Links: Google Books?, climate changes, what popularity means, Fitzgerald, and more!

* “Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”

* For real innovation, try a desktop PC. In my view desktops have been underrated for a long time and along many dimensions.

* “We Just Breached the 410 PPM Threshold for CO2: Carbon dioxide has not reached this height in millions of years.”

* What effect does the persistence of media artifacts have on college students?

* “The Nightmare Scenario for Florida’s Coastal Homeowners: Demand and financing could collapse before the sea consumes a single house.” Definitely one of those, “Don’t say we didn’t warn you” scenarios.

* Remember When Popularity Was Cool? Now It’s Just Work.

* “A Requiem for ‘Girls,’” a more interesting piece than it sounds. I watched the first few episodes of Girls with a woman who observed that all of the characters need to get jobs.

* “The Afterlife of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

* “The Crisis of Western Civ:” “Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.” Except me, maybe.

Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent

How Airline Workers Learn to Deal with Passengers” reminds me of teaching; I’ve spent a bunch of years teaching college students and being a grant writing consultant, and I suspect that part of the problem airline workers experience is simple and akin to the problems I experience: 95% of people are fine, but that last 5% can occupy a lot of time and mental energy.* So there’s a temptation to become somewhat armored against that last 5%, which impacts interactions with the vast majority of people, who are normal and reasonable.

A lot of public-facing professions seem to have this problem, including emergency medicine doctors, cops, retail workers, and public school teachers. Because that bottom 5% is so noisy and time-consuming, a kind of misanthropy can set in, as one begins to think the bottom represents the whole—even if intellectually one knows it does not. Mental, psychological, and emotional armoring can reduce one’s overall effectiveness; this is particularly obvious in teaching, in which person-to-person connection plays a stronger role than it does in, say, consulting.

There seems to be something about the human mind that makes one negative interaction stand out more than 10 positive or normal interactions. So there’s a kind of crowding-out effect going on. And when I have to deal with someone who is unreasonable, I try to actively, consciously remind myself that they don’t represent the whole and that behind every irrationally unhappy person there are 49 to 99 normal people who aren’t giving me unwarranted grief.

Colleges in particular have been in the news lately, and a lot of people have seen crazy social justice warrior stuff out there, like the Middlebury College thing or the Halloween costumes at Yale. This stuff is in fact outrageous, but, again, it’s salient because it’s unusual and because it’s unusual one sees it in the news (and it does represent a real problem, though the problem tends to be overstated).

Friends and acquaintances who know what I do sometimes ask me about whether I see this kind of stuff. I do, a little. The vast majority of college students, however, seem to want what college students have always wanted: to learn something; to get by; to get a job when they’re done; to get laid; to learn something about themselves and the societies they live in; to make friends; to individuate from their families. You could add other items. Many students feel a vague sense of worry about being excellent sheep, and that worry is itself a sign of intellectual health. Most students, if they’ve thought about free-speech issues at all, vaguely support it. But a minority of well-organized and angry activists can make a lot more noise and news than the silent majority!

That last point is one many casual news readers don’t realize, which is why I emphasize it. It’s related to my essay, ““How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?” Similar issues play out in many fields beyond teaching and consulting. One angry, unreasonable, or irrational customer or client drowns out a lot of generically happy or satisfied ones. Or consider “I was a landlord: This is what it taught me about people.” Landlords often have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, and that preparation bleeds into their everyday scenarios and interactions.

Teaching, especially at the K – 12 level, really suffers from this problem. A teacher who tries to be honest and interesting risks the ire of his or her angriest, more unhinged, or most ideological students (and, even worse, their parents). Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students.

It’s easy for outsiders to say that teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized.

Social media probably amplifies many of the problem traits described above by allowing the least-reasonable people to organize, scream, and (not infrequently) lie. I don’t know what, if any, solution exists to these problems, apart from most individuals to attempt to be as reasonable as possible and not succumb to the noisy but unhinged minority. Not much of a rallying cry, is it?


* You can change the ratios some; I doubt the number of problem students reaches 10% in most scenarios, and I also doubt that the number declines below 2% (among professions that face the general public).

Links: Cancer cures, the Duke Lacrosse Scandal reverberates, more on academia, Google Book Search, and more!

* “Why James Watson Has Become Optimistic about Curing Cancer: The genomic cancer strategy shift.”

* “The Duke Lacrosse Scandal and the Birth of the Alt-Right,” a good post and an underrated point. People like justice and like other people to get what they deserve (the technical term is “altruistic punishment”), and universities seem to have a problem with maintaining that notion consistently.

* “After Years of Challenges, Foursquare Has Found its Purpose — and Profits.” I didn’t realize Foursquare is still around, but I’ve started using it and find it more useful than I thought.

* “Bunga Bunga, American Style” (trigger warning: politics).

* “‘Unwanted Advances’ Tackles Sexual Politics in Academia.” Best line: “But it’s also hard to ignore the irony here: Universities are now terrible places to find political heterogeneity. Campus discourse has become the equivalent of the supermarket banana. Only one genetic variety remains.”

* “Interview with Mark Greif,” of n+1, I like especially the bit about modern friends.

* “Were College Students Better Off Before Social Media?” Increasingly I wonder if the answer is “Yes.” It’s also striking to me how many students use private or locked social media accounts that aren’t visible to the general public.

* “The Man Behind History’s Most Iconic Movie Posters, From Breakfast at Tiffany’s to James Bond,” a surprisingly moving and beautiful piece. I’m reminded of Paglia’s book Glittering Images.

* “How Google Book Search Got Lost: Google Books was the company’s first moonshot. But 15 years later, the project is stuck in low-Earth orbit.” I wonder too if books just feel less central to the culture than they did even 15 years ago. And the majority of books from the last five or so years are probably available widely and easily in digital formats already.

* “Has coffee gotten too fancy?” Probably, but I like the fancy and the whole ridiculous process.

Briefly noted: Lonesome Dove — Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove is one of the best novels I’ve read, ever, and as much as I like physical books it may be easier to read on a Kindle: at more than 800 large, physical pages, it takes space. But that may be appropriate to the content, ranging as it does from Texas to Montana in the age of horse. I couldn’t decide whether the novel is any good until about 400 pages in, when a sudden-seeming shift happened. Lonesome Dove seems mostly comic, tonally, at first, with characters sitting around and speculating to each other. But then one finds that unexpected, brutal, and shocking shift, like a standard romantic comedy morphing into science fiction when the aliens land.

Don’t quit two hundred pages in, though you’ll be tempted to. As with The Name of the Rose, another of those fantastical, insane works I wish someone had forced me to read sooner than I got hold of it, patience is rewarded.

I’m reminded of James Wood’s remark about how good novels deploy “different registers:” “One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in the former case, for the absence of different registers. An efficient thriller will often be written in a style that is locked into place: the musical analogue of this might be a tune proceeding in unison, the melody separated only by octave intervals, without any harmony in the middle.” Richer novels are supposed to be polyphonic. Lonesome Dove isn’t. The narrative viewpoint scans from character to character, but they share a linguistic world that reflects their time and place. To Wood that’s a problem but to me it’s a shared world reflected in ideas and language. The common world has its own strange beauty, reflected in metaphors tied to the land and to fighting on horseback.

In Lonesome Dove characters often bury stories within stories within stories, sometimes in dialogue and usually not, describing the way things came to be. If those stories weren’t so damn interesting they’d be a crisis. But if “be interesting” is the first command to any artist, Lonesome Dove follows it. The world it depicts is implacable and hard and full of rational and irrational people. Like these:

The shadow of Augustus McCrae had hung over their courtship; Bob had never known why she chose him over the famous Ranger, or over any of the other men she could have had. In her day she had been the most sought-after girl in Texas, and yet she had married him, and followed him to the Nebraska plains, and stayed and worked beside him. It was hard country for women, Bob knew that. Women died, went crazy or left. The wife of their nearest neighbor, Maude Jones, had killed herself with a shotgun one morning, leaving a note which merely said, “Can’t stand listening to this wind no more.”

Leaving out the “a” in “It was hard country” seems odd but, again, part of the linguistic universe. One feels very rich, reading Lonesome Dove as a contemporary person with immediate access to infinite information, much as one feels rich and also terribly sad reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Other worlds exist now and have existed before, and it’s useful to remember them—and to think of how the future world will be different from the present.

Much of Lonesome Dove, on its own, seems basic, yet as a whole it’s beautiful. Like this:

The other men were easy to talk to, but they didn’t know anything. If one stopped to think about it, it was depressing how little most men learned in their lifetimes. Pea eye was a prime example. Though loyal and able and brave, Pea had never displayed the slightest ability to learn from his experience, though his experience was considerable. Time and again he would walk up on the wrong side of a horse that was known to kick, and then look surprised when he got kicked.

If I were James Wood I wouldn’t like “prime example” (it’s a cliché), but here it’s fine. The eye passes over it, and it’s the sort of cliché Call (who speaks here) would use. We see Call’s mind on horses, and we can generalize from the sort of person who is always surprised by a horse’s obvious behavior to a person we know, who is equally puzzled when he misses the obvious. Horses are as ubiquitous to Lonesome Dove as computers are to modern Americans.

There is an odd fatalistic determinism in the novel that is again not easy to parse out in a sentence quote but that is easy to feel. In the quote above we see that Pea Eye is who he is; the next paragraph starts, “Deets was different. Deets observed, he remembered,” as if that too arises from nothing. Almost no one in the novel has formal schooling, yet some minds race ahead while others are as lame as overriden horses. One sees other examples of this that I won’t share, because they spoil vital plot points.

It’s hard to say what you might expect going in, or what I expected going in, but whatever I expected wasn’t what I got. Usually novels about the west feel silly, pointless, and remote to me; this one is sophisticated, especially about ways of being and about gender relations. It’s never dogmatic, either: Augustus and Call are opposites in many ways, but the narrative voice never seems to choose one over the other as the two debate and act throughout the novel (in this respect the narrative voice is polyphonic, even if the characters think and sound characteristically similar).

The novel’s last sentences are strange and haunting.

There is enough in this novel to spend many years unpacking and experiencing it.

I fear to read the second one, for fear that the sequel won’t match the original, yet I also feel I have to do it.

Links: Management fails academia, Laura Kipnis in the news for campus sexual culture, the Mac Pro lives, and more!

* Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse.”

* On Laura Kipnis’s book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus: “The Northwestern University professor strengthens her polemic against campus sexual culture.”

* Generation Why?

* “The Mac Pro lives,” to my surprise. I’d like a $1,200 – $1,500 Mac tower, but Apple hasn’t made such a machine in a long, long time. I’ll also note that I’m glad Apple isn’t totally ceding the tower-that-just-works market to Microsoft (a market Linux may be excluded from).

* “General Electric Wants Out of the Lightbulb Business.” Given how long LED bulbs last, this makes sense. By the way, the best LED bulbs I’ve found are from a company called Finally.

* “United Passenger ‘Removal’: A Reporting and Management Fail. Also: “Why flying in America keeps getting more miserable, explained.”

* “The Utter Uselessness of Job Interviews,” yet we keep doing them anyway. Maybe they’re just a signaling mechanism for seriousness about taking the job?

* “Great Barrier Reef at ‘terminal stage’: scientists despair at latest coral bleaching data.”

Links: Rigor in universities?, the culture of the U.S. and the Internet, small apartment buildings, SpaceX, and more!

* “AAUP report says adjunct professor was likely fired for insisting on rigor in courses.” Then again, who knows for sure? Still, see also my post, “What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.”

* “The Like Button Ruined the Internet.” The best responses to this blog are always emails or other blog posts.

* “Toronto Schools to Cease Field Trips to U.S.,” and the Board cites “concerns that some students may be turned away at the border in the wake of President Trump’s latest travel ban and the American immigration authorities’ newly implemented ‘extreme vetting’ procedures.” Makes sense to me. I remember talking to a student with dual New Zealand and American citizenship and observing that, if I were her, New Zealand universities would be looking very good right now. See also “
Dr Peter Watts, Canadian science fiction writer, beaten and arrested at US border
.” One can see why Canadians would not be eager to visit!

* “America Needs Small Apartment Buildings,” and zoning reform more generally.

* “The age of offense.” See also me, “How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?

* “How Utah Keeps the American Dream Alive.” Unexpected throughout.

* “How SpaceX’s Historic Rocket Re-Flight Boosts Elon Musk’s Mars Plan;” by far the most important news last week is that SpaceX launched and re-landed a previously launched and landed rocket booster. The price of getting to space is about to plummet.

* “The Reckoning: Why the Movie Business Is in Big Trouble.”

Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?

As the title asks, why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college? Or, if they have, what school is out there and has tried this?

It seems like a ripe strategy because virtually every (even slightly) selective school is pursing the same prestige strategy. Yet even as they do so, news about outrageous student loan burdens is everywhere and probably affecting the choices made by students. At the same time, college tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades—and everyone knows it. Education is a component of the “cost disease” that is afflicting other sectors too. The number of college administrators has grown enormously (though that may not be the prime factor behind public-school cost increases). Still, it used to be possible to work summer jobs and graduate with little or no debt; schools in the 1960s or 1970s don’t appear to have been dramatically worse at education than schools today, and in some ways they may have been better, yet today colleges are many times more expensive.

College costs and debts have soared, and at the same time the number of PhDs granted far outstrips the number of tenure-track and teaching jobs. Most universities and even many colleges care far more about research, much of which is bogus anyway, than teaching. Many universities don’t care about teaching at all, as long as the professor shows up to lecture, isn’t drunk, and doesn’t trade sex for grades. I hear many, many grad students and early professors lament the way their schools don’t care about teaching. So there’s a surplus of cheap PhDs out there who would desperately like to be professors. While professors who only teach two or three classes per semester complain relentlessly about all the “work” they supposedly have and how “busy” they allegedly are, it could be very easy to get professors to teach far more than they currently do at most schools, further reducing costs.

In short, the supply of faculty is there, and the supply of students ought to be there. So, with the setup above, let me repeat: why hasn’t anyone attempted to start a teaching-focused college with low tuition and extremely high-quality academics? I’m thinking of a school with a mandate to minimize the number of administrators and sports teams. One could even eliminate tenure, and thus ensure that PhDs hired today won’t still be on the payroll in 40 years.

This situation sounds like a community college, but I’m imagining a school that still draws from a national applicant pool and still maintains or attempts to maintain an elite or comprehensive academic character. Think of a liberal arts school but scaled up somewhat and with fewer administrators. If I were a billionaire I might try to do this; stupendously rich people loved endowing schools in the 19th Century, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion. Still, it worked then, so perhaps it could work now.

It may be that schools are really selling prestige and status, and consequently a low-cost, high-quality teaching school would be too low prestige and low status to attract students.

Still, and again as noted previously, pretty much every school, public or private, is pursuing the exact same prestige, admissions, and marketing strategy. With one or two exceptions (CalTech, University of Chicago—okay, there are a few others, but not many), they don’t even try (really or seriously) to distinguish themselves, and almost every school competes for the same BS college rankings. Such a uniform market seems ripe for alternate approaches, yet none are being tried or have taken off (so far as I know).

What am I missing?

* Maybe it was easier to start colleges in the 19th Century, when regulation was nonexistent and complex subsidies of various kinds weren’t available. In the 19th Century, many colleges were also founded with the explicit intent of saving students’ souls, so perhaps the lack of religiosity in today’s billionaires and/or most of today’s students is a factor.

* Current schools might just be too damn good at marketing for others to break in.

* Maybe there are efforts afoot and they’ve either failed or are too small for me to have noticed.

* Current schools are pursuing a complex price discrimination strategy, in which the sticker price is paid by a relatively small number of students, and much of the study body receives “scholarships” that are really tuition discounts. Maybe this system is more appealing to students and possibly schools than a transparent, everyone-pays-$5,000-per-year strategy.

* Students by and large pay with their parents’ money or pay with loans, so many an unbundled version of a school really is less attractive than one with lots of administrators, feel-good projects, fancy gyms, etc.

* Billionaires who might fund this are busy doing other things with their money.

* The number of “good” or at least weird and different students who would try such a school is not great enough (given the current cost of college and the number of students out there, I find this one hard to believe, but it isn’t impossible).

I’m guess that number four is most likely, but maybe there are other features I’m missing.

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