Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Thoughts on Brothers Grimm

"Have you blogged today?" asks my wife. "Have you met your ob-blog-ation?"

* * *

I just watched The Brothers Grimm. One thing that struck me about it is the theme of rationality vs. supernatural that gets played out in countless stories in popular culture. What's most interesting about it is that it doesn't always play out the same way. Sometimes you get the Scooby-Doo plot: a seemingly supernatural thing is revealed by rationality to be hoax. And sometimes you get a Brothers Grimm, where the hubris of rationality is kicked in the teeth by some Real Magic. And sometimes you get an X-Files, where both sides duke it out and you're not quite sure who's winning. What's going on here?

Psychologically, I think there are more people who fall on the side of the magical. We suspect, and want to believe that there is more in this world than is dreamt of in our philosophies. Somehow we know that a world that is entirely explainable is somehow too small to be worth the trouble. On the other hand, rationality is power and control, the Known versus the Unknown. We would prefer to live in a world that is predictable and controllable, in spite of the knowledge that we know it isn't, and that ultimately we have the ultimate loss of control, which is Death. So we huddle around the fires of our rationality, not because it's the only truth, but because we know that there is Something terrifying out there. As C. S. Lewis said in Till We Have Faces: "Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood."


Friday, January 27, 2006

"Twenty Years Ago..."

You start to feel really old when you find yourself saying, "I remember, twenty years ago..."
Or, more frequently, "Jesus! that was twenty years ago." Or, "Gosh, I haven't seen you in, what? Twenty years?"

I see that this is the anniversery of the Challenger shuttle disaster. Twenty freakin' years ago. And that, in particular, seems like yesterday. Or maybe a couple of years ago. Certainly not twenty.

Everybody who was alive then remembers exactly where they were when they found out about the Challenger. I can still see exactly the brightness of the sun outside, the dimness inside the living room, the smell of the air, the look on my grandmothers face.

How can a single day seem so long, and yet twenty years seem the blink of an eye?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Democracy & the Truth

I noticed that the Wall Street Journal reported this morning that "Fatah survived a strong challenge by Hamas . . . " That just shows how completely unexpected the Hamas victory was . . . even the reporting on the exit polls didn't anticipate that Hamas was going to win. Even I was doing the double-takes ("What? Hamas won?!?") at the news.

I thought Bush reacted appropriately. It's not often that you find someone who understands the extremely high importance of democracy without also deifying it. Bush, who has been fighting a continuously unpopular war to promote democracy in the Middle East, has to respect the outcome of the election . . . but that doesn't mean that he has to respect Hamas. And he drew that distinction very well: Yes, the Palastinians want change . . . but just because a majority of Palastinians picked Hamas does not mean we have to deal with them.

Richard Rose was always harping on how "You can't discover the truth by democratic voting." That is, just because a majority of people believe it to be true, doesn't mean that it's true. And the same is true here. Yes, we have to respect the outcome of the election as the will of the Palestinian people. But that doesn't mean Hamas is right.

Of course, there will be lots of utilitarian realpolitik invoked to justify continuing a close relationship with Palestine. This administration will certainly withdraw or redirect an awful lot of aid to Palestine to keep it from going directly to Hamas . . . but unfortunately, Hamas isn't much afraid of that. One newly elected Hamas official said something to the effect of: "Aid is the only way the Americans can influence Palestinian politics, so we're glad that their money is going away." So, there's going to be a lot of juking and jiving to keep our influence in the region without dealing with their duly elected government. But I don't find such mechanations to be pointless, or hypocritical. Democracy is a great value, but not the greatest value.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Racism Double-Take

There was story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal about more blacks filing complaints that they had been passed over for jobs in favor of less-qualified Latino candidates.

My immediate reaction to the headline was an eyeball roll -- "Oh, gosh, how many other people do we have to blame? How many other minorities are going to pass by the African-Americans before they start to realize that they can move up the ladder, too?"

Then I started to think as I imagined employers would think: "I have two candidates, but Hispanics have a reputation for being family-oriented, conservative, religious, with strong communities and strong work ethics. Maybe I'm better off with the Latino . . . ?" And I'm thinking, well, yeah, maybe I can see why they might favor one minority over the other. Even if it is somewhat racist, there may be enough truth in it to push them over the edge.

But then I get my own subtle racism pushed back in my face. Because, in my typical middle-class white prejudices, I assumed that the people doing the hiring and the discriminating were white. As I read further in the story, it comes out that the reported cases of racism in hiring were from companies with all-Latino managers. It turns out that it's true the Latinos are community-oriented: that means they hire the people they know, the people in the neighborhood, their uncle's cousin's nephews . . . that is to say, their own kind. They don't want to be seen as giving away jobs to the blacks that they could have given to one of their own community.

So, what I thought was going to a story about the subtle racial prejudices of whites turns out to be a much simpler story of the blatant racism of Latinos. And I get the double-whammy of thinking -- Jeez, it never occurred to me that the Latinos would be doing the hiring . . . I'm so used to seeing them as the immigrant laborers that it never dawned on me that they're moving up the ladder. "The soft bigotry of low expectations." And then I find that the people I thought I was admiring, but really dissing, were actually doing something very recognizably racist . . .

And then I back off and think -- "What a moment . . . if a black-owned, black-run company made a point of hiring only blacks, as a way of supporting their community . . . would we call it racism? Or would we see it as a legitimate attempt to help a disadvantaged population move up in the world?"


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Passion Play

One of my clients is a BMX bike manufacturer. I always get a kick out of working on-site with them, because it's one of those companies where everyone in it is somehow submerged in an insulate, arcane subculture with a passionate interest. I work with these people on boring-but-necessary business questions -- how to keep their database clean, how to collect their AR on time, etc. -- and they are pretty much like anyone else I work with. But then I get to see them engage their real passion, which is bikes.

Today some prototypes for 2007 bike designs came in -- everyone was standing around, hefting frames and forks and axles, and critiquing them with informed jargon that was equal parts of engineering, sports, and asthetics. "Why is it so heavy? They didn't have to go four millimeters thick with this . . . " "Man, I wish you had ever picked up a regular frame, just so you could be blown away by how light this thing is." "Are you still worried about the turning momentum?" "Man, what an ugly rim. Look how they stripped that spoke." "The BMX kids will never go for that color."

It's evident that you don't wind up working at a bike company, even if all you do is load the trucks, without being a bike guy. I find myself a little envious, to see people whose professional lives are so close to their passions. And (somewhat counter-intuitively, for me) it seems to be even more alluring that their passion is about something that is, strictly speaking, just about having fun. They are not forging world peace or curing cancer . . . they just love to ride, and they stay close to what they love. There is something pure about that . . . even the greatest Good in the world doesn't seem Good enough, without Love.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Boys will be bums

My mother-in-law sent on an article on how boys are lagging behind in academic achievement, in spite of all the feminist hubub that somehow the system is stacked against girls. Since my wife is a leader in Attachment Parenting International, and well-read in the Raising Cain line of literature, I've heard a lot about this trend in society.

Of course, it's hardly new . . . George Gildur was seeing problems in our culture's capacity to socialize young men back in the 1970's, and correctly saw that getting young men married and vested in the well-being of families was the only way to avoid a prolonged, increasingly violent adolescence.

One thing that I find interesting about a lot of these articles is they often mention video games as an illustration of the male malaise, but they don't really drill into that. I think most males are susceptible to the lure of fast-paced first-person action in video games, and when you consider that the amount of time spent on the games is surpassing even TV, you have to wonder if there's a connection.

One thing I really liked about Tim Burton's remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was his portrayal of the TV-obsessed kid. In the original movie he was a coyboy-gun-toting house ape with bleary eyes and violent tendencies. Tim Burton updated the image a bit, playing more on the theme of violent video games. But what I really loved, what was pure genius, was that the Burton's TV boy was computer whiz-kid. He was spitting out talk of tracking chocolate shipments, the Nikkai Average, factoring in the weather . . . "A retard could do it," he says with smug disgust, right before screaming "Die! Die! Die!" at his video screen. What makes this scene so brilliant is that most people assume that TV and video games rot the brain and make children listless and stupid. Burton was the probably the first person in the popular culture to recognize that it is the child's soul that is being destroyed, not his brain.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Great Students Steal

The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal ran a big story on how many schools are now permitting their students to "cheat" on their exams by looking up information online or even inquiring with their peers via instant messaging. The argument for the practice goes something like this:
  1. We can't stop them from cheating anyway, because digital devices make it so easy to look up extra infomation or for students to communicate with each other.
  2. Searching for data online is a useful skill that will be critical to them in the future, probably more so than just rote memorization.
  3. Collaborating with others is also a useful skill, and probably a more important than rote memorization.

Of course, the traditionalists will take a dim view of all this, and I guess I'm one of them, though I think the issue deserves careful consideration.

Of the stated arguments, #1 is just lazy. There are ways to prevent cheating, if you're determined enough to do it. You might have to crank up a microwave oven in the front of the classroom to jam wireless signals, and put up partitions to prevent IR transmissions, and put cheap web cams on every desk so students wouldn't know when someone was watching them, but it could be done if it was a priority. And with the unseemly committment most schools make to technology-for-technology's-sake, you'd think they could cope with that.

#2 and #3 are more subtle. I agree that learning to search online is a useful skill, but it's not that hard, or else Google wouldn't be making hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Also, there is some merit to teaching the mental skills of rote memorization, even if the information itself is not that useful. If I felt like I couldn't avoid online searches, I would just change the nature of the tests to accommodate it. I would have so many questions, and tight time limit, that only someone who knew the information cold could complete the test without more than a few quick online searches. Or I would structure the tests to not rely on factual data (which is a lazy sort of test, anyway) but instead to focus on critical reading and analysis; rather than have them write about a particular theme, I would put forward my own theme and ask them to critique it. Google can provide information, but it can't replace analysis. Nor can google teach people to write, though grading people on the quality of their writing is difficult . . .

#3 is the hardest one of all to address. Because, well, yes, it's very true, and more true than I even care to admit. I went all through school thinking that somehow the world would vindicate my individual intellectual talent in spite of my lack of social skills. Then I got out into the real world and found out that most of my success at anything depended on working with other people: managing my boss, managing my colleagues, learning from other people and teaching other people. In retrospect, it seems downright criminal that the curriculum didn't do more to recognize that truth. (I'm told that business schools nowadays do almost all their assignments in groups.)

I think I would probably allow some of the #3 sorts of collaboration . . . I would certain have a significant portion of the class grade depend on a collaborative project, but I would also build in checks and balances to avoid abuses. I might let a group work together to prepare a presentation, but then do a random drawing to see who would actual make the presentation for his group, or quiz the members of the team on the project. That way, the more capable students would be incented to help others on the team learn the material, and no one could coast on the work of others. And, in a reversal of the years of playground basketball humiliations, I would let the top five students in the class be the team leaders, and let them pick their teams. That would put huge social incentives on everyone to perform . . . because, let's face it, it sucks to be picked last for anything, even for schoolwork you might not care about.

But even after all these concessions, I would still be inclined to keep a significant portion of the grades based solely on individual performance, without references, without crutches, without friends. To all things there is a time and a season . . . and as useful as synthesis and collaboration are, there is also times when everything is riding on you and you alone.