Dec 23

Bah, humbug.

Posted by A Writer

 

I'm frantically trying to finish my second novel before the end of the year, and so only had time for a quick post today–so I thought I'd head over to WordPress and find a snowfall plugin for the holiday season.  Well, it turns out there are lots of snowfall plugins, and they all just require you to install and activate them, right?  Sure, so long as you add footer code, make a "simple call" to the main file, use the Plugin Editor, re-alter the main file, change the orientation of Mars and Venus…Sure.  Thanks.  Have I mentioned that I'm a writer, not a computer programmer?  Furious

Sorry, dear readers–it may be a White Christmas for you, but not on my site, I'm afraid.  More (on something very different, I hope!) tomorrow.

Dec 22

 

There's an interesting discussion going on at the Chronicle of Higher Education's forums (I know, I'm a glutton for punishment, ain't I?) about parents who won't be able to mortgage their homes to help pay for their children's education because of the current mortgage crisis.  The original poster (who seems even less sensitive to academic egos than I accidentally was last week…apparently we're a growing breed Innocent) finds the idea that this is somehow "bad" for colleges and parents "ridiculous," and follows that sentiment up in a later post by telling people not to "buy into the myth that you need to send your kids to college.  Let them sort their own lives out and pay for it when they are ready, IF they want to go."

Hmm.

As usual where higher education is concerned, this kind of statement immediately throws me off–because I couldn't agree more, and less, with the sentiment behind it.  And I think my own ambivalence to the whole subject mirrors a larger ambivalence in higher education generally.  Politically, those who make up the academy are generally much farther left than the general population (don't fret, Bob Jones and Hillsdale, you keep on fighting the, er, "good fight" out there, y'hear?), and that means that academics tend to be down with (hip language alert: this means "like" or "appreciate," or so my students tell me…I don't think they have a reason to lie) the working class, lower income families who reject the privileged lives led by us ivory tower types (if you could only taste the caviar I eat every morning!  Ah, and the Puligny Montrachet…but I digress (from reality, actually)).  But this is a problem, because despite the dripping sarcasm at the end of the last sentence, I am politically associated with the working class and economically associated with the upper middle class.  

In other words, I'm philosophically democratic and personally elitist…or so goes the argument.  In truth, of course, I'm neither one of those things exactly.  I'm certainly liberal, and I think democracy is a pretty swell thing ("swell" might be a little strong, but I guess I've bought into Churchill's idea about the subject), but I also believe in the benefits of a meritocracy–actually the necessity of a meritocracy, which actually really isn't that debatable if you think about it.  Consider the alternatives to a system where the best people for a job are the ones doing it…Okay, stop considering them, you're starting to freak me out too.  A meritocracy on some level is almost a requirement for anything to get done–but there is obviously a tension between that system and a democracy, where everyone's opinion, theoretically, counts equally.  

And this leads us back to the original thread from the Chronicle.  The sentiments expressed there are, of course, nothing new; for many years people have argued that a college degree isn't necessary, that there's no need for this kind of "elitism" in our culture, and so on and so on.  But there are a couple of problems with the argument–even with the terms of the argument.  What do we mean by "necessary"?  To be a good person?  Obviously not.  To be an important person?  Clearly not.  But statistically speaking, the opportunities afforded those with college degrees are significantly greater than what is afforded those without such degrees…which is why college enrollment is up across the board, and why the market for professors is better than is often claimed (counter to the "glut of Ph.D.s" garbage, which you can read more about here).  It's an economic fact that the high school diploma of the late 1960s has become the college degree of 2007; to be on an equal footing, then, it is "necessary" to get some kind of post-secondary degree.  I'm aware of the exceptions, but nine times out of ten the "exceptions" had a lot of other advantages that don't get covered in the "Bill Gates was a college dropout and look where it got him" stories.  And beyond the practical reasons, there is a kind of broadening of perspective that a college education provides–something which (though certainly possible) isn't nearly as easy to come by outside of the college environment.  By and large, you're better off with a college degree than without one (from where is a separate and not nearly as important a discussion).

But the problem with this, of course, is that it's based on the premise of affordability–and the truth is that many families can't afford the ridiculous (and they really are "ridiculous") costs of college.  The institution where I went (in part because of expense) was public, and since I was in-state I had reasonable tuition–$1500 a semester, I believe.  When I moved on campus for my final two years at the school the number shot up since I was paying room and board, but the cost was still under 10K a year–and even that was only possible because of a modest sum of money my grandmother had left me when she passed away (so much for the Montrachet, I guess).  I incurred a significant amount of debt going through graduate school, which I'm still paying off…but I managed, somehow, to make it through.  Here we had a partnership–my parents paid what they could, I paid what I had to, and it ultimately worked out.  If my parents had paid everything, I'd like to think I would have worked as hard, have taken it as seriously, have cared as much.  But it's hard to say for sure…I certainly knew my share of kids who were on a full ride from Mommy and Daddy and didn't give a damn about college.  Then again, I don't think they would have given a damn about anything–and I don't know if that was because of Mommy and Daddy or not.  All I know is that if I had to do it entirely by myself…well, I wouldn't have been able to, probably then or ever.

Sacrilege! cry the democrats.  Let the kids sort it out, you elitist fraud!  If you really cared about it enough, you should have paid for it! 

But see, here's the problem with the argument: to pay for it, I would have had to have enough money without the college degree, and that would have been exceedingly difficult.  Why?  Because I would only have been able to work at the jobs I could get without a college degree, and only advance as far in that job as I could without said degree; and thus, I would have had less money to pay for that degree.  No problem, you say; you save until you're ready.  Sure–if I was willing to wait four, five, six, ten years, I probably could have saved enough…though while trying to save over that span, the college costs would have continued to soar.  But even if I eventually had the money, would I have been able to go at age 25, 26, 30?  Or would I, like all of my friends, have been married by that time, or have kids, or be involved in various community activities, or something else which would make the prospect of a college degree unlikely?  My strong guess is that something else would have arisen by that time, and made my college chances slim at best.

But so what?  In that situation I would have had another life outside of college and been fine.  Well, sure; but what I did instead was to go to college, gain the benefits I've already mentioned, and then go on to those other things.  Saying that I wouldn't have missed something I never experienced doesn't change the fact that I missed it, and reduced the potential scope of my life in the process–and all because, in the original poster's scenario, my parents hadn't bought into the "myth" that they needed to send me to college.  The argument is a simple one: after college I could choose to do what I wanted with all potential paths available, including going on forums and calling college-sending parents believers in myths; before/without college I wouldn't have that same range of options. Ultimately, then, if democracy really is about preserving choice, then this merit-oriented, allegedly elitist idea–that college is beneficial–is actually the most pro-democratic belief of all in this entire debate.

Well, I'll be damned.  Maybe meritocracy and democracy can co-exist.  Almost makes you want to start buying into myths again, doesn't it?

Dec 20

Reroll THIS, bitches!

Posted by A Writer

I'm almost caught up, so a longer post is on the way tomorrow.  In the meantime, I figured I'd publicly confirm just how dorked out one writer can be–and if you can identify the picture above, count yourself in the club: 

I Am A: Neutral Good Elf Cleric (5th Level)

Ability Scores:
Strength-12
Dexterity-14
Constitution-13
Intelligence-15
Wisdom-14
Charisma-16

Alignment:
Neutral Good A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias for or against order. However, neutral good can be a dangerous alignment because because it advances mediocrity by limiting the actions of the truly capable.

Race:
Elves are known for their poetry, song, and magical arts, but when danger threatens they show great skill with weapons and strategy. Elves can live to be over 700 years old and, by human standards, are slow to make friends and enemies, and even slower to forget them. Elves are slim and stand 4.5 to 5.5 feet tall. They have no facial or body hair, prefer comfortable clothes, and possess unearthly grace. Many others races find them hauntingly beautiful.

Class:
Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron's vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity's domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric's Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Dec 19

 

Only time for a short post today as I'm catching up on stuff I couldn't do while I was wrapping up my end of semester grading, and so I thought I would update a previous post.  My stated policy is to avoid posting things which refer only to me, but since this is an update I think the situation is a little different.  And so:

1.  My laptop is fixed.  Really.  I've been looking at the perfectly functioning machine for hours and giggling in delight every so often.  (Not really, but I love the visual.)

2.  I still haven't heard about the book chapter, but have heard good news on another writing front–which I'll have more to say about in a couple of days.

3.  My band has gotten…well, no, it hasn't gotten its new player.  The waiting continues there.

But the overall message is that some of the logjams have begun to clear…and that may presage roaring floods to come.  But I'll take a flood over a logjam any day, especially if I've complained about the logjam before. Cool

Dec 12

Just a short post today to note a piece of sad yet oddly inspiring news:  Terry Pratchett, fantasy writer (he's most famous for his work on the Discworld series) and super-satirist, announced on his website yesterday that he has been diagnosed with a rare form of "early onset Alzheimer's."  That news, which would be devastating for anyone, seems particularly awful coming from one of the wittiest writers in the English language (I'm not exaggerating.  This is a guy who wrote "Bishops move diagonally. That's why they often turn up where the kings don't expect them to be," and that's just for starters.); the thought of Pratchett losing the ability to create his strangely uplifting work is a deeply sobering one, particularly because his work is so, well, non-sober. 

That's the sad part.  What makes this simultaneously inspiring is the way Pratchett finishes his message:  "I would just like to draw attention to everyone reading the above that this should be interpreted as 'I am not dead'.  I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else.  For me, this maybe further off than you think – it's too soon to tell. I know it's a very human thing to say 'Is there anything I can do', but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry."  This is exactly the kind of thing that makes Pratchett's books so good; they present ideas with a deep sense of humor, irony, and skepticism about the human condition, yet never come across as cynical or bitter.  In fact, Pratchett may be the only author I know who can spend an entire book poking fun at our ridiculous species and our crazy world, yet somehow leave you feeling that we're really not all that bad and the world isn't all that terrible after all.  In any case, here's hoping that the added attention this announcement brings causes Alzheimer's research to get kicked up a notch, and that Pratchett still has many more years of making us laugh, smile, and most of all think ahead of him.  Or in his own words:

"Gods don't like people not doing much work. People who aren't busy all the time might start to think."  

Amen.

Dec 7

I've had waiting on my mind lately, possibly because in every aspect of my life I'm having to wait for something.  Part of that is the curse of my particular career choices; nothing on earth is slower than the academic world, except, possibly, the mainstream publishing world.  The maddening thing, of course, is the follow-up; it's not enough to politely ask for an update once, or twice, or four or five times (and it is always you who must ask, my friends.  It is not the responsibility of the responder to get back to you without a lot of gently applied pressure.  Apparently.).  No, you must repeatedly plague the offending responder like the over-clingy cat you are, desperate for a bowl of milk.  (A bowl which was promised six months ago, of course.)  This used to be a problem we would encounter once in a while, but the issue seems now to have become ubiquitous.  Consider:

1.  My university-issued laptop needs repair.  It has needed repair since the beginning of the semester, when I was assured (with no small amount of sheepish resignation) that it "might take a couple of weeks."  I'm a reasonable guy.  I can get along for a couple of weeks.

December 6, 2007.  The laptop?  "About to be repaired.  Any moment.  The part's in, I've got a call in to my guy, Taiwan shipped it, it's in transit, the second it gets here I'll get it right out to you."  "Can you call me when it does?"  (I have asked this question each and every time I have been back to inquire about the laptop during the semester, always without having had a call to my office updating me on the situation, probably eight to ten times now.)  The answer, as ever:  "Sure.  That's what we're here for."  Odd, and I thought it was to fix my goddamned laptop.

2.  I've been waiting to hear when an essay of mine will be appearing in a book collection which was intended to be published in 2006.  Mid-2006.  The proofs were in the publisher's hands in early 2006.  I'm a patient guy.  There's no huge rush.

… 

December 6, 2007.  The book?  "Should be any second.  I feel good about it.  I appreciate your patience, I've got a call in to the editor, it's going to press any day, the second it gets here I'll get it right out to you."  "Can you E-mail me?"  (I have asked this question each and every time I have E-mailed to inquire about the book during the semester, always without having had an E-mail updating me on the situation, probably three or four times now.)  The answer, as ever:  "Sure.  I'll do whatever you need me to do."  Other than publish the book, apparently.

3.  My band is in need of a new player, as the old one has semi-retired from playing out (marriage will do that to you, he says).   I ask a replacement about it two weeks ago.  "Wow, I'm definitely interested.  Give me a couple of days to think it over."  I'm a reasonable guy.  We can afford to wait a couple of days.

… 

… 

December 6, 2007.  The replacement player?  "Sorry I haven't gotten back to you.  Been crazy busy.  I'm kind of overwhelmed, I'm not sure what to say, I might be able to, I'm not sure, give me until the end of the month and I should have the time to make a decision [sic]."  Can you call me when you decide?"  "Of course…I'd definitely do that."  Odd, I thought he was "definitely" interested in playing. 

The common thread in all of these situations, of course, is that unspoken resentment on the part of the person I'm talking to, as if I should be fully aware that time is a fluid thing which is only measured by our perceptions of it.  Deadlines are suggestions, not guarantees.  And I'm even somewhat sympathetic to this view philosophically–really, what is a few days or weeks or months or years in the grand scheme of things?  

Actually, a whole hell of a lot.  All that waiting time adds up, and it only goes one way.  How fluid are deadlines for submitting grades?  Or times for showing up at a club to play a set?  Or appearing at court, or going to a play or a concert, or being home in time for the birth of your child?  Answer: not at all.  We just don't think of those things in the same way, and we don't expect those events to wait for us to catch up.  Yet somehow, we have decided that it's fine to accept a fluid timescale from  people who owe us things, even if the delay is, say, months or years…as it commonly is with tech support guys, publishers, and musicians.  Now I agree that we are a culture driven by instant gratification in a lot of ways, that we may perhaps demand speed and efficiency at the cost of our own humanity, that we probably post with too much dexterity to our own incestuous sheets.  Perhaps we are dominated by the clock in so many ways that we look for places to play fast and loose with the firm deadline, to in some small way hold off the relentless passage of time.  All this may be true.

But honestly, I just want my laptop fixed, my book published, and my replacement player at rehearsal.  And this time I'm using my goddamned stopwatch.