularly during the busiest exam weeks of the semester. Every single student has a book open in front of them, and every single student is looking and pecking away at their phone. I am starting to think that these students think that if the book is open near them it counts as "reading." When I ask students who express concern about their grades how much they study, their answers make me wonder what portion of the time they report consisted of sitting in front of an open book watching TV, dicking around on the internet, or talking to their friends.

I know that every generation of teachers cries that the sky is falling because of The Kids These Days, but in barely a month I've had a parade of students through my office telling me that there's just too much reading (There isn't) or the reading is indecipherable (Intro textbooks are basically written at an 8th grade level). While these students are not illiterate, obviously, I really doubt that some of them are capable of sitting down and reading a chapter in a textbook. Those of you who do not deal with teenagers in this environment probably think I'm kidding or exaggerating, but it is becoming frighteningly obvious to those of us who do that these kids are leaving high school without the ability to focus on anything long enough to read a novel, a textbook chapter, or even a decently incisive magazine/website article.

When I really want to freak myself out, I remember that as a professor at an expensive private school my students are probably better than most. God help us all.

Tags:

INTERRUPTION

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30th, 2014 by Ed

Having written for the past six or seven hours without interruption, I have neither the piss nor the vinegar right now. Will try Wednesday morning instead. Bear with me this week and the content will be back on schedule before you know it. Literally. Since you won't know it until you check back and realize that it's here.