Jeff Spiccoli for President!

I think I've got it. Trump's appeal. He embodies, in a politician, the teenager-man that American loves in its movies. He IS The Teenager. Consider the types of things he says: 
"America is a disgrace" 
"I'm just saying what everyone thinks but won't say" 
"Everyone is so biased" 
"I'm really rich" 
"I have a great car" 
"Those people" 
"You have a big problem"

Is he mature? Does he know policy or have solutions? Of course not--he's a teenager. He has emotion, bravado, immaturity, petulance. When other candidates or the media point out that he's not acting like an adult, he berates them for it. And the audience cheers. Because the audience doesn't want to grow up, either. They identify, thinking, "Why not let a teenager run the country? Might be fun."

A while back, there was an article by NYT Film Critic A.O. Scott that got a bunch of press, analyzing how American men in films and television had ceased to be about men who were adults or who were comfortable being adults and how this was mirrored in the culture. Perhaps he was already writing about the 2016 Presidential Campaign. What he wrote about our fictional characters seems to describe, well, the frontrunner of the GOP: 

"We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from “Catch-22” to “The Hangover,” from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.” But the antics of the comic man-boys were not merely repetitive; in their couch-bound humor we can detect the glimmers of something new, something that helped speed adulthood to its terminal crisis. Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly." 

We trend toward words like "egotistical" or "narcissistic" when we analyze Trump. But that doesn't explain his broad appeal, or the media and other candidate's inability to lay a glove on him. The proper word is "teenager." 



Guns as Tools, Choices as Conditioned Behaviors

It's a pretty popular idea that tools are completely neutral and all the will to use them rests in our heads (our wills). But anyone with a smartphone has already experienced the almost compulsive urge to reach for their phone, check it, hold it. (Indeed, surveys done by companies like Nokia find that the #1 thing people do with their phones is fondle them. Seriously.) The point is that tools become an extension of our bodies--we become habituated to having them, using them, expanding our range of options. We choose to live places based on our cars as our imaginative range of “where-I-can-go” becomes based on our walking-extender, our car. 

What this means for guns is that, to the degree we let them, they have become part of our bodies, our habits, our range of choices. They are not separate tools which can can choose to use or not. The choice to avoid the tendencies that come with guns--and the consequences--has to start earlier, with their acquisition. If you don't want to *be* unhealthy, you give yourself a big assist by not buying a lot of junk food--because “you are what you eat.” If you don't want to be a person who responds with deadly force, don't buy a gun--because “you are what you brandish.” And since guns kill other people while potato chips only kill the eater, we have a justification to extend their limitation beyond just ourselves.
One unexpected benefit of this way of seeing things is that it relieves some of the guilt-or-innocence burden on cops. Yes, there are killer-cops out there--cops who enjoy killing with guns, who are “trigger-happy.” I find it hard to accept that is a high percentage, though. What we can understand if we change our view of the line between tools and human choice is that there is a dynamic between “cop” and “gun” that is not simplistically “up to” the cop. Yes, the British police are admirable for not firing their guns or killing people as often as American police; but a bunch of that credit needs to go to the culture in Britain, not to a bunch of super-willpowers dressed up in bobby uniforms. The British just understand tools better than Americans do.



(26 July 1997)

When bricks speak, look out! Because they’ve kept silent so long, they’re bound to be ornery. All that weight. Never a vacation, not even day trips are allowed. But what do they expect? Know what you're signing up for, I say.

It’s no picnic being a brick, but there are some benefits. That’s why they go for it. For one, it’s relaxing; your neighbors, usually other bricks, tend to keep to themselves, so there’s a lot of quiet time. Occasionally, a brick will find that they’ve been placed on a corner--that can be noisy. And cold. But the odds are against that.

What else? No phone calls. Ever. Someday, maybe, but not yet.

What do bricks talk about? Is there a buzz among the brick-elite, the brickolage? Who’s up, who’s down? Whose mortar is firm, whose is crumbling? What do bricks expect? For what do they hope? A good job, nice house, many children, spiritual fulfillment? Well, no. Mostly bricks aim low. Stasis, languor, immobility--these sum it up.


Anakin kills younglings in Star Wars III -- After Newtown, an intolerable cinematic moment

Post-Newtown, it was a bit disturbing to watch Star Wars III (Revenge of the Sith) with my 9 year old and come across the scene in which a 20 year old Anakin Skywalker go into the Jedi pre-school to kill all the "younglings" as his final task before becoming Darth Vader. 


Against the Sunk Costs Argument for MOOC's and the Expansion of Online Education

There was a line in the book Alone Together by Sherry Turkle that encapsulated, roughly, what's at the heart of my concern about MOOC's, online, etc. 

"When we make a job rote, we are more open to having machines do it. But even when people do it, they and the people they serve feel like machines."

What this expresses to me is the fact that there is something very logical (developmentally "next step") about increasing the automated/distanced/impersonal components to our educational strategies. In other words, it's hard to argue against these components because we, ourselves, have made teaching more rote as we've created larger and larger classrooms. 

My resistance stems from the old adages "You can't derive an 'is' from an 'ought'" and "Two wrongs can't make a right." Just because we've moved education beyond further into the mass-production age doesn't make it right. Surely, there is a lot of water under the bridge--and we've built structures and systems (and technology career paths--and exploited adjunct teacher paths) premised on the mass-production approach.  But the mere fact that online/MOOC's helps us accomodate ourselves to some previous (and questionable) decisions--and indeed they help accelerate those decisions--does not constitute an argument for doing them. If they move us further in the wrong direction, then we have reason to question (even, resist) them. And, yes, doing that is an even heavier lift; but it is the right thing to do. And that's a good reason for doing something.

This is not a wholesale argument for or against any specific thing. Rather, it's against the frequently used argument that certain sunk costs commit us to further actions along those lines. My point is simple: the sunk costs argument is false and disreputable and should be discarded.


Computers Grading Papers? What Could Be Lost?

Notice that when the problem is efficiency and cost, the answer is always to yield to those values. If the problem is large classes, the answer is to invent a machine, not make the classes smaller. If the problem is the cost of human graders, the answer is not to find a way to pay people to do an important job, but to replace them with machines. And notice that the experts who are deciding if the software is good enough are engineers. Engineers are, for the most part, completely subordinated to the values of efficiency and cost. If they're capable of just spelling out other values, they're still highly unlikely to understand how other values could be as important as these. They are of the machine, in the machine, for the machine. And how could you not want what they want? They'll just say you're being "irrational." And so will the entrepreneurs who back them--because they, too, have subordinated themselves to the twin values of efficiency and cost. That's how you make money.