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.

TRASHED

Posted in Rants on September 29th, 2014 by Ed

I've lived in the same rental unit for over two years and I make the same walk to work and back every day, rain or shine. Thanks to that experience I can draw from memory the labels of every single brand of bumwine and bottom shelf hard liquor available for sale in this state. Ditto every fast food wrapper, quasi-generic brand of soda, and fried salt snack known to man. Oh, and for good measure, dozens of previously unheard of "state minimum" cigarette brands.

I lived in the Midwest for decades before I moved here, so very little surprised me about this place. The boiling summers, the arctic winters, the flatness, the omnipresence of ranch dressing and bland food – I'd seen it all before. One thing I wasn't prepared for is how dirty everything is. I've never seen so much litter in my life. On the rare occasions that anyone cleans any of it up – by which I mean "When I take a garbage bag and walk a few blocks picking up trash and hoping that you can't get herpes from touching a 40" – it's back again in a day or two. All of the fun stuff that accompanies urban decay – the abandoned buildings, the graffiti, the boarded windows – is here in the expected amount and doesn't really faze me. But I'm still not used to the "Everywhere is a trash can" thing.

Oddly enough the available research does not establish much of a correlation between poverty and littering. It doesn't help that the local government is short on funds and can't provide things like street cleaning as often as they might. What it boils down to, though, is not money but mentality. It's like being in the home of a really depressed person – when someone lacks motivation and has given up, the dishes in the kitchen tend to pile up. When a city is depressed, economically and otherwise, I guess everyone feels like it won't make any difference if they throw their empty Doritos bag on the ground. And even though it makes everything a little more depressing to look around and see trash everywhere you go, the idea of cleaning it up seems as overwhelming as a mountain of dishes with caked-on mac & cheese.

In short, I guess when people have pretty much given up (and not without reason) you get well acquainted with the design of Salem packs and Thunderbird bottles.

NPF: BACK ME UP

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on September 25th, 2014 by Ed

My Cardinals are off to a surprising 3-0 start, surprising not only because they aren't as talented as many other teams but also because they're down to their backup quarterback. Luckily they're one of the few teams in the NFL that has that valuable commodity known as a backup QB. And I mean the old school kind, the kind you don't see very often these days. The Professional Backup is a unique animal, far more rare than the backups most often seen around the league.

There are four types of backup QB. First and most common is the Failed Starter. Guys like Jason Campbell, Derek Anderson, and Jimmy Clausen are classic FS types. The problem is that they failed as starters because they're not very good, so if you have to play them it turns out that they're…well, not very good. Second is the Untested Rookie. You spent a high draft pick on him and he makes a decent salary so by default he's second on the depth chart. If he has to play, it's a total crapshoot. Third is the Aged Veteran. He was a good starter at some point but he's pushing 40 now. The team hopes that if he does have to play, it will be mercifully brief. Each hit could be his last, and the speed/arm strength are gone. Finally there is the Professional Backup – a guy who knows that he is not the starter, knows his place on the roster, and is competent to play without crippling the team's chances to win. The PB plays a quarter here or there when the starter is having an off day; he starts a game every year or two when the #1 guy sprains his ankle. After each performance he returns to the bench with zero complaints. There is never a "QB controversy" on account of his ego because he doesn't have one.

Arizona's Drew Stanton is a good modern example of the PB, but undoubtedly the greatest ever was Earl Morrall. Most casual fans have no idea who he is. But he backed up some of the greatest greats – Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese, etc – and was always ready to provide competent if unspectacular play in relief. Did any fans out there realize that during the legendary 1972 Dolphins undefeated season Morrall started and won more games than gimpy Griese? Or that in 1970 he took over for an aging Johnny Unitas on short notice and won a Super Bowl? And yet everyone including Morrall himself knew he was the caddy and not the starter. He never set the world on fire when he played; he did the same as Stanton is currently doing in the desert – not making mistakes and playing within his limited skill set. Like a professional.

The PB has disappeared for the same reason that the Long Reliever has disappeared from baseball: there is a shortage of quality quarterbacks so anyone remotely competent is anointed a starter. Josh McCown, for example, is a great backup but now he's starting on a woeful Tampa Bay team. Some other great PBs that come to mind are Zeke Bratkowski (Bart Starr's longtime caddy), Don Strock, Jeff Hostetler (who supported Phil Simms on those great Giants teams), and Jon Kitna. The latter two were eventually turned into starters – Hoss with the Raiders and Kitna with Cincinnati and Detroit – by desperate teams even though it was clear that they were destined to be excellent number twos. Green Bay's Matt Flynn is a recent example of a guy who clearly isn't a starter but who plays great in relief.

Scarcity is slowly driving the Professional Backup into extinction, but there are still a few out there. It's the kind of thing that you appreciate if you're a non-casual fan with an eye for the little things that make the game fun to watch. Viva Earl Morrall.

SAID IN JEST

Posted in Rants on September 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Perhaps riled up by Scotland's recent unsuccessful attempt to secede from the United Kingdom, a nationwide poll found that about one in four Americans currently favor their state's secession. In the southwest, including well-known havens for Teabaggers, militia types, and vindictive old bastards like Arizona and Texas, public support stands at a truly robust 34%.

I made an attempt on Tuesday to get students to talk about this in class, only to see it collapse under quick dismissals ("Nah, that will never happen") and the persistent lack of interest in giving serious consideration to hypothetical situations. It is easy to see the theoretical benefits of secession from a state's perspective. With some prodding, I got them thinking about the not as obvious downsides. By the time a state government replaced all of the functions currently handled at the national level – defense, monetary policy, immigration, etc. – it is reasonable to wonder if it would look much different than what we have in Washington today.

Older faculty tell me that the students' declining ability and willingness to think conceptually about theoretical or hypothetical scenarios is one of their biggest worries about The Kids These Days. I have not been at this long enough to notice a change. Yet I tried to emphasize in this discussion that it is my firm belief that we likely will be dealing with this situation during their lifetimes. Given the continuing lurch to the right of American conservatism, I don't consider it far-fetched at all to think that if I live forty more years I'll see a real secession vote in a place like Texas. Such a vote would be unlikely to succeed today, but who knows how close the decision might be in the future.

One thing I found curious was the unanimous response of the class on what the rest of the U.S. should do in response to a state's attempt at secession: nothing. Let them go. The enthusiasm for fighting another civil war to keep the most politically backward states in the union would likely be nonexistent if the situation presented itself. Haven't we had a good run? Not many nations last 230+ years under one Constitution. If Texas really wanted out, I can't picture many Californians and New Yorkers begging them to stay. We might even offer them some incentives to take the deep south with them. A Senate without the dozen assholes from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina would be able to function. Hell, it might even work well.

Pro-union campaigners in the U.K. relied heavily on arguments about history and tradition – sentimental appeals involving lots of Union Jacks and patriotic songs. It's hard to see that strategy succeeding here if the current generation's right-wing wrecking crew succeeds in its constant efforts to make future generations even dumber. Give us another decade or two of homeschooled kids and Texas Board of Education mandates and half the country will enter adulthood believing that George Washington and Abe Lincoln and Elvis Presley and Jesus were all proponents of a free and independent Texas.

I'm not saying they'll win; only that it's inevitable at this point that some state is going to try it in the future.

I DEMAND TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY

Posted in Quick Hits on September 22nd, 2014 by Ed

Rough week at work so pardon another shorty.

The man pictured below was invited on national television to spread "intelligence reports" that he received, possibly from his imagination, of "Quran books" found on the border that indicate an imminent ISIS-Muslim-Mexican Immigrant attack on the United States. I just want to throw this out there – even if this was true, which it isn't, I am certain that the first rule in life is that if you want to be taken seriously by a nationwide audience you should never wear one of these hats.

sheriff

The blood of hundreds of dead Americans will be on that hat if the good sheriff is right.

SHOCKING, REALLY

Posted in Quick Hits on September 21st, 2014 by Ed

There is nothing quite as entertaining as watching libertarian-objectivist types try to leave the wicked world behind to establish a utopian community based on their sophomoric ideology. No comedy writer could draw up a better premise than a group of self-worshiping sociopaths who reject the idea of community…forming a community. An isolated one at that, completely devoid of effective regulation. After the enterprise (invariably named after some stupid Atlas Shrugged reference) fails spectacularly, the internet gets to feast on pictures of empty lots and half-built homes in Libertarian Paradise.

The latest such tale, of "Galt's Gulch" in Chile, takes it to the next level. It was your basic real estate scam, with one Heroic Individualist / developer organizing the effort and soliciting investors. These "extremely savvy investors" – actual words – handed over their nest eggs despite the contractual arrangements involved being essentially unenforceable.

Despite their rugged self-reliance and loathing of all government, the investors certainly were quick to run back to the U.S. to start filing lawsuits in Federal court. It's funny on so many levels.